"There are none so blind as those who will not see." --

Sunday, December 30, 2007

On an Attempted Refutation of Leibniz's Law

At Inconsistent Thoughts, Colin Caret has a post which links to a post of Brian Rabern's over at armchair investigations which challenges Leibniz's Law. In case you're not familiar with it, Leibniz's Law states that if x is identical to y then x and y have all their properties in common. Brian's argument is intriguing, but as he suggests there is a premise in the argument which can plausibly be denied. I'm not sure if this is what he had in mind, but I posted my own diagnosis of what goes wrong with the argument in a comment on Colin's post, which I will reproduce here:

Hi Colin,

I think that attempted refutation you linked to is confusing (at least, it confuses me) because it expresses the property G (i.e., "if x had quotes around its last word, then x would have been true") counterfactually and then asks us to evaluate the truth of the statements A and B respectively in those counterfactual circumstances, without specifying clearly whether the letters refer to the sentences as they actually are or as they are in the counterfactual circumstances we are considering. The cruicial part of the proof is the following:

"A is not such that if it had quotes around its last word it would have been true (since if A had quotes around its last word its last word would have been “obscene” not ‘obscene’). Hence, ~G(B). But B is such that if it had quotes around its last word it would have been true (since if B had quotes around its last word it would have rightly said of A that its last word is ‘obscene’)."

I agree with the conclusion that A does not exemplify G. For if A had had quotes around its last word, it would have looked like this: 'The last word of A is 'obscene'.' and in those circumstances its last word is indeed ''obscene'' and not 'obscene'. But note that this is because when we evaluate the truth of A in those circumstances, we are taking A to refer to itself as it is in those counterfactual circumstances, not how it actually is. For as A actually is its last word *is* 'obscene', and if we evaluated A in the counterfactual scenario as referring to itself as it actually is (i.e., as 'The last word of A is obscene') then it would have been true, since it would have referred to itself as it is in our possible world and not the possible world in which its truth is evaluated. However, I think that B also does not exemplify G. For B, to recall, says 'The last word of A is obscene.' Now if B exemplifies G, it would have been true if it had quotes around its last word, in which case it would have looked like this: 'The last word of A is 'obscene'.' But if it had said that it would not have been true, for in those counterfactual circumstances A would, as above, have looked like this: 'The last word of A is 'obscene'.', and so in those circumstances A's last word would have been ''obscene'' and not 'obscene'.

Does this solution make sense to you, or am I still confused?

So what do you think? Is my diagnosis correct? Or is there some other way the argument goes wrong?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Quote of the Day: Russell on Leibniz on the Problem of Evil

This post over at Brain Hammer reminded me of the following quote from Russell:

Leibniz’s solution of the problem of evil, like most of his other popular doctrines, is logically possible, but not very convincing. A Manichaean might retort that this is the worst of all possible worlds, in which the good things that exist serve only to heighten the evils. The world, he might say, was created by a wicked demiurge, who allowed free will, which is good, in order to make sure of sin, which is bad, and of which the evil outweighs the good of free will. The demiurge, he might continue, created some virtuous men, in order that they might be punished by the wicked; for the punishment of the virtuous is so great an evil that it makes the world worse than if no good men existed. I am not advocating this opinion, which I consider fantastic; I am only saying that it is no more fantastic than Leibniz’s theory. People wish to think the universe good, and will be lenient to bad arguments proving that it is so, while bad arguments proving that it is bad are closely scanned. In fact, of course, the world is partly good and partly bad, and no “problem of evil” arises unless this obvious fact is denied.

--Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Schuster (1972), p. 590

Personally, I think the problem of evil may well be soluble, but I seriously doubt that Leibniz's "Best of all Possible Worlds" solution makes the cut.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Presentation on Culture and Values

The following is the text of a presentation on culture and values I gave earlier today to the Inter Club Council at Diablo Valley College. I'm posting it here because I think makes the important metaethical point that inter-cultural dialogue concerning ethical matters makes little sense unless we assume values are objective.

Hi, my name is Jason, and the subject of my presentation is culture and values, specifically as they pertain to the relations between people of different cultures. But before we can see how they are related, we must first know what they are. Speaking roughly, a culture is a collection of customs, beliefs, and attitudes which are shared by a community and passed down largely intact from generation to generation. Values are similar in that they also include beliefs and attitudes, yet they differ in that they might either be confined to a single person or never passed down. Values could exist without culture, but the converse is not true, and hence they can be personal in a way that culture cannot. Culture and values are closely related insofar as they share a normative aspect. To say that something is normative means that it concerns not just what is the case, but also what should be the case. One can believe many things about what is, such as that grass is green or that the Earth revolves around the Sun, but only beliefs about what should be count as values. Our values can encompass anything we treasure, hope for, or regard as ideal. They are important because they are the principles we use to guide our thought and behavior. They determine not only what we do, but also who we are. The identity of a person or a culture is largely defined by the set of values they accept. This is especially true for cultures because every culture must have a set of behaviors it regards as permissible and another that it regards as taboo. Cultures need rules to determine who is part of the “in group” and who is part of the “out group”, otherwise there would be nothing to distinguish one culture from another. Whether or not one counts as part of a culture depends on whether or not one abides by these rules.

Now that we have some understanding of what culture and values are, we can ask ourselves what we should think about circumstances where the customs, beliefs, and attitudes of one culture conflict with those of another. In today’s ever shrinking world we are increasingly likely to encounter people of other cultures whose values are different from our own, and the question of how we should respond becomes increasingly more significant. In my opinion, the two main stances you can take are what I will call multiculturalism and cultural relativism. Though you might suppose these to be the same, I will argue that they are actually incompatible. Broadly speaking, I would say that multiculturalism is the idea that no single culture should be dominant because different cultures are valuable in their own right, and each has something positive to contribute to society. The presence of diverse perspectives and traditions promotes solidarity and mutual understanding, which helps prevent a society from becoming narrow-minded and intolerant. I would say that cultural relativism, by contrast, is the idea that no culture or cultural practice is inherently better than any other. It stands in opposition to objectivism, which holds that at least in some cases one culture’s practice can be better or worse than another’s. I think cultural relativism is accepted by many because they believe it subverts the claims that nations with imperialistic ambitions have often used to justify the subjugation of foreign peoples. Such nations have typically held their actions are justified because their culture is somehow superior to others, perhaps because they are more intelligent, more technologically advanced, or because they alone enjoy the favor of the gods or God. Whatever the reason, their actions are no less appalling. Cultural relativism seems attractive because it promises to do away with such rationalizations. If no culture is better than any other, none can use their alleged superiority as a pretext to oppress another. Yet I think those who embrace cultural relativism fail to see that their view entails they are in no position to condemn imperialistic societies. After all, these societies have a culture too, it just happens to be imperialistic! What’s to stop a member of such a society from saying that their actions are justified after all because imperialism is a part of their culture? Their culture might not be better than any other, but it is also no worse. So who are we to criticize them? If we reject objectivism because of the bad behavior it can be used to justify, we should reject cultural relativism for precisely the same reason.

However, I don’t think objectivism necessarily has the bad consequences its opponents attribute to it, so long as we distinguish it from a superficially similar position which I will call cultural chauvinism. Objectivism requires only that some cultural practices are better or worse than others, and is quite compatible with one culture’s being better than another in some respects and worse in others. Cultural chauvinism, on the other hand, is the belief that your own cultural practices are the better ones. This distinction is important because objectivism allows, as chauvinism does not, for the possibility that your way of doing things may be the one that could use some improvement. Objectivism thus supports the values of reflection and self-doubt, and through them an openness to the ideas of others. All of these are essential if one wants to live in a truly multicultural society where people of different cultures can effectively communicate with and learn from each other. Chauvinism and relativism leave no room for these virtues, the first because it refuses to consider the worth of another culture’s perspective, and the second because it holds that the members of each culture need only look within their own minds to find the truth. These perspectives would also seem to make the notion of moral progress an impossibility, for the value of a cultural practice would be just as relative to a time as it was to a place. Are we really prepared to say that the abolition of slavery, the institution of women’s suffrage, and the success civil rights movement reflect nothing more than a change of cultural taste? On neither of these views is there any need for different cultures to learn from each other. So contrary to what you might expect, I think that it is only on a presumption of objectivism that learning from other cultures makes sense. Once we realize that we each possess but a small fragment of the truth we will be motivated to engage people of other cultures in an earnest dialogue. In that event those of each culture can modify their views in light of the others’ experience to the improvement of all.

Monday, November 26, 2007

New Blog on Dialetheism

I think Dialetheism--the belief that there are true contradictions--is one of the most interesting positions to emerge in recent philosophy. If you think so too, check out Ben Burgis' new blog (Blog&~Blog).

Friday, November 16, 2007

Some Difficulties Concerning the Atonement

One of the central doctrines of Christianity is the Atonement, which in a broad sense concerns how humans, with their sinful nature, are reconciled to God. The Atonement thus fundamentally involves the forgiveness of sins. One problem, then, is why Jesus’ crucifixion and death occur given that they are unnecessary for the forgiveness of sins: God, who is both omnipotent and the subject offended against by sins, could easily have forgiven sins without requiring any such sacrifice. A more specific problem that I have, and one that is in my view more important, is that the purpose of the Atonement stands in conflict with the means God is supposed to have chosen to carry it out. In order for the Atonement to occur as it “should”, it seems necessary that some people sin. For if God deems it appropriate for Jesus to endure suffering and death, who is to inflict this on him? Why would God require that someone—such as Judas Iscariot—commit such a horrible sin in order to bring God’s plan to fruition? This worry is especially troublesome because the purpose of the Atonement is to forgive sin. Taking the above example, one may reply that God did not, as I imply, force Judas to do what he did; Judas betrayed Jesus of his own free will.[1] Yet if no one was under any compulsion to bring about Jesus’ death on the cross, it is possible that none should have done so. But what then? If everyone had “done the right thing”, so that no one betrayed or tried to harm Jesus, would Jesus have caused himself to endure suffering and death? If the answer is no—and it seems to me overwhelmingly probable that it would be—would God then choose some other means of forgiving sins? I think so, but then we again face the problem of why God would not have chosen a means of Atonement that did not involve the commission of sin in the first place.

In conclusion, the doctrine of the Atonement is not without its problems. While these difficulties may not be insurmountable, I think they are worth taking seriously.

[1] For the sake of argument, I am assuming that free will is incompatible with determinism.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Berkeley and Brain Damage

When I first read Berkeley’s Principles and Three Dialogues some years ago, I remember being intrigued by the way Berkeley’s brand of idealism promises to dissolve the mind-body problem. Unlike the forms of dualism proposed by Descartes and Locke, there is no problem of how the mental and physical realms could interact: They don’t, because the physical realm does not exist! Yet one may wonder, as I did, whether in solving the problem of interaction we generate a new problem to take its place. For if the brain is really a family of sense impressions, it appears curious that there should be such a thing, and why damage to it should have any effect on a person’s mental functioning. In Berkeley’s system all ‘ideas’ are passive by nature, and by themselves incapable of producing anything new or causing a change in anything that already exists. In actuality ideas are mere signs which tell us what follows what; it is God who is the true cause of our ideas, the ideas themselves being simply occasions for God’s actions. That being so, couldn’t God have left the mind “floating”, without anything physical[1] to anchor it? I used to think this was a powerful objection to Berkeley’s theory, but now I think that a Berkelian could counter it, at least if they follow Berkeley himself in accepting the existence of God. On the view I am considering, ideas may signify not only other ideas, and even other people’s thoughts and emotions, but the very principles according to which they feel and think. For someone who takes this sort of position, a brain is really a mind’s way of representing another mind. As the mind’s image, the brain would have to be organized so as to display the mind’s structure, which includes all the relationships between its various capacities and functions. Concerning the objection as to why there should be any such image of the mind, and more importantly, why damage to it results in the impairment of mental functions or even death, a theistic Berkelian can give a cogent reply. They could point out that, if there were no such image, or if damage to it did not result in the impairment of mental functions, a person’s mind would be invulnerable, and the person seemingly immortal. If the philosopher who makes the objection is both a physical realist[2] and a theist, a theistic Berkelian can reply that for whatever reasons the physical realist may suppose God had for wanting the mind to be vulnerable, and people subject to death, a follower of Berkeley can suppose that God wanted the mind to be vulnerable, and people subject to death, for precisely the same reasons[3]. This is because an omnipotent being such as God could easily have made the brain, as the physical realist conceives it, to be impervious to damage, either through the institution of natural laws which differ from the actual ones, or through the use of miracles (such as immediately re-growing neurons which have been damaged by a bullet to the head). So I think we can conclude that a theistic Berkelian has no special difficulty in accounting for why the brain (and hence the mind) should be vulnerable; any objection concerning the reasons God may have had for allowing damage to the brain (and hence the mind) is an objection against theism in general. Of course, the dispute over whether theism is tenable is interesting in its own right, as the existence (or otherwise) of God is perhaps the most important issue in philosophy. But that is a topic for another post.

[1] “Physical”, that is, in the sense of being a part of that system of ideas which includes houses and trees and stones, not in the sense that it has a material substratum or could exist unperceived.

[2] I use the term “physical realist” to contrast with “physicalist”. Physical realists believe that at least the physical world exists, physicalists that at most the physical world exists.

[3] If the theists in question are Christians, these reasons may include the Fall, God’s plan for soul-making, and doubtless many others.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Points and Platonism

In this post I want to discuss the ontological status of points and its significance for semantic arguments for Platonism. No, not geometrical points; the points I’m talking about are the ones you gain or lose in playing certain kinds of games (including sports).

Suppose a Platonist argues as follows:

Let’s say that John has ten points in a game. Surely, then, these points must exist: Nothing is true of the non-existent, so if John really has ten points, there must be ten points which John has. Or consider the statement: “John is two points ahead of Fred”. This seems to assert a relation between the number of points John has and the number of points Fred has. If one thing stands in a relation to another they both must exist, so if “John is two points ahead of Fred” is true there must be points which each of them has. “And if one holds that points don’t exist,” the Platonist might add, “who should be the one to tell poor John and Fred that they both lose because they have no points?”

What is one to think of such reasoning? I have chosen this example because it resembles the sort of semantic arguments Platonists often use in other domains, in particular semantic arguments for properties and mathematical objects. In this case, however, the nature of the objects posited is particularly problematic. First, it seems difficult to conceive what these points would be: Besides trivially essential properties—properties such as being identical to itself, which are shared by everything that exists—and those such as being a point belonging to John, what properties would points have? This might not be so bad in itself, for there are more respectable abstract objects--sets, for example--which also seem to have no properties besides the kind mentioned above and those attributed to them by set theory. But one can ask more troubling questions. For example, if John loses a point and Fred gains one, is the point John lost the same point as the one Fred gained, or a different one? If questions of identity and difference make no sense for points, I think that is a good (though arguably not indefeasible) reason for rejecting such entities. But the plight of points is worse yet: Suppose John and Fred are playing a game where, so the rules prescribe, it is possible to have a negative number of points. We can imagine that they are playing a board game where you roll dice and move your piece the indicated number of spaces, and in which landing on a penalty box costs a player five points even when the number of points they have is less than five. The player who has the most points after twenty moves have been made wins. So, for example, if John has -25 points and Fred has -10 after twenty moves, Fred wins the game. Should the Platonist conclude from this example that, since points really exist, it is possible to have a negative number of something? Or should they say instead that, since there can’t be a negative number of anything, this game is somehow illegitimate?

As with other abstract objects, there are also epistemological problems with accepting the existence of points. If points are independently existing entities, how can we be sure we really gain or lose them in the manner the rules of the game prescribe? Could it be that, if the rules of the game say that move m is worth five points, one might only gain three points on executing move m because of some ontological glitch? For Humeans who reject necessary connections between distinct existences, it should appear suspicious that anything could guarantee that something we do causes us to stand in some contingent (or “external”) relation to independently existing abstracta.

If one finds the prospect of answering these bizarre questions distasteful, one will want to find some way of rejecting points while retaining the ability to make sense of our game-related talk and behavior. One might seek a nominalistic paraphrase of statements ostensibly about points, or perhaps try to give a Wittgensteinian account in which our talk of points is treated as moves in a language-game which is practically indispensable to our keeping score. Whatever one says here, I think it is clear that the semantic argument for points faces serious difficulties. If it can’t be made to work here, why should it fare any better with respect to other kinds of abstract objects? I wouldn’t say that other sorts of abstract objects can’t exist—on the contrary, I think some do. But if they do, it seems to me, we need far better arguments for believing in them.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Limitation on Dialetheism

First, I should acknowledge my indebtedness to Greg Littmann and Keith Simmons, whose essay “A Critique of Dialetheism” was the inspiration for this post.[1]

Dialetheism, for those not in the know, is the thesis that that some contradictions are true. It is platitudinous that some of the things people say are true and others false—and some, dialetheists add, are both true and false. At first sight, this is an odd yet intriguing view. But why believe it?

Dialetheism is usually motivated by considerations involving logical and semantic paradoxes, most famously by the Liar paradox. One of the most basic versions of the Liar is (1):

(1) This statement is false.

Is (1) true? If it is, then what it says is the case, and since what (1) says that it’s false, it’s false. But if (1) is false, then what it says is not the case, and since (1) says that it is false, it is false that it is false, and hence (1) is true. So if (1) is true, it’s false, and if it’s false, it’s true. Contradiction.

There are various things one could say at this point, but the important thing is what the dialetheist says, and what the dialetheist says is that (1) is both true and false. There are many things which can be said in favor of this view, some of them very compelling. There are also many things which can be said against it that are equally compelling. My aim, however, is not to argue either that dialetheism must be accepted or rejected as a matter of principle, but rather to show that the dialetheic treatment of logical and semantic paradoxes cannot be extended to all versions of the Liar. Consider for a moment (2):

(2) This statement has the same truth value as “0 = 1”.

Assume (2) is false. If so, it must have a different truth value than “0 = 1”, for what (2) says is that they have the same value. Since “0 = 1” is false, (2), if it has a different value, must be true. But if (2) is true, it has the same truth value as “0 = 1”, for that they have the same truth value is precisely what (2) says. Now if (2) is true, and it has the same truth value as “0 = 1”, then “0 = 1” must also be true, and hence we can conclude that 0 = 1 ![2]

We cannot give (2) a dialetheic treatment—holding that it is both true and false— for we can substitute any falsehood we like for “0 = 1” and use the paradox to show it must be true as well as false. We would then end up with trivialism—the view everything is both true and false! Since (2) cannot be solved by dialetheic means, it must have a different, consistent solution. There are many avenues we could pursue, such as tweaking the T-schema, holding that (2) expresses no proposition, adopting some form of the theory of types, etc. , but the point is that at least one of them must be successful. Granting this, why can’t we solve more traditional variants of the Liar in the same way? Dialetheism might still be true—in some attenuated epistemic sense of “might”—but even so it is not a perfectly general solution to all Liar-like paradoxes. If other kinds of Liar statements can be given the same treatment as (2), whatever that may be, dialetheism loses much of its motivation. If other reasons can be found for believing in true contradictions, well and good—but so long as consistent solutions are on the table, I think they ought to be preferred.

[1] “A Critique of Dialetheism”, in The Law of Non-Contradiction: New Philosophical Essays, Oxford University Press 2006. In particular I was inspired by their sentence (Z):

(Z) has the same complete and correct evaluation as the sentence ‘1+1=3’.

(Z) can be found in footnote 26 on page 333 (Paperback version).

[2]If we had started out by assuming (2) is true, we could have reached the same conclusion in half the time.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Where I Stand

I got this idea from this post of Alan Rhoda's at Analyzer, who got it from a post of Johnny-Dee's at Fides Quaerens Intellectum, who in turn got it from a post of Andrew Bailey's at Ratiocination. The object is to list your current stances on issues in those areas of philosophy that interest you. If you're a philosophy blogger and you're reading this, consider yourself tagged. :-D

Here's mine:


  • Constitution is not identity: One thing can’t literally be identical to many.

  • Eternalism: The past, present, and future all exist. The “passage of time” is an illusion.

  • Ersatz modal realism: There are no pure possibilia. There are other possible worlds, but they are non-concrete; most likely they are sets of propositions or maximal states of affairs.

  • Anti -Humeanism: There are necessary connections between at least some distinct existences.

  • Platonism: There are universals answering to at least some predicates and/or concepts, though probably not to all. There are also some other kinds of abstract objects, such as propositions and states of affairs.

  • Anti-substrativism: There are no such things as prime matter, bare substrata, or thin particulars.

  • Color subjectivism: The sky is blue, grass is green, and lemons are yellow... yeah right!


  • A means-end orientation: I feel that epistemology should primarily try to settle disputes between different parties concerning what we ought to believe or are justified in believing.

  • Internalism: A corollary of the above. Insofar as externalist analyses of knowledge and justification appeal to facts or processes to which we have no access, they are useless for resolving disputes over what we are justified in believing.

  • A very minimal Foundationalism: Justification has to start somewhere. One's justification derives from properly basic beliefs, but what is properly basic for one person may not be properly basic for another. There is also no reason to assume that properly basic beliefs must be self-evident or immune to revision.

Philosophy of Mind:

  • Phenomenal content internalism: Phenomena such as Churchland's Chimerical Colors show that, at least in some cases, experiences can have qualia and/or phenomenal contents that answer to nothing in "the external world"; and we can't be related, causally or otherwise, to things that aren't there. Personally, I think the case generalizes to other sorts of experience as well.

  • Indirect realism: Even assuming there are no such things as sense data or similar items, we still don't "directly perceive" external objects. This fits in nicely with phenomenal content internalism.

  • First person fallibilism: Things might not seem how they seem to seem.


  • Moral Realism: At least some moral judgments express true propositions.

  • Moral Objectivism: For any given morally evaluable situation, there is a right and a wrong response or set of responses, and whether a given response is right or wrong does not, in general, depend on whether people think it is right or wrong.

  • Non-consequentialism: Morality isn't about maximizing utility, the satisfaction of preferences, the amount intrinsic goodness in the world, or indeed anything. People have duties to each other which in some cases forbid one from bringing about the "greater good."

Style and Method:

  • Style: I try to write clearly and precisely, but as Brand Blanshard showed, these qualities are not the exclusive property of the Analytic tradition.

  • Method: Systematic—I have a broad range of interests and try to find connections between disparate areas of philosophy.

  • Philosophers I admire: Brand Blanshard, A.C. Ewing, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, W. V. O. Quine, David Hume, George Berkeley, Alvin Plantinga, Graham Priest, and Patricia Churchland.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

What I sound like

This is a recording made last year of me giving a presentation on Eternalism to the philosophy club at Diablo Valley College in California.

If you're a philosophy blogger and you have a recording of your own voice, I invite you to spread the meme and post your recording on your own blog.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Some Thoughts on Theories of Truth

In studying philosophy, one of the more perplexing things one finds (if you’re anything like me) is that there are a multiplicity of “theories of truth”. How can there be any room for disagreement here? In examining different “theories of truth”, one might think that such theories are beset with a problem similar to that of the “paradox of analysis”. The paradox of analysis, to recall, is that a purported “analysis” of an expression e is either synonymous with e or not. If it is the analysis is unenlightening, and if it is not the analysis cannot be correct. Similarly, one might think, if there really are rival “theories of truth” we can evaluate a given theory of truth according to its own account of truth or according to a rival one: If its own, it will trivially be vindicated (assuming it is consistent), if another, it will be trivially refuted. Now, if a “theory of truth” is merely a proposed definition of the word ‘truth’ or the predicate ‘is true’ there is no problem, for people are free to define their terms as they please. But this is not an adequate account of what goes on in debates over such theories (at least, it is not an adequate account of what the various disputants think is going on.) Firstly, if the disputants thought of themselves as offering (stipulative) definitions, their arguments would center mainly on which definition was the most pragmatically useful (and for which purposes). In general, however, they do not. Instead, most of the parties to these debates seem to view their opponents as offering genuinely incompatible accounts. Secondly, the accounts which are offered are called theories, and this implies that the accounts all have a common subject matter which they variously attempt to characterize in a way that is accurate, or, in other words, true. These are theories of a special sort: Whereas most theories attempt to characterize the truth concerning some mundane subject, theories of truth aim to characterize the truth concerning nature of truth itself.

This enterprise has an air of paradox about it: After all, one might think, to ask about “the nature of truth” is to ask “Which theory of truth is true?”, and unless we know the answer we can make no sense of the question. That would be too quick, however. Knowledge is not an all-or-nothing affair; it may very well be that we know enough about something in order to identify it without knowing everything there is to know about it. The proponents of the various “theories of truth” can maintain that all the rival theories can be compared, and thus legitimately be called theories of truth (as opposed to theories of correspondence, or theories of coherence, or theories of warranted assertability…) because there is a neutral core conception of truth which is common to all. The T-schema (“True (p) <--> p”) would seem well suited to play such a role. One could then fix the reference of “truth” as being whatever property it is that satisfies the T-schema.

If a correspondence theorist, a coherence theorist, and a warranted assertability theorist can all agree that truth satisfies the T-schema, what exactly is it that the theories would have in common? Should we hold, for example, that while all the theorists accept the T-schema, they each interpret it differently? If so, the question arises of what it is that is interpreted differently. Clearly it is not a meaning that is interpreted differently, for though one can grasp or fail to grasp a meaning, interpretation is a matter of assigning a meaning to something, such as a sound wave or a series of ink blotches. One cannot assign a meaning to another meaning. On this view, since the T-schema is ‘interpreted differently’ by the different theorists, it must be viewed syntactically, as a sequence of characters and nothing more. If the theorists simply assign different meanings to this schema, that no more makes their theories have something substantive in common than the fact that “burro” means donkey in Spanish and butter in Italian makes butter and donkeys have something substantive in common. In order for the different theories of truth to have something in common, then, it is not enough to accept the T-schema regarded syntactically. They must also assign it the same meaning. Consequently, their disagreement can only regard theses which are superadded to the schema to produce richer notions of truth.

Once this is granted, we can ask whether these various “rich” notions of truth are mutually consistent. For all that has been said, there may be many properties which satisfy the T-schema, each accurately characterized by its own “theory of truth”. The truth theories would then have something in common without being in competition. We can call this position “alethic pluralism”. On the other hand, those who wish to “keep the debate alive” have three basic options that I can see: The first option is to argue that there is only one property which satisfies the T-schema. The second option is to say that while there are multiple, mutually inconsistent theories of truth, they have something other than the T-schema in common. The third option is to “go deflationary” and insist that the T-schema is all there is to truth. We may as well call this the “null theory” of truth, for while on this view there are true sentences or statements, there is really no such thing as “truth itself”. Whatever the case may be, I hope that the different stances one can take are a little clearer than they were before.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Some reflections on phenomenology

The following consists of some more or less random thoughts I've had on phenomenology. Originally they were meant to be organized into an introduction to a longer work, but at this point I don't think I'll ever get around to completing it, so I thought I may as well dump them here. Enjoy them, such as they are, as an illustration of the weird things you can think of when you have too much free time on your hands. :-P

As I open my eyes, I am treated to a menagerie of colors and shapes. Far from being randomly strewn about, they appear organized into various objects at various distances from each other and from me. These objects, or at any rate most of them, seem to curve or budge outward in a three dimensional space. I see them arranged in depth with respect to each other, according as they are closer to or farther away from me in the direction of my line of sight. This sense of depth is diminished if I close one eye. The objects look somehow flattened, even though I know intellectually that this is not so. Yet I can still tell that they are closer to or farther away from me because in my experience closer objects occult farther ones: If I situate myself (and/or the objects) so that the closer object is “in front of” the farther one, I can no longer see part of it, even though I believe no less strongly that it is still there. (A priori, there is no reason that this should be true of all possible visual experience. If you put one of your hands in front of the other, the sensation[1] you have in the closer hand in no way occults the sensation you have in the farther hand, yet it is not as though the sensation in the closer hand is “transparent”, both seem entirely “solid”, just as the color of an opaque object seems “solid”. If it is possible to sense one solid sensation as being in front of another without the closer occulting the farther, I see no reason why this should be impossible in principle with color in the case of vision.) Something similar is the case with pictures and paintings: The figures depicted are apprehended by me as being in depth, and, after a fashion, as three dimensional, even though I do not perceive the depth or trideminsionality as I do in normal binocular vision. The sense of depth is even less than in monocular (single-eye) vision. The closer an object is, the more the visual background is occulted by it, and in that sense it appears larger the closer it is, even though I do not judge it to increase in size.

An interesting question confronts me: What do these objects seem to be distant from? “My head” would be one commonsensical answer, but my head is not represented in this space—the only time I normally see my head is in a mirror or a picture, or perhaps on a closed-circuit television screen. And whenever I do see it, as in a mirror, it still appears to be distant from my vantage point. My vantage point, or point of view, seems only to be definable as a focal point of my perceptual space. In my unreflective moments, it seems that my point of view is my inmost here—a place behind my eyes from which I’m looking out.[2] The distance and direction of everything I see seems to be defined relative to this point.

Sounds seem to be organized about this same focal point. Sounds are curious beasts: Although they occupy space, they seem neither to be points nor to have any shape. Who can hear the blare of a trumpet and say whether it is flat, spherical, or triangular? Synesthetes perhaps[3], but not the rest of us. In spite of this, sounds do seem to possess distance and direction. Most of us ask where a sound is coming from, not where it is. On the folk conception, sounds have a focal point where they are “made” or “emitted”, and suffuse the space around this point, growing fainter the farther away they are from it. This is a good approximation when interpreted as regarding sound waves in the air, but not as regarding aural experiences, which are in the mind or brain of the observer.[4] Our minds may make mistakes in attributing sounds, as when one attributes the sounds which come from television speakers to the mouths of the actors one apparently sees through the television screen.

It has been argued by some—such as Kant—that one must always think of space as being infinite, and cannot imagine that it comes to an end. How does this belief come about? I imagine it arises from a thought experiment such as this: Imagine any colored shape, such as a square, or if you're feeling more creative, a tree. Regardless of the shape, you always represent it as being against some background, whether black, or white, or blue, but it is always some color. From this, you may come to the conclusion that for any colored area, there must be a colored border. But this conclusion is problematic. Does your visual field[5] stretch on to infinity? The answer, I think, is no. If you hold your index finger about an inch outward from your face, and move it straightly to the right, after a couple feet you'll find that you can't see it any more. The farther something is from the center of the visual field, the more “blurred” or "indistinct" it appears, until you cannot see anything at all. So if your visual field comes to an end, what lies outside it? Your visual field, as presented in experience, is itself a colored area outside of which there is no colored border. Yet it seemed a short while ago to be impossible to imagine that space of any sort could come to an end. So what’s going on here? The answer, I think, goes something like this: Everything that you see lies in your visual field, and thus within its borders. In order for you to see where the visual field ends, its borders would have to be brought within themselves, which is impossible. Because you cannot “see” its boundary as you could the juncture of two colored areas, you conclude it has no boundary at all.

There are many senses grouped together under the grab-bag label “touch”. One of these is proprioception, which is the feeling of how one’s limbs are situated with respect to each other and one’s torso. Another is the sensation one has “in” the various parts of one’s body. This feeling is difficult to describe; it might be characterized as a sensation of existence or ownership, even a feeling of space being “filled”. What it is is brought to light in contrast with its absence, as when some part of one’s body, such as one’s leg, “falls asleep”. I can note that I never experience this sensation in objects which are not part of my body, though if I did I would probably come to regard the object as a part of me. Touch, of course, also includes the sensations of textures of the objects my skin comes into contact with, from the roughness of sandpaper to the smoothness of silk. Neither can I leave out the feelings of pressure and tension on my skin, nor those of heat and cold. Touch seems to be “coupled” to sight: It does not seem to me that I have two right arms, one felt and one visible, but rather one arm both felt and visible. This can result in some interesting experiences: If you bring your hand closer and closer to your face, its image grows, taking up more and more of the background, and yet your hand doesn’t feel as though it’s getting any bigger. The feeling you have in your right hand and its corresponding visual image still seem to fit together, in spite of the fact that one changes while the other remains constant.

Taste and smell may be regarded with justice as two branches of the same sense. Most of the richness of a given food’s flavor is derived from my sense of smell, as the tongue can discern only sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Taste and smell must be very similar; otherwise we would never confuse them as we do. Something can both smell sweet and taste sweet, but try to imagine a confusion between sight and hearing, or between taste and touch, and I think you’ll come up empty. Nevertheless, taste and smell are still distinguishable. Taste is apprehended as being concentrated on the tongue, whereas smell is presented as suffusing the space in front of one.

The perceptions which I have discussed so far do not exhaust the realm of experience. In addition to ordinary experiences of external objects, there is also the phenomenon of imagination, or mental imagery. One notable feature of mental imagery is something that, following David Hume, I will call “faintness”. The term is being used here in an analogical sense, as is evidenced by the fact that, for example, a normal sound or visual experience can be so faint that I cannot determine what it is I am seeing or hearing. By contrast, if I imagine seeing or hearing something I can determine what it is I am imagining quite well enough, it simply that the imagined sight or sound, though “cognized” in some sense, is neither seen nor heard. By the “faintness” of mental imagery one should understand the fact that though these experiences are determined, they are not apprehended in the same way genuinely perceptual experience is. Perhaps an example can make the nature of this distinction clearer. For my part, if I imagine (form a visual image of) a tree, it looks to be in front of me. That is, I don't see it, from a first person perspective, as being on the side of me or behind my head. Yet in spite of its being in front of me, it doesn't look at all "transparent"; I don't "see through it" to the things in my normal visual field, and neither are they obscured by the image. They both look "solid" in their own way, despite the "faintness" of the image. Neither seems to affect the other. In this sense, then, they seem to be in separate spaces, both of which seem to be "in front" of my point of view.

[1] By the “sensation in” your hand, I mean the feeling that one has simply of its “being there”, of a part of oneself as pervading that space. It is this sort of sensation one loses when a part of one’s body “falls asleep”.
[2] Brand Blanshard, The Nature of Thought, Volume One, p. 149
[3] Synesthetes are people who have something we can call “cross-modal activation”: Certain experiences in one perceptual modality (i.e., sight, touch, hearing, etc.) activate experiences in another. Let us assume for a moment that there is a synesthete who has cross-modal activation between the portions of their brain dealing with shape and sound. One question that I have not heard addressed is whether in such a case the shapes or textures are merely felt at the same time the sounds are, or whether they truly qualify the sounds themselves, the sound being apprehended as being triangular, say, in the same way that a color patch may be apprehended as being triangular.
[5] For clarity, I intend “visual field” to be taken in the sense of one’s subjective visual experience, not that portion of the physical world that visible to one. The question of whether and in what sense there is such a thing as the “visual field”, so conceived, will be addressed later [Or so it would have been, if I had finished the work].

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Whither Fractional Objects?

To me,

(1) There is at most one half of an apple in the fruit bowl

sounds fine, but

(2) There is at most one half of an object[1] in the fruit bowl

sounds odd. (I trust that others will think the same, but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!) Surely, if an apple is an object, half an apple is half an object? But if (1) makes sense and (2) doesn’t, does that mean a half of an apple is not half an object? Perhaps the thought which drives the sense of oddness is that nothing is a half simpliciter, it is always a half of some sort of thing: One mile is half of two miles, and if we dropped the term "mile" and started calling two mile intervals “stretches”, one mile could simply be called “half a stretch”. Yet this “halfness” is nothing ontically basic; one and the same thing is half a stretch, one mile, two half-miles, and five thousand two hundred and eighty feet.

Even so, why couldn’t we have at most half of an object in the fruit bowl if “object” picks out a genuine category? If we can eat half an apple and drive half a mile, what prevents us from throwing half an object across the room? We could certainly throw half a football. The answer to these queries might be that a given entity which is a fraction of one thing is always a whole (and thus one) of something else. E.g., one slice of a pizza is also one eighth of the whole pie. We can also note that if there is at most half of an object in the fruit bowl, it cannot be the case that there is at least one, and if the bowl is not empty that is impossible. Thus we cannot say there is at most half an object in the fruit bowl; wherever we have a fraction of one sort of object there is always at least one of different sort. All this goes to show that "object" picks out a very special category if it picks out any at all.

The above reflections seem to commit us to a Fregean view in which nothing is intrinsically one or many. This view is not without its problems: Does it make good metaphysical sense to hold that how many things there are depends on what category we apply to them? Aren’t we contradicting ourselves if we say that one thing can be identical to many? After all, one deck of cards cannot be identical to two decks, why should it be any more possible for it to be identical to fifty two cards? Yet if we do not embrace the Fregean view, how else might we explain (or explain away) the strangeness of (2)? These are difficult issues, but hopefully with your input we can get a clearer view of the matter.

[1] “Object” being construed broadly as covering anything that exists.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A Coherent Account of Libertarian Free Will

Free will, it seems, requires the ability to do otherwise than one does, via the Kantian doctrine that “ought” implies “can”. If the hungry ought to be fed, for example, it seems this depends not a whit on whether they are actually fed or not. If the hungry could not have been fed, their being fed is impossible; to say they nevertheless ought to be fed is like saying someone ought to take a block of wood and carve it into a square circle. However, there is a powerful objection to the idea that free will even compatibile with indeterminism, which called the Mind Argument. Basically, it goes like this: If a given act R is contingent but uncaused, then, since it is contingent, nothing determines whether or not R occurs, and a fortiori I do not determine whether it occurs either. So if R were contingent and uncaused, it would not be under my control. Thus it appears that if my actions are undetermined I do not have free will. Nor, it seems, can we resolve the issue by holding that I will to will to will R, and so on to infinity. My mind surely does not encompass an infinite number of mental acts. But if the regress of willings terminates, there will be at least one member of the series which is uncaused. And so we're right back where we started.

In consequence of the above, we have the following criteria for a free act: In order to be free, it must be contingent, yet it must also be something I bring about. For each act of will, I must have brought it about by freely willing it, yet we must not launch ourselves on an infinite regress. My solution is something I will call the Closed Causal Loop theory of free will. There must be at least two acts of will which cause each other. The reason we need two acts is this: If there were only one act, it could not “cause itself” in any non-redundant sense, because any entity E is conditionally necessary given E no matter what E is. It would thus not be distinguished from any other act as far as "self causation" is concerned. If there are at least two acts, however, each can cause the other in the ordinary sense because they are distinct. According to this theory, a primary act of will A causes a secondary act of will B and has both B and the action chosen as its objects. B in its turn causes A and has A as its object[1]. A and B jointly cause the action to be performed, since if either A or B had not occurred then neither would the other, and if both had not occurred then neither would the action.

Is this view defensible? The following sort of objection could be raised. Since A causes B and B causes A, each will occur if the other does. So either both occur or neither occur. Call the mereological fusion of A and B ‘S’. Since my acts of will are supposed to be free and hence contingent, it is also contingent whether or not S, their fusion, occurs. So if S occurs, then by hypothesis I cause A in virtue of causing B and B in virtue of causing A, but I do not cause S, because if something is contingent it cannot “cause itself” in any non-vacuous sense, and there is nothing besides S in virtue of which I could cause it. But now the proponent of libertarian free will faces the same problem as before: If I do not cause S then its occurrence or non-occurrence is not in my control, so I am not responsible for it. By the principle that I am responsible for x and I am responsible for y if and only if I am responsible for the mereological fusion of x and y, if I am not responsible for S I cannot be responsible for A or B either.

But I think there is an easy reply: It is primarily actions, including acts of will, for which we are held responsible. However, the mereological fusion of two acts of will is not itself an act of will, any more than a mereological fusion of two ants is an ant. It is not the sort of thing I could be responsible for, for it is neither a willing nor an action of mine. It is only willings, actions of mine, or consequences of those actions for which I can be held responsible, and the fusion of two willings is none of these. It is therefore no defect that I do not bring it about. All that is required is that I be responsible for each act individually, not the conjunctive state of affairs that both obtain.

I have, of course, done nothing to show that this account is true, nor even that it is in the least compatible with what psychology and neuroscience have revealed about the mind (as, indeed, it very probably is not). Nevertheless, it seems at least conceptually coherent, and so I conclude that a coherent account of libertarian free will is possible. Irrespective of its truth or falsity, this account provides a counterexample to the Mind Argument as given above. There may be sound arguments for the incompatibility of free will and indeterminism, but the Mind Argument is not one of them.

[1] I hold that B does not have the action chosen as one of its objects, otherwise it is not clear to me that it would be distinct from A.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Reflections on Eternalism: Part 1

Eternalism is the thesis that all times are equally real; the past just as real as the present, and the future just as real as the past. If eternalism is true, does it make sense to look forward to future events? I think there are good arguments to show that it does not.

Assume that there is some future event e that I am looking forward to. What exactly am I looking forward to? Not e’s existence, for this is eternal, and so e “already” exists. If I am waiting for e’s existence, I need wait no more. Am I waiting for my being present at e? But if I am ever present at e, I am eternally present at e. Assume for the moment that perdurantism is true, so that, instead of being wholly present at each time they exist, objects persist by having successive temporal parts. In that case I cannot wait to be identical to a future temporal part of me, for if we take the view according to which it is my whole temporal extent which is properly said to be me, then I cannot identical to some proper temporal part of myself. The temporal part of me which is present at e is eternally a temporal part of me. On the other hand, if we take the view that each of my temporal parts constitutes a distinct, momentary self, I cannot look forward to being identical to my momentary future self which is present at e, for if the self which anticipates e is not identical to the self which is present at e, it never will be. And if it is identical to it, there is nothing to anticipate, for e is eternally present to that self. If we assume instead that endurantism is true, the problem is still not solved, at least so long as we still uphold eternalism. For if, e.g., I have the time indexed property of voting for the Democratic Presidential candidate on November 4th 2008, I eternally have the time indexed property of voting for the Democratic Presidential candidate on November 4th 2008. Once again, it seems there is nothing for me to anticipate.

If all events are eternally existent, it makes as much (and as little) sense to “look backward” to past events as it does to “look forward” to future ones. So if, e.g., I’m sitting in class and the class has been going for ten minutes, why do I not “posticipate” the beginning of the class, just as I anticipate the end of the class when there are only ten minutes left to go? After all, if eternalism is true, there is no such thing as “the passage of time” or the absolute termination of a process[1]. We never get “closer to” future events, at least not in any sense we don’t also get “closer to” past events. We can say that we “get closer” to future events in the sense that if A and B are two time slices of me, and B is later than A, then B is closer to a future event e than A is. The later a time slice of me is, the closer it is to e. But we can say with equal truth that if C and D are time slices of me, and C is earlier than D, then C is closer to a past event e’ than D is. The earlier a time slice of me is, the closer it is to e'. In some sense these notions count as “getting closer to an event”, because an object of zero temporal extent would, in the above senses, never get closer to anything. But since time does not pass, we never get closer to any event in an absolute sense. So it makes sense to anticipate the future if and only if it makes sense to posticipate the past. If it makes no sense to posticipate past events, as I think most would grant, we can conclude by a parity of reasoning that it also makes no sense to anticipate future ones.

So does it make sense to look forward to future events? If eternalism is true, I’m afraid it does not. Those who uphold common sense may take this as an indictment of eternalism. Those of us who uphold eternalism—who attempt to view things “under the form of eternity”, as Spinoza put it—can take it as confirmation of just how limited our everyday perspective on reality really is.

[1] A given entity may be temporally finite in the sense that it has temporal endpoints, but the entity itself—the segment which connects the endpoints—never ceases to be.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A follow up on Necessary Existence

Granting with Timothy Williamson that singular propositions of the form “a does not exist” cannot be true[1], is there really no other way to accommodate the intuition that there are things which do not necessarily exist? Perhaps we could cash out the intuition some individuals, such as myself, do not necessarily exist as follows:

“It is possibly the case that a, b, c…; a_1, b_1, c_1…; a_n, b_n, c_n… exist and there is no x such that x is not identical to a and x is not identical to b and x is not identical to c…” (where, a, b, c, (etc.) are constants denoting everything existent with the sole exception of me. )

If the foregoing is true then, while the proposition “Jason Zarri does not exist” cannot be true, it does not follow that I necessarily exist. For it seems perfectly possible that everything besides me could have existed while it was also the case that these things were the only things which existed. It is not necessary for this to be the case that there exist some proposition which truly asserts my nonexistence. If a given possible world does not contain me, it fails to contain the proposition that I exist as well as the proposition that I do not exist, so Williams’ argument cannot go through. Though it is not possible that I lack existence, it is still true that there are possible worlds which do not contain me.

[1] In case you missed my last post, Williamson’s paper “Necessary Existents” can be found here: <>

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Necessary Existence, Truthmakers, and Modal Solipsism

This post developed out of some thoughts I had in response to the symposium on “The Contingency of Existence” at the Pacific APA convention in April, and also in response to Timothy Williamson’s paper “Necessary Existents”, which can be found here: <>. As I understand it, the problem with saying that a certain individual, say me, might not have existed is as follows: If I do not exist, then the proposition that I do not exist is true. If this proposition is true, however, it must exist. But if this proposition exists then so must I, for if I did not exist the proposition would have no subject to which it could attribute non-existence, and hence it could not assert my nonexistence. The proposition, if true, is false, and therefore it is false. The argument can be repeated for any individual, so we can conclude that the thesis of Necessary Existence is true: Anything which exists exists necessarily. I will not offer any support or criticism of this argument here; I will simply note that, the counterintuitiveness of its conclusion notwithstanding, there seems to be nothing obviously wrong with it. However, there is a different argument, which I formulate below, that threatens to turn this counterintuitive conclusion into something truly radical. I call this radical thesis “Modal Solipsism”. If Necessary Existence really carries this commitment, it is something we ought to reject if doing so is at all possible. I will argue, however, that the commitment to Modal Solipsism is illusory.

The argument goes like this: If Necessary Existence is true, any truthmaker which exists in any possible world exists in all. But a truthmaker for a proposition p is something such that, necessarily, if it exists then p is true. Consequently, since the truthmakers for every true proposition exist necessarily, every true proposition is necessarily true. Not a single thing could have been otherwise, for if it could, some proposition which is in fact true could have been false, and given the above supposition that is not possible. The thesis of Necessary Existence seems to collapse into Modal Solipsism: There’s just one possible world, and this is it!

Is there any way we can accept Necessary Existence and escape Modal Solipsism? I think there is, if we’re prepared to reject the above criterion on truthmakers. That is, we must reject the idea that, for every proposition p, a truthmaker for p is something such that, necessarily, if it exists then p is true. In other words, the existence of a truthmaker for p need not be sufficient for p’s truth. How can we cash this out?

The solution I propose depends on the idea that there is more to reality (and to truthmaking) than the simple existence of objects, either abstract or concrete. If there are at least two possible worlds which are exactly alike with respect to what exists in them, but which differ in respect to which objects exemplify which properties, these differences cannot be accounted for in terms of there being truthmakers which exist in one world but not in another. In such a scenario, what is the case is underdetermined by what exists. Existential propositions will have truthmakers, but we must look elsewhere for the truthmakers of non-existential ones.

States of affairs provide the way out, but only if we conceive of them abstractly, as Alvin Plantinga does: If we deny that there are states of affairs which do not obtain, then what is the case will once again coincide with what exists, and the thesis of Necessary Existence will commit us to Modal Solipsism. But if we hold that states of affairs obtain contingently and exist necessarily there is no problem. The possible worlds will differ only with respect to which states of affairs obtain, not with respect to what exists. As a first pass, we can say that it is the obtaining of a state of affairs which is the truthmaker for a non-existential proposition.

The above, however, is not quite right. As far as I can tell, a given state of affairs S and the state of affairs “S’s obtaining” are one and the same state of affairs. Thus, if p is a proposition which asserts that S obtains, the truthmaker for p is S itself, otherwise p would have no truthmaker at all. S will no doubt have different properties in those worlds in which it obtains than it has in those worlds in which it does not obtain, but the worlds in which it obtains have no additional existents which could serve as truthmakers for p only in those worlds. We must remember that everything which exists in one world exists in all. In consequence of this, S is the truthmaker for p whether S obtains or not. What we ought to say then, on this account, is that a truthmaker for a non-existential proposition p, in spite of its name, only makes p true if it obtains. Its bare existence is not enough. If the distinction between the existence of a state of affairs and its being the case survives scrutiny, we can hold that everything necessarily exists without holding that everything is necessarily true. Whatever plausibility Necessary Existence has need not be transmitted to Modal Solipsism.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Case of the Self-Conscious Calvinist

(First, I should let you know that I’m using “Calvinist” as a catch-all term for anyone who professes some form of theistic determinism, irrespective of whether or not they accept every tenet of Calvinism properly so called. This will save me the trouble of repeatedly typing the somewhat more unwieldy phrase “theistic determinist”.)

Suppose we have a Calvinist who finds himself in a variant of the standard trolley car scenario. There is a trolley car barreling down a set of tracks to which five people have been tied. The trolley car cannot brake. Our Calvinist is on some sort of overpass, standing next to a rather rotund gentleman. The only way our Calvinist can prevent the imminent death of these five innocents is by pushing the fat man over the ledge, thus stopping the trolley. Suppose, now, that our Calvinist deliberates as follows: “What shall God will me to choose? If God wills me to refrain from acting, five innocent lives will be lost. But are not five lives more important than one? On the other hand, if God decrees that I push this man over the ledge, five innocent lives will be spared, but only at the cost my taking the life of a man who is himself innocent. The choice is hard, but the second option appears worse. It was none other than the apostle Paul who counseled us not to do evil that good may come. Therefore God decrees that I choose to refrain from acting.” The Calvinist refrains, and the fat man is spared, to the detriment of the “greater good”.

What interests me here is not whether our Calvinist did the right thing, but rather his method of deliberation. What can we say about a thought process such as this? It strikes me as odd, to say the least, yet there is nothing overtly incoherent about it. Our Calvinist doesn’t seem to contradict himself, yet there appears to be a kind of pragmatic inconsistency. Can someone deliberate like this and at the same time think of themselves as an agent, as someone who is truly the author of their actions? Or would one’s agency “drain away” if Calvinism is true, making our Calvinist either radically mistaken or radically confused about his status as an agent? Note that, if Calvinism is true, whatever God wills takes place, and nothing takes place without God’s willing it to take place. There are thus no states of affairs such that God permits both it and its negation to obtain, leaving the outcome to chance. Does the belief that one can choose what takes place, on the assumption that Calvinism is true, commit one to hold that one can bring it about that God wills something? Assuming that there is no causal overdetermination (that is, that no occurrence has more than one fully sufficient cause), it appears to me the answer is yes, but that commitment seems false, and to most theists, blasphemous. Finally, how does our imagined Calvinist differ from a more typical one, who deliberates as most of us do, without being cognizant of the fact that every one of his thoughts and actions is determined by God? Does the ordinary Calvinist leave something out if they fail to consider the omnipresence of the Divine Activity? I think these questions get at the heart of philosophical debates about agency and free will, because the scenario can be rephrased in terms of other forms of determinism. (For example, consider a naturalistic determinist who begins deliberating thus: “What shall the laws of nature determine me to choose...?" The point is the same, but I think the above account is more striking.) I’m not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I hope that with your comments and criticism we can get a clearer view of the matter.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Quote of the Day: Quine on Verificationism

I spied the following gem today while reading The Philosophy of W.V. Quine:

"Gibson cites Follesdal's interesting observation that the
indeterminacy of translation follows from holism and the verification theory of meaning. Follesdal mistrusts this defense because of doubts about verificationism, and I gather Gibson agrees. But I find it attractive. The statement of verificationism relevant to this purpose is that 'evidence for the truth of a sentence is identical with the meaning of the sentence'; and I submit that if sentences in general had meanings, their meanings would be just that. It is only holism itself that tells us that in general they do not have them."

(pp. 155-156, "Reply to Roger F. Gibson, Jr." The Philosophy of W.V. Quine, Lewis Edwin Hahn and Pal Arthur Schlipp eds. La Salle, Illinois. Open Court, 1986 )

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Some Thoughts on Brute Necessities

We may say that something is brute—in the sense of “brute” as it occurs in “brute fact”—if there is no reason, in any relevant sense of “reason”, why it obtains or occurs. If something is brute, it is inexplicable: there is no reason why it is the way it is. Many theses in philosophy seem to hinge on the existence of brute necessities: necessities which, if they obtain, obtain for no reason in any relevant sense of “reason”. Consider logically brute necessities. For our purposes, we can take these to be necessities which, though they obtain, cannot be demonstrated to obtain by classical logic. Some examples may be necessary existents—including God, on many conceptions—as well as essential-but-unshared properties, non-analytic necessities or “necessary connections”, and undoubtedly many more. If there are any logically brute necessities they are logically arbitrary. For example, it might very well be true that God necessarily exists, but a system of classical logic could never have “God exists” as a theorem; as far as logic is concerned the truth value of “God exists” is just as arbitrary as “there are eight planets in the solar system”. Even though the former might be metaphysically necessary and the latter not, logic is blind to this distinction.

Are there any cogent arguments for or against the existence of logically brute necessities? Let us assume for the moment there are no logically brute necessities. In that case, it must be logically demonstrable that there are none; that is, it must be logically demonstrable that no logically indemonstrable proposition is necessarily true. This is so because if there were no logically brute necessities, and this itself was logically indemonstrable, we would have a necessary truth[1]—that there are no logically brute necessities—that was logically indemonstrable, giving us at least one example of a logically brute necessity. So if there are no logically brute necessities, it logically demonstrable that there are none. What would such a demonstration look like? How could someone logically prove all necessity is logical necessity without implicitly or explicitly defining it to be so? If they didn’t define it to be so in their proof, aren’t they appealing to the very sort of metaphysical necessity they claim to reject? How else could one prove the two notions coincide? I won’t venture to say I can see a priori there is no such proof, because I can’t, but nevertheless I remain skeptical. If you think there is such a proof, I’m open to it: All I ask is that you show me.

Finally, I’d like to close with a potential example of a logically brute necessity. Consider:

(1) “(1) is necessarily true.”

Assuming (1) expresses a proposition and bivalence holds for propositions, what (1) expresses is either true or false. If true it is necessarily true, and if false it is necessarily false.[2] Yet there is a plain sense in which (1)’s truth value, though necessary, is utterly arbitrary. There is no logical proof of its truth or falsity to be had. (Once again, I’m open to the idea there’s a logical proof if you think you have one.) One might even imagine that there are many such propositions, each asserting its own necessary truth, some being necessarily true while others are necessarily false, each as a matter of brute fact. Of course, (1) bears dangerous affinities to the Liar and related paradoxes, and it remains unclear how a solution to them would affect (1). All the same, it gestures in the right direction.

That’s enough from me. What do you think? Any comments, questions, or criticisms are welcome. ^_^

[1] I am assuming here something along the lines of S5, that modal matters are themselves necessary: It couldn’t be the case, for example, that something might have been necessarily true even though it in fact isn’t. So if there are no logically brute necessities, it is logically impossible for there to be any, otherwise it would be logically possible for there to be some, and thus we would have something which could have been necessary even though in fact it wasn’t.

[2] This requires the same assumption as footnote 1. Assuming S5 is the correct modal logic, (1)’s modal status is itself necessary, irrespective of whether it is necessarily true or necessarily false. It just can’t be true that, though a proposition is necessarily true, it might not have been necessarily true.