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

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Another new variant of the liar paradox?

I've thought of another variant of the liar to add to my collection--I'll leave it to my readers to tell me if someone has already thought of it.

Consider the following statement:

(*): Nothing entails that (*) is true.

Suppose (*) is false. In that case, it is false that nothing entails that (*) is true. So something entails that (*) is true. But if something entails that (*) is true, then (*) is true. But then what (*) says must be the case, and hence it follows that nothing entails that (*) is true. So if (*) is false, it is true both that something entails that (*) is true and that nothing entails that (*) is true, which is a contradiction. (*) must, in consequence, be true. So it is true that noting entails that (*) is true. (*), however, is not only true, it is necessarily true, for its falsity would entail a contradiction. However, if (*) is necessarily true, its truth is entailed by every statement whatever. So if (*) is true, it is true both that nothing entails that (*) is true and that everything entails that (*) is true. This too is a contradiction. So no matter whether (*) is true or false, it must be both true and false.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

An uncontroversial instance of moral knowledge?

Given the pervasive moral disagreements there are (or seem to be) between different people and different societies, one might question the notion that there are any uncontroversial instances of moral knowledge. In opposition to this, I propose that there is at least one instance of moral knowledge that I think most will find uncontroversial. Suppose, as I believe to be the case, that skipping pebbles across a pond is a morally neutral action: it is neither right nor wrong, but merely permissible. Nevertheless, suppose that Sam, for whatever reason, forms the belief that skipping pebbles across a pond is wrong. (Perhaps Sam’s brain has been hit by one too many cosmic rays.) If, in spite of this, Sam skips a pebble across a pond, he has acted wrongly, even though actions of that type are not normally wrong. No matter what else one may think about which actions—or types of action—are wrong, one must hold that if someone performs any action which they believe to be wrong they have acted wrongly. And if we know that anything is wrong, we know that doing something which one believes to be wrong is wrong.

Or so I think. But you may disagree; and if you do, I’m interested to hear where you think I’ve gone wrong.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

My stance as a fence-sitting agnostic

I think of myself as a fence-sitting agnostic. By that I mean that, although I don’t know whether or not God exists, I would very much like to know. Thus I’m far from those agnostics who say that it is impossible for anyone to know whether God exists, and also from those who claim that as a matter of fact no one knows it. I think it’s possible that some people know; all I can claim is that I don’t know myself.

Not only would I very much like to know whether or not God exists, I have a preferred answer: I’d like it to be true that God exists. This is because I think that the world would be a better place if God existed than if He didn’t—and the fact that the world isn’t a better place than it is is one reason I tend to doubt that He does.

I say this in spite of the fact that I’ve given a couple of (what I take to be) plausible arguments that a God of some sort exists, both here and here.

There are two main things that, for now, prevent me from accepting their conclusion: First, I think that whatever force they may have is in all probability defeated by the various arguments from evil. Second, I think that both the Deistic and Theistic conceptions of God face difficult problems. Why, on the Deistic view, would God create the universe and just sit by and watch things happen? Why in particular, would God refrain from making any kind of revelation? (Thomas Aquinas gives some persuasive arguments as to why it would be good for God to propose some things to be believed on faith, which can be found here.)

As an instance of this problem, consider the pervasive moral disagreements there have been between different societies and within a given society at different times. Why wouldn’t God reveal who’s right and who’s wrong, especially on the most important issues? Why, for example, would God allow the institution of slavery to endure for thousands of years without informing us of His disapproval?

On the Theistic view, there is no problem as to why God would not intervene in the course of history or make revelations: He has. The problem I have with theistic views is primarily the content of the alleged revelations. (I will confine my remarks to the Bible, as my knowledge of other sacred texts is not very great.) Of course, if one is an inerrantist who also, for the most part, tries to interpret the Bible as literally as possible, one will run into problems concerning the various contradictions and historical inaccuracies which are to be found in it. Apart from claims of inerrancy, I don’t regard these features of the Bible as being too problematic. Natural science is not without its contradictions (although they are much less frequent than they are in the Bible); it is well known that two of our most well-confirmed theories, General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, are inconsistent with each other. One or both must be false, in at least some of their details, but this does not give us any good reason to deny that science is our best, albeit imperfect, means of coming to know the physical universe, still less to reject science in general on the ground that its deliverances aren’t always true.

No, my main problem with the Bible is that in reading it (and especially in reading the Old Testament), one repeatedly comes across passages such as this:

(NIV)Exodus 21: 20:21: “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, 21 but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.”

and this:

(NIV)Samuel 15: 2-3: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.' ”

and this:

(NAB)Hosea 14:1: “Samaria shall expiate her guilt, for she has rebelled against her God. They shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed to pieces, their expectant mothers shall be ripped open.”

The problem here is not that God has not revealed His will, but that His will as allegedly revealed in the Bible frequently turns out to be immoral.

Thus I face the following trilemma: Either Deism, Theism, or Atheism is true, although I find each of them problematic. I think Deism and Theism both have problems concerning moral issues, and that Theism in addition has problems concerning the historicity and consistency of its sacred texts. Atheism, on the other hand, does not have these problems, but is philosophically unsatisfying to me because it seems incapable of giving a satisfactory explanation of the existence, regularity, and relative life-friendliness of the physical universe. Suspending one’s judgment may be the only reasonable course of action in these circumstances, but when it comes to issues of such importance I would prefer come to a conclusion, as long as there is enough evidence to support it. If anyone thinks they can help me get clearer on these issues, I would greatly appreciate their assistance.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lewis on Devitt on Ostrich Nominalism

In his “New Work for a Theory of Universals”[1], David Lewis discusses Michael Devitt’s defense of Ostrich Nominalism in his article “‘Ostrich Nominalism’ or ‘Mirage Realism’?”[2], specifically as a response to the One Over Many argument. Devitt had proposed to paraphrase such sentences as

a and b have the same property, F-ness”


a and b are both F

which itself can be analyzed as

a is F


b is F”.

Lewis thinks that this is not satisfactory. He says:

But Devitt has set himself too easy a problem. If we attend to the modest, untransformed One over Many problem, which is no mirage, we will ask about a different analysandum:

a and b have some common property (are somehow of the same type)

in which it is not said what a and b have in common. This less definite analysandum is not covered by what Devitt has said.[3]

I think there is an obvious paraphrase of Lewis’ example which, though not explicitly covered by what Devitt had said, is in perfect harmony with its spirit. Indeed, I think it’s obvious enough that it's probable someone else has already thought of it, which for a while made me hesitant to make this post. Nevertheless, I’m interested to see if others think the paraphrase works, so I’m posting this anyway, even if I can’t claim originality for it. The paraphrase goes like this (where F, G, H, etc., are all the predicates expressible in the language):

((Fa & Fb) v [(Ga &Gb) v (Ha &Hb)])…

Or, in English:

Either a and b are both F or a and b are both G or a and b are both H

So my question is: Do you think the paraphrase works? And if not, why not?

[1] As reprinted in Properties (Oxford Readings in Philosophy), edited by D. H. Mellor and Alex Oliver. Oxford University Press, 1997.

[2] Reprinted in the same volume as in the above footnote.

[3] See p. 201 of Properties (Oxford Readings in Philosophy).