Saturday, April 30, 2011


Eric Olson argues that a person is just an animal. This implies that anyone is identical to some biological being with certain properties such as being multicellular, having cellular differentiation, capacity for sexual reproduction, motility and so forth. So an individual begins to exist at about the 2nd week after conception when cells begin to take on different characteristics (bone cells, nerve cells, muscle etc) and work together in unison to maintain homeostasis of the whole organism.

He argues against the view I think plausible that persons are just their brain (or actually some temporal stage of their brain). His argument is that views like mine must explain how it is that we can have properties that are not instantiated in the animal or physical brain that is co located with our selves when both things share the same constitution (made of the same stuff). There must be both an animal and a person sharing the same body, he argues, that we must explain how it is that there is much similarity between us without being the same thing and why we posit different properties despite the similarities. When I think a thought, does the animal that occupies the same spacetime region as me (or incorporates me if I am my brain) think the same thought or a different but qualitatively identical thought or no thought at all? If the animal no longer exists and was replaced by me, the person, we must explain where that animal went.

This is just a version of the grounding problem. Here, I can only respond that Karen Bennett has argued that the grounding problem is not really a serious problem because those who believe in coincident objects can simply posit the existence of (de se) modal properties as brute facts about things' having properties not grounded in their physical constitution. I find Bennett's argument very persuasive.

But I think I can also offer a tu quoque against Olson's view (i.e., that the same weakness he claims is a feature of the view I favor is a feature of his view as well). Oslon's view is the animalistic view. An animal comes into existence at the 2 week or so of gestation. However, there was an organism there before the animal; namely, that organism was a single celled organism (zygote) then became a multicellular embryo (without all the other criteria officially qualifying it as an animal). Is the animal which Olson think we all are the same being as the organism that came before it? If so then we would come into existence at the same time as it (not two weeks into gestation but about 48 hours after conception). If the organism came into being 48 hours after conception and the animal is identical with that organism then the animal must have also came into existence at that same time (by Leibniz's law of identity). If not, what happened to that organism? Was it replaced or does it exist coincidentally with the animal? So similar problems plague Oslon's view I believe. But it doesn't stop there. What of the oocytic view? This view is just that we are the original egg in which was fertilized by some sperm. Since the egg is about 1000 times larger than the sperm, the joining of both cells may be seen as the egg simply incorporating the sperm and changing a bit in terms of mass etc instead of going out of existence along with the sperm and both being replaced by a new being (the zygote). But the oocytic view is clearly preposterous.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The modal argument for dualism

Here's what I understand about this argument. Versions of it has been used by Kripke and Chalmers and here by Plantinga to argue that we are not our bodies or brains. The argument goes like this: Imagine yourself without a body. That seems easy enough. Can you imagine your body without its body? It seems not. That would be patently contradictory. Thus, your mind must have at least one property that your body doesn't: namely the modal property of possibly existing without a body. By Leibniz's law, they cannot be identical. That law simply says that everything has the property it has. If A has a property B does not have, they are not identical by that law. Your mind would have the modal property of possibly existing without a body while your body cannot exist without itself.

There are at least two ways to attack this. One may wish to deny Leibniz's law for modal properties; that is, one may wish to assert that it is possible for some things to have some modal properties they don't have. But I don't see this as a plausible avenue. It seems to me that Leibniz's law is true unrestricted, true for all properties, genuine, relational and modal.

So I will concentrate on the other possible objection which I will term the epistemic constraint to modality (ECM). It may seem plausible at first that anything one can imagine being true may be true in some possible world. Your car may be green when it is actually red. We know that your car has the modal property of possibly being green. How do we know that? We just imagine it so and if we can imagine it so, it is possible it is so. That's how we seem to know what is and isn't possible in the broadest sense. I can imagine your car being green when it's red and thus it must have the modal property of possibly green. I cannot imagine your car being green all over and red all over at the same time and thus your car must not have the modal property of being possibly green and red all over at the same time.

But does this kind of epistemic access always cut modality at its joints? Cut it precisely such that the space of epistemic possibility covers the same space as the modal space? Let's imagine we live 500 years ago. We would know what water was. It's that clear, potable, odorless liquid. Can we imagine it not being H2O? Yep, I believe we can. We could imagine it being XYZ for example. But we now know that water = H2O. It could not have been possible that water did not turn out to be H2O because water = H2O is a necessary identity statement. This is a case where our epistemic space over steps the boundaries of possibility. Thus zombies may not be possible though we can (now) imagine them.

Defenders of the claim that epistemic space and modal space are perfectly overlapping can deny that people 500 years ago really can imagine that water = H2O because they are not thinking about water when they imagine it not being H2O. But this doesn't seem like a way to defend that claim because then how would we know we are talking about or believing anything about some putative object when we imagine it being so (having some property) when science may tell us one day that it does not have that property? It doesn't seem that my ability to refer and to think about things are so dependent on contingencies in future scientific discovery.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Michael Rea's paper got me thinking about porn (not the content but the subject). As the old joke goes, porn is undefinable but you know it when you see it. If so then Rea tries to define the impossible. His attempt at a definition of porn is on the 3rd page. It basically defines an instance of porn as a token of some communicative material (pictorial, print, audio, etc) which will be reasonably expected to be used to sexually arouse or gratify members of some population to which it is targeted. Some provisos are that the intended audience can not expect it to be private communication (such as when a wife sends nude pics of herself to her husband) and that the material be used to that end for its communicative content.

I think there is a very damning counter example to this definition. Consider if some large population of porn subscribers were to read up on their sex negative feminist literature and as a result have a change of mind about porn. Now they see it as oppressive of women and denounce it and refuse to tend to their porn. Now it intended audience no longer seek to arouse and gratify themselves but that doesn't mean that the materials stop being porn. In fact, they may burn such material because it is porn. Rea may reply that once the audience changes their state of mind, they are no longer the intended audience of the porn producers. But that seems false. It seems that it is far more natural to say that their intended audience has had a change of mind about their products. The intended audience is still around, just not interested in the way they had been. It doesn't make sense to say that the intended audience dropped out of existence just because they had a change of mind. In fact, the porn producers may try to "win back" that audience through suasion and so forth. That would still make them a targeted audience.

Friday, April 22, 2011


The post on copy and original got me thinking about intention. What is intention and does it involve mental states and if so does it involve specific kinds of mental states? Can zombies and machines have intention? Let's say that you think intentions must involve a kind of "what it feels like to intend to do A" or any kind of phenomenal mental state. What if mind-body reductionism or eliminativism is true? That would either mean that the what it feels like or phenomenal quality is just some physical process in the brain or whatever or in case of eliminativism, there is nothing that it is like, just an illusion of what it's like perhaps.

Let's look at mind-body reductionism. If it is true, then there must be some specific physical process necessary if those who think that the "what it feels" is necessary for intention. But that seems implausible. What makes that process any different and special (deserving of being called intention) from a functionally similar process and externally identical one that does the same thing? Indeed, philosophers have definitions of intention that do not include a mental state criterion.

If our brains are just computational devices and our thoughts, emotions, and other mental states are just computations or the results thereof and the Church-Turing thesis is correct then it would seem that "intention" can be captured by a fully functional analysis. Indeed, think of even computers now. An example is a chess playing program. We may term a particular move made by the program as an intention to do something (capture a queen, set a trap, checkmate, etc). It has some of the features of intention such as a goal and decision(s) made among possible options towards that goal, etc, though presumably, no phenomenal mental features

Vague objects

Few philosophers believe in vague objects. Vagueness, many say, stem from our language, our conceptual scheme, or our epistemic limitations. Attribution of vagueness to objects, they maintain, is committing the fallacy of verbalism or the fallacy of mistaking that the property of things have the property of the words that describe them. There are exceptions (David Lewis, Gareth Evans, and Roy Sorensen I believe) who believe in vague objects. But if quantum mechanics says particles can be vague why not all else that are often thought vague like mountains (or just about everything, both particulars and categories and natural kinds)?

4d/3d controversy in objects

There is a familiar controversy in the philosophy of time. It has to do with whether objects are 3 dimensional (3d) and "persists" through time or 4 dimensional (4d) spacetime "worms" (or as Ted Sider claims in his Four Dimensionalism, 4d stages). 3ders think that objects do not have temporal parts analogous to the object's spatial parts while 4ders think that the object at any time is just a part of the object at all times (its a segment or slice of the whole worm).

I realized that modern physics might say a thing or two about this. More specifically, quantum mechanics and especially quantum field theory. It could be that both the 3ders and the 4ders are right.

Consider particles in space. In classical physics such as relativity and Newtonian mechanics, objects have a definite position (the classic billiard ball analogy). In quantum mechanics, they do not; rather they have a "quantum superposition" or are "field quanta." They are neither specifically here nor there but their position is kind of spreading out in space. Quantum field theory has it that objects, even large objects, are mere properties of spacetime itself; just ripples or disturbances smeared in that spacetime manifold. Everything can be described by force differentials at any set of localized points in spacetime.

Objects are not only neither here nor there but neither now nor then. But particles do have definite positions once they are being measured or observed in some way. When the wave function collapses under observation and the scope of the scientists' equipment, they will have a definite positions.

I wonder if this can be used as an argument that in some sense, both the 3ders and the 4ders are right much as the corpuscular theory of light and the wave theory of light are both partially right even though they seemed contradictory when they were first proposed but quantum theory eventually resolved the issue in its familiar unforeseen way. Because objects are located in spacetime in quantum field theory, they are more like worms (or fuzzy worms, perhaps caterpillars, as they are smeared in that spacetime) as the 4der claims but may have specific spacetime locations once they are under the purview of observation and common discourse as the 3der claims.

Editors in Chief of Synthese are in hot water

It would seem that one of my ex teachers (John Symons) an editor of Synthese is involved in some controversy among the philosophical community. See here and here. I read some of the papers in the special issue of Synthese on Intelligent Design a while back and the articles I've read seem measured and professional to me. The Editors in Chief included a disclaimer saying that some of them included tone that wasn't professional but did not mention the article(s) and this has pissed off the writers of those articles and many philosophers.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Copy and original revisited

I realized one possible objection to my definition of copy as

Object A is a copy iff its creation was intended as a copy of some object B (or maybe even an idea of such an object) and A does not (numerically) equal B.

Imagine that an entrepreneur makes a supercomputer that is designed to make him lots of money. All he needs to do is supply it with lots of information about the world and the computer will do what it takes to best insure he gets money. The computer decides the best way is to make counterfeit paintings and sell them. The entrepreneur does not know what his computer is up to and just collects the cash it makes him. Since only a machine was involved with the manufacturing of the counterfeits, does that mean that copies of the painting were made without any intention?

I thought of this objection while reading Michael Rea's paper on pornography. He seems to think that the objection is a good one against certain definitions of porn.

However, I have my doubts because it seems that once machines as complex as the computer in the thought experiment is brought about, we can ascribe intentions to it. We already ascribe intentions to certain (complex) animals like dogs, apes, dolphins, etc. A dog e.g., brings you his frisbee. His intention seems to be that he wants to play. No problems there. I have no problems with intentions in many animals.

The issue is whether computers can do the things in the thought experiment without what can properly be called an intention on its part. It seems to be able to choose among available options and compute the best option and implement a plan of action and perform it despite the fact that it may not have the mental phenomenal content that people and animals who perform similar tasks have. Would that be enough to constitute intention? Can "intention" be defined loosely (so that it lacks for example a phenomenal content) but still maintain its close association with the phenomenon we attribute to our understanding of our own intentions? I'm not sure but it seems plausible to me that if the computer can do that it would have what can properly be called an intention.

Puzzle of the self-torturer revisted

One other thing I want to mention about the "puzzle" is that it assumes that pain is continuous and not noticeably discrete. However pain may have various threshold "steps" and experience of pain as it gradually increases may jump to the next step once it reaches certain thresholds. This would also need to be taken into account and it may be one objection raised to the possible rejoinder to my original response that the increments instead be in increases of pain levels (as opposed to external electric currents in the example).

Also see here for evidence of what I alluded to earlier in that blog about the psychological factors which come into evaluation of pain.


In 1968 Melzack and Kenneth Casey described pain in terms of its three dimensions: "Sensory-discriminative" (sense of the intensity, location, quality and duration of the pain), "Affective-motivational" (unpleasantness and urge to escape the unpleasantness), and "Cognitive-evaluative" (cognitions such as appraisal, cultural values, distraction and hypnotic suggestion).[40] They theorized that pain intensity (the sensory discriminative dimension) and unpleasantness (the affective-motivational dimension) are not simply determined by the magnitude of the painful stimulus, but “higher” cognitive activities (the cognitive-evaluative dimension) can influence perceived intensity and unpleasantness. Cognitive activities "may affect both sensory and affective experience or they may modify primarily the affective-motivational dimension. Thus, excitement in games or war appears to block both dimensions of pain, while suggestion and placebos may modulate the affective-motivational dimension and leave the sensory-discriminative dimension relatively undisturbed." (p. 432) The paper ends with a call to action: "Pain can be treated not only by trying to cut down the sensory input by anesthetic block, surgical intervention and the like, but also by influencing the motivational-affective and cognitive factors as well." (p. 435)

The old children's story of the frog in the pot who is slowly being boiled alive reminds me of this self torturer puzzle. The frog may suddenly feel a sharp rise in pain once some threshold (psychological or otherwise) is reached and jump right out instead of being boiled alive. That would seem realistic and explanatory and thus dissolve the puzzle of the self torturer as well.

Indeed there is some evidence from animal experiments that verify the threshold answer.

In 2002 Dr. Victor H. Hutchison, Professor Emeritus of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma, with a research interest in thermal relations of amphibians, said that "The legend is entirely incorrect!". He described how the critical thermal maximum for many frog species has been determined by contemporary research experiments: as the water is heated by about 2 °F, or 1.1 °C, per minute, the frog becomes increasingly active as it tries to escape, and eventually jumps out if the container allows it.[3][21]

Saturday, April 16, 2011

When is "enough is enough"?

I think we can all agree that we will never build a perfectly just society. Someone or group will always be at some level, disadvantaged unjustly even if the laws are all perfectly as good as they can be, social inequalities will remain potentially in the form of human imperfections. Humans will always be imperfect when it comes to the sense and practice of justice. Implicit attitudes, even barely perceptible "at the surface" can have big effects on the structure of society as Thomas Schelling and all his influenced subsequent work in the social sciences has shown. Institutions of injustice such as segregation can be de facto established, perpetuated and enforced and surprisingly hard to stop and rectify simply stemming from implicit attitudes that people have (without formal institutions supporting them) and may not even realize they have.

My question is, since there will always be some one or group that may be disadvantaged and the degree of harm done to this person or group may be specific to them in virtue of their basic constitutions such as sensitivity to injustices, when is it acceptable to demand drastic changes to society or even civil disobedience? If it is always acceptable then there will always be the possibility that some group may be permitted to disrupt society even drastically and there will be perpetual civil unrest. This question is obviously related to my previous posts on the relativity of harm and the seemingly impossibility of establishing just political or even social systems. I wish I could find a way to make more clear what I mean by these sets of ideas.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Puzzle of the self-torturer?

Look at this passage from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on dynamic choice.

Suppose someone — who, for reasons that will become apparent, Quinn calls the self-torturer — has a special electric device attached to him. The device has 1001 settings: 0, 1, 2, 3, …, 1000 and works as follows: moving up a setting raises, by a tiny increment, the amount of electric current applied to the self-torturer's body. The increments in current are so small that the self-torturer cannot tell the difference between adjacent settings. He can, however, tell the difference between settings that are far apart. And, in fact, there are settings at which the self-torturer would experience excruciating pain. Once a week, the self-torturer can compare all the different settings. He must then go back to the setting he was at and decide if he wants to move up a setting. If he does so, he gets $10,000, but he can never permanently return to a lower setting. Like most of us, the self-torturer would like to increase his fortune but also cares about feeling well. Since the self-torturer cannot feel any difference in comfort between adjacent settings but gets $10,000 at each advance, he prefers, for any two consecutive settings s and s+1, stopping at s+1 to stopping at s. But, since he does not want to live in excruciating pain, even for a great fortune, he also prefers stopping at a low setting, such as 0, over stopping at a high setting, such as 1000

This passage as stated states that the increments to be increased are of the devices settings (i.e. amount of electric current). But the "puzzle" seem to arise when we consider increments of degrees of pain.

But pain is dependent not simply on one factor such as external stimulation from electric currents. It is a function also of psychological factors. Psychological experiments over the years have shown that individual's pain tolerance and subjective evaluation of the degree of pain vary considerably based on the individual's state of mind at the time. People may experience more pain and tolerate more pain such as electric shocks or having their hand immersed in ice water simply by changing a state of mind either self-induced or by the experimenter or through some uninduced capricious change of the state of the mind. Thus the agent may experience two shocks with very small differences in electric current as drastically different in subjective pain.

So the agent may not be able to predict when his state of mind changes for the worse making him vulnerable to experience an intransitive and unbearable rise in pain in that incremental series of electric current. When it does happen it will be experienced as a pain that is noticeably greater than the pain resulting from the shock administered immediately before.

I think that many philosophical puzzles of rational choice such as Slote's "Satisficing maximizer" can also be solved by appealing to principles of unpredictability and context instability like I have here.

Ubiquitous fictionalism

In a previous post, I talked about the possibility of moral fictionalism and the skepticism this possibility may justify. But fictionalism is not restricted to the moral realm. All kinds of metaphysical fictionalism is possible and the live possibility that there is much truth to them is the history of philosophy itself which has always butted heads against our most common notions of what exists, even the most commonly acknowledged objects are not safe from the existence of good reasons against their existence. Many metaphysicians are monists, many are atomists, and some are even nihilists. All these positions often deny the existence of chairs, basketballs, cars, and even people and claim that they are mere fictions we conjure to make sense of our world. They often claim that normal objects we encounter daily are begotten through abstraction and are not really there, objectively, mind independently, in the sense we may think or assume they are.

Take monists. They believe that there is just one thing that really exist and usually that one thing they believe is just the whole cosmos or "blobject" (some priority monists believe that only one thing exists concretely while everything else is abstract while existence monists believe that nothing else exists exist for that one thing, whatever it is). Now monists give very good reasons for why they believe what they believe. They can show contradictions and inconsistencies in positing normal everyday objects such as chairs, basketballs, cars, persons, molecules, etc. Monists have summoned arguments from mereology and modern physics (Jonathan Schaffer's argument from quantum field theory e.g.) among other resources to argue their case.

Now take atomists. Many of these folks only believe in the existence of atoms, whatever they may be (quarks or maybe strings or something even more fundamental). All other objects are collections of atoms with some relationship holding among them and obtained through arbitrary abstractions and thus there existence is mind-dependent in a sense. Atomists also have good reason to argue their case.

(Pure) Nihilists don't believe in the existence of any object. Many of them believe that there is gunk all the way down and all the way up. Again, nihilists have good reasons for their beliefs and their beliefs are conflicting much like the other positions with pluralism, the common sense view that all everyday objects like chairs, cars, basketballs, persons, etc exist. They often point to contradictions and inconsistencies in the belief in common objects or in the belief in any object qua object in the way philosophers think of them as existing with their internal properties mind independently, etc.

So it might be the case that our belief that everyday objects like chairs, cars, basketballs, and people are mere fictions. And furthermore, our belief in atoms and the cosmos might be fictions. Furthermore, any belief that assumes, posits, and is built on such beliefs may be in turn fictions. Fictions multiply on other fictions and we would need to invent more and more fictions in ever more ingenious ways familiar to philosophical construction to make sense of our world in ad hoc ways just to keep things coherent. That ad hoc constructionism only to run into further problems down the road sounds like the history of philosophy! This would entail, if true, that we live in a world of our own creation in a profound sense, a world of our fictions with reality far different and weirder than we can imagine. This induces a very Taoist sensibility in me. Something exists, that it is The One, but we cannot know its exact nature except in very general, abstract and ineffable terms, and all conceptualizations on this The One goes wrong from the start seems like a Taoist's skepticist view.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Love of Wisdom

Often homes are built

Over an abyss

The structural supports of lies and fallacy

The philosopher, never remiss

In demolishing false security

With a wrecking ball of analysis

Watch the house of cards as it falls

Upon sounder base shall be built

The Chamber of hallowed halls

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Copy and Original

Jarrod Brown has a couple of posts on what copies and original mean in art and technology. I posted my alternate definition and some objections to his in the comments section. His criteria for copy-hood are as follows.

1. They are materially distinct from originals
2. They are the formal effects of originals (or originals are formal causes of copies)
3. They are logically associated
4. They resemble each other

I disagree with all of these criteria because I think there are counter examples to all. Let's start with the first. There are many ways to understand this. If I understand this first criteria correctly, it means something like a copy cannot be made of the same stuff or material as the original. Or it could just mean that they are not numerically identical meaning they just have to be at least two different things instead of one. I agree with the last interpretation but I think the first faces serious problems. For example, a statue made of clay can be destroyed by crushing it into a ball and then the ball may be fashioned back into the form of the statue. It seems to me that the statue was destroyed when it was crushed and that the subsequent sculpting of a statue from that same piece of clay is a copy even though it is made of the same piece of clay and may resemble it in form.

The second criterion faces the counter example I gave of causal loops showing that a painting e.g., may be the copy of another painting which in turn was a copy of it. I also gave the example of Eternal Recurrence which is supposed to show that there can be originals "all the way down" a causal line. These example also show that 3 cannot be true (if I understand 3 to mean that they are conceptually analytical of each other) because it shows that copies can exists independently of any original and an original can be caused by some earlier work which is also an original and that the two works are similar in resemblance to each other and materially distinct (either in the numerical or the made-of-the-same-stuff sense.

Finally the last criterion of resemblance "to a high degree" is problematic for the reason that there can be bad copies. I think most people have had the experience of using a copy machine only to have the copy turn out looking nothing like the original in that there were distortions, color changes, missing parts, etc. We can either call these copies "failed copies" or "bad copies." If they are bad copies as I think they are and not failed copies, it would be problematic for that criterion. The vagueness of "resemblance to a high degree" is also not desirable for the definition. Things may resemble on indefinite number and degree of criteria to something else. Resemblance is also perspective sensitive. For example, two photos may look very similar to one individual A and very different to another person B because the photos may have different saliently colored regions and if A is color blind, she will only see different shades of gray in those regions while A will see completely different colors and thus think the two photos not resemble.

I gave an alternative definition of copy as follows:

Object A is a copy iff its creation was intended as a copy of some object B (or maybe even an idea of such an object) and A does not (numerically) equal B.

I don't think this definition is susceptible to the counter examples but it may have its own problems. Consider DNA. DNA are copies of other DNA molecules and yet there was no intention in nature to copy (despite what IDers like to think).

Are DNA copies? Well yes. But I think there is an ambiguity in the word copy. Copy, as it is used for art and technology and writing etc, mean something different than copy in nature perhaps. The definition I gave is for copy in the former context while the later for copy in nature is more of a metaphorical usage of copy. I think paying attention to this difference in usage will not render my intentional definition problematic.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Dispositions and Vices and Virtues

(In this post I will be assuming for the dispositional account of virtues. Some dispositions are virtues, other are vices and some are prima facie neither)

Some dispositions (or collection of dispositions) may manifest itself either as a virtue or a vice depending on external circumstances out of the control of an agent. Take for example Aristotle's example of intelligence and courage. Being smart or brave can sometimes improve one's moral character but in other situations, make one worse as a person. You don't want your dictators to be smart nor courageous as that would magnify their evil. These are obvious and neutral examples of dispositions that can manifest in different morally relevant ways.

However, examples exist of people who had dispositions of what appeared under normal contexts to be clearly considered vices but used them to further good. Consider Oscar Schindler. This individual displayed profound greed, mendacity, cunning, hubris, and ruthlessness in his business dealings. However, his one character trait of being sympathetic to the children in concentration camps compelled him to eventually save more than a thousand of them. What is morally interesting is how he managed this.

He used his mendacity, cunning and ruthlessness, dispositions that normally are vices, to great effect in saving the children. He would have likely saved very few if any individuals had he not been as arrogant and condescending of his fellow Nazis as he was because he wouldn't have had the confidence in himself to pull off such a stunt. All of his vices were turned around by the circumstances into making his single virtue more efficacious. If Schindler had lived in the present time, he would perhaps have been a greedy business executive and fit the immoral mold common to that type. He might have been like an Eron executive or Madoff like person and (rightfully) despised. But due to circumstances outside of his control, he was given a golden opportunity to display his humanity. But such is a grace of god or pure luck and can't be to his credit.

My question is, If many of these dispositions normally considered vices Schindler had can be used to further good in certain contexts, then are all vices qua vices relative to contexts and are all virtues similarly contextually relative? Perhaps there are no absolute virtues and vices but all dispositions can be manifested either in a good way or not depending on what moral context is given. Some dispositions may simply be analytic virtues. Doubting their virtuous quality may simply be a matter of not understanding the concept, etc. But why is that? I happen to think there is at least a few absolute virtues that are always good to have (epistemic integrity being one).

There is a deeper problem with virtues. Perhaps some virtues are really collections of lower level dispositions interacting in a certain way together and not single dispositions and none of the lower level dispositions are obviously virtues themselves, or even worse, some of them may be commonly thought as vices. In other words, virtues are emergent properties of lower order properties which may themselves be amoral or even immoral. What if, for example, it is found out that integrity, generally recognized as a virtue, is really a particular combination of things like emotional intelligence and recalcitrance?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The value of philosophy

The best response I have heard to the question of why study philosophy, why study questions that have not been adequately answered for thousands of years matter, is given by Michael Sandel. "Because we live the answers everyday."

There are many values to studying the subject. I think the most important on are ethical reasons. But the common objections given include the "fact" that philosophy has not contributed to human knowledge and or human society's development. This is clearly wrong. Here's a list of all that philosophy has contributed in terms of knowledge both directly and indirectly (through methodology developed) and through social change.

Philosophy's contribution to our knowledge:

-Modern economics was first developed by the moral philosopher Adam Smith.

-Psychology, sociology political science all originated from the minds of philosophers.

-Modern work in logic was heavily influenced by philosophers. The truth table in logic e.g. was first seen in the work of a philosopher (1919 by Wittgenstein) which eventually lead to the electronic revolution of the 60s. The earliest development of modal logic is by Aristotle, C.I. Lewis, Ruth Marcus and Saul Kripke, all philosophers.

-Cybernetics, the science of regulatory systems was started by someone with a philosophy PhD (Norbert Weiner).

-Modern linguistics bases much of its work on formal semantics almost exclusively on the works of philosophers of language such as Frege, Russell, Kaplan, Montage, David Lewis and many others.

-The 2005 Nobel Prize for economics went to mathematician Robert Aumann who based his work on economic conventions on the work of David Lewis's notion of "common knowledge".

-The development of modern cognitive science, both its inception and developments within to this day to philosophers. much of decision theory have been developed by philosophers as

This is not mentioning all the knowledge developed in more traditionally understood philosophical areas.

To the shape of society and course of human history:

-Development of democratic theory

-Development of legal theory

-Various economic theories (capitalism, communism etc)

And so forth.

It's not only a myth that philosophy has not contributed to society, it seems to be one of those myths that's the opposite from the truth. Philosophy has had massive influence as my examples show.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

More pessimistic ethics and political philosophy

In an earlier post I gave some examples of when a hopeless situation in which internecine violence may likely result from seemingly innocuous situations (at least concerning the violation of rights and duties) such as mere intentions or avaricious use and abuse of the public commons. The realization of these situations seem to be a moral no man's land where morality fails to guide us and the situations may be seen as situations where all sides are permitted to destroy each other. There are no moral facts of the matter as to who is in the right and wrong etc.

But the examples I used was where there was an original sin, that is, either forming a credible intention to enslave others or the avaricious use and abuse of public commons. But the point may be generalized to include other kinds that have no original sin such as policies and institutions (either formal or informal) that are formed with good intentions and that have good reasons for their existence. Because all such public policies and institutions are imperfect, there are bound to be those who fall through the cracks and are unfairly hurt by even the best intentioned and reasonable policies.

Take the legal system itself. No matter how well intentioned and well constructed any legal system is, due to inherent epistemic and pragmatic limitations in any system, some will likely be unfairly treated (such as receive unfair sentences or even falsely convicted, etc). Some of those unfairly getting the shit end of the stick will be harmed worse than others.

From a contractarian perspective, in some sense these people may be seen as treated fairly if they would agree to the scheme of things in an original position; that is, they may voluntarily agree to the policies and institutions in place (and hence their results) because the benefits of such a system outweigh the small probability that they will be unfairly treated. When in fact they have been unfairly treated by the system, they have no right to complain if the system was operating as it was meant because they had tacitly agreed to the conception from that original position and must accept their fate if all means to vindicate them within the system has been exhausted even if they were still unfairly treated in the end.

However the damage done to someone who has been unfairly treated is relative and cannot be appreciated from an original position because the original position is by its nature blind to that plurality in perspective. I really don't know how to fix this fundamental problem with any political system.

Morality as we know it (useful fictions?)

Here's one way to look a limited anti-realism of morality (more like a skepticism of current systems) summarizing my views that is starting to look more plausible to me though I am still quite doubtful.

What if most of the ethics or morality we know in philosophy or common sense ethical reasoning are seriously shaped by our building of fictions based on ethical intuitions? That's not to say that necessarily these intuitions are wrong (error theory on these intuitions). Even if they are right these intuitions may be based on one or a few paradigm cases and though have some truth in them, small inaccuracies in the way morality is built up from them may magnify and cause ever more fictions to be built on top of earlier formulations. These fictions may in turn cause frictions with either each other or other aspects of what we know. That's not to say that harmonization of these fictions with each other and other aspects of our knowledge are not possible, it's just to say that any harmonization may be in some sense arbitrary and based on fictions.

So though we may possible eventually have a coherent and consistent moral system, it may be built on lies. The more elaborate, complex the society we live in, the more opportunity for differing intuitions. Novel situations and complex cultural milieus present more opportunities for intuitions to differ with each other since intuitions are a product of natural and cultural influences. When intuitions come in conflict we must invent fictions to harmonize them. The realization of moral luck and the truth of determinism may bring this idea out. (These are just two examples but I suspect many other notions in ethics such as rights may be susceptible to this kind of skepticism.)

As one example could it be that our intuitions regarding moral responsibility and especially contempt and its opposite, praise of moral character, are based on fictions we have of each others characters such as that these character traits are relatively permanent (maybe even across possible worlds) and rather consistent with other character traits of the individual? We may have invented conceptions of personhood as enbodying relatively permanent and consistent character traits based on justifying our practices of attributing blame and contempt, eg such as fictions regarding people's character or personality. It may also be based on the fiction of alternative possibilities assuming that it is a fiction (my point is that we don't know if determinism is true and so my calling it an invented fiction may be justified on that epistemic lacuna). As we know more about the world, we would have to come to ever more elaborate fictions to justify our practices or else risk not being able to justify them as they conflict either with each other or with other notions. If determinism is true, we may have to change our conceptions of what it means to be a person (i.e., come up with further fictions which in turn may or may not come into conflict with either other moral intuitions or what we will learn in the future about the world).

Let's say that one day we were to learn that the Nazis are very much like us. That is, that had most Nazis been raised in different environments like ours or we had been raised in theirs, they would have turned out very differently and not been subject to the contempt we have of them and may even be the objects of praise. Consider Hitler; it's possible that had he been raised differently, he might have turned out a good person. We may have invented a character type for him which is false and his fellow Nazis. Since many of our reasoning may be based on using paradigm cases of evil and these are our paradigms, many of our reasoning may be contaminated in a sense.

In fact, there is good evidence now that most people are not that different from Germans living in the 1930s. Since many of our paradigm cases of evil (as seen in examples of moral depravity) are Nazis, how will that square with the reality of Nazis being like us. We may have invented (at least implicitly) an evil aura or essence about Nazis. Further moral reasoning may be based on this fiction and thus be fictional themselves. It may be the case that Nazis displayed evil but it may also be the case that our vision of their souls as stained etc are not wholly justified in robust ways that is relevant to all our ethical beliefs implicit and explicit.

This is analogous to the fictions we sometimes invent (as the story goes) in mathematics such as inventing the fiction of sets, etc. Now it may the true that some of our “fictions” may actually turn out true in which case they would not be fictions but it seems that they could as well turn out to be fictions and the long history of ad hoc rationalizing and creating of fictions needed to form coherent pictures of either morality or mathematics may count against them as such. If they turn out true, that would be coincidental.

However, there may be moral facts out there. It's just that they may not square well at all with our moral common sense or reasoning as these maybe the products of our fiction building as well as our intuitions. Moral facts and a truthful moral theory may be far more nuanced and unrecognizable from all of our notions.

Some people may be worse than others in more deep ways than moral luck can damage. If we look at all the possible worlds in which a person inhabits, we may have a way to assess their moral worth by comparing people with each other. If person A turns out as a bad person in more of the possible worlds they inhabit than person B does, as measured by averaging out all finite subset's of possible worlds in which they inhabit, we may have an way of assessing their moral worth on some sense. But here we will have the usual problems with indeterminacy and weighting problems but that is where the problems should be located. The kind of anti-realism described here is not a complete anti-realism because it still leave open the possibility that there is a non fictional moral reality (facts of the matter) that can be made out of our intuitions and that our intuitions (at least some of them) are accurate or true. It merely suggests that the system(s) we all have now are fictions.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Original sin and why it's all hopeless

Imagine a nation of people, call it Eveville. They are a powerful nation with powerful military and are a notoriously cruel people who enjoy torturing their enemies and those under their subjugation. Now this nation is adjacent to another far more peaceful nation, called it Switzerland. Despite the fact that one is aggressive and the other is peaceful these two nations get on well and have forged close economic, cultural, political and social ties (this is made less unlikely by the fact that both countries may share the same religion, culture, language etc).

Eveville wants to invade, subjugate and enslave some small nation in another part of the world which we will call Utopia. However Eveville's evil intentions are found out by Utopians before it takes place. Utopians clearly have a right to protect themselves against such an attack and subsequent gross violation of their rights even if it resorts to deadly force. The freedom lost from slavery is worth dying and killing for I think most will agree. However the people of Utopia are peace-loving and lack the means and weaponry to adequately defend themselves in case of such an attack.

Through some black market dealings, the Utopians were able to attain a nuclear missile. But Unfortunately the only nuke they could get was a cheap one and thus not accurate and it has a .5 chance of exploding in Switzerland.

Let's also say that the Utopians have tried all possible means to 1. resolve the issue diplomatically, 2. tried all means at getting international support to solve the crisis and to shield them, 3. use of threats, 4. tried all means to obtain either less deadly but equally effective weapons or more accurate weapons. All these attempts have failed and they are left with the last resort: either launch the bomb, their only means of defense that will no doubt kill hundreds of thousands of Evevillians if hitting its target, or become slaves to them. Let's also say that if they launch the missile, the aggressive war waged by Eveville is guaranteed to end with a defeat for them. Let's also imagine that the Utopians have only a small window of opportunity to launch because Eveville has nuclear ability and is about to take out the only means of defense available to Utopians through a strike on their only nuclear stockpile but that Utopians have preemptive justification through credible threat from Eveville that they will invade and can now strike at Eveville.

Switzerland obvious does not want to be nuked and if Utopians launch, there's a 50% chance they will be the one's who get fucked. Switzerland is a neutral country and though against Eveville's intentions to enslave others, do not wish to try and force them to stop their practices of enslaving others because that will put them at deadly a conflict with their neighbors.

Since the Swiss are not involved in the threat to Utopians, and are (indirectly) threated by them despite the fact that Utopians do not mean to, it would seem that the Swiss have a right to defend themselves against being potentially attacked by a nuke. They may even be permitted to use deadly force against the Utopians to prevent them from defending themselves against the Evevillians by using the only means which happens to also seriously risks the lives of others.

So now we have a situation, and a tragic one indeed if there ever was one, in which two peaceful nations may, in some weird sense, be permitted to attack each other and commit massive atrocities against each other through no fault of either countries (rather it all stems from the fault of the Evevillians). Knowing that the Swiss may try and prevent them from defending themselves through force, the Utopians may now justly attack the Swiss in turn and vice versa.

Moreover, since the Swiss and the Evevillians are close allies, are the Evevillians now justified in attacking Utopia on the reason that they are protecting their allies from harm? Notice that the original sin in which this vortex of spiraling potential violence spiraled out of is not an actual violation of rights but simply an intention (to enslave and subjugate a people).

I have exaggerated the details obviously but I think many real world situations not only in international law of peoples but also more generalized in common everyday moral situations are analogous to this. That is, from an original sin, we have magnifier effects that affects everyone. As the old Jewish saying goes, when you save a man, you save the whole human race but this seems to be the converse, when you harm a man, you harm the whole human race (or at least many others not apparently associated with that man).

I think there are many real examples of instances where no apparent rights were initially violated or even things obviously wrong committed but that some actions responsible by some peoples created situations in which it was inevitable two groups of people would come to commit massive atrocities against each other and furthermore, it is not clear if any principle of justice will be capable of having a say in the matter.

Consider the ethnic conflicts in Darfur during the early part of the 21st century. Most scholars of the region consider that these ethnic conflicts occurred because the people in the region experienced the worst drought in their recorded history. Moreover, the reason for that drought is mostly agreed to be global warming caused by the carbon emissions mostly from wealthy nations. Due to this drought, many people had significantly reduced agricultural productivity and many groups that relied on raising livestock had to encroach on the land of other groups to maintain their livestock and feed their own people.

Many of the wealthiest nations that have contributed the most to global warming also were the ones that denied these groups assistance when they asked for it before it all came to violent conflict. They argued that they were not obligated to give and offer assistance (which they weren't at least under current international law). This example is slightly different than the one involving Utopians but there is an underlying thread. 1, that often violence spirals out of control and 2. that what makes them spiral in the first place, an original sin, may not actually be a outright obvious rights violation; it may merely be the credible threat of or even less obvious, the gluttonous use and abuse of a public commons (natural resources in the Darfur case) e.g. But the underlying theme is similar; that sometimes hopeless situations where massive atrocities are committed by groups against each other and there is no moral fact of the matter as to who is in the right and who is in the wrong among certain groups and how to begin to solve such a problem. It's just a sad situation for all.