Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Defending the New Natural Law's Incommensurability Thesis

New Natural Law (NNL) usually gets a bad rap from certain Thomists due to its embracing the "incommensurability thesis." I'll first explain the basic outline of NNL. I'll then explain the incommensurability thesis, and present an argument for it that I find quite convincing. Finally, I'll defend incommensurability from a common objection, and actually show how the objection favors incommensurability. Hopefully my defense will help illustrate the intuitiveness of the thesis.

First, a little explanation of NNL. NNL derives specific moral/practical norms by positing two things:
  • (1) A set of basic goods--things that are intrinsically good/valuable/worthwhile for humans to pursue. So, they are always "worthy of pursuit." In other words, they are always "to-be-pursued." Also, the basic goods can make immediately intelligible one's action, and are thus reasons for action. This is very important: The basic goods are the fundamental reasons for action; the fundamental "building blocks" of practical rationality. Examples include knowledge, life, friendship, aesthetic experience, and excellence in play.

    Let's consider an example. For instance, suppose you ask me, "Why are you running?" and I say, "To help my heart get stronger," to which you reply, "Why do you want to make your heart stronger?" If my answer is, "For the sake of my health, that I might live and live to the full," then this is a "question-stopper;" you can immediately see why I might want to do this, and thus health is a reason for acting that makes my action immediately intelligible; it immediately "make sense." This is because acting for the sake of someone's health is intrinsically valuable and worth doing.

    This is the first part of NNL: There is a set of basic goods, as defined above.
  • (2) A set of principles of practical reasonableness--these are principles or rules that tell us how it is reasonable to respond to instances of the basic goods. Examples include the golden rule, the prohibition against directly intending to harm a basic good for the sake of something else, rules against arbitrarily discriminating against the goods of certain people, the rule of being reasonably efficient in how one pursues one's plans, etc.
So, we start out with a list of things that are intrinsically good for us to pursue, and then there are rules that tell us how it is reasonable for us to go about pursuing them. The list of goods, in conjunction with the rules for practical reasonableness, ultimately tell us what actions are permissible as well as what actions are obligatory. They tell us what we may permissibly do, as well as what we ought to do. These rules are taken to be constitutive of practical reasonableness; they are supposed to follow from the very nature of practical rationality.

Much more needs to be said here obviously. Many books have been written. However, I don't need to get too much into the details of this for the sake of my post here. That's just the basic idea.

Now, one of the ideas about the basic goods that motivates some of the principles of practical reasonableness is the incommensurability thesis. Here is the thesis of incommensurability:
  • (INC) For each basic good x, it is not the case that x offers all the goodness ("to-be-pursuedness") of some other basic good and more.
See, for instance, Christopher Tollefsen's helpful paper. NNL theorists use the incommensurability thesis to present what I think is one of the strongest arguments against consequentialism of any sort.

Now, the motivation for the incommensurability thesis, as I've stated it, is that it seems that each good is beneficial to humans in a way which none of the other goods is. It has a unique type of goodness. Health is good for us in a way that knowledge is not, which is good for us in a way that friendship is not, and so on. If on the other hand we supposed the contrary of incommensurability, then some basic good x would offer all the goodness and more of some other basic good, say y. But then it's hard to see how y could make one's action immediately intelligible (which is part of the definition of a basic good). After all, if someone says, "I did this action for the sake of y," then in some circumstances you can reasonably say, "Well, you should have acted for the sake of x instead, since it offers all the goodness and more of y. So why didn't you?" In which case y would not be a basic good, since acting for the sake of y should make one's action immediately intelligible, and in this case it doesn't. But that's a contradiction, since we assumed y is a basic good. So the incommensurability thesis is true.

Now, one objection is that it seems we should be able to prioritize the goods. Religion is more important than life, life is more important than knowledge, knowledge is more important than fun, and so on. This seems plausible to some. But, if NNL is right, none of these can be "weighed" against the others, since none of them offers all the goodness of any of the others and more. So, the objection goes, if incommensurability holds, then we can't prioritize the goods.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Link: Congressional Emotivism

Was reading about this story from a while back (don't ask me how I got there). Apparently the House passed a "resolution of disapproval" against Rep. Joe Wilson. Kind of fun to read the actual resolution itself:

"Whereas the conduct of the Representative from South Carolina was a breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House: Now, therefore, be it resolved that the House of Representatives disapproves of the behavior of the Representative from South Carolina, Mr. Wilson, during the joint session of Congress held on Sept. 9, 2009."

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Link (and Accompanying Rant): Two Years Among the Liberal Theologians

Interesting article on one person's experiences in a well-regarded contemporary Catholic theology department. I'm not surprised by the desires of professors to appear edgy and controversial at the expense of clarity in faithfully expressing Church teaching. (In fact, practically anything liberal theologians say anymore has lost its shock value in virtue of its banality and mundaneness.) I expect this from any contemporary mainstream theology department, Catholic or otherwise.

Friday, November 6, 2015

External Reasons: A Natural Law Response to Williams

In my last post I criticized Bernard Williams' rather Humean argument in "Internal and External Reasons" for arguing that external reasons can't explain action. As a follow up, I wanted to post my paper I wrote for the meta-ethics class I'm taking where I criticize further Williams' argument against externalism, and at the same time build up a natural law account of reasons and practical rationality in opposition to Williams. Here it is!

                      In “Internal and External Reasons,” Bernard Williams presents an argument for thinking that external reasons do not exist, and thus all external reasons statements are false.[1] In this paper I will do three things. First, I will explain what Williams understands internal reasons and external reasons to be. I will then explain Williams’ argument against external reasons. Finally, I will attempt to give some defense of external reasons by critiquing Williams’ argument.

                      The general form of a reasons statement is “A has reason to do F in circumstances C.” Williams aims to show that statements of this form are only ever true on an internal interpretation. While Williams does not seem to give a definition of internal reasons statements, he does lay out what seems to be a necessary condition on internal reasons statements. He says that any internal interpretation of a reasons statement must “display a relativity of the reason statement to the agent’s subjective motivational set,” which we shall call “S.”[2] Roughly then, internal reasons for an agent are dependent on what is in the agent’s subjective motivational set.[3]

                      Williams also lays down as a necessary condition on internal reasons that they can be discovered by deliberative/practical reasoning.[4] While Williams does not explicitly define what deliberative or practical reasoning is, he specifies his conception of deliberative/practical reasoning via example. In particular, he says that practical reasoning includes means/end reasoning about the most preferable way of satisfying a desire, temporal ordering of when to satisfy which desires, determining which desires one is most interested in satisfying, and determining what would constitute satisfaction of one’s desires. So, this condition amounts to saying if A has an internal reason to F, A must be able to motivate herself to F by a process of reasoning of this sort (from S).[5]

                      It is clear then that Williams is working with an idea of internal reasons that ties them closely to an agent’s current subjective motivational set. It is also clear that he is working with a “thin” notion of practical rationality. Since Williams doesn’t explicitly define what he takes rational deliberation to be, it is difficult to precisely state what this “thin-ness” amounts to. However, roughly speaking, Williams’ account of rationality is “thin” insofar as, on his view, a decision will count as rational to the extent that it could be concluded to by a process of deliberation starting from one’s desires and satisfying certain (relatively weak) formal constraints.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Bernard Williams on Internal Reasons (Contra Natural Law)

Here is a short precis I wrote for my meta-ethics class about Bernard Williams' argument for internalism about reasons. Internalism about reasons is, roughly, the Humean-ish idea that an agent has a reason to act a certain way only if it is somehow grounded in the desires of the agent. This is directly contrary to the natural law view, according to which what is reasonable to do or not to do is independent of the desires of the agent, and thus reasons are independent of an agent's desires:

In “Internal and External Reasons,” Bernard Williams presents an argument for thinking there is a problem with external reasons statements.[1]
1.    If something R can be a reason for action, then R can be a reason for someone A’s acting on a particular occasion O. [Premise]
2.    If R can be a reason for A’s acting on a particular occasion O, then R can figure in an explanation of A’s acting in O. [Premise]
3.    So, if R can be a reason for action, then R can figure in an explanation of A’s acting in O. [1,2 HS]
4.    If R can figure in an explanation of A’s acting in O, then R cannot be an external reason. [Premise]
5.    So, if R can be reason for action, then R cannot be an external reason. [3,4 HS]
6.    If R cannot be an external reason, then R is an internal reason. [Premise]
7.    So, if R can be a reason for action, then R is an internal reason. [5,6 HS][2]
Hence, the argument establishes that the only coherent notion of a reason for action is an internal reason for action, i.e., one which is relative to an agent’s subjective motivational set S. For now, let us grant premises 1 and 6. I’d like to think about premises 2 and 4 a bit. My point will be that, depending the sense of ‘explanation’ here, either one or the other premise will be implausible.
                      First, let us consider the interpretation of explanation where an explanation of an action is something that (directly) motivates someone to do that action. In this sense, maybe we should accept 4. For maybe it is only one’s desires, or at least something closely bound up with one’s desires, that could explain an action in the sense of being able to directly motivate it.[3]
                      However, in this case, I think that premise 2 is implausible; for I don’t think that a reason for acting in an occasion has to be able to motivate you. Rather, a reason for performing P in circumstance C is some state of affairs or consideration that could make performing P in C practically intelligible.[4] And something can do this without being able to motivate. Let me explain.
                      If you found me in a chair stabbing myself in the leg you would ask me why I’m doing what I’m doing. If I said to you, “I just desire to,” this wouldn’t really answer your question. There is still a clear sense in which what I’m doing is unintelligible, and wouldn’t make sense even if I obeyed some bizarre psychological laws which led me to “just desire” to stab myself in the leg. If however I said, “I am scared there is a tiny alien in my leg, and I need to get it out so it doesn’t kill me,” I will at least have described some state of affairs where, when my action is seen in light of this, my action does at least become intelligible (even if, in all likelihood, it is still utterly ridiculous and unreasonable). Such a state of affairs is a reason for acting a certain way.
                      But if this is a correct account of what reasons for action are, then 2 seems false. For it might be that a state of affairs S could make doing P intelligible, and thus counts as a reason for doing P, but my subjective motivational set makes me completely unable to even take S into consideration, and thus makes S unable to motivate me. This happens all the time. For instance, suppose I have no desire or motivation to quit smoking. However, the fact that smoking greatly increases my chances of dying certainly could make the action of quitting intelligible (i.e., if someone appealed to this fact when justifying their choosing to quit). So the fact that smoking greatly increases my chances of dying is a reason to quit. Yet, again, it might be that it couldn’t motivate me on any occasion.
                      All of this is to say that, on the interpretation of ‘explain’ where it is roughly equivalent to ‘motivate’, premise 2 seems implausible. On the other hand, if ‘explain’ means ‘make intelligible’, then premise 2 seems true, but premise 4 seems false, at least if reasons for action are, as I’ve explained, states of affairs which make acting certain ways practically intelligible.

[1] The “problem” is either that they are false, incoherent, or are misleading (and presumably should instead be rephrased as internal reasons statements). See the last paragraph of p. 297.
[2] This is my interpretation of Williams’ argument at the bottom left paragraph of p. 295. I may be misinterpreting Williams, but this seemed to me the best way to make his argument valid.
[3] I am assuming the sense of ‘can’ here means something along the lines of ‘is physically possible’.
[4] This account is largely adapted from G.E.M. Anscombe’s book ‘Intention’, sec. 37.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Ineffability: A Serious Threat to Ambitious Metaphysics

Consider a squirrel on a tree. There are things we can represent that are simply not within the capacity of the squirrel's mental structure to represent. For instance, we can represent complex mathematical truths about the shapes and physical relations obtaining in the squirrel's environment. Despite the fact that all these facts are "happening" right in his face, our little squirrel hasn't the slightest clue about them. And it's not just that he's ignorant about them like someone who doesn't know math or physics; it's that it's completely beyond a mind like his to even represent things like facts and propositions. They are completely ineffable to the squirrel.

That all seems fair enough. But here's where things start to become worrisome: Why shouldn't we think that we are in relation to some possible being in the same way that the squirrel is related to us? (Or, if you believe in God, why not think that we are related to some actual being in the same way that the squirrel is related to us?) In other words, why not think that there are some aspects of reality that are completely ineffable to us, even if maybe they are effable with respect to some other, more advanced being? Why not think that there could be some species of creature who could comprehend things that are completely beyond our mind's capacity to even represent?

This is not a new argument or anything. See for instance Ch. VI of Thomas Nagel's book 'The View From Nowhere'. Moreover, I'm sure many of us have thought of this possibility before. But do we really consider the implications of this argument? I know that I've thought of this before, but haven't drawn anything of significance from this. However, I'm realizing now that this is a very important and deep question.

Note that this view seems to go hand in hand with the idea of metaphysical realism, which holds that there is an objectively existing world that is in some sense totally (or at least mostly) mind-independent. If you hold that view, it seems rather strange to think that somehow all of reality, of necessity, must be in principle comprehensible to us. And if reality were in its totality to be comprehensible to us it would be a rather strange coincidence. Moreover, there seems to be nothing particularly special about us. We are on a continumm with non-sentient creatures, insects, and squirrels on one side and with angels and God on the other (and probably a lot of things in between). Hence, it seems quite likely, on realism, that we are in a situation similar to that of the squirrel: There are aspects of reality which are simply beyond the representational capacities of our minds.

But then there is trouble. Interestingly, those who have high hopes for metaphysics tend to be metaphysical realists, but that very same metaphysical realism tends to undermine the high hopes for metaphysics. For example, suppose we characterize metaphysics as the study of the most fundamental or general aspects of reality. Suppose moreover that we are metaphysical realists. Then, probably, there are aspects of reality which are simply beyond the representational capacities of our minds. But in that case, for all we know, the most fundamental or general aspects of reality are within the sphere of things that are completely ineffable to us. So there is reason to doubt the possibility of having any substantial metaphysical knowledge.

In fact, maybe by a similar though distinct argument we can get a stronger conclusion. We have some reason to think that as minds become more advanced on the "great chain of being" that I've described, they become able to represent more (and more) fundamental aspects of reality than those before them. Higher beings have concepts that are more fundamental than those of the minds on lower levels. (Technically, they have concepts of things that are more fundamental.) And they probably have more of them. For instance, some lower animals can probably represent things like 'cause' and 'object' and even 'agent', but it seems doubtful whether bees could do the same (or to the same degree). But in that case, granted we are probably pretty far from the high end of the continuum, probably the most fundamental aspects of reality are only representable by beings on the higher end. So, probably, we cannot represent the most fundamental aspects of reality. So, probably, ambitious metaphysics is hopeless.

This might seem like a fun philosophical puzzle, but actually it is rather important, because if I sit down and ask myself whether I really think metaphysical realism is true, I am with utter and literal sincerity inclined to say, "Yes." And if I sit down and ask myself whether I really think some aspects of reality are ineffable for the reasons described, I am with utter and literal sincerity inclined to say, "Yes." And, to bring the trilemma to completion, I have high hopes for metaphysics and sincerely think it is essential to truly understanding the world.

What to do then? Does the argument against substantial metaphysics work? What are the implications for metaphysics and other areas of philosophy depending on which way one goes? How might different views solve the issues here?  These are interesting questions. Since I've been thinking about this stuff for a class I'm taking, I'll probably have a chance to write a term paper on it. I have inklings about where we might go, but I have no clear answer at the moment.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Link: Amazing Philosophy Interviews with Bryan Magee

I just wanted to share a very special link with any readers who happen upon my blog.

Several years ago (probably about five or so years ago) I worked as a mascot for Liberty Tax Service in southern California. At the same time I was going to community college, and I had decided by this point that I wanted to study philosophy. I had only begun to learn about analytic philosophy. While waving a sign dressed up in a statue of liberty costume can be fun at first, after several hours one might feel a need for intellectual stimulation. Hence, I would download philosophy talks from several different sources, and one of them was here.

There are many full-length interviews on this Youtube channel, all available for free. They each consist of a dialogue between Bryan Magee and one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century. They are very interesting, and are especially helpful in the case that one is not already familiar with the concepts being discussed (though even then they are still fun to listen to). If you're not familiar with some area of philosophy they can give you a quick crash-course on the topic. I really recommend checking them out. Here is one I remember enjoying a lot, with A.J. Ayer talking about logical positivism. One of the best lines is when Magee asks, "What do you think was the biggest issue with logical positivism?" and Ayer replies, "Well, it was all false." (Part 4, 6:26)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Paul Weithman on Room for Religion in Politics

I recently picked up Paul Weithman's book, 'Religion and the Obligations of Citizenship'. This is a topic which has been very interesting to me in the past. My understanding is that Weithman is very studied in Rawls and comes at politics from a left-leaning Christian perspective. I've wanted to learn more about this perspective lately, especially as I find myself more open than ever to learning from this point of view. Here's a quote I liked at the very beginning:

"I began this book hoping to make room in the theory of liberal democratic citizenship for saints and heroes of the religious left, such as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King. I was troubled by theories which seemed to imply that such people violate their civic duties by engaging in religiously motivated activism or by putting forward exclusively religious arguments. I was also troubled by the thought that theories which do seem to accommodate them do not do so in the right way. Much to my surprise, I felt driven to different answers about religion's role in democratic politics than those I had previously accepted and to a much less moralized view of citizens' proper relations to one another."

So on a Rawlsian picture of political debate, it is somehow illegitimate of citizens to appeal to religious reasons not shared by the rest of one's political community (at least, that is my understanding of how it works in 'A Theory of Justice'). In other words, if one bases one's political views solely or primarily on religious grounds, then one is to some degree being a bad citizen.

But this seems implausible. For one thing, it seems unable to accommodate many heroes of the left who were deeply religious. For instance, MLK is a particularly good example of how a citizen should engage in public discourse, yet the bulk of his arguments and rhetoric were extremely religious.

It seems instead that what really matters then is whether the views which are concluded to on the basis of the religious arguments are themselves good ones. You might respond that what is important is that the religiously motivated political views have good independent arguments (though I worry about this proposal). However, even in that case, the mere fact that some people hold those views based primarily on religious arguments will not be enough to discount those citizens' holding them. And after all, some religions might be true; in that case, it seems their canons are certainly relevant to political discussion! (If you say none of them are, then it might make sense to say they should be discounted in political discourse; but this would seem to itself be a "religiously motivated" political view.)

If I recall from my reading long ago, Michael Sandel makes a very closely related argument in his own book, 'Liberalism and the Limits of Justice'. The point about heroes of the religious left seems to me to be a very serious problem as regards certain liberal political theories on the proper relation between religion and politics; a decisive counter-example, if you will.

Of course, probably one of the biggest motivations for espousing the Rawlsian type of view here is to rule out things like religious fundamentalism (in the American context, specifically Christian fundamentalism seems to be a relevant worry). However, that can be much better accomplished by simply pointing out that fundamentalism is bad ethics, bad science, and frankly bad religion. There is no need to argue against certain specific politico-religious views by arguing against politico-religious views in general; indeed, that seems to be a big mistake, as the MLK case shows. One simply must engage with religious views on the basis of whether they and their entailments are right or not.

With all of that said, I'm very interested in seeing what a political philosophy of the religious left might look like; one which doesn't incorporate, say, Rawlsian ideas about religion and public reason into the equation. I'm very excited to read further on in Weithman's book.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Greg Cavin on Bayes' Theorem and Miracles

I wrote most of this post several months ago when my friend Calum Miller came to southern California for a semester abroad. Unfortunately, I simply never got around to finishing it up. Hence, this post comes about five or six months late. However, I still think it's worth posting, in case someone watches the video or comes upon the type of fallacy that I suspect goes into the argument. Here's the post:

A couple weeks ago I went to a debate between my friend Calum Miller and philosopher Greg Cavin on the Resurrection of Jesus. The video can be found here. Cavin's opening speech on Bayes starts at (6:00). He gets into his arguments again at (13:40). In this post I'll discuss a small part of Cavin's opening speech.

At the beginning, Cavin claims that he will show that it is "virtually 100% certain that no miracles ever occur."

Greg Cavin formulates the argument in terms of an assessment of a comparison between probabilities. While Cavin goes into a ton of mathematical detail that I suspect could be simplified to get to the main point, a little bit of it is probably necessary. He formulates the argument in terms of the Odds Form of Bayes' Theorem.

In general, the Odds Form of Bayes' Theorem is as follows. For any events A, B, and D:

P(A|D)/P(B|D) = P(D|A)/P(D|B) * P(A)/P(B)

Cavin comes up with a partition of probability space which is exhaustive and exclusive. In other words, at least one of the following hypotheses holds and if one holds then the others do not.

  • M: At least one miracle has, had, or will occur in the universe.
  • L: The laws of the sciences as these are currently formulated in standard reference works, without any supernatural non-interference proviso, are true and are laws of nature in their restricted domains.
  • (¬M & ¬L): Neither M nor L hold. 
With respect to L, what it is saying is that if you have a law of science 'S,' then a statement of the law will just be of the form: "For all times, all places, S," rather than "Except for the intervention of some supernatural force, for all times, all places, S." In other words, laws of science lack the underlined "proviso."

M and L are taken to be incompatible because if a miracle occurs, i.e. if M is true, then that entails the failure of at least one "un-provisoed" law of science at some time and place, whereas L entails all "un-provisoed" laws of science hold at all times and places. Cavin defines the evidence E with respect to which we will evaluate these probabilites as follows (27:00):

  • E: The total evidence, which is a combination of T & C, where T and C are understood as follows:
  • T: All of the traces (call them Ti) of miracles. These are all of the pieces of evidence people could take to provide evidence for a miracle.
  • C: All of the confirmation instances (call them Ci) of the laws of science. These are all of the pieces of evidence people could take to provide evidence for the various scientific laws.
The partitioning of probability space.

Applying Bayes' Theorem to the argument at hand, this is the Ratio of Posterior Probabilities of L vs M:

P(L|E)/P(M|E) = P(E|L)/P(E|M) * P(L)/P(M)

In other words, the left hand side compares the likelihood of L given the evidence with the likelihood of M given the evidence.

Now, a crucial part of Cavin's argument is in calculating the ratio P(E|L)/P(E|M). This is done by calculating probabilities of all of the Tgiven L and M and calculating the probabilities of all the Ci given L and M. If these are lower on M than they are on L, then P(E|L) will be higher than P(E|M). His official argument here is from (31:00) to (34:00), but I asked him a question later that gets to the same point.

After the talk, I asked Cavin why he thought M could not explain C and T as well as L could. In other words, why are, say, the confirmation instances of science less likely given that miracles have occurred than if L holds? He said, "Well, if I told you, 'This is a desk,'  what would that explain? Not much. How can you make any predictions from that? So, likewise, how can the proposition that at least one miracle holds explain anything? It could hardly have any predictive or explanatory power." Of course, that seems true. If the only sentence you knew to be true were "At least one miracle occurs," then you wouldn't be able to predict much, just as you couldn't predict much from just knowing "This is a desk." Hence, the argument goes, P(E|M) is very low.

However, it's a little bit misleading to put things this way. P(E|M), strictly speaking, isn't defined in terms of how much you can predict from the single proposition that at least one miracle occurs. This is clear after considering some very basic probability theory.

First, note that we can always define P(M) as P(MA) + P(M∩¬A) for any event A. This can clearly be seen by the following diagram:

P(M) = P(MA) + P(M∩¬A)
A is marked out in dark blue.
¬A is marked out in light blue.

Suppose that 'A' denotes some hypothesis, maybe the hypothesis 'The laws of nature almost always but not always hold.' Then the probability that some miracle happens is equal to the probability that some miracle happens and A holds plus the probability that some miracle happens and A does not hold. Again, P(M) = P(MA) + P(M∩¬A).

From this we can infer: P(E|M) = P(E|MA) + P(E|M∩¬A). Now, you might still think that this is lower than P(E|L) for various reasons. But you certainly couldn't infer it from the type of argument I sketched above. That would be much too easy.

Maybe I am misrepresenting what Cavin said. I hope I'm not. But if I am, let's just say that if someone were to argue in the way I represented Cavin as arguing, then they would be committing a fallacy.

There were many other interesting issues that came up during the debate, such as the likelihood of the laws of nature holding most of the time given theism, and these deserve attention. But for now I think it's worth noting that Cavin's argument doesn't go through as easily as it might have seemed.