Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Jorge Ferrer on Anglo Ethical Theory

I sat down for coffee with Dr. Jorge Ferrer, a bioethicist who studied at the Vatican, and we ended up having a nice chat about utilitarianism, Peter Singer, and related topics. Jorge made some observations about utilitarianism from a Latin point of view that I found interesting. On the one hand the criticism is that utilitarianism puts too much weight on the individual and the individual's acts. On the other hand, the criticism is that in restricting public judgements to public acts (Mill discusses this more explicitly in On Liberty), the moral stature of the individual is dropped from consideration. The idea that there is no element of classical "virtue theory" in Anglo ethics reflects, perhaps, differences in the way the relationship between the individual and society is conceived. This connects with the criticism that too much weight is put on individual actions. But in addition to these Aristotelean elements there is also a greater sense of fatalism that reflects the Catholic element in Latin thought. In any event these observations from the Latin point of view certainly help to turn one's thinking in some interesting directions about ethical theory.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Notes on Nous

The Sceptics (with a capital "S," that is the classical Sceptics) argued that knowledge was impossible. This is the opposite of the Protagorean relativist position that one cannot have a false belief, since judgements about the world are entirely internal to the judger. Basically the Sceptics are realists about the truth (an interesting distinction between classical Scepticism and Cartesian scepticism, which is motivated by the same kind of internalist view of knowledge held by Protagoras). Thus the problem is that perception requires judgement, and judgement is corrigible. Note the distinction between sensation (a prereflective experience of leafy, green, big, rustling, etc.) and perception ("I see a tree."). The big fish here is the idea that perception (and by extension thinking in general) involves "bringing sensations under concepts," as this goes to the heart of Cartesian, Kantian, Fodorian, and other versions of nativism, the view that mental representation requires some a priori conceptual structure, and related claims that, for example, only beings with language are capable of genuine perception (e.g. Chomsky) (and if you've read other parts of this blog you know that I think that this sort of view is profoundly mistaken).
Aristotle introduces the notion of nous as an antidote to Scepticism. Some genuine examples of knowledge, Aristotle argues, are not products of sensation plus judgement, but rather are produced by sensation ("experience" is more intuitive and brings out the empiricist bent of Aristotle's thinking) directly. This circumvents the Sceptical objection that we have no "metalogic" with which to check the judgements involved in belief formation: noetic beliefs are formed prereflectively. This is surely better than the Kantian approach: a nativist has to argue that animals and babies don't know anything if they can't bring their experience under concepts, which seems to involve a covert equivocation on the meaning of the word "knows" (since animals and babies know lots of things when we're not doing philosophy!), and if nativism means anything significant it has to be that conceptual structure cannot be explained with natural history and learning. Indeed the nativists tend to admit this and even make a virtue of it, Descartes and Kant holding that conceptual structure distinguishes rational minds from physical phenomena, Fodor admitting that to accept his view we must accept that cavemen had the concept of airplanes, and Chomsky insisting for many years that evolutionary explanations could never explain the emergence of language (even though evolutionary approaches straightforwardly show how "innate" structures can be accounted for naturalistically). Final pregnant thought (brainchild or wind egg, you decide): noetic approaches to perception may be a useful component of eliminativist approaches to mental representation.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Plato on Freedom

If we take the point that in order for a person to be free there must be a person, then maybe Plato can't give us an intelligible account of freedom. Plato says that our capacity to be rational frees us from the bondage of the animal passions. As animals (as things), we are subjected to contingent cause-and-effect relations, but it is the rational capacity that makes it possible for us to break these chains. The problem is that to the extent that one is rational (logical), one is identical to all other logical beings. There isn't one mathematics for you, another one for me. In a world of perfectly rational beings, there would be no individuals, as nothing would distinguish one perfectly logical mind from another. In fact I read Plato himself as asserting that there is only one mind. The material world is divisible wholes and parts, the formal world is a unity; one cannot detach part of mathematics from the rest.
It is bad enough that "free" in Plato's mouth just means "free to follow logical entailments," but maybe the situation is even worse: maybe there are no persons, as logical beings, to the extent that they are logical, cannot be distinguished one from another. Thus there are no agents about whom we might say that they are free. It looks like Sartre has exactly the same problem, arrived at by radically different means: to the extent that we are pure negation, we are perfectly homogeneous. If neither Plato nor Sartre can give us coherent accounts of persons, neither can give us coherent accounts of freedom.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

My Next to Last Word on Fate

I imagine that my vast and fervid readership is getting a bit fatigued by this detour into the topic of fate. I understand better now that it is a very hard problem to motivate. When one first has it pointed out to them that a sentence about the future, say "Socrates will drink wine at the party tonight," has a truth value (it's not neither true nor false, nor both true and false, and saying the truth value can "change" is the weirdest claim of all), it can seem as if this is a fact, true now, about the future. In philosophy class one can get any number of people to get the intuition that this demonstrates that the future is inevitable, and it's a cool philosophy "parlor trick," as Hume would say (like scepticism). But on reflection it appears the very paradigm of a pseudo-problem: yes, the sentence describing the future act has a truth value, because in the future Socrates will or will not drink wine at the party. It in no way follows from this that Socrates was somehow caused, determined, constrained to act as he did. It's a mere tautology that "The future will be as it will be," and this has no implication for the freedom or lack thereof of our actions. God's foreknowledge is another version of the same story: at first God's foreknowledge seems to underwrite a strong intuition that the future is fated, but on reflection we come to understand that this alleged fact, even if true, still doesn't mean that we don't act freely. So the alleged existence of facts about the future does not demonstrate fate.
There is one possible way to extend this discussion, though. According to the version of Platonic realism espoused by Alvin Plantinga, the actual world includes mind-independent, matter-independent, eternally unchanging, transcendental entities. These most famously include properties ("universals"), but also states of affairs, essences, and various other beasts including propositions. A metaphysical distinction (a "type-token" distinction) is drawn between propositions and sentence-tokens, which are worldly things. Platonic entities, on this view, may play a causal role in the material world (Plato himself thinks they cause the world to be organized into categories), but the material world does not have any causal power over Platonic entities. This is particularly important regarding the semantics and intentionality of language and mind, respectively. Platonic realism is meant by Plato, Plantinga and the gang to be an alternative to nominalism, and it is true that on the standard nominalist formula we have to say that the sentence-tokens shared meaning is a "primitive, unanalyzable similarity" between the sentence-tokens, a much less intuitive analysis than the same account of, say, color (not that the nominalist story is all that satisfying on any kind of property). I don't know what I think about the larger metaphysical issues here (I'm not a partisan between Plantinga and Lewis, or Plato and Aristotle, at this point), but as to fate: on the Platonic realist account of propositions, it does not appear that we can understand the truth value of the proposition as simply a function of what actually occurs in the event, not because it is eternally true (so is God's foreknowledge), but because no property of the proposition, on the realist view, can ever be effected by any event in the material world, certainly including the semantic properties, which are a paradigm case of non-physical properties on this view. Transcendental reality can play a causal role in physical reality, but not the other way around. Thus there exists the kind of independent fact about the future that indicates that the future is fated.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Metaphysics of Fate

The ancient problem was how to model modality, Parmenides' world was necessary through and through, no contingency: if only what existed existed then it necessarily existed, was the intuition. All there is is the set of actual things. Possible worlds modelling, Leibniz, Frege, showed how to formalize necessity, contingency, possibility, impossibility by designating all actual things in all possible worlds. Modal realism of Lewis is thus nominalist strategy (slightly ironic since nominalism aspires to ontological austerity). Alternatively Plantinga claims that we can be actualists (only the actual world exists) and can still have a metaphysics of modality by positing that (or is it having a revelation that?) immaterial, mind- and matter-independent Platonic entities, such as essences, properties, propositions and states of affairs, are taken to exist in addition to matter. The nominalists about universals are typically nominalists as well about the philosophy of time: Particulars have temporal parts (are spread across time) just as they have spatial parts. Thus you never really change: we just experience different time-slices of you. Like all particulars, on this view you are a spacetime worm. That's how the omniscient god sees you, looking down on all of time spread before him like a plane: you're a spaghetti-like thing stretched across it. Notice this parallels the way you are smeared out across possible worlds on the nominalist view. On this view, all points in time are equally real (like all points in space).
The Platonists hold that objects in time are wholly present at each moment in time. They identify the particular with a form ("substance") and thus have no problem about the identity of the particular changing because constituent matter is changing. For the same reason they have no problem with holding that only the present moment exists (Aristotle in a nominalist mood argued that only present moments did not exist, as "moments" are conventional boundaries of divisible amounts of time, and so past times are bounded by past moments, future times are bounded by future moments, and "present" time periods are bounded by one past moment and one future moment.)
The problem of fate is really just a version of the problem of modality. It's really more a problem about the present than the future. Notice that both the Platonist and the nominalist claim to offer solutions to the problem: they both claim they can explain what we mean when we talk about necessity, contingency, and probability. But both schools have to adapt and revise to do it. Nominalists initially insist that only concrete particular things exist, and later develop modal realism to try to avoid the fatalistic implications of their original position. Platonists initially insist that eternal and unchanging Platonic entities shape the material world, and later try to adapt this ontology to account for modality.
So one question is, which feels freer, the nominalist view of time or the Platonist view of time? (Nominalist view is "B-series" re McTaggert, Platonist view "A-series"; that is, B-series refers to the model of time as a dimension, with all points equally real, while A-series sees time as moving through the present). Nominalist says tenses are indexicals. Platonist says tenses are metaphysically significant.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

What is the Fatalist Claiming?

The issue here is not whether or not whatever the fatalist claims is true. I just want to think a bit about what it is that the fatalist is claiming. The fatalist is not claiming that causal determinism obtains: that physical causation is closed and necessary, such that given the causal antecedents of my act, I couldn't have acted otherwise. Fatalism has an altogether different flavor than determinism. Specifically, I want to argue that fatalist arguments do not claim that facts about the future in any way determine the way that the future will be. This is, I think, an alternative interpretation from one that holds fatalist arguments to be a kind of logical determinism. Let's consider the version of the argument that argues from God's foreknowledge (omniscience). If God knows (now) what you are going to do next Thursday, the argument goes, then you are fated to do what you do next Thursday. If I have reason to think that there is a fact about the future (e.g. God's foreknowledge), then I have reason to believe that the future is concrete, like the past. The objection to fatalism from logical determinism runs like this: The fatalist is interpreted as arguing that 1) If God has foreknowledge of my actions, then the future is concrete. 2) God has foreknowledge of my actions. Therefore, the future is concrete. But, the objection goes on, God's foreknowledge is, in fact, determined by my actions this coming Thursday, and not the other way around. Thus it is misleading to characterize God's foreknowledge as a fact about the past (or the present); God's foreknowledge is just a fact about the future "disguised as a fact about the past." These philosophers claim that the fatalist is making a mistake about the "direction of dependence" between the future and the past/present. From the fact that it's true that you will vote Liberal next year, on this view, it doesn't follow that you cannot but vote Liberal next year. And, the interpreter of fatalism as logical determinism will go on, it must be that the fatalist is making this further claim. (And indeed the fatalist is claiming to have reason to believe that the future is concrete. ) But I think that there is an equivocation here between two senses of "determine." In the sense of causal determinism, the antecedent causes, in a lawlike way, the consequent effect: literally the antecedent causes are the explanation of my action. But in the sense of logical determinism, the word "determine" has the sense of determining, say, where San Sebastian is by looking on a map, or determining who the sixth President was by looking it up in a reference book. Arguing for fate from the fact of God's omniscience is entirely different from a possible determinist argument from God's omnipotence. The fact of God's foreknowledge is neither a necessary fact in itself nor a necessary precondition for the future being concrete. In fact, it is only if we have some independent reason for believing in God's foreknowledge that we can then draw the implication that the future is concrete. It doesn't look like the concreteness of the future could possibly depend on anything: if the future is concrete then there are no causes, thus properly understood fatalism turns out to be the opposite of determinism, which holds that the present state of affairs depends on the antecedant causes.
(And many thanks to Brian Garrett, author of What is this thing called metaphysics? Routledge, 2006, the text I'm using in my Metaphysics class. Prof. Garrett very generously responded to my e-mails generated by our class discussion, and helped us to do some good and fun philosophy here at the Univ. of Puerto Rico. Thanks Brian!)