Thursday, January 28, 2016

God's surprisingness

God is very surprising. (a) Facts about God's nature are surprising. Who would have expected the being who is one and indivisible to also be a Trinity? (b) Facts about what God does are surprising. Who would have expected him to choose insignificant Israel, or... to die for us!?

Surprisingness isn't entailed by incomprehensibility. A text in a language I don't know can be utterly incomprehensible and utterly unsurprising. But on the other hand, insofar as God has surprises for us we do not comprehend him.

Surprisingness implies that not only are there facts about God that we can't figure out, but there are facts about God which our present evidence would lead us to deny--surprising facts. A focus on God's surprisingness may lead to a sceptical thought that we cannot expect to know anything about God. But that's not at all true. For mathematics is continually surprising, and yet is an area where we continue to know more and more. (And this is more than an analogy, since mathematics is a kind of branch of theology, if Augustine is right about mathematical objects existing in the mind of God.)

There some connection between God's holiness and God's surprisingness. God's surprises aren't just like particularly thoughtful birthday presents. They are the surprises of a mysterium tremendum. "Surprise" is thus too weak a word, yet it also correctly suggests a certain whimsy that is a part of God's nature if the whimsical surprises of mathematics and biology are a guide to the mind of God. Humor may be a form of theology, too.

The beauty of mathematical facts

Some mathematical proofs are beautiful, for instance the classic proof of the infinitude of the primes (if there are only finitely many primes, multiply them together and add one; the result isn't divisible by any prime, but that's absurd). Some mathematical objects are beautiful, like certain fractals. But additionally, it is striking that some mathematical facts are beautiful. Often they are particularly surprising. The Euclid-Euler theorem states a lovely and surprising connection between Mersenne primes and even perfect numbers. It is very surprising that there are only five Platonic solids, and the fact that it is is beautiful.

Grammatically, though, there is something a little odd about a fact being beautiful. Facts don't seem to be the right sorts of things to be beautiful. It is rather the things that the facts are about that are beautiful. So perhaps it is the mathematical objects that make true the facts that are the real beauties?

But some lovely mathematical facts are facts that something doesn't exist, like a certain kind of decision procedure or a finite noncommutative division ring.

There is a nice theistic story here. The truthmaker of mathematical truths is God (say, God's mind or God's power). So the beauty of mathematical facts is more properly the beauty of God. Isn't it striking that a theistic account of mathematics can account for the ontology, epistemology and aesthetics of mathematics?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Pro tanto epistemic reasons and Bayesianism

I've been thinking about whether a Bayesian can make sense of the concept of pro tanto epistemic reasons. The idea is that p gives us a reason to believe q, though in the light of our full evidence it may no longer support q. In other words, the idea is that p is pro tanto evidence for q there is a reduced set of evidence relative to which p supports q.

But on a Bayesian picture it can't be just any reduced set of evidence, or else we have too many pro tanto reasons. Let p be the proposition that the sky looks blue and q be the proposition that the sky is red. Let r be some exceedingly unlikely fact, say the fact that when I asked to generate a sequence of 16 random bytes, it generated 52 e2 57 4d 6d 16 c9 dd 12 9e b4 63 27 7e 86 53. Then I believe that (p&~r)→q, where the conditional is material. I believe it, because I believe the antecedent to be false. But if my background consists only of (p&~r)→q, then given reasonable priors p strongly supports q.

So what we want, I think, is to say that p is pro tanto evidence for q provided that there is a privileged reduced set of evidence relative to which p supports q. But what reduced sets of evidence are privileged? There is only one such set that stares one in the face: the empty set. So, the suggestion is: p is pro tanto evidence for q if and only if p supports q relative to an empty background, i.e., according to the absolute priors.

This, I think, offers a way to make some progress on the problem of priors. If we have independent sufficient conditions for something to be a pro tanto reason, then we have a constraint on our absolute priors, namely that if p is pro tanto evidence for q, then P(p & q) > P(p)P(q).

Could we have some such independent sufficient conditions for pro tanto reasons? I think so. For instance, around here, Trent Dougherty has been pushing phenomenal conservatism, which can be taken to be the view that seemings are pro tanto reasons for their contents. If the above Bayesian account of pro tanto reasons is correct, then this puts a constraint on prior probabilities, and that's a good thing.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A reflection on what cannot be spoken about

Conciliation and caution

I assign a credence 0.75 to p and I find out that you assign credence 0.72 to it, despite us both having the same evidence and epistemic prowess. According to conciliationism, I should lower my credence and you should raise yours.

Here's an interesting case. When I assigned 0.75 to p, I reasoned as follows: my evidence prima facie supported p to a high degree, say 0.90, but I know that I could have made a mistake in my evaluation of the evidence, so to be safe I lowered my credence to 0.75. You, being my peer and hence equally intellectually humble, proceeded similarly. You evaluated the evidence at 0.87 and then lowered the credence to 0.72 to be safe. Now when I learn that your credence is 0.72, I assume you were likewise being humbly cautious. So I assume you had some initial higher evaluation, but then lowered your evaluation to be on the safe side. But now that I know that both you and I evaluated the evidence significantly in favor of p, there is no justification for as much caution. As a result, I raise my credence. And maybe you proceed similarly. And if we're both advocates of the equal weight view, thinking that we should treat each others' credences on par, we will both raise our credence to the same value, say 0.80. As a result, you revise in the direction conciliationism tells you to (but further than most conciliationists would allow) and I revise in the opposite direction to what conciliationism says.

The case appears to be a counterexample to conciliationism. Now, one might argue that I was unfair to conciliationists. It's not uncommon in the literature to define conciliationism as simply the view that both need to change credence rather than the view that they must each change in the direction of the other's credence. And in my example, both change their credence. I think this reading of conciliationism isn't fair to the motivating intuitions or the etymology. Someone who, upon finding out about a disagreement, always changes her credence in the opposite direction of the other's credence is surely far from being a conciliatory person! Be that as it may, I suspect that counterexamples like the above can be tweaked. For instance, I might reasonably reason as follows:

You assign a smaller credence than I, though it's pretty close to mine. Maybe you started with an initial estimate close to but lower than mine and then lowered it by the same amount as I did out of caution. Since your initial estimate was lower than mine, I will lower mine a little. But since it was close, I don't need to be as cautious.
It seems easy to imagine a case like this where the two effects cancel out, and I'm left with the same credence I started with. The result is a counterexample to a conciliationism that merely says I shouldn't stay pat.

Defeaters and Bayesianism

  1. Bayesian reasoning is a type of defeasible reasoning.
  2. One can understand Bayesian reasoning without having the concept of a defeater.
  3. So, not all types of defeasible reasoning require the concept of a defeater to understand.

Monday, January 25, 2016

"Why are you telling me this?" and protocols

Suppose you want to convince me that I have no hands but are unable to lie (and I know for sure you are unable to lie). However, you know a lot more than I about something, perhaps something completely irrelevant to the question. For instance, suppose you know the results of some very long sequence of die rolls that's completely irrelevant. It seems you can fool me with the truth. For you can find some true proposition p about the die rolls such that I assign an exceedingly low probability to p. You then reveal to me this disjunctive fact: p is true or I have no hands. Then: P(no hands | p or no hands) = P(no hands) / (P(p) + P(~p and no hands)) ≥ P(no hands) / (P(p) + P(no hands)). (Exercise: check the details.) If P(p) is sufficiently small, relative to my prior probability P(no hands) (which of course is non-zero--there is a tiny chance that I was in a terrible accident and superb prostheses have just been developed), this will be close to 1.

But of course, whether I have hands or not, if you know a lot more about something than I do, you will be able to find a truth that I assign a tiny probability to. So I really shouldn't be deceived by you. Rather, I should take myself to have learned p. Your disjunction is equivalent to the material conditional that if I have hands, then p. I know I have hands. So, p. But what about the Bayesian calculation, which is mathematically correct?

This is a protocol problem. If I happened to ask you whether the disjunction "p is true or I have no hands" was true, and you then revealed it to me that it was, the Bayesian calculation would have been correct. But the actual protocol was that you picked out a truth that I took to be unlikely, and disjoined it with a claim that I have no hands. If I knew for sure that this was your protocol, I would have learned two things: first that p is true, and second that p is true or I have no hands. The second would have been uninformative in light of the first, and so there would be no deceit. But of course if the above were to really happen, I wouldn't know for sure what your protocol was.

In real life, when someone tells us something odd out of the blue, we often ask: "Why are you telling me this?" The above case shows how epistemically important the answer to this question can be. If you tell me (remember that you are unable to lie) that you're telling me this to get me to think I have no hands, I will suspect that your protocol may be to find an unlikely truth and disjoin it with the claim that I have no hands. As long as I have significant suspicion that this is your protocol, your statement won't shake my near-certainty that I have hands. But if you tell me that you were telling me this because you decided, before finding out whether p was true, that you were going to tell me whether or not the disjunction is true, then my near-certainty that I have hands should be shaken. I wonder how often "Why are you telling me this?" involves a case of trying to find the protocol and thus to figure out how to update. Rarely? Often?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Absence of evidence is evidence of absence

It's a well-known theorem that if conditioning on A increases the probability of B, then conditioning on not-A increases the probability of not-B. So if learning that there is evidence of B increases the probability of B, learning that there is no evidence for B increases the probability of not-B. Hence, there is a sense in which absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

Of course, the absence of evidence may be exceedingly weak evidence of absence, and that's probably the right way to take the platitude that absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Pantheism and denial of divine simplicity

Pantheism presents this metaphysical picture of the world: The world consists of two kinds of things, namely God and his proper parts. Theists who deny divine simplicity then seem to be committed to the claim that while pantheism is actually false, its metaphysical picture is possibly false. For if God isn't simple, then had God not created anything, the world would have consisted of two kinds of things: God and his proper parts.

Might the damned design their hell?

In my Death and Afterlife class, we were reading about whether immortality is worth having. The following has become clear to me: it is not easy to design an eternal life that isn't in some way hellish. An eternal life of fixed capabilities would involve the boredom of infinite repetition, and we could easily get bored with a life of growing capabilities, too, as things become too easy. To have a good infinite life, a human being needs something utterly exceeding our ordinary life--like the beatific union with an infinite God--or a very carefully fine-tuned life, say a life where our capabilities grow without bounds but the problems set for these capabilities grow in such a way as to neither be too frustrating or too easy.

This makes plausible the model of hell on which the life of the damned is just a life they designed for themselves. For the damned would be designing a life apart from God, and yet being wicked would not be able to wisely fine-tune such a life.

But I don't think we should embrace without restriction the model on which the damned design their eternal life. For some clever but still wicked people could design an eternal life of infinite recurrence and great sensory pleasure, with amnesia between the recurrences. Such a life, while nightmarish from the perspective of an outsider who knows that all the pleasures are a cycle of repetition and forgetting, could be blissful from the inside. Likewise, a wicked person could design an eternal life at the level of a contented pig. Again, to the outsider it would be nightmarish, but from the inside the wallowing would be delightful. However, I think the biblical picture of hell makes hell not only miserable from the outside but also from the inside.

Perhaps we should have this model of hell: The damned design their own eternal life subject to the constraint that there is no longer room for self-deceit, forgetting, drunken stupor or the like. On this model, God imposes suffering on the damned, but he does it by means of bestowing three good things: (a) ensuring the damned are no longer capable of self-deceit, deadening of the intellect or the like; (b) giving the damned autonomy over their own infinite lives; and (c) ensuring that the life does not end. In fact, God could simply bestow these three good things on damned and blessed alike.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A new solution to the non-identity problem?

Molly Gardner in a piece that just came out offers an interesting new solution to the non-identity problem, the problem of making sense of benefits and harms to people who wouldn't exist were it not for our actions of benefiting or harming. Gardner's suggestion is:

A state of affairs, A, is a benefit for an individual, S, just in case if it were true that both S existed and A did not obtain, then S would be worse off in some respect.
This is a clever solution: normally when evaluating whether an action benefits or harms someone, we simply ask how they would have done had we not done the action; but Gardner wants us further to keep fixed that the patient exists.

But clever as it is, it looks to me that it fails. First, suppose that a strong essentiality of origins thesis obtains. Then whenever we benefit or harm a future person, that person couldn't exist without our action. But that means that Gardner's conditional becomes a per impossibile conditional. And concepts of ethical importance should not be defined in terms of something as poorly understood and as controversial as counterpossible conditionals.

Suppose now that there is no strong essentiality of origins thesis. Then, plausibly, a person who was conceived through coitus could also have been conceived through IVF, at least if the same sperm and egg were involved. Now suppose that where the couple lives, IVF technology is highly experimental and works so poorly that children conceived through IVF end up having all sorts of nasty health problems. The couple is wicked and doesn't care about the health of their children, but they also haven't even heard of IVF, and so they conceive Sally the natural way. Now let's consider Gardner's conditional. What would have happened had the child existed and the couple not engaged in coitus? Well, the closest possible worlds where Sally exists and the couple did not have intercourse are worlds where the couple engaged in a poorly-functioning IVF treatment, and hence worlds where Sally has nasty health problems. So the couple benefited Sally by engaging in coitus.

The conclusion that the couple benefited Sally by coitus is, I think, true. For I believe it is always good to exist. But it is clear that Gardner doesn't want to suppose that existence is always a good. And if existence is not always a good, then we can suppose a scenario like this: Sally is going to have an on-balance bad life if she is conceived by coitus, and an on-balance worse life if she is conceived by IVF. By Gardner's criterion, the couple has benefited Sally through coitus, even though Sally's life is on-balance bad. This is surely mistaken. One might say that the couple benefited Sally by engaging in coitus rather than IVF. But since they never even considered IVF, one can't conclude that they benefited Sally simpliciter. (If Sam gives Jim a mild electric shock, he harms Jim simpliciter, but he benefits Jim by giving him a mild rather than severe shock.)

And even if we grant--as in the end we should--that existence is always good, Gardner's conditional gives us the wrong reason for thinking that the couple benefited Sally. For the benefit to Sally has nothing to do with the fact that Sally would have been worse off in the nearby worlds where she existed through IVF.

And even if essentiality of origins is true, the argument concerning Sally works. For it is still true that, per impossibile, had Sally existed but without her parents having intercourse, she would have existed through IVF and hence had very poor health.

The problem with Gardner's approach is this: the worlds that are relevant to the evaluation of her counterfactual may simply be irrelevant to the question of benefit or harm simpliciter.

Essentiality of origins and the non-identity problem

I assume that a strong essentiality of origins thesis holds, so that for any action we could take but did not take, had we taken the action, none of the individuals who will in fact come into existence would come into existence. For the causal history of every individual coming into being in our future (i.e., in our future light-cone) includes the (often extremely minor) gravitational and other influences coming from our actions. Thus, any benefit or harm we do to future individuals is a benefit or harm we do to individuals who wouldn't have existed had we not done them that benefit or harm. This means that the non-identity problem--the problem of benefits and harms to individuals who wouldn't exist had they not been thus benefited or harmed--is always there when we consider benefits and harms to individuals who do not yet exist. The non-identity problem isn't just a special problem that arises in cases where people's reproductive decisions are caused by our actions (say, as when a couple procreates because the parents of one of them have established a generous trust fund for all future grandchildren), but it arises in regard to future individuals in everything we do.

Monday, January 18, 2016

We are not alone among language users

This argument is valid:

  1. All semantic truths are knowable to members of the community of language users.
  2. There are semantic truths that are not knowable to human language users.
  3. Therefore, there is at least one non-human language user.
There is some reason to accept (1) in light of the conventionality of language. Premise (2) is going to be quite controversial. I justify it by means of a standard argument for epistemicism. Consider Queen Elizabeth II. There are 88 statements of the form:
  • Elizabeth was not old at age n but she was old at age n+1
where n ranges from 1 to 88. It's a straightforward matter of classical logic to show that if all 88 statements are false, then:
  1. Elizabeth was old at age 1 or Elizabeth is not old at age 89.
But (4) is clearly false: Her Majesty is old now at age 89, and she surely wasn't old at age one. So, at least one of the 88 statements is false. This means that there is a sharp transition from being not old to being old. But it is clear that no matter what we find out about our behavior, biology and other relevant things, we can't know exactly where that transition lies. It seems very plausible that the relevant unknowable fact about the transition is a semantic fact. Hence, (2) is true.

The most plausible candidate for the non-human language user who is capable of knowing such semantic facts is God. God could institute the fundamental semantic facts of human language and thereby know them.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Procreation and love

Start with this consequence of the essentiality of origins:

  1. The identity of an individual depends on the exact time of her coming-into-existence.
(It's very plausible that it depends on coarse-grained time of coming-into-existence: I couldn't have come into existence a hundred years earlier. But there is also a well-known argument from that for the claim that it depends on the exact time.) Now, it seems that no action people can take prior to the origination of an individual determines the exact time of her coming-into-existence. There isn't any true counterfactual of the form of the form: "If we were to do A, then an individual would come into existence exactly at t." In fact, for any action we can take, quantum indeterminism will ensure a cluster of infinitely (if time is continuous) many or at least very many close-together possible resulting conception times. Moreover, each exact time will have a very tiny, perhaps infinitesimal or zero, probability of being the actual time of origination. Hence it seems:
  1. There is no true probabilistic counterfactual of the form: "If we were to do A, then an individual would be not unlikely to come into existence exactly at t."
(Molinists will, of course, disagree. But Molinism is false, I take it.) Thus:
  1. People cannot procreate out of love for the particular individual who would likely come into existence from the procreation.
For there is no particular individual such that she would likely come into existence from the procreation.

Now, notice that God in creating an individual--either ex nihilo or in cooperating with the joining of an egg and sperm--is under no such constraints. Thus it is possible for God to act in such a way that were he to act so, an individual would come into existence at a precise time. And the same is true for other features of the origination of the individual besides the time of its occurrence. So God could create out of love for the particular individual who would come into existence from the creation.

This fact suggests a weakness in premise (2) of my above argument. It could be that God has already decided what individual would result if a couple chose to procreate, and has resolved in particular that sperm and egg would meet at a particular time, as long as the couple chooses the procreate. God, thus, is resolved to control all the quantum phenomena to ensure a particular circumstance of origination. Thus it's up to the couple whether someone comes into existence, but there is a particular someone who would exist if the couple procreated. It would not be surprising if this were to happen in special cases, and it would be possible for it to happen in all cases. I don't know if it does, though.

The upshot of the above argument, thus, is that unless special theological assumptions hold, it is not possible for a couple to decide whether to procreate out of love for the particular child that would result.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

All's well that ends well?

If I were informed that last night I had suffered a horrible pain, all memory and other traces of it having been erased, I would be scared that this might happen again, but the unremembered pain would be almost as nothing to me. All's well that ends well. On the other hand, if I learned that one of my children had suffered a horrible pain last night, though all memory and other traces of it were erased, I would not only be scared that this might happen again, but I would feel very sorry for the child for having felt that pain. I would be glad it ended well, but the ending wouldn't be all.

It's as if I were a presentist about myself and an eternalist about others. This is some evidence for eternalism, I think. For it is likely that moral attitudes towards self are a special case, to be taken care of by indexical-type considerations, while it is moral attitudes towards others that are a better guide to the objective order of the world.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Doomsday, numbered cards and firing squads

The stuff in this post is surely in the literature, but it's more fun to think it through oneself than to dig in the literature.

The Doomsday Argument holds that our position in the birth-order of humanity supports hypotheses on which we are roughly in the middle of the birth-order over hypotheses on which we occupy a more extreme position in the birth-order. Here's a back of the envelope calculation. Let's say that about 100 billion people have ever lived. Then we should expect that only about 100 billion people will live. If population stabilizes at 10 billion, that means that the earth's population will probably turn over only about ten times, and hence the human race will die out within 1000 years (life expectancy might go up to 100 years).

As a proxy for the complications of the full Doomsday Argument, consider a simplified version. The Demiurge flips a fair coin. If it's heads, he creates a single person. If it's tails, he creates a sequence of 100 people, a new person every 20 years. You come into existence, learn these facts from the Demiurge, and also learn that you're number one in humanity's birth order. By the Doomsday Argument, this should give you reason to prefer the hypothesis that the Demiurge got heads on his flip. And indeed there is a very nice Bayesian rendering of this. The probability that you're first given heads is one. The probability that you're first given tails is 1/100, since you could equally well have been anywhere in the sequence. So your position in the sequence strong supports heads. Indeed, if the prior probability for heads is 1/2, Bayes' theorem says your final probability for heads is about 0.99.

Birth order complicates intuitions a little. There are worries of essentiality of origins: could you have been anywhere else in the birth order? There is some reason to think that such considerations are irrelevant as what matters is epistemic and not alethic modality, but to rule them out, let's vary the case a little. The Demiurge tosses the coin. On heads, he creates one person on one planet. On tails, he creates 100 people, each on a different planet. And then after creating each person he takes a deck of cards numbered from 1 to the number of people (i.e., a deck containing just a single card labeled 1, or a deck of cards from 1 to 100), and gives one card to each person. You are apprised of all these facts and you see that you have a card labeled 1. You think: getting card 1 is very unlikely on tails, but is certain on heads, so probably the Demiurge tossed heads. The cards obviously correspond to birth order. It is clear that if the Doomsday Argument is sound, this argument is inductively good. The reasoning is exactly parallel.

But now consider a firing squad variant. One hundred people, including you, are blindfolded, and a different crack shot in the squad is assigned to each. The dictator tosses a coin. If it's heads, one of the shooters loads his gun with a blank and the others load a bullet. If it's tails, they all load their guns with blanks. They fire. You notice you're still alive. Then the dictator takes a deck of cards, numbered from 1 to the number of survivors, and hands them out randomly to the survivors. You look at your card before you look around for other survivors--perhaps smoke swirls around you and you can't see further than your card--and it has the number one on it. The exact parallel to the Doomsday Argument then would say that you have very strong evidence that the dictator tossed heads, since it would be unlikely that you'd see the number one card if there were 100 survivors.

But notice that if that's how you're thinking, you're neglecting a crucial piece of evidence: your survival. Yes, the number one card favors the heads hypothesis. But the earlier observation that you survived favors the tails hypothesis. Your probability of survival on heads is 1/100, and on tails it is 1. In fact, the two pieces of evidence cancel out perfectly. For consider the combined piece of evidence: you survive and get the number one card. The probability of this on heads is: (1/100)(1) = 1/100. The probability of this on tails is: (1)(1/100) = 1/100. So the overall evidence is neutral between the two hypotheses. Your probability of heads remains 1/2 as before the experiment.

If the Demiurge case with the deck of cards is analogous to the firing squad case, then in the Demiurge case we should say that overall you have no evidence for heads or tails. The diagnosis of what went wrong in the reasoning about the Demiurge case then is that the evidence of your existence was neglected. If it were taken into account, it would have canceled out with the evidence of the card number. And by the same token, in the Demiurge and birth order case, the evidence of your existence and the position in the birth order cancel out. And hence by parallel the Doomsday Argument fails.

Is the firing squad case analogous to the Demiurge case? The one potentially relevant difference between the two cases is that the firing squad case is about survival while the Demiurge case is about coming into existence. Does that matter? I don't know. But whether it matters or not, I do actually have an intuition that in the Demiurge case we should take into account the evidence of your existence. On tails, intuitively, you have 100 times greater chance of coming into existence. That precisely cancels out with the fact that on tails any one of the persons who comes into existence has a 1/100 chance of getting the number one card. And hence on balance no evidence is provided.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I am weird

The Doomsday Argument says that we should expect to be typical people: this is the "self-sampling assumption". Hence, we should expect to be roughly in the middle of humanity's birth order. But since the population has grown exponentially, being in the middle of humanity's birth order implies being close to the end of the world. Hence, the end is nigh.

But I have evidence against the self-sampling assumption. The self-sampling assumption predicts that I am typical. But I am not: I am weird.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Reproductions and forgeries

You can appreciate Monet's Woman with a Parasol in person through your own unaided vision. But perhaps you need eyeglasses. If you use eyeglasses while looking at the painting in the National Gallery, you're still appreciating Monet's painting. The same would be true if there were a window opposite the painting, and you were sitting in a tree and observing the painting through binoculars. Further, surely it makes no difference how the binoculars work. Ordinary binoculars work by rearranging light through lenses as it streams from the object to the eye. Digital binoculars, on the other hand, work by having sensors transform the light from the object and then creating images on tiny screens inside. When you look at Woman with a Parasol through digital binoculars, what you're appreciating is the painting through the binoculars, not the two tiny images on screens inside the binoculars.

But notice that with digital binoculars, you can do two things. You can look at the little screens inside or you can, as it were, look through them. The intentional objects are different: if you look at the screens, you see the screens; if you look through the screens, you see the world (including Woman with a Parasol, if that's where you're pointing the binoculars). When you look at the screens, your attention is at least in part on the pixels, the quality of the color rendition, the glare, and so on. When you look through the screens, your attention is on something out there in the world. The two experiences have distinctly different phenomenal feels, and you can go back and forth between them as in the case of the two duck-rabbit.

One more step. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, instead of cameras they have iconographs, which is a box with an imp that paints quickly with a little paintbrush. We can imagine binoculars made on that principle. A pair of eagle-eyed imps very quickly paint two little pictures in the box, constantly updating them. You could look through imp-binoculars at Woman with a Parasol, but we could also look at the pictures in the box, admiring the imps' workmanship. You could switch back and forth just by redirecting your attention. Note, however, that both ways of using the imp-binoculars could involve skill and knowledge. It might be that when you first look into the imp-binoculars, it's obvious to you that there are paintings inside (maybe you can see the brush strokes and the texture of the canvas) and only with experience do you learn to correlate the images in the imp-binoculars with the external world. On the other hand, if your visual acuity is not as good or if the imps are really good, you might not realize that there are paintings inside--it might feel like just looking through a pair of holes in a wall, and only with experience do you learn to see the images as little paintings.

At this point, it should be clear that one can look at a painting through its reproduction. It's just a matter of directing your attention and intentionality appropriately. It does, however, take knowledge. You need to know that the painting is a reproduction, just as you need to know that the imp-binoculars track the world to see the world through them.

This gives us an account of the properly aesthetic harm done by the forger of a particular painting (the forger of a particular painter's style is a more complicated case, but perhaps can be handled similarly). By blocking the viewer from knowing that the reproduction is a reproduction, the forger prevents the viewer from seeing the original through the forgery. It is the forgery rather than the original that is seen, but it is misconstrued. On the other hand, if the forger honestly informed us that this was a reproduction, she would be doing us a service--she would be providing us with a telescope pointed at the original.

What is interesting about this account of the properly aesthetic harms done by a forger is that it does not require us to value the viewing of an original over the viewing of a perfect reproduction. In fact, this account of what is bad about forgery depends precisely on the value of reproductions. One could--though one need not--hold that viewing Woman With a Parasol naked-eye, through eyeglasses, through optical binoculars, through digital binoculars, through imp-binoculars and through a reproduction are all equally valuable when the image quality is equal. In fact, viewing through a reproduction could be even more valuable, for instance if one's eyesight is poor and the reproduction is larger in size than the original. But it is important that we see the original through the reproduction, that the reproduction be a window on the artist's production, and indirectly on the artist's soul.

Likewise, we should see God through the world and especially through our neighbor.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

CFP: Second Annual Theistic Ethics Workshop

Second Annual Theistic Ethics Workshop
Georgetown University
October 6-8, 2016

Confirmed Speakers:
Marilyn McCord Adams (Rutgers University)
Robert M. Adams (Rutgers University)
Russ Shafer-Landau (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Chris Tucker (William and Mary)
Candace Vogler (University of Chicago)

Goal: Contemporary philosophy of religion has been richly informed by important work in metaphysics and epistemology. At the same time, there has not been nearly as much work done at the intersection of philosophy of religion and metaethics or normative theory. To help inspire more good work in this area, Christian Miller (Wake Forest), Mark Murphy (Georgetown), and Chris Tucker (William and Mary) are organizing a series of annual workshops on theistic ethics.

Logistics: The second workshop will be held on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington, DC. We will begin with the first talk and a reception in the evening on Thursday, October 6 and will conclude at the end of the day on Saturday, October 8, 2016. There will be five invited papers and four spots for submitted papers. All papers will have 40 minutes for presentation and at least 40 minutes for discussion.  

Themes: “Theistic ethics” is to be understood broadly to include such topics as divine command and divine will theories, God and natural law, ethics and the problem of evil, moral arguments for a theistic being, infused and acquired virtues, the harms and benefits of theistic religions, specific ethical issues in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, and many other topics as well.

Applying: Those interested in participating should submit an abstract of up to 750 words and a current C.V. to Mark Murphy at by May 1, 2016. Word or PDF file formats only. Please prepare abstracts for anonymous review.  For although the organizers seek to have a balanced program both in terms of topics and presenters, the initial stage of review will be done anonymously. 

Submitters to last year’s event, whether successful or unsuccessful, are welcome to apply to this year’s workshop.

Questions about the workshop should be sent to Notification will be made by June 1, 2016. If your abstract is selected, we will cover all of your expenses for the workshop, including travel (this includes international travel). Co-authors are welcome, but only one author’s expenses can be covered. You do not have to send your paper in advance of the workshop, and it certainly can be a work in progress.

Supported by the Robert L. McDevitt, K.S.G., K.C.H.S. and Catherine H. McDevitt L.C.H.S. Chair in Religious Philosophy

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The needs of the human community

Andrea Dworkin argued that sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is always wrong because it involves a violation of the woman's bodily integrity. She concluded that until recent advances in medical technology, it was impossible for humans to permissibly reproduce. The antinatalists, on the other hand, continue to hold that it is impossible for humans to permissible reproduce. Such views lead to an incredulous stare. It is very tempting to levy against them an argument like this:

  1. Coital reproduction is necessary for the minimal flourishing of the human community under normal conditions.
  2. Whatever is necessary for the minimal flourishing of the human community under normal conditions is sometimes permissible.
  3. Coital reproduction is sometimes permissible.
The condition "under normal conditions" is needed for (2) to be plausible. We can, after all, easily imagine science-fictional scenarios where something immoral would need to be done to ensure the minimal flourishing of the human community.

Reproduction is not the only case where issues like this come up. For instance, the destruction of non-human organisms, say plants, seems necessary for our flourishing. And I suspect that under normal conditions the killing of non-human animals is necessary, too (if only as a side-effect of plowing fields, say). Taxation may be another interesting example.

I have heard it argued that (2) is in itself a basic moral principle, so that killing non-human animals as a side-effect of vegan farming is permissible because it is permissible to ensure minimal human flourishing. But that seems mistaken. Rather, while (2) is true, it is not a moral principle, but a consequence of a correlation between (a) fundamental facts about what moral duties there are actually are and (b) facts about what is actually needed for minimal human flourishing under normal conditions.

This leads to an interesting and I think somewhat underexplored question: Why are the moral facts and the facts about actual human needs so correlated as to make (2) true?

Theists have an elegant answer to this question: God had very strong moral reason to make humans in such a way that, at least normally, minimal flourishing of the community doesn't require wrong action. Non-theists have other stories to tell. These stories, however, are likely to be piecemeal. For instance, one will give one evolutionary story about why we and our ecosystem evolved in such a way that eating persons wasn't needed for our species' survival, and another about why we evolved in such a way that morally non-degrading sex sufficed for reproduction. But a unified answer is to be preferred over piecemeal answers, especially when the unified answer is compatible with the piecemeal ones and capable of integrating them into a single story. We do, thus, get some evidence for theism here.

Deontology and double effect

This post continues the line of investigation from an earlier post. There I supposed that you're a police officer and you saw that Glossop was very likely to be about to murder Fink-Nottle, and the only way to stop him was to shoot Glossop in the head. Glossop was pointing a shotgun at Fink-Nottle, and your credence that he was about to shoot was 0.9999. I took it for granted that under circumstances like that it was permissible to kill Glossop. But on deontological grounds, I also assumed it was wrong to kill one person to save 9999 innocents. This did not seem to fit with standard decision theory, but I managed to make it fit.

I now consider a variant. In Gotham there are right now 10000 setups like the Glossop and Fink-Nottle story, each observed by a different police officer. You are the police chief. You know that in 9999 of the cases, the person in the Glossop role is about the murder the person in the Fink-Nottle role. But in the remaining one case, they are just amateur actors rehearsing a scene.

Should you order by radio all of your officers to shoot the Glossops in the head? There are arguments on both sides.

Pro: Each of the 10000 cases is just like the original case. So if in the original case, the officer should shoot Glossop, each of your 10000 officers should shoot. But if that's what each should do, that's what you should tell each to do.

Con: You know that by ordering all 10000 Glossops to be shot, you will be killing one innocent man (and 9999 guilty ones, but surely that doesn't make it better) in order to save 9999 Fink-Nottles. By deontology, this is wrong.

I think the Con argument is flawed. The death of the innocent Glossop differs from the deaths of the guilty Glossops. The deaths of the guilty Glossops are a means to saving the Fink-Nottles. The death of the one innocent Glossop isn't a means to saving any of the Fink-Nottles. We should take your issuing of the order "Shoot" to be intended to kill the 9999 guilty Glossops, with the death of the innocent Glossop a side-effect. (Admittedly, this is a bit awkward because you are ordering the innocent Glossop to be shot.) The side-effect is not intended, proportionality is met if the ratio 9999:1 is high enough (if not, change the numbers), and it seems likely that the Principle of Double Effect will justify the action.

I think the Pro argument, perhaps with some refinement, is convincing. This means that deontologists must find a way to block the Con argument. But it seems that the only relevant difference between this case and cases where ordering shooting is wrong on deontological grounds is the structure of intentions. So the above case provides support for the kind of focus on intentions that is essential to the Principle of Double Effect.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Toby the Targ

Happy New Year, everyone! And a blessed Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God!

Last year, for Christmas I made a Klingon bat'leth for my older daughter. This year, she wanted a stuffed Toby the Targ, like the one Molly plays with in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The stuffed targs on the market are ugly. The one on the show was made over from a stuffed warthog. I found a matching warthog on ebay, gave it to my daughter for Christmas, and then she and I turned it into a targ by adding spines. Instructions and spine patterns are here.