Monthly Archives: August 2011

Why Pascal Won’t Get Mugged

Philosopher Nick Bostrom (2009) imagines that it would be quite easy to trick Blaise Pascal out of his money.  In fact, he thinks a mugger could use the reasoning Pascal applies in his own “Wager argument” to trick him into giving up his wallet willingly.  Bostrom’s fantastic dialogue culminates in the following manner:

Mugger: . . .Well, have I got good news for you! I have magical powers. I can give you any finite amount of money that you might ask for tonight. What’s more, I can give you any finite amount of Utility that I choose to promise you tonight.

Pascal: And I should believe you why?

Mugger: Trust me! OK, I realize this does not give you conclusive evidence, but surely it counts a least a little bit in favour of the truth of what I am asserting. Honestly, I really do have these powers.
Pascal: Your conduct tonight has not inspired me with confidence in your honesty.

Mugger: OK, OK, OK, OK. But isn’t possible that I am telling the truth?

Pascal: It is possible that you have the magic powers that you claim to have, but let me tell you, I give that a very, very low probability.
Mugger: That’s fine. But tell me, how low a probability exactly? Remember, you might think it all seems implausible, but we are all fallible, right? And you must admit, from what you’ve already seen and heard, that I am a rather atypical mugger. And look at my pale countenance, my dark eyes; and note that I’m dressed in black from top to toe. These are some of the telltale signs of an Operator of the Seventh Dimension. That’s where I come from and that’s where the magic work gets done.

Pascal: Gee . . . OK, don’t take this personally, but my credence that you have these magic powers whereof you speak is about one in a quadrillion.

Mugger: Wow, you are pretty confident in your own ability to tell a liar from an honest man! But no matter. Let me also ask you, what’s your probability that I not only have magic powers but that I will also use them to deliver on any promise – however extravagantly generous it may seem – that I might make to you tonight?

Pascal: Well, if you really were an Operator from the Seventh Dimension as you assert, then I suppose it’s not such a stretch to suppose that you might also be right in this additional claim. So, I’d say one in 10 quadrillion.

Mugger: Good. Now we will do some maths. Let us say that the 10 livres that you have in your wallet are worth to you the equivalent of one happy day. Let’s call this quantity of good 1 Util. So I ask you to give up 1 Util. In return, I could promise to perform the magic tomorrow that will give you an extra 10 quadrillion happy days, i.e. 10 quadrillion Utils. Since you say there is a 1 in 10 quadrillion probability that I will fulfil my promise, this would be a fair deal. The expected Utility for you would be zero. But I feel generous this evening, and I will make you a better deal: If you hand me your wallet, I will perform magic that will give you an extra 1,000 quadrillion happy days of life.

Pascal: I admit I see no flaw in your mathematics.

Mugger: This is my final offer. You’re not going to pass up a deal that we have just calculated will give you an expected Utility surplus of nearly 100 Utils, are you? That’s the best offer you are likely to see this year.

Pascal: Is this legitimate? You know, I’ve committed myself to trying to be a good Christian.

Mugger: Of course it’s legitimate! Think of it as foreign trade. Your currency is worth a lot in the Seventh Dimension. By agreeing to this transaction, you give a major boost to our economy. Oh, and did I mention the children? If only you could see the faces of the sweet little orphans who will be made so much better off if we get this influx of hard currency – and there are so many of them, so very, very, very many . . . .

Pascal: I must confess: I’ve been having doubts about the mathematics of infinity. Infinite values lead to many strange conclusions and paradoxes. You know the reasoning that has come to be known as ‘Pascal’s Wager’? Between you and me, some of the critiques I’ve seen have made me wonder whether I might not be somehow confused about infinities or about the existence of infinite values . . .

Mugger: I assure you, my powers are strictly finite. The offer before you does not involve infinite values in any way. But now I really must be off; I have an assignation in the Seventh Dimension that I’d rather not miss. Your wallet, please!

Pascal hands over his wallet.

Mugger: Pleasure doing business. The magic will be performed tomorrow, as agreed (Bostrom 2009, 444-445).1

I think Bostrom incorrectly characterizes how Pascal would respond to the “seventh-dimension” mugger of finite power.    When he is asked how probable it would be that mugger possesses magical powers to give any finite sum of money, Pascal answers 1:1 quadrillion. But it seems to me that it is more likely that a finite being has the magical power to conjure up smaller sums of money or utility than they do to conjure up larger sums.  So my Pascal would say something like: “We in the fourth-dimension have a magical ability too.  We can calculate the probability that a seventh-dimension mugger will be able to produce any given finite sum of money to an amazing degree of accuracy.  So if I ask you to produce finite sum n, I know the probability that you will be able to produce that sum is 1:1,000,000,000,000,000n Consequently, the likelihood that you will not make good on your promise always outweighs the potential reward for taking the risk. Sorry, you can’t have my wallet.” Interestingly enough, if the mugger were to claim omnipotence, and that he could give infinite utility to Pascal, then the risk and reward are balanced. One might just give a wallet to such a god.  But Pascal might just as well take a risk on Christ instead, since Christ never threatened to take his wallet in a dark alley!

Bostrom’s analysis trades on Pascal evaluating the likelihood that a mugger could produce ANY given amount of money rather than evaluating the likelihood that the mugger could produce a PARTICULAR amount of money. We are to take the probability of producing 1 quadrillion dollars as equally likely as the probability of producing 10 quadrillion. But why should we buy into this? If magical power is analogous to any other finite physical power source, then the likelihood that a given quantity of some effect will be produced is directly proportionate to the quantity promised. Sure, we could pretend along with Bostrom that Pascal is some kind of a buffoon, but I don’t think this sheds much light on Pascal’s wager.  It is just an uncharitable characterization of this genius of the 17th century.

1N. Bostrom (2009) “Pascal’s Mugging”, Analysis, Vol: 69 (3), pp. 443 -445.

Can clouds love?

Following the death of his wife Helen Joy, C.S. Lewis wrote some reflections which were gathered up into A Grief Observed.  In one section he wrote,

If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was.  I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person.  There aren’t, and never were, any people.  Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there.  What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked.  All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared.

But this must be nonsense; vacuity revealed to whom?  Bankruptcy declared to whom?  To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms?  I will never believe–more strictly I can’t believe–that one set of physical events could be, or make, a mistake about other sets (1989, 41)1

It seems to me that this is a powerful objection to a naturalistic worldview.  I do not understand how it could be that the physicalist accounts for the identity and individuation of persons.  In fact, I think that if physicalism is true, there could be no persons to know it is true.  I would argue as follows:

1.  If physicalism is true, then there are no objective criteria for individuating and identifying persons.

2.  If there are no objective criteria for individuating and identifying persons, then no persons exist.

3.  If no persons exist, then I cannot experience love for my wife.

4.  If I experience love for my wife, then there must be persons.

5. I experience love for my wife.

6.  Therefore, physicalism is false.

In other words, if the physicalist is to convince me that my experiences belie reality, they still must appeal to me and “my experiences”.  If my experiences are to be false and I am mistaken, then there must be criteria for individuating and identifying me from the rest of the physical universe.  These criteria cannot be subjective, arbitrary, and ad hoc.  Rather, they must be objective, essential, and real. But, I think we have good reason to think premise 1 is true.   Organisms constantly change in that which they are physically composed.  The physicalist might say that the pattern remains the same, but they really mean that patterns are similar.  Consider the physicalist who supposes that a transporter might copy a human, decompose the matter at one location and reproduce the pattern perfectly elsewhere.  The physicalist might say that the human has been transported like a faxed message.  But if the original is not destroyed when the copy is produced, the physicalist struggles to explain what has happened.  Are both the copy and the original the same person?  The struggle reveals the point that even if all physical facts of a person are copied and reproduced in matter elsewhere, there is still something non-physical through which a person is identified and individuated as the self-same person. So, I would challenge the physicalist to supply these objectively real criteria.  For, without such an account, I could hardly be faulted for thinking that these real and objective criteria are found in non-physical realities–in what the supernaturalist calls the “soul”.

1C.S. Lewis. (1961). A Grief Observed. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

The Ultimate Concession?

Sadly, another atheist has decided not to debate Dr. William Lane Craig on the question of God’s existence.  In preparation for her debate with Craig, Polly Toynbee began to study some of his previous debates.  Soon after, she decided that she did not want to go through with the engagement scheduled for this October.  Hopefully there will be more information  as to why Toynbee backed out.   One wonders what it was about Craig’s previous debates that led Toynbee to her decision to back out two months before the event.

From Ed Thornton, August 12, 2011. “Atheists Decline Oxford Debate on God”, Church Times (H/T UnbelievableJB):

ATHEIST philosophers are being accused of “running shy” of debating with a Christian philosopher from the United States who is to tour the UK in the autumn to argue that faith is rational.

Polly Toynbee, the Guardian columnist and president of the British Humanist Association, had agreed to debate the existence of God with the Research Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology, California, Dr William Lane Craig, at Westminster Central Hall in October, during Professor Craig’s “Reasonable Faith” tour. Earlier this month, however, Ms Toynbee said that she would not be taking part in the event. “I hadn’t realised the nature of Mr Lane Craig’s debating style, and, having now looked at his previous per­formances, this is not my kind of forum.” Professor Craig said: “These are academic forums, where one con­centrates on the arguments and counter-arguments, the truth of the premises in those arguments and objections to them, and not on personality or ad hominem attacks.” Professor Craig has previously debated with atheist philosophers such as Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, who described Professor Craig as “the one Christian apologist who has put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists”. The humanist philosopher Pro­fessor A. C. Grayling also refused to debate with Professor Craig, and denied ever having done so, despite the debate between the two on the problem of evil at the Oxford Union in 2005. Professor Grayling later said: “I was wrong about debating [with] Lane Craig — but Lane Craig is wrong about everything else in the universe; so I guess I don’t do too badly in the deal.” The director of Professor Craig’s tour, Peter May, said: “If Craig is ‘wrong about everything else in the universe’ and his arguments for the existence of God are so easy to refute, it is hard to see why the leading atheist voices in the country are running shy of having a debate with him. “Rather than hurling ad hom­inem attacks on Craig from their bunkers, it would be good to see these figures come forward to rationally defend the atheism they publicly espouse.” Professor Craig is scheduled to debate with the atheist former Pro­fessor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, Dr Peter Atkins, at the Uni­versity of Manchester; and with another atheist, the Professor of Philosophy at Hertford College, Oxford University, Peter Millican, at the University of Birmingham. Professor Richard Dawkins has been invited to debate with Professor Craig in Oxford, on 25 October. If Professor Dawkins refuses, the organisers say that Professor Craig “will lecture on the weakness of Dawkins’s argu­ments in his book The God Delusion”. The organisers of the tour say that they are attempting to find another atheist to debate with Professor Craig in London, instead of Ms Toynbee.

Many atheists and theists agree that William Lane Craig is among the greatest Christian apologists and debaters of our generation.  He has effectively won nearly every debate with just a few exceptions. Just listen to a few of his debates and you will soon discover that Craig is impeccably organized, methodical, and focused like a laser.  He rarely lets an argument go unchallenged, while his opponent often offer only superficial responses to Craig’s syllogisms.  So if the “New Atheists” no longer will engage with Craig, are they making some kind of concession? We will have to see if other “New Atheists” will follow in the footsteps of Dawkins and Toynbee.  In the meantime, I look forward to the Atkins and Millican debates when they become available.  I hope to write up a review of them, if they don’t back out too.

On a lighter note:

[Update 8/16/2011]  Stephen Law has stepped up to the plate and will debate William Lane Craig!  Hats off to Law for having the courage and conviction that Dawkins, Grayling, and Toynbee seem to lack.

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?

The PhilPapers Survey was a survey of professional philosophers and others on their philosophical views, carried out in November 2009. The Survey was taken by 3226 respondents, including 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students.

The PhilPapers Metasurvey was a concurrent survey of professional philosophers and others concerning their predictions of the results of the Survey. The Metasurvey was taken by 727 respondents including 438 professional philosophers and PhDs and 210 philosophy graduate students. (

The PhilPapers Survey never asked me for my philosophical views, but that’s not stopping me. So here is my stab at the survey, one post at a time.

Question Three

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?

Accept or lean toward: objective 382 / 931 (41%)
Accept or lean toward: subjective 321 / 931 (34.4%)
Other 228 / 931 (24.4%)

I accept the objectivity of aesthetic values.

This is an important question for me. It is the question which by which I first realized my interests in philosophy. When I was a senior in high school I went with a couple of friends to see the movie American Beauty. After the film, I made the comment that I didn’t think that a plastic bag floating in the breeze was particularly all that beautiful. My friends both agreed that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that if the boy in the film thought that it was beautiful, then he was entitled to that opinion. For some reason I vehemently disagreed and for the next four hours or so we debated the objectivity of aesthetic values. Of course I didn’t know we were debating such a heady metaphysical topic at the time. I just kept insisting that certain things were simply more beautiful than other things, no matter what the opinions of people happened to be. If everyone were to agree that Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville is more beautiful than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, I would say that they were wrong. I think there is an objective reality that grounds the judgment that the Ninth Symphony is the more beautiful work and those who disagree are insensitive to the reality of that objective beauty.

Beauty is one of the great transcendentals along with truth and goodness. Though they are transcendentals, I think they are as much objects of our senses as there are objects of sight, sound, smell, sound, touch, and taste. Admittedly there is a subjective component to these sensation, but the question is whether the “value” of these components is the subjective part. I don’t think so. If there is a red apple in front of me, it is objectively red. We might say that it ought to be evaluated as red, because its color-value is red. If I say that I see the apple as green, then my subjective experience of the objective reality is wrong. Likewise, if I see a hungry homeless man begging for food and do not sense that I ought to bring him something to eat, my subjective experience is off-kilter from the moral-value which ought to be impinging upon my moral sense. So also, if someone were to see Botticelli’s Primavera and not judge the work to beautiful, such a person must have a dysfunctional sense of beauty.

Now, it might be true that a person does not particularly like Botticelli’s Primavera. A person can freely admit that they enjoy Brittney Spear’s Hit Me Baby One More Time to O God Beyond All Praising. I don’t think aesthetic value has to do with whether one derives pleasure from an object. I could say that Botticelli’s Primavera is objectively more beautiful than Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, but that I enjoy Pollock’s painting more. What I am admitting is that my feelings do not always accord with that which my senses ought to sense. So I want to distinguish between matters of taste and matters of aesthetic values. To compare back with the other two transcendentals, I might also prefer some moral evils to some moral goods, or falsities over truths. But my preferences do not change objective values.

So, I think it is possible to think a beautiful object is not beautiful by being insensitive to beauty. I also think it is possible to enjoy something less beautiful over something more beautiful because the passions do not always accord with reason. Ultimately, I would argue the following:

1. Truth, goodness, and beauty are eternally and essentially attributed to God.

2. God is simple, i.e. without component essential attributes.

3. Truth, goodness, and beauty must not be essential parts, but different ways of describing essentially the same attribute of God.

4. If something is an objective reality, it differs in its fundamental reality from something that is a subjective reality.

5. If beauty is essentially the same as truth and goodness, it cannot differ in its fundamental reality from them.

6. Truth and goodness are objective realities.

7. Therefore, beauty is an objective reality.

I think this argument would need to be developed and defended further, but I think this is sufficient to ground my belief in the objectivity of aesthetic values. How would you respond to this question?

Fish at it again

Stanley Fish is at it again.  Last week, I wrote a critique of Fish’s argument that philosophy does not matter (here).  I point out that Fish demonstrates a lack of understanding of what relativism is–confusing it with a kind of moral agnosticism.  I also gave some counter-examples for why I think philosophy  matters.  Apparently I was not the only one who took issue with Fish.  He received enough negative comments that he felt the need to defend himself in the Opinionator this week.  I’d like to address his rebuttal, in particular his comments on religion and philosophy.  One of Fish’s commentators noted that religion is often inextricably linked with philosophical views and that such religious belies do travel into the everyday lives of those believes.  Fish disagrees.  The relevant section appears below.

Stanley Fish, Does Philosophy Matter? (Part 2), August 8, 2011


. . . Believers, Marie Burns  (1) observes,  do rely on  their religion “to determine their views on a variety of subjects.” Many people, An Ordinary American (140) reminds us,  when asked why do you do this, would reply, “This is what my religion teaches me to do.”

The question is whether religion should be considered philosophy. For a long time, of course, philosophy was included under religion’s umbrella, not in the modern sense that leads to courses like “The Philosophy of Religion,” but in the deeper sense in which religious doctrines are accepted as foundational and philosophy proceeds within them. But for contemporary philosophers religious doctrines are not part of the enterprise but a threat to it. The spirit is as  Andrew Tyler (38) describes it:  “to be skeptical, critical and independent so that you’re not so easily duped and frightened into submission by religious dogma.” Courses in the philosophy of religion tacitly subordinate religion to philosophy by subjecting religion to philosophy’s questions and standards. Strong religious believers will resist any such subordination because, for them, religious, not philosophical, imperatives trump. The reason religion can and does serve as a normative guide to behavior is that it is not a form of philosophy, but a system of belief  that binds the believer.  (Philosophy is something you can do occasionally, religion is not.)

But aren’t beliefs and philosophies the same things? No they’re not. Beliefs such as “I believe that life  should not be taken” or “I believe in giving the other fellow the benefit of  the doubt” or “I believe  in the equality of men and women” or “I believe in turning the other cheek” are at least the partial springs of our actions and are often regarded by those who hold them as moral absolutes; no exceptions recognized. These, however, are particular beliefs which can be arrived at for any number of reasons, including things your mother told you, the reading of a powerful book, the authority of a respected  teacher, an affecting experience that you have generalized into a maxim  (“From now on I’ll speak ill of no one.”).

A belief in moral absolutes, as an abstract position, is quite another thing. It affirms no particular moral absolute (although it might lead down the road to naming some); rather, it asserts that the category of moral absolutes is full; and it does so against the arguments of those who assert that the category is empty, not with respect  to any particular moral absolute, but generally. Wherever one stands at the end of a such a philosophical argument  one will be committed not to any specific moral  stance (like turning the other cheek) but either to the thesis, again abstract,  that  moral stances are  anchored in and justified by an underlying truth about the nature of moral behavior or to the thesis that they are not.

There are a couple of points  with which I take issue here.  First, Fish tries to stipulate his way out of Marie Burns’ observation by creating a false dichotomy between religion and contemporary philosophy.  But isn’t it true that contemporary philosophy, if it has anything to do with religion, subjugates it to a critical analysis?  While it certainly is the case that some philosophers of religion are skeptical of religious doctrines, we cannot conclude from this that contemporary philosophy as a whole is antithetical to religiously based philosophical speculations.  Many philosophers of religion start with metaphysical and religious presuppositions (gasp).  I would like to assure Dr. Fish that Natural Theology is alive and well in the modern era.  Also there are the Eastern philosophical systems, many of which are inextricable tied up with metaphysical theses originating in the Vedic religious systems, Taoism, and Confucianism.  It should also be noted that many philosophers who are critical of religion are just as susceptible to having unproven metaphysical presuppositions in their writings.  This can hardly be avoided.  But, if a philosopher is open and honest that they are starting from those presuppositions, his or her arguments do not suffer for it.  It is the philosopher who pretends to be absolutely skeptical of whom we should be skeptical.  Take a careful look and you will find metaphysical naturalism, compatiblism, Platonism, nominalism, or some other exotic axiom lurking enthymematically between the lines.

Fish would like us to think that contemporary philosophy is nothing more than a meaningless chess-game, where the victor is the one who places her opponent’s cherished beliefs in checkmate.  Sure, if one thinks philosophy is just about being skeptical, one might be led to the conclusion that philosophy doesn’t travel.  But, at the end of the day we either move beyond skepticism or we won’t travel at all!  The skeptic is stuck in the mud of doubt.  But not every philosopher is a skeptical stick-in-the-mud.  In fact, most aren’t.  This is because philosophers are free to take any presuppositions they want for their starting points.  There is no rule that says one must start with only those premises that one knows to be true without any doubt.  Descartes tried it and has since become the philosophical whipping boy for his attempt.  Rather than Descartes, we should follow the example of Kant– one of the undisputed greatest philosopher of all time who leaves skepticism behind in order to make significant contributions to moral theory. In order for him to do this, Kant had to move beyond what he thought he could prove with theoretical reason.  So, what he could not prove, he postulates.  Kant’s entire moral system is built on the presumption that God exists, there is freedom, and the soul is immortal.  Without these three postulates of practical reasoning, Kant would not have been able to move much beyond his first critique.  So, philosophy doesn’t subjugate every belief.  Rather, it is a belief that is the touchstone for some insightful philosophical reflection.  Obviously some of these touchstone beliefs are religious in nature.

The second issue I have with Fish’s response has to do with the way in which he tries to separate beliefs from philosophy.  He admits that particular beliefs can be arrived at for many reasons, but it does not appear as though he is willing to explicitly admit the obvious: that particular beliefs can and often are deduced from higher and more abstract principles and that often these principles are based upon entire philosophical systems.  Philosophy does travel.  It travels up through induction, and down through deduction.  It travels sideways by analogy.  Sometimes philosophy even takes great leaps through abduction.  All the while, general principles are distilled  into particular beliefs and particular beliefs are promulgated into particular actions.

Sorry Fish, philosophy still matters.

The New Eugenics

Working for the Extinction of Down Syndrome Kids, by Mark W. Leach (H/T New Advent)


By the year 2030, Denmark will become Down syndrome-free. If this happens, the landmark elimination of this minority group will be due to the introduction of a national prenatal testing program in 2004. The number of DS births halved in 2005 and has dropped by 13 percent every year since then. Niels Uldbjerg, professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the University of Aarhus, told the Copenhagen Post that this is a “tremendously great accomplishment.”

But is it? Or is it a form of latter-day eugenics?

Although the United States is far bigger and more diverse than Denmark, the development of non-invasive prenatal diagnosis (NIPD) could make Down syndrome births a rarity there as well. Normally, they account for about one birth in 691. But when statistics show that when pregnant women are diagnosed with a DS child, as many as 90 percent terminate it. . .

The article continues,

In many countries, prenatal testing for DS is funded by taxpayers. Governments justify funding prenatal testing based on a claimed benefit that fewer children with Down syndrome mean more healthcare dollars for other people. Not surprisingly, because the patient does not have to pay the cost, there are more tests and more terminations.

Supporters of public funding argue that it is cheaper to offer subsidized prenatal testing and abortions than to pay the medical bills of a child with Down syndrome. Governments, therefore, are involved in a program intended to reduce the number of lives with DS. The new eugenics looks a lot like the old eugenics.

It seems that abortion is being used as a means to select the kind of children we want to raise.  Along with the above statistics, consider Sunita Puri’s article “I Know It’s a Girl, and I Need Your Help To Get It Out of Me” (Slate August, 2, 2011).  Puri notes the growing trend to use abortions as a means to select the sex of a baby.  She writes,

The reasons American women undergo them are complex, from situations that don’t seem particularly troubling (the upper-middle-class woman who wants a daughter to “balance out” her three boys) to those that are deeply concerning (the immigrant woman who wants a son to avoid emotional abuse by her in-laws).

Consider also the recently UK statistics, which were released a few months ago indicating that between 2002 and 2010 26 babies were aborted for having a cleft lip or palate, a condition that can be easily remedied with surgery.  Hilary White of Life Site News (July 21, 2011) reports on the statistics:

In total, nearly 18,000 babies were aborted between 2002 and 2010 on the grounds of suspected disability. 1,189 were killed after the upper legal gestational age limit of 24 weeks. The figures show that these include 482 killed for Down’s syndrome in 2010 alone. In the same year, 181 abortions were attributed to musculoskeletal problems such as club foot, while 189 unborn children killed for anencephaly and 128 for spina bifida.

In consider whether we ought to choose who should live and who should die, I am reminded of the wisdom of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.

‘But this is terrible cried Frodo. ‘Far worse than the worst thing I imagined from your hints and warnings.  O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do?  For now I am really afraid.  What am I to do?  What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature , when he had the chance!’

‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand.  Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.  And he has been well rewarded, Frodo.  Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so.  With Pity.’

‘I’m sorry’ said Frodo, ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’

‘You have not seen him.’ Gandalf broke in.

‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘I can’t understand you.  Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds?  Now at any rate he is as bad as any Orc, and just an enemy.  He deserves death.’

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does.  Many that live deserve death.  And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be eager to deal out death in judgment.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends.  I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.  And he is bond up with the fate of the Ring.  My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many–yours not the least. . . (66-67).1

We do not see all ends, nor should we be so willing to deal death in judgment.  For I suspect that our fate is bound up with how we treat the least among us, the innocent, and the most defenseless.
1J.R.R. Tolkien. 1994. The Fellowship of the Ring: Beginning the First Part of The Lord of the Rings. New York: Ballantine Books.

Steve Winwood’s Higher Love and Aquinas’ Fourth Way

One of my favorite songs from the 1980’s is Steve Winwood’s Higher Love.  Here are some of the lyrics:

Think about it,
There must be higher love.
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above.
Without it,
Life is wasted time.
Look inside your heart and I’ll look inside mine.

Things look so bad everywhere.
In this whole world what’s fair?
We walk the line and we try to see.
Falling behind of what could be? (Winwood & Jennings 1986).

To me, this song describes the kind of yearning Saint Augustine describes when he wrote:

You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you (Conf. 1,I).1

The song also calls to my mind 1 John 4:8:

He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.

So I wonder if Winwood’s song contains something of an argument for God’s existence.  Perhaps we could apply Winwood’s insights to a version of Aquinas’ fourth way.  Here is how Aquinas argues:

Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God (Sum I, 2, iii).2

Just for fun, here is a Winwood inspired version of a cosmological argument:

1.  If I can love, there must be higher love.

2.  If there is a higher love, there is highest love, which is the cause of  all lesser loves and is called God.

3.  I can love.

4.  Therefore, there is a highest love, which is the cause of all lesser loves and is called God (1 John 4:8).

Further, we might argue:

5.  If life is wasted time, there is no highest love.

6.  Therefore, life is not wasted time.

Who says that pop music can’t be profound?

1 Augustine. (1998). The Confessions. Trans. M. Boulding, O.S.B. New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics. 3.

2Thomas Aquinas. (1947). Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Retrieved August 6, 2011.

Computer Validates Anselm’s Proof for God’s Existence

Paul Oppenheimer and Edward Zalta (2011) have used Prover9 to check the validity of Anselm’s ontological argument.  The program not only proved the argument’s validity, but went on to derive a simplified version of the argument containing only one non-logical premise and avoiding many of the metaphysical pitfalls of Anselm’s original formulation.  Their article, A Computationally-Discovered Simplification of the Ontological Argument, appears in the June issue of the Australian Journal of Philosophy.

In plain English, the one non-logical second premise of the simplified argument reads:

If the conceivable thing than which nothing greater is conceivable fails to exist, then something greater than it is conceivable (348).1

[Spoiler Alert] Oppenheimer and Zalta do not claim that this simplified version of the argument is sound.  They think the premise has some prima facie plausibility (ibid.).  Further analysis reveals that the defender of the ontological argument must provide an independent argument to think the premise is true.  Still, they seem to suggest that such an independent argument could be constructed out of their previous work.  They write:

Our 1991 analysis of the argument is still relevant, since it shows how the ontological arguer could justify Anselm’s use of the definite description. The present analysis
shows why the use of the definite description needs independent justification.  Consequently, though the simplified ontological argument is valid, Premise 2 is questionable and to the extent that it lacks independent justification, the simplified argument fails to demonstrate that God exists.  The use of computational techniques in systematic metaphysics has illuminated the relationship between Premise 2 of the ontological argument and the conclusion that God exists (349).

So the argument in plain English would run something like this:

1. Nothing greater is conceivable than the conceivable thing than which nothing greater is conceivable.

2. If the conceivable thing than which nothing greater is conceivable fails to exist, then something greater than it is conceivable.

3.  Therefore, the conceivable thing than which nothing greater is conceivable does not fail to exist.

Premise One does seem to be a priori true.  So, in this formulation, the question of the soundness of the argument really does come down to Premise 2.  All else being equal, is a conceivable thing that exists greater than a conceivable thing that fails to exist?  Kant would say no.  Existence is not a real predicate!  But I don’t remember Kant really giving an argument for this.  All he gives is a weak analogy about thalers, the Prussian currency of his day.  Kant argues that 100 real thalers does not contain a coin more than 100 imagined thalers.  Thus, by analogy, “that God exists” adds nothing to the concept of God.  Now it might be true that 100 imagined thalers have as many coins as 100 real thalers.  But the for the analogy to hold, the question is not with regard to the equality of coins between the two, but which is greater.  So I offer the following prize: if you can prove that 100 imagined dollars are just as great as 100 real dollars, you win 100 imagined dollars.  Once you have submitted the proof just close your eyes and imagine that green-hued Benjamin Franklin with his perturbed expression.  Are you not motivated to win the prize?  Would you prefer that I offer you a real 100 dollar bill for the proof?  Why?

[An Aside] The fact that a computer program was able to refine the ontological argument is quite intriguing to me.  Suppose the singularity occurs, as predicted by some futurists.  What if the resulting super-intelligent machines were able to demonstrate the soundness of the ontological argument?  Would these super-intelligent machines develop religion?

1P. Oppenheimer & E. Zalta. (2011). “A Computationally-Discovered Simplification of the Ontological Argument”. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 89 (2): 333-349.

Color-Blindness, Dualism, and Eschatological Verification

Raymond Smullyan (1983) imagines a fantastic world which, by analogy, sheds some interesting light on the mind-body problem:

Imagine (if you can!) a world with the very curious property that any two objects have the same color if an only if they happen to have the same shape.  So, for instance, all

red objects are spherical and all spherical objects are red; all green objects are cubical and all cubical objects are green; and so forth.  Imagine also that half of the inhabitants of the world are completely color-blind, and the other half see colors perfectly.  In this word, color is the analogue of mental and shape is the analogue of physical.  Hence, the materialists are the color-blind, and the dualists are the color-sighted. . .

Smullyan ponders the kinds of metaphysical controversies that might arise on such a world.  The color-blind would say that there are only two properties of an object: size and shape.  The color-sighted would say that there is a third property that could not be reduced to the other two–a property called color.  The color-sighted people would be dismissed as mystics or metaphysical cranks who blather on about non-sense.  For, whenever a color-sighted person is asked to demonstrate the existence of this third property by distinguishing two objects by color, the color-blind person could make the same distinction by way of shape.  The color-sighted could never prove that color existed.  Smullyan further notes, “. . . [a]ll statements about colors would be translatable into statements about shapes (at least in the opinion of the color-blind!).

Smullyan then considers the possibility that on this world the color-sighted develop a dualist vocabulary with words that describe shape and other words that describe color.  He wrties:

A color-sighted person would say, “This object is both spherical and red, which is saying two very different things about it.”  The color-blind person would reply, “I still cannot understand your distinction between the words spherical and red.”  Imagine the theories that the color-sighted people might invent to account for the dual phenomena of shape and color!   Some might regard shape and color as different aspects or modes of the same underlying substance.  Others might marvel that God has preordained some miraculous harmony between shapes and colors.  Then there would arise an identity theory that would maintain that despite the possible difference between the meaning of the words color and shape, colors and shapes themeseles were nevertheless the same things.  Of course, the color-blind people would have no idea what the metaphysicians were talking about. (Smullyan 1983, 77).

What is most interesting of all in this analogy is if one of the color-sighted individuals were to travel in a spacecraft to a normal world, like Earth.  This astronaut would see spheres of all colors, cubes of all colors, etc.  If the astronaut were to return to their home planet, he or she might exclaim, “On this alien world some spheres are cubical!”  In other words, the astronaut is saying that some spheres are green.  Smullyan imagines the response of the color-blinded to be, “What do you mean by this nonsense?  How can something be both spherical and cubical? . . . [w]hat kind of mystical, dialectical nonsense is this?  We all know that the statement, ‘A spherical object is not cubical,’ is analytic–it is necessarily true” (Smullyan 1983, 77).

This little thought experiment is supposed to give us a sense of what may be going on in the mind-body debates between dualists and naturalistic “monists”.  It brings to mind John Hick’s response to the logical positivism of his day, eschatological verification.  Hick believes that the claims of mystics and saints are not meaningless and can, in principle, be verified.  If, when we die, we have an afterlife, it is possible that we could test whether that which the mystics and saints claim is true.  If we die and that’s it, then nothing can be verified. The point is that supernatural claims could, in theory, be verified and so could not be utterly meaningless.

Smullyan’s thought experiment sheds new light on eschatological verification.  Dying may be like visiting another world where colors and shapes are not strongly correlated.  In death, the duality of nature may be revealed to us.  This might account for the perplexing descriptions of mystical experiences and why some mystical experiences are literally ineffable.  So if Smullyan’s analogy holds, even seemingly contradictory statements made by mystics could be true.  That’s amazing, if you ask me.

1R. Smullyan. 1983. 5000 B.C. and other philosophical fantasies. New York: St. Martin Press.

Fishy Moral Relativism and the Importance of Philosophy

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Does Philosophy Matter? (8/1/2011), Stanley Fish  argues that philosophical debate over moral absolutism and moral relativism is of little import to the non-philosopher.  There are a couple of issues that I think are worth addressing.  The first has to do with the way Fish distinguishes the kinds of moral relativism. But also, I would like to consider his primary contention, that philosophical concerns, at least in the case of ethical theories, have little to no consequence in everyday life.

First, Fish distinguishes between two kinds of moral relativists:

. . .[T]here are (at least) two ways of denying moral absolutes. You can say “I don’t believe there are any” or you can say “I believe there are moral absolutes, but  (a) there are too many candidates for membership in that category and (b) there is no device, mechanical test,  algorithm or knock-down argument for determining which candidates are the true ones.”

It is the second sort of relativism to which Fish subscribes.  But is that really a form of relativism at all?  He is NOT denying moral absolutes.  He is denying our ability to know which “candidates” for moral absolutes are the true ones.  Fish goes on to say that one might call such a person an epistemological relativist rather than a moral relativist.  But that doesn’t make much sense either.  After all, he is not saying that the epistemological justification for deciding absolute moral truth is relative to a person, culture, etc. Rather, he is taking an agnostic position about moral absolutes.  This position is quite different from any variety of moral relativism.  Some might say that Fish would like to stipulate that agnosticism about moral absolutes is a variety of moral relativism, that it is his prerogative.   However, I’m a bit perplexed that he accepts the definition of moral relativism as the denial of moral absolutes while his variety of agnosticism cannot deny that such absolutes exist.  In fact, agnosticism stands starkly at odds with relativism, as the agnostic cannot know if  there are only relative conditions by which moral truths are determined.  The agnostic about moral absolutes only shrugs and asks, “Maybe?”

As for his main contention, we have little more than a bald assertion. Fish writes:

Let’s suppose that either of  two acts of persuasion has occurred in that arena: a former moral absolutist is now a relativist of some kind, or a former relativist is now a confirmed believer in moral absolutes. What exactly will have changed  when one set of philosophical views has been swapped for another? Almost nothing. To be sure you will now give different answers than you once would have when you are asked about moral facts, objective truths, irrefutable evidence and so on; but when you are engaged in trying to decide what is  the right thing to do in a particular situation, none of the answers you might give to these deep questions  will have any bearing on your decision.

How does he know that this is so?   Sure, it is possible that no change would occur.  The relativist might go on believing the same values are true as when she was an absolutist.  She would just have a different justification for why she thinks some moral principle is the case.  But the relativist is generally much more open to the possibility that there are contrary values to her own, which are also morally right relative to some other set of conditions.  What’s more, she must accept that her values will change if whatever it is her values are based upon changes.  The absolutist is far more rigid, only changing her moral values so as to refine and perfect it.  So even if the absolutist and relativist can possibly behave in the same manner, it seems much more likely that they won’t always coincide, especially over time.

Fish goes on:

You won’t say, “Because I  believe in moral absolutes, I’ll take this new job or divorce my husband or vote for the Democrat.” Nor will you say, “Because I deny moral absolutes I have no basis for deciding since any decision I make is as good or bad as any other.” What you will say, if only to yourself, is “Given what is at stake, and  the likely outcomes of taking this or that action, I think I’ll do this.”  Neither “I believe in moral absolutes” nor “I don’t”  will be a reason in the course of  ordinary, non-philosophical, deliberation. . .

In short, the conclusions reached in philosophical disquisitions do not travel. They do not travel into contexts that are not explicitly philosophical (as seminars, academic journals, and conferences are), and they do not even make their way into the non-philosophical lives of those who hold them. . .

What’s lacking in Fish’s argument is. . . well. . . an argument.  It doesn’t seem like Fish has any evidence that his conclusion is true. So he gives us no reason to think that high philosophical reflection is not at least sometimes necessary when making certain moral decisions.  Sure, one can go about one’s day without thinking about the categorical imperative, the greatest happiness principle, or some other such standard and still make moral choices as if one was thinking of them.  Even a blind squirrel will occasionally find a nut.  But I think moral education is essential for living a consistent and stable moral life.  A person who is aware of moral theory can reflect on a situation, strive toward moral improvement, and develop her virtues.  Furthermore, most people do operate with moral principles ingrained within them, at least in my experience.  Let me explain.  On the first day of an ethics class, whenever I teach the subject, I am assured of two things.  1) Most of my students will avow moral relativism, and 2) Most of them are not really moral relativists at all.  The vast majority are “tolerantists,” believing tolerance and respect for autonomy to be among the highest absolute values that exist.  Many of these students live by high ideals that they think are true no matter what.  They tell me that they volunteer their time to serve the community, they are concern with issues of social justice, poverty, political equality, and the environment.  When I ask why, they give me reasons.  They reflect on why they ought to take action.  Their moral choices are not haphazard in any way.  The point is that many of these students come into class with clear conceptions of moral principles and duties.  Sure, they can’t give me all three formulations of the categorical imperative.  But they already have something like it in their hearts.  They pick up utilitarianism so quickly because they’ve already been applying the principle of utility without even knowing its name.  They understand virtue ethics, because they’ve been affected by virtuous people in significant ways.  My job is to clarify the principles and discuss implications that may not be readily apparent to them–to push them into uncomfortable areas.  By the end, I think my students will think twice before telling a white lie (perhaps first to Kant, and then to Mill).  The animal lover reconsiders whether it is moral to eat that juicy hamburger.  The theist might consider whether “Because God says so” is an adequate response to a moral quandary. Learning abstract moral theories affects moral behavior, I’ve seen it in action.

It was the study of moral theories that led to men like Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton to formulate an entirely different form of government based upon a social contract and natural rights.  So how could it be that the deeper underlying theories are irrelevant?  Could a moral relativist have written the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?I have my doubts.

The next question is whether studying moral theories changes us for the better.  The moral relativist doesn’t believe in moral progress, only moral change.  Likewise, the AMA, e.g. Fish, doesn’t know whether there is moral progress, so he can’t say for certain if learning and embracing a moral system  improves a person’s morality in any significant way.  For Fish, you just make choices. . . they are correct for you, but who knows if they are correct full-stop.

Fish is clearly confused about what relativism is.  And he certainly gives us no reason to think philosophy doesn’t matter. So yes Virginia, philosophy does matter.  More specifically, studying ethical theories matters.