Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Substances and Properties

The intuitive view of the world is that there are substances and properties. Every property, e.g., redness, must be a property of a substance. The redness inheres in the substance of the red apple.

This simple observation leads us to enumerate properties and substances. Since assertions cannot be flightless, we might suppose that assertions are made of a different substance than are birds. We are also led to consider whether bare substances can exist, i.e., whether it makes sense to consider substances absent of any properties.

Needless to say, the whole subject soon gets rather complicated. There are many philosophers who doubt that bare substances make any sense at all. They ask whether an apple substance is an apple at all if it has no properties of an apple. For if it is not, there may be no substances at all. Apples may be just bundles of the properties that define them.

As a study of the way language and intuition work, this is all harmless fun. However, the ship of substance theory runs aground when it makes the leap from what we experience in our study of substances and properties to metaphysical claims about kinds of substances. For example, we know that there are properties that inhere in minds that do not inhere in rocks or in thermodynamic heat. Hence, the metaphysician is tempted to say that minds are made of metaphysically different stuff from rocks and heat.

One argument the metaphysician may employ for making this distinction is that rocks and heat are both detected with our five senses, while propositions are detected only mentally. In other words, it is suggested that we should cleave substances into different categories according to the kinds of experience of their properties.

The problem with this claim is that, a priori, "the five senses" are an arbitrary conglomeration. They are not a unified whole, but are a collection of independent senses. Why should our sense of touch be grouped with our sense of vision?

The best explanation for this grouping is history of correlation. We are accustomed to thinking that the donut we feel in the palm of our hand is not something other than the donut we see sitting in the palm of our hand. The correlation of these senses is strong, and prior to any philosophical consideration. The five senses are sewn into an integrated model by our brains when we are young, and that's why we group them so naturally. But we don't have rigorous philosophical grounds for making this grouping. In principle, the donut we feel in our hand may be something different from the donut we see with our eyes.

Of course, no one doubts that the two (or five) donuts are one and the same thing, or that a donut has properties of taste, shape, weight, smell and color. Yet, donuts are not elementary sensations. There is no donut sense independent of our five standard senses (sorry, Homer!). Donuts are correlations of all of their properties.

Hence, we are not justified in establishing metaphysical classes of substance on grounds of method of experience of their properties unless we're willing to create new classes for sight, hearing, taste, touch and the like. And since we generally regard it as sensible to think of donuts as things of a single substance, we can't consistently choose to create separate substances for each kind of property experience.

This means that mental objects such as logical contradictions, feelings, moral dilemmas and propositions should not be regarded as being made out of different stuff just because the properties of these mental objects do not directly involve the five senses. Nor, for that matter, is it reasonable to consider all mental objects to be of the same substance.

The clincher is the fact that mental sensations are strongly correlated with physical ones. This is seen in brain scans (e.g., fMRI) and in studies of patients with brain injuries. Today, almost every kind of mental sensation has been correlated with physical functions in the brain. If we are to resist reducing mind function to brain function, we should also resist reducing water to H2O.

As I said, it's not that we cannot analyze language and intuition in terms of categories, it's just that we are not justified in claiming that things cleave into metaphysical categories of being based on these intuitions.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Objective Morality: What's it really good for?

Today, I had occasion to wonder, what is objective morality supposed to do for us?

Is it supposed to tell you when to ignore your moral feelings, and act against them? Just like an attitude indicator tells the pilot when he is disoriented?

This seems like an impossibility. Your subjective morality is what you think you should do. Your subjective morality cannot assert that you ought not do what you ought to do. Therefore, if you think you ought to follow an objective/algorithmic moral code, then your subjective morality is already in concurrence, rendering the objective moral code redundant.

In other words, what grounds do we have to determine that we ought to follow a certain code, apart from our ability to determine that we ought to prefer the consequences of following that code?

This is the zone in which theistic arguments about morality collapse. These arguments desire to tie morality with God. One style of argument claims that God must exist in order to give force to morality, and that without this force, we have no reason to be moral. It's corollary is that atheists are morally challenged. But calling this argument circular is an insult to circular arguments everywhere. To start with, if we didn't care to lend our own force to moral behavior, we wouldn't have been motivated to accept the argument's premises, making the conclusion redundant. To finish with, the conclusions don't even follow from the premises.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Are Omniscient Goods Indistinct?

Debates about morality get confusing because the word "good" is poorly defined.

This post is an attempt to make a more refined definition.

First Person Subjective Good (1SG): An action I think I should take given what I know.

First Person Omniscient Good (1OG): An action I think I should take if I had all knowledge.

[I leave open the definition of omniscient for the moment.]

Third Person Subjective Good (3SG): An action I think I should take if I were in a third person's position with their knowledge.

Third Person Omniscient Good (3OG): An action I think I should take if I were in a third person's position with all knowledge.

Evils are actions that are defined the same way but with the words "should not take" replacing the words "should take." I'm leaving open for the moment the question of whether there might be some actions that are free of moral obligations.

The above is not very controversial for the typical human, though humans might disagree on what specific actions are good and what are evil. Generally, 3SG's and 1SG's don't conform, e.g., what I would do in another's position is different from what they actually do. Let's call this subjective moral discord.

One thing that's a bit more controversial will be the definition of a subjectively good person. I'll venture that my knowing what my good is doesn't automatically make me good. I might know what I ought to do, but do something else anyway. In those cases, I would be acting like a subjectively bad person. This isn't an obvious conception. I'll justify it for now by saying that we are often aware that we should do one thing, but do something else on a whim.

Now, we introduce God:

God's 1SG: Actions God thinks he should take.

God's 1OG: Same as God's 1SG.

God's 3SG: Actions God thinks I should take given what I know.

God's 3OG: Actions God thinks I should take.

The hard questions have to do with omniscience.

Do all omniscient beings have the same morality? Put another way, is God's 3OG exactly the same as my 1OG? If I knew what God knew, would our goods coincide?

If omniscient goods do not coincide, then there is no objective good. If two omniscient beings have differing views of the right action, there can be no absolute right or wrong. We'll call this omniscient moral discord. God has the power to punish everyone for not following his orders, and he has the power to compel us to do what he says. However, that doesn't make his ideal actions the definitive good if, say, knowing what he knew, we would have thought it better to create a universe without suffering and without Hell. In such a scenario, an act that God considered good would be evil in my eyes.

The theist can argue that we are not omniscient, so we are in no position to judge whether there is omniscient moral discord. However, this also argues against confidence in objective good arising out of coincident omniscient goods. If there is subjective moral discord, and we cannot imagine what it is to have all of the information, then we really have no reason to believe that omniscient goods are indistinct.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Objectively Good, But Bad In Every Other Way.

My latest discussion at Thinking Christian is about morality. It's a difficult subject to debate because it's initially easy for the objectivists to falsely paint moral relativism as the absence of moral imperative, or as acid against all moral authority. Fortunately, I think that the more deeply one analyzes the subject, the closer our views all appear.

My objectivist colleagues find that emotional and material needs to be good reasons for them to follow their vision of objective morality. However, the case where one's emotional and material needs are in synch with objective morality is the trivial scenario.

In the most recent discussion, I asked whether one ought to follow an objective morality even when one's emotional and material objectives say otherwise. This seems like a straightforward, yes or no question.

Suppose the objectivist answers no. In this case, emotional and material objectives determine the good, and our general moral principle is to maximize emotional and material metrics. I like this advice, but it means that the difference between my morality and that of the objectivist is only in the perceived playing field (the consequences of actions). Specifically, I believe in the natural playing field, and they believe in a playing field that features the coercions and rewards of God. For them, God would define the good, not because he is just plain good, but because he sets the emotional and material penalties and rewards. Moral discussion would be over at this point because we would just move on to questions about the playing field (e.g., does God exist, what does he want, how does he punish, etc.) and about which parts of the field we prefer.

When the objectivist answers my question affirmatively, we have the case where objective morality carries an imperative independent of emotional and material needs. In that case, for example, the objectivists should disobey a god who was objectively evil, even if he's going to smite them for their disobedience. The relevant question is then how one objectively determines what the good actually is, given that it might be different from both what God commands and what you feel it should be.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Pat Robertson. At it again

Pat Robertson now says that God told him that the U.S. will be "lashed by storms," and that a tsunami may strike the Pacific Northwest.

That's interesting because I didn't realize that God spoke to Robertson through the Weather and Discovery Channels. Just the other day, God told me that the U.S. is lashed by storms every other day! And God predicted for me that tsunami might hit the Pacific coast, just as they have in the past.

Don't be silly, Pat! Of course God doesn't talk to us via the telly. God talks to the scientists, and then the scientists talk to us on TV.

Well, Pat, God told me that there's going to be flooding in the U.S. next year. And drought, too. And an earthquake. You can use that on your show, but only if you cut me in for a share of the profits and conflict diamonds.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Zombies and Experiential Notation

I've encountered some rather complex and confused philosophical arguments lately, and I think they would benefit from a change in notation. To that end, I'm going to employ my own little notation to denote experiences about things as distinct from the things themselves.

In this notation, my experience of seeing a red ball would be written as:

e("red ball")

In addition to experiencing the sight (and the other four sensations) of physical objects, I also experience abstractions, like numbers:


and mental sensations:

e("passionate love")

I also experience correlations between these sensations. I've noticed that a glass dropped on a concrete floor shatters:

e("glass falls to concrete floor")
=> e("glass shatters on concrete floor at time of impact")

or that certain kinds of symbolic manipulations always produce the same results:

e("x = 1 + 1")
=> e("x = 2")

For day-to-day activities, we can dispense with the experience function and simplify our notation, i.e., write e(X) simply as X. Then we can rewrite

e("x = 1 + 1") => e("x = 2")

as simply

"x = 1 + 1" => "x = 2"

We might call this process "realizing our notation."

However, we cannot always realize our notation. We have to retain and be explicit in our notation when considering the philosophical nature of experience itself.

Consider solipsism. Solipsism is the idea that things that we have experience of don't really exist. For example, the solipsist may claim that my best friend doesn't actually exist, or that I am just a brain in a vat receiving synthesized experiences (a lá Matrix).

The problem with solipsism is that it has nothing to do with experience. The solipsist implicitly assumes that the existence of X is somehow meaningful as distinct from e(X). However, nothing I will ever be conscious of can ever tell me anything directly about X.

Unfortunately, the same is true for the claims of philosophical realists who say that my experience of my best friend implies the existence of my best friend beyond my experience. To claim that e(X) implies X is just as unsupportable by conscious experience as the claim of the solipsist.

That said, we're all practical realists. This is because we're all comfortable realizing our notation and notationally converting

e("best friend") -> "best friend"

I think this implicit conversion is something we do naturally, and its the reason why solipsism feels so wrong. Still, my point is that this notational conversion is not philosophically valid, even if it is the de facto means of conducting our day-to-day affairs. We get confused when we partially realize our notation and start to confuse X with e(X).

Now, I know you've all been waiting for the zombies, so I'll get right to it. Philosophical zombies look like people, but they don't have experiences like we do (or should that be like I do?). There are a number of arguments that claim that if zombies are possible, then the world must be more than material, and minds are more than machines.

The potential problem I see with this argument is that it refers to the experience functions of others as if they were my own. Of course, I can never actually see the world as someone else does. If you and I both claim to see a red ball, then I must note this as

eme("red ball + eyou('red ball')")


eme("red ball")
eme(eyou("red ball"))

All I know is that I see a red ball and I see you claiming you see one. But the two experience functions do not act in the same space. It's possible that I may have no way to experience the world as you do.

This is very different from claims about my own experiences. For example, not only do I see the moon:

(1) e("moon"),

but I experience the experience of seeing the moon:

(2) e(e("moon")).

Though I am not warranted in concluding the separate existence of e("moon") from (2), I really don't care because it has already been asserted through (1).

The same does not hold true for my experience of your claims of seeing a red ball. So,

eme(eyou('red ball'))

does not imply

eyou('red ball'),

and nor does this latter statement assert itself without my being you instead of me.

From this I conclude that nothing I can be conscious of can raise or lower my confidence that my best friend is not a zombie. All I know is that my friend acts "as if" she is conscious, i.e.,

e("best friend is conscious").

Daniel Dennett has an excellent counter-argument against zombies. Dennett claims that a zombie who acted indistinguishably from a conscious person would in fact have to understand and believe what a conscious person believes. This follows from our definitions of these terms. Dennett's argument is effective because he recognizes that our definition of understanding is actually founded on e("understanding").

Thus, zombies are at least as absurd as solipsism.

A foreseeable objection to this analysis is that there might be things that are true that are not touchable by experience. That is, there could be some Z that is true even if there is no possible e(Z). Unfortunately, this objection fails because there is no true, only e("true"), and so Z cannot be true without e("Z is true").

Saturday, May 06, 2006

ID's Predictions

Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian has been hosting some interesting discussions about materialism and Intelligent Design (ID).

This post is taken from my response to Tom's defense of ID. Is ID's claim that it has predictions a true claim?

Two points.

The first is that design has not been scientifically well-defined by ID advocates. Design in scientific context involves modeling of the physical world, planning to goals, and manufacturing. So design as we know it is intimately related to goals and utility.

You can see this in the SETI program. SETI looks for narrow-band transmissions because narrow band transmissions are 1) easy to find if the receiver is looking for them, 2) energy efficient and 3) useful for communications. (1) may say something about us, but (2) and (3) say something about ET, namely, that ET doesn't have an infinite resource of energy, and ET communicates using EM radiation because alternatives are cost-prohibitive. There's an implicit assumption that it is expensive for ET to travel through the universe. ET would hardly waste time beaming us prime numbers at Hydrogen-times-Pi if it could instantly transport directly to our planet and speak to us in English. We are making many naturalistic assumptions about ET before we begin to detect him/her/it.

Second point.

ID is another one of those "third options" that theists love so much. Just as a naturalistic definition of determinism leaves only randomness as residue, a naturalistic definition of explanation leaves only unexplained things as residue. In science, you have to have naturalistic explanations.

Yet, the "tests" of ID proposed by ID advocates are that no natural explanation for life can be found. But this just means that life would be unexplained, or perhaps, improbable, if no probable natural explanations are found. There is no scientific meta-rule that says "ID is a default explanation unless you find an alternative." For ID to be a valid scientific theory, it has to make predictions of its own. It cannot just predict that everyone else's predictions won't pan out because that resorts to the illegal meta-rule.

I realize that ID advocates claim to make predictions, but true predictions have to follow from one's premises, and that's where things break down for ID. Without justified predictions, ID lacks explanatory power.

Let me give you an example. One so-called ID prediction is that there will be no junk DNA. Where does this prediction come from?

Evolutionary models don't say whether there will or will not be junk DNA. The models predict non-coding sequences, but don't leap to any conclusions about the regulatory function of non-coding sequences. However, it's likely that the cell environment is such that every non-coding sequence affects gene expression in at least some small way. Just like the non-functional ornaments in building architecture must subtly affect the people who work in and around those buildings.

But why does ID predict that junk has an effect? What is ID assuming about the designer that dictates the utility of junk DNA? Why does the designer care about the junk at all? Why can't the junk simply be a designed reserve of genetic material for future mutation? What, if anything, prevents the recurrence of junk since design occurred? Isn't it possible that junk DNA is a designed feature?

The ID web sites claim that their rationale is that a designer wouldn't create structures (our junk DNA) without their being functional. However, this is certainly not an inference from human design because human software applications generate plenty of junk and non-coding sequences, but remain functional due to their modularity. In contrast, DNA is non-modular spaghetti code. That is, not only does DNA not exhibit the hallmarks of human design, there's no reason why junk DNA could not have been designed to be junk (just like an aging defragmented software heap).

Of course, there are clear reasons why the perpetrators of the ID hoax would make this claim. Based on what we already know, it's a prediction that's certain to be true, even if only to some tiny extent.

The same goes for the other predictions of ID. They simply fail to follow from the premises because ID has no models with enough specificity to justify its predictions.