Monday, September 26, 2016

Privileging our future hedonic states


As Parfit famously claims in Reasons and Persons, we would prefer to hear that our painful surgery is 10 hours long and finished than that it is 1 hour long and about to start. If true, this claim means that our judgments about the value of future suffering are very different from our judgments about past suffering. But, surely past and future suffering have equal disvalue for our lives, and we should privilege the total amount of suffering in our judgments. Relying heavily on experimental data, I argue that our privileging of our own future hedonic states is peculiar, and poses a puzzle regarding the rationality of this deeply held way of thinking.


All data reported refer to paper-based surveys of undergraduate students at CSUS and Waikato (New Zealand). References to “we”, “our” etc. below technically apply only to the respondents. Only one scenario is presented per survey. All statistics cited are statistically significantly above 50% (roughly: I can say most people reported X with 95% confidence). Sample sizes range from 60-100.


We normally evaluate goods by privileging the quantity of the good, paying less attention to when the goods are received. Most would rather live a life with a 1-hour painful surgery (90%) than a 5-hour painful surgery (10%). Most think that a 54-year happy life (87%) is better than a 24-year happy life (13%). It’s simple: less suffering and more happiness is better. But note that contradicts our judgments about Parfit’s case, which is paraphrased below.
You must have a perfectly safe and effective surgery. You must be able to feel pain during, but you will be made to forget after. 
You have just woken up. The nurse says you may be the patient who had the operation yesterday (lasted 10 hours), or the patient who is to have the operation later today (lasting 1 hour). It is either true that you did suffer for 10 hours, or true that you shall suffer for 1 hour.

Which would you prefer to be true?
Most of us would prefer to hear that our painful surgery is 10 hours long and finished (73%) than that it is 1 hour long and about to start (27%). Removing the “made to forget after” bit doesn’t make much of a difference (84% prefer 10 hours past to 1 hour future suffering).

We see a similar effect with another hedonic state: happy years. Waking up in hospital again, most people report preferring to hear that they have already lived 40 happy years, and would go on to live another 30 happy years (86%) when the other option was that they have lived 70 happy years and have 1 more happy year to go (14%).

So, when asked to make the judgment from the in-the-moment point of view (e.g., the case above and if you were asked about your future and past right now), most of us privilege future hedonic states over total hedonic states (otherwise we would have preferred to hear that our 1-hour painful surgery was later today).

Considering further cases reveals that it is our privileging of future hedonic states in the moment that is peculiar.

When a version of Parfit’s case is presented with the patient being someone you care about (like a relative) rather than yourself, most report preferring to hear that the patient will suffer 1 hour in the future (88%) rather than having already suffered for 10 hours in the past (12%).

Again, we see a similar effect with happy years. Most of us would rather hear that our long lost relative had lived for 70 happy years and had 1 more happy year to go (73%) than that they had lived for 40 happy years and had 30 more happy years to go (27%).

So, when making judgments about the lives of other people we care about, most of us privilege total hedonic states over future hedonic states.

Now consider a version of Parfit’s case in which the two lives differ most prominently in regards to success (as opposed to hedonic states). Most of us would prefer to hear that we had published 5 excellent books in the past and won’t publish any more (82%) than that we had published none in the past and would publish 1 in the future (18%).

So, when making judgments about (at least) one non-hedonic good, most of us privilege the total amount of that good over the future amount of that good.


Let’s sum up the findings to bring the puzzle into stark relief. Most of us privilege our future hedonic states when making in-the-moment judgments about our lives. But, in all of the other cases, we privilege the total amount of the good over the future amount of the good. (The other cases, again, were lives from the whole-life view, other people’s hedonic states from the in-the-moment view, and other goods (for us) from the in-the-moment view.

The contrast that makes this puzzle the most apparent comes from comparing our views on Parfit’s surgery case and the surgery case for someone you care about. Most of us really want our painful surgery to be in the past (84%), even if it was 10 times longer! But, most of us also want our relative’s painful surgery to be in the future (88%), precisely because it is 10 times shorter! These verdicts seem to be contradictory.

Is it possible that the rules of prudential value work differently for us than for others? That would be strange, since from most other people’s point of view, they make judgments in the same way (they would choose for themselves to have the surgery in the past, just like you would for yourself, but not for them!)

So, it seems that one of the judgments reported above must be wrong. Our privileging of our own future hedonic states from the in-the-moment point of view is the odd one out – but is that enough to conclude that it is the mistaken one?

Dan Weijers
School of Social Sciences
University of Waikato

Sunday, September 18, 2016

What is your favorite piece of scripture and why?

This week we asked SacState Philosophy faculty for a favorite scriptural passage and 250 words or less about what makes it meaningful to them. Got some pretty cool stuff.

Kyle Swan: Jawbone of an ass
And when [Samson] came unto Lehi, the Philistines shouted against him: and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and the cords that were upon his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands loosed from off his hands. 
And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith. 
And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men (Judges 15:14-16).
Samson wasn’t a nice person. The things he did to hold the Philistine influence on the Israelites at bay was important for maintaining Israel’s covenant with God, but he wasn’t doing it for that reason. He was doing it because he was kind of a jerk. After all, you’d have to be a jerk to make a semi-clever pun while killing a thousand people (the Hebrew for “ass” and “heaps” is the same word, so he’s saying “with an ass’s jawbone I make asses of them”).

But I like the reminder that, when I say something useful with less than pure motives, God can use the jawbone of an ass.

Phillip Baron: The snow man, by Wallace Stevens
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Scripture is text I turn to looking for orientation and challenge.

I read Wallace Stevens’ brief, deceptively simple poem as an imperative to empathize. It presents a challenge to see the world as another sees it and, at the same time, to see the world as it is. The anthropomorphic figure of the snow man plays the double role of the other and, since a snow man is just an inanimate pile of ice, the objective reality. 

Both adopting the perspective of another and adopting a perspective that sees the world as it is are impossible goals. And yet, the possibility of rational conversation and respect for something greater than oneself depend on the extent to which we aim at these impossible tasks. Literature offers us the opportunity to see from another’s perspective. In “The Snow Man,” Stevens beautifully condenses this challenge.

Timothy Houk: Happy are the pacifists
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God… You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:9, 38-44)
This is one of my favorite passages for a few reasons.

First, it addresses a controversial moral issue: what is the proper response to those who seek to harm us? I can’t make up my mind on this issue. I am highly sympathetic to many kinds of pacifism, which (by my lights) this passage seems to promote. We should love and help everyone—even our “enemies.” However, there are circumstances where I can’t seem to maintain my pacifist intuitions. Violence, even in the context of retributive punishment, sometimes seems very fitting—especially when we consider our responsibilities to protect vulnerable people. There must be some way to coherently resolve this thorny issue, but how?

Second, I’m intrigued by moral reformers—especially those in ancient times where many of the accepted practices can seem barbaric to our present sensibilities. This passage is one of the few ancient writings to promote a kind pacifism. And the speaker, Jesus, not only taught it, but practiced it. He did not resist being unjustly sentenced to death. (Note: there are interesting similarities here between Jesus and Socrates.)

Third, like Aristotle, it connects the moral life with the happy/flourishing/good life. The Greek word for “blessed” (makarios) is similar in meaning to Aristotle’s notion of “happiness” (eudaimonia). In fact, there are some passages where Aristotle uses the two words almost interchangeably. Much of modern moral philosophy fails to maintain this important connection between the moral life and the good life.

Kevin Vandergriff: Moral Prophecy

Under a natural reading of Matthew 25: 34-40, this passage tells us that the Great Judgment will be rendered primarily on the basis of how we have treated the hungry, the alienated, and the sick:
Then the King will say to those on His right hand,
        ‘Come you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me’.
        ‘Then the just will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
       ‘And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”’ (Matt. 25: 34-40)
The ipsissima vox of Jesus is informing his listeners, among other things, that they will not be judged on the correctness of their systematic theology, or their degree of adherence to cultic requirements, but on how they have treated ‘the least of these’.

There are two reasons this passage is one of my favorites.

As an aspiring effective altruist, I identify deeply with this passage because it implies that the supererogatory is actually obligatory.

Moreover, as a theist, I find some support for my theistic belief in this very passage. Why? Because it is antecedently more likely on the assumption that theism is true, rather than on the assumption that naturalism or otherism is true (cf Paul Draper), that there would be “moral prophets”—those persons who perceive objective moral truths ahead of their time. Given the religio-historical context of first-century Palestine, along with the inherent biological selfishness of human organisms, Matthew 25:34-30 is some evidence that Jesus was a moral prophet, and by extension, some evidence for theism.

Jonathan Chen: I like having friends  
The Master (Kongzi) says, "To learn and then have occasion to practice what you have learned -- is this not satisfying? To have friends arrive from afar -- is this not a joy? To be patient even when others do not understand -- is this not the mark of a virtuous person?  (Analects 1.1)
One interpretation of this passage by Li Chong is that these three activities refer to the stages of learning: mastering the basics, discussing them with your peers, and finally becoming a teacher to others.

The cultivation of character and moral education are central themes in the Analects, and I think it Kongzi plainly lays it out in this passage. What's less important is obtaining knowledge, while what's more important is exercising it.

To be honest, I just like this passage because I think it's nice to have friends. But to have friends visit from afar? Even better!

David Corner: Thou art that

In the Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1, Uddalaka speaks to his son Svetaketu:
1. 'In the beginning,' my dear, 'there was that only which is, one only, without a second. Others say, in the beginning there was that only which is not, one only, without a second; and from that which is not, that which is was born.
2. 'But how could it be thus, my dear?' the father continued. 'How could that which is, be born of that which is not? No, my dear, only that which is, was in the beginning, one only, without a second.
Uddalaka seems to be arguing that the universe cannot have come from nothing, and the implication of this is that there has always been something. In this case that something is Brahman, which the Hindu tradition identifies with sat-chit-ananda: Being, consciousness, and pure bliss or unconditional happiness. Later Uddalaka will tell Svetaketu, “Tat tvam asi”- You are That.

The passage is interesting for many reasons. First, this is one of the oldest of the Upanishads, probably written sometime around 600 BCE, and is a religious scripture that contains a philosophical argument. Secondly, because Brahman is understood as Ultimate Reality but is not (under the mainstream interpretation) identified with God, it is atheistic. Also, it seems to counter some modern arguments for the existence of God, such as the Kalaam Argument, which agree that the universe cannot have come from nothing, but which think this implies that there must be a God who created the universe… out of nothing. (One may be forgiven for wondering, if it violates the standards of good explanation to say that the universe came out of nothing, how it helps to say that God created the universe out of nothing.)

But it is the relevance of passage this to the human situation that is most interesting. According to the Chandogya, the Self is, at its most fundamental level, eternal, self-sufficient, and ecstatically happy. The path to overcoming suffering is to realize one’s own true nature.

Thomas Pyne: Divine inefficiency

In Wilton Barnhardt’s 1992 novel Gospel, a search for a fictional lost ‘Gospel of Matthias,’ written by the Thirteenth Apostle (who replaced the traitorous Judas), Barnhardt stops his narrative at times to provide chunks of the gospel itself.

Matthias criticizes Jude, one of the original Twelve, for not spreading Jesus’ Good News like the others. Indeed, Jude even avoids seeing pilgrims who visit him.
“I do not feel good about it now, but I am afraid I was rather unpleasant to Jude and I asked if…he had brought as much as a single soul into the Kingdom-to-come. 
Jude gave me the brotherly kiss of peace. He then said, ‘Is it not possible that the soul Our Lord intended to save was mine?’”

Leibniz was likely wrong in claiming that the universe is God’s solution to an infinitely complex optimization problem:
God has chosen the most perfect world, that is, the one which is at the same time the simplest in hypotheses and richest in phenomena, as might be a line in geometry whose construction is easy and whose properties and effects are extremely remarkable and widespread. (Discourse on Metaphysics, 6)
Reality seems far too extravagantly ‘wasteful’ to be the result of such considerations. Maybe God created the entire 13 billion-year old expanse of galaxies in order to have a relationship of love and covenant with a bunch of jumped-up primates on one small planet.God doesn’t think in general concepts. Unlike us, He doesn’t have to

Saray Ayala-López:  Life in drag

I choose a fragment from The Politics of Reality, by Marilyn Frye, for being both a guide and a revelation. This book guided me into feminist philosophy, and it revealed to me that questions about sex, gender and sexual orientation that I took to be (too) personal are political and you can (and should!) philosophize about them.
It is wonderful that homosexuals and lesbians are mocked and judged for “playing butch-femme roles” and for dressing in “butch-femme drag,” for nobody goes about in full public view as thoroughly decked out in butch and femme drag as respectable heterosexuals when they are dressed up to go out in the evening, or to go to church, or to go to the office. Heterosexual critics of queers’ “role-playing” ought to look at themselves in the mirror on their way out for a night on the town to see who’s in drag - The answer is, everybody is.
Frye writes this as part of her critique of the obsession we have with announcing our sex/gender. I like how she (mockingly) calls attention to something familiar and seemingly uninteresting (heterosexual, cisgender people going out in the evening), and reveals its covert paraphernalia, its unrecognized carnivalesque character.

Saying that everybody is in drag is as liberating as terrifying. Wearing a sex and a gender is a lot of work. Wearing them well is a constant struggle. We probably dedicate more time to those tasks than to anything else in our lives.

Russell DiSilvestro: Do not merely listen 

When this week’s Dance of Reason question first went out, I responded with Matthew 4:1-11, in part because that passage contains an interesting challenge to all of us who seek to answer the DR question itself: be careful what Scripture you quote, and how you quote it, since even a devilish person may quote a scripture quite cleverly.

But while that passage is good for other reasons, I realized it’s not actually one of my favorites. However, it links to favorites in three quick steps.

First, as James 2:19 says, the devil not only talks a clever bit of scripture, he apparently even believes some correct theology—and yet his attitude is all wrong.

Second, as James 1:19-27 says, the difference between hearing correct theology and acting it out is the difference between “worthless” and “pure” religion:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says…

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Third, Matthew 7:24-27 draws a similar contrast between (merely) hearing and (actually) doing the words of Jesus, which marks a difference between wisdom and its opposite.

Hearing, belief, attitude, action. The last two matter, too. These passages from James and Matthew are favorites of mine.

Mathias Warnes: The Orphic hymn to Physis incense—aromatic herbs 
O Physis, resourceful mother of all,
industrious and rich divinity,
oldest of all, queen…
nocturnal, radiant with constellations,
light-bringing, irrepressible,
you move swiftly,
your steps are noiseless,
O pure marshal of the gods,
O end that has no end.
All partake of you,
you alone partake of no one.
Self-fathered, hence fatherless,
Virtue itself, joyous, great,
you are accessible, O nurse of flowers,
you lovingly mingle and twine,
you lead and rule,
you bring life and nourishment to all…

Two related scriptures I often return to, on account of their invocative beauty and philosophic insights, are Athanassakis’s translations of the Orphic Hymns, and Majercik’s translations of the extant fragments of the Chaldean Oracles. They are delightful to read in Greek! Both are also key documents for understanding Neo-Platonic philosophy, which frequently quotes from and highly esteems these texts. Dated (roughly) to the 2nd century C.E., but possibly containing material that is far older, it is customary for scholars to devalue the literary value of the Orphic hymns. 

I disagree with this assessment. A hymn, from the Greek hymnos, is a song of praise and celebration. In this Orphic hymn to Physis, I wonder if we hear echoes of a more henotheistic goddess-oriented religiosity that seeks our deep existential structures in medias res (in the midst of things) and as natura naturans (nature naturing). Although third in the position of arch-divinities, alongside the Paternal and Demiurgic Intellect, the Chaldean Oracles, which are attributed to Julian the Theurgist, nevertheless praise Hekate, i.e. the magic of nature, as Rhea-Cybele, partner to Kronos and queen of the festive procession, with the words: “On the back of this goddess boundless Nature is suspended” for “Truly Rhea is the source and stream of the blessed intellectual realities.” 

I do find the intellectual, as well as historical and human value, of the Orphic Hymns and Chaldean Oracles to be significantly higher than is usually supposed.

G. Randolph Mayes: The parable of the talents

Versions of this parable occur in Matthew and Luke. A master leaving on a long journey entrusts each of three servants with considerable sums of money. The amounts vary in proportion to the master's opinion of each of the servants. On his return, the servants entrusted with the two largest sums have doubled the master's investment and he rewards them handsomely. But the one given the least has simply kept it buried during the master's absence. Enraged, the master seizes the original sum and hands it to the most successful servant saying:
For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. (Matthew 25:29)
As a child, I was surprised that Jesus would tell this story in an approving way. A good master would have been pleased that a servant he held in such low esteem did not squander the money completely (as, e.g., the Prodigal Son who was forgiven and welcomed home by his father.)

A common interpretation of this story is that spiritual wealth and poverty work in much the same way. If you have lots of faith to begin with, you see evidence of God's goodness and mercy wherever you look, and you grow spiritually rich. But if you begin spiritually poor, you are likely to live angry and scared, and lose what little faith you have.

Makes sense.

It doesn't answer my childish question though. Whether it's money, faith, or social standing, I still think starting out with less is punishment enough. If there are going to be transfer payments, they should flow in the opposite direction.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

What's up, Presup?

This week’s discussion co-sponsored by the Philosophy department and the campus Ratio Christi student group will feature a theist arguing for the rationality of believing in the resurrection of Christ. He will be engaged in evidentialist apologetics -- the putative evidence in favor of the resurrection delivers the positive epistemic status of the belief.

Presuppositionalism is an alternative approach to apologetics. It engages in a more indirect form of argument involving an attempt to demonstrate that, unless we presuppose the God of traditional Christianity, we cannot legitimately claim to know any of the things we ordinarily take ourselves to know. The presuppositions associated with any non-Christian worldview will lead to incoherence. Are the presuppositionalists right?

Here’s an instance of modus ponens (argument I):
  1. If Patrick harmed Daniel for fun, then Patrick is blameworthy.
  2. Patrick harmed Daniel for fun.
  3. Therefore, Patrick is blameworthy.
It's valid, but what if you hold a view that’s incompatible with premise 1?

Presuppositionalists say atheists who want to make argument I wind up contradicting a presupposition of atheism: if naturalistic materialism is true, then no one is ever blameworthy for anything. So atheists affirm something (Patrick’s blameworthiness) while being committed to denying it, which is a kind of contradiction.

The claim, then, is that “You, atheist, can’t make sense of blameworthiness [also: objective morality, knowledge of the external world, logical laws] because it doesn’t make sense without a grounding supposition that God exists.” But why should we agree that if naturalistic materialism is true, then these judgments go out the window?1

Usually, instead of answering this question, presuppositionalists demand that atheists justify their belief in morality, knowledge of an external world and so on. I’m unsure what to think about this demand. Judgments about who has the burden of proof in a dispute are tricky, but it seems like a fair enough request and fairly easily met. I’ll discuss two responses. One deals with Patrick’s blameworthiness; the other deals with our knowledge of an external world.

A. Utilitarianism. Here is a perfectly valid argument (II):
  1. If utilitarianism is true, then Patrick is blameworthy for harming Daniel for fun.
  2. Utilitarianism is true.
  3. Therefore, Patrick is blameworthy.
How do you know the first premise?”

From this (perfectly valid) subsidiary argument (III):
  1. If utilitarianism is true, then anyone who violates the principle of utility is blameworthy. 
  2. Patrick harming Daniel for fun violates the principle of utility. 
  3. Therefore, if utilitarianism is true, then Patrick is blameworthy for harming Daniel for fun.
How do you know the second premises in arguments II and III?

What if the answer is that these are brute or basic truths? I’m not saying that utilitarians offer no arguments for utilitarianism (they do). But they don’t need them to defend themselves from presuppositionalists. Because, watch:

Utilitarianism is a poor candidate for a brute or basic truth for the following reasons….”

This complaint switches goal posts. It’s not relevant whether presuppositionalists think that someone else’s foundational commitments are false, wacky or whatever. Whatever reasons presuppositionalists provide here, none of them will show that utilitarians have contradicted themselves or their worldview. Because, however crappy they think utilitarianism may be as a foundation for moral judgments, what is the contradiction supposed to be?

Utilitarianism contradicts the way the world is -- the way God created it.

Wrong goal post again. This is just a wordier way of saying that utilitarianism is false. Maybe utilitarianism really is false, but why should anyone think it implies a contradiction? Remember: presuppositionalists need atheistic arguments to imply a contradiction. If the objection is simply that utilitarian arguments rely on propositions that Christians reject, then presuppositionalism doesn’t do what its advocates claim.

B. G.E. Moore famously made the following argument for our knowledge of the external world:
  1. Here is one hand [waves].
  2. Here is another [waves].
  3. There are at least two external objects in the world.
  4. Therefore, an external world exists.

Well, presuppositionalists demand from atheists a justification for their belief that there are objects in an external world. Here it is: [wave, wave].

But how do you know the first two premises?

David Lewis said Moore’s argument suggests things called Moorean facts. These are propositions that we have more reason to believe than any reason there could be to the contrary, or one that we have more reason to believe than any more foundational propositions that would purport to validate it. Here are two pretty good candidates for Moorean facts:
  • We have more reason to believe in the existence of hands than there is to believe any skeptical hypothesis concerning the external world -- that we might be dreaming, that we might be deceived by an evil demon, that we might be in the Matrix, etc. 
  • We have more reason to believe that harming others for fun is wrong than there is to believe any theory about what properly grounds moral judgments.
Presuppositionalists will likely reject Moorean facts because they tend to think of knowledge as the highest epistemic status a belief can have and where this implies certainty about the proposition. Not certainty in the psychological sense of incorrigibility; rather, certainty in the objective sense that Descartes was aiming to secure in his Meditations: indubitability. That is, in order for something to count as an instance of knowledge, it has to be possible to eliminate any grounds for coherently doubting it. Obviously, Moorean facts can be coherently doubted.

But presuppositionalists think Christianity is different because they think attempts to justify propositions without Christian presuppositions will end in contradiction. That just seems false. Presuppositionalists are objecting to the ways atheists attempt to justify their beliefs.

That’s a fine thing to do. It doesn’t deliver objective certainty about Christianity, but maybe attempting to uncover objectively certain propositions is a fool’s errand. Descartes notwithstanding, there are probably better ways to spend one’s time. As my colleague danced last week, we know lots of things by way of methods that don’t guarantee their truth.

Kyle Swan
Sacramento State
Department of Philosophy

Some arguments in this neighborhood are just bad, like Ivan’s in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that if God doesn’t exist then anything is permissible. Some are plausible if understood in a weaker way, like the idea that a certain understanding of morality fits more comfortably within a theistic worldview than a naturalistic materialist one and so the existence of God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral facts.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Innatism and the justification of philosophical method

The traditional form of a quintessentially philosophical question is: What is X?  As in: What is justice? What is knowledge? What is life?

These questions are traditionally associated with a particular form of inquiry.  Roughly:
  1. Think very hard about different states of the world in which X is clearly present. 
  2. Detect some property (or set of properties) P shared by all such states. 
  3. Propose P as necessary and sufficient for X. 
  4. Submit your proposal to other philosophers for rigorous cross-examination. 
Theoretically, this process, iterated, eventually reveals the true nature of X.

I say 'theoretically' because we are entitled to ask why. What theory of inquiry motivates the view that we can learn substantive truths about the world just by reflecting on the content of own minds?

One possible reply is this: We don't need no stinking theory of inquiry. We just need to point to a heap of solid results produced thereby. Right. Well, there's the rub.

Plato, who raised this form of inquiry to high art, seemed to recognize that this question requires an answer. In struggling with it, he was led to one that is as beautiful as it is absurd: Our souls contain every truth worth knowing, but we forget them during the trauma of birth. On Plato's view, what we call learning about the world is really a process of recollection. This is his theory of anamnesis, which leads Plato to endorse an ancient myth of reincarnation.

Plato's basic answer persisted in one form or another as the doctrine of innate knowledge. Two thousand years later we find a fellow traveler, René Descartes, smack in the middle of the scientific revolution, self-consciously defending the same basic method in his Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes famously argued that the Creator outfitted our intellect with innate indubitable knowledge of the kind of world we live in as well as reliable resources for learning all about it.

Usually we characterize the rationalist commitment to innatism by reference to the view that genuine knowledge is incorrigible, i.e., true beyond all possible doubt. Rationalists like Plato and Descartes believed that only the exercise of pure reason could produce such truths. But empiricists like Aristotle and Hume accepted the incorrigibility of genuine knowledge as well. What they hated was the conclusion that to know we know anything about this world we must presuppose a completely different one.

So a commitment to innatism has two main sources. One is the view that empiricism is too impoverished a framework to explain the possibility of human knowledge. The other is that it justifies the traditional method of philosophical inquiry.

Maybe now I will say this? Our experience with science has taught us that empiricism is right and innatism is wrong. So it's high time we exchanged armchair philosophical methods for more enlightened naturalistic ones. Well, there are plenty of philosophers today who do say this. I tilt that way. But it is too easy. Let's see why.

First, let's be clear that empiricism has, for the most part, won. But that is not because classical empiricists succeeded in showing that the ultimate foundation of infallible knowledge is experience. It is because science, using a fundamentally empirical method, has amassed a magnificent mountain of knowledge in the absence of any such assurances. By brute force, the success of science has ushered in an age of fallibilism, which is the idea that we can come to know X through methods that do not guarantee the truth of X.

Epistemologically speaking, this is just a whole different world. Back in the day, empiricists and rationalists disagreed on the ultimate foundation of knowledge, but they totally agreed that, whatever its source, the method for producing knowledge had to assure certainty. It just couldn't be any other way. But they were all wrong. Scientific knowledge is not deduced from first principles. It originates in guesses, hypotheses that attempt to account for why we observe the world behaving as it does. Hypotheses that survive extended, merciless testing get promoted to theories and may ultimately earn the status of knowledge. But they never get tenure. All scientific theories remain subject to performance review and none rise completely above their uncertain provenance.

Second, innatism persists within science itself. Rationalists were actually correct that the mind can not just be a "blank slate" at birth. In order to be capable of gaining knowledge about the world, it must begin with some kind of basic structure. Scientists differ with respect to the content and plasticity of these presuppositions, but nobody represents them as incorrigibly correct. Scientific innatism explains how infant brains can develop into functional adult ones, not how infant brains come into this world containing fundamental truths of the universe.

Third, at various stages of inquiry scientists, too, pose questions of the form "What is X?" and, like philosophers, they must consult their own minds for the answer. But they approach these questions a bit differently than we do.

First, the intuitions they consult are not ordinary intuitions, but those of a specialized research community trained up on a technical vocabulary and specific methods of inquiry.

Second, scientists do not believe that thinking long and hard on a question like "What is a hydrogen bond?" is sufficient to uncover its true nature. They believe that only experiment can reveal that.

Third, this kind of thinking does not occur in a vacuum, but with specific explanatory goals. When Erwin Schrödinger posed the question "What is Life?" he was not taking a holiday from physics to do a little philosophizing. Rather, he was trying to bring living systems within the explanatory purview of his own discipline.

Finally, scientists don't normally try to provide a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for X-hood, and they typically don't get their panties in a bunch over a single striking counterexample to an otherwise useful definition. Scientists work in a manifestly messy world and they have learned how to produce in the face of all manner of uncertainty.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State