Sunday, April 29, 2018

Epistemic Possibility and the Problem of Evil

An epistemic possibility is something that might be true, given the available evidence. I might see a bird tomorrow and I might not—given my evidence now, both options are epistemically possible. Not everything is epistemically possible though, as some options are ruled out by my evidence. I’m definitely not on the moon right now (if I were, I’d be suffocating!), so that’s not an epistemic possibility for me.

Epistemic possibilities feature prominently in several arguments about what we know. Suppose, for example, that you’re in a zoo. You’re standing outside the zebra enclosure, and you see an animal that looks exactly like a zebra—horse-like shape, black and white stripes, etc. But then a skeptic comes along and argues as follows:

Maybe that animal is really a mule that has been cleverly disguised to look just like a zebra. So, maybe it’s not a zebra after all. And that means that you don’t really know that it is a zebra.

‘Maybe’ here is an epistemic possibility operator, so the skeptic is pointing out that it is epistemically possible given your evidence that the animal is a mule cleverly disguised to look like a zebra. And this seems true. All of the evidence you have about how the animal looks is just the sort evidence you’d have if it were a mule cleverly disguised to look like a zebra, so that evidence can’t rule out that possibility. From this the skeptic infers that it is also epistemically possible that the animal is not a zebra, and therefore that you do not know that it is a zebra.

Both of those inferences seem sensible, but I think the first one is a mistake. Implausible as it initially sounds, I think it is epistemically possible for you that the animal is a mule cleverly disguised to look like a zebra, but it is not epistemically possible for you that the animal is not a zebra. To see why, consider the following test for epistemic possibility:

If you have a good reason to think that, if a proposition were true, you would have different evidence, then that proposition is not epistemically possible for you. Otherwise, it is.

This test handles standard cases of epistemic possibility well. It is not epistemically possible for me that I am on the moon, says the test, since I have very good reason to believe that I’d have different evidence (e.g. evidence of looking at a grey landscape through a spacesuit helmet) if I were. It is epistemically possible for me that I will see a bird tomorrow, since I have no reason to think that I’d have different evidence than I do if I were going to see a bird tomorrow.

Using this test, we can see why the skeptic’s inference is a bad one. It is epistemically possible for you that the animal is a mule cleverly disguised to look like a zebra, says the test, since you have every reason to believe that you’d have exactly the same evidence if it were. But now think about just the proposition that the animal in the pen is not a zebra. What evidence would you have if that were true? The standard way of answering that question is to think about the most similar scenarios where the animal is not a zebra and what evidence you would have in those scenarios. Plausibly, the most similar scenarios where you’re in a zoo looking at an animal that is not a zebra are just scenarios where you’re looking at some other animal, such as a giraffe or a crocodile. And in those scenarios, you would have very different evidence. So, our test actually says that, even though it is epistemically possible that the animal you’re looking at is a mule cleverly disguised to look like a zebra, it is not epistemically possible that it is not a zebra.

We can apply this thinking to other areas of philosophy with interesting results. The problem of evil is an argument that starts with all of the bad things we observe in the world and concludes that there is no morally perfect, all-powerful God. After all, such a being would surely prevent these bad things unless there was a really good reason to allow them, and there doesn’t seem to be any such reason.

There are many ways of attacking this argument, but one of them, skeptical theism, can be understood as pointing out that we cannot rule out the possibility that there is some reason we haven’t thought of that justifies the bad things we observe. So, the skeptical theist argues:

Maybe God does exist but has some reason beyond our limited understanding of good and evil for allowing all of these bad things to happen. So, God might exist after all. Which means that you don’t know that God does not exist.

This argument has the same form as the skeptic’s argument about the zebra, and it fails for the same reason. It doesn’t follow from the fact that it is epistemically possible that God exists and has a reason for allowing all of the bad things we’ve observed to happen that it is epistemically possible that God exists. We have very good reasons to think that if God existed and had reasons beyond our understanding for allowing the bad things we’ve observed, then we would have just the evidence we do. We’d see all of the same bad things happen, and we’d be just as baffled as to how a morally perfect being could allow them. But what evidence would we expect to have if God existed? That is, what evidence would we have in the most similar scenarios in which God exists? That’s a tough question, in part because scenarios can be similar or dissimilar to each other in different ways. But the answer does not follow from the epistemic possibility that there are reasons beyond our understanding for the evils we’ve observed.

Brandon Carey
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, April 23, 2018

The political economy of guns

I’m going to present a (pretty limited) analysis of the gun control debate assuming the truth of two apparently robust social scientific findings:

1. Cross-country analyses show a strong correlation between gun violence and gun availability.

2. Bans and prohibitions are particularly bad ways of dealing with problems or harms stemming from the availability of some object, substance or service.

I’m not at all equipped to evaluate 1 at any particular depth, but I’ve heard it reported and repeated by policy wonks and politicians on both sides of the political aisle. And, here’s a useful graph:

I know a little more about 2. It turns out that if you want to curb the bad social consequences associated with the use of some object, substance or service, other forms of regulation are typically better than prohibitions or bans at securing the policy goals and in ways that are less harmful and wasteful. Prohibitions and bans tend to raise prices in ways that redirect, rather than eliminate, production processes, supply chains, marketing techniques and consumer use. The ways bans do this are predictable and tend to make things worse.

So, for example, with the prohibition of drugs, we get organized criminal organizations that compete, usually violently, to monopolize markets and trade routes. This is bad. We also get drugs more concentrated and potent (like designer, synthetic or home concoctions) that are both easier to transport (smuggle) and more dangerous to consume. This is also bad.

Again, these bad social consequences associated with the war on drugs were eminently predictable as a straightforward playing out of the generalization in 2. If not, then it would mean that without a drug war, or without one as vigorously prosecuted, the social consequences of drug use would have been worse, other things being equal. This is implausible given the empirical evidence.

Say we ban assault rifles. 2 predicts that this will grow the illicit demand market and the comparable incentive for illicit suppliers and supply. The effects would be similar to those in the case of illicit drugs in the sense that the ban would redirect, rather than eliminate, the market. This is not a good way to deal with gun violence if 1 is right and the most significant factor is gun availability. If we assume that gun markets exhibit the same basic features of other markets, most of the explanation for how easy it is to access guns are things like existing supply and price levels, which are marginally impacted by various regulatory costs, like waiting periods and licensing and reporting requirements.

But 1 and 2 suggest that we should be asking things like “what would work best to affect these costs and margins in socially desirable ways?” There’s a clear and consistent convergence on the futility of bans and prohibitions. I understand that it isn’t very intuitive that availability is a (or, the most) significant factor but prohibition doesn’t work. But, first, consider the case of drugs again. It’s likely that the use of highly addictive and dangerous opioids is higher where there’s a higher availability of drugs, yet it’s still the case that drug prohibition is an utter social disaster. Second, regardless of whether you find it intuitive, this is simply what the best social science tells us about the effects of bans and prohibitions. In short, you’d find yourself in a very dubious epistemic position to deny it -- roughly the same position as you would be in if you rejected any other view that reflects a substantial scientific consensus.

To be clear: the argument here isn’t that prohibition wouldn’t affect the availability of guns; rather, it’s that prohibition wouldn’t affect their availability in socially desirable ways.

So what would work better than bans to reshape the market in guns to produce better social consequences? Yikes, I don’t know. I’m just a philosopher. But it would be surprising, I think, if the largest influence on the gun market, and so the largest influence on the mass production and relative availability of guns and the types of guns available, didn’t have something to do with the biggest spender on them. Compared to US federal and state government contracts, the private citizen market for weaponry amounts effectively to, if you’ll permit me to use a technical term, diddly squat. Imposing a ban on private ownership and exchange wouldn’t affect the supply side of the equation at all, and 1 suggests that’s what we should be concerned about.

The level of production and availability of weaponry in the US is driven by massive military, federal agency and state government spending. The impact of this spending on availability isn’t just that government surplus units can find their way into private hands. I’m sure that happens, but much more significant is the way government contracting magnitudes drive economies of scale for production, signal expansion in the industry, and incentivize both new firms and more and more units. Assault rifles are designed and produced with military and quasi-military applications in mind. This is the biggest market. The private consumer market is just spillover for producers. Second amendment enthusiasts and private protection stalwarts aren’t shaping supply. And waiting periods, registration and licensing requirements, magazine restrictions and excise taxes have little effect. Ditto buy-back programs or mandatory liability insurance. None of these measures are likely to make a significant difference on supply in the US when military spending is as high as it is.

Government expenditure on weaponry functions as a subsidy for guns. Subsidize something only if you want to get more of it. I recommend not doing this anymore (or drastically reducing this expenditure). Prohibition just makes things worse. Piecemeal regulations avoid the most significant problems associated with prohibition, but I doubt that any regulatory scheme would have an effect on reshaping the market in ways that would have a significant impact on weapons production (or tragic shootings) as long as total spending remains so high.

Kyle Swan
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State University

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Sanctuary States and the Right of Conscientious Objection

In a liberal society, one of our most treasured liberties is the freedom of conscience and the ability to follow our conscience, even if it involves breaking the law. Ronald Dworkin observes that both liberals and conservatives may agree with this, but the conservatives would say that the conscientious objector must bear the legal consequences of his civil disobedience. Either way, some right of conscientious objection seems to be solidly grounded on the freedom of conscience.

The right of conscientious objection has played a large role in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the Vietnam War protests in the 1960s and 1970s, and the pro-immigrant sanctuary movement in the 1980s under the Reagan Administration. But what is unique about the current sanctuary movement is that rather than primarily private individuals and organizations protesting an unjust law, as in these earlier cases, the current movement also notably involves cities and even states.

Conscientious objection by states may raise many concerns (including whether states have such a right in the first place), but assuming they have this right (e.g., on the grounds that a state may assert the rights of its citizens on their behalf), I want to focus on the following questions: (A) should states exercise this right against certain parts of federal immigration law and (B) should they be able exercise the right without federal repercussions.

(A) I would argue that states should be able to exercise a right of civil disobedience if they (or their constituents) have at least one compelling overriding reason to reject the federal law or policy. Let’s assume that federal law or policy requires cooperation by a state and its agents with the federal government’s enforcement of federal immigration law. Let’s further assume that federal immigration law allows the federal government to locate and deport undocumented immigrants consistently with due process.

Let me sketch three possible reasons:

(1) First, the federal law or policy aims to enforce an immoral law (assuming a deontological framework). If a federal law or policy involved the enforcement of segregation laws, there is good reason not to cooperate with the enforcement of such laws. Similarly, if the relevant parts of immigration law (concerning minority groups) are immoral, in that, they were enacted with discriminatory animus or have the effect of discriminating against certain groups on the basis of race, ethnicity, or nationality, there is good reason not to cooperate with their enforcement. The history of immigration law, arguably, and sadly, is a history of discrimination starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1924 that determined quotas and restricted admission by Blacks and Native Americans, the combined effect of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 that replaced quotas with numerical limits and the end of the Bracero program, up to the more recent policies limiting refugees from South America in the 1980s and certain Arabs around the world today.

(2) Second, even if the federal law or policy is not itself immoral, it is being enforced in ways that are immoral or highly questionable (again assuming a deontological framework). For example, it would be wrong to enforce federal law against certain individuals, including undocumented children, i.e., persons who should not be made to suffer for something that was beyond their control. It also arguably would be wrong to force migrants to return to conditions that jeopardize their basic rights, see here and here. The use of for-profit detention centers and the new numeric quotas for immigration judges to push through immigration cases furthermore suggests a system that is more suitable for cattle than humans.

(3) Third, even as a matter of law, states have constitutional grounds for not cooperating with the federal government. There are potential conflicts of laws concerning immigration enforcement. The federal government enjoys broad authority over immigration matters and federal enforcement agents may request local cooperation with its efforts to deport persons who are illegally present in the United States. However, the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures and requires a warrant supported by probable cause of criminal activity. It is not a crime for a removable alien just to be present in the United States. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment also protects individuals from being singled out for unequal treatment. Consistent with these protections, a state may reasonably believe that its officers should not single out a member of a minority group and ask for her documents and should not stop or detain a person any longer than is necessary to investigate criminal activity. When there is a potential infringement upon a constitutional right, a state may choose to follow the Constitution over requests from federal agents.

One reason would suffice, but I think all three provide strong justification to conscientiously object to the enforcement of certain parts of federal immigration law.

(B) There is, however, the further question of should states be able to conscientiously object without federal repercussions (e.g., loss of federal funding). It is important to note that the above reasons should give the federal government cause to reconsider its own laws and enforcement policies. But given the current political climate, the prospects of reconsideration are slim.

Should states object and deal with the consequences? Using Dworkin’s distinction, liberals would say yes, conservatives no. But, if I’m a state, I would disobey and deal with any federal repercussions because, at the very least, legally, there is uncertainty on the resolution of the legal issues mentioned in (3) involving the constitutional rights of individuals and the power of states under the Tenth Amendment. The matter is currently before the courts. Moreover, morally, justice sometimes requires that we do the right thing, even if the right thing happens to be illegal at the time.

Chong Choe-Smith 
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State University

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Metaphysics of Time

Let's suppose that you slip and spill a cup of coffee all over yourself right now, and that you also spilled a similar cup last month, and that you will again next year. Of these three events, the present spill is so much more vivid, isn't it? That is a principal reason why metaphysicians called presentists say that if anything is physically real, then it exists now. Advocates of the growing-past theory of metaphysics argue that, although that past cup of coffee is less vivid, nevertheless it is just as real. It simply is not present. The past grows, they say, by accumulating more objects and events. Those past cups of coffee are real because they once were present. Future cups are unreal, though, because they have never been present.

Opposed to both presentism and the growing-past theory, the metaphysical theory of eternalism implies that all future cups of coffee are just as real as the present and past ones. Presentism is the metaphysical position that is closest to common sense. It is the position that was adopted by most philosophers before the confirmation of the theory of relativity, yet now eternalism is the most popular position.

The debate is about physical time, the time that clocks are designed to measure. It is not about psychological time, the awareness of physical time.

Opponents of presentism complain that it cannot account for causation, for April showers causing May flowers. Can there be causation without both the cause and the effect being real?

Regarding eternalism and its acceptance now of the reality of the future, the philosopher William James famously remarked that the future is so unreal that even God cannot anticipate it. The eternalist counters that not being anticipated doesn't imply not being real.

The eternalists' primary argument is that the distinctions among past, present, and future are not reflected in the laws of physics and so are merely subjective, depending on whose perspective is being assumed. Regarding these perspectives, your birth is in your past, but it is in George Washington's future. So, at least some of George Washington's future is real. If some, why not all?

The cup of coffee being handed to you here is no less real than a cup of coffee far away in Antarctica. Distance is not a mark of unreality. Similarly, a temporally distant cup of coffee is no less real than the cup you are having now, says the eternalist. Temporal distance is not a mark of unreality. The concepts of being here, being there, being present, being past, and being future are all subjective because they depend for their reference upon the situation of the person using the concept. The concepts do not signify any difference in what is objectively real.

Don't we all fear impending doom? But according to presentism and the growing-block theory, it should be irrational to have this fear since the doom is known not to be real. The eternalist defends our rationality.

A key feature of eternalism is that events are fundamental; three-dimensional objects are not. One interesting implication of this is that fundamentally you as a child, you as a teenager, you as an adult, and you (hopefully) as a very old person are not periods of the same 3-dimensional person but rather are different parts of the same 4-dimensional person, the real you. In ordinary discourse, it is usually helpful to think of persons and coffee cups as 3-dimensional, but fundamentally they are not. They are temporally extended events.

What propels philosophers and scientists toward eternalism is their belief that it is implied by the best understanding of physics. If we trust the physics, we should trust its metaphysical implications, they would say. Reality is not what it seems. Einstein adopted this position when he said, after the confirmation of his relativity theory:

It appears therefore more natural to think of physical reality as a four-dimensional existence, instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three-dimensional existence.

In criticism of both presentism and the growing-past theory, the eternalist asks, "Whose present is the real present?" If my present and your present are different, could one be real and the other unreal? Surely not. Now consider the implication of what you just agreed to. Relativity theory implies that which set of events counts as the present is relative to the observer's reference frame. If I move fast relative to you, then a distant event on Jupiter can be present in your frame and still five minutes in the future in my frame. These last remarks radically violate common sense. So much the worse for common sense, Einstein would say; common sense is too often the faulty product of limited experience. If the presentist and the advocate of the growing-past theory imply that the Jupiter event is not real for me, being in my future, doesn't this imply there is a problem with presentism and the growing-past theories?

These are the eternalists' main reasons for their eternalism. Presentists and advocates of the growing past have heard the reasons, yet they do not crawl away into metaphysical obscurity.

One counterargument to eternalism is from H. A. Lorentz who said that merely because relativity theory implies that any reference frame is legitimate and that nobody's present is better than anyone else's, the theory could be mistaken. Somebody's frame might still be the privileged one. Scientific theories have their limits. The philosopher A. N. Prior added that perhaps Einstein's theory shows only that we cannot know which distant event on Jupiter is simultaneous with one of our present events.

Opponents of eternalism often complain that Einstein's block of past, present, and future events is too static. It just sits there. Yet change is very real. It is the essence of time. So, there is clearly something lacking in the eternalists' block perspective, and it should not be our guide on important metaphysical issues. In response, one eternalist said, "What? Do you want the block to wiggle?"

Brad Dowden
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State University