Saturday, February 24, 2018


The question of what it is for something to exist is, in some ways, the prototypical philosophical question. It takes a word, "is," which seems quite ordinary, and manages to make it puzzling. The most intuitive answer to the question is to disregard it, perhaps by claiming that the concept of existence is a basic concept, that is, a concept which cannot and need not be explained except by pointing out what does and what does not exist.

In the continental tradition, however, it seems more is said. Heidegger, of course, made the question famous, but throughout the continental figures I think we find a shared conception of being. I do not intend to argue that any particular individual held this view, but rather, here, I would like to focus on sketching it. If theoretical physics loses you, skim those paragraphs, the rest should only be as hard as usual.

First, some background. Kant held that there was only one unified experience, at least in any individual's case. That is, I have a single unified experience of a continuum of space and of time which are tied together, and likewise for everyone else. Thus, everything I find around me belongs to the same space-time. Every object is affected by what is before it in time, affects what is after it in time, and mutually affects what is at the same time as it (See the Critique of Pure Reason I. Division one, Bk.2, Sec.III.3 titled "Analogies of experience"). On Kant's view, these relations are how things get ordered in time to begin with.

This fits well with current understandings of spacetime and relativity on which an object which is unable to have an effect on another object does not stand in any particular relation of before, after, or simultaneous with the other object. On the other hand, it clashes with views of quantum mechanics which permit backwards-causality or hold that events are determined by the boundary conditions, i.e., the conditions at the start, end, and along the light-cone bounding an area. It also has the consequence that if God cannot be effected from without, then he is necessarily in the past. One could, however, strip the claim that the causal relations order events in time, and simply claim that for an object to exist, it must effect other objects, and that the collection of objects effected, mediately or immediately, constitute a reality.

Kant does not hold the view I am seeking to sketch, since he holds that noumena may exist, and that we have no way of knowing how they really are. However, from here, it seems Kant's followers, in seeking to do away with the noumena, wind up holding that for something to exist, not merely for us but at all, it must be related to other existent things in just this manner. Thus, a reality is given as a set of things which interact with each other, whether mediately or immediately. In order to be part of reality, then, an object must somehow have an effect on other parts of reality.

The difficulty with such a definition is that it seems to permit multiple realities, so that existence is relative to realities. Such realities would be incapable of interacting, otherwise they would form a single reality. One might say, then, that existence would be relative to the observer. An observer in one reality would find different existent things than would an observer in a different reality, and each reality would fail to exist from the point of view of the other.

Let us return to the possibility that God effects all of reality without, himself, being effected by it. In order for such a God to exist on this view, the view must hold that an object can exist even if it only effects other objects without being effected itself. However, one does not want realities to be able to branch. If we say that there is only one continuum of time, and that events are ordered in time by how they effect each other, we can avoid branching while maintaining the possibility of effecting without being effected, but at the cost of excluding some quantum mechanical views and likely relegating God to the past (although the later could be handled by holding that God's place in time would always be found just a moment ago, since he acts at all times, and thus he would be found to be at all times).

If we permit events in time to have separate orders, which Kant does not but relativity might, then we can get branching even if relations of what affects what determine temporal order. If objects only affect further objects, however, then some objects are affected. If we exclude for other reasons the possibility of two creators, we can limit unaffected things to God, and everything else will both affect and be affected. This still does not guarantee a unified reality, but it does make it vastly more plausible.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Platonic Epistemology

A platonic epistemology holds that our ability to know something as defective is dependent on there being a perfect thing of its kind which we, at least implicitly, know, and thus which we can compare the defective thing to. Thus, to know that a line is crooked, we must know some straight line well enough to compare the crooked line to the straight one and thereby see that the crooked line is unlike the straight line.

In language, the meaning of a term is given in part by the possibility of using a different term to mean something else. That is, there is a contrastive element to meaning. The term 'dark' contrasts with the term 'light', and the term 'crooked' contrasts with the term 'straight'. Platonic epistemology takes this to apply to knowledge, too. So far, so good. If there could be no circumstance where the use of a term would be inappropriate, it would be, like, meaningless.

Platonic epistemology takes a further step however. It claims that the term on at least one side of any spectrum must have a referent. Thus, a platonist would claim that for 'light' to have meaning there must be a perfect light, and that for us to use the term 'light' perfectly, we must somehow know this perfect light. This strikes me as implausible and otiose. We do not need a perfect light to understand what darkness is, or even what imperfect(ly bright? or white?) light is. We do not need to know perfect equality to recognize near-but-not-quite equality. We simply need to recognize that there are conceivable cases which would be more equal, brighter, whiter, etc., and conceivability need not entail actuality. It need not even entail possibility.

The puzzle for any platonic epistemology is to explain how we come to know the perfect things. Given that they do not seem to need to appear in the world of sensation, it is unclear where we are supposed to have learned them. On any theory where we know what perfect goodness, truth, and beauty are like, it would have to provide a merely implicit knowledge, since otherwise one cannot account for disagreement. Plato's theory was that we were alive in the world of the Forms before we were born. Christian Platonists hold that the perfect things are ideas in the mind of God. I am only really interested in the latter.

In order to fill the role which perfect things are supposed to fill in a platonic epistemology, ideas in the mind of God would need to be made accessible to us in some manner. One way would be for God to immediately transfer them into our minds. Another way would be for us to, as it were, look into the mind of God instead of a platonic heaven of ideas. In either case, we are presumed to walk around with implicit knowledge of perfection of various sorts waiting to be triggered by seeing things in the world which relate to them.

But if we are presumed to walk around with mere knowledge of such things, then the need for the perfect things per se seems to have dropped out. Why not dispose with the perfect things, at least as a criterion of being able to recognize imperfect things, and just leave the implicit knowledge? If one does this, then one is back at the point where one has a conception of more white, etc., and since one has already granted that the knowledge involved is implicit, one may go a further step and suppose that the implicit knowledge is not conceptual knowledge but rather embedded in one's perceptual and cognitive capacities. That is, perhaps we do not so much know what it would be like for something to be whiter, as we have a visual system which can simulate varying degrees of whiteness and represent this degree of whiteness thus and so. Likewise, the visual system may simply process visual stimuli in such a way that we recognize straightness as a norm embedded in how we perceive, rather than as a concept to which we must compare lines. It is notable in this respect that there is variation in what different people recognize as perfection of different colors.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Autonomy and Economics

One imagines a state-run economy and a laissez-faire economy as opposed. One aims for the utmost regulation, the other for none at all. Both extremes aim at the same end, however: that the economy exhibit the values of the people. This end requires two things: that the values of the people appear in the economy, and that they do so because of how the people express themselves in the economy. Each extreme fails to achieve one of these two criteria.

A state-run economy would be one where the state ensured that certain values appeared in the economy, that certain items were valued more, others less, and that resources circulated in precise accord with the acknowledged values. Because the appearance of the values is guaranteed by the state, however, the connection to people's expression of their values in the economy is voided. The closest connection to the values of individuals one could possibly obtain would be if the people voted on how to set up the economy, but this would not represent the values of the people as economic agents.

A laissez-faire economy, however, while ensuring that the economic actions of individuals is what determines what values are represented in the economy, fails to ensure that the values represented are those expressed. The economy easily loses the ability to represent nuance in the evaluative views of consumers, and tends to represent extreme views. Some individuals lack the buying power to express their values beyond the value which a low cost has, others find that certain values are represented so extremely in certain areas that, though other values are a factor, those other values never make a difference in what they buy. The represented values thus skew in two directions: cheap and toward the values of the rich. Only in places where the cost is low and further values are brought in to the mix to differentiate products can the poorer classes of society have an economic vote in the values represented.

The political divide with respect to economics, it seems to me, runs roughly on these lines. Both sides seek the same aim. The left focuses on the end product: what values the economy represents; the right focuses on the process: the ability of economic transactions to have an effect on the values which the economy represents. By dividing in this way, both leave out a concern that all individuals have an equal economic vote. Neither focuses on the dignity of economic agents as such. The right fears that regulations will keep them from expressing themselves economically. The left fears that deregulation will allow disproportionate impact by the rich and powerful.

As an aside: there is something very Hegelian about the way in which the left and the right seem to be identical, just in different domains. Here the right, rather than the left, is obsessed with self-expression at any cost.

The point of this post is to show where the conflict lies. By seeing that both aim at the same end, we locate a shared point of reference with respect to which we can argue about particular views. I am not confident about any particular solution (I am not an economist), but an excellent solution would be one which clearly enabled all classes to have an economic vote while keeping corporations from doing things which would keep particular classes' economic actions from making a difference in the values represented. One approach, then, might be to provide a basic income to all. In theory, this would protect consumers from being forced to buy from companies which are otherwise too big/cheap to avoid and re-create something of the situation which Alexis de Tocqueville noted in America when he said,
"the workmen have always some sure resources which enable them to refuse to work when they cannot get what they conceive to be the fair price of their labor." (Democracy in America, Vol.2, p. 189 in the Bradley edition).
Whether the theory would work out in practice is, of course, debatable.

Culture and Self

In this post I intend to continue to sketch my view of selves and of culture.

First, a definition: selves are beings who act with respect to other selves qua selves. This is a tad circular, but has important consequences. Spelling these consequences out should clarify why it is difficult to write the definition so as to be completely non-circular. First, selves are agents, since they act. Second, they are able to act with respect to other agents, since they act with respect to selves and selves are agents. Third, some of the agents which they act with respect to can reciprocate, since they are selves, too.

Next, a definition of culture. Culture is the remains of the actions of selves which allows other selves to recognize selves. That is, culture is what happens when selves act in such a way that something is left behind whereby another self can act with respect to them. Culture is, then, the modification of the world by selves in a manner which is recognizable as such.

Selves, being agents which act with respect to other selves qua selves, are bound to inhabit a culture. On the view I am sketching, a self in a community picks up on the remains as actions of selves and appropriates them. Thus, a self absorbs elements of other selves into its own manner of being a self. It learns language and ways of gesturing, for example. A self is the modification of a self-receptive body by culture, or is always a self which has been informed by culture.

Culture is the remains of the actions of selves, and selves are beings which appropriate culture. There is a reciprocal relation between the two such that culture is carried on by selves who, in carrying it on, also change it by developing it in their own selves.

In order to express oneself in culture, a self must be able to modify the world. Likewise, in order to appropriate culture one must have, or at least presume, the capacity to copy it. Culture and selves are thus limited to the same kinds of stuff. If culture is totally physical, then selves must be able to modify the physical. If selves cannot modify the physical, then the culture of such selves cannot be physical. In other words, the cultural world of a self is the world which is shared by other selves. To recognize another as a self is to recognize that individual within culture.

In recognizing ourselves as like others, then, we recognize ourselves as beings who are visible in the shared world of culture. Unless one wants to claim that there is something else available to be recognized--and I suppose one might--this means that our bodies constitute our selves in culture. Likewise, material things constitute culture. Agents, selves, and culture are not material things, but they exist through material things. They (we) may be something along the lines of either events or properties. This is not to say that we do not exist, but rather that most of what we think of as existing are not material things in the way we usually think. That is, most things do not strictly supervene on their material parts. In particular, cultural things, and selves qua beings in culture, exist only with reference to a culture. This does not mean that we would cease to exist on a desert island, but that we would exist only by bringing along our culture with us. Our selfhood can only be recognized via the concepts which a culture provides.

Because we are constituted by culturally situated bodies, our bodies have an impact on how we appropriate culture. Our biology places boundaries on what we can do and imposes consequences which may differ from self to self. Culture is likewise constituted by a world situated among selves. The physical, biological, and environmental nature of the world places boundaries on the development of culture. It likewise imposes consequences on us depending on how we develop it into culture.

In both cases, the consequences imposed by nature, whether our own biology or physical nature, impose norms on how we should act by excluding some actions from the set of those which will permit the flourishing.of selves and culture. Thus, a further value to autonomy is that it allows for the variation in human beings to be properly accounted for. In this way, autonomy is good precisely because our bodies impact how we should seek the good life.

What counts as flourishing in each case is attaining the goals of the kind of thing in question. Thus, a flourishing self will be a self which attains the end of selfhood. A flourishing culture will be a culture will be one which attains the end of culture. We must ask, then, what the particular end of each is.

Because selves are beings which act with respect to other selves, to be a self is to act in a manner which takes into account the nature of other selves as selves. This means that it requires recognizing other selves as like oneself in being selves, and thus as like oneself in being agents whose actions are performed as actions with a cultural meaning and motivated, in part, on account of how other selves are. A culture is the remains and support of such actions, and thus for it to flourish is for it to express correctly the selfhood of all selves and support the mutual recognition of selves. As materially constituted, however, the end of each self is particular to itself and involves the good of the body. Likewise, the end of culture involves the maintenance of the basis of culture. Sustainability is a good of both culture and selves. The sustainability of culture is the ability of the culture to continue as a culture, which includes the ability of the environment to provide the material basis for culture practices, including housing and food. The sustainability of a self is most obviously the ability of a self to survive, but also to avoid burnout and maintain a resilient concern for others.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Good of Autonomy

It is generally good to permit people to do as they please. This is a relatively modern notion, I think. It can also become a distinctively modern idol to which we sacrifice ourselves and our children. It is, nevertheless, a genuine good. What supports this good?

Autonomy is good because it allows us to exercise our deliberative capacities. It thus enables us to express our moral point of view. Autonomy matters because autonomous decisions matter to others. If my decision has no impact whatsoever on others, then my deciding thus quite literally means nothing. So allowing autonomy is a calculated risk. We allow others to mess up in order to attain a good of self-expression.

Why is self-expression good? It is not an unmitigated good. Indeed, the expression "self-expression" is not perfectly clear. When we express ourselves, we also form ourselves. In writing this post, I do not merely express my thoughts, I also develop my thoughts. My thoughts on this topic are altered by expressing them. Before, my thoughts were a bit of a fuzz, but by writing this the thoughts come into focus or, more accurately, coalesce into an articulated form. The joints of my thoughts become, not visible, but definite and therefore visible. In deciding we define ourselves and thereby clarify for ourselves and others who we are. So self-expression is a part of self-development.

To be a self is, on my account, to be a being who can perceive and act with regard to others as others. The other elements of being a self arise from this interaction with others in culture. We absorb things from others--ideas, phrases, heuristics, rules, ways of acting and modes of thought. These varied things from varied people clash. They require synthesis into a coherent self, a self who can pursue a single life. In this synthesis, dissonances must be resolved between mind and body, body and world, mind and culture, etc., and in doing so one changes.

So to develop oneself through self-expression is to articulate how one has picked up the culture around oneself, and to present what one has picked up to other, thus to contribute to altering culture. So self-expression does two things. First, it develops culture by contributing to a re-synthesizing of its elements and thus providing more for others to pick up on. Second, it develops oneself by nailing down (often partial) resolutions to various tensions we find ourselves in.

We resolve tensions in our culture in our own persons and then hold up our answers, our lives and words, to others for them to accept or reject. If we aim to reach a solid resolution, we must accept this phase as well. Others then pick up what we say as elements of themselves, whether as useful antagonists or as allies. They think with us: by means of what we have contributed. We then pick up their developments and the cycle repeats. We hope that we are coming to a closer and closer approximation, but this can only occur by taking seriously the goods others are responding to, addressing them, and finding a place for them in a renewed culture.

Autonomy is good, then, because it helps us to resolve debates about how to live, how our culture should be understood and what it should and become. Autonomy is good because it permits exploration of ways of being and doing. It is a risk because we may go wrong. The role of autonomy is to answer questions which can be answered by seeing different ways of life, and the point of autonomy can only be preserved where opposing views are given a fair and serious hearing. Autonomy is pointless without disagreement and it is sterile without debate between opposed views. To utilize autonomy is to invite dispute regarding one's choices.

Mind/Body Dissonance

This post is about mind/body dissonance, that is, cases where what one thinks or feels about one's body does not align with how one's body is.

If all a human person is is a human mind, then to respect the human being will always be to view those thoughts and feelings as authoritative for how the body should be, assuming the individual understands what they are thinking or feeling correctly. Neither cutting nor anorexia are authorized by the individuals' feelings about themselves. So even in this case there is a requirement that the actions be rationally authorized in some manner. What is that manner? It is not immediately obvious.

If one grants that human beings are partially or entirely constituted by their bodies, then one cannot make nearly so strong a claim about the mind's authority over the body. In cases of mind/body dissonance, it is clear that something has gone wrong. The puzzle is over whether the mind ought to be molded to fit the body or vice-versa. In either case, the embodied human being is changed yet preserved.

Notice here that we all agree that individuals with cases of mind/body dissonance should not exist. Disagreements occur over how to make it the case, if we should, that no such individuals exist. No one (at least that I would be inclined to take too seriously) would hold that such individuals should be eradicated qua individuals, but merely qua cases of mind/body dissonance. That is, the dissonance should be resolved in some manner.

Our desires about how to appear carry some weight. We can dress ourselves in various ways, work out, get our hair cut in different styles, etc. Conflicts in society begin to arise when the changes are more permanent or less superficial or have a more direct impact on health or bodily integrity. The conservative approach is to hesitate, to be wary of irrevocable change. The logic here is the same as the argument against the death penalty. One had better be quite sure that one knows and wants what one is getting oneself into.

The same argument, incidentally, can be marshaled in favor of acting according to the view that global worming is real, against abortion, and for safety-net policies. It is not a knock-down argument, and no one thinks it is. It is a solid consideration, however.

How can we tell when to take the risk and change our own bodies? This is what is argued about in discussions of transgender and transhuman thought. When do the benefits outweigh the costs? In the next post, I will consider one possible benefit: preserving autonomy, that is, letting people do as they please.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Divine Freedom

If God was determined by his nature to create the world, then, for God to be God, he had to create the world. In that case, a reality where God does not create is a reality without God. On the other hand, if God was not determined by his nature to create the world, then, since he surely was not determined to create the world by anything else, it is unclear why God did create the world. It would seem odd, in that case, to praise God for creating the world, since, per hypothesis, God creating the world was not required for God to be God, and, given that to be God is to be morally and otherwise perfect, thus could not have increased his perfection.

The problem is this:
1. If God is determined by his nature to create, then there can be no God without the world.
2. If God is not determined by his nature to create, then there is no reason to praise God for creating.
3. God is not dependent on anything outside himself for his being as he is.
4. There is reason to praise God for creating (we seem to do it, and the psalms include praises of God for his deeds in general).

The problem is that we must take either the antecedent to 1. or the antecedent to 2. as true, and yet the consequent of 1. conflicts with 3., and the consequent of 2. conflicts with 4., and we tend to take both 3. and 4. to be true. There are, however, multiple possible solutions.

The easiest would be to deny that 1. and 3. conflict. Such a response would be to say that just because there can be no world where God exists and does not create does not make God dependent on the world. That is, God being dependent on X is a stronger notion than God logically entailing the truth of the proposition that X exists.

Another option might be to press the relation between 2. and 4., and affirm that God is not determined to create the world. This requires holding that, while the fact that God created increases his praiseworthiness, it does not increase his glory or holiness. One must then argue that praiseworthiness is a relational property, holding where God's glory or holiness are made evident, and thus that praiseworthiness is not applicable in the same way where no world exists. One must allow that the Son can praise the Father, etc., but this may be avoided by appeal to the idea that the Son already perfectly knows the Father's gloriousness and holiness, and so holds him infinitely praiseworthy without external evidences. We, however, praise God for his creative work because such work evidences his glory to us, where we require some amount of evidence in order to come to rightly see that God is praiseworthy. Here, then, that God created the world gives us reason to praise him, yet it does not increase his praiseworthiness as seen from within the Godhead.

I am inclined to think, however, that this second route won't hold up. I take it that praise for someone on account of their doing some action is based on the idea that the action is evidence for a praiseworthy characteristic about that person. It is evidence for this characteristic precisely because that characteristic had something to do with the person's performance of the action in question. It is, then, precisely insofar as creation evidences God's divinity that creation gives us reason to praise God.

If we desire to explain creation, then we must presume that God's character determined his creative work. Otherwise, creation will not actually be explained. Any explanation of why God created will be incomplete if God was not determined by his nature to create. It may explain the possibility of creation, how it was not contrary to God's nature to create, but it will not explain the actual fact of creation. If creation is left mysterious, on the other hand, it is just as mysterious what characteristic of God we might be praising God on account of in praising him for creation.

Therefore, if we are to praise God for creation, then we should grant that God's nature compelled him to create, and we should hold that this does not entail that he is dependent on creation for his divinity or existence.

Ordinarily God's being free in a libertarian sense is supposed to be strongly motivated by problems such as his otherwise dependency on the created world. I have argued in this post that we ought to reject God's libertarian freedom in this case, and instead pursue alternative conceptions of what is involved in the relation of dependency. If God is not free in the libertarian sense for creating the world, then it is reasonable to suppose that he is not libertarianly free for any other actions either.