Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Possibly Final Post on Mercy

In previous posts (here, here and here) I've been arguing that the concept of mercy should take into account agent beliefs and attitudes. In other words, somewhere in the analysis of the concept, we should be talking about what the agent believes (and what his attitudes are) concerning the permissibility of his action and the nature of his situation. As I argued, if our analysis doesn't include some such element, certain merciful actions will not be called merciful. For example, a judge who, mercifully, gives a prisoner a sentence smaller than the maximum, when in actual fact it turns out the judge was required to give the maximum sentence, will not be said to have engaged in a merciful action if our account of mercy only takes into account what is actually permitted instead of what the judge believes is permitted.

Yet, as noted in those prior posts, every account of mercy that can be found in the relatively contemporary literature fails to take such considerations into account. All of them turn on questions of what is actually permitted by some standard or other, and none of them turn at all on what the agent believes about his situation or the permissions that apply. 

Is it simple to correct this omission? Should we just take whatever the best account of mercy is that leaves out agent beliefs, and simply add an "agent belief" clause? For example, suppose the (otherwise) best account of mercy says an act is merciful when both it and a more severe option were permitted by some standard or other, and the agent chose it out of compassion. In such a case, can it be as simple as amending this to say an act is merciful when the agent believed a more severe option was available and also believed both the more severe option and less severe option were permitted?

This may seem inevitably to be the kind of thing I must say if I'm going to insist on taking agent beliefs into account. But I don't quite like it. It seems to me that agents can be merciful without believing themselves to be following any single standard. They may, in fact, believe themselves to be breaking with all applicable standards. (It may be they're necessarily wrong to think this, but right now, recall, we're talking about what the agent believes). It doesn't seem to me that mercy rests, conceptually and necessarily, on standards in this way. Permissibility standards are often an important part of the discussion about whether an act was merciful or not. But the agent need not have any particular beliefs about standards in order for an act to be merciful.
And so in my latest post I introduced the Internal Principles Account of Mercy:

IPAM: x is merciful to y at t =df x believes there are two alternative acts, A and B, available to x at t such that (1) x performs A, (ii) x believes x's performing B would have resulted in more harm to y than x's performing A, (iii) x is motivated by compassion for y to choose A over B, (iv) two unselfish principles p1 and p2 move x, such that p1 moves x to choose A and p2 moves x to choose B. (p1 and p2 may be identical, as some principles allow for more than one option in a given situation.)

(Less precisely, an act is merciful when the agent undertaking the act is genuinely psychologically moved by some principle to do something relatively severe, and is also genuinely psychologically moved by some principle (possibly the same principle, but not necessarily or even usually) to do something relatively gentle, and out of compassion, chooses the more gentle act.)

One strength of Markosian's contextualist style account of mercy is that it offers a nice explanation as to why intuitions about mercy often differ. Take the case of the Nazi Doctor, for example:

There is a Nazi doctor whose job is to torture innocent children. But there is something about one of the children that strikes a chord in the doctor. As a result of the compassion that he feels for this one child, the doctor chooses not to torture her.

This is a case where intuitions vary. Many consider this a clear case of mercy, while others consider it just as clearly not to be a case of mercy. Markosian's explanation for the difference in cases like these (though he doesn't specifically explain the difference in this particular case) is that an action's mercifulness will vary according to the context of utterance of the judgment that the act is merciful. Different contexts will pick out different standards of permissibility. So for example, perhaps if a moral saint is talking to several other moral saints, then the standard of permissibility that will apply is moral permissibility—and the doctor's action isn't merciful because torturing the child wasn't permissible in the first place. But if, instead, the context of utterance is a Nazi philosopher talking to other Nazi philosophers, all of whom believe torturing innocent children is often justifiable but that it is okay to make the occasional exception, then their judgment that the act was merciful will be true, because the relevant standard makes both options permissible.

So then, those of us who are not Nazis but who do find this to be a merciful act may be thinking (on Markosian's account) that the relevant permissibility standard is something like "permissibility according to Nazi laws." Well, actually, I'm not too sure any of us who find the act plausibly merciful really do have any single such standard in mind. To my mind this is a weakness in Markosian's attempt to explain differing intuitions—it's not very plausible that there is any single permissibility standard anyone ever has in mind that makes both torturing innocent children and not torturing innocent children permissible. (Not that no such standard could be constructed artificially, rather I'm just making the psychological claim that none of us thinking about the doctor's actions have any such standard in mind.) But anyway, if there are such standards that we do have in mind, this would explain the differing intuitions. Different people having different beliefs about which permissibility standard is picked out by their context of utterance.

But my account, in addition to giving the right result for a certain difficult case where Markosian's fails (LINK), also seems to give a plausible explanation for differing intuitions about mercy. For people have different ideas about what principles other people are, or can be, genuinely psychologically moved by. In the Nazi doctor story, his compassion on the single child seems inexplicable. Why this child and no others? For this reason, we're invited, even if only subconsciously, to imagine some motivation for this compassion. And if IPAM is the correct account of mercy, and when thinking about the Nazi doctor we fail to think of a plausible way to explain how one person could both be genuinely moved to torture innocent children and genuinely moved by some other principle to spare this particular child, and moreover to choose the latter course of action out of compassion, we could very well be tempted (based on IPAM) to reject the categorization of this act as merciful. In other words, if we can't make sense of the doctor's action as an instance of the scheme described in IPAM, then of course we will not judge the doctor to have been merciful. And it's plausible to think someone might sensibly fail to see how to make the doctor's actions make sense in this way. For, really, how could a plausible human being be so motivated? If he's genuinely moved to torture small children, doesn't this practically preclude any genuine psychological motivation, associated with compassion, to spare this particular child?

Meanwhile, if one can come up with such an imagined set of motivations, it surely becomes much more plausible to think of the doctor as merciful. It's a little hard for me to come up with such a thing, since I myself find the doctor's action to be unmerciful simply because it's inexplicable (just as described in the previous paragraph) but I can make a go of it. Perhaps the doctor is genuinely moved by a belief that the torture will lead to important physiological discoveries, something he cares about inherently. And perhaps he's also genuinely moved by the kind of generalized protective feelings we all have for children. And though in most cases he has managed to quash that protectiveness in the name of physiological discovery, in this particular case something about the child reminds him of his protective instincts. Perhaps she subconsciously reminds him of a child he once knew. And so he arranges to have her sent away from the camp somewhere safe. If I think of the doctor as someone experiencing this as a difficult decision, one his mind quivers back and forth over, causing him real emotional tension, because he really is genuinely moved by two opposing principles and it is ultimately his feelings of compassion—usually dormant but briefly awakened in this particular case—which move him toward the less severe act, then I do begin to think of the doctor as merciful. Granted I had to add some details. But the details are there, if anything, simply to make the example explicable as the actions of a human being I can understand. (It may be there were actual Nazi doctor cases in Germany before and during world war two. I don't claim it to be impossible—I'm simply expressing how inexplicable such cases seem to me. But once I supply certain details, and begin making the doctor's actions "explicable" as the product of principles genuinely psychologically moving the doctor in incompatible directions, then his actions start to feel more like merciful actions to me, even as I continue to see him as repugnantly evil.)

So in any case, whether this is convincing or not, I think I have now completed my blog exploration of this topic. I now have a paper to write, to present a new account of mercy and explain how it has all the benefits of Markosian's powerful account, none of the downsides, and accounts for more than what he accounts for.



Thursday, June 20, 2013

Directly Affecting People’s Emotions in Order to Persuade Them

I'm reading the second book of the Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sorenson. (For the record: The first book is fine if you like pulp fantasy. The second book takes a sharp turn into Twilight territory, much to my chagrin. But I shall complete the trilogy, because I am stubborn.) In these books, some people are called Soothers. These characters have a special ability to quell others' emotions. So, for example, they can calm people who are excited, or make people more gentle when their natural reaction is to be angry.
One of these characters frequently uses his power on his friends, which typically bothers them when they realize it's happening. To them it feels invasive and deceptive. But this character (called Breeze) argues that there is nothing wrong with soothing people while trying to persuade them or affect their reactions. He notes that we use the way we dress, changes in tone, implicit threats, and so on, to persuasive effect and these methods are typically taken to be unobjectionable. Soothing is just another example of this, on Breeze's account. It is a persuasive art which proceeds by affecting another's emotional state, hoping thereby to affect the person's decisions.

Breeze argues that by soothing people, he is simply encouraging them, doing the same thing you and I might do using words and non-verbal cues.

Is there anything to this argument? Laying it out, the argument goes:
  1. There are many means of persuasion that consist in more or less direct action on others' emotions (rather than strict rational persuasion through the presentation of propositions for logical consideration) and which are unobjectionable.
  2. Soothing is relevantly like the above-described means of persuasion
  3. Therefore, Soothing is unobjectionable.
My first reaction was to disagree with premise two. After all, soothing is covert, done without the recipient's awareness. Tone of voice, manner of dress, etc., are much more overt—things the recipient is able to notice and take into account. But as portrayed in the book, anyway, people who are aware of the effects of soothing are able, if they are careful, to notice when it's being done to them. And it seems plausible to think that if such a power really existed, those affected by it would be able to tell it was happening if they were paying attention—they'd notice their emotional reactions seem inappropriate to the occasion by their own lights.

Of course not everyone is aware enough of the soothing phenomenon to be able to watch out for it like this. Yet notice that people in the real world are certainly not all aware enough of the power of a-rational non-verbal cues to affect their own actions either. Such effects are generally subconscious, and it takes special effort to notice when techniques of dress, tone of voice, and so on are being used on you. Soothing seems, on reflection, to be no more covert than these more normal means of persuasion.

What about the first premise? Are the various means of persuasion described here actually unobjectionable? If I wear a power tie because I know that people tend to be more pliant if I wear certain colors, am I doing something objectionable?

I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, as a philosopher I almost feel duty-bound to insist that the only legitimate form of persuasion is rational persuasion, by which I mean, the presentation of articulated claims with an invitation that their recipient examine them for logical coherence with each other and with other known facts. On such a view, it would be illegitimate to attempt to affect others' decisions using the color of my tie. On the other hand, it is impossible to present a set of claims without presenting them in some manner. Manner of presentation is inherent in the act of presentation. And it seems plausible to think that every manner of presentation has some effect on the persuasiveness of the thing presented. For example, if I make a proposal to my boss while wearing slovenly clothing, things are likely to go poorly for me. But if I make the proposal while wearing neat clothing, things are more likely to go well for me. And I must make a choice as to what clothes to wear (or whether to wear any clothes at all) when making the presentation. So then, I cannot help but do something which I know will affect how my audience will feel about my proposal independently of the content of the proposal itself! If I can't help but do it, it is difficult to see how it could be considered objectionable.

(There can be a lot more to say about this. I can imagine someone arguing I should dress slovenly and let the proposal speak for itself—and if the boss is going to let my manner of dress affect his appraisal of the proposal, then my boss is in error, but I am not. Also, in other contexts I have argued that formality in dress, and formality in other contexts, has the function of allowing the content of ideas to be the most active thing in participants' heads, by hiding the particulars of manner of presentation as much as possible. Yet this is probably too strong a claim. Formal presentation is itself a manner of presentation, and has a special persuasive power of its own…)

So then, perhaps it is not objectionable to use techniques intended to directly affect emotions when trying to persuade people. It may be that these techniques are somewhat covert, and there may be something wrong with that—but perhaps the answer isn't to forbid the techniques, but to educate as many as possible into the existence and use of these techniques, so that the non-consent implied in covertness might be eliminated. Indeed, I can imagine a society in which everybody knows how to directly affect everyone else's emotions, and everyone knows everyone knows, and such actions are simply seen as a natural part of daily interaction. At this particular moment, I can't see why such a system couldn't be made to work.

I'm aware that everything I've written here is a very surface-level rehashing of thoughts people have been hammering out for thousands of years, starting at least with some of Aristotle's thoughts on rhetoric. This is philosophical work I have not familiarized myself with (to my regret). Still, the question is an interesting one, and worth discussing, even from a somewhat ignorant viewpoint such as mine. What are your thoughts?

Monday, June 17, 2013

This Website is Terrible

I give you a draft website for a philosophical consulting business. It is named, derivatively, "Philosophical Investigations." It uses the lame and ironically unclear slogan, "Let's be clear." It's very obviously just stolen from some generic template somewhere. It needs a graphic element or two. The menu looks too small somehow--it feels like it needs a couple more selections. Or needs to be moved and rearranged somehow. Way too much empty space on the front page. It does not really connote what it claims to be about in any meaningful sense, I think. The URL is fiddly and doesn't match the title of the business. The business title and slogan are probably both already trademarked. And the facebook button doesn't work.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Why “Naturalize” Religious Doctrines?

In some previous posts (here and here) I've been discussing the doctrine of Christian Universalism, and I've been asking what this doctrine could mean (if anything) given an agnostic or skeptical view of the afterlife. In this post I want to say more about why this is an important question to ask.

I've been calling this a "naturalization" project (since it's a process of de-supernaturalizing a set of statements) but I should note that of course things like this have been done many times before. Perhaps most famously, the Demythologization project of Bultmann and many others in the early twentieth century is certainly relevant here. I'm talking about doing something roughly like what they were trying to do—to translate the claims of Christian doctrine into language which does not presuppose the existence of supernatural elements. Is there a difference between what they did and what I'm doing? Perhaps not an important one, though our motivations seem to be a little different. As far as I know, the motivation for the Demythologizing project came from a belief that modern humans simply can't believe supernatural claims anymore. Of course you might think that claim straightforwardly false. In the early twentieth century, plenty of "modern humans" believed plenty of supernatural claims. So you might suspect they meant "modern humans well versed in critical and scientific traditions, as we hope all humans will be someday soon." But this doesn't seem to be quite what they meant—Bultmann, for example, preached his demythologized gospel to wage laborers, for example miners. So he seemed to have in mind a very broad group, if not every single actual human being alive at the time.

But I've known too many well educated and knowledgable people who did in fact believe supernatural claims to be true. Not wanting to spend much time on the probably-useless and not-particularly-charitable project of deciding who counts as a "modern human" and who doesn't, I'll instead just make a stronger claim. It's not that I don't think anyone can believe supernatural claims. It's that I think they shouldn't. Or anyway, to back off a little from that—I don't think anyone should ever be moved by an unverifiable factual claim.

(Unverifiable moral claims are different. So I should clarify the distinction—in this post, I call a "factual claim" any claim that purports to describe an event, i.e., a composition of moving pieces that takes up some concrete space and time.)

Why shouldn't we be moved by unverifiable factual claims? When it comes specifically to claims about an afterlife, one reason is a moral one. Claims about an afterlife tend to serve the function of delineating rewards and punishments for one's behavior before death. But it is my experience of religion, and I do not recall ever having found any religious person who denies this once I brought the idea to their intention, that good religious beliefs encourage the religious person to see good actions as good in themselves, and not as good for the sake of a reward. Put simply, good religious values are supposed to be fundamentally unselfish. But actions motivated by reward are fundamentally selfish. So it would seem that good religious values themselves inherently demand an explanation of religious doctrine which doesn't make reference to reward or punishment in an afterlife. But what other purpose can there be for talk of an afterlife?

(Well, that's not quite fair. As opposed to carrot/stick style punishments and rewards, afterlife talk can be construed as serving a kind of encouraging function that doesn't involve reward per se. For example, Heaven can be thought of, not as a reward, but as the natural state of things which God is bringing about for his creation, and which we are encouraged to work towards not because it's good for us, but because it's good in itself. And among Christian Universalists, Hell is not always conceived of as "punishment" except in the sense that being divested of those illusions that seem like one's own self can be a "punishing" experience, i.e., painful. For example, the idea for me as a Christian (even prior to being a Universalist) is that you're not supposed to be motivated to avoid the pain of hell and so to "accept Jesus into your heart" or whatever, but instead, that seeking the truth by allowing oneself to be guided into it even when it means a shattering of illusions can be a necessary but very unpleasant experience. The function of thinking of heaven, in this case, was not supposed to be as a reward, but as something upon which to hang one's hopes. "Things are bad now, but they'll get better." That's not a reward, exactly. It motivates without making you think your actions will cause you pleasure. In other words, it gives meaning to your actions without trying to set up a causal relation between your actions and your happiness. So heaven and hell talk doesn't have to serve as a source of reward and punishment meant to motivate behavior in the fashion of a carrot and stick. They can be instead cast as encouragement, meant to motivate behavior in the fashion of an army sergeant reminding his soldiers that an end is in sight and everything that's happening is to the good.)

So far the discussion has involved a fairly narrow point about a specific kind of supernatural belief—belief in heaven and hell. Above I made a more general claim—that one shouldn't be moved by any unverifiable factual claims. How do I justify this?

Put simply, an unverifiable factual claim lacks any of the features that make factual claims useful for basing actions. For if the claim is truly unverifiable, then nothing I do in response to the claim will ever give me a reason to think the claim either true or false. (In other words, I'll have no way to learn whether the claim was in fact an accurate guide to action.) But if nothing will give me a reason to think the claim true or false, then I will do just as well to treat the claim as false as I will to treat the claim as true. (If this made a difference, then the claim would be verifiable, contrary to hypothesis.)

That's the argument in a nutshell, but put so succinctly it may be hard to parse. So to illustrate, take the following claim:

"Fairies exist, but are invisible, and never act in ways that can't be explained by purely non-fairy means, and will grant your wishes if they are made in a spirit of kindness."

If understood as unverifiable, then the features that make it unverifiable also render it useless for basing actions. For example, say I were to make a wish, and the wish was not granted. If the claim was useful for basing actions, then from this lack of wish fulfillment, I should be able to conclude that the claim was false. (And so, adjust my future actions accordingly.) But since the claim is unverifiable, I'm free instead to simply say my wish was not made in a spirit of kindness, whatever my impressions had been. Meanwhile, suppose the wish was granted. Well, since the granting of the wish, per hypothesis, could be explained without reference to fairies, the granting of the wish gives me no reason to think the claim verified. Once again, I've failed to learn anything about the truth status of the claim.

Its truth or falsity makes no difference in my world. In short, the claim is compatible with absolutely any sequence of events. But that very fact makes the claim completely useless to me. It teaches me nothing about how the world works. And so it is senseless to be moved by it. I may as well affirm it as deny it—it makes no difference either way.

But denying it is better than affirming it. For the fact that the claim turns out not to be amenable to verification means that believing it is a waste of time and mental resources, and more importantly, means that one should suspect the reliability of whatever led you to entertain the proposition in the first place. If that source is leading you to entertain unverifiable propositions, you should wonder at its usefulness, or if it is a person or group of people, you should wonder about its motivations.

So that's the argument that we shouldn't be moved by unverifiable factual claims. And claims about heaven and hell are unverifiable factual claims. One might argue that we may find them verified after we die. But this is not the kind of verifiability that makes a claim useful for basing action. If a man tells me that treasure lies beyond a door, but that no one can return after going through the door, then I have no way to test his claim without risk—but the risk is not justified unless I know the claim is true. So I cannot know ahead of time whether the risk is justified. Hence I cannot rationally take the risk. Hence I cannot rationally test the claim. This renders the claim useless for basing action. There's no principled way to act on it.

Since, then, claims about Heaven and Hell are unverifiable factual claims, we should not be moved by them. But if we should not be moved by claims about Heaven and Hell, then if we are to maintain the validity of Christian doctrines of Heaven and Hell, we must understand them as making something other than an unverifiable factual claim. Very few people think that they are verifiable factual claims if interpreted straightforwardly (I have known a few—a few years ago there were claims in some circles that a Russian oil drilling company had actually discovered Hell!). So it seems we have these choices:

  1. Claims about heaven and hell are verifiable, but do not mean what they seem to mean most straightforwardly, or
  2. Claims about heaven and hell are unverifiable, but are not factual claims (i.e. are more like value claims).

Either way, some kind of translation project is called for. That is my intention in this set of blog posts. In my previous post (link) you can see that I'm trying to cast claims about universal salvation as claims about how each person's life is to be evaluated "in the final analysis" (in a sense somewhat vaguely defined in that post). This sounds like a value claim, which means I'm going for the second option above. However it seems likely it will also involve a lot of claims about what people's lives are actually like, which would suggest an approach like the first option. I do not know yet if I'm going to settle on one side or the other of this dichotomy, or instead whether I'm heading for a kind of hybrid of the two. I'm making this up as I go!

Your thoughts?




Friday, June 7, 2013

In the Near Future, A POTUS Makes a Strange and Surprising Speech Against The Advice of His Advisors Concerning Universal Surveillance

My fellow Americans.

It has come to your attention recently that government agents are tracking every single phone call you make. We chose not to reveal this to you, but the information's leaked, and we can't plausibly deny it. So there you have it. Your calls are on record. And look, you're going to find out about this anyway, so I may as well go ahead and publically reveal this: We're also tracking your internet usage. Any kind of electronic communication you engage in, we now know about it.

I recognize that this sounds frightening. I could talk down to you. I could tell you that if you're not doing anything illegal, you have nothing to worry about. I could promise that we have rules in place, in-house, designed to avoid abuses of this system. In fact, we do have such rules in place. And I have signed several super-secret executive orders—I promise!—disallowing use of this information for any purpose other than lawful intelligence gathering about current known enemies of the American people.

So yes, I could give you these platitudes. They're even true! But you know, and I know you know, that they don't get to the heart of the matter. They don't address what you're actually worried about—and right to be worried about. The concern isn't that we might catch you doing something illegal. The concern is that we might use information about your purely legal activities against you. Maybe this would be done by a few "bad actors" at first, but you're worried—and you're right to be!—that, if not now, then eventually, this kind of corruption would become so endemic to the system that it would start to become normal. Would become part of the system. Maybe even would end up codified. Perfectly legal. And you're right to see this as a problem.

You all see a certain basic modicum of privacy as a fundamental requirement for a working Democracy. And the surveillance program I've described is incompatible with that kind of privacy. That's a fact I can't deny. So you might be tempted to conclude, then, that we do not have a working Democracy. That the appearance of Democracy belies an underlying reality in which people, moved by fear and paranoia, allow themselves to be cowed by political and police forces over which they have no similar power of surveillance. Sure you'll all continue to "vote." But you'll all be afraid to attempt any truly radical change should the major political powers in this nation choose to disallow it. Because they'll be able to use the information they have about you to manipulate you, to make you believe lies, to cow you into submission. By now you must be thinking that Democracy—real Democracy—surely couldn't survive this!

But I am standing here before you to reassure you. Yes these powers are vast and could have the kinds of effects I've just described. But please rest assured. Democracy is alive and well in the United States of America, and always will be. It may be a kind of Democracy you don't find described in your high school textbooks. But I want to argue that it's real Democracy—rule by the people, for the people. But it requires viigilance. For the new Democracy doesn't live in the houses of Congress, or in presidential elections. The new Democracy lives much closer to home than that. Through this surveillance program, we've brought the possibility of a New Tyranny right into your very homes. So the new Democracy lives like this: It lives when you continue to ask the hard questions, the ones that make you uncomfortable and unsure of your own security. It lives when you do everything in your power to find ways to hide your activities from us. That's where the new Democracy lives: In the struggle. The struggle between us, the new Tyranny, and you, the ones with the will towards independence and the power of free-flowing information to make it work even in the face of what we're trying to do to you.

Let me not mislead you. As President of the United States, I will continue to use every kind of power I have available to me to ensure that those working to keep our nation stable and strong and safe from its enemies will have access to every bit of information they can realistically handle. This includes every bit of information that exists about you, your communications, your whereabouts. I must do this. We must do this. The United States has enemies that are quick, have access to immense power, work in the shadows, and simply can't be fought in any traditional way. The existence of these enemies—and they will never go away, as soon as one is destroyed, two more will take its place—absolutely requires that we use all means available to us to be sure we've seen not just what they're up to at any given moment, but what they could be up to. In fact, our enemies are learning how to use you, the American people, against yourselves. They are learning how to extract patterns from your movements, and how to nudge you in just the right ways to bring about disaster on a whim. To prevent this, we need to know more than they know. We need to know everything. Universal surveillance is a necessary part of this. We cannot give it up. To do so would be to invite destruction on our nation. Our technologies have developed immensely over the past few decades, such that we can gather all this information, and with computer programs able to detect patterns no human would ever notice, we can use this information. And we will. To do anything less would be utterly irresponsible.

We're doing it for your own good today. But you're right to worry that some future administration, or actors within this administration, or heck, even me, might be too tempted to use it for their own good in the future. And that, my fellow Americans, is why you must fight what I am doing. I will not lie and tell you I'll stop this surveillance. Anyone in my position who tells you they've stopped gathering every bit of information they can is either lying or foolish. I like to think I'm not foolish. In the past, we've simply lied to you, hoping enough of you would believe us to make the problem go away. But I believe this is information you can handle. Or anyway, it's information you must handle. Because the very same information technology that lets me get all this information about you makes it almost impossible to stop a continual stream of leaks from revealing the scope of this operation to you anyway. If it's not common knowledge now, it will be in short order. My advisors have urged me not to make these points, but they can't be denied. We're watching you, and you know we're watching you. And this makes you part of the program.

I am not asking you to cooperate. Your cooperation in this surveillance would destroy the country just as surely as our failure to surveil. It would mean the death of the ideals this nation was founded on. No, whatever you do, do not cooperate with this surveillance program. Fight it. Find ways to hide from us. Pull together all your know-how and find ways to get under our radar. And fight it politically. Not by voting—the politicians will always promise to end surveillance, and they will always fail to do so. No, fight it in the courts. Fight it in the media. Strive by every means you can against this surveillance program.

Because we need to know where our weaknesses are. If our enemies find our weaknesses, we die. We need you—you who we are sworn to protect, whose will we are sworn to uphold—we need you to find our weaknesses. And in so doing, you will make us stronger. And you will make yourselves stronger. Through this struggle against the new Tyranny, you will maintain that modicum of privacy, that freedom you are right to thirst for, that is your birthright. We'll try to take it away from you every step of the way. But you will use your proven resourcefulness to find more and more subtle ways to keep it. And together we'll build a system that is truly Democratic, moved by the struggle of its people for freedom and self-determination. That's the new Democracy. It is how you will rule yourselves, in that struggle between Tyranny and Freedom. And unlike the old Democracy, the new Democracy will be strong. It will withstand these attacks from outside, from those who hate our freedom.

Thank you for your time. Now let's begin.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Universalism Without Heaven? Second Post

In an earlier post I introduced the question of whether Christian Universalism can make sense together with a doctrine that remains at best agnostic about an afterlife.

Christianity without an afterlife may seem difficult to swallow. Indeed as Tom Talbott points out, without an afterlife, the Problem of Evil comes to seem insurmountable. But Universalism without an afterlife seems to be not just hard to swallow, but an outright contradiction. Universalism is, after all, the doctrine that everyone is or will be saved. If there is no afterlife, and if some people die in misery after leading miserable lives, what sense could it make to say everyone "is or will be" saved? The doctrine seems to become contentless at best.

Yet in my previous post I gave some reasons for thinking that we should be able to "naturalize" our Christian doctrines, in the sense that we should be able to say what they mean independently of any assumptions of the existence of supernatural entities. (That argument deserves a fuller treatment, and I'll return to it in a future post.) So then I have a challenge set before me: To make sense of my belief that "Everyone is or will be saved through the death and resurrection of Christ" in light of an agnosticism towards the existence of an afterlife. (Indeed, I'll need to articulate a way to make sense of it given an agnosticism towards a literal resurrection of Christ too! At this point everybody's asking "What kind of 'Christian' does this guy think he is?" I'll cop to that. Anyway the question of Christ's resurrection is beyond the scope of this blog post.)

So then. "Everyone is or will be saved." What does that mean, absent a concept of an afterlife? The procedure may turn out to be pretty simple. First "naturalize" the concept of salvation. Then assert that it applies to everyone. And try to make it plausible.

What does it mean to "naturalize" the concept of salvation? It means to ask what the practical, temporal implication of the concept is, without reference to supernatural realities. If this is to be a Christian project, then the idea isn't just to talk about a general concept of "salvation" as it is to be found among English speakers, but rather, the concept as discussed in the Christian scriptures, most especially the New Testament.

Here I'll focus on the question of what salvation is salvation from. In a future post I'll focus on the question of what the effects of salvation are supposed to be, or what one is supposed to expect by virtue of one's salvation. The latter is the more difficult question for this "naturalization" project so it's no wonder I'm staving it off for the moment.

I can find just three statements in the New Testament which describe what it is we're supposed to have been saved from. We're supposed to be saved from "our sins" (Matthew 1:21), we're supposed to be saved from "God's wrath," (Romans 5:9), and we're supposed to be saved from "this perverse generation" (Acts 2:40).

What does it mean to be saved "from our sins?" A phrase you often hear in Church Talk is "salvation from sin," and this is generally used to mean "not having to sin." That is most likely an aspect of salvation biblically speaking, though as it turns out the book doesn't actually contain this kind of phraseology. I'll deal with "salvation from sin" in the post dealing with the expectations that come from being saved. Being "saved from our sins" would seem to be more backward looking—we have sinned, those sins lead to consequences we'd prefer not to suffer, and in fact we will not suffer those consequences.

What about being saved from "God's wrath?" This would seem to indicate something very similar to being saved "from our sins." God is wrathful to bad people, i.e., sinners. We have been bad people, but the consequence of that badness—God's wrath—will not be visited on us. "God's wrath" here shouldn't be understood as a future judgment taking place in an afterlife, since we're engaged in a naturalization project here. Instead it should be understood as involving consequences taking place temporally, here within the actual lives we're living right now. By this do I mean some kind of "karma"—i.e. that bad things you do in this life are punished by future events taking place in this life? I don't think that can be acceptable under a naturalization of these concepts. Any principle joining future negative experiences to present sinful experiences would be a supernatural principle. We know as a matter of physical fact that there is no causal law governing any such relation. Some people get away with huge sins without any future event that could plausibly count as punishment. Others experience immensely negative situations without having committed any sin of any comparable seriousness. This is even a theme explored biblically in many places—see the entire book of Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as some sayings of Jesus, for example what he said about the tower that fell on the workers and killed them (CITE). But if God's wrath shouldn't be thought of in terms of such "karmic punishment," what can it be? As far as I can see, to naturalize this concept, we must take it to involve an evaluation of the quality of a person's life. I have to presuppose that a sinful life, even if very pleasurable, must at the same time be miserable in some sense, and meanwhile, a life lived free from sin, even if unpleasurable, must in some sense be characterized as being the opposite of miserable—let's call it "joyful." Misery and joy, then, are going to have to be conceptually separate from pleasure and pain. This doesn't seem implausible. To put it simplistically, I could get my kid addicted to some drug that guarantees physically pleasurable feelings, and so long as I continue to maintain his access to those drugs, I'm providing him with great amounts of pleasure and no pain. He may even "die happy" in this sense. But will I thereby have provided him with a joyful life, or a miserable one? Arguably a miserable one! God's wrath, which we're supposed to all be saved from under Universalist doctrine, must have more to do with the misery/joyfulness axis than the pain/pleasure axis. The claim has to be, not that everyone is guaranteed a pleasurable life, but that everyone is guaranteed a joyful life. Still not a clearly true claim! But it's the claim I have to make.

So where are we at so far? Universalism Naturalized must hold that no one will ultimately suffer the consequence of sin, and that everyone will ultimately live a joyful life. "Ultimately" here must not be taken to refer to an afterlife, but still, it seems we have to be talking about something we'd call "the final resolution." In the final analysis, in other words, each person's life is going to be free from the consequence of sin, and is to be joyful. These are two of the claims I'd have to defend. And there's a third one. I still haven't gotten to salvation from "this perverse generation."

What can it mean to be saved from "this perverse generation?" The exact meaning of the phrase is not clear to me. But it would seem clear that at least the basic idea is this. We're products of our culture in many ways. And there are some implications of this that are not good. If my culture makes me a slave, for example, then my being a product of my culture is in many ways very bad for me. If my culture makes me an unthinking consumer of resources, or a victim of bullying, or a bully, or someone who doesn't know how to relate to others honestly, or whatever, then my being a product of my culture is very much a way in which I am trapped by forces inimical to my own interests. It would make sense to think of this as something people could be rescued from. How to rescue a person from her very culture? One way would be to create a new culture, or even just a subculture, intended to undo the bonds of the former culture. This idea seems to be right in keeping with what seems to be going on in very early Christian history. Those guys seemed to be all about figuring out a way to live with each other ("in the world but not of it") characterized by a setting aside of the bonds of the old culture, and instead living by the principles of a new culture which does not place those kinds of burdens on people. The new culture is characterized by forgiveness, undoing of hierarchies, sharing of burdens, a focus on love as opposed to authoritarianism, and so on. All of this makes naturalized sense out of the idea of being saved "from this perverse generation."

So now I have three claims to defend:

  1. In the final analysis, each person's life is or is going to be free from the consequence of sin.
  2. In the final analysis, each person's life is or is going to be joyful rather than miserable.
  3. In the final analysis, the adversarial burdens placed on people by their cultures are or will be of no effect.

Some things need to be clarified: What is meant by "In the final analysis," what is meant by "sin?"

As for sin, I'll just put it real briefly here. It seems like biblical talk of sin is basically talk of either the tendency to act non-ideally, or else the non-ideal acts themselves. It gets used as both a mass noun and a count noun (LINK). When used as a mass noun, it seems to refer to the tendency to act non-ideally. When used as a count noun, it seems to refer to the non-ideal acts themselves. Well, what's "ideal"? That's a huge question of course, and it would be silly to think it could be answered here. But here's a way to gesture at it. Most people are generally trying to do the best they can. What they're aiming at is the ideal. And when they do something else instead, or when the "best they can" is different from "the best," that is what sin is.

What about "in the final analysis?" I have to be careful with that because I can already feel the temptation to make it mean whatever I want it to mean. But here's the basic idea, which I think is forced by all the presuppositions that go into this "naturalization project." Obviously each of the three claims appears to be false at the very least at a first glance, and probably at a second and third glance as well. So then, the claim is that there is some consistent and plausible but also not obvious way of evaluating a person's life such that, contrary to appearances, the three claims above turn out to be true. And this way of evaluating a person's life must have some compelling force such that it strikes one plausibly as the "final" way of evaluating their life. In other words, it must appear that appearances to the contrary, the judgments of this evaluative scheme turn out to be the correct judgments.

A tall order. It would appear that I'm building up to an illusion theory of evil, one shared by disparate thinkers from many traditions mostly outside Christianity but some within (for example Augustine). But illusion theories of evil suffer from the obvious weakness that they tell the victims of horrific disasters and terrible evils that nothing is actually wrong with their lives. How can this claim be made palatable without an accompanying doctrine of the afterlife?

Two thousand words and I'm talking myself into a corner, so I think further thought about this will need to be put off for a future post. Hopefully in this post I've made it clear what it is I will need to defend as I discuss what salvation is "from." We'll see if I can make this work. Meanwhile, what do you think?

Also, I am certain that I am skating across ground that's been chipped at and dug into by more accomplished thinkers in the past. I feel the old currents of Existentialist Theology arising from their slumbers deep within my theological past, for example, but can hardly remember any actual texts or authors. And I know there are connections to be made between what I'm starting to say here and various more "mystical" religious traditions from around the world. Do you see such connections? What do I need to be reading or re-reading?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Analysis of Mercy—3rd Post

This post is meant to motivate an account of mercy which takes it to be necessary that merciful actors have certain intentions and beliefs. In a previous post (and see this follow-up) I discussed the surprising fact that, apparently, accounts of mercy in the philosophical literature do not typically include such a condition, and I explained why I thought they should. Here I'll show how thinking about agent intentions helps us deal with a difficult case from Markosian's recent paper on mercy. That case is:

Case 7: …a judge is sentencing a convict. The judge happens to know that the convict is an innocent man who has been unjustly framed. The law requires a ten year sentence, but morality requires that the judge help the innocent convict to escape. So the judge, moved by compassion for the convict, does just that.

Most people would, on a first pass, call this a merciful act. However Markosian argues that it is not merciful! He is almost (but not completely, as will be discussed shortly) committed to this view by his own analysis of mercy, which he calls the Flexible Analysis of Mercy:

FAM: x is merciful to y at t =df there are two alternative acts, A and B, available to x at t such that (1) x performs A, (ii) X's performing B would have resulted in more harm to y than x's performing A, (iii) x is motivated by compassion for y to choose A over B, and (iv) A and B are both permitted under the relevant notion of permissibility.

In other words, an act is merciful when the agent of the act could have been more severe, chose to be less severe out of compassion, and both being more severe and being less severe are allowed by the "relevant notion of permissibility." By "the relevant notion of permissibility" Markosian means to refer to some rule that is uniquely picked out by the context of the utterance of the claim that "x was merciful to y at t." So, for example, if x is a lawyer talking to other lawyers, the relevant notion of permissibility would plausibly be Legal Permissibility. But if x were a moral saint talking to other moral saints, the relevant notion would plausibly be Moral Permissibility.

So FAM does indeed imply that the act in Case 7 is not merciful. For neither morality nor legality succeeds in making permissible both sentencing the prisoner and helping the prisoner to escape. Legality disallows helping the prisoner escape, while Morality disallows leaving the prisoner with a ten year sentence.
Markosian acknowledges that this is counterintuitive, but bites this bullet. His account after all seems to work well as a unified account of the majority of intuitions about mercy—and also suggests a very plausible explanation as to why those intuitions often differ.

I am very strongly inclined to think that the judge in Case 7 is merciful. Markosian offers an alternative account of mercy which would turn out a judgment that the act is merciful:

DFAM: x is merciful to y at t =df there are two alternative acts, A and B, available to x at t such that (1) x performs A, (ii) X's performing B would have resulted in more harm to y than x's performing A, (iii) x is motivated by compassion for y to choose A over B, (iv) two different notions of permissibility, are somehow picked out by the context, p1 and p2, (v) A is permitted under p1, and (vi) B is permitted under p2.

The key difference between DFAM and FAM is that, whereas FAM requires there to be a single notion of permissibility that permits both A and B, DFAM allows that A and B might be permitted by two different notions of permissibility. So in case 7, the judge's act is merciful because sentencing the prisoner is permitted under the Legal notion of permissibility, while helping the prisoner to escape is permitted under the Moral notion of permissibility.

In my view it is difficult to see how a single context of utterance could render relevant two distinct notions of permissibility. Part of what constitutes a context of utterance is the speaker of the utterance and her audience. (Markosian often refers to this audience as though they were a group of lawyers, or a group of moral saints, or some other such unified group.) Indeed, to picture a single context of utterance with two distinct audiences is strange. Not that it's impossible, but rather, that calling this a "single" context doesn't seem useful—rather, it would seem a single utterance is being dealt with in two different contexts in such a case. And surely in each individual context of utterance, if the audience is in fact supposed to be able to come to a rational and unified decision as to the truth of the utterance, there must be just one notion of permissibility that applies. If the audience is divided, then (again, assuming they are to come together rationally to a unified decision) then they must have a way of resolving that division. This procedure would constitute a zeroing in on a single notion of permissibility.

Perhaps the resulting notion would have a disjunctive character. (Perhaps a group of lawyers and moral saints mixed together would decide that, for their purposes, an action is merciful so long as all the obvious requirements apply and each of A and B is either legal or moral.) That's still a single notion of permissibility. And in fact one could use this fact to argue that FAM itself can turn out a judgment of "merciful" on the action described in case 7—at least in those cases where some such disjunctive notion of permissibility turns out to be the right one. (One begins to suspect here, though, that any act could be merciful given the right audience—which seems strange enough to count at least a little against FAM.)

But it's not clear at all that a disjunctive notion of permissibility is ever the right one, much less when it would be the right one. (The lawyer/saint scenario briefly alluded to above seems very implausible on examination. Plausibly they would, or should, actually simply agree they have no common ground upon which to make a single judgment about the act, and would disband.)

So then, why do I think the action in Case 7 is merciful? Basically, it is because my idea of a judge includes the idea that a judge is trained to very carefully set aside his own biases and outside information, and instead to carry out his function as a representative of the government. A principled judge, for example, will uphold a guilty verdict on appeal even if he thinks the convict to be actually innocent, so long as all the rules of the courtroom were followed during the convict's trial. One could question whether upholding the verdict is moral (and one could argue that it is, but this is not relevant for our purposes) but there is, in any case, certainly a principle at work, moving the judge to make such a decision, which is not simply a principle of survival or comfort-seeking.

So I propose a different account of mercy, which I'll call the Internalized Principles Analysis of Mercy:

IPAM: x is merciful to y at t =df x believes there are two alternative acts, A and B, available to x at t such that (1) x performs A, (ii) x believes x's performing B would have resulted in more harm to y than x's performing A, (iii) x is motivated by compassion for y to choose A over B, (iv) two unselfish principles p1 and p2 move x, such that p1 moves x to choose A and p2 moves x to choose B. (p1 and p2 may be identical, as some principles allow for more than one option in a given situation.)

Less precisely, an act is merciful when the agent undertaking the act is genuinely psychologically moved by some principle to do something relatively severe, and is also genuinely psychologically moved by some principle (possibly the same principle, but not necessarily or even usually) to do something relatively gentle, and out of compassion, chooses the more gentle act.

What does it mean for a principle to move a person to do an action? I am not sure if this is something that needs a lot of clarification or not. As a first pass, I'd say it just means that the principle is part of the rational calculus that seems to the person to count in favor of doing the action. I don't claim that this must be explicit or occurant to the person, just that it is part of the rational calculus that goes on in the person's mind in some way.

This account of mercy, unlike Markosian's, is non-contextualist. I have nothing in particular against contextualism per se, but mercy does not appear to me to be a contextual concept. I offer this account as an alternative to the contextual account. A strength of the contextual account is that it explains why intuitions about mercy differ. (People in different contexts will make different correct judgments.) I suspect (but have not really thought deeply about this) that IPAM also offers an explanation for this along the following lines: People may have different judgments about mercy because they bring to the judgment different assumptions about which principles genuinely move the agents described in various cases.

In near future posts, I'll discuss some of those cases, see how IPAM applies to them, and also explore the question whether IPAM may help explain differing intuitions about those cases.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Did Catelyn Stark Act Rationally At the Red Wedding?

This post is about the series Game of Thrones on HBO. If you haven't seen the Red Wedding episode yet (and if you don't know what that means, you haven't seen the episode) then you should be advised that there are major spoilers in this post.

In this series, Catelyn Stark is the mother of Robb, a pretender to the throne attempting to forge an alliance with a noble named Walder Frey. To this end, Catelyn, Robb, those nobles pledged to him, and their armies, are all participating in a wedding feast in and around Frey's castle. And as it turns out, this is all a setup for a profound act of treachery—towards the end of the celebration, Walder gives a signal whereupon the Starks and their entire party are attacked and killed.

As it happens, Robb and Catelyn, though shot with arrows, survive for a few minutes. Catelyn takes this opportunity to quickly grab Frey's own wife and hold her hostage. She promises to let Frey's wife go and to never seek revenge against the Freys if they will only let her son Robb leave without further harm. And if Robb is killed, she promises, she will kill Frey's wife.

After several tense seconds, Walder Frey simply says he can find another wife, and one of his co-conspirators slits Robb's throat. So Catelyn now follows up on her promise, and kills Frey's wife in return. A soldier then kills Catelyn, and the episode ends.

It's a truly devastating scene. (Some fairly cruel people have produced admittedly amusing videos recording the reactions of unsuspecting watchers as these events unfold.) And like anything properly and meaningfully devastating, the incidents invite some philosophical speculation.

Here's mine. I'm wondering whether it was rational for Catelyn to kill Frey's wife.

Note I'm not asking whether it was rational to threaten to kill his wife. Nor am I asking whether any of this was ethical. The ethical status of the threat itself is interesting but possibly not discoverable. We don't know whether Frey's wife was an active planner of the treacherous act, a mere bystander, or someone merely cooperating with those she saw as having power over her. As for the rationality of the threat (divorced from the ethical question) it seems like as good a bet as any for Catelyn if her chief goal is to get her son out of there safely.

My question, then, isn't about threatening to kill Frey's wife. It's about actually killing Frey's wife. And I ask this question because, once Robb was killed, it was absolutely clear that Catelyn was not going to escape with her life either. Her killing Frey's wife certainly wasn't going to change that. Indeed, killing Frey's wife had no positive consequences whatsoever for Catelyn. So it becomes an askable question—did Catelyn actually have a reason to kill Frey's wife?

She certainly had promised to kill Frey's wife. And we might think that simply by virtue of that fact, she had created a reason to kill Frey's wife. After all, by making a promise, you arguably give yourself a reason to do the thing you promised to do. And presumably a rational person makes a certain appropriate amount of effort to do the things she has reasons to do. But even if promises create reasons in this fashion, is it always rational to keep them? Suppose I promise to give my son a copy of the last Harry Potter novel once he finishes the sixth novel in the series. And suppose he finishes it, but upon finishing it, tells me my wife already bought him a copy. In order to keep my promise, I'd have to give him a copy myself—but he already has a copy, and doesn't want another one. We could work out something but the fact remains that by not giving him a copy of the Harry Potter novel, I will have broken my promise to him. Yet this doesn't seem particularly irrational. Though I had a reason to get him the novel, (if only because I promised to,) I also had overriding reasons not to get it for him. In this case, breaking the promise was the rational thing to do.

So one kind of case in which the reason created by a promise can be overridden is this kind of case where stronger reasons prevail for some incompatible course of action.

Catelyn's case doesn't seem to be like this, though. Once Robb has been killed, I don't see any particularly overriding reason why Catelyn shouldn't kill Frey's wife. She surely knows (especially given Frey's cavalier statement that he can find another wife) that Frey's wife is just as useless to her alive as dead. (How sociopathic do I sound right now?) She has no particular reason to keep the woman alive—since everyone in the room is just as willing to kill the woman as she is.

So no, it's not as though Catelyn has any particular reason to keep the woman alive. Still, there seems to be a marked pointlessness about killing the woman. Catelyn could kill the woman then die herself, or she could let the woman live and then die herself. All other things being equal, it is better for one person to die and another to live, than it is for two people to die. Just as there's no particular reward to be found in letting the woman live, there's also no particular reward in killing her either. The only point in killing her seems to be in order to keep the promise Catelyn made before. Is this really enough to make it rational for Catelyn to kill the woman?

Suppose I made a promise to my neighbor to mow his lawn once a week for the next twenty years. But then suppose my neighbor dies a few years later, and his property is never bought by anyone else. (Let's say a plague has wiped out a great percentage of the human species, just to explain the lack of buyer and also to make this seem like a bleak scenario to match the bleakness of Catelyn's situation.) It takes a very small effort for me to mow his lawn, and so, I do in fact continue mowing his lawn even after he has died, even after the entire neighborhood has gone to pot (on account of the plague), even as the upkeep of lawns has become completely irrelevant to anything important to anyone left alive. I keep mowing the lawn because—I made a promise, and a promise is a promise.

Is it rational for me to go on mowing the lawn like this? Well, it may be rational for several reasons, but let's ask it this way: Does rationality demand that I keep mowing the lawn? Does the fact that I made a promise make it obligatory that I mow the lawn absent any overriding reason preventing me from doing so? I doubt it. I would think that once things have changed that drastically, the promise I made while my neighbor (and most of the human species) was alive has become moot. Keeping this particular promise simply doesn't serve any of the purposes promise keeping is meant to serve.

That invites the question—what is promise keeping for? What is the purpose of keeping a promise? That's a huge issue, but I think this is a plausible answer: promise-keeping serves the purpose of signaling who is reliable and who is not. (I'm interested to hear what other purposes people think promise-keeping might have.)

Catelyn, upon seeing Robb killed, was no longer in the same kind of situation she'd been in when she made the promise. Even though it was only a few seconds ago, things had now radically changed. She was no longer in a position to make any kind of threat. Nothing she could do to the woman at whose neck she held a knife would make any difference to how anyone around her would act. If there was any reason to keep her promise to kill the woman, that reason would seem to come from one of two possible sources: Either it came from an inherently reason-giving power found in promise-making itself, or it came from considerations relevant to the larger function that promise-keeping is supposed to serve.

As to an inherent reason-giving power, I've just argued that in some cases, this inherent reason-giving power isn't enough to force an obligation on a person to keep their promise. Catelyn's situation after Robb's killing is like my situation after the plague in the above scenario—things are just too different now, and it simply doesn't make a difference whether I keep mowing the lawn, or whether Catelyn kills the woman.

What about the function of promise-keeping? Does Catelyn have any reason to signal her reliability at this point in her story? Arguably not. She's going to die in a few seconds either way. The cause she is fighting for—her son's kingship—is well known to her to be at an end. She isn't signaling to her son's armies that her family is reliable. There's no army to signal to, no family to signal about. (She does believe herself to have two living daughters held hostage by the royal family, but it's very difficult to imagine any particular importance to signal either to them or to those around her that she herself keeps a promise to kill a woman whose death serves her no real purpose.) Frey (or one of his soldiers) is going to kill her either way, and sleep just as soundly in either case, since they apparently care nothing for the life of Frey's wife. So signaling her reliability to them would seem to serve no purpose either.

For these reasons, arguably, there was no demand on Catelyn that she must kill the woman, even if she had promised she would. Her situation was so utterly hopeless that even very basic and primal facts about the reasons for making and keeping promises no longer seemed to apply. Perhaps someone might say she needed to signal to herself, at the very least, that she was in a strong enough position to the very end to be able to stand on her word. But why signal that to herself in this case? If she had hope for a future, perhaps it would be important what kind of person she is. But as far as she knew, she had no hope. So why should it matter, even to her, whether she has the power to keep a promise? Isn't it better to let the woman live rather than to kill her for no purpose?

I don't know, to be honest, but this is where my reasoning leads me at the moment. What are your thoughts?

Monday, June 3, 2013

A Possibly-Uncharitable Response To Lynn Rudder Baker on Extended Cognition

Lynn Rudder Baker has recently written an article arguing against certain versions of the Extended Cognition thesis (incidentally, the topic of my dissertation) on the basis that if such theses were true, the cognizing entities they describe would not count as persons. Since they're supposed to be persons by the lights of the theses' proponents, these proponents should not accept their own thesis.

The versions of Extended Cognition she's addressing are those which posit that we human cognizers are constituted by a fluctuating series of arrays of physical components, normally consisting of our bodies plus sets of tools which we use to embody some of our cognitions. In other words, she's arguing against the idea that we human beings are extended systems which typically include but are not limited to "biological skinbags." (This phrasing is from Andy Clark, one proponent of such a theory.) And importantly, the system a person is constituted by is not the same system over time—at one time it may be one system of physical components, and at another time, it may be some other system. As the tools change, the constitutive system changes. But it's supposed to be that a single person coheres through all of these changes. And what Baker doubts is that it is possible for a single person to cohere in this way.

She asks three questions which she thinks cannot be adequately answered by a proponent of this kind of Extended Cognition thesis: Can such a fluctuating system can be rational, can it be moral, and can it understand what it is doing while it is doing it.

Her answers in each case are negative, and in each case for a similar reason. Take the rationality question. Suppose Otto (a famous case for thinking about Extended Cognition) is an extended system consisting of a biological human whose memory has degenerated, plus a notebook and pen. The notebook and pen function for Otto like a memory. Many EC proponents hold that some of Otto's cognition is taking place over the substrate of the notebook and pen. They're not just aids to thinking—they are doing some of his thinking for him.

Say Otto wants to go to the museum, and upon consulting his notebook, begins to go there by walking down 53rd street. Clearly there is rational action taking place. But Baker asks, is it the extended system that is acting rationally? She argues that it is not—that the rational actor is simply the human skinbag—because in the absence of the notebook, Skinbag Otto would still find ways to come to know the directions to the museum.

But as far as I can tell this reasoning rests on the following unstated premise which I'll term Rational Component:

RC: If X is part of a rational system Y, then Y's rational actions cannot take place without X's integration into Y.
(Note that RC implies that my hair is not part of a rational system, since it is not a necessary component of any explanation of my rational actions. This is not a criticism, it is noted here just to make sure the idea is clear.)

Given RC, it follows that since the notebook isn't necessary to enable Otto's rational action, the notebook is not part of the rational system which constitutes Otto.

But RC is questionable. People who have had lobotomies, for example, are still able to walk, to speak, and perform a variety of rational acts. It would seem that the part of the brain removed in the lobotomy did not need to be integrated into them in order to enable such actions. Does this mean, then, that this part of their brain was not part of what these people were as rational systems? That seems dubious! Indeed, to accept this consequence would seem to lead to a notion that prior to the lobotomy, there were two different rational systems inside these bodies—one without the lobotomized brain part, to which certain rational actions belonged, and one with the lobotomized brain part, to which certain other rational actions belonged (namely, the ones that were made impossible by the lobotomy).

I am actually sympathetic with a view that the truth of extended cognition entails the actual existence of some kind of fluctuating hodge-podge of overlapping persons, (I advocated for this very idea in the abovementioned dissertation) but Baker clearly is not. Yet to accept RC would (it seems to me) lead to a very similar picture of rationality, and perhaps even personhood.

Perhaps I am wrong to attribute RC to her argument, though. In this case, I am not sure exactly how to reconstruct her reasoning, and I invite comment in either case!