Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Consequence Argument

The issue of determinism and free will have always been at the forefront in philosophy. We are inclined to define them as opposites: determinism means we have no free will and having free will means we are not determined. However, the majority view in contemporary philosophy is called compatibilism (or sometimes soft determinism) which tries to walk a middle path. If we define free will in the right way, then no conflict between it and determinism arises. So if we are free to do what we want, that's enough freedom and it's compatible with determinism. Whatever determines our actions also determines our desires so that our actions and desires match up -- or alternately, our actions are brought about by us in accordance with our desires, and our desires are determined by other forces. As Schopenhauer put it, "We are free to do as we will, but not to will as we will."

The motivation for compatibilism is to allow for moral praise and blame. If our actions are determined, it is difficult to see how we can be held responsible for them. Hard determinism accepts this and rejects moral responsibility. Libertarianism (NOT the political position) also accepts this and accepts moral responsibility. But if we are free to do what we want, then we can still say we are responsible for our actions, and so moral praise and blame is possible. Supposedly.

Peter Van Inwagen is one of the most important living philosophers. He earned his Ph.D. in 1969 and has began publishing on determinism and free will ever since. Eleven years into his academic career he converted to Christianity, which is interesting but unrelated to what I'm talking about. He also came up with the Consequence Argument which is essentially an argument against compatibilism. It argues that the free will of compatibilism does not allow for moral praise or blame, moral responsibility, and this takes away any motive for accepting compatibilism in the first place. We should either be hard determinists or libertarians.

The argument in a nutshell: if determinism is true, all of our actions are entirely produced by events in the remote past plus the laws of nature. But we have no control over events in the remote past or the laws of nature. Therefore, we have no control over our actions. If we have no control over our actions, we are not responsible for them, in which case praising us for our good acts and blaming us for our bad acts makes no sense.

Van Inwagen affirms free will, but also points out that it is a mystery. It has yet to be made into a coherent idea, despite the facts that we have an intuitive understanding of it and it has been something people have been discussing for as long as there's been people. Simply saying our actions are not determined is not enough, since we could hardly be held responsible for actions that just occurred spontaneously with no cause. Nicholas Rescher, another Christian philosopher and probably the most influential philosopher of science after C.S. Peirce and Karl Popper, published Free Will: An Extensive Bibliography, which is exactly what it says it is: over 300 pages of references. So I don't think the issue is going to be resolved anytime soon.

Sunday, July 26, 2020


Antilogisms are a form of argument that take a syllogism and negate the conclusion. So whereas a syllogism might say:

1. All men are mortal.
2. Socrates is a man.
3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Its corresponding antilogism would be:

4. All men are mortal.
5. Socrates is a man.
6. Socrates is not mortal.

The interesting thing about this is that you can now accept any two premises, but not all three. You can accept that Socrates is a man and is not mortal if you deny that all men or mortal. Or you can accept that all men are mortal and Socrates is not mortal if you deny that Socrates is a man. So any two premises in a genuine antilogism can be made into a valid syllogism by negating the remaining premise.

There are a lot of interesting antilogisms and pseudo-antilogisms in philosophy. One of the most famous goes back to the ancient Greeks, and was re-emphasized by David Hume.

7. God is omnipotent (all powerful).
8. God is omnibenevolent (perfectly good and loving).
9. Evil exists.

This really captures the intuitive sense behind the problem of evil, which asks how a perfectly good and omnipotent God could allow evil to take place. Unfortunately, premise 9 is not the negation of the valid conclusion of a syllogism:

10. God is omnipotent.
11. God is omnibenevolent.
12. Therefore, there is at least one omnipotent, omnibenevolent being.

I think what the antilogism is trying to say is something like this:

13. God is omnipotent.
14. God is omnibenevolent.
15. An omnipotent and omnibenevolent being would not allow evil to take place.
16. Evil does take place.
17. Therefore, God is either not omnipotent, not omnibenevolent, or neither -- perhaps by not existing.

(You could also throw omniscience in there to emphasize that God must be aware of the evil that takes place.) The problem here is defending premise 15. The history of philosophy (and theology) is filled with attempts to explain how God could allow evil to take place, called theodicies, which is not to say that any of them are successful. But if we negate 15 we get:

18. An omnipotent and omnibenevolent being could allow evil to take place.

Premises 7, 8, 9, and 18 are a consistent set. So 7, 8, and 9 is not a true antilogism. Naturally, we all want a reason to accept premise 18 -- a common claim is that God only allows evil when he is able to bring about a counterbalancing good from it -- but it's not necessary in the structure of the argument. As long as 18 is logically possible then premises 7, 8, and 9 do not form an antilogism.

To see an antilogism in action, let's apply it to this scene from "Gandhi."

This presents us with the following antilogism:

19. Gandhi is a "colored attorney."
20. Gandhi is in South Africa.
21. "There are no colored attorneys in South Africa."

Granted, premise 20 is never actually stated, but I think we can infer it with confidence. Once again, we can accept any two premises but not all three. So Gandhi reverses premise 21 to form a genuine syllogism:

22. Gandhi is a "colored attorney."
23. Gandhi is in South Africa.
24. "There is at least one colored attorney in South Africa."

And the rest of the scene shows how dangerous logic can be.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

The Chinese Room

The Chinese Room is a philosophical argument about the nature of mind that takes the form of a thought experiment. Imagine you're in a room with two slots. Tiles are slid in one with Chinese markings on them. You have a guidebook that tells you that if the tiles have such-and-such figures on them in such-and-such order, you are to take another tile that has other markings on it and slide it through the other slot. You eventually get very good at it, maybe you even memorize the guidebook. The question is: does your competence in operating the Chinese room mean that you understand Chinese? If you answer no, ask yourself what else it means to understand a language.

The answer most people would give is meaning. You know what symbols you should put through the output slot based on what the symbols that are put through the input slot are. But that doesn't correspond to knowing what the symbols actually mean.

John Searle, who first proposed the Chinese Room Argument, said it's the difference between semantics and syntax. Knowing what symbols should be made in response to other symbols is an issue of syntax, but semantics involves meaning, and that is left out of the equation.

Here's a great Kids in the Hall skit that accidentally makes this point.

Part of the reason this is absurd is that we could only take what he's saying as actual claims if he is actually asserting them. If he's just repeating sounds that, for him, have no meaning, we have no basis for accepting the meaning that the words have -- or the meaning they would have if spoken by someone who did understand them.

If the Chinese Room Argument is sound, there are some interesting consequences. One is that, if we believe that we do in fact understand meaning, that we are able to operate on a semantic level not just on a syntactic level, then our minds cannot be completely explained in mechanistic terms. Mechanism would only explain things on the syntactic level, and if we operate on a semantic level, then our minds transcend mere cause-and-effect mechanical processes.

Two, attempts to recreate minds on a mechanistic basis, i.e. artificial intelligence, will only ever operate on a syntactic level. It could be set up to respond in exactly the same way a mind operating on a semantic level does but it would be a sham. It would be an attempt to trigger our intuition that there is a mind behind the symbols that intends to communicate meaning (remember the movie Screamers?), but insofar as they are only functioning on a syntactic level, they are in the same situation as the non-Chinese speaker in the Chinese room.

Obviously, there's a lot more to be said about this: it's a live issue in philosophy with a lot of ink being spilled on both sides. It may be possible to generate an artificial intelligence that does operate on a semantic level. But how could we tell? It's output would be identical to one that only operates on a syntactic level. But then how do we know that other people -- friends, family, strangers -- are operating on a semantic level? This is the problem of other minds, which has also caused a lot of ink to be spilled.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Zeno's Dichotomy

Zeno was a pre-Socratic philosopher and a disciple of Parmenides. They both argued that the real world isn't at all like we experience it, and Zeno argued this by presenting a series of paradoxes alleging to show that the concept of (for example) plurality led to absurdities and so there must only be one thing that exists. Many of his arguments tried to show that motion was impossible, such as the Paradox of the Arrow and Achilles and the Tortoise. But my favorite one along these lines is his Dichotomy. Take someone who runs really fast like Atalanta, a figure from Greek mythology who was so fast she ended up as a hood ornament for the Studebaker.

So Atalanta decides to run forward, say 16 meters. But obviously, before she can run 16 meters, she has to run half that distance, 8 meters. But before she runs 8 meters, she has to run half of that, 4 meters. But before that she has to run 2 meters, 1 meter, 1/2 meter, etc. The upshot is that she can never run any distance. Even if we start by saying she tries to move a Planck length forward (about 10-35 meters), she first has to move half that distance, and half that, etc. So motion is impossible and since it seems that we and everything else moves, the world is an illusion. Roughly, the argument is:

1) Any finite distance can be divided infinitely.
2) An infinite cannot be traversed.
3) Therefore, no finite distance can be traversed.

Then along came Aristotle. He pointed out that we can use "infinite" in two different ways, as a potential amount or an actual amount. A potential infinite is an amount increasing towards infinity as a limit but never actually reaching it. That's what we symbolize with the sideways eight, ∞. At any given point, a potential infinite is a finite amount. An actual infinite, on the other hand, is not increasing towards infinity, it's achieved it. In contemporary set theory this is symbolized by aleph-null: ℵ0. And an actual infinite amount cannot be traversed.

Now, any finite distance can be potentially divisible infinitely. But you never actually reach an "infinitieth" of the distance. So Zeno's Dichotomy, and his other paradoxes of motion, are trading on moving back and forth between the two types of infinite. This wasn't dishonest on Zeno's part, no one had made this distinction before Aristotle. In light of this distinction, though, Zeno's argument becomes:

4) Any finite distance can be potentially infinitely divided.
5) An actual infinite cannot be traversed.
6) Therefore, no finite distance can be traversed.

And this is obviously fallacious. Specifically, it commits the fallacy of the undistributed middle, where the middle term (infinity in this case) has two different definitions.

In the 19th century, Georg Cantor developed set theory which really messes with everything about infinity. So any detailed discussion of this issue has to be filtered through set theory. Nevertheless, it's still pretty interesting, no?

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Long time, no blog

Several months ago I started checking out imgur on a regular basis, and then I created an account. Pretty soon I wrote some posts about philosophy (and other things). But with the political situation right now it's just become a bunch of people throwing around their hatred left and right. I sometimes commented on this, but I found myself becoming tempted to troll. And then I had an epiphany: why the heck was I writing posts about philosophy on imgur when I have a blog? So I'll just start posting some of the things I posted over there, with alterations as I see fit. Maybe that'll kickstart things back up.

Update (30 July): I just realized there was a backlog of comments that I never saw. Like, going back a year and a half. So if you left one and were wondering why it hadn't been posted, it's because I'm a lazy spud, and they're now in place.