A Philosopher's Blog

Believing What You Know is Not True

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 5, 2016

“I believe in God, and there are things that I believe that I know are crazy. I know they’re not true.”

Stephen Colbert

While Stephen Colbert ended up as a successful comedian, he originally planned to major in philosophy. His past occasionally returns to haunt him with digressions from the land of comedy into the realm of philosophy (though detractors might claim that philosophy is comedy without humor; but that is actually law). Colbert has what seems to be an odd epistemology: he regularly claims that he believes in things he knows are not true, such as guardian angels. While it would be easy enough to dismiss this claim as merely comedic, it does raise many interesting philosophical issues. The main and most obvious issue is whether a person can believe in something they know is not true.

While a thorough examination of this issue would require a deep examination of the concepts of belief, truth and knowledge, I will take a shortcut and go with intuitively plausible stock accounts of these concepts. To believe something is to hold the opinion that it is true. A belief is true, in the common sense view, when it gets reality right—this is the often maligned correspondence theory of truth. The stock simple account of knowledge in philosophy is that a person knows that P when the person believes P, P is true, and the belief in P is properly justified. The justified true belief account of knowledge has been savagely blooded by countless attacks, but shall suffice for this discussion.

Given this basic analysis, it would seem impossible for a person to believe in something they know is not true. This would require that the person believes something is true when they also believe it is false. To use the example of God, a person would need to believe that it is true that God exists and false that God exists. This would seem to commit the person to believing that a contradiction is true, which is problematic because a contradiction is always false.

One possible response is to point out that the human mind is not beholden to the rules of logic—while a contradiction cannot be true, there are many ways a person can hold to contradictory beliefs. One possibility is that the person does not realize that the beliefs contradict one another and hence they can hold to both.  This might be due to an ability to compartmentalize the beliefs so they are never in the consciousness at the same time or due to a failure to recognize the contradiction. Another possibility is that the person does not grasp the notion of contradiction and hence does not realize that they cannot logically accept the truth of two beliefs that are contradictory.

While these responses do have considerable appeal, they do not appear to work in cases in which the person actually claims, as Colbert does, that they believe something they know is not true. After all, making this claim does require considering both beliefs in the same context and, if the claim of knowledge is taken seriously, that the person is aware that the rejection of the belief is justified sufficiently to qualify as knowledge. As such, when a person claims that they belief something they know is not true, then that person would seem to either not telling to truth or ignorant of what the words mean. Or perhaps there are other alternatives.

One possibility is to consider the power of cognitive dissonance management—a person could know that a cherished belief is not true, yet refuse to reject the belief while being fully aware that this is a problem. I will explore this possibility in the context of comfort beliefs in a later essay.

Another possibility is to consider that the term “knowledge” is not being used in the strict philosophical sense of a justified true belief. Rather, it could be taken to refer to strongly believing that something is true—even when it is not. For example, a person might say “I know I turned off the stove” when, in fact, they did not. As another example, a person might say “I knew she loved me, but I was wrong.” What they mean is that they really believed she loved him, but that belief was false.

Using this weaker account of knowledge, then a person can believe in something that they know is not true. This just involves believing in something that one also strongly believes is not true. In some cases, this is quite rational. For example, when I roll a twenty sided die, I strongly believe that a will not roll a 20. However, I do also believe that I will roll a 20 and my belief has a 5% chance of being true. As such, I can believe what I know is not true—assuming that this means that I can believe in something that I believe is less likely than another belief.

People are also strongly influenced by emotional and other factors that are not based in a rational assessment. For example, a gambler might know that their odds of winning are extremely low and thus know they will lose (that is, have a strongly supported belief that they will lose) yet also strongly believe they will win (that is, feel strongly about a weakly supported belief). Likewise, a person could accept that the weight of the evidence is against the existence of God and thus know that God does not exist (that is, have a strongly supported belief that God does not exist) while also believing strongly that God does exist (that is, having considerable faith that is not based in evidence.


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Guardian Angels

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 22, 2016

AngelOn an episode of the Late Show, host Stephen Colbert and Jane Lynch had an interesting discussion of guardian angels. Lynch, who currently stars as a guardian angel in “Angel from Hell”, related a story of how her guardian angel held her in a protective embrace during a low point of her life. Colbert, ever the rational Catholic, noted that he believed in guardian angels despite knowing that they do not exist. The question of the existence of guardian angels is certainly an interesting one and provides yet another way to consider the classic problem of evil.

In general terms, a guardian angel is a supernatural, benevolent being who serves as the personal protector of someone. The nature of their alleged guarding varies considerably. For some, the guardian angel is supposed to serve in the classic “angel on the shoulder” role and provide good advice. For others, the angel provides a comforting presence. Some even claim that guardian angels take a very active role, such as reducing a potentially fatal fall to one that merely inflicts massive bodily injury. My interest is, however, not with the specific functions of guardian angels, but with the question of their existence.

In the context of monotheism, a guardian angel is an agent of God. As such, this ties them into the problem of evil. The general problem of evil is the challenge of reconciling the alleged existence of God with the existence of evil. Some take this problem to decisively show that God does not exist. Others contend that it shows that God is not how philosophers envision Him in the problem—that is, He is not omniscient, omnibenevolent or omnipotent. In the case of guardian angels, the challenge is to reconcile their alleged existence with evil.

One merely has to look through the news of the day to see a multitude of cases in which a guardian angel could have saved the day with fairly little effort. For example, a guardian angel could inform the police about the location of a kidnapped child. As another example, a guardian angel could exert a bit of effort to keep a ladder from slipping. They could also do more difficult things, like preventing cancer from killing children or deflecting bullets away from school children. Since none of this ever seems to happen, one obvious conclusion is that there are no guardian angels.

However, as with the main problem of evil, there are some ways to try to address this specific problem. One option, which is not available in the case of God, is to argue that guardian angels have very limited capabilities—that is, they are incredibly weak supernatural beings. Alternatively, they might operate under very restrictive rules in terms of what they are allowed to do. One problem with this reply is that such weak angels seem indistinguishable in their effects from non-existent angels. Another problem ties this into the broader problem of evil: why wouldn’t God deploy a better sort of guardian or give them broader rules to operate under? This, of course, just brings up the usual problem of evil.

Another option is that not everyone gets an angel. Jane Lynch, for example, might get an angel that hugged her. Alan Kurdi, the young boy who drowned trying to flee Syria, did not get a guardian angel. While this would be an explanation of sorts, it still just pushes the problem back: why would God not provide everyone in need with a guardian? Mere humans are, of course, limited in their resources and abilities, so everyone cannot be protected all the time. However, God would not seem to suffer from such a limitation.

It is also possible to make use of a stock reply to the problem of evil and bring in the Devil. Perhaps Lucifer deploys his demonic agents to counter the guardian angels. So, when something bad happens to a good person, it is because her guardian angel was outdone by a demon. While this has a certain appeal, it would require a world in which God and the Devil are closely matched so that the Devil can defy God and His angels. This, of course, just brings in the general problem of evil: unless one postulates two roughly equal deities, God is on the hook for the Devil and his demons. Or rather, God’s demons.

As should be expected, guardian angels seem to fare no better than God in regards to the problem of evil. That said, the notion of benevolent, supernatural personal guardians predates monotheism. Socrates, for example, claimed to have a guardian who would warn him of bad choices (which Stephen Colbert also claims to have).

These sort of guardians were not claimed to be agents of a perfect being, as such they do avoid the problem of evil. Supernatural beings that are freelancers or who serve a limited deity can reasonably be expected to be limited in their abilities and it would certainly make sense that not everyone would have a guardian. Conflict between opposing supernatural agencies also makes sense, since there is no postulation of a single supreme being.

While these supernatural guardians do avoid the problem of evil, they run up against the problem of evidence: there does not appear to be adequate evidence for the existence of such supernatural beings. In fact, the alleged evidence for them is better explained by alternatives. For example, a little voice in one’s head is better explained in terms of the psychological rather than the supernatural (a benign mental condition rather than a supernatural guardian). As another example, a fall that merely badly injures a person rather than killing them is better explained in terms of the vagaries of chance than in terms of a conscious, supernatural intervention.

Given the above discussion, there seems to be little reason to believe in the existence of guardian angels. The world would be rather different if they did exist, so clearly they do not. Or they do so little as to make no meaningful difference—which is rather hard to distinguish from not existing.

I certainly do not begrudge people their belief in guardian angels—if that belief leads them to make better choices and feel safer in a dangerous world, then it is a benign belief. I certainly have comfort beliefs as well—as we all do. Perhaps these are our guardian angels. This, obviously, points to another discussion about such beliefs.



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Free Will, Materialism and Dualism

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 20, 2015
Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

Drawing from René Descartes’ (1596-1650) in “meditations métaphysiques” explaining the function of the pineal gland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the Modern era, philosophers such as Descartes and Locke developed the notions of material substance and immaterial substance. Material substance, or matter, was primarily defined as being extended and spatially located. Descartes, and other thinkers, also took the view that material substance could not think. Immaterial substance was taken to lack extension and to not possess a spatial location. Most importantly, immaterial substance was regarded as having thought as its defining attribute.  While these philosophers are long dead, the influence of their concepts lives on in philosophy and science.

In philosophy, people still draw the classic distinction between dualists and materialists. A dualist holds that a living person consists of a material body and an immaterial mind. The materialist denies the existence of the immaterial mind and accepts only matter. There are also phenomenonalists who contend that all that exists is mental. Materialism of this sort is popular both in contemporary philosophy and science. Dualism is still popular with the general population in that many people believe in a non-material soul that is distinct from the body.

Because of the history of dualism, free will is often linked to the immaterial mind. As such, it is no surprise that people who reject the immaterial mind engage in the following reasoning: an immaterial mind is necessary for free will. There is no immaterial mind. So, there is no free will.

Looked at positively, materialists tend to regard their materialism as entailing a lack of free will. Thomas Hobbes, a materialist from the Modern era, accepted determinism as part of his materialism. Taking the materialist path, the argument against free will is that if the mind is material, then there is no free will. The mind is material, so there is no free will.

Interestingly enough, those who accepted the immaterial mind tended to believe that only an immaterial substance could think—so they inferred the existence of such a mind on the grounds that they thought. Materialists most often accept the mind, but cast it in physical terms. That is, people do think and feel, they just do not do so via the mysterious quivering of immaterial ectoplasm. Some materialists go so far as to reject the mind—perhaps ending up in behaviorism or eliminative materialism.

Julien La Metrie was one rather forward looking materialist.  In 1747 he published his work Man the Machine. In this work he claims that philosophers should be like engineers who analyze the mind. Unlike many of the thinkers of his time, he seemed to understand the implications of mechanism, namely that it seemed to entail determinism and reductionism. A few centuries later, this sort of view is rather popular in the sciences and philosophy: since materialism is true and humans are biological mechanisms, there is no free will and the mind can be reduced (explained entirely in terms of) its physical operations (or functions).

One interesting mistake that seems to drive this view is the often uncritical assumption that materialism entails the impossibility of free will. As noted above, this rests on the notion that free will requires an immaterial mind. This is, perhaps, because such a mind is said to be exempt from the laws that run the material universe.

One part of the mistake is a failure to realize that being incorporeal is not a sufficient condition for free will. One of Hume’s many interesting insights was that if immaterial substance exists, then it would be like material substance. When discussing the possibility of immortality, he claims that nature uses substance like clay: shaping it into various forms, then reshaping the matter into new forms so that the same matter can successively make up the bodies of living creatures.  By analogy, an immaterial substance could successively make up the minds of living creatures—the substance would not be created or destroyed, it would merely change form. If his reasoning holds, it would seem that if material substance is not free, then immaterial substance would also not be free. Leibniz, who believed that reality was entirely mental (composed of monads) accepted a form of determinism. This determinism, though it has some problems, seems entirely consistent with his immaterialism (that everything is mental). This should hardly be surprising, since being immaterial does not entail that something has free will—the two are rather distinct attributes.

Another part of the mistake is the uncritical assumption that materialism entails a lack of freedom. Naturally, if matter is defined as being deterministic and lacking in freedom, then materialism would (by begging the question) entail a lack of freedom. Likewise, if matter is defined (as many thinkers did) as being incapable of thought, then it would follow (by begging the question) that no material being could think. Just as it should not be assumed that matter cannot think, it should also not be assumed that a material being must lack free will. Looked at another way, it should not be assumed that being incorporeal is a necessary condition for free will.

What, obviously enough, seems to have driven the error is the conflation of the incorporeal with freedom and the material with determinism (or lack of freedom). Behind this is, also obviously enough, the assumption that the incorporeal is exempt from the laws that impose harsh determinism on matter. But, if it is accepted that a purely material being can think (thus denying the assumption that only the immaterial can think) it would seem to be acceptable to consider that such a being could also be free (thus denying the assumption that only the immaterial can be free).


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Obligations to People We Don’t Know

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 10, 2014

One of the classic moral problems is the issue of whether or not we have moral obligations to people we do not know.  If we do have such obligations, then there are also questions about the foundation, nature and extent of these obligations. If we do not have such obligations, then there is the obvious question about why there are no such obligations. I will start by considering some stock arguments regarding our obligations to others.

One approach to the matter of moral obligations to others is to ground them on religion. This requires two main steps. The first is establishing that the religion imposes such obligations. The second is making the transition from the realm of religion to the domain of ethics.

Many religions do impose such obligations on their followers. For example, John 15:12 conveys God’s command: “This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you.”  If love involves obligations (which it seems to), then this would certainly seem to place us under these obligations.  Other faiths also include injunctions to assist others.

In terms of transitioning from religion to ethics, one easy way is to appeal to divine command theory—the moral theory that what God commands is right because He commands it. This does raise the classic Euthyphro problem: is something good because God commands it, or is it commanded because it is good? If the former, goodness seems arbitrary. If the latter, then morality would be independent of God and divine command theory would be false.

Using religion as the basis for moral obligation is also problematic because doing so would require proving that the religion is correct—this would be no easy task. There is also the practical problem that people differ in their faiths and this would make a universal grounding for moral obligations difficult.

Another approach is to argue for moral obligations by using the moral method of reversing the situation.  This method is based on the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and the basic idea is that consistency requires that a person treat others as she would wish to be treated.

To make the method work, a person would need to want others to act as if they had obligations to her and this would thus obligate the person to act as if she had obligations to them. For example, if I would want someone to help me if I were struck by a car and bleeding out in the street, then consistency would require that I accept the same obligation on my part. That is, if I accept that I should be helped, then consistency requires that I must accept I should help others.

This approach is somewhat like that taken by Immanuel Kant. He argues that because a person necessarily regards herself as an end (and not just a means to an end), then she must also regard others as ends and not merely as means.  He endeavors to use this to argue in favor of various obligations and duties, such as helping others in need.

There are, unfortunately, at least two counters to this sort of approach. The first is that it is easy enough to imagine a person who is willing to forgo the assistance of others and as such can consistently refuse to accept obligations to others. So, for example, a person might be willing to starve rather than accept assistance from other people. While such people might seem a bit crazy, if they are sincere then they cannot be accused of inconsistency.

The second is that a person can argue that there is a relevant difference between himself and others that would justify their obligations to him while freeing him from obligations to them. For example, a person of a high social or economic class might assert that her status obligates people of lesser classes while freeing her from any obligations to them.  Naturally, the person must provide reasons in support of this alleged relevant difference.

A third approach is to present a utilitarian argument. For a utilitarian, like John Stuart Mill, morality is assessed in terms of consequences: the correct action is the one that creates the greatest utility (typically happiness) for the greatest number. A utilitarian argument for obligations to people we do not know would be rather straightforward. The first step would be to estimate the utility generated by accepting a specific obligation to people we do not know, such as rendering aid to an intoxicated person who is about to become the victim of sexual assault. The second step is to estimate the disutility generated by imposing that specific obligation. The third step is to weigh the utility against the disutility. If the utility is greater, then such an obligation should be imposed. If the disutility is greater, then it should not.

This approach, obviously enough, rests on the acceptance of utilitarianism. There are numerous arguments against this moral theory and these can be employed against attempts to ground obligations on utility. Even for those who accept utilitarianism, there is the open possibility that there will always be greater utility in not imposing obligations, thus undermining the claim that we have obligations to others.

A fourth approach is to consider the matter in terms of rational self-interest and operate from the assumption that people should act in their self-interest. In terms of a moral theory, this would be ethical egoism: the moral theory that a person should act in her self-interest rather than acting in an altruistic manner.

While accepting that others have obligations to me would certainly be in my self-interest, it initially appears that accepting obligations to others would be contrary to my self-interest. That is, I would be best served if others did unto me as I would like to be done unto, but I was free to do unto them as I wished. If I could get away with this sort of thing, it would be ideal (assuming that I am selfish). However, as a matter of fact people tend to notice and respond negatively to a lack of reciprocation. So, if having others accept that they have some obligations to me were in my self-interest, then it would seem that it would be in my self-interest to pay the price for such obligations by accepting obligations to them.

For those who like evolutionary just-so stories in the context of providing foundations for ethics, the tale is easy to tell: those who accept obligations to others would be more successful than those who do not.

The stock counter to the self-interest argument is the problem of Glaucon’s unjust man and Hume’s sensible knave. While it certainly seems rational to accept obligations to others in return for getting them to accept similar obligations, it seems preferable to exploit their acceptance of obligations while avoiding one’s supposed obligations to others whenever possible. Assuming that a person should act in accord with self-interest, then this is what a person should do.

It can be argued that this approach would be self-defeating: if people exploited others without reciprocation, the system of obligations would eventually fall apart. As such, each person has an interest in ensuring that others hold to their obligations. Humans do, in fact, seem to act this way—those who fail in their obligations often get a bad reputation and are distrusted. From a purely practical standpoint, acting as if one has obligations to others would thus seem to be in a person’s self-interest because the benefits would generally outweigh the costs.

The counter to this is that each person still has an interest in avoiding the cost of fulfilling obligations and there are various practical ways to do this by the use of deceit, power and such. As such, a classic moral question arises once again: why act on your alleged obligations if you can get away with not doing so? Aside from the practical reply given above, there seems to be no answer from self-interest.

A fifth option is to look at obligations to others as a matter of debts. A person is born into an established human civilization built on thousands of years of human effort. Since each person arrives as a helpless infant, each person’s survival is dependent on others. As the person grows up, she also depends on the efforts of countless other people she does not know. These include soldiers that defend her society, the people who maintain the infrastructure, firefighters who keep fire from sweeping away the town or city, the taxpayers who pay for all this, and so on for all the many others who make human civilization possible. As such, each member of civilization owes a considerable debt to those who have come before and those who are here now.

If debt imposes an obligation, then each person who did not arise ex-nihilo owes a debt to those who have made and continue to make their survival and existence in society possible. At the very least, the person is obligated to make contributions to continue human civilization as a repayment to these others.

One objection to this is for a person to claim that she owes no such debt because her special status obligates others to provide all this for her with nothing owed in return. The obvious challenge is for a person to prove such an exalted status.

Another objection is for a person to claim that all this is a gift that requires no repayment on the part of anyone and hence does not impose any obligation. The challenge is, of course, to prove this implausible claim.

A final option I will consider is that offered by virtue theory. Virtue theory, famously presented by thinkers like Aristotle and Confucius, holds that people should develop their virtues. These classic virtues include generosity, loyalty and other virtues that involve obligations and duties to others. Confucius explicitly argued in favor of duties and obligations as being key components of virtues.

In terms of why a person should have such virtues and accept such obligations, the standard answer is that being virtuous will make a person happy.

Virtue theory is not without its detractors and the criticism of the theory can be employed to undercut it, thus undermining its role in arguing that we have obligations to people we do not know.


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Acquired Savantism & Innate Ideas

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on September 3, 2014
Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One classic philosophical dispute is the battle over innate ideas. An innate idea, as the name suggests, is an idea that is not acquired by experience but is “built into” the mind. As might be imagined, the specific nature and content of such ideas vary considerably among the philosophers who accept them. Leibniz, for example, takes God to be the author of the innate ideas that exist within the monads. Other thinkers, for example, accept that humans have an innate concept of beauty that is the product of evolution.

Over the centuries, philosophers have advanced various arguments for (and against) innate ideas. For example, some take Plato’s Meno as a rather early argument for innate ideas. In the Meno, Socrates claims to show that Meno’s servant knows geometry, despite the (alleged) fact that the servant never learned geometry. Other philosophers have argued that there must be innate ideas in order for the mind to “process” information coming in from the senses. To use a modern analogy, just as a smart phone needs software to make the camera function, the brain would need to have built in ideas in order to process the sensory data coming in via the optic nerve.

Other philosophers, such as John Locke, have been rather critical of the idea of innate ideas in general. Others have been critical of specific forms of innate ideas—the idea that God is the cause of innate ideas is, as might be suspected, not very popular among philosophers today.

Interestingly enough, there is some contemporary evidence for innate ideas. In his August 2014 Scientific American article “Accidental Genius”, Darold A. Treffert advances what can be seen as a 21st century version of the Meno. Investigating the matter of “accidental geniuses” (people who become savants as the result of an accident, such as a brain injury), researchers found that they could create “instant savants” by the use using brain stimulation. These instant savants were able to solve a mathematical puzzle that they could not solve without the stimulation. Treffert asserts that this ability to solve the puzzle was due to the fact that they “’know things’ innately they were never taught.” To provide additional support for his claim, Treffert gave the example of a savant sculptor, Clemons, who “had no formal training in art but knew instinctively how to produce an armature, the frame for the sculpture, to enable his pieces to show horse in motion.” Treffert goes on to explicitly reject the “blank slate” notion (which was made famous by John Locke) in favor of the notion that the “brain might come loaded with a set of innate predispositions for processing what it sees or for understanding the ‘rules’ of music art or mathematics.” While this explanation is certainly appealing, it is well worth considering alternative explanations.

One stock objection to this sort of argument is the same sort of argument used against claims about past life experiences. When it is claimed that a person had a past life on the basis that the person knows about things she would not normally know, the easy and obvious reply is that the person learned about these things through perfectly mundane means. In the case of alleged innate ideas, the easy and obvious reply is that the person gained the knowledge through experience. This is not to claim that the person in question is engaged in deception—she might not recall the experience that provided the knowledge. For example, the instant savants who solved the puzzle probably had previous puzzle experience and the sculptor might have seen armatures in the past.

Another objection is that an idea might appear to be innate but might actually be a new idea that did not originate directly from a specific experience. To use a concrete example, consider a person who developed a genius for sculpture after a head injury. The person might have an innate idea that allowed him to produce the armature. An alternative explanation is that the person faced the problem regarding his sculpture and developed a solution. The solution turned out to be an armature, because that is what would solve the problem. To use an analogy, someone faced with the problem of driving in a nail might make a hammer but this does not entail that the idea of a hammer is innate. Rather, a hammer like device is what would work in that situation and hence it is what a person would tend to make.

As has always been the case in the debate over innate ideas, the key question is whether the phenomena in question can be explained best by innate ideas or without them.


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The Worst Thing

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 29, 2014
Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt ...

Anselm of Canterbury (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It waits somewhere in the dark infinity of time. Perhaps the past. Perhaps the future. Perhaps now. The worst thing.

Whenever something bad happens to me, such as a full quadriceps tendon tear, people always helpfully remark that “it could have been worse.” Some years ago, after that tendon tear, I wrote an essay about this matter which focused on possibility and necessity. That is, whether it could be worse or not. While the tendon tear was perhaps the worst thing to happen to me (as of this writing), I did have some bad things happen this summer and got to hear how things could have been worse. Since it seemed like a fun game, I decided to play along: when lightning took out the pine tree in front of my house I said “why, it could have been worse” and then was hit with inspiration: what would be the worst thing? The thing that which nothing worse can be conceived.

I can say with complete confidence that there must be such a thing. After all, just as there must be a tallest building, there must be the worst thing. But, of course, this would not be much of an essay if I failed to argue for this claim.

Interestingly enough, arguing for the worst thing is rather similar to arguing for the existence of a perfect thing (that is, God). Thomas Aquinas famously made use of his Five Ways to argue for the existence of God and most of these arguments relied on a combination of an infinite regress and a reduction to absurdity. For example, Aquinas argued from the fact that things move to the need for an unmoved mover on the grounds that an infinite regress would arise if everything had to be moved by something else. A regress argument with a reduction to absurdity will serve quite nicely in arguing for the worst thing.

Take any thing. To avoid the usual boring philosophical approach of calling this thing X, I’ll call this thing Troy. If Troy is the worst thing, then the worst thing exists. If Troy is not the worst thing, then there must be another thing that is worse than Troy. That thing, which I will call Sally, is either the worst thing or not. If Sally is the worst thing, then the worst thing exists and is Sally. If it is not Sally, there must be something worse than Sally. This cannot go on to infinity so there must be a thing that is worse than all other things—the worst thing. I’ll call it Dave.

The obvious counter is to throw down the infinity gauntlet: if there is an infinite number of things, there will not be a worst thing. After all, for any thing, there will be an infinite number of other things. As Leibniz claimed, the infinite number cannot be said to be even or odd, therefor in an infinite universe a thing could not be said to be worst.

One might be inclined to reject the infinity gauntlet—after all, even if there is an infinite number of things, each thing would stand in a relation to all other things and there would thus still be a worst thing.

Another obvious counter is to assert that there could be two or more things that are equally bad—that is, identical in their badness. As such, there would not be a worst thing.  A counter to this is to follow Leibniz once again and argue that there could not be two identical things—they would need to differ in some way that would make one worse than the other. This could be countered by asserting that the two might be different, yet equally bad. In this case, the response would be to follow the model used in arguing for the best thing (God) and assert that the worst thing would be worst in every possible respect and hence anything equally as bad would be identical and thus there would be one worst thing, not two. I suppose that this would have some consolation value—it would certainly be a scary universe that had multiple worst things.

Of course, this just shows that there is something that is worse than all other things that happen to be—which leaves open the possibility that it is not the worst thing in another sense of the term. So now I will turn to arguing for the truly worst thing.

Another way to argue for the worst thing is to use the model of St. Anselm’s ontological argument. Very crudely put, the ontological argument works like this: God is that which nothing greater can be conceived. If God only existed as an idea in the mind, a greater being can be conceived, namely God existing for real. Thus, God must exist.

In the case of the worst thing, it would be that which nothing worse can be conceived. If it only existed as an idea in the mind, a worse thing can be conceived, namely the worst thing existing for real. Thus, the worst thing must exist.

Another variant on the ontological argument can also be used here. A stock variant is that since God is perfect, He must exist. This is because if He did not exist, He would not be perfect. But He is, so He must. In the case of the worst thing, the worst thing must exist because it is the worst. This is because if it did not exist, it would not be the worst. But it is, so it does. This worst thing would be the truly worst thing (just as God is supposed to be the best thing).

This approach does, of course, inherit the usual difficulties of an ontological argument as pointed out by Gaunilo and Kant (that existence is not a quality). It would certainly be better for the universe and the folks in it for the critics to be right so that there is no worst thing.


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Leadership & Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 2, 2014
English: Official image of Secretary of Vetera...

English: Official image of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The recent resignation of Eric Shinseki from his former position as the head of the Department of Veteran Affairs raised, once again, the issue of the responsibilities of a leader. While I will not address the specific case of Shinseki, I will use this opportunity discuss leadership and responsibility in general terms.

Not surprisingly, people often assign responsibility based on ideology. For example, Democrats would be more inclined to regard a Republican leader as being fully responsible for his subordinates while being more forgiving of fellow Democrats. However, judging responsibility based on political ideology is obviously a poor method of assessment. What is needed is, obviously enough, some general principles that can be used to assess the responsibility of leaders in a consistent manner.

Interestingly (or boringly) enough, I usually approach the matter of leadership and responsibility using an analogy to the problem of evil. Oversimplified quite a bit, the problem of evil is the problem of reconciling God being all good, all knowing and all powerful with the existence of evil in the world. If God is all good, then he would tolerate no evil. If God was all powerful, He could prevent all evil. And if God was all knowing, then He would not be ignorant of any evil. Given God’s absolute perfection, He thus has absolute responsibility as a leader: He knows what every subordinate is doing, knows whether it is good or evil and has the power to prevent or cause any behavior. As such, when a subordinate does evil, God has absolute accountability. After all, the responsibility of a leader is a function of what he can know and the extent of his power.

In stark contrast, a human leader (no matter how awesome) falls rather short of God. Such leaders are clearly not perfectly good and they are obviously not all knowing or all powerful. These imperfections thus lower the responsibility of the leader.

In the case of goodness, no human can be expected to be morally perfect. As such, failures of leadership due to moral imperfection can be excusable—within limits. The challenge is, of course, sorting out the extent to which imperfect humans can legitimately be held morally accountable and to what extent our unavoidable moral imperfections provide a legitimate excuse. These standards should be applied consistently to leaders so as to allow for the highest possible degree of objectivity.

In the case of knowledge, no human can be expected to be omniscient—we have extreme limits on our knowledge. The practical challenge is sorting out what a leader can reasonably be expected to know and the responsibility of the leader should be proportional to that extent of knowledge. This is complicated a bit by the fact that there are at least two factors here, namely the capacity to know and what the leader is obligated to know. Obligations to know should not exceed the human capacity to know, but the capacity to know can often exceed the obligation to know. For example, the President could presumably have everyone spied upon (which is apparently what he did do) and thus could, in theory, know a great deal about his subordinates. However, this would seem to exceed what the President is obligated to know (as President) and probably exceeds what he should know.

Obviously enough, what a leader can know and what she is obligated to know will vary greatly based on the leader’s position and responsibilities. For example, as the facilitator of the philosophy & religion unit at my university, my obligation to know about my colleagues is very limited as is my right to know about them. While I have an obligation to know what courses they are teaching, I do not have an obligation or a right to know about their personal lives or whether they are doing their work properly on outside committees. So, if a faculty member skipped out on committee meetings, I would not be responsible for this—it is not something I am obligated to know about.

As another example, the chair of the department has greater obligations and rights in this regard. He has the right and obligation to know if they are teaching their classes, doing their assigned work and so on. Thus, when assessing the responsibility of a leader, sorting out what the leader could know and what she was obligated to know are rather important matters.

In regards to power (taken in a general sense), even the most despotic dictator’s powers are still finite. As such, it is reasonable to consider the extent to which a leader can utilize her authority or use up her power to compel subordinates to obey. As with knowledge, responsibility is proportional to power. After all, if a leader lacks to power (or authority) to compel obedience in regards to certain matters, then the leader cannot be accountable for not making the subordinates do or not do certain actions. Using myself as an example, my facilitator position has no power: I cannot demote, fire, reprimand or even put a mean letter into a person’s permanent record. The extent of my influence is limited to my ability to persuade—with no rewards or punishments to offer. As such, my responsibility for the actions of my colleagues is extremely limited.

There are, however, legitimate concerns about the ability of a leader to make people behave correctly and this raises the question of the degree to which a leader is responsible for not being persuasive enough or using enough power to make people behave. That is, the concern is when bad behavior based on resisting applied authority or power is the fault of the leader or the fault of the resistor. This is similar to the concern about the extent to which responsibility for failing to learn falls upon the teacher and to which it falls on the student. Obviously, even the best teacher cannot reach all students and it would seem reasonable to believe that even the best leader cannot make everyone do what they should be doing.

Thus, when assessing alleged failures of leadership it is important to determine where the failures lie (morality, knowledge or power) and the extent to which the leader has failed. Obviously, principled standards should be applied consistently—though it can be sorely tempting to damn the other guy while forgiving the offenses of one’s own guy.


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Neil deGrasse Tyson, Science & Philosophy

Posted in Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 12, 2014
Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NA...

. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In March of 2014 popular astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson did a Nerdist Podcast. This did not garner much attention until May when some philosophers realized that Tyson was rather critical and dismissive of philosophy. As might be imagined, there was a response from the defenders of philosophy. Some critics went so far as to accuse him of being a philistine.

Tyson presents a not uncommon view of contemporary philosophy, namely that “asking deep questions” can cause a “pointless delay in your progress” in engaging “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” To avoid such pointless delays, Tyson advises scientists to respond to such questioners by saying, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”

Since Tyson certainly seems to be a deep question sort of guy, it is tempting to consider that his remarks are not serious—that is, he is being sarcastic. Even if he is serious, it is also reasonable to consider that these remarks are off-the cuff and might not represent his considered view of philosophy in general.

It is also worth considering that the claims made are his considered and serious position. After all, the idea that a scientist would regard philosophy as useless (or worse) is quite consistent with my own experiences in academics. For example, the politically fueled rise of STEM and the decline of the humanities has caused some in STEM to regard this situation as confirmation of their superior status and on some occasions I have had to defuse conflicts instigated by STEM faculty making their views about the uselessness of non-STEM fields clear.

Whatever the case, the concern that the deep questioning of philosophy can cause pointless delays does actually have some merit and is well worth considering. After all, if philosophy is useless or even detrimental, then this would certainly be worth knowing.

The main bite of this criticism is that philosophical questioning is detrimental to progress: a scientist who gets caught in these deep questions, it seems, would be like a kayaker caught in a strong eddy: she would be spinning around and going nowhere rather than making progress. This concern does have significant practical merit. To use an analogy outside of science, consider a committee meeting aimed at determining the curriculum for state schools. This committee has an objective to achieve and asking questions is a reasonable way to begin. But imagine that people start raising deep questions about the meaning of terms such as “humanities” or “science” and become very interested in sorting out the semantics of various statements. This sort of sidetracking will result in a needlessly long meeting and little or no progress. After all, the goal is to determine the curriculum and deep questions will merely slow down progress towards this practical goal. Likewise, if a scientist is endeavoring to sort out the nature of the cosmos, deep questions can be a similar sort of trap: she will be asking ever deeper questions rather than gathering data and doing math to answer her less deep questions.

Philosophy, as Socrates showed by deploying his Socratic method, can endlessly generate deep questions. Questions such as “what is the nature of the universe?”, “what is time?”, “what is space?”, “what is good?” and so on. Also, as Socrates showed, for each answer given, philosophy can generate more questions. It is also often claimed that this shows that philosophy really has no answers since every alleged answer can be questioned or raises even more questions. Thus, philosophy seems to be rather bad for the scientist.

A key assumption seems to be that science is different from philosophy in at least one key way—while it raises questions, proper science focuses on questions that can be answered or, at the very least, gets down to the business of answering them and (eventually) abandons a question should it turn out to be a distracting deep question. Thus, science provides answers and makes progress. This, obviously enough, ties into another stock criticism of philosophy: philosophy makes no progress and is useless.

One rather obvious reason that philosophy is regarded as not making progress and as being useless is that when enough progress is made on a deep question, it is perceived as being a matter for science rather than philosophy. For example, ancient Greek philosophers, such as Democritus, speculated about the composition of the universe and its size (was it finite or infinite?) and these were considered deep philosophical questions. Even Newton considered himself a natural philosopher. He has, of course, been claimed by the scientist (many of whom conveniently overlook the role of God in his theories). These questions are now claimed by physicists, such as Tyson, who regard them as scientific rather than philosophical questions.

Thus, it is rather unfair to claim that philosophy does not solve problems or make progress—since when excellent progress is made, the discipline is labeled as science and no longer considered philosophy. However, the progress would have obviously been impossible without the deep questions that set people in search of answers and the work done by philosophers before the field was claimed as a science. To use an analogy, to claim that philosophy has made no progress or contributions would be on par with a student taking the work done by another, adding to it and then claiming the whole as his own work and deriding the other student as “useless.”

At this point, some might be willing to grudgingly concede that philosophy did make some valuable contributions (perhaps on par with how the workers who dragged the marble for Michelangelo’s David contributed) in the past, but philosophy is now an eddy rather than the current of progress.

Interestingly enough, philosophy has been here before—back in the days of Socrates the Sophists contended that philosophical speculation was valueless and that people should focus on getting things done—that is, achieving success. Fortunately for contemporary science, philosophy survived and philosophers kept asking those deep questions that seemed so valueless then.

While philosophy’s day might be done, it seems worth considering that some of the deep, distracting philosophical questions that are being asked are well worth pursuing—if only because they might lead to great things. Much as how Democritus’ deep questions led to the astrophysics that a fellow named Neil loves so much.


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Why is the Universe the Way it Is?

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on April 30, 2014
Galaxies are so large that stars can be consid...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the fundamental questions shared by science, philosophy and theology is the question of why the universe is the way it is. Over the centuries, the answers have fallen into two broad camps. The first is that of teleology. This is the view that the universe is the way it is because it has a purpose, goal or end for which it aims. The second is the non-teleological camp, which is the denial of the teleological view. Members of this camp often embrace purposeless chance as the “reason” why things are as they are.

Both camps agree on many basic matters, such as the view that the universe seems to be finely tuned. Theorists vary a bit in their views on what a less finely tuned universe would be like. On some views, the universe would just be slightly different while on other views small differences would have significant results, such as an uninhabitable universe. Because of this apparent fine tuning, one main concern for philosophers and physicists is explaining why this is the case.

The dispute over this large question nicely mirrors the dispute over a smaller question, namely the question about why living creatures are the way they are. The division into camps follows the same pattern. On one side is the broad camp inhabited by those who embrace teleology and the other side dwell those who reject it. Interestingly, it might be possible to have different types of answers to these questions. For example, the universe could have been created by a deity (a teleological universe) who decides to let natural selection rather than design sort out life forms (non-teleological). That said, the smaller question does provide some interesting ways to answer the larger question.

As noted above, the teleological camp is very broad. In the United States, perhaps the best known form of teleology is Christian creationism. This view answers the large and the small question with God: He created the universe and the inhabitants. There are many other religious teleological views—the creation stories of various other cultures and faiths are examples of these. There are also non-religious views. Among these, probably the best known are those of Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, roughly put, the universe is the way it is because of the Forms (and behind them all is the Good). Aristotle does not put any god in charge of the universe, but he regarded reality as eminently teleological. Views that posit laws governing reality also seem, to some, to be within the teleological camp. As such, the main divisions in the teleological camp tends to be between the religious theories and the non-religious theories.

Obviously enough, teleological accounts have largely fallen out of favor in the sciences—the big switch took place during the Modern era as philosophy and science transitioned away from Aristotle (and Plato) towards a more mechanistic and materialistic view of reality.

The non-teleological camp is at least as varied as the teleological camp and as old. The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers considered the matter of what would now be called natural selection and the idea of a chance-based, purposeless universe is ancient.

One non-teleological way to answer the question of why the universe is the way it is would be to take an approach similar to Spinoza, only without God. This would be to claim that the universe is what it is as a matter of necessity: it could not be any different from what it is. However, this might be seen as unsatisfactory since one can easily ask about why it is necessarily the way it is.

The opposite approach is to reject necessity and embrace a random universe—it was just pure chance that the universe turned out as it did and things could have been very different. So, the answer to the question of why the universe is the way it is would be blind chance. The universe plays dice with itself.

Another approach is to take the view that the universe is the way it is and finely tuned because it has “settled” down into what seems to be a fine-tuned state. Crudely put, the universe worked things out without any guidance or purpose. To use an analogy, think of sticks and debris washed by a flood to form a stable “structure.” The universe could be like that—where the flood is the big bang or whatever got it going.

One variant on this would be to claim that the universe contains distinct zones—the zone we are in happened to be “naturally selected” to be stable and hospitable to life. Other zones could be rather different—perhaps so different that they are beyond our epistemic abilities. Or perhaps these zones “died” thus allowing an interesting possibility for fiction about the ghosts of dead zones haunting the cosmic night. Perhaps the fossils of dead universes drift around us, awaiting their discovery.

Another option is to expand things from there being just one universe to a multiverse. This allows a rather close comparison to natural selection: in place of a multitude of species, there is a multitude of universes. Some “survive” the selection while others do not. Just as we are supposed to be a species that has so far survived the natural selection of evolution, we live in a universe that has so far survived cosmic selection. If the model of evolution and natural selection is intellectually satisfying in biology, it would seem reasonable to accept cosmic selection as also being intellectually satisfying—although it will be radically different from natural selection in many obvious ways.


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Running & Freedom

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Running by Michael LaBossiere on February 5, 2014
Photo by Paula O'Neil

Photo by Paula O’Neil

This past Saturday, I was doing my short pre-race day run and, for no apparent reason, my left leg began to hurt badly. I made my way home, estimating the odds of a recovery by Sunday morning. When I got up Sunday, my leg felt better and my short jog before the race went well. Just before the start, I was optimistic: it seemed my leg would be fine. Then the race started. Then the pain.

I hobbled forward and “accelerated” to an 8:30 per minute mile (the downside of a GPS watch is that I cannot lie to myself). The beast of pain grew strong and tore at my will. Behind that armor, my fear and doubt cowered—urging me to drop out with whispered pleas. At that moment of weakness, I considered doing the unthinkable: hobbling over to the curb and leaving the race.

From the inside, that is in my mind, this seemed to be a paradigm example of the freedom of the will: I could elect to push on through the pain or I could decide to take the curb. It was, as it might be said, all up to me. While I was once pulled from a race because of injuries, I had never left one by choice—and I decided that this would not be my first. I kept going and the pain got worse.

At this point, I considered that my pride was pushing me to my destruction—that is, I was not making a good choice but being coerced into making a poor decision. Fortunately, three decades of running had trained me well in pain assessment: like most veteran runners I am reasonably good at distinguishing between what merely hurts and what is actually causing significant damage. Carefully considering the nature of the pain and the condition of my leg, I judged that it was mere pain. While I could still decide to stop, I decided to keep going. I did, however, grab as many of the high caffeine GU packs as I could—I figured that being wired up as much as possible would help with pain management.

Aided by the psychological boost of my self-medication (and commentary from friends about my unusually slow pace), I chose to speed up. By the time I reached mile 5 my leg had gone comfortably numb and I increased my speed even more, steadily catching and passing people. Seven miles went by and then I caught up with a former student. He yelled “I can’t let you pass me Dr. L!” and went into a sprint. I decided to chase after him, believing that I could still hobble a mile even if I was left with only one working leg. Fortunately, the leg held up better than my student—I got past him, then several more people and crossed the finish line running a not too bad 1:36 half-marathon. My leg remained attached to me, thus vindicating my choice. I then chose to stuff pizza into my pizza port—pausing only to cheer on people and pick up my age group award.

As the above narrative indicates, my view is that I was considering my options, assessing information from my body and deciding what to do. That is, I had cast myself as having what philosophers like to label as free will. From the inside, that is what it certainly seems like.

Of course, it would presumably seem the same way from the inside if I lacked free will. Spinoza, for example, claims that if a stone were conscious and hurled through the air, it would think it was free to choose to move and land where it does. As Spinoza saw it, people think they are free because they are “conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined.” As such, on Spinoza’s view my “decisions” were not actual decisions. That is, I could not have chosen otherwise—like the stone, I merely did what I did and, in my ignorance, believed that I had decided my course.

Hobbes also takes a somewhat similar view. As he sees it, what I would regard as the decision making process of assessing the pain and then picking my action he would regard as a competition between two pulling forces within the mechanisms of my brain. One force would be pulling towards stopping, the other towards going. Since the forces were closely matched for a moment, it felt as if I was deliberating. But, the matter was determined: the go force was stronger and the outcome was set.

While current science would not bring in Spinoza’s God and would be more complicated than Hobbe’s view of the body, the basic idea would remain the same: the apparent decision making would be best explained by the working of the “neuromachinery” that is me—no choice, merely the workings of a purely mechanical (in the broad sense) organic machine. Naturally, many would through in some quantum talk, but randomness does not provide any more freedom that strict determinism.

While I think that I am free and that I was making choices in the race, I obviously have no way to prove that. At best, all that could be shown was that my “neuromachinery” was working normally and without unusual influence—no tumors, drugs or damage impeding the way it “should” work. Of course, some might take my behavior as clear evidence that there was something wrong, but they would be engaged in poor decision making.

Kant seems to have gotten it quite right: science can never prove that we have free will, but we certainly do want it. And pizza.


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