Monday, December 31, 2007

Are Bad Thoughts Good?

A list of the top ten new organisms of 2007 got me wondering whether our intuitions about our responsibilities for our creations might help us to think about the ethics of Creation. My intuition is that just because we create lifeforms, rather than being responsible for them in other ways (maybe just by coexisting with them), our moral obligations towards them (rather than our social or legal obligations) aare not at all reduced—whence I wonder whether Swinburne (The Existence of God, 2nd ed. 2004: 257-8) made too much of creators’ rights:
I may let the younger son suffer somewhat for the good of his and his brother’s soul. I have this right because in small part I am responsible for the younger son’s existence, its beginning, and continuance; I feed him and educate him. I have the right to demand something in return, that he is open to the possibility of his elder brother inflicting (limited) harm on him. If this is correct, then, a fortiori, a God who is, ex hypothesi, so much more the author of our being than are our parents, has rights so much greater in this respect.
Surely our need to inflict suffering upon our children derives from our lack of control over our environment, our right being the right to choose the lesser of two evils; whereas God would be perfectly (purely and infinitely) good to begin with, whence I doubt that S/he would allow an innocent creature to suffer involuntarily for the greater good of another. Furthermore, for Swinburne such a greater good is our being able to refrain from doing evils that we’re tempted to do; but were that really so much better than not even being tempted to sin (cf. Luke.15.vii?) so that it could justify the immense sufferings of this world, then surely this world would’ve been a much better place had we all wanted to do more disgusting things!
......How seriously an agnostic should take the hypothesis that this world was deliberately created for a good reason (which, stripped of such baggage as such talk inevitably collects, is an intrinsically hopeful hypothesis) depends upon how well the prima facie problem of evil is addressed; and I’m not sure that much progress has been made on this since Socrates.
......Bravery, for example (or compassion), presupposes hardships to be brave in the face of (respectively the suffering of others), but need they be actual hardships (others suffering)? Surely we are brave, if we are, before we display it. And while thick skins can be grown, can we learn to be brave—or do we learn to love, from which bravery (rather than rage, foolhardiness or blind obedience), amongst other virtues, flows? (And how great a virtue is bravery anyway? Prima facie it’s on a par with intelligence—it’s not a matter of how valuable such virtues are for us here, as we grow from our selfish infancies towards God, but of whether they’re valuable enough in themselves—with God—to justify the evils here.)
......Do we love lovely things because they are lovely, or are they lovely because they are loved? Prima facie it’s the former on the Monotheistic (as opposed to the Naturalistic) account, but then a perfectly good God (who would be intrinsically lovely) would not need others to love He/r; and whilst being perfectly able to self-sacrifice, S/he would not (as we might) be any better for doing so—but there are a lot more questions, of course; so first, to see why we need realistic answers, consider Swinburne’s (Is there a God? 1996: 112) defence of his theodicy:

Suppose that you exist in another world before your birth in this one, and are given a choice as to the sort of life you are to have in this one. You are told that you are to have only a short life, maybe of only a few minutes, although it will be an adult life in the sense that you will have the richness of sensation and belief characteristic of adults. You have a choice as to the sort of life you will have. You can have either a few minutes of very considerable pleasure, of the kind produced by some drug such as heroin, which you will experience by yourself and which will have no effects at all in the world (for example, no one else will know about it); or you can have a few minutes of considerable pain, such as the pain of childbirth, which will have (unknown to you at the time of the pain) considerable good effects on others over a few years. You are told that, if you do not make the second choice, those others will never exist—and so you are under no moral obligation to make the second choice. But you seek to make the choice which will make your own life the best life for you to have led. How will you choose? The choice is, I hope, obvious. You should choose the second alternative.
Maybe—but were the making of such a choice such a great good, in itself, those “considerable good effects” could simply be repeats of this very scenario; whereas no good God would allow such an endless succession of agonies, just because each should have been chosen (by people ignorant of that bigger picture). And although we should choose the second alternative (as it would be the more heroic), why do we admire such heroism?
......Partly, I think, because it’s voluntary (and not hopeless), so this thought-experiment sits uneasily with the previous quote, with God having the moral right to choose for us to be born (into this world), whence I find Swinburne’s initial supposition (that you exist somewhere else before your birth here) plausible—why would a good God not first make our souls (somewhere safer), tell them the truth there, and then ask us if we wanted to volunteer? That presupposes some meaningful enterprise for us to volunteer for, of course, and traditionally God has nothing to do; but also, God’s goodness is not traditionally of a lesser kind than that of a depraved person (who would surely, even when choosing good, be more likely to choose it for worse reasons)...

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Why I don't like Possible World Semantics

I've previously expressed unease with possible worlds (roughly, sets of propositions), as a way of understanding what "possibility" means, partly because of the sets (which like numbers may well be explicable only in terms of possibilities) and partly because of the propositions (which seem too artificial to cover all possibilities) but mostly because far from helping us to understand possibilities, they just seem to make it easier for us to get them mixed up.
......The first time I met PWS, it was in a reply (I forget whose) to Cartesian scepticism: The idea was that, since we know that we're not BIVs, hence BIV-worlds are remote, whence they can be ignored by whatever truth-tracking (across close possible worlds) criteria is required by our concept of knowledge, which seemed circular and to entirely miss the point.
......More recently the following—Gale and Pruss (2003, eds. "The Existence of God": xl-xli) describing their New Cosmological Argument (1999, Religious Studies 35: 461-76)—seemed to confuse subjective or epistemic possibilities (e.g. Goldbach's conjecture might be false, or true, for all I know) with logical or metaphysical ones (for us platonists, if it is true then it is necessarily true, and not possibly false):
Using the semantics of possible world for modal propositions, according to which a proposition that is possible is true in some possible world, and the weak version of [the Principle of Sufficient Reason], they show that there is some possible world in which there is an explanation for [the conjunction of all contingent propositions that are true in the world, say P] about the actual world. But since a possible world is individuated by its [P], it follows that this possible world is identical with the actual world.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Reasonably inconsistent

(Merry Christmas :-) Religious pluralism is complicated (cf. dogmatism or nihilism) but God is, after all, naturally odd; and even the relatively mundane paradoxes (such as the St. Petersburg) take us beyond belief and into a complicated realm of thinking (about things). And although we regard it as irrational to hold inconsistent beliefs (which usually lead us to precisify our language) we could hardly reason (about the world) if we did not. E.g. when perceiving ordinary objects (such as trees) we naturally picture them within Euclidean space, even if we believe that space is non-Euclidean.
......More commonly, when getting about we naturally picture places as arranged in a flat plane, even though we know the world is round. We are probably born with the belief that the world is flat, and I guess that by the time we learn that the world is not flat that belief has become such an integral part of how we think about the world around us that it would be a huge waste of effort to try to eliminate it; it is more rational to have inconsistent beliefs. When asked we may say that we know that the world is not flat, but the fact that we also have the opposite belief is shown by our other beliefs.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Light upon the Earth

A recent post at The Prosblogion has got me rethinking six-day literalism. Prima facie there's a problem with, for example, the creation of Daylight (in Gen.1.iii; called "Day" in Gen.1.v) before the creation of the Sun (in Gen.1.xvi) "to give light upon the earth" (Gen.1.xvii); but then, there are similar problems with omniscience and omnipotence, and they just remind us to be more careful with our accounts of God (than we need to be with tales of, for example, Santa). Dinosaur bones, for example, need not be the work of Satan, even given six-day literalism; because Creation is not that unlike Envatment, and to run Actuality (according to natural laws chosen by God) from the Big Bang (for a few billion years of our time) would surely, for God, be no easier (or harder, although it might be worse morally, in view of the suffering animals) than running it from the first incarnated people (possibly six thousand years ago).
......Anyway, "day" obviously gets its meaning (for us, now) from the revolution of the Earth (or by extension, of any planet) around the Sun (or any star), much as "water" now means H2O; but the Bible is supposed (ex hypothesis) to be the word of God (a transcendent Creator) via the medium of ancient Hebrew (not even Latin), so why should even its literal (non-analogical) meanings be so obvious? And divine creation (of a world like this) could, for example, be like God selecting propositions (in his divine language) so as to restrict a range of possible worlds until only the one is left (for the incarnation of people like us), in which case Genesis could record (quite literally) that process. For example, wanting people to have something like water, various worlds (with various physics) containing water (in some divinely descriptivistic sense) may have been considered; and similarly God may have begun with the idea of a phenomenal daylight, and only later finalised the physics so that a star was its source.
......Now, there is the further complication that the divine acts of creation themselves took evenings and mornings (or days); but such acts may well involve two basic components (creation is a great mystery, but we must have some thoughts about it), for example (i) the actualization or making (maybe testing them with avatars or angels) of the currently desirable possible worlds (maybe as phenomenologically definite but physically indefinite), naturally following (ii) the selection or design of the next restriction. And we are (ex hypothesis) made in God's image (as people), and we do have two corresponding states of being, i.e. waking (for doing) following sleeping (for dreaming). So (were this, or something like this, the correct interpretation), would such a use of "morning" and "evening" (to refer to such a division of labour) in Genesis be literal or metaphorical? Surely it would be no more metaphorical than, for example, our saying that we enlighten a living room by switching on its light as we enter it; rather less, I would guess, given the necessarily transcendental (and primary) nature of nature's creation.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Theodolite Theodicy

Naturalism and Monotheism compete, but both remain reasonable (explanations of our observations) because a satisfying account of why a good God would allow the evils of this world seems about as likely as a satisfying reduction of our minds to matter (given how much we now know of the evils of this world, and its physics). Nonetheless a perfect person is quite likely, a priori (it being good that good exists), and such a perfectly sapient being would know perfectly well that s/he could not know so infallibly that people similar to he/r, of which s/he was unaware, did not exist.
......Consequently s/he would probably exist everlastingly (rather than timelessly) because not only is s/he a person, being able to increase he/r knowledge (and to try to be sociable) would be good. And since deities obscure to a deity would probably be hard to find, hence as part of he/r investigations into the possibility of other deities s/he would probably create people like us—sapient and imaginative (and innately ignorant) creatures with an innate desire for contact with their creator (or at least for a better world) but who live socially (and of course dream) within a world apart from its creator (operating as a rule via the most elegant natural laws that could support such people, rather than via supernatural interventions)—because to do so would be to deploy a certain sensitivity to the existence of any deity.
......My theodicy (already blogged about in May and September) is based upon the fact that, were that the motivation for our creation, our souls would probably (God being good) have been created in a better place and invited to volunteer for this. A nice consequence is that it is similarly likely that our souls will return there automatically upon our deaths; and my hypothesis also has nice scientific consequences (e.g. it indicates where evidence about the mind-brain interaction is likely to be found) and nice social consequences (e.g. religious plurality is probably the divine will).

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is touching seeing?

Does touching ascertain the certainty of touching?

If not, where is the certainty of touching
that is not ascertained by touch?

As soon as I learned to touch
I knew I was aware of life.
As soon as I knew this awareness was natural
it was no longer natural,
I'd 'fallen'.
That's from Makoto Ooka's 'Touch'.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Are Numbers Numerals?

Issue 8 of The Reasoner is out; and with it Hartley Slater’s suggestion that numbers be taken to be such things as that ‘8’ (where, since that numeral is not to be regarded as a name for something else, I’m not sure that I need the quotes around it); to be precise, he ‘solves’ Frege’s Caesar Problem via the following definitions (where ‘n’ is a schematic variable):
......The number of the F’s = 0 iff there are no F’s,
......The number of the F’s = n iff the F’s are equinumerous (can be put into one-to-one correspondence) with the successive nonzero numerals up to ‘n’. There are probably lots of problems with that suggestion; e.g. I wonder what we would then say of mathematics on a distant planet?