Saturday, April 27, 2013

Artificial Objects and the Agent Intellect

Artificial objects are metaphysically interesting and curious. Artificial objects include tables, books, cars, etc. Many metaphysicians are realists about material artificial objects. An interesting question regards how they come into existence. On one hand, although this is perhaps too simplistic, it seems that they are in some way dependent on human agency. For example, one takes some raw materials and fashion some object for some purpose. A common view as well is that artificial objects exist as constituted by their material parts; e.g., I have fashioned material parts, each with their own intrinsic properties, in such a way to bring into existence an artificial object that is not identical merely to the sum of its parts. However, it seems that in some cases artificial objects can come into existence just by thinking of something in a certain way. If I can bring a chair into existence by fashioning one out of wood, fabric and nails in the way described above, then it seems that I should be able to bring an artificial object into existence merely by taking something or thinking about it in a certain way. For example, haven't I brought a chair into existence when I have selected a low laying crook in a tree branch as a place to sit? So, it seems that one can bring into existence a material object (e.g., a chair, which is an artificial material object) just by thinking about it.

If this is so, then it raises an interesting thought. Perhaps there is a relation that goes in the other direction between some our object and our thought of it that may be telling about the properties of mental content in relation to their related material objects. Assume realism about material objects; the view that there are material objects and we can know things about how material objects are in themselves (anti-constructivism). Assume metaphysical constitutionalism; the view that material objects are fully constituted by their material parts without merely being identical to the sum of these parts (constitution does not equal identity).

1. A chair is a material object that can be brought into existence just by thinking about it.
2. In order to bring about the existence of a chair at t2 one must already have been thinking about that chair at t1.
3. Excluding perhaps "existence," the properties of the chair before I brought the material object into existence are indiscernible from the properties of the chair after it was brought into existence.
4. The kind of material thing brought into existence by thinking about it depends on the kind or configuration of the matter that constitutes it.
5. The material thing that has been brought into existence adds additional intelligible content to the matter that constitutes it; namely, that this arrangement of matter constitutes a chair.

Given 1-5 I think that it might be interesting to reverse the order when coming to know material objects (namely, objects constituted by its matter) in a way suggestive of something like a realism that includes something like the medieval Aristotelian doctrine of agent intellect.

Take an object like a dog. The dog is constituted by its material parts and one comes to know it through experience of it: the dog exists then one experiences the dog and then one comes to know some fundamental things relevant to the dog. 

Now look at 1-5: 

True, 1. is dissimilar in the case of non-artificial material objects: the dog is a material object that does not come into existence just by thinking about it, but comes into existence through the constitution of it through its material parts. However, the thought of the dog depends on the existence of the dog that is constituted by its material parts. 

Regarding 2., in order for the thought of the dog to exist there must have already been a dog that was constituted by material parts. 

Regarding 3., the properties of the dog that is constituted by material parts and the thought of the dog are indiscernible. 

Pertaining to 4., the only way for a dog to be constituted by material parts is for there to be a certain kind or configuration of matter that constitutes it. 

Regarding 5., there is additional intelligible content in the mind of the one knowing the dog that goes beyond knowing the material parts of the dog.

But this brings us back to take another look at 1. Although it is true that merely thinking about the dog does not bring the material object that is the dog into existence, at the same time there seems to be a requirement that something bring into existence in the mind of the one knowing the dog knowledge that the matter constitutes a dog. This is because there is additional intelligible content in knowing dog beyond merely knowing a particular set of material parts. Thus, it appears that since the properties of thought of the dog and the dog are indiscernible (or has a kind of formal identity), it would seem that there has to be some faculty in the mind to account for this additional content.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Selection Bias, Human Descent, and Inference to Design

Alex Pruss has a very nice post on his blog entitled, "Design, Evolution and Many Worlds." His post prompted some thoughts (which I posted in his combox), which I've posted below:

It be that there is an anthropic selection bias against design strong enough on the evolutionary theorist side that it undercuts justification in a Darwinian (or specifically a kind of mechanistic account of) evolution? That is, one could argue that "not seeing" design in nature might itself be the result of a selection bias, let's say for a view of things on the model of a machine (think of a watch) that had its parts brought together randomly? Perhaps it is no coincidence that the western mind was captivated by the complex clocks devised by those in the Islamic Empire in the Middle Ages before the scientific revolution. So, thinking of the world in a mechanistic way followed from an anthropic predilection to modeling our understanding of things on machines. Support for this theory may lie in the fact that people often think that science explains things mechanistically (bouncing billiard balls), when in fact this is not a correct model for understanding the breadth of scientific theory today (even if only considering physics). I'm specifically thinking of Einstein's denial of mechanism as he defines it in his The Evolution of Physics as well as Burtt's account The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science.

One characterization of a selection bias is perhaps as follows: given a de facto scenario in which one makes a judgment one on the basis of that scenario infers that some intelligibly discernible and recognizable pattern accounts for some feature of that scenario. So, from our specific situation and looking back on our history one might infer that there must have been a designer to account for the existence of human beings. In this case the recognizable pattern would be that of an artist fashioning an object. However, justification for such an inference is undermined by the selection bias problem. It would be similar to shooting an arrow into the air (where it lands I know not where), finding its exact resting place then thinking, "Wow! How improbable that it would land in this spot given all of the possible places that it could have landed! I see here an intelligible pattern by which I must infer that something guided it to this spot!"

With that in mind, perhaps my earlier suggestion (some inference against design) could be thought of also as involving a selection bias of this sort. The best way to do this is to apply the characterization of selection bias to an inference against design. The de facto scenario is the existence of human beings given evolutionary descent. From this fact one infers that the process was not a product of design by identifying a recognizable pattern to serve as an explanation; namely, that of a machine that exists in virtue of the accidental joining of preexisting independent parts resulting in a functioning whole in virtue of the intrinsic properties of its parts. (Let's say that the person who sees things this way came across in a forest one day something that could function as a figure-four deadfall animal trap that came out without human agency as the result of a thunderstorm and subsequent flooding). From this recognition, she infers that human beings must not have come about from design. I see this particular case as parallel to the charge of selection bias for the ID theorist.

However, I'm inclined to think that neither scenario actually suffers from bone fide selection bias. One can only commit a selection bias if one knows (or has reason to think) that some particular pattern is at work. On the one hand, it seems to me that the reason why one wouldn't be justified in inferring from Pruss's computer simulation that there was a forward-looking bias in the movement toward the red line is only in the case that one knows that this was one of 23773 unsuccessful attempts. On the other hand, regarding the inference to non-design, let's say that God was running a computer simulation like Pruss's but basing his simulation on the actual factors that fully account for the evolutionary development. And in this case, 23773 simulations had less circuitous paths to the coming to be of human beings! Thus, I don't think that one could charge the person with a selection bias unless she had some idea of what the results of God's computer simulation were.

My suspicion at this point is that we should think that the design explanation (design) is a bad explanation (at least in science) and the non-design (mechanism) inference is a good one. But why should this be so? Its not like design is a bad explanation for something and it does allow the existence of things that mechanism has a hard (or impossible) time accounting for. For example, design might be a good explanation for why biologists find answers when they ask the question, "why does this function work the way that it does?"
However, anti-ID folks could respond by saying that the best explanation is one that relies only on the intrinsic properties of tiny things that can come together in various causal ways because these are free from anthropic bias. However, I remember Chisholm mentioning at the end of the "Problem of the Criterion" that the best pattern for thinking about efficient causation is that based on our innate and insider sense of agency in the world--all efficient cause is something like my ability to push my coffee cup across the table. A similar thing can be said for how we envision the properties of physical elements. So it might not be as simple as that.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Must Morality be Grounded in God? - A Response to Prof. John Rist

Recently, Franciscan University hosted a conference called "Must Morality Be Grounded in God?" It was a great conference, with many fine contributions (which will be featured in an issue of Quaestiones Disputatae next year). Prof. John Rist from Catholic University of America gave a fantastic and thought-provoking plenary talk aptly entitled "Must Morality Be Grounded on God?" In what follows is my summary of it and response that I gave to get the discussion going. I really benefited from his experience and philosophical acumen on this topic!

"Prof. Rist offers a rich, sophisticated, and persuasive analysis for the view that morality must necessarily be grounded in belief in God, a view with which I have much sympathy. Contrary to claims that one can obtain a perfectly well-grounded morality without appealing to God by atheist and Christian moralists alike, Rist bravely claims not only that morality must be grounded in God (ensconced with a non-voluntarist variety), but also that it is best grounded specifically in belief in the Christian God.

Rist argues that attempts at obtaining grounding for morality independently of God have failed and must fail. Beyond the historical failures by moralists such as Kant, Rist argues that morality that excludes God are destined to collapse into an conventionalist or constructivist ethic that by definition lacks an external standard; without a measure that goes beyond that of man’s mind and interests. Without an external standard for morality that transcends humanity, one must exchange the ought of morality with the is of preference or some actual goal that folks in fact have but need not have since there lacks grounding support for it. Certainly Bentham or Mill come to mind as holding ethics that lack the kind of ground that one has come to expect in a moral theory, the former indeed even admitting to this. But there are conventionalist and constructivist viewpoints (which also include Kant upon examination) that although may claim to possess a proper grounding nevertheless also lack it. A necessary condition that Rist points to for a well-grounded moral system is that one has good reason to believe that one ought to do something. On that score, non-theistic moralities hit a brick wall: one would be hard pressed to come up with a good reason why one ought to do what one prefers, or that which is the greatest good for the greatest number, or what is conventional, or to do those actions that have been evolutionarily beneficial to us in the past. Each of these are compatible with both a complete lack of value and with what is merely arbitrary; both of which are antithetical to a thorough-going morality. Beyond this, Rist is also wary of theists who think that one can ground morality independently of God by thinking that they can successfully argue for some standards of morality merely consistent with a theistic morality but for, the sake of epistemological integrity, disconnect their lines of argumentation or support from their theistic beliefs. Rist takes note of an insufficiency in the attempt of grounding morality by way of claiming that through practical reasoning alone one is able to compile a list of obviously basic goods. Even with this approach one must identify God, the object of religion, as essentially related to the basic good of religion.

I would, however, like to offer some possible questions or observations that may make us wonder a little bit that a plausible alternative viewpoint on this issue is not possible.
First, which involves a minor point of clarity, it is not entirely clear whether Rist wants to include with atheists—those that positively exclude any theistic foundation for morality and arguably have no ground for morality—those theists who try to build a case for grounding morality independently of an explicit reference to God. It seems that he wants to include both. If this is so, then it seems relevant to bring in his closing comments in which he seems to infer from the fact that one’s philosophical interlocutor does not accept a theistic foundation for morality that one ought not to try to score moral points without appeal to God. That is, do all arguments that do not positively include God as a ground for morality collapse? If so, this appears problematic. Although I think that it is plausible that eventually a theistic ethicist will need to appeal to God for a fully robust ethical theory, it seems perfectly reasonable given the context and the particular presuppositions of some set of interlocutors that one can make a persuasive ethical argument for a particular point of morality that can be made independently of appeal to God. This point may be irrelevant since Dr. Rist is appealing to foundations for morality, but I think that it nevertheless is a fair point to be made along the way.
Second Prof. Rist’s position is a strong one and as a result runs the risk of lapsing into a kind of triumphalism. A Christian moral triumphalism in this context can be identified as a certain cognitive attitude in which Christian teaching on morality is thought of as being complete and independent in the sense of not requiring revision, clarification, integration, or cognitive relation to so-called naturally rational approaches or experientially related moral beliefs. A triumphalistic position on ethics is harmful in the following way: it does not emphasize the importance of integrating the central Christian moral principles with naturally recognized good practices and values given according to a broad notion of human experience. To illustrate this, one can think of the teaching of Christ to turn the other cheek to one’s enemy. However, it seems that this instruction requires a prior notion of courage with which Christian and non-Christian alike can each identify. Such a recognition helps us to integrate this teaching of Christ most effectively and perfectly into our lives. Alternatively, one can conceive of a misguided application of this instruction without courage by using it merely as a justification for merely being a coward. So, how does Rist’s position run the danger triumphalism? By identifying acts that are not grounded in belief in God as without moral foundation is to simply undermine their ethical status altogether. If they are devoid of ethical status then it seems to me that a Christian need not have to heed them when seeking to follow a particularly Christian moral ethic.
Finally, Prof. Rist seems to assume that a necessary condition for a moral belief being grounded is whether or not one can rationally identify a duty, imperative or ought, with respect to a specific action that is performed in conformity with that belief. However, it seems possible to me that this is not a necessary condition for an action being moral; and so, a fortiori, it need not be a condition for an action being morally grounded. That is, one may hold that every belief that one understands that they ought to do is moral, but not every belief that is moral one has an obligation to perform. Example: there seems to be occasions when we make a moral choice absent of moral obligation. Such is the case with superogatory or heroic acts of self-sacrifice. Or, it seems like one has made a moral choice when one has chosen a particular career path for the right reason, even though they were not morally obliged to do so. Or, if one is in a tight fix where one must choose to do one thing or another each of which are moral, but one cannot do both. Thus, it is not clear to me that when one makes some (moral) choice without a moral imperative attached to it that that choice must be morally ungrounded. That is, it seems that in some cases in which i recognize something as good insofar as i desire it and do the action i have done a moral action, even if one hasn’t done it for the sake it being a basic good, etc. One thinks of someone being inclined to help the proverbial old lady across the street merely because they see it as a good thing to do or desire it. So, even if it is granted that one cannot have moral imperatives without god, there still leaves open the possibility that one can have moral choices without god.

However, even if this scenario is inaccurate and every moral action, even so called optional ones, require some grounding in an ought (e.g., i ought either to do this or that), is not clear to me that in granting these non-imperative oughts one needs always to appeal to god in order to gain knowledge of it as an ought or as rational. That is, it seems reasonable to say that for example, one could say that one wants to be happy, one cannot not desire their own happiness, so in order to be happy one ought to act in certain ways so as to uniformly achieve this fixed goal. Another possibility: one can say that one has a basic or fundamental rational intuition into basic goods and this intuition occurs independently of belief in god. Rist seems to imply that this leaves one open to not being able to argue against those who would try to bury this intuition or distort it. But, this argument is problematic: it is like saying that one cannot believe in the principle of non-contradiction unless it can be grounded in something else. Why not simply say that one has had a rational intuition into something as a basic good and so is justified on that basis, not unlike saying that one is justified in the principle of non-contradiction in the same way?

One may be able to look for an alternative source for moral grounding. Perhaps a choice has moral grounding when it is enacted with a combination of a natural inclination (which provides motivation) and some recognition that it is ordered in some way to contributing to their happiness. I want to be happy, and i cannot act otherwise with respect to this, and so i ought to do this in order to be happy. Of course at this point, one need not wonder where one is going with this: to a eudaimonistic ethics. Such an ethic has happiness or one’s perfection as the ultimate end that motivates one to action, is obtained in conformity with a rational process of choice, and allows for actions to be optional and moral; that there are a range of goods (either truly or according to an appearance) that one ought to obtain in a rational way so as to obtain genuine or true goods (determined, perhaps, as being mutually consistent and obtainable or intuited as ordered to a basic good). In addition, a Christian will hold that one’s inclination or will is not satisfied by created goods and so the object of God is left as an open question, without being required to be positively appealed to in order to ground all obtainable goods.
Yet, Rist aptly supports his claim that Christianity most effectively serves as the ground for morality by pointing to the fact that God relates to us personally. This recognition is a game changer for the proclivity in eudaimonistic ethics to be merely about obtaining those goods that are primarily good for oneself; a view that has earned for it the charge of “egoism.” However, Rist makes us see that in Christianity a kind of reversal occurs: one sees that any goodness or perfection in oneself is merely a pale reflection of the perfection that is personally grounded in God. In this way, a Christian ethic becomes fundamentally re-oriented and grounded in communion, humility and grace."