Philosophy: October 2008 Archives

A rogue commenter reinvigorating the discussion at this post has led me to clarify something relevant to the abortion debate that I've been moving toward for a while now. There are a number of arguments on both sides of the abortion discussion that involve conceptual slips across important distinctions, and I think it's worth clarifying the assumptions that enable this process.

First, we need to separate out the following three-way distinction: biological humanity, what I'll call Warren-personhood, and moral status. Biological humanity is simply what biologists would classify as being human, as opposed to being a member of a different species or not being an organism at all. Warren-personhood is what most philosophers nowadays mean when they speak of personhood. I'm not convinced that this concept lines up with most people's notions of personhood, but it's become a technical term in philosophy for having certain capacities such as consciousness, self-awareness, the ability to plan for the future, and so on. I call it Warren-personhood because Mary Anne Warren's important pre-Roe article "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion" is the first instance I know of for this use of the term. Moral status is what it sounds like. Something has moral status if it would be wrong to treat it in certain ways for its own sake (and not just because it's someone's property or because it robs the world of beauty). Most people prefer to talk about moral status in terms of rights, but I prefer not to, because I think moral status is more expansive than rights, and I don't think rights are fundamental to begin with.

One more terminological matter is important before I say what I want to say. Here are two concepts: a three-sided planar figure and a three-angled planar figure. Those aren't the same concept. One concept has to do with how many sides the figure has, and the other has to do with how many angles it has. Philosophers will call these two concepts co-extensive. The extension of a term is the entirety of things that fall under it. The extension of 'tree' is simply all the trees. The extension of 'triangle' is all the triangles. The extension of each of these two concepts is the same as the extension of 'triangle'. The two concepts are co-extensive. Yet they aren't the same concept. Some concepts will be co-extensive but not necessarily so. It just happens that the concept "major party U.S. vice-presidential candidates through 2008 named Geraldine and Sarah" is co-extensive with the concept " major party U.S. vice-presidential candidates through 2008 who are women". But they might not have been if some other presidential candidate had selected a woman as V.P. or if McCain or Mondale had selected a different woman.

The pro-life position typically takes the first and last concepts in my list (biological humanity and moral status) to be coextensive, sometimes by means of taking the second (Warren-personhood) to be coextensive with each. But the pro-life argument doesn't need to rely on that. It can be done as long as moral status comes with being biologically human. One response to the pro-life position is simply to distinguish between these two concepts, as if that's the end of the discussion. But that response fails to consider the possibility that the concepts are distinguishable but co-extensive (or, more precisely, just that everything falling under the first concept falls under the third). All that would have to be true for that is that every biologically human organism has moral status. To assume otherwise is to beg the question against the pro-lifer by asserting without argument that human organisms might not all have moral status.

The only argument I've ever seen for such a position is to assume Warren-personhood is what matters for moral status, something the pro-lifer doesn't assume. Thus the argument assumes, in effect, what it's trying to establish, or at least part of what it's trying to establish, which is that Warren-personhood and moral status are co-extensive (or, more precisely, that nothing in the biologically human category has moral status unless it's a Warren-person). I'm really unsure that such a thing can be established without begging the question against the pro-life view. I'm actually pretty sure it can't, actually, or I probably would have seen such an argument, and I'm pretty familiar with the philosophical literature on abortion.

I'm not saying that this favors the pro-life argument very much. It;s more a recognition of why neither side is moved by the other. I've long seen the assumption behind this kind of pro-choice argument as question-begging, but I think this way of framing gets at my worry a lot more precisely. It's not really a matter of getting the concept of personhood wrong, as I've said in the past. It's a matter of two views on the relation between these different categories, with really little in the way of careful philosophical argument that either side can use to convince the other on its own terms of its stance on the foundational issue.


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This is the 49th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post looked at one final argument for dualism from Gottfried Leibniz and led into an argument instead in favor of materialism based on materialism offering the simplest explanation. This post looks at one further argument against dualism.

Substance dualism takes there to be two fundamental sorts of thing in the universe - physical stuff and minds. (A substance for philosophers is not some icky, gooey stuff but a technical term for whatever counts as a real, genuine thing.) Materialists just accept the physical, so they have no problem of how the two interact. [Similarly, Berkeley's idealism has just the mental, so he has no such problem.] A dualist who believes minds are non-physical things will have to explain how (if at all) mental stuff and physical stuff interact causally. This kind of dualism is sometimes called interactionism.

Dualists often do not give a mechanism to explain this interaction. They usually just take it to happen, treating it as a mystery. There are mysteries in the universe, and our ignorance of the mechanism doesn't make it false that there is one. This isn't super-satisfactory, but the objection isn't devastating. After all, materialists don't have a similar, well-developed explanation about how physical matter leads to thinking. The real problem involves a principle of physics - the law of conservation of matter and energy. This law states that matter and energy can interact and be converted into each other, but the total of all of it doesn't change. If minds can cause things in the physical realm, and vice-versa, then the physical events leading up to a mental event somehow must get the mental event to happen. Does that expend energy? If so, then the energy is somehow transferred into the mental realm. Something similar would happen for the other way around. Doesn't that violate the law of conservation?

The dualist has a fairly easy reply, one overlooked in most of the literature. Not too long ago, there were two conservation laws. Physicists thought the realm of matter and the realm of energy were constant and separate. They believed in no interaction between the two, no conversion from one to the other. They were wrong. Perhaps the objector is making the same mistake. Perhaps we need to be willing to consider the possibility that the correct law of conservation includes mental stuff in it along with matter and energy. If so, then the objection isn't anywhere near as powerful, though materialists still might not be satisfied by this response. There is textual evidence that such a reply is very much in the spirit of Descartes.

The next post will look at a different kind of dualist view that responds to this criticism in a very different way.

Leibniz's mill argument

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This is the 48th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post looked at some arguments roughly based on Rene Descartes' arguments for dualism. This post considers a very different sort of argument for dualism from Gottfried Leibniz.

Leibniz asks us to imagine walking around inside a large mill or factory. If we are merely physical, then a tiny person walking around inside your brain would be seeing the same sorts of things you see when walking around the mill. There are physical things going on, things we understand through science. We know exactly what those things involve, and they don't involve thinking. Why, then, should we think a physical organ like a brain involves thinking? So dualism must be true. The main intuition behind this is that physical processes don't seem to explain how thinking can come about. It seems too mysterious for a physical brain to explain.


If the simplest theory explaining the evidence is probably the best, then a theory without all that extra mind stuff is better than one without it, given that they both assume the physical world exists. Leibniz thinks he avoids this, since he claims materialism doesn't explain thinking. He says you need to go beyond the physical world to explain thinking. If so, then dualism is necessary to explain something. The principle of simplicity applies only if you've got two theories that equally explain the evidence, but if dualism explains it better, then go with that.

Materialists reply that he hasn't explained anything. He's said physical things don't explain thinking, but he hasn't said how immaterial minds do any better. What is this immaterial mind thing supposed to be, and how does it explain thinking any better than physical processes? The physical processes may lead to thinking. It's sort of mysterious how they'd do that, but that doesn't mean they don't. Dualism hasn't added anything like an explanation, just the claim that something else is needed. So has the dualist really explained anything? If not, the materialist says, then the simplicity principle tells us to be materialists. Materialism hasn't explained all the evidence, but dualism doesn't do any better, so they're on equal footing in terms of explanations. Then we go with the one without the extra souls, and we hold to the materialist view.


(Keep in mind that the story gets complicated if you include George Berkeley's idealist view, which denies the existence of anything beyond our minds. According to his view, the world is also simpler than dualism, since only minds exist and not external physical objects. In terms of simplicity, this view is as good as physicalism/materialism.)objects. In terms of simplicity, this view is as good as physicalism/materialism.)


So far it looks as if the traditional arguments for dualism from such noted figures as Descartes and Leibniz are good at expressing intuitions that dualists have but not as helpful in offering reasons for materialists to abandon materialism.In the next post, I'll start looking at one of the strongest arguments against dualism to see if the arguments for materialism are any better.

This is the 47th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post finished up the section devoted to issues related to freedom and moral responsibility. This post begins the next topic, the human mind.

Materialism - the physical or material world is all there is (or, more particularly about the human being, we are merely physical beings). This view is also called physicalism.

Dualism - there are two fundamentally different kinds of things in the universe - physical and mental things. In the case of the human mind, that means our mind (or soul, as some would call it) is a non-physical thing. (This view is technically called substance dualism. Another version of dualism comes up later.)

Leibniz's Law:
If A = B, then A and B share all and exactly the same properties
(In plainer English, if A and B really are just the same thing, then anything true of one is true of the other, since it's not another after all but the same thing.)

It's pretty common in introductory philosophy classes to present three dualist arguments roughly tracing back to Rene Descartes that rely on this principle. If A just is B, then A and B will have all the same properties. If Clark Kent really just is the same guy as Superman, they'll have all their features in common, even if Lois Lane doesn't know it. Many people think these arguments for dualism are unconvincing, but that wouldn't show Leibniz's Law to be false. Leibniz's Law is one of the most sure principles we can get. The arguments have to be questioned some other way.

Argument from Disembodied Existence

1. My mind can exist separate from anything physical.
2. No physical part of me can exist separate from anything physical.
3. Therefore, by Leibniz's Law, my mind isn't a physical part of me.

We seem to be able to imagine ourselves existing apart from anything physical. That's why the first premise seems right. We can't just float off outside our bodies like astral projection, but Descartes didn't think things had to be that way. If it had been different, we wouldn't have had physical bodies. This seems possible. If so, there's a property my mind has that it doesn't share with anything physical - it could have existed without any connection to a physical world.

Blomberg on Plantinga

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Every once in a while I run into a theologian or biblical scholar discussing a philosopher, and I think it's nice the philosopher is getting the cross-disciplinary attention, but then I read what they have to say about the philosopher, and I wonder how they could possibly have gotten the philosopher so wrong. Alvin Plantinga seems to be on the receiving end of such treatment far too often. I've previously discussed D.A. Carson's criticisms of Plantinga that seem to attack a view nothing like Plantinga's. I've been reading through the second edition of Craig Blomberg's The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, and he seems to me to make some similar mistakes about Plantinga. I don't mean any of the following as a criticism of Blomberg's book in general. Most of the book so far is very good. But I don't think he has an even passable grasp of Plantinga's philosophical views.

Here is how he describes Plantinga's view:

Traditionally, believers have argued for God's existence by means of various philosophical 'proofs', but many today, theologians included, believe that all such arguments have been shown to be faulty. Some feel that to try to prove that God exists is to deny faith its proper place as the foundation of religion, though it is not obvious why someone should continue to believe a given doctrine if all the evidence contradicted it. (p.107)

After the words "foundation of religion", Blomberg gives the following footnote:

See esp. Plantinga, 'Is Belief in God "Properly Basic"?', pp.189-202. Plantinga believes that certain propositions about God are 'basic' (givens that cannot be demonstrated) but not 'groundless' (without warrant).

That last sentence is entirely true. Plantinga does indeed believe that certain propositions about God are not in need of a philosophical argument. We can know them without any such argument. However, it's simply false that Plantinga can count as an example of the view that trying to prove God's existence denies faith its proper place. It's also wrong to think of him as someone who thinks the traditional arguments for God are faulty. Consider what he says in his online lecture notes called Two Dozen (or So) Theistic Arguments:

I've been arguing that theistic belief does not (in general) need argument either for deontological justification, or for positive epistemic status, (or for Foley rationality or Alstonian justification)); belief in God is properly basic. But doesn't follow, of course that there aren't any good arguments. Are there some? At least a couple of dozen or so.

Warning: for those who have not read the last two books of the Harry Potter series, this post does include spoilers.

Before she wrote Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling answered a question about the Fidelius charm on her website:

When a Secret-Keeper dies, their secret dies with them, or, to put it another way, the status of their secret will remain as it was at the moment of their death. Everybody in whom they confided will continue to know the hidden information, but nobody else.

Just in case you have forgotten exactly how the Fidelius Charm works, it is

"an immensely complex spell involving the magical concealment of a secret inside a single, living soul. The information is hidden inside the chosen person, or Secret-Keeper, and is henceforth impossible to find -- unless, of course, the Secret-Keeper chooses to divulge it" (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

In other words, a secret (eg, the location of a family in hiding, like the Potters) is enchanted so that it is protected by a single Keeper (in our example, Peter Pettigrew, a.k.a. Wormtail). Thenceforth nobody else - not even the subjects of the secret themselves - can divulge the secret. Even if one of the Potters had been captured, force fed Veritaserum or placed under the Imperius Curse, they would not have been able to give away the whereabouts of the other two. The only people who ever knew their precise location were those whom Wormtail had told directly, but none of them would have been able to pass on the information.

This seemed fine to me when I read it. But then I read Deathly Hallows. Hermione Granger seems to contradict the above explanation. She acts as if everyone in on the secret becomes a Secret-Keeper once the Secret-Keeper dies. If that's right, then the secret can be spread after the Secret-Keeper is dead, and it can be spread by anyone who was told the secret. This is why she thinks the Death Eaters know about Sirius' house once they apparate into its location with a Death Eater in tow. As Secret-Keepers, they can reveal the site to someone.

There's one problem with this. Severus Snape was also in on the secret, and he could have told them the secret. He didn't, and he would have had to have an excuse. If the secret couldn't be told by those who were merely told it, then he would still have that excuse. So is this a sign that Hermione is wrong and Rowling's original explanation is correct? Not necessarily. Perhaps Snape was lying about who the Secret-Keeper was, and Voldemort didn't know it had been Dumbledore. Then Snape would still have an out, and he could pretend not to be able to say. So this isn't really strong evidence that Rowling's original explanation was correct after all.


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