Saturday, November 19, 2016

Kinds of External Worlds

One of the things that makes Hume's Treatise of Human Nature 1.2.4 important for examining the philosophical question of the external world is that (building in part on an insightful understanding of prior arguments about the question, particularly as found in Berkeley's work) it recognizes that we can analyze an account of the external world into three 'layers'. When we talk about the world outside us, the 'outside us' typically indicates three things:

The world is something we are in, and is external to us.
The world is something existing in some way independently of minds.
The world is something continuing to exist when we are not perceiving it.

Externality is a phenomenal characteristic -- it's a way the world seems, and as is often the case with appearances we can hold that it seems that way either because of the way the world is or because of the way our minds make it. Call the former received externality and the latter constructed externality.

The externality of the world can be taken as a given, on either explanation of it, but independence and continuance are much harder to ground, and problems have occasionally been raised for each by this philosophical position or that. Given this, there are eight kinds of ways we could take the external world to be.

External World Possibilities
------ Received Externality? Independent? Continuant?
1 Yes Yes Yes
2 Yes Yes No
3 Yes No Yes
4 Yes No No
5 No Yes Yes
6 No Yes No
7 No No Yes
8 No No No

EW1, overwhelmingly the most common position, is external world realism in a strict and proper sense: the world continues to exist as an entity distinct from and independent of any mind, and it seems like it is external because it is. As far as I know, nobody has ever proposed an EW2 account, in which the world is really external to us and independent of us but only exists when we perceive it, for the obvious reason that there would need to be some explanation for how the world always ends up existing when we perceive it, and only when we perceive it if its existence does not depend on us. An EW3 or EW4 account would be only marginally less puzzling, because of the difficulty of explaining how externality is not mentally constructed if the external world's existence is dependent on a mind.

Berkeley's idealism is an EW7 account: our sense of the externality of the world is built out of our understanding of the 'grammar' of how our ideas are associated with each other, the world (since it consists only of ideas) is entirely dependent on minds, but it continues to exist in God's mind when we are not perceiving it. An EW8 account seems to require solipsism, or something practically distinguishable from it. Transcendental idealism, or at least some version of it, would seem to be an EW5 account. EW6 seems to run into problems analogous to those we find in an EW2 account.

But there is actually very little work done on the general shape of the external world problem as a whole, or about the internal dynamics of possible accounts of the external world.

George Gordon (Lord Byron), Childe Harold's Pilgrimage


Opening Passage:

Oh, thou, in Hellas deemed of heavenly birth,
Muse, formed or fabled at the minstrel's will!
Since shamed full oft by later lyres on earth,
Mine dares not call thee from thy sacred hill:
Yet there I've wandered by thy vaunted rill;
Yes! sighed o'er Delphi's long-deserted shrine
Where, save that feeble fountain, all is still;
Nor mote my shell awake the weary Nine
To grace so plain a tale--this lowly lay of mine.

Whilome in Albion's isle there dwelt a youth,
Who ne in virtue's ways did take delight;
but spent his days in riot most uncouth,
And vexed with mirth the drowsy ear of Night.
Ah, me! in sooth he was a shameless wight,
Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;
Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.

Summary: To sum up Harold in a phrase, we could say that he is bored and unrepentant. Thickly coated in a life of self-indulgent pleasures, he has become alienated from the world, all those pleasures adding up and, eventually, no longer differentiating themselves. Seen through the accumulated residue of self-indulgence, everything seems remote, detached. As a glutton experiences dyspepsia without nonetheless being penitent, so the pleasure-seeking eventually experience alienated boredom of satiety without any real desire to become something else. But it is worse for Harold, who is intelligent with no adequate task for his intelligence and in love with a woman who can never be his -- his is the life of one with the potential for greatness, for whom the actual greatness seems ever out of reach and, worse, ever out of reach because of his own voluntary choices. And so he wanders Europe, he who is not able to change within, in the hopes of finding a change without. And slowly he circles around to Rome, which, like himself, indicates greatness without being great, and is all ruin without redemption.

A childe is a candidate for knighthood -- a young lord who as yet has won no spurs. This plays a larger role in the poem than I think is generally recognized. The poem is written in Spenserian stanzas, and, like Spenser although not so extremely, filled with archaisms. Spenser's knights wander to fulfill themselves as nobles, achieving their proper glory by completing heroic tasks, and in so doing exemplify virtue. But Harold is not a knight but a childe, and although noble he exemplifies no virtues, but only better-bred vices; and his wandering is a journey of finding no heroic tasks. Harold is perpetual childe, and a never-knight.

When reading, I found the political descriptions, which are common, to be usually pompous (unlike the descriptions of art or nature, which are all usually excellent), but, looking over the entire work, they play an important role. Harold wanders Europe, and it's not that he finds no heroism. He finds the traces of heroic action everywhere. Reflecting on Napoleon, for instance, who, for all his failings and flaws, did extraordinary things, only puts into greater relief the life of Harold, so ordinary and turned in upon itself and insulated from the world. Much of the strength of the poem lies in Harold's own recognition of this. He is not a hero; he is not even really an antihero; he is just a nonhero, and must bear the cognizance of his nonheroism.

Favorite Passage: There are lots of excellent passages, but this one stuck out this reading, reflecting on Roman gladiators -- and all of us who are like them:

What from this barren being do we reap?
Our senses narrow, and our reason frail,
Life short, and truth a gem which loves the deep,
And all things weighed in custom's falsest scale;
Opinion an omnipotence, whose veil
Mantles the earth with darkness, until right
And wrong are accidents, and men grow pale
Lest their own judgments should become too bright,
And their free thoughts be crimes, and earth have too much light.

And thus they plod in sluggish misery,
Rotting from sire to son, and age to age,
Proud of their trampled nature, and so die,
Bequeathing their hereditary rage
To the new race of inborn slaves, who wage
War for their chains, and rather than be free,
Bleed gladiator-like, and still engage
Within the same arena where they see
Their fellows fall before, like leaves of the same tree.

Recommendation: Recommended, although it is very much a work for when you have a considerable amount of leisure.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Yet One Rich Smile

by William Cullen Bryant

Yet one smile more, departing, distant sun!
One mellow smile through the soft vapoury air,
Ere, o'er the frozen earth, the loud winds run,
Or snows are sifted o'er the meadows bare.
One smile on the brown hills and naked trees,
And the dark rocks whose summer wreaths are cast,
And the blue Gentian flower, that, in the breeze,
Nods lonely, of her beauteous race the last.
Yet a few sunny days, in which the bee
Shall murmur by the hedge that skirts the way,
The cricket chirp upon the russet lea,
And man delight to linger in thy ray.
Yet one rich smile, and we will try to bear
The piercing winter frost, and winds, and darkened air.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Implying Bottom

Stephen Maitzen, "The Problem of Magic":

Instead, any theistic explanation of the operation of the laws of logic must say at least this: If God didn’t exist, then the laws of logic wouldn’t hold. But no sense at all can be attached to the consequent of that conditional. What could it mean for the laws of logic not to hold? Would it “mean” that the laws of logic never hold and yet sometimes hold? Would it “mean” that the laws of logic sometimes hold, never hold, and neither sometimes nor never hold? If it wouldn’t have either of those pseudo-meanings, why not? Presumably not because the laws of logic would prevent it! No one can make any sense of what would be implied by the failure of the laws of logic, and therefore no one can make any sense of the supposition that the laws of logic might not hold. In the face of that senselessness, one might retreat to the claim that without God only some rather than all of the laws of logic would fail. But which laws would fail, and why only those? I can’t see any plausible answer to those questions.

This is a truly baffling line of argument. Surely the obvious point being made by the position being criticized is that, in fact, the denial of "the laws of logic hold" is incoherent. Nor is there in fact any problem with this, if we can make sense of "The laws of logic hold" -- which Maitzen's argument requires. There is no logical or philosophical problem with a claim implying what is usually represented by the Bottom operator (incoherence, or contradiction, or impossibility, usually represented as a ⊥, and also called falsum); that just establishes, assuming the conditional is true, that the opposite of the antecedent is a necessary truth. In fact, in logical systems that are made specifically for dealing with necessary truths, it's fairly standard for negation to be defined as the implication of Bottom; anything implying Bottom is false. You can create analogous conditionals for any necessary truth.

The tricky thing would be establishing the truth of the conditional, of course, but this is not something that can be seen by looking at its consequent. Rather, one would have to look at the conditions for the contradictory of the consequent to be true -- in this case, looking at what it means for "The laws of logic hold" to be true. Which is, of course, precisely what common sense would suggest.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Philosopher and the Poet

As Syme strode along the corridor he saw the Secretary standing at the top of a great flight of stairs. The man had never looked so noble. He was draped in a long robe of starless black, down the centre of which fell a band or broad stripe of pure white, like a single shaft of light. The whole looked like some very severe ecclesiastical vestment. There was no need for Syme to search his memory or the Bible in order to remember that the first day of creation marked the mere creation of light out of darkness. The vestment itself would alone have suggested the symbol; and Syme felt also how perfectly this pattern of pure white and black expressed the soul of the pale and austere Secretary, with his inhuman veracity and his cold frenzy, which made him so easily make war on the anarchists, and yet so easily pass for one of them. Syme was scarcely surprised to notice that, amid all the ease and hospitality of their new surroundings, this man’s eyes were still stern. No smell of ale or orchards could make the Secretary cease to ask a reasonable question.

If Syme had been able to see himself, he would have realised that he, too, seemed to be for the first time himself and no one else. For if the Secretary stood for that philosopher who loves the original and formless light, Syme was a type of the poet who seeks always to make the light in special shapes, to split it up into sun and star. The philosopher may sometimes love the infinite; the poet always loves the finite. For him the great moment is not the creation of light, but the creation of the sun and moon.

G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, Chapter XV

Whewell on Veracity

If the morality is to serve as a supreme standard for the human race, it must protect and preserve common understanding and trust. But doing this adequately requires not just focusing on words, but also on deeds and intentions involved in communication. This gets us to a standard that could variously be called Truth, Truthfulness, Veracity, or Integrity (EM §120):

The part of the Supreme Rule which expresses the claim of this Virtue, is this: We must speak the truth: which may be farther unfolded, by reference to the origin of the principle, in this manner: We must conform our language to the universal understanding among men which the use of language implies.

As he puts it later, "a Contract to speak the Truth is implied in the use of Language" (EM §216), and by making an assertion one is implicitly recognizing some kind of broad right of those addressed to know the truth. The subjective disposition described by this Idea, of course, is the Virtue of Veracity, and the duties associated with it follow from this basic rule, understood broadly.

The dispositions associated with this Virtue are as you would expect. Fidelity or Good Faith is conformity of action to engagement, and if love is added to it, it becomes Loyalty. Freedom from fraudulent disposition is Probity. The person with Integrity has Simplicity or Singleness of Heart.

Obviously lying is a violation of Veracity, but so is promise-breaking and contract-breaking. We not only have the duty to avoid deceitful behavior but to cultivate a hatred of duplicity and a desire to be honest with others, and thus, as with the other Ideas, have the concomitant duties of moral culture. Thus our actions should not just be honest but convey the importance of honesty, so we have a duty not only to be truthful but to convey the "Spirit of Truth" (EM §220) in our truthful actions. Deceitfulness must be made unnatural to us.

There are Cases of Conscience for all kinds of duties, but the appearance of conflicting duties combined with the apparent clarity of the conceptions associated with the Idea mean that duties of Veracity are particularly likely to be considered in this context. Common understanding is a major issue here. For instance, a promiser should interpret his promise in the way he thinks the promisee is likely to take it, because that is the only possible common understanding between them (EM §280). In part because of this, promises are only relative duties created by the people involved; the promiser thus is not bound to a promise if released by the promisee. Immoral promises should be broken, but this does not do away, Whewell thinks, with the relative duty between promiser and promisee -- promising something immoral creates a conflict of duties for oneself, and promises morally made should always be kept. To take another example, fictions and polite expressions are recognized as such under common understanding, so they are not lies.

Because of the way he understands common understanding, Whewell has a peculiar view when it comes to what he calls Lies of Necessity, such as when you are faced with a choice of either lying or letting people die; and he regards them as excusable. But the standard of necessity has to be quite strict -- it has to be fear of immediate and inevitable death, although perhaps some non-immediate but inevitable cases might be allowable, and even such cases do not give a blanket permission. Excusable is not the same as blameless or admirable, and where it is admirable, as in some heroic cases, it is so for expressing some other moral principle. Cases may take us beyond our best rules and our usual duties; but they do not take us beyond the standard imposed by the Idea of Veracity.

States as moral agents of course have duties of Truth, as well, for instance, in upholding treaties, but Whewell does not spend an extensive amount of time discussing them. Likewise, while it is true of Veracity as with other cases that the Christian faith intensifies and incentivizes natural duties, Whewell takes the bulk of Christian duties of Veracity to be already also protected indirectly by other duties -- to love one's neighbor, to restrain one's desires, and the like.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Universal Doctor

Today is the feast of St. Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church and patron saint of scientists.

In investigations of nature, however, it is necessary not only to consider the changeable understood universally according to its common features, but it is necessary to get down to details so that the primary agent in each individual case may be ascertained, especially in sensible, animate things, because in investigations of nature we must discover the universal principles through singulars, since in such investigations the particulars are better known than the universals. It is through the singulars that we come to believe that it is convenient and necessary for universals and their principles to exist, since it is only those universals which are exemplified in particulars that we accept, while those which are not exemplified in particulars, we reject.
[Albert the Great, De animalibus IX tr. 2, c.4, ed. HernannStadler, in: BGPhlvfA5, Munster9 16'.T21, ll.16-21m as quoted in Leen Spruit, "Albert the Great on the Epistemology of Natural Science", p. 64.]

Monday, November 14, 2016

Whewell on Order

One of the unusual features of Whewell's moral philosophy is the emphasis he places on law. Whewell sees law as an essential part of moral life, and one of the major mechanisms by which moral progress is possible. As he puts it, "Laws are Moral Rules, clothed in an actual historical form" (EM §246). It is in the field of law that we most consistently run up against well defined moral cases against which we can test our moral principles, and it is often in law that we spend the most time and care in refinement of our conceptions. The latter is a major element of Whewell's notion of progress in any field, and moral philosophy is no exception. It is for precisely this reason that Whewell pays so much attention to the moral terms people use: "The Vocabulary of Virtues and Vices is a constant moral Lesson; perpetually operating to bring each man's moral sentiments into agreement with the general judgment of men" (EM §158). This is also the significant foundation for the role of the Idea of Order, regard for law, in his system (EM § 122):

Again; the Supreme Law of Human Action, in order to operate effectively upon men's minds, must be distinctly and definitely conceived, at least in some of its parts and applications. But all distinct and definite conceptions of Laws of Human Action must involve a reference to the relations which positive Laws establish. Hence Moral Rules, in order to be distinct and definite, must depend upon Laws; and must suppose Laws to be fixed and permanent. It is our Duty to promote, by our acts, this fixity and permanence: and the Duty, of course, extends to our internal actions, to Will, Intention, Desire and Affection, as well as to external act. We must conform our Dispositions to the Laws; obey the Laws cordially, or administer them carefully, according to the position we may happen to hold in the community. This disposition may be denoted by the term Order, understood in a large and comprehensive sense.

This Idea extends beyond laws as we normally think of them -- Whewell, for instance, says that it also extends to "subordinate moral Rules" -- but he generally puts it in terms of law, and this gives us the characteristic maxim for the Idea of Order, "We must accept positive laws as the necessary conditions of Morality."

The subjective disposition related to the Idea of Order is the most reason-oriented of Whewell's Virtues, because it is concerned entirely with the articulation and recognition of stable principles. Orderliness or Obedience is a virtue of respect for practical abstractions, and its associated virtues he often characterizes as Intellectual Virtues. Prudence is concerned with selection of means to these abstract ends. It requires Attention, Forecast, and Presence of Mind. Wisdom, "the complete Idea of Intellectual Excellence" (EM §152), includes selection of right ends. Love of Truth is also associated with Order. Other kinds of virtues associated with the Virtue of Order are those concerned with recognizing how others will view us (e.g., Honour), or with restraining ourselves to follow rules (e.g., Self-watchfulness).

Applying the Principle of Order gives us a wide variety of duties, diversified according to our various social roles that are relevant to law and custom. For every kind of submission to authority that may be required, there are corresponding Duties of Obedience. But for these to be moral rather than simply imitation, these duties must be carried out with an internal disposition characterizable by the Idea of Order, and this is the Spirit of Obedience, which we thus also have a duty to inculcate. Thus we should obey the laws and customs of our society in general, diverging only where we can clearly show that they deviate from the Idea of Morality (composed of the five Ideas, including Order); where a law can be interpreted in more than one interpretation, we have a duty to interpret it in the way most in conformity with moral principle; where law is concerned with equity and does not involve mere matters of arbitrary convenience, we have a duty to interpret according to the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

However, Order is not only about obeying; it is also about governing, and therefore creates Duties of Command. Since Order gives moral meaning to one's roles, it follows that anyone in an office of government authority has a moral duty to treat this office as a moral trust, and act as a public representative of the moral character of the State (EM §236). Authorities must give their actions and the laws a moral character. In addition, they should act in such a way as to keep the laws and customs of the society as stable as they practicably can be, so as to preserve their usefulness for moral life, which Whewell calls the Political Duty of Conservation (EM §237). On their other hand, the authority must also uphold the Political Duty of Progress, altering the laws when doing so will clearly make them better for moral purposes.

In addition, all the Intellectual Virtues come into play: government must proceed by Prudence, Wisdom, Consideration and Inquiry. We have a duty to act rationally; this is not always the same as acting rightly, since error is unavoidable, but reason must be used as well as it can be to avoid such error. This includes a duty to act according to rule, and not merely on arbitrary whim. All of this also tells us that we have a duty to cultivate ourselves intellectually as well as morally. Since Whewell regards the State as a moral agent, it also, of course, has Duties of Order. Part of this, beyond what has so far been noted, is a respect for moral law and of God as governor of the world.

As in other cases, the addition of Christianity intensifies and incentivizes these duties, and particularly the duty of obedience to God. One important feature of this is the explicit recognition of conscience itself as a law willed by God as revealed by the coming of Christ. Related to these is our duty of "Mutual Instruction in Religion" (EM §598). Order also creates duties to the Church as well as to the State; Christians have the duty of obedience to the laws and rules by which the Church specifies its institutions.

The Necessity of Auxiliary Precautions

But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

James Madison, Federalist 51

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Electoral College and National Popular Votes, Part II

In Part I, I noted that votes are not actually commensurable across state lines. When we talk about a 'national popular vote' the only thing we can be talking about without committing an error of equivocation is what the national popular vote would have been, taking state popular vote numbers as evidence. When we do this, we lose certainty and run the risk of introducing false precision.

A good example of how this false precision is misleading is seen by considering the fact that voters vote on the assumption that their vote is for how state electoral college votes will be distributed, as Jonathan Adler has noted. Suppose that John is a Republican in a blue state that is very, very blue -- it always votes overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate. John might think a number of very different things in this context. He might think that he needs to get out and vote precisely to represent the fact that there are Republicans in this Democratic state, but he also might think that there is no point in doing so -- he will have to vote already knowing that he and other Republicans are going to be outvoted. Suppose he concludes the latter and just stays home. When we look at the numbers of actual votes in a state, do they tell us anything about John and people like him, or how they would vote if they were voting in a national popular vote system? Not at all.

In addition to this, how a candidate campaigns is obviously going to be determined by how the election itself is structured. Different structures, different campaign strategies. And every election structure leads to something being a 'swing' target, some possible focus of campaigning that has disproportionate effect in context; obviously in the Electoral College, organized by states, the target will be the primary population centers of states with split populations. And campaigning does have an effect. While it does not manufacture new numbers out of nothing, it does consolidate votes and draw some who are only leaning a certain direction.

The relevance of these points to our case is that there is one state of the Union that is so locked down by one party that it returns overwhelmingly lopsided numbers -- California, a state so Democratic that the only Republican candidates on the ballot are often the Presidential ticket, and where the normal voting reality is not whether you vote Republican or Democratic but which Democrat you prefer. Republicans very often just don't vote. What is getting called the 'national popular vote' is, besides being a fictional number made by adding incommensurable units, is not yet completely counted, and will not be for a while, but if one looks at the numbers as we have them currently, one notices that Clinton's current advantage in this (again, fictional) number is due overwhelmingly to California. If you add up all the other forty-nine states, Trump comes out definitely ahead, the result of being at least slightly ahead in a lot of different state popular votes, and only barely behind in several others; add in California, and we discover that Clinton is supported so lopsidedly in California that it counterbalances Trump's lead if you counted all the other states put together.

This is going to be a fairly general thing -- since the election is not, in fact, structured as a national popular vote but by states, you'll get a higher 'national popular vote' number by locking down one populous state than you will by being consistently, but not dominatingly, more popular over a larger population. This is why the 'national popular vote' has tended to favor Democrats -- the Republicans have not managed to lock down any state as conclusively as the Democrats have done the big-population state of California. Would a real national popular vote also favor Democrats? Perhaps, but what we usually call the 'national popular vote' number is not really evidence for this -- the advantage is so slight in close contests, relative to the larger population, that it easily falls within the large region of certainty I noted in the previous post. And in an actual national popular vote, the numbers for every state would change -- sometimes only slightly, no doubt, but in other cases more dramatically. This is intensified by the fact that campaigning would inevitably change, as well. There are too many uncertainties to be sure of anything at that point.

Prokop tries to make this campaign-uncertainty out to be a disadvantage for the Electoral College:

Second, there’s swing state privilege. Millions of votes in safe states end up being “wasted,” at least in terms of the presidential race, because it makes no difference whether Clinton wins California by 4 million votes, 400,000 votes, or 40 votes — in any scenario, she gets its 55 electors. Meanwhile, states like Florida and Ohio get the power to tip the outcome just because they happen to be closely divided politically.

This is apparently plausible, but also somewhat illusory. Whether a state is a swing state already depends on how the people in the state are voting; it is an emergent property of voting, not a pre-existing one. California's registered voters are about 44% Democratic and 27% Republican; independents lean in roughly the same proportion, although with a slightly stronger Republican lean than the population as a whole. If all Republicans voted in an election, this would be outmatched by all Democrats voting; but if all Republicans were voting, a Republican running against an unpopular Democrat (thus drawing away some Democrats and pulling a lot of independents) could do it. It would just be a matter of catching the right election at the right time. But the difficulty a consistent minority has is precisely this, to turn up in the right numbers at the right time, and where that cannot be organized by the charisma of the candidate, the only way one can get close to that is if people vote and keep voting. This encourages candidates to run, which they won't if there's no chance at all. Contrary to occasional news reports mid-race this year, there was no real chance of Texas flipping from Republican to Democrat, but the fact that Democrats did massively better in Texas this year than they usually do may well fire up Texas Democrats for the future -- and that is itself a factor in whether Texas ever becomes a swing state. It does matter whether a race is won by 4 million or 40 votes -- that's exactly what makes the difference between swing states and non-swing states. If Clinton had only won California by 40 votes, it would have become a swing state, and the Republicans would be on the warpath to capture it in the next several elections.

In reality, the entire point of holding an election is for some people to outvote some other people, and in any election there are always going to be some people who are more likely to switch their apparent vote than others. What the Electoral College does is make this unstable -- there are slow-shifters and swift-shifters, but all the states shift around the swing-state sweetspot. In a national popular vote system, campaigns are not focused everywhere; the swing-targets tend to be the same large population centers every election. (Any large group of persuadable voters will draw attention, whether in a city or not, but large groups of persuadable voters will tend in general to be in places where there are a lot of voters.) The Electoral College messes with that -- because there is no national election, only state elections, the swing-targets tend to be the largest population centers in the most populous states where the race is closest, and that varies over time according to so many factors that it is not always predictable. (As we saw in this election.)

There is more to be said on this subject of the Electoral College and the 'national popular vote', in a future post.