Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Spellcheck, Autocorrect, and Institutional Authority

In a philosophy and law seminar on special obligations, we recently read a debate on role obligations between Hardimon and Simmons (well, if you can call it a debate. As my professor put it, Hardimon was out for a stroll in the park and Simmons walked up and said, I bet I can beat you!). One of the main prongs of the disagreement is over the normative power of institutions; do certain institutions-- like the family or the state-- get to generate new obligations that are neither voluntary nor redundant of the general moral law? For example, am I born into certain obligations to my parents even though I didn't sign to accept the role of daughter and though a universal law cannot countenance why I have obligations to my parents specifically and not just to all my elders in general? Or do we have to cash these out in terms of obligations generated by noncontractual roles-- a different species of norm altogether?

I have conflicting intuitions on this. In trying to sort out which of those intuitions merits more attention, I thought of a helpful analogy: normative powers of institutions work like spellcheck. People program spellcheck to accept certain words and underline words that are not already recognized in the dictionary the programmers use. Generally, when spellcheck underlines a word, I have a reason to change my spelling. But the reason to change the spelling is not because spellcheck said so-- it is because spellcheck is in sync with the dictionary used by the programmer, and the dictionary is authoritative (by democratic consensus? convention? let's just grant that it is for the sake of the illustration). Other times, spellcheck will highlight words it does not recognize but that I am licensed to use while writing a philosophy paper (like "noncontractual") or anglicizing a Greek word (like "nomos"). In other words, my compliance with spellcheck is optional because its normative force is only derivative, not original, and there are spheres in which its source is not authoritative-- such as philosophical articles in which Kant scholars, not Merriam-Webster, might have the last word.

This is not to say that spellcheck is redundant or impotent; it can give me additional reasons to change my spelling. If someone editing my paper knows that I typed it on a program equipped with spellcheck, she is likely to be more annoyed at my misspellings than she would have been had I been writing by hand because I had the resource available to make the correction myself. I might have new responsibilities in light of the new information. But I should have spelled it such-and-such a way all along. Whether discharging that duty to spell correctly was feasible for me prior to spellcheck or not is another question. But it may be an important one. If "ought" implies "can," maybe institutions and autocorrect and spellcheck broaden our possibilities-- our "cans"-- and thus broaden the "oughts" that apply to us.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Raz on Standard and Non-Standard Reasons

In the new Oxford anthology Reasons for Action, Joseph Raz has a really interesting article on the difference between epistemic reasons and reasons for action (and it's actually comprehensible. I know. Shocking). Here's the broad claim: epistemic reasons diverge from reasons for actions at two points-- first, while values that may contribute or constitute reasons for action are plural, truth-directedness, not value, drives reasons to believe/epistemic reasons. Second, we can follow non-standard reasons for action but not epistemic reasons. That is, we can act in conformity with a reason even if that is not the reason we are acting; we cannot believe in conformity with a reason for belief without taking it to be evidence of the truth of the proposition we're believing.

I think this is an awesome project. But arguments will be hard to make. Apparently there's been a little skirmish between Setiya and Raz over whether epistemic reasons can be non-standard, Setiya falling on the side that argues that there can. The example he uses is this:

"Imagine that someone promises Jake a large sum of money if he believes that P. By all accounts this is a reason to have that belief. I claim that it is a non-standard reason for it cannot be followed [directly]. But suppose Jake does not think that. Suppose that he is philosophically minded ... and believes that the promise is an ordinary, standard, reason for believing that P, and that as a result he comes to believe that P." (Raz "On Adaptive Reasons," 18)

This strikes me as a weird and not very plausible example. Are we really capable of talking ourselves into beliefs and genuinely holding them without giving ourselves some (believable) evidence that the propositions are true? I think you have to either be talking about a truth that comes into being by the person's say-so that P (like maybe God's, if you think God's word is a truthmaker) or have a Quine-ish or disquotational theory of truth. Anyway, a case worth thinking about.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Authority of the Bible

Last night, my small group read through some of the gnostic gospels and discussed the authorities of the Christian scriptures- and which texts count as Christian scriptures. One of my friends said, "I think it's not too skeptical a question to ask what reasons the early church fathers had to adopt certain texts and not others, and I think we ought to seek out those reasons for ourselves." His comment and comments that ran along a similar thread in that discussion implied that the reasons for cannonizing certain texts as part of the holy scriptures are objective and available to us. Do such reasons exist? And if so, who can know them?

Suppose there are no reasons that authorize the cannonization of certain texts or privilege certain texts over others. Then either the church fathers made a mistake or they chose arbitrarily. The huge controversies and disputes at various church councils into the 6th century give us good reason to rule out the latter. If they simply made a mistake because there are no such reasons, then we are in no better a position to adjudicate between texts than they were. Furthermore, if God reveals truth in the scriptures, but does not furnish us with reasons to adopt certain texts as scriptures, then God has not revealed truth to us in scriptures. No one among us is authorized to dub one account true and another false. This option looks pretty hopeless.

Suppose there are reasons to cannonize certain texts or privilege them. To whom might they be revealed? I think it would be plausible that every rational being could possibly come to know these reasons, in the way that it is possible for every being capable of learning a language to learn Spanish. Certain concrete limitations that come into play and the way a person is situated in life shape the contours of the language-learner's actual ability to speak Spanish. Perhaps I never learned or heard the sound of a rolled "r" and then tried to roll my "r's." This would function as a constraint on my ability to speak Spanish at the time. So our current situatedness in the twenty-first century, our distance from the original texts and lack of fluency in the original language constrain our ability to understand or come to know the reasons for privileging certain texts as scriptures. We leave this to the experts who are in circumstances that make them experts; in the case of texts written thousands of years ago, it seems that the early church councils, being only a few generations removed from Jesus' time at the most and many having fluency in the languages of the original texts, are better situated than us to adjudicate which texts countenanced the truth.

The role of the Holy Spirit in this process as well as the effect the Holy Spirit could have on far-removed present day students of the scriptures would be another interesting avenue to explore.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

If authority just counts as evidence

I have an intuition that insofar as a person is fallible, what she says can only be authoritative over what I believe when what she says counts as strong or overriding evidence. Maybe what she says has sway over what I ought to do regardless (even in the case of a mistake) but she cannot influence what I ought to think unless she's an epistemic expert.

Here's a scenario that sheds some light on why my intuition might be off:
I'm on the roof of a burning building and need to get to the building across the alley. The only way to cross is by walking a narrow plank. Firefighter Jim says to me, "Go ahead, it's safe to cross." If there is a net below that I don't know about (because I refuse to look down or something), then it seems obvious that Jim is right, regardless of my skill in balancing. If there is no net, the probability that Jim is right decreases significantly. Is he an authority in both cases? The issue arises in the second case: the reason I have to cross is explained by the circumstances- the fire quickly rising in the building, threatening my life if I stay put. I don't need Jim's authority to explain why I ought to cross. But ought I to believe it's safe to cross? All the stories I can think of would just explain why what Jim says is authoritative only for pragmatic reasons. If I believe him and the statement is false, I still may have a higher chance of making it over because I walk across more confidently. But maybe Jim knows this; then it looks like there's a real reason I ought to believe him and do what he says, not just do what he says.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Aquinas against Platonism

Dr. Alfonso Gomez-Lobo today pointed out to me the problem Aquinas has with Platonism . The argument runs:

1. If Plato's divided line is true, then all principles proceed from one principle- the form of the good.
2. If two or more principles proceed from one principle, the multiple principles are ultimately commensurable.
3. The law of non-contradiction is a logical principle.
4. The law of inertia is a logical principle.
5. The law of non-contradiction is incommensurable with the law of inertia.
6. There exist two principles which are not commensurable (3, 4, 5).
7. It is not the case that for all principles, they proceed from one principle (2, 6).
8. Plato's divided line is false (1, 7).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Knowledge as Ability

I had a song stuck in my head yesterday morning, and as often happens with me, I caught myself humming along to the music in my mind. Of course, I can’t hum the whole song all at once (I’ve heard that some professional singers can sing two notes at once, but I am far from mastering any technique like that). But I would say that I know the song, and that, given an instrument with the capability to play multiple notes at once, I could replicate the song. I would have to have certain skills on this instrument. If I lacked those skills, would I still know the song? I certainly couldn’t prove it. And there are more skills that I would need to learn to play an instrument in the first place. How could I acquire any of these abilities without primitive ones?

If knowledge is, as the Sellarsians say, the ability to participate in the game of giving and asking for reasons, I don’t have knowledge. The regress of requirements for knowledge appears to me to be a vicious one. Unless we have innate abilities, Sellarsian knowledge is unattainable.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Hume's Argument against Proving Miracles

1. John's testimony is a proof of a miracle.
2. A miracle is an event which violates a law of nature.
3. We ought to believe propositions which have a high(er) probability of being true.
4. Either we believe John's testimony is proof of a violation of a law of nature, or we don't.
5. If we believe John's testimony is proof, then we believe that a law of nature was violated.
6. But the probability that a law of nature is violated is lower than the probability that John's testimony is false.
7. Therefore, we ought to believe that John's testimony that a miracle occurred is false.

What if, instead of denying premise 1 as a result of the reductio, we deny premise 2? This seems to make more sense; for why would God set in place laws of nature that He would have to break in order to do what He wills? It seems plausible that the laws of nature are more flexible when a supernatural being is involved. For instance, maybe there is a law of nature that every human dies a bodily death; but does that mean that it is not possible that there is another natural law that if the spirit is then raised to life, the body is also raised to life? This would entail that eventually every human whose spirit is raised to life is also resurrected in body. That this has not yet happened is not conclusive proof that it will not happen. In fact, the Christian doctrine is that every human dies but is also raised to life at the second coming of Jesus. Can we not count this as a law of nature which, having not been experienced yet by us, appears implausible? Then a miracle, like the resurrection of Jesus, would be defined as "an event which occurs so rarely, though according to a law of nature, that it almost merits disbelief"?