Sunday, August 10, 2014

This is your brain on marriage equality (part 2 of 2)

L: I suppose you won’t accept the claim that the genesis of marriage is relevantly similar to the genesis of the daddy-daughter date?

R: Doesn’t that claim commit you to controversial views in theology or human evolutionary biology?

L: All it requires is that, just as one or more persons invented daddy-daughter dates as an inherently different-sex institution, whoever invented marriage did so as an inherently different-sex institution.

R: But how do you know that whoever invented marriage did not intend it to be a more general and gender-neutral institution, like the “parent-child outing” I mentioned?

L: Human history? I think we had a consensus—about marriage being a different-sex institution—that was, if not unanimous, at least so ancient and widespread that even cultures most celebratory of homoerotic desire did not question that marriage was a different-sex institution, even when their most creative thinkers were willing to abolish or change that institution in countless other respects (as in Plato’s Republic). The cracks in this consensus are a recent local flash in the pan.

L: We can’t infer from what was historical to what is right.

R: Agreed, but your question was about what was intended by whoever invented marriage.


R: But—here is a related worry—I think that perhaps we are in a different boat on this matter than we were even just a few years ago.

L: How so?

R: To ask whether marriage is an inherently different-sex institution these days is like asking whether Utah should refused admittance to the United States. That ship has already sailed, right? Some places have already decided that marriage is not an inherently different-sex institution.

L: Well, consider this: what do you think a son would say if his father told him they were going on a daddy-daughter date together today? And if the father said this after an uncountably long phase of going on daddy-daughter dates and father-son adventures, and after the other families in the community had noticed these institutions and adopted them as well? What would the son say to his father’s announcement?

R: I suppose the boy would laugh. Then he would attempt to correct his dad: “you mean we’re going on a father-son adventure, right, dad?”
L: What if dad replied “I know we used to go on those. We still can if we want to. But I overheard a few of the neighbors last night took their boys on daddy-daughter dates for the first time. I figured that if they can do it, so can we.”

R: Ah, I see. The boy would say “the neighbors are confused. They can’t take sons on a daddy-daughter date just like they can’t take moms on a father-son adventure. They can say what they want, but you and I need not be confused.”

L: I would not put it quite that way about marriage. But the gist of the son’s response seems correct in his case. The father is viewing a decision whose coherence is dubious to begin with as if it’s a coherent and exemplary feat.


R: I’m not persuaded by that last response. But I’ve felt there is something unfair about comparing marriage to daddy-daughter dates, and I think I just realized what.

L: What?

R: The complex title “daddy-daughter date” has a grammar that presents its different sexes fairly explicitly. But the lone word “marriage” doesn’t. It’s too bad for you that whoever invented marriage didn’t use a complex title like “man-and-wife marriage” or “male-and-female marriage.”

L: And it’s too bad for us all that the makers of dictionaries didn’t arrange the entries alphabetically by their definitions so we could look up the words.

R: You would not read much into the fact that the word “marriage” isn’t grammatically more complex?

L: I already said that the inventors of the daddy-daughter date could have called it anything at all. Stuff’s what it is and isn’t other stuff—for reasons that are not completely at the mercy of our labels.

R: But it still seems relevant here…


L: There’s another way of looking at the last two points. Do you think professional baseball is baseball?

R: Yes...

L: Is professional soccer soccer?

R: Of course. And the same with pro basketball, pro golf…

L: And professional wrestling?

R: Hmmm….No…Professional wrestling isn’t wrestling.

L: Why not?

R: It's fake. Those guys in the ring aren’t competing. They’re acting. Sure, they’re big and strong and could whip me in a real wrestling match. Some of them may even have been (or be!) real wrestlers. But what they’re doing in that ring, with the strutting and boasting and jumping and slamming—that’s not real wrestling.

L: But it’s called “wrestling”. Indeed, “professional” wrestling. Doesn’t a professional usually mean something like the best example?

R: I suppose so. But the only “professionals” in those rings are professional actors.

L: But don’t some people who watch professional wrestling think it’s real?

R: Some do; but of course that is no proof that it is real.

L: But you see my point, right?

R: That same-sex marriage is marriage about as much as professional wrestling is wrestling?

L: I didn’t say that. You can’t always take a title at face value. And you can’t always tell where the title applies just by looking at some grammar in the title itself.

R: But if that is your point, it undercuts your argument, right? Doesn’t professional wrestling just show that words—like “wrestling”—can historically expand from a narrower meaning to a wider meaning? Why not with “marriage”?

L: Professional wrestling does show that words can expand their usage in different ways. But sometimes words—here “wrestling” and “professional”—are used to make stuff seem like what it’s not. Some things might be thought and talked about as “marriages”—by a person, group, church, or state—without really being marriages.

R: You may be unsurprised, but I am unconvinced…

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Thursday, August 7, 2014

This is your brain on marriage equality (part I)

Today I finished two books relevant to our culture’s ongoing discussions about marriage, equality, and marriage equality—Minimizing Marriage by Elizabeth Brake, and What is Marriage? by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George—since I am using two related articles by these four authors in my Political Philosophy course this fall.

So I’ve got marriage equality on my mind. Or—making some assumptions—on my brain. Assume two parts of my brain—“Righty” and “Lefty”—can think and talk. (The names map—poorly—cerebral hemispheres, not the political spectrum.) Neither reflects the views of the mentioned authors, or pretends to be up to speed on the literatures concerning marriage equality. Listen and see if you can help each think better.

Righty: I believe in marriage equality.

Lefty: Me too, but it depends what you mean by it.

R: Well let’s pretend I’m a straight woman and you’re a gay man…

L: Umm…

R: …and let’s pretend we live somewhere that says marriage is only between one man and one woman…

L: Fine.

R: Then I think marriage equality means that people like you should be allowed to marry, just as people like me are.

L: But we already can.

R: No you can’t. Not here and now. Remember what we're pretending.

L: I do. If I want to marry, I just have to find a woman who agrees to marry me.

R: Wait, that is not what I mean. You can’t marry someone like you—someone who is attracted to a person of the same sex.

L: Sure I can. I just have to find a woman who agrees to marry me and is attracted to a person of the same sex. Elton and Ellen can marry each other just as equally as Kanye and Kim can.

R: But that is still not what I mean. Neither Elton nor Ellen can marry someone of the same sex.

L: So? Neither can Kanye or Kim.

R: But that’s different. They don’t want to marry someone of the same sex.

L: So?

R: So marriage equality means that individuals can marry each other whenever they want to.


L: If marriage equality meant that, you would be fine with polygamy and many other kinds of ‘marriages’. But you aren’t. So it doesn’t.

R: Ah, that’s a common move. Some are fine with some of those things, but let’s pretend I’m not.

L: OK…

R: I guess my view is this…Marriage means two unrelated legal adults in a consensual, exclusive, life-long—or at least long-term—romantic commitment. Marriage equality means individuals of the same sex can get married to each other, just as individuals of the opposite sex can get married to each other. What’s your view?

L: Marriage, among other things, is an inherently bisexual institution. Marriage equality, among other things, means individuals should have equal opportunity to enter this institution.


R: Um, “bisexual”?

L: Two-sexed. Compare: a bicameral legislature has two chambers; a biracial couple represents two races. And so on.

R: But the word “bisexual” already has another standard meaning when applied to individuals.

L: Fine. Pick other prefixes. Instead of labeling the sexual composition of institutions “bi-” and “uni-” we could label them “hetero-” and “homo-” when the sex of their members is different or the same.

L: But that makes inherently homosexual institutions out of the Boy Scouts of America and the Gay Men’s Chorus.

R: True. But not because it’s the Gay Men’s Chorus, but because it’s the Gay Men’s Chorus. Inherently homosexual institutions would be so labeled not because their individual members are homosexual, but because their individual members are of the same sex.

R: Again, the word “homosexual” already has another standard meaning when applied to individuals.

L: Fine. I’m willing to use labels like “same-sex” and “different-sex” to make the point. My view is that marriage is an inherently different-sex institution. One or both individuals within it can be bisexual, homosexual, heterosexual, pan-sexual, or whatever. Individuals have equal opportunity to enter this institution.


R: Why is marriage inherently different-sex? What makes anything inherently anything?

L: I doubt I can answer the general question. But perhaps one answer to the specific question is this: there are such things as inherently different-sex institutions; and marriage is one.


R: Show me there are such things as inherently different-sex institutions.

L: Imagine a father took his young girls out for individual ice cream outings, and called these “daddy-daughter dates.”

R: Ah, I see. A daddy-daughter date is an inherently different-sex institution?

L: Yes. And even though it wasn’t contrived to be that way just by naming it with capitalized words like “An Inherently Different-sex Institution.”

R: But there’s nothing remotely sexual about this different-sex institution.

L: Right. Just as there’s nothing remotely sexual about the same-sex institution of the Boy Scouts.

R: Are you sure the daddy-daughter date is inherently different-sex?

L: Yes. When the father’s young boy reached the age for ice cream outings, they could not go on a daddy-daughter date together. They invented a similar institution and they called it a “father-son adventure” instead. Which, of course, was inherently same-sex—but not out of animus towards the daughters.

R: Could they call it a “daddy-son date” instead?

L: Indeed, they could call it anything at all.

R: Why?

L: The words we slap on these institutions do not make them different-sex or same-sex institutions any more than words like “five” and “six” make natural numbers odd or even.

R: Could they make a more general and gender-neutral institution and call it a “parent-child outing”?

L: Of course! But daddy-daughter dates, mother-son banquets, brother-sister breakfasts, and a thousand other imaginable institutions are inherently different-sex. And father-son adventures, mother-daughter empowerment trips, sister-sister flame grill barbecues, and a thousand other such institutions are inherently same-sex.


R: Let’s say I agree so far. You still haven’t shown that marriage is an inherently different-sex institution.

(This is the first of a two-part post.)

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Crying at the opera

The opera Madama Butterfly equals King Lear in the intensity and detail with which the story builds to its tragic outcome. Even the title gives a hint: “Mrs. Butterfly.” Cio-Cio San, forced into life as a geisha by the ruin of her family, believes that she is married to the handsome, callow American naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton. He thinks he’s just renting her, much like the curious paper house (999-year lease with monthly opt-out clause), while he’s stationed in Japan.

Puccini presents the crushing of Cio-Cio San’s hopes with all the art he commands – and Puccini’s music is hardwired to the lacrimal glands. In Act III, Pinkerton returns to Japan with his American wife. The devastated Cio-Cio San presents Pinkerton with their son – and then expunges her dishonor as a samurai’s daughter must.

If you’re not helplessly snot-ugly blubbering by the end there’s something wrong with you.

Why do we cry?

Because the story and the music make us sad? That can’t be right. It’s a ‘sad’ story with ‘sad’ music, to be sure. But we have no reason to feel sad; nothing bad has happened to us. Nor are we sad for Cio-Cio San. There is no ‘Cio-Cio San.’ Rather than dying of a self-inflicted stab wound to the heart, the soprano hops right up, takes a curtain call, and goes out for drinks after the performance.

“But,” goes the usual reply, “art involves the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.” That is, in the experience of art we bracket the fact that the tragic events we observe are not really happening, though if they were they would make us sad. We watch the tragedy ‘as if’ it is really happening.

I’ve always thought this ‘willing suspension’ notion silly. First, we know all along, and never forget for a moment, that we are in a contemporary opera house, not 19th century Nagasaki. We know the whole time that we are not looking at a dashing young American sailor but a middle-aged, slightly tubby Italian tenor. The singers may be pretending; but we never do. The question of belief or disbelief just doesn’t seem to enter in.

Second, if we really did prescind from the unreality of the story the proper emotional response would not be sadness, but shock and alarm. We’d rush the stage to stop Cio-Cio San from committing hara kiri. But we are not even momentarily disposed to prevent her. Indeed, we feel that she ‘should’ do so; it’s somehow ‘necessary’ for her to do it. If the director decided to have Cio-Cio San survive and ‘move on’ from this bad relationship (perhaps with an empowering job at Mitsubishi) we’d be disposed to demand our money back.

Finally, are we really ‘sad’? That we would feel sadness, or that we are supposed to made sad, seems implausible as a phenomenology of going to this opera. What we are feeling at the end, especially if the performance is well done, is a particular kind of pleasure. After all, we don’t pay $125 a ticket to be bummed out.

So why do we cry and experience pleasure at the same time?

A key to this puzzle is figuring out what it is for a story, and for music, to be ‘sad’. Again, the explanation can’t involve the power to make us feel sad.

Let me propose a way of understanding what makes a piece of art ‘sad’ borrowing from two philosophers, Aristotle and Suzanne Langer.

A work of art is ‘sad’ (or ‘joyful,’ or whatever) if it somehow presents to us the form of something sad. In the case of a story, a series of events which would be sad-making. In the case of music, what is presented is the form of sadness. For another searing example of sadness, listen to the opening of Act III of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. (An even better example from Wagner is the motif of ressentiment in the Ring Cycle, which even shows us how resentment feels physically. It doesn’t, of course, make us resentful. We haven’t been robbed of our Precious by an arrogant god.) Mozart presents Donna Elvira’s despairing grief and shame with equal vividness in her aria “Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata,” in Don Giovanni.

That is, art presents us with the form of a sadness-producing event but not realized in the ‘matter’ which would make it really so. Music presents us with the form of an emotional state, permitting cognitive access to that state without our literally being in the state.

It seems to me that the explanation of what’s going on here, that covers this complex reality, appeals to the Aristotelian notions of matter and form, and then to the principle that in cognition the content of the cognitive state is formally identical with its object. That is, when we have cognitive knowledge of horses, what we know is the substantial form of horses, not representations of horses or ‘ideas’ of horses.

A sad-making series of events has a form. As actualizing its ordinary matter (real human beings) it would have its ordinary effect on us. As actualizing other, different matter (characters portrayed by performers) it wouldn’t. Our response in this latter case, the cognitive states we are in as a result of observing it, is not genuine sadness, but its form as the object of a particular kind of cognitive state different from the actual emotion. Being in this state makes us cry. But we’re not sad. Langer would say that we are ‘virtually’ sad.

However, to the extent that this virtual realization of the form captures its essence, it provides us the cognitive satisfaction that good realizations of form generally provide. That gives us pleasure.

And that’s why we go, even though we know it will make us cry.

Thomas Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Thursday, July 17, 2014

On morality: objective or subjective?

Is morality objective, or subjective?

If it's objective, it seems that it would need to be something like mathematics or the laws of physics, existing as part of the universe on its own account. But then, how could it exist independently of conscious, social beings, without whom it need not, and arguably could not, exist? Is 'objective morality', in that sense, even a coherent concept?

If it's subjective, how can we make moral judgments about, and demand moral accountability from, people of times, backgrounds, belief systems, and cultures different than our own? If it's really subjective and we can't make those kind of moral judgments or hold people morally accountable, than what's the point of morality at all? Is 'subjective morality' a coherent concept either?

Take the classic example of slavery, which today is considered among the greatest moral evils, but until relatively recently in human history was common practice: could we say it was morally wrong for people in ancient times, or even two hundred years ago, to own slaves, when most of the predominantly held beliefs systems and most cultures supported it, or at least allowed that it was acceptable, if not ideal? Does it make sense for us to judge slave owners and traders of the past as guilty of wrongdoing?

From an objectivist point of view, we would say yes, slavery was always wrong, and most people just didn't know it. We as a species had to discover that it was wrong, just as we had to discover over time, through reason and empirical evidence, how the movements of the the sun, other stars, and the planets work.

From a subjectivist point view, we would say no. We can only judge people according to mores of the time. But this is not so useful, either, because one can legitimately point out that the mere passage of time, all on its own, does not make something right become wrong, or vice versa. (This is actually a quite common unspoken assumption in the excuse 'well, those were the olden days' when people want to excuse slavery in ancient 'enlightened, democratic' Greece, or in certain pro-slavery Bible verses.) In any case, some people, even in those eras of the past, thought slavery was wrong. How did they come to believe that, then? Was the minority view's objections to slavery actually immoral, since they were contrary to the mores their own society, and of most groups, and of most ideologies?

Morality can be viewed as subjective in this sense: morality is secondary to, and contingent upon, the existence of conscious, social, intelligent beings. It really is incoherent to speak of morality independently of moral beings, that is, people capable of consciousness, of making and understanding their own decisions, of being part of a social group, because that's what morality is: that which governs their interactions, and makes them right or wrong. Morality can be also viewed as subjective in the sense that moral beliefs and practices evolved as human beings (and arguably, in some applications of the term 'morality', other intelligent, social animals) evolved.

Morality can be viewed as objective in this sense: given that there are conscious, social beings whose welfare is largely dependent on the actions of others, and who have individual interests distinct from those of the group, there is nearly always one best way to act, or at least very few, given all the variables. For example, people thought that slavery was the best way to make sure that a society was happy, harmonious, and wealthy. But they had not yet worked out the theoretical framework, let alone have the empirical evidence, that in fact societies who trade freely, have good welfare systems, and whose citizens enjoy a high degree of individual liberty, are in fact those that end up increasing the welfare of everyone the most, for the society as well as for each individual. So slavery was always wrong, given that we are conscious, social, intelligent beings, because as a practice it harmed human beings in all of these aspects of human nature. Slavery is destructive to both the society and the individual, but many people did not have a reasonable opportunity to discover that fact, other than through qualms aroused by sympathetic observation of so much suffering.

In sum: it appears that in many arguments over morality, where people accuse each other of being 'dogmatic', or of 'moral relativism', or various other accusations people (I think) carelessly throw at each other, is due to a basic misunderstanding. To have an 'objective' view does not necessarily entail one must have a fixed, eternal, essentialist view of morality which does not allow for moral evolution or progress. Likewise, to have a 'subjective' view of morality does not entail thinking that 'anything goes', or that morality is entirely relative to culture, religion, or belief system. Here, as is the case with so many important issues, simplistic, black-and-white explanations do not lead to understanding, nor to useful solutions to life's most pressing problems.

Amy Cools
Department of Philosophy Alumna
Sacramento State

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why Jesus died many times for our sins

St. Augustine was sure that Jesus died just once for our sins. However, Jesus died not only in our particular universe but also in many other parallel universes that are as real as ours.

Let’s explore the chain of reasoning behind this claim. One assumption is that whether a particular parallel universe exists falls within the field of astrophysics, not theology nor logic.

Astrophysics’ well-accepted Big Bang theory with eternal inflation implies a multiverse containing an unlimited number of parallel universes obeying the same scientific laws as in our particular universe. These other universes (which the physicist Max Tegmark calls Type 1 universes) are distant parts of physical reality. They are not abstract objects. Some contain flesh and blood beings.

Parallel universes are not parallel to anything. They are very similar to what David Lewis called possible worlds, but they aren’t the same because his possible worlds must be spatiotemporally disconnected from each other.

I cannot state specific criteria for transuniverse identity, but we do need the assumption that, in a universe, personal identity (whatever it is) supervenes on the physical realm. That is, a person can’t change without something physical changing. It is also reasonable to require that in any parallel universe in which Jesus exists he has Mary and Joseph as parents.

The claim that Jesus in our universe is identical to Jesus in another universe does conflict with the intuitively plausible metaphysical principle that a physical object is not wholly in two places at once. This principle is useful to accept in our ordinary experience, but it is not accepted in contemporary physics. The Schrödinger equation of quantum field theory describes the extent to which a particle is wholly in many places at once. This is why physicists prefer to say the nucleus of a hydrogen atom is surrounded by an electron cloud rather than by an electron. In the double-slit interference experiment, a single particle goes through two slits at the same time. So, the metaphysical principle should not be used a priori to refute our claim about the transuniverse identity of Jesus.

Our universe is the product of our Big Bang that occurred 13.8 billion years ago. It is approximately that part of physical reality we can observe, which is an expanding sphere with the Earth at the center, having a radius of 13.8 billion light years.

Our universe once was a tiny bit of explosively inflating material. The energy causing the inflation was transformed into a dense gas of expanding hot radiation. This expansion has never stopped. But with expansion came cooling, and this allowed individual material particles to condense from the cooling radiation and eventually to clump into atoms and stars and then into Jesus.

The other Type 1 parallel universes have their own Big Bangs, but they are currently not observable from Earth. However, they are expanding and might eventually penetrate each other. But, they might not. It all depends on whether inflation of dark energy is creating intervening space among the universes faster than the universes can expand toward each other. Scientists don’t have a clear understanding of which is the case.

Why trust the Big Bang theory with eternal inflation? Is it even scientific, or is it mere metaphysical speculation? The crude answer is that the theory has no better competitors, and it is has been indirectly tested successfully. Its testable implications are, for example, that the results of measuring cosmic microwave-background radiation reaching Earth should have certain specific quantitative features. These features have been discovered—some only in the last five years. The theory also implies a multiverse of parallel universes having our known laws of science but perhaps different histories. If we accept a theory for its testable implications, then it would be a philosophical mistake not to accept its other implications.

One other important assumption being made is that the cosmic microwave-background experiments have not detected any overall curvature in our universe because our universe is in fact not curved. Our universe being curved but finite is also consistent with all our observations. Similarly, if you are standing on a very large globe, it can look flat to you. If our 3-D universe is finite but curved like the surface of a 4-D hypersphere, then space would be extremely large with a very small curvature, but there would be only a finite number of parallel universes, and the argument about Jesus would break down. The most common assumption now among astrophysicists is that our universe is in fact infinite, the multiverse is infinite, and matter is approximately uniformly distributed throughout the multiverse. As Max Tegmark has pointed out, twenty years ago there were many astrophysicists opposed to parallel universes. They would say, “The idea is ridiculous, and I hate it.” Now, there are few opponents of parallel universes, and they say, “I hate it.”

Having established that there are infinitely many parallel universes with the same laws but perhaps different histories, let’s return to the issue of whether Jesus died in more than one of them. One implication of the Big Bang theory with eternal inflation is that some universes are exact duplicates of each other. Here is why. If you shuffle a deck of playing cards enough times, then eventually you will have duplicate orderings. The duplicate orderings are the same, not just “David Lewis counterparts.” Similarly, if you have enough finite universes, which are just patterns of elementary particles, and each has a finite number of possible quantum states, then every universe has an infinite number of duplicates.

One controversial assumption used here is the holographic principle: Even if spacetime were continuous, it is effectively discrete or pixilated at the Planck level. This means that it can make no effective difference to anything if an object is at position x meters as opposed to position x + 10 -35 meters.

This completes the analysis of the chain of reasoning for why Jesus died more than once for our sins. Have you noticed any weak links?

Brad Dowden
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A dilemma for Utilitarians

How do Utilitarians understand the judgments they derive from the Utilitarian calculus? Let’s work with an example. Here’s one:
G: It is morally right (required) to give 10% of your income to people who are less fortunate than yourselves (because doing so would maximize utility).
I’m not interested in whether G is true. Let’s assume it is. I’m interested in how Utilitarians understand G.

One way they might understand G is to say, well, G is a moral judgment. Moral judgments are (by definition) normative. They are claims or directives asserting that there are quite strong reasons for acting. G, then, can be roughly translated as
G1 “You have significantly weighty reason to give 10% of your income to the less fortunate.” Or,
G2 (“You must) give 10% of your income to the less fortunate.”
More: if these claims are genuinely moral, truly justified, then they can’t legitimately be simply shrugged off. So you can add to the translation above by saying
G3 “If you don’t give 10% of your income to the less fortunate, then you’re blameworthy.” And,
G4 “If you don’t give 10% of your income to the less fortunate, then you should feel guilty.”
What if I don’t agree that I have this significantly weighty reason? (I reflect and introspect about my reasons, and that one just ain’t there. How does the Utilitarian know better than me what reasons for action I have?) What if rather I think it would be really nice for me to do it, but it isn’t required and so guilt and blame would be inappropriate. I can understand how nice it would be, but I don’t understand anyone getting angry at me if I don’t. I mean I know (we’re supposing) that doing this will maximize utility, but why must I do that?

But on this first way of understanding G for a Utilitarian (where G implies G1-G4), my view about what reasons I have don’t matter. Only the Utilitarian calculus does (or the Utilitarian’s calculation of net aggregate happiness does). Utilitarians don’t care about my view about what I have reason to do. They don’t care about whether G1-G4 make sense from my considered point of view. But that seems oppressive. It seems less like a justified pronouncement of moral authority and more like authoritarianism – Utilitarians just bossing me around or using moral language to manipulate me into doing what they want me to do.

I have Utilitarian friends (well, can Utilitarians actually be friends?) who will deny that G means G1-G4. Instead they say nothing practical straightforwardly follows from G. It’s good, in some sense, when it happens that utility is maximized, but it turns out that moral judgments aren’t actually judgments about what people have reason to do. “Giving 10% of your income to the less fortunate is ‘right’” these Utilitarians would be saying, “but I don’t know what to tell you to do.” So, people who fail to give 10% of their income to the less fortunate would be failing to maximize utility, but that doesn’t mean they’re blameworthy or that they acted against really strong reasons for action. Therefore, the judgment isn’t authoritative; G is just a claim about what would maximize utility and so, according to Utilitarianism, the “right” action. But you might not have particularly strong reason to do the “right” action.

But if G is understood in this way, instead of being oppressive, it’s simply inert. These ‘moral’ judgments seem like abstract theoretical claims and don’t even claim normativity for themselves. This option is at least odd because morality is typically thought to be normative, playing an important practical role in human relations.

Either way, Utilitarianism seems like a pretty revisionist view, and not in a good way.

Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, June 9, 2014

The explanatory reductio

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

                                                                                                                                     ~ Mark Twain

One simple way of identifying the defining characteristic of an explanation is to distinguish it from an argument. Whereas an argument provides reasons we should believe something, an explanation provides reasons why something we already believe, actually occurs.  In rhyme:
  • An argument says how we know. 
  • An explanation says why it is so.
This is an excellent general purpose way to think about the nature of explanation (and argument) and I recommend tattooing it somewhere special. 

But it isn't the whole story. To appreciate why, let's begin with Twain's lovely remark: Sometimes what we know just ain't so.  Of course, if you are accustomed to philosophical usage, you'll see that this is paradoxical: knowledge implies truth. So, in more quotidian terms, Twain is observing that we are often utterly convinced of things that turn out to be false.

I doubt any reader of this blog will need to be convinced of Twain's fundamental point, that passionate commitment to falsehoods can cause far greater harm than simple ignorance.  My point is that what we know that ain't so is also a nice way to  appreciate the fact that explanation has a larger role than simply accounting for the facts.

Consider an everyday example.  I get a check in the mail saying that I have just won 10 million dollars. Do I even bother to open it?  Nope.  I can partly defend this by appeal to probability and expected value: It is so fantastically unlikely that 10 million dollars would simply drop out of the sky that the time it would take to inquire is far more trouble than its worth. But the other, equally important way of accounting for it is explanatory in nature: Why the hell would anyone just give me 10 million dollars? If there is no plausible explanation, maybe that's because they didn't.

Now, what exactly am I doing when I put the matter this way?  Am I accepting it as actual fact that I won 10 million dollars and proceeding to explain said fact?  No, rather, I am engaging in what I will call an explanatory reductio ad absurdum.  

You are familiar with the standard reductio:  We accept a claim for the sake of argument, and show that it implies an absurdity.  In the explanatory reductio we accept something for the sake of explanation, and show that it rests on an absurd understanding of the world.

Here is one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, which makes the point beautifully.

So our powers of explanation do not, as our initial definition suggests, exist simply to help us understand independently established facts. Rather, we often engage in explanation in order to determine whether we've got hold of the right ones. 

Some other examples:

Did you see the movie A Beautiful Mind?  There is a poignant moment in which John Nash, a (real life) brilliant mathematician and game-theoretician suffering from schizophrenia uses the power of pure reason to break the grip of his mental illness and convince himself that a young girl appearing to him over a long period of time is not real. 

Nash uses an explanatory reductio:  If she is real, why doesn't she get older?

Another.  I recently read Philip Roth's book American Pastoral.  It is predicated on a sensationally unlikely event: A teenage girl raised in an affluent New York family by two devoted and loving parents (allegedly) bombs a local post office, killing a local man, an (apparently) loco act of protest against the Vietnam War, and then (unquestionably) disappears. Almost the entire book is an act of excruciating soul searching in which the girl's father attempts to understand how a child he raised could have performed such an abominable act. There is just no explanation for it compatible with his understanding of the world. Consequently- he often confidently concludes, only to reverse himself a moment later- she simply could not have done it.

Or consider an example from science.  You are probably familiar with the Alvarez hypothesis (named after Walter Alvarez and his famous dad Luis) which claims that the massive extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period  (think dinosaurs) was caused by a massive asteroid. Although widely accepted today, it was initially met with scorn by the scientific community, especially by biologists who were deeply committed to the view that evolution necessarily occurs gradually. The gradualists employed an explanatory reductio: The very fact, Professors Alvarez, that you must appeal to Biblical scenarios like this one to explain this sudden massive extinction of the dinosaurs is a very good reason for thinking that no such extinction event ever occurred (i.e., that it is just an illusion created by an incomplete fossil record.)

The famous theoretical physicist Richard Feynman characterized the explanatory reductio about as elegantly as one can in this brief clip:


Ok, enough, now you are coming up with examples of your own. They're everywhere. So what is the subtler account of explanation that emerges here?

Try this: Explanation is fundamentally an attempt to improve our understanding of the world. Sometimes accepted facts will challenge our limited understanding and we are forced to develop better theories to account for them. Other times a better understanding of the world will challenge our 'facts', and we are forced to consider the possibility that what we know just ain't so. On those occasions, our understanding will be improved by explaining how we came to be convinced of a falsehood.  As I'll explain in a future post, a very large number of pivotal explanatory episodes in the history of science can be understood in this way, not as the explanation of accepted facts, but as the explanation of universal illusions.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State