On Philosophy

January 31, 2007

Another Look At The Ontological Argument

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

I have previously discussed the failings of the ontological argument, so I won’t repeat myself here. Instead I will simply focus on an objection the most common objection to the ontological argument. So, to refresh your memory, here is the ontological argument in three statements (Anselm’s version).

1. There is some thing than which nothing better than can be thought (on a scale of goodness) that exists at least in our minds. (At the very least the previous sentence should put the idea into your mind if nothing else has.)
2. For things that are good it is better to exist in reality than to exist only in the mind.
3. Thus if the thing which nothing better than can be thought existed only in our minds then it would not in fact be the best, since we could think instead of something that did exist in reality, which would be better. Therefore, by contradiction, it must exist in reality.

But, the objection goes, you could apply this argument to the best anything, say the best unicorn, and deduce that the best unicorn must exist, which is ridiculous. (Because if the best unicorn didn’t exist in reality then we could think of a unicorn that did exist, which would be better.) But some reply to this and say that by qualifying our argument over a kind of thing (unicorns) we have introduced something problematic that didn’t exist in the original, and that the original, based on an absolutistic comparison, can still be held to be correct even if the version that proves the existence of the best unicorn isn’t. There are a number of responses to this, for example by pointing out that the argument is already restricted to a kind, beings (excluding, for example, properties). But instead I will simply construct an unqualified version of the argument that again proves something ridiculous. It goes like this:

1. There is some thing than which nothing worse than can be thought (measured by how much human suffering it causes) that exists at least in our minds.
2. For things that are bad it is worse to exist in reality than to exist only in the mind.
3. Thus if the thing which nothing worse than can be thought existed only in our minds then it would not in fact be the worst, since we could think instead of something that did exist in reality, which would be worse. Therefore, by contradiction, it must exist in reality.

But this is absurd, since if the worse thing did exist my life would be full of suffering, which it isn’t. Now some will say that I have simply proved the existence of the devil, and that since we have already proved that god exists it is god that prevents us from being in a state of constant suffering. To this I reply that certainly something would be worse if it could overcome god’s will and harm us anyways. Thus this thing, if it can be prevented in any way from making us suffer, is not the worst possible thing, and thus not the thing shown to exist by the modified argument.

So again the ontological argument (actually an argument in the same form as the ontological argument) can be shown to prove things to exist that clearly are non-existent. And unlike the argument for the existence of the best unicorn we have not introduced any additional qualifications about the best of a kind of thing, and so the response that defenders of the ontological argument used against that counterexample is not available.

(By the way, the real problem with the ontological argument, in all of these versions, is that it assumes that whether an idea has a real counterpart or not can affect how the idea compares to other ideas. This is a bad assumption, obviously I hope, and it is what allows the “contradiction” to be derived from the first and second statements.)

January 30, 2007

Miscellaneous Economic Thoughts

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:07 am

Strictly speaking the ideas below aren’t really philosophy, they are speculative economics. However, I post them here, in a philosophy blog, because economists tend not to contemplate unusual possibilities, but instead focus their efforts on analyzing existing economic systems (probably a better use of their time). So, with no further ado here they are.

Rewarding Content Creators Without Intellectual Property

Previously I have argued that intellectual property is a confused notion, since ideas and information can’t be owned in any meaningful way (anymore than you can own air, except in the sense that we own it collectively). Which makes it hard to justify laws prohibiting people from sharing information, even if that information is somehow someone else’s “intellectual property”, unless we somehow argue that without such laws the content creators wouldn’t be appropriately rewarded, and thus wouldn’t create. One way to argue against reasoning in this manner is simply to point out that there was great art created before ideas about intellectual property existed, with artists being supported by wealthy patrons (often the art itself was in public spaces, and made no one any money). However, patronage isn’t the only possibility; allow me to detail another. A band could release several free songs to serve as representative examples of its music (say on its website). Each of the remaining songs would be unreleased but would have a partial sample (either very short or low quality) and a price. The price represents the total cost of producing that song, including appropriate compensation for the artist’s time. Of course this cost will be too large for any one person to pay (probably thousands of dollars at the very least). However, people who like what they have heard so far may choose to pay a few dollars into a pool. When the pool reaches the price of the song the band gets the money and the song is released to everyone (not just the people who put money in) for free. Since the band has already been paid no amount of sharing their work can hurt them; actually it would be beneficial, since it would make them more popular and encourage more people to contribute to paying for future songs. Obviously this model could be extended to cover other sorts of artistic creations as well (except for paintings and sculpture, which create a physical object and so have never had to worry about any of this intellectual property nonsense in the first place).

Reducing the Cost of Insurance

Insurance is a big waste of money (specifically car and house insurance). If nothing happens to your car or house then you have paid a large sum of money for nothing. Of course if something does happen then you will be rather happy to have had insurance, since you will probably get more out of it than you paid in. In essence the unlucky win from insurance and the lucky lose. This isn’t to say that insurance is necessary a bad thing, insurance is essentially a system for reducing risks. However, in allowing companies to manage insurance there is some amount of waste (in the sense that insurance companies make money off the whole setup, money that could have been saved or spent elsewhere by individuals). Instead insurance could be set up as a contract between a small-ish group of people. For example, a group of people could decide to share the risks of car ownership by agreeing to divide costs from unexpected problems (whatever normal insurance would cover) between them. This effectively reduces the risk to all the people in the contract; although it becomes more likely that one of them will have an accident they can rest assured that they will never have to pay the full cost of such an accident, the same benefit that normal insurance provides. Additionally, allowing smaller groups of people to divide risks among themselves in this way motivates better driving, since you don’t want to get in an accident that your friends have to pay for, instead of the usual situation where getting into an accident is the one time that you get to see a return on your investment of insurance. And finally I suspect that individuals are decent at finding people who are at the same risk for accidents (roughly the same quality of driver and owning roughly the same cost car) and thus can distribute the risks more efficiently than the insurance company can.

Reducing the Influence of Luck on Income

As mentioned above insurance is a good way of reducing the risks in life. However, there is a big risk that no insurance plan covers, the luck factor in determining how wealthy you will end up. People of equal abilities may work equally hard but end up earning different amounts of money, because sometimes getting the better job is matter of luck (someone knows you, or maybe your resume simply happens to rub someone the right way). And getting that one good job can be a stepping-stone to better and better jobs. Unfortunately an insurance company can’t insure income (say they guarantee that you will always make $X per year based on your current potential, and then garnish some percentage of your income over that) because this would encourage people to simply give up on working and live off of their insurance policies. But, although a standard insurance company couldn’t insure income, a kind of group compact like the kind described above might. People would get together with others of roughly equal potential and agree to equally divide their total income among them. Of course there is still the potential for one or more group members to slack off, but I assume that the people who would enter into such an agreement know each other, and thus someone who slacked off would feel badly about it, since they would be hurting their friends, and thus would be more likely to work than if they were hurting a faceless corporation. Additionally, in the framework of such an agreement the group might encourage one of its members to do something risky that might pay off extremely well, like be an entrepreneur. It might not be worth the risk to be an entrepreneur to everyone, since even if on average it pays off there is still the risk of being a failure. But, with such an agreement in place, the risk is reduced by being distributed, and if the entrepreneur becomes rich everyone in the group becomes rich (also solving the problem of extreme concentrations of wealth in single individuals, who end up having more money than they know what to do with, with the money spread between more people they all end up pleasantly well off without a needless overabundance).

January 29, 2007

Constructed Facts And Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

A constructed fact (which includes properties and relations) is something that does or does not hold of an object based on its definition, and not on the physical facts alone. In other words, a constructed fact is something that has no causal effect. For example, the number of objects in a collection is a constructed fact. It is true that it is based on some of the physical facts about the collection. However it is not identical to these facts (which a real fact, such as heat, defined as average molecular motion, is). It is not identical for two reasons. First we could count the objects differently and arrive at a different number (for example, by counting halves instead of wholes). Secondly, numbers are part of a larger system, containing such relations as multiplication and division that are not based on the physical facts (what would it mean to multiply two rocks by four rocks?).

A good portion of philosophy deals with what are best thought of as constructed facts. For example, ethics, reference, and knowledge, just to name three big ones. Of these three ethics is the most obvious example. Nothing ever happens just because an action is ethical or unethical, assuming we have left behind the theory that the ethical facts are responsible for our ethical intuitions. And accepting this fact about ethics makes ethical philosophy easier to handle. No longer do we need a way to find ethical facts in the external world, nor do we need for find something that is responsible for the existence of those ethical facts. Reference and knowledge are similar, although there are more who would resist classifying them as constructed facts. Again, the quick argument to show that they are in fact constructed is simply to observe that they have no causal consequences. The fact that a word or concept references an object makes no difference, what makes a difference is how the physical brain handles that word or concept, which is not identical to reference under most theories. And it is the same with knowledge, what matters whether it is believed, and believed to be knowledge, not whether it actually is knowledge or not.

So, if these constructed facts are basically epiphenomenal, why even study them? Well just because a fact is constructed doesn’t mean it can’t be a useful description of the world. Numbers, for example, are a very useful description of the world, and they are certainly constructed facts. Of course what makes these connections to the world tricky is that constructed facts can be known a priori, we can know that 2 + 2 = 4 based on the axioms of mathematics alone, without any empirical observations at all. However, the fact that our constructed facts describe some aspect of the world is a contingent fact, something that can only be known through observation. And no matter how many observations you make you can never confirm that the world always conforms to the constructed facts that you think describe it (although you can justifiably become more and more confident that it does). Admittedly it doesn’t seem like a difficult distinction to master, but failing to keep it in mind leads to philosophies about these issues that assert the world must work a certain way, often to their detriment when the world is shown not to.

But, even given that restriction, constructed facts can be useful. For example you may define knowledge as beliefs that meet some standard, X. You might also show that beliefs that meet X are more valuable in some way than those that don’t. So not only have you described a category of beliefs (which may or may not have members) you have also shown that we should try to ensure that as many of our beliefs as possible fall under that category. And thus a purely constructed notion, about a class of beliefs, has real world value. Even for things with no normative potential, such as reference, the fact that they are constructed doesn’t make them useless. The constructed definition of reference may be designed to reflect how language is used, and thus even though reference itself doesn’t have a causal effect on language use it might still be a good description of language, a good model of language, or simply a good way of thinking about language in abstract.

In fact all philosophy must deal with constructed facts to some extent, because to confine philosophy only to the real facts would collapse it into physics. But deciding what is and is not a constructed fact in a philosophical theory can be difficult. For example, the study of the mind is one such notoriously tricky area. What minds are, and consciousness is, in general is probably best thought of as a constructed fact. But, on the other hand, the properties of human minds and human consciousness are mostly real facts. (One reason that you can’t know the mind the be separate from the body or identical to it a priori.) But deciding where one stops and the other begins can be far from obvious.

January 28, 2007

The Intentional Relation

Filed under: Intentionality — Peter @ 12:06 am

When we think about intentionality we think of the mental state as being directed at, or about, objects in the world, which implies that intentionality is a relation between mental states and objects. But if intentionality is a relation it is certainly an unusual one, because the intentional relation can also hold between mental states and imagined objects, objects that have no real counterparts. How is this a problem? Well, usually relations hold between one kind of thing and another kind of thing. For example, the mathematical relation “greater than” holds between numbers, and the relation “purchaser-of” holds between agents and things that can be bought. But it is hard to see what one kind of thing imaginary objects and real objects could both be described as. Another problem is determining when the intentional relation should hold. Normally a relation holds based on certain properties of its objects. But imagined objects and real objects have few, if any, properties in common. Real objects have real properties, and imagined objects have imagined properties. If the intentional relation holds because of certain real properties of the object then it can’t hold of imagined objects, and vice versa.

A solution taken by many to this problem is to assume that intentionality is simply relation-like, that it seems like a relation but really isn’t. Certainly this is an elegant solution to the problem, but it is also an extremely uninformative one. If intentionality isn’t a relation then what is it? Of course those who take this approach to intentionality rarely stop to describe exactly what it is, instead they describe what how it works, specifically that you are intentionally related to an object when that object somehow fits your mental picture of it. But this handles only the real world cases, and it even mishandles some of them, for example when you think about the martini drinking man, who, unbeknownst to you, is really drinking water (to pinch an example from Donnellan). And to resolve those problems we must invoke some principle of best fit, where objects that are sufficiently close to those being imagined count as fitting the description. But such fixes make intentionally relating to imaginary objects impossible, since they cannot “fit” the description, as they don’t actually exist*.

My solution to this dilemma is to re-cast intentionality as a relation between mental states and object possibilities (sets of possible objects). Specifically I would say that the mind is intentionally related to the possible object that fits the properties it is being conceived of as having (and this is why it is really a relation to a range of possibilities; since not every last detail is conceived of there are a number of possible objects that can fit the description). Of course I can’t ignore the fact that we often do talk about intentionality as though it related us to actual objects. I account for this as simply a way of talking about intentionality, which means that the possible object that the mind is intentionally related to happens to have a real world counterpart (I’ll leave the nature of the counterpart relation unspecified, although it probably involves some notion of “fit”).

The above theory about intentionality has a number of attractive properties. It makes intentionality depend only on internal factors, intentionality becomes a constructed fact (a description of the world instead of a causal part of it), and it explains the absence of a subjective difference between intending real and imaginary objects. Although, for those very reasons, I suspect externalists won’t like it.

* This is why dealing with reference is much easier than dealing with intentionality, you only have to deal with the actual.

January 27, 2007


Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:03 am

If we want to have access to the best cars, or the best possible cars that can be made in proportion to the demand for them (in comparison to the demand for other products, given limited resources), we let the market drive the production of cars. Specifically we give the producers incentives to make cars that people want (profits), and then let them compete with each other. Although it might be possible to construct other systems that also result in the best cars being produced, markets are easy to setup and well understood. Logically then if we want to live in the best possible government it would seem wise to make the system of government itself subject to market forces.

In some ways governments are already subject to market forces. A government’s wealth and power is determined to a large extent by the number of people living under it and what they can contribute to the government. And people can leave one government for another if they find some other government to be more to their liking. However, the market for governments that currently exists is far from free. There are significant barriers to choosing a new government, many more so than there are when choosing a new car (you don’t have to move to learn a new language to change your model of car). And there isn’t much variety in modern governments, you have a choice between living under some kind of representative democracy, a theocracy, or a tyranny. This would be like only having three models of cars to choose from, again not a situation that is conductive to markets doing their work.

So, if we wanted to generate a situation in which governments were affected by market pressures, what would need to change? To begin with we would need to create an incentive for the people behind the government to make it the best it can be. And to do that is simple, give the head of that government unlimited power over the people under their rule and their possessions (limited of course by whatever self-imposed rules the government is established with). Thus if you attract more people to live under your government, or make the people living under your government wealthier, you would have more power and wealth, an incentive that seems to motivate people well enough normally. Secondly, governments would have to be forbidden from placing any limitations on who may leave their government, for any reason (although a government is not required to let people become part of it). Thirdly, governments would have to be given a maximum size, to ensure that in any area there would be a number of governments to choose from, making changing the government you live under no harder than moving across town. Finally, we might want to impose some minimum standards for human rights, such as forbidding governments from killing their citizens, or treating their citizens cruelly and unusually, and from developing weapons and armies that could be used against other governments.

Obviously any regulation of these micro-governments would require an over-government with an army, both to enforce the rules, and to defend the micro-governments from outside aggression. And so there would need to be officials to run the over-government and its army, and to regulate the creation of micro-governments, even though the over-government would have no citizens of its own. Somehow the over-government would have to be kept under control, which could be done in any number of ways, but my favorite is that it could be regulated by a pool of randomly selected citizens (from the micro-governments), sort of like jury duty.

If such a system were ever to be implemented I would expect that we would end up with a bunch of micro-monarchs, each striving to be the best ruler, but few of them giving up their absolute power (who would?). But I also expect that for the most part these micro-monarchs would be more pleasant to live under than our own representative democracy. Each of them must do their best to balance popular opinion against what is objectively the best choice. If the monarch bows too much to popular opinion then they may be led to make bad choices, which will result in their subjects leaving for other rulers. On the other hand, if they never listen to popular opinion then their subjects might feel ignored, and thus leave for other rulers. Thus the market will decide what is the best balance of independent judgment and listening to popular opinion, which is something that can never happen in a democracy.

However, despite how attractive such a system might seem, it is probably impossible to make the transition to it from our current system of government. Even if the people who were currently the most powerful were willing to make the change (or if the people threw them out of power in order to make the change) it would be difficult to get the system up in running because not all regions are equal; it is better to rule over part of a city than part of a countryside, because not everyone can be a micro-monarch, and because when starting such a system there is no guarantee that there will be even one good ruler in your region that you could live under. Oh well.

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