The paradox of infallibility

It has been generally supposed that certain self-ascriptions, such as “I am in pain”, are infallible. This seems right. However, it is clear enough that the self-ascriptive thought is not identical to the state ascribed: the pain isn’t the same as the thought about it. This means that these are “distinct existences”, in the Humean sense. But if they are distinct existences, they can be conceived apart, which implies that they are contingently connected. So there must be worlds in which the ascription occurs without the state ascribed–which would make the ascription false. So the ascription is fallible. How then can we maintain infallibility while accepting that distinct existences are contingently connected? This is the puzzle of infallibility. How can the metaphysics (distinct existences) be made to fit with the epistemology (infallibility)?

Whence Value?

Is something valuable because we value it or do we recognize value in something that it has independently of being valued? (Compare: is something good because the gods say it’s good or is goodness something that the gods in their wisdom recognize?) One way to answer this question is to ask if there can be mistakes of value–this suggesting that value is logically independent of valuing. Consider a tribe that eats both carrots and broccoli. Both nourish them and taste equally good. They have value. However, the religion of the tribe decrees (for no good reason) that carrots are the godlier vegetable and dedicates a good deal of reverence and ritual to the act of carrot eating. They regard carrots as of far more value than broccoli. Aren’t they simply wrong about this? Carrots and broccoli have equal value, in fact (“objectively”), but they are mistaken about this; they have been misled by their religious ideology. (Compare the value placed on chastity in our religious tradition.) Thus, value is not determined by valuing.

The Constitution of Value

It is often held that something has value only in virtue of being valued by some evaluative being: value is conferred on something by the attitude of valuing. This is supposed to be true even of pleasure. But is the act of valuing itself something that has value? If not, it is hard to see how it could confer value on other things. But if it does have value, then it must do so in virtue of some further act of valuing. Then that valuing in turn must either lack value or have it in virtue of a further act of valuing. An infinite regress results from the latter horn of the dilemma. Therefore, not all value can be had in virtue of acts or attitudes of valuing. Pleasure, for example, is valuable in itself, irrespective of whether anyone regards it as valuable.

Celestial Ethics

Some superpowerful aliens arrive one day and offer to ship us off to their galaxy if we’d like. It’s really nice there, they assure us, and they have the photographs to prove it. Our standard of living will go up at least 20% and we can all live at the beach. But if we accept they will have to destroy planet earth (something about an intergalactic highway they’re building)–the choice is ours. We can take all the animals with us, if we prefer; transportation isn’t a problem. We decide to take them up on their offer. As we leave earth in their spacious space ship we watch as a planet-sized jet of flame incinerates earth behind us. The oceans instantly evaporate, the atmosphere blows away, all traces of life are destroyed; what remains is a smoking expanse of melted rubble. And it will stay like this for all eternity. Wouldn’t you feel bad about about this act of cosmic vandalism? Wouldn’t you feel you had done something wrong? Something of great value had been destroyed–something of beauty, interest, and fecundity (see my Climate Change entry). This shows that the earth is valuable for reasons that transcend its instrumental value to us.


If physics needs an interpretation, in rather the way a formal language does, if it is to be meaningful, doesn’t that show that metaphysics is indispensable? Physical knowledge can’t be all the knowledge there is, because the formulas of physics stand in need of interpretation. Are electrons continuant particulars or are they just sequences of events? Are there categorical properties lurking behind the dispositions to motion we observe? Are particles really nothing but fields? Is consciousness present even at the most fundamental level? Physics itself doesn’t answer these questions, so that complete knowledge of the physical world requires metaphysical knowledge in addition to physical knowledge in the strict sense. You can’t know the nature of the physical world by knowing physics alone.

Climate Change

I’m about to go to Chicago for a conference on global warming and like environmental issues (part of the Chicago Festival of the Humanities). I’m appearing with Peter Singer and Chris Stone, with Dale Jamieson as chair. For me there will be some local cooling–going from Miami to Chicago. My thesis will be that the earth is intrinsically valuable, not merely valuable because it houses us. Therefore the earth can be harmed and its value compromised–say, by rendering it barren. I think the value of the earth depends upon three main factors: its physical beauty, seen from up close or from a distance; its ability to support life in all its forms; and its inherent interestingness (much more so than the moon, say). When we damage the earth we run the risk of destroying its value-conferring properties. So climate change is potentially bad not merely because it threatens the well-being of future humans but also because it right now offends against the earth’s intrinsic value.

Deontological Pluralism

I like W.D. Ross’s mixed deontology of irreducible prima facie duties, like keeping promises and repaying debts and exercising beneficence. Ross takes these duties to be self-evident and known with certainty, while he acknowledges that we can have no more than “probable opinion” about the rightness of a particular action. He also accepts that the several duties can conflict with each other and that we have no recourse except to use our “judgment” in such cases, with no overarching criterion of rightness to resolve such conflicts. Critics have found these to be weaknesses in his position. I, on the contrary, find them to be strengths. It really is true that the right act is often the fortunate act, and that ascriptions of absolute rightness are hostage to unforseen consequences. Also, it is a philosopher’s illusion to think that there can be any escape from conflicts of principle: moral directives don’t always harmonize and decisions will require the use of context-bound judgment. How can we weigh the wrongness of telling a lie against the potential benefits of lying? There’s no litmus test.

Dispositions and Reality

Dispositions don’t tie down meaning and reference (Quine, Kripke). Dispositions don’t tie down qualia (pace functionalism). And dispositions don’t tie down matter (Russell et al). Neither language nor mind nor matter can be explained in terms of dispositions. Dispositions are a superstructure suspended over these three realms, but not their essence. Reality is not subjunctive.