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.

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Meta-Physics

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Raccoon

I’m putting a story about a raccoon and me on the site. It happened this summer, and every detail in my telling is factual–strange as some of it may sound. Make of it what you will.

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Mastic Beach, Long Island

The first thing that confronted us on our return to Long Island, after eleven months away, was a rat in the sofa. More precisely, the nest, remnants, and droppings of what was most likely a rat (the squirrel hypothesis had a moment in the sun). The rat had obviously come into the house during the winter and made a nice little home for itself; much the same thing had happened five years earlier. We had even left a large supply of cat food for it to feed on—and its little ones too, in all probability. The home was a pocket sized hole in the cushioning, carefully constructed, quite cozy looking–with bits of stuffing torn out and mingling with the dried droppings behind the sofa. Cathy was highly displeased, not to say disgusted, and wanted to spend the night in the car, in case our guest felt like returning. But she relented, firmly closing the bedroom door instead. The next day I cleaned up the mess with brush and pan and lugged the heavy sofa outside, to be picked up by the town. You expect some animal inconvenience in Mastic—but rats in the sofa?

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Lucky Jim

I just finished re-reading Kingsley Amis’s first novel. If you haven’t read it, you should. It is the most anti-literary literary tour de force ever. The language is flawless while flaunting its “inelegance”. It reminds me of J.L.Austin’s style: challenging you to find a mistake, while grammatically impeccable. It is designed to intimidate and amuse. Yet the Amis novel manages to find, amidst the pseuds and bastards, the liars and creeps, a vein of morality that is completely authentic and totally unselfadvertising. Jim is no one’s idea of a saint, but he’s a better specimen of humanity than those deemed his betters. Notably, Gore-Urquhart, the richest and poshest of the lot, is the most discerning and decent man in the book–and has the most in common with the “common” Jim. Kingsley is off to the side, stoically amused, pulling faces of his own, laying down those sentences that don’t seem to care whether they end elegantly but always do.

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