Wednesday, February 27, 2008

what i'm studying this semester.

i'm taking a seminar on modal realism, a theory devised by the great analytic metaphysician david lewis. i don't know that much about metaphysics-- my primary goal this semester, school-wise, is to learn a heck of a lot more-- so while i'm about to take a crack at explaining what i've been reading, and, more ambitiously, why it might be relevant and interesting to you, i want to preface it by saying that i only have a vague idea of what i'm talking about, and i'm a little skeptical of it myself-- of the whole metaphysical project, actually. but it's more fun than i anticipated-- warmer. anyway, let me abruptly begin:

formal logic is a way of looking at the structure of arguments-- of stripping away the content to assess whether or not the thing is structurally sound. arguments transcribed or written out formally look a lot like algebra problems, but with mysterious looking symbols instead of numbers, and instead of solving for the value of variables, you assess validity. it's clear enough, i guess, why this is a useful thing to do, even if it is difficult and nerdy and seemingly removed from daily concerns-- we're not built to think so systematically on the regular, and so we are liable to be persuaded by some invalid arguments from time to time. frequently, prehaps. anyway, the point is that while we needn't all spend our lives reinventing the wheel-- justifying our systems for assessing the validity of arguments, or the nature of our methods for attaching meanings to words to objects, i do tend to hope that when and if i decide to turn my attention to the matter that it turns out our systems and methods for communicating ideas are solid enough that i can justify my sense that particular arguments and definitions can be true or false, and that there's a way of working out which it is.

modal logic is the branch of logic that deals with claims like "it is possible that..." or "it is necessary that...", or "it should be the case that...", or "he believes that...". these are truth-claims, but they're funny ones. it's pretty clear, at least in principle, how a statement like "i forgot my hat" could be assessed for truth or falsity, but what about "it's possible that i forgot my hat"? we could resolve the ambiguity by looking to see if i have the damn thing or not, but that doesn't go any distance toward proving or disproving my claim, which was that something, namely me forgetting my hat, is possible. and then there are the even tougher cases of counterfactual-- if/then claims in which the antecedent is false-- to wit: i say to my companion, "if i hadn't forgotten my hat, i wouldn't be so cold right now". she thinks (though she's too nice to say so) that if i were a little more organized, I wouldn't have forgotten my hat. now i take it that both of these claims (the spoke and the tactfully unspoken) are debatable-- maybe i think that, in fact, even if i were extremely well organized i would still, in this instance, have forgotten my hat. we seem to be disagreeing about something like which hypothetical case is more plausible or something. how in the sam hill are we suppose to establish the criterion for establishing the truth of the matter in an argument about hypotheticals?

and these sort of claims saturate our language-- everything from our most idle conversations to our most august intellectual efforts are loaded with claims about what is possible, what is probable, what is necessary. they're not about how the world is or was or will be, but how it might be or might have been, could be or could have been, must be or must have been. but how do we prove these kinds of claims true or false? they're not, in any clear way, claims about the world that we can verify.

so if you stare at them for long enough, if you relax your eyes and let them go all alien and unfamiliar-- ultra literal-- it starts to look like modal claims are not claims about the actual world at all, but claims about possible worlds. think of it this way: modal claims are claims that “there is a way things could have been” (or should have been, or might be), distinct from the way things are. note the 'is' in that claim: if we take ourselves literally, we seem to be gesturing toward the existence of something that answers the description “way things could have been”.

enter, modal realism: the theory that we really mean it when we say there is/exists a way things could have been. david lewis's theory, which is taken quite seriously by many very smart dudes is basically that all possible worlds exist. according to lewis, our world is one of an infinite number of concrete worlds, one for every possibility, and when i claim that if i hadn't forgotten my hat, i wouldn't be cold, i'm claiming that there is a possible world in which i didn't forget my hat, and in that world, i'm not cold.

stunningly bizarre: yes. but what's funny is that no one has yet come up with a clearly superior way of explaining what the fuck we're talking about when we we talk about the world as it never did and never will exist. but if you believe, even in the face of the ceaseless singularity of the world as it is, that there are many ways that it could be, it turns out that you have quite a bit of explaining to do, and you might have to make some pretty nutty claims to get the job done.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

full moon. lunar eclipse.

tonight, 10pm eastern standard time.
[soon i'll be done with some school work, and i'll be around again.]

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

i'm probably going to delete this tomorrow.

there must be people who pay their bills on time, take vitamins, tend carefully to their possessions, floss daily and remember what day the trash is picked up. there's no question that i am not one of those people, but there is the perennial question of whether i'd like to be one of those people, or more like them. the fact is that i can be astoundingly irresponsible when it comes to the managing my own health and finances and taking care of things i own, even the few things i love the best or need the most. i like to think that i make up for these shortcomings in other departments, that i don't attend to some things because i'm busy attending to more important things, but everyone always thinks that-- egos must preserve themselves. are my flaws a mutable and contingent matter, or do they flow from the same deep source as my talents, such as they are?

it's snowing in boston, and i can't sleep.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

blame, revised.

please excuse, if you happen to have read it, the horrible/interminable whining that was formerly in this very spot. i hope, if you did read it, it didn't cause you to adjust your (attitudes toward)/(expectations of) me too much, but i'm getting ahead of myself. the following is t.m. scanlon's theory of blame.

to blame someone for something is to revise our attitudes and intentions toward them, to revise our expectations in light of something they've done-- in light of who, as it turns out, they are.

to begin with, we're in all different sorts of relationships, and each sort of relationship has different ground rules. there's the most basic of all, which is the relationship that every human being has to every other, which comes with certain moral responsibilities-- to keep promises, avoid inflicting harm, to help out when it's easy enough. and then there are friendships and brotherhoods and marriages and businesspartnerships, and a bazillion others in which some person is a part of our lives in a particular way. from this person i expect loyalty, from this person i expect discression, from this person i expect affection. often the expectations are built into the very definition of our term for the relationship. if 'friendship' is a word with any real meaning, then there must be certain things that being a friend consists in, though each may have some unique features.

it may turn out that someone who we relate to as a friend proves to be unable or unwilling or unlikely to meet some shared or reasonable standard of what a friend is. or maybe they just fail to meet the that standard on some particular occasion for some particular reason. well then it may be appropriate that we should revise our expectation of them-- it may be understandable if we revise our attitudes toward them. we can change the relationship, or even terminate it.

the failure to live up to the reasonable expectations of others is blameworthiness, and the revisions of attitude, expectation and intention that they precipitate are blame. blame, defined this way, might come along with feelings like anger and resentment, but it needn't. and not only can blame of this sort come apart from the strong emotional experience that we generally associate it with, it can come apart from the punishment practices which we also sometimes think of as blame itself. you may hurt someone by changing your idea of who they are and how you will relate to them, but, unlike cases of retributive punishment, you don't blame them to harm them-- you "blame" them because it is the appropriate thing to do, in light of changing circumstance.

though this view doesn't (on the one hand) justify punishment practices or tie itself irrevocably to emotions, it presents our emotional responses to the actions of others (and their consequences for us) as an appropriate starting point for moral assessment-- something which cognitivist ethicists often reject (unfortunately, to my mind), and which accounts of 'moral luck' sometimes undermine. philosophers writing about moral luck often point to the fact that much of the actual behavior that we're blamed for is no different from the behavior that others engage in, but there is some unluckiness in the particular circumstance. in scanlon's example an inattentive driver kills a friend's child. the driver did no more than drive in the same distracted way that most drivers do on occasion, but he may blame himself, and others may blame him, in the harshest terms. but isn't this deeply unfair? personally, when i think hard on moral luck, i tend to get really skeptical of blame. but scanlon just says, look, luck or not, something has happened which causes great pain to others-- it is appropriate (understandable-- inevitable) that this should bring those others (and him) to examine his character and their relationship to him. blame here doesn't exist in a universe of cold logic. although one might hope that meditating on things like moral luck might, in time, calm our most violent angers and resentments.

the view has what i think is the best possible starting point for an ethical view: the given fact of human relationships, and what they mean to us. it needn't (i think) begin with some account of the autonomous will of the individual, which is where accounts of blame usually begin, and which is a non-starter for me. (this is probably a controversial statement as scanlon is, i believe, a neo-kantian, and probably does, in his more extended philosophical picture, want to say something about the autonomous will-- i'll be thinking about this a lot throughout the semester: how scanlon's view of blame and blameworthiness do or do not come apart from a kantian view of selfhood).

anyway, this is a funny idea, but i'm totally in love with it. so in love that i'm going to invent some more hours in my day for a reading group on it-- by which i mean spend fewer hours doing practical things like cutting my hair and paying my bills on time. no doubt some utility company somewhere is going to revise the living shit out of their expectations of me in the form of some increased interest rates.