Saturday, April 17, 2010

a work in progress progresses.

yesterday's blogtime was devoted to helping my sister put together packets of things for the voters of maricopa county, AZ. today, in light of this, and the difficulty of the subject matter i'm giving myself an hour.

several months ago i left hanging a post about causation, that claimed to be part one of a two part series. the gist of the thing (part one) was this: even if you know the whole story of how something came to pass, you don't yet have a way of establishing what caused it. run the tape backwards-- watch the bridge resurrect, uncollapse, in excruciating detail-- watch the cars and boats slide backward underneath and over it, and days become nights become days, the rain stopping, and the rain starting again-- watch the thing unravel back to the first moment a sleepy engineer arrived to survey the undeveloped land. catalogue it all and all you've got's a story in which every feature, no matter how seemingly insignificant, will like play an ineliminable role in the story of the fall. and, anyway, you could just keep rolling that film back forever. where does the story even start?

how, then, do we pick out the salient facts? the one's rightly named 'cause'? there are lots of philosophers who talk about causation in lots of different ways (probabilistic causation, backward causation, causal processes, the metaphysics of causation-- and that's not even touching on aristotle, who divides the universe of causes into four distinct sorts: material, formal, efficient, and ultimate), but what i'll be discussing here are counterfactual theories of causation, which ground what is known in legal and philosophical contexts alike as 'but-for' causation. In it's broadest form this is just to say that 'A caused B' is to be understood as the claim 'if A had not occurred, then B would not have occurred.'

but this doesn't get us too much further along than our perfect catalogue of events. a significant subset of the list of features will likely amount to causes by this definition. what we need to find are those subset of causes (in the broadest sense of that that term) which are not just necessary, but sufficient ('determinants', lewis calls them). so long as this feature (or set of features) is present, this enough to ensure that the bridge will fall. the relevant formula is now more demanding-- for A to be a cause in this stricter sense it must be true that so long as A has occurred, then B will occur.

oh, crum. leah is here early. and i haven't even gotten to overdetermination yet! i haven't even turned my little philosophy lesson into anything meaningful! i guess it's the nature of these exercises. i will continue to work on this, but i'm going to post it now anyway, in the spirit of the task i set myself.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

the space of logical possibility.

day 2:

i'm changing course, deviating from my list of things to write about, to think about a question drew posed in a comment on my last post-- both because it interests me and because i only have twenty minutes today, and i just spent ten of them looking for images i couldn't find. this is a question i've asked about many times myself: what are we suppose to be imagining when we imagine the space of logical possibility?

upon reflection it seems to me that i always imagine the space of logical possibility as a hybrid between:

(a) the fine grained color wheel that appears when i'm feeling picky and choose the 'more colors' option in microsoft word, so that i can pick the perfect shade in which to offer feedback on student papers. ('what color,' i ask myself, ' will communicate firmness and authority without being harsh or anxiety inducing?' and then i choose regular old blue again.)


(b) that old map (which i can't find anywhere) that they used in science textbooks circa 1995, representing our best guess at the time of what the universe might look like: a sort of ghostly dimpled undulating sphere-- the deep center of which looked utterly impenetrable, even in that sad little textbook sketch.

-- a hybrid interactive in the style of the technology used by the department of precrime in steven spielberg's minority report-- with all of the data swirling and reorganizing itself with an incredible responsiveness the smallest changes in the nature of the particular inquiry, utterly sensitive to the smallest expert flick of the inquirer's wrist (the mind's wrist!).

what do you say, drew k?
also, question: isn't there something square/circle-y about trying to imagine the space of logical possibility? how does the fact that we may or may not be able to imagine the space of logical possibility, or generate models of it (could we?), reflect on its ontological status?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

all of the possible people who, for all i know, i am.

to break up a week of studying in the desert for my metaphysics comp, i'm going to try to do a quick entry each of the next four days going roughly through some little idea or other that i've been meaning to get down and never managed to. these will be timed, and therefore badly edited, and likely confusing at times-- but i hope not utterly incomprehensible.

day 1:

this is a little idea i've been meaning to write down forever-- as good a place as any to begin. you've all heard me talk (too much, too much) about possible worlds, and i hope you can forgive me if i start there again, as a kind of warm up. it will start out seeming very dry and technical, but i hope that by the end you'll see that it's really about the something so hard and true and human and familiar.

kripke famously objects to david lewis' analysis of the modal claims we make about ourselves and others-- claims about what we could have done-- on the grounds that this analysis, in some profound way, fails to capture what we mean when we say that we could have done something. lewis's analysis goes something like this: when terry malloy says, with the deepest conviction and longing, 'i could have been a contender', we should analyze this as being a claim about what terry malloy counterparts actually did in nearby possible worlds. to say that malloy could have been a contender is to say that in very many of possible worlds very like our own world, people in those worlds very closely resembling malloy (except, perhaps for very slight variations in his composition or circumstance) were contenders.

according to kripke, though, this analysis is fundamentally in error, no matter what other advantages it may have: when malloy says 'i could have been a contender', he means himself. it is irrelevant to him what some other person in some other possible world did, but very important to him indeed that he himself could have done. there's a good technical response to this objection, which i'm not going to talk about here, because even though i think it does technically answer kripke's objection, i think there's another response that gets more to the beating heart of the problem kripke raises, which i think is not quite shaken off by the technical fix. (and because i'm strictly timing this little writing exercise, and i'm already running short.)

to understand the response i want to give, you have to understand something about how david lewis conceives of learning. imagine that, as david lewis thinks, the world we live in is "located" in a vast logical space, containing every possible world-- every single way things might have been-- with worlds most like our own being the closest and those farthest away being the most different. (of course worlds must be like or unlike one another in some particular respect, so where our world is located in logical space is not static, but determined by some particularly modal inquiry.) learning, then, is a matter of locating ourselves in logical space. if you know nothing about the world you inhabit (if that's even possible), then, for all you know, any possible world you can conceive of might very well be the world you're in. but every single thing you learn about the world you're in narrows down the list of worlds which, for all you know, are your own. so long as we're ignorant of anything, there will be many possible worlds which, for all we know might be our own. we're forever adding and eliminating possible worlds from the list-- that's what learning is. the region of logical space containing all of the possible worlds which, for all you know, might be the world you live in, is the space of epistemic possibility.

so here's the thing: there's so much we don't know about ourselves. there are infinite possible people, who, for all i know, might be me. we imagine possible futures, and we hope for and fear them terribly sometimes. there are many possible people who, for all you know, might be you, and some you come to hope or fear you are-- and some you even come, out of hope or fear, to believe that you are, though the evidence is, in fact, still inconclusive. it stands to reason, then, that because we are (a) epistemically limited in ways that keep us from knowing just exactly who we are or what's coming next, and (b) prone, as a contingent fact of human psychology, to care about who we are and what happens to us, and to prefer certain outcomes to others, that we will come to have feelings for possible people that it turns out we aren't, which are as profound as any feelings we might have for the person who it turns out we are. it's a funny thing about us that we sometimes care more for those possible people it turns out we're not. we sometimes spend our whole lives mentally tracking a person that it turns out we aren't along a path we believed we might follow. there is a possible person, a contender, who terry malloy believed so fiercely was himself, and that, i think, is more than enough to explain all of the conviction and longing implicit in his famous proclamation.

it's this sort of obvious aspect of human psychology, and not that he overlooked a certain technical detail of lewis' analysis, that makes kripke's "me myself" objection seem so obtuse to me.

time's up.