Friday, December 24, 2010

Even Pyrrho believes in composite objects

Here’s an argument against hydrological scepticism. Given the way we’ve been using the word ‘water’ all this time, it’s going to refer to whatever is the wet stuff rivers and lakes are made of. Now we might have got our chemistry wrong, and actually the wet stuff isn’t H20 at all; it’s XYZ. In that case there wouldn’t be any H20, and considered as counterfactual that’d be a situation without any water. But considered as actual, if the wet stuff is XYZ then when we've been saying 'water' we've been talking about XYZ, so water is XYZ, so we still know there’s water. None of that’s very controversial. Even if you’re fan of (what I understand to be the views of) Pyrrho and think that while everyday knowledge is fine our claims to scientific knowledge are pushing it, you can still be sure there’s water.

Now think about a mereological nihilist who thinks composition’s not identity and there aren’t any composite objects. There are electrons and quarks, but no atoms, molecules, skyscrapers or galaxies. Here’s an argument that this combination of views doesn’t hang together well. Start from the position of someone who thinks composition isn’t identity, and it happens but contingently. Now consider the situation, which they think is possible, where composition hadn’t happened. That’d be a world with just simples and no composite objects, just like the mereological nihilist thinks. Of course the simples arranged peoplewise wouldn’t have noticed, because some simples arranged skyscraperwise look just like a skyscraper. What would the part-whole-talk have referred to? If there’s no eligible referent that matches use well enough, then it wouldn’t have referred to anything. Is there such a referent? What about plurality inclusion? It looks reasonably eligible to me. The simples arranged chairlegwise would be among the simples arranged chairwise. Plurality inclusion is a partial ordering like parthood’s meant to be. I’m not saying that it's a more eligible referent than the part-whole relation, but in the absence of the latter I think plurality inclusion is a pretty good candidate.

Plurality inclusion is what composition-as-identity fans think part-whole-talk is actually about. So my suggestion is that if you don’t think composition’s identity, then you should think that if composition didn’t happen then part-whole-talk would be about plurality-inclusion and identity. This is inconsistent with the combination of composition-isn’t-identity and mereological nihilism.

So if the argument works, we can be surer that composition happens than we can be that non-identity composition happens, just as we can be surer that there’s water than that there’s H2O. Also, we shouldn’t think both that water’s H2O and that there’s no water in the rivers. If thinking composition isn’t identity and it doesn’t happen is like that, then we shouldn’t think both those things. But some people do.

Now, this argument makes use of the Lewis-style metasemantics whereby reference is determined by use plus naturalness. It also supposes that our concept of composition is the kind of concept which, like that of water, doesn’t tell you all about what composition’s like. But if you don’t think composition’s identity, then you should think that. And even if you do, maybe you should still think that. Look at Peter van Inwagen’s despair at solving the general composition question. In spite of the theoretical background it relies on though, I think it’s an interesting argument, one I’ve not seen written down before and one I’d like to see mereological nihilists address.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Put a ring on it

It’d be a shame if there was a common condition in which people thought incorrectly that they were going to want to continue doing something for the rest of their lives, because once the condition passed they’d feel sheepish. It would however be quite a ripping practical joke to create an institution whereby people were given the opportunity to place legal and financial obstacles in the way of their stopping doing the thing their condition made them think they were going to always want to do. Presumably many people would take this offer, especially if there were tax advantages thrown in, and when the condition passed they'd be trapped! How we'd laugh at them. But enough about practical jokes: the rest of this post will be about marriage.

I’m not married, and I’ve never really come very close, but I’m only twenty-six and it wouldn’t surprise me if at some point in the next few years it becomes a live option. I’ve been thinking about it for some time now though, and I’ve been unable to come up with a satisfactorily large class of situations in which getting married would be rational.

It’d certainly make marriage rational if there was an all-powerful deity who would strike me down or at least damn me either to Hell or a long stint in Purgatory if I had sex with someone to whom I wasn’t married. If there was a deity like that then married sex really would be the only safe sex, and marriage would be sensible for those to whom celibacy doesn’t appeal. But I’m convinced there isn’t a deity like that.

The other obvious reason is if I expect her to want us to split up one day when I don’t want to. It’s harder to divorce a spouse than dump a merely significant other, and being married would raise the amount she’d have to want to be apart rather than together before splitting up was worth the trouble. Unfortunately for the cake and flower industries, however, I don’t have the preference distribution which rationalises this line of thought. Ceteris paribus, I want to be with people conditional both on my being in love with them and their wanting to be with me. So if they want to split up with me then I want this to be as easy as possible for them. I know I might not feel like that at the time, but I think that would be due to a failure of rationality on my part, and it’s foolish to take steps to indulge predicted failures of rationality. Odysseus knew when he heard the sirens he’d want to swim over to them, but since he knew this would be a failure of rationality he had himself tied to the mast so as not to act on his predicted irrational preference set.

A better reason to get married may be analogous to Odysseus’s reasons for tying himself to the mast: if you expect to irrationally want to split up with them at some point, then making this difficult for yourself is a good idea. I can see how that works, but it seems an extreme measure when in the event that you do irrationally split up you’ll have the option of getting back together once you’ve calmed down, as long as you don’t say things you can’t take back. A quick anger-management course seems more appropriate.

Asking around various wiser people than myself, the closest I’ve come to a satisfactory rationalisation is related but importantly different. If you both know it’s difficult for the other person to dump you, rationally or otherwise, then you can both relax. You don’t have to worry so much about how you look, saying the right thing, remembering birthdays etc. It’s tough keeping a relationship together, and without the obstacles to splitting up that marriage gives it’d be exhausting to keep it together for decades. The crucial thing is that you benefit from this ability to relax even if neither of you ever wants to split up. Now this kind of relationship presumably doesn’t appeal to everyone, and if it doesn’t then you probably shouldn’t get married. But I think it probably appeals to some people, and I wish them a long and happy life together.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A solution to the lawn mowing puzzle

This one's got references and a slightly different style, because it's a paper. Given the length and the subject matter, I thought it'd be more at home on a blog than in a journal, so here it is:

Jeremy Gwiazda (2010) presents a puzzle: can someone mow eight lawns with one mower and never have exactly seven left? Clearly something strange would have to happen but if supertasks are possible then it can be done.

Supertasks are not new. Russell (1936, p.144) gives one example, Hawthorne and Weatherson (2004) give another and there are many more. The term appears to come from J. F. Thomson (1954). Supertasks involve doing an infinite number of tasks in a finite stretch of time. For example, if you want to clap your hands an infinite number of times in an hour then you can clap your hands at 2pm, 2.30, 2.45, 2.52 and thirty seconds and so on, halving the gap between claps each time. You will have clapped your hands infinitely many times by 3pm, but at any time before 3pm you will have only clapped a finite number of times. Of course, no human can clap their hands that quickly. Supertasks are strange, but not logically incoherent.

To solve the lawn mowing puzzle you must schedule the mowing of the first two lawns as two supertasks which finish at the same time, although no part of one supertask is simultaneous with a part of the other. They must finish at the same time because if one finished first then there would be exactly seven lawns left until the second one finished. They cannot have parts at the same time because you only have one mower. This is possible because a supertask need not have a last part. Here is how to do it.

Start at 2pm. Mow half of lawn one in fifteen minutes, and half of lawn two in fifteen minutes, then half of what remains of lawn one in seven and a half minutes, then half of what remains of lawn two in seven and a half minutes, then half of what remains of lawn one in three minutes and forty-five seconds, and so on. This will get both lawns mown by three o’clock, except for the very edges. To solve this problem you can start at 1.58 instead and mow the very edges before the supertasks begin. Then at three o’clock you have a well-earned rest before mowing the other six.


-Gwiazda, Jeremy 2010: ‘The lawn mowing puzzle’, Philosophia, vol. 38, no. 3, p.629

-Hawthorne, John and Weatherson, Brian 2004: ‘Chopping up gunk’, The Monist 87, pp.339-50

-Russell, Bertrand 1936: ‘The limits of empiricism’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, vol. 36 (1935-1936), pp.131-150

-Thomson, J. F. 1954: ‘Tasks and super-tasks’, Analysis vol. 15, no. 1 (Oct. 1954), pp.1-13

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How should I make her feel?

Rihanna’s recently had a big hit with a song called “Only Girl (in the World)”, and I’m puzzled by the chorus. She sings:

“Want you to make me feel like I’m the only girl in the world
Like I’m the only one who you’ll ever love
Like I’m the only one who knows your heart...”

Fair enough, you’ll think. Rihanna wants me to pay attention to her, and not to any other girls. But the first line is an odd way of expressing it.

If I was in a romantic situation with Rihanna, this would be more meaningful for both of us if she wasn’t the only girl in the world. If she was, this would mean that I might well not be with her because I thought her pretty, talented or whatever, or even because we had some kind of extraordinary intellectual connection. I’d want to be with her anyway, because there’d be nobody else. We’d also both know that she was very keen on me indeed, because of all the men in the world who’d rather be with her than no girl at all, she’d picked me. This would give the relationship a most peculiar dynamic. On one hand, I’d have to work much more at the relationship because of the supply and demand situation, even though she’d probably be more into me than I was into her. Perhaps there are actual relationships like this: if X has more choice than Y you might expect, other things being equal, X to like Y more and Y to have to work harder to keep X. I realise other things aren’t equal, because people with more choice tend to be more likeable. But it’d surprise me if no actual relationships were like this. Maybe you’re in one. It doesn’t sound fun. But one would expect these kind of relationships to be the norm in a world with the kind of gender imbalance which Rihanna wants her beloved to make her feel obtains.
I’m also puzzled by the interaction between the first line and the next two. If she’s the only girl in the world then she will be the only girl in the world with each property she instantiates, in these cases the properties of being loved by me at some point and knowing my heart. So she could achieve the same effect by feeling like she was the only girl in the world, that I’d love her at some point and that she knew my heart. It’s possible that at least the second line can be made to say more than this by shifting the implicit quantifier from a presentist one to an eternalist one: she wants to feel like she’s the only girl in the world now, that I’ll love her at some point and that there won’t be any new girls arriving into the world whom I’ll one day love. But the age differences or space travel involved make this interpretation implausible.

Maybe we should read the definite descriptions in lines two and three as Russellian, i.e. she’ll feel like there are no other girls who know my heart or whom I’ll ever love; and the first one as Lewisian, i.e. she’ll feel like she’s the most salient girl in the world. This suggests that definite descriptions are ambiguous between these two readings though, which I doubt. Instead we could take the first definite description as Russellian but with the quantifier restricted to very salient things, but without conversationally presupposing how salient objects would be in the context of the feelings she wants her beloved to make her have. I think that’s probably what she’s getting at.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Delusions of grandeur

I was going to write something about a guy I heard saying something surprising on the radio this morning. Unfortunately, what I heard him saying was surprising because I’d have expected him to avoid saying things like that for fear of his life or at least for his job. It’s quite likely that the local maniacs in his neck of the woods have an internet connection but no access to British radio. Even if they can get British radio (maybe using their internet connection) blogs are more googlable than radio shows.

I’m aware that worrying about this may suggest delusions of grandeur on my part. I’m envisaging someone googling the guy and the subject, finding my blog, getting outraged and causing him trouble. Then I feel bad and his job passes to someone worse. The maniacs win. But is this really a live possibility?

I don’t think I am deluded, for two reasons. One is that if I don’t write about it it’s unlikely that anyone else will. I did the google search I was worried about and there wouldn’t be much else in the way, so if maniacs did these searches they’d be quite likely to find my blog. If I don't write about it then it's very unlikely his comment will get back to them. The other reason is that it’s always possible my blog will get famous and then years later this guy’s throwaway comment will be used as a pretext to cause him trouble. To paraphrase Noel Gallagher, if you don’t want your blog to be bigger than Phil McNulty’s it’s just a hobby. Though I suppose this is just a hobby. I don’t know. I just don’t want to cause this guy any trouble. He sounded awesome.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why do graduates make more money?

People in the business of giving justifications for making people pay for higher education sometimes say that having a degree makes you more likely to make more money. It’s certainly true that people who went to university tend to make more money, but that gives you a correlation rather than a cause.

Maybe doing a degree really does make you a better worker. You have to learn how to do things like organise your time and think on a more sophisticated level than is demanded at school, and you also usually have to write coherently, in greater or lesser quantities depending on the course. Maybe graduates make more than non-graduates because in acquiring a degree they learn skills which make them a greater asset to an organisation.

Now I’ve got two degrees and I’m doing a third. They’ve definitely made me much more competent as an academic philosopher, but I suspect that I could have increased my competence at anything else just as much if not more by going straight into employment at eighteen. I know a lot of people who’ve been to university, and I don’t think my case is atypical.

As such, I think it more likely that doing a degree doesn’t make you a better worker, but the factors which dispose you to go to university also dispose you to be a good worker. This would be true if, for example, very stupid people were put off school by the focus on academic subjects and tended to leave education at sixteen, thereby filtering themselves out of the pool of university applicants. Now if this is what happens, the higher-pay-for-graduates phenomenon would be expected even if employers only employed on merit, ignoring whether or not people had degrees. The incompetent who acquired degrees would be refused jobs for being incompetent, and the competent who went straight from school to employment would be given jobs because of their competence.

I suppose if this non-causal correlation between competence and degrees was in place, then there would be some efficiency savings to be made for employers if they didn’t assess applicants’ competence directly, but picked people with degrees instead. How viable this strategy would be would depend on how strong the correlation was. It’s hard for me to believe that this would be very good business though, because an employer with this strategy would risk employing a lot of middle-class people who would rather spend three years boozing, lazing around and finding themselves than getting a job. I can’t imagine Lord Sugar taking this risk, so if he employs a lot of people with degrees then it’s because the competent are more likely to go to university. Employers who took the risk wouldn’t be able to compete.

Now if that’s what’s going on, or even if it’s just a significant part of what’s going on, then it’s odd to rest the case for charging for degrees on graduates making more money. If degrees are correlated with but don’t cause competence, then a graduate tax is no more than a fairly clumsy attempt to tax competence. Suppose we found that some diseases were correlated with competence. We could then stop subsidising treatment for these diseases on the grounds that people would be able to use their competence to earn enough to pay for the treatment themselves. If it was a disease which only struck the young we could loan them the money and only make them pay it back when they could afford it, writing it off if it wasn’t paid after thirty years. It’d be redistributive and it wouldn’t hit anyone who couldn’t afford it. Perhaps a study should be done into whether people with glasses really do tend to be more intelligent.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

If not now, when?

I’m fairly persuaded by the arguments that it would be possible to save the lives of quite a lot of people by giving even fairly modest amounts of money to charities like Oxfam and Unicef. I don’t think it’s wrong for me not to give my money away, but I want to save lives as much as the next guy and if I find myself with a lot more money than I have now I’m certainly planning to give a fair bit away and save a fair few lives. I hardly give anything away now, because I’m a student and don’t have much to give.

I am aware though that if I prioritised things differently I could give some away. I spend money on things like beer, train tickets for journeys that aren’t essential, the occasional curry, sometimes even a flight. Instead of buying some of these things I could give some money to charity and save some lives, but I don’t. I prioritise beer and things instead.

What puzzles me is why I do this. I’m sure I’m not unusual in spending my money the way I do, but that shouldn’t make much difference. I don’t feel I have to spend my money the way other people do, for example I hardly ever buy any clothes. (It’s getting to the point where soon I’ll have to, but I’ll still be well below average.) One rationalisation I’ve considered is that the most important thing by far from a lifesaving point of view is that I’m able to get a good job and get my hands on some serious cash which I can spend on some serious lifesaving, and spending my money along the lines of least resistance now makes that more likely. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I suspect there’s some truth in it but not much. Even if it is true it’s obviously a fairly callous attitude to adopt towards the people who are dying now, but I’m quite happy to be a bit callous if it means more lives get saved in the long run.

I suppose what worries me more is the possibility that I spend my money on myself instead of on saving lives because of an underlying selfishness which I’m never going to grow out of, and that even when I’m able to save many times more lives than I could at the moment I’ll prioritise things like extravagant holidays, eating out frequently, drinking expensive whisky and running a car. It’s not even beyond the realms of possibility that I might have children whose mother persuaded me to have them privately educated. After all that there might not be enough left to give away more than is normal for middle-class people, and as I’ve said, that conflicts with my plan.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Moral victories

Sometimes people don’t win but claim a moral victory. The grounds for such claims fall into at least three categories. One is where the result would have been different if the luck had been more evenly distributed. The idea there is that you played better than your opponent but they still won because you picked up nothing but Is and Us while they were laying down ‘jaguars’ and picking up ‘oxidize’. The second kind of moral victory is when the result was affected by bad officiating. If the winning goal was a penalty which shouldn’t have been awarded then it is commonplace for the losing side to claim a moral draw. The third kind of claim is when the opponents cheated. It’s hard to say where to draw the boundaries between cheating, gamesmanship and using one’s nous, but it’s uncontroversial that some kinds of cheating can take the morality out of a victory.

Football managers interviewed after a bad result often make excuses which seem tantamount to claiming a moral victory, and while there’s a degree of reasonableness to at least some of these claims, they do it far too often for my taste and presumably also too often for most people’s. There’s a particular type of claim managers make which really bugs me though, and thinking about it reveals two distinct ways of keeping the moral scorecard. This is when a team loses say 4-1, and the other team scored a wrongly awarded penalty when the score was 1-1. The losing manager will say that they were really in it until the penalty was awarded, and after that the game was as good as over and things just unravelled.

There are two ways of looking at this. One way to keep the moral scorecard is to keep the regular scorecard, crossing off tainted goals and adding goals where penalties should have been awarded. The other is to calculate what the score would have been if nothing dubious had happened. On the first measure the moral score was 3-1, so the team which should have won did win. The plaintiff here must be invoking the second moral scorecard, saying that the game changed after the penalty, presumably because they had to play more aggressively and kept getting caught on the break. I’m not denying that a case can be made here that if the penalty hadn’t been awarded the game would have been a draw. The reason I think this sort of moral scorekeeping should be resisted is that it gives no credit for how the teams played after the dubious incident. It can act as evidence for how they would have played, but lots of things can act as evidence. Actual play should have a distinctive role which on this kind of moral scorekeeping it doesn’t have.

This sort of thing leads to crazy results. It doesn’t just mean that it doesn’t morally matter how you play after you change your tactics in response to a bad decision; it also means that morally nobody needs to defend against a corner or free kick which was incorrectly awarded. You do hear this though: sometimes people will claim that a goal doesn’t morally count because there was an incorrectly awarded throw-in during the buildup. Enough. Defending is just as important whether the other team should have possession or not.

One thing we could do in response to this is calculate the moral scorecard in the first way. I don’t think that’s a good idea, because the second way is plainly more accurate. A goal can change the whole complexion of a game, and a wrongly awarded penalty can sometimes change the result by more than one goal. I think the only thing for it is to forget about the moral scorecard altogether and only pay attention to what the score actually is. This isn’t the same as saying that the real score is the moral score; it’s to say that the moral score is unknowable even if it’s coherent, so we should just ignore it. It’s not easy to view bad officiating the same way you view the weather, but that’s the mature thing to do. You can campaign for better referees, but you can install undersoil heating or put a roof on your stadium. I don’t know how normal people feel about this, but Strawson said the difference was resentment. You might not like the weather, but you don’t resent it. I find it can be quite liberating to stop resenting your incompetent referees and cheating opponents as well.