The Problem of Universals: Part I. Introduction


I’ve decided to start a series on the problem of universals as I’m slowly working through Marilyn McCord Adams’s massive two-volume work on Ockham.

I’ll blog my way slowly through each of the myriad alternative medieval positions and maybe if I get ambitious I’ll try to say something comparing and contrasting medieval and contemporary positions.

Right now the plan is:

  • Part I. Introduction.

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A Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

This is a response to a guest-post at my friend Dan’s blog by Eric Steinhart.

Here’s a two-part argument for the existence of God meant to defuse some of my colleagues’s concerns.  For the purpose of this argument, let’s mean by “God” a necessary being (not necessarily unique) who is not part of the world but who is the sufficient explanation for its existence. The first part tries to establish that the world must have a sufficient cause G that is not the world itself or any part of the world. The second part tries to establish that that G exists necessarily. It isn’t the most elegant argument (in fact, the infinite regress argument in part II might be sufficient to prove the conclusion by itself), but I think it fits the dialectical situation.

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Quentin Smith on whether the Big Bang was an uncaused event

In the context of an argument about the principle of sufficient reason and contingency arguments for God’s existence, I stumbled across a paper by Quentin Smith called “The Uncaused Beginning of the Universe” (Philosophy of Science, 1988).

In that paper Smith says,

“it belongs analytically to the concept of the cosmological singularity that it is not the effect of prior physical events. The definition of a singularity that is employed in the singularity theorems entails that it is impossible to extend the space-time manifold beyond the singularity. The definition in question is based on the concept of inextendible curves, a concept that has been most completely and precisely explicated by B. G. Schmidt (1971). In a space-time manifold there are timelike geodesics (paths of freely falling particles), spacelike geodesics (paths of tachyons), null geodesics (paths of photons), and timelike curves with bounded acceleration (paths along which it is possible for observers to move). If one of these curves terminates after a finite proper length (or finite affine parameter in the case of null geodesics), and it is impossible to extend the space-time manifold beyond that point (for example, because of infinite curvature), then that point, along with all adjacent terminating points, is a singularity. Accordingly, if there is some point p beyond which it is possible to extend the space-time manifold, beyond which geodesics or timelike curves can be extended, then p by definition is not a singularity.”

Now suppose I introduce a new physical concept schmingularity, which is exactly like the singularity in all of its observable properties except that it is defined to have a cause. You can’t just win the argument against the existence of God by defining the singularity in such a way that there’s no God, because it would still be an empiricial question whether it was the singularity or the schmingularity that had occured, right? And one wonders what such evidence could even be. Ex hypothesi, there wasn’t anything around before the singularity–there wasn’t even such a thing as “before the singularity”. So how could there be empirical evidence that would confirm the singularity theorems?

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Gil Harman’s Defense of Moral Relativism

“Moral Relativism Defended” (1975?) Harman is trying to defend a version of moral relativism comprised of what I’m going to call The Relativity Thesis and The Conflict Thesis.

The Relativity Thesis (RT) says that “the judgment that it is wrong of someone to do something makes sense only in relation to an agreement or understanding.”

The Conflict Thesis (CT) says that “an action may be wrong in relation to one agreement but not in relation to another.”

Together, these two claims amount to the version of moral relativism Harman wants to defend. The interesting thing is that this version of moral relativism is supposed to be just a “soberly logical thesis” that emerges from an ordinary language analysis of the logic statements like, “A ought to do D.” My problem is that his linguistic intuitions are completely bizarre and I think his (explicit) assumption that Humean motivational internalism is to blame.

Here’s how I would sketch his argument out:

(1) The judgment that somebody was wrong to have done something is an “inner judgment.”

(2) It only makes sense to make inner judgments about somebody who is capable of being moved to do something by the relevant considerations.

(3) A person is capable of being moved to do something by the relevant considerations only if he or she has certain motivational attitudes (moral beliefs, desires, intentions, etc.).

(4) So for two people S and A, A is capable of being moved to do D by the relevant considerations C that S offers only if S and A have some kind of agreement between them, namely an agreement in their motivational attitudes (from 3).

(5) Hence, S can make inner judgments like “A ought to do D” only if there is some kind of agreement between them. (from 1, 2 and 4)

(6) Hence, (RT) the judgment that it is wrong of someone to do something makes sense only in relation to an agreement or understanding. (by generalizing 5).

Premise (1) is supposed to be true by definition and (2) looks plausible enough It’s just a version of “ought implies can”. We don’t say “the dog morally ought not to chase the cat” simply because the dog isn’t the kind of creature who could be impressed by the relevant reasons we might be able to give him not to do so. It would indeed seem like a person was committing a sort of category mistake to utter that sentence.

It’s (3) that I think is the problem. Harman is explicitly assuming that Humean motivational internalism is true, and he gives us a little story to pump our purportedly Humean intuitions about the usage of the word “ought”:

“Suppose that a contented employee of Murder, Incorporated was raised as a child to honor and respect members of the ‘family’ but to have nothing but contempt for the rest of society. His current assignment, let us suppose, is to kill a certain bank manager, Bernard J. Ortcutt. Since Ortcutt is not a member of the “family,” the employee in question has no compunction about carrying out his assignment. In particular, if we were to try to convince him that he should not kill Ortcutt, our argument would not provide him with the slightest reason to desist unless we were to point to practical difficulties, such as the likelihood of getting caught. Now in this case it would be a misuse of language to say that he ought not to kill Ortcutt or that it would be wrong of him to do so, since that would imply that our own moral considerations carry some weight with him, which they do not.”

To my ear at least it doesn’t sound like a misuse of language at all to say that the contented assassin “ought” not to kill Ortcutt, regardless of the assassins depraved upbringing. There are two ways we might respond here. (i) We could take issue with the claim that saying someone ought not to do something implies that our own moral considerations carry some weight with that person. Or, (ii) We could take issue with the idea that the contented assassin really does have such a radically alternative set of motivations.

To take the first route, we’d presumably just look to offer our own ordinary language analysis of ought and try to show that when S says that A ought to do D, that this doesn’t imply that S and A have some agreement. Interestingly, Harman thinks it’s possible that there are other kinds of moral judgments such as that such and such kinds of acts are evil that don’t require agreement. This sounds even more bizarre to me: Harman thinks that we can perfectly properly say that it would be evil to kill someone for money, but not it would be wrong of the contented assassin to kill Ortcutt for money.

I’d opt for the second route, though. There are at least two good lines of argument against the idea that we could imagine this contented assassin with such a radically alternative morality. The first line would be to leverage some kind of Davidsonian argument against the idea of “radically alternative conceptual frameworks” to show that there actually must be more moral agreement between us and the assassin than disagreement, on pain of his moral beliefs being simply untranslatable.

The other line you could take would be to adopt a kind of naturalism and say that just insofar as we are human beings there are going to be some desires, goals, or whatever that are hardwired into us. And so, even if Harman were right about the motivational internalism, you still couldn’t get relativism off the ground because you have some moral universals built in.

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