Useful and useless fictions

red bullAs I’ve argued recently, useful fictions have their place in a respectable epistemic toolkit. Some theoretical apparatuses must simplify or caricaturize their target phenomena in order to allow us to get a grasp on things (for example, talking and thinking like naïve color realists allows us to track different objects’ dispositions to evoke particular colorful experiences, though they do not possess the “objective colors” we impute to them).

However, I do not wish to give the impression of being soft on falsehood. Not all fictions are equal, and most will mislead us, even if they have some degree of instrumental utility. Read that again: Even the pragmatist who equates truth with usefulness needs a way to distinguish prudence from mere and lazy expedience.

The expedient belief passes a first-glance test of likelihood, and might even teach us a new trick for manipulating our environment. But even if it appears to explain existing facts, it will fail to gain substantiation in ongoing observation; afford few or no new predictions; or grant us only a slippery hold on the phenomena we attempt to influence.

For example, a student might more effectively study for her finals if she believes that willpower is an unlimited resource. However, the fact that accepting this theory helps her with one task (studying) cannot by itself decisively validate the theory. The pragmatic maxim, as always, is helpful to clarify this point. When considering the truthfulness of a claim, Peirce urged inquirers to consider all the effects that would obtain if a given hypothesis were true. The key here is that all effects must be considered, not only those relevant to a particular task or experiment. In this case, the reality of self-control’s finiteness has effects that cannot help but exert themselves. Our student might eventually realize that even during a good stretch of studying she has to take breaks to replenish herself; that even people of exemplary willpower who consistently push themselves always eventually burn out; that no matter how many Red Bulls she pounds, she can’t pull an all-nighter every night, etc.

Therefore, for our student to assent to the limitlessness of willpower contradicts experience, and moreover, limits her ability to successfully pursue her own goals (e.g. if she works on a group project under the assumption that her teammates are limitless wells of self-control, she’s less likely to end up with an exemplary final project than she is shoddy work made by worn-out, disgruntled colleagues). In the long run, our student will be hampered, not helped, by her belief in indefatigability. The limitlessness of willpower will reveal itself as a useless fiction.


In which I fill out the PhilPapers survey

In 2013, philosophers David Chalmers and David Bourget polled their colleagues on a wide range of philosophical issues to answer the question “What do philosophers believe?” (Answers were broken down in detail here.) The questionnaire itself asks enough questions on enough Big Issues that to fill it out is to articulate a worldview. It’s a fascinating exercise. So I can’t help but to give my own answers, and put my own philosophical commitments on the record:

Question Answer Comments
A priori knowledge: yes or no? Lean toward: no
Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism? Lean toward: nominalism If not nominalism, I suspect some sort of Aristotelian realism is true about mathematical entities. Full-blooded Pythagoreanism is a very distantly favored third option.
Aesthetic value: objective or subjective? Accept: subjective
Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no? Lean towards: no
Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism? Accept: non-skeptical realism Some days I am tempted in the direction of transcendental idealism; but even this resembles realism, in that there is an objective, mind-independent noumenon.
Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will? Accept an intermediate position between compatibilism and hard incompatibilism. Libertarianism is incoherent, and that there are no facts of the matter in regards to desert. However, most of our responsibility-holding practices can be justified on utilitarian grounds.
God: theism or atheism? Accept: atheism
Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism? Accept: empiricism
Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Laws of nature: Humean or non-Humean? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Logic: classical or non-classical? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Mental content: internalism or externalism? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism? Accept: moral anti-realism
Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism? Accept: naturalism
Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism? Accept: physicalism
Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism? Accept: cognitivism I am an error theorist.
Moral motivation: internalism or externalism? Accept: internalism
Newcomb’s problem: one box or two boxes? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics? Lean towards an intermediate position between consequentialism and virtue ethics. I am a consequentialist, but I think consequentialists have good reasons to act like virtue ethicists most of the time. However, explicitly utilitarian reasoning is demanded in certain situations, especially those involving large numbers of people.
Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view? Lean towards: No fact of the matter.
Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism? Reject all answers as poorly defined.
Proper names: Fregean or Millian? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism? Lean towards: structural realism
Teletransporter (new matter): survival or death? Lean towards: survive
Time: A-theory or B-theory? Lean towards: B-theory
Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don’t switch? Accept: switch
Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic? Accept: The pragmatist theory of truth
Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible? Lean towards: Type-Q materialism

“Infinite possibilities” vs. “Anything can happen”

To say that within a given space there are infinitely many possible states of affairs is not to say that literally anything can happen in that space. It only means that everything possible may happen. One might rebut that given an infinite number of possibilities, nothing is impossible. However, this is not correct; a system can still be governed by laws which preclude some facts, while still permitting an infinite number of states of affairs.

For example: Let us grant that language is a purely biological phenomenon, and all linguistic expressions occur in finite physical systems (i.e. systems constituted by material organisms, responding to natural environments by communicating with spoken words, signs, or writing). Many linguists believe that languages are infinitely generative—that is, within any language composed of a finite number of words and grammatical rules, an infinite number of grammatical sentences can be stated. That is, generativity posits that there are finite physical systems—like the brain/body of a fluent language speaker, or a legal pad and pencil wielded by that speaker—which can enter into an infinite number of configurations, corresponding to the infinity of possible sentences expressible and interpretable by a speaker/hearer.

However, some material configurations are impossible. For example, brain-states or pencil marks on a legal pad cannot embody a correct formula for squaring the circle, because squaring the circle is mathematically impossible. That some configurations are forbidden to a system does not necessarily mean that the possible states for that system to be in is finite. Not every infinite set contains every number—there are different, non-overlapping infinities. (e.g. There are more composite numbers than there are prime numbers, but there are infinite quantities of both.)

The set of conceivable states of affairs, which includes worlds with circle-squaring formulae, may very well be larger than the set of possible states of affairs, which contains no worlds with circle-squaring formulae. However, that does not mean the second set is any less infinite (if it is indeed infinite).