Monday, June 13, 2011

"It will be a hell of a lot of fun"

Is this going to be "the most exciting summer since 1974"? Possibly, if you're a particle physicist.

Last week, the CDF experiment at Fermilab reported some tantalizing evidence of a new, unknown particle. A few days ago, a different Fermilab experiment, called D0 (D-zero), reported the results of their independent check on the CDF result. D0's answer? Nothing there.

These intriguing result are showing up just as Fermilab prepares to shut these experiments down for good. At the same time, the LHC in Switzerland is gearing up to do similar work. So far, LHC doesn't see anything either, but it doesn't have enough data yet to say for sure.

What happens if LHC does see something? As Fermilab's Gordon Watts says,

If they do see it, then all the papers proposing different models will be scoured for their distinguishing features, and all of us experimenters will run off to try to compare them with data. Very little sleep will be had. It will be a hell of a lot of fun.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

(nudge, nudge, wink, wink) Morality

Richard Joyce first argues strenuously that categorical imperatives are fundamental to moral discourse. Then he turns around and argues strenuously that there is no rational basis for categorical imperatives. Finally, he spins once more and says it might be rational to act as if there were such things as categorical imperatives. This is what he calls the "fictionalist" approach to morality. All these sharp turns left me with a feeling of intellectual whiplash.

But let's follow him to the end: how can he claim that we ought to behave as if there were such a thing as morality?

Obviously, it doesn't make any sense to ask what we ought, in a moral sense, to do, having concluded that there is no such thing as morality. But that's not what Joyce is asking. He's asking what we ought, in a practical sense, to do.

One possible answer is, "Jettison the moral discourse entirely." Joyce writes,

For all I know, "Jettison the discourse" is the correct answer.... However, I do not think that it is the only candidate....
The reason is that acting according to a moral code might actually, for the most part, be beneficial in a practical sense for a given group of people. But those people cannot simply decide to believe in such a code - not, that is, if they have already concluded that morality doesn't exist. However, they can decide to act as if their moral code were real, act as if there were such things as categorical imperatives. In doing so, they are able to reap the benefits of a moral code without committing the logical error involved in accepting categorical imperatives as actual. This is what Joyce calls the "fictionalist stance."

The fictionalist thinks the correct answer is "Keep using the discourse, but do not believe it."

Joyce admits a problem with the fictionalist stance, namely, that we can't adopt it among people who actually believe in morality. To do so would be dishonest: we would be using the same terms, but in a different way. The alternative would be to preface any moral statement with some sort of disclaimer, to the effect, "I'm going to be talking as if I believe in morality even though I actually don't." One can easily imagine how effective this would be.

So, by his own admission, Joyce's solution only works if a group of Joycean fictionalists went off to an island somewhere and all agreed to adopt the fictionalist stance. Clearly, an impractical solution!

Worse, just imagine the kind of moral discourse that would take place on this island. "You really ought not (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) to rape that child."

I think there is a better response than this - which I'll try to sketch next time.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Practical Reasons and Moral Reasons

Here (again) is Joyce's argument for a moral error theory as I understand it:

  1. Moral language requires categorical imperatives.
  2. Categorical imperatives cannot be legitimately questioned.
  3. Practical rationality is the only source of statements that cannot be legitimately questioned.
  4. But practical rationality cannot provide a basis for (moral) categorical imperatives. 
  5. Therefore, moral language is in error.
If you buy what Joyce has said so far, then (4) follows easily. Practical rationality, on Joyce's account, is agent-relative. Therefore, it cannot be a basis for categorical imperatives, which are absolute. 

One way to avoid (4) is to object to Joyce's view of practical rationality. Joyce spends a whole chapter (Ch. 5) answering this objection. His approach is to "attempt a straight defense of practical instrumentalism [his version of practical rationality] by showing that the non-instrumentalist necessarily commits an error." The argument he uses is based on a "well-known" paper by Bernard Williams, "Internal and External Reasons."

Williams's conclusion is that something is a reason if (and only if), after a process of fully informed and correct deliberation, it would motivate someone to act in accordance with the reason. Williams thus denies that there are such things as "external" reasons. (In the lingo, "internal" reasons are those that are motivating, "external" reasons are those that are not.)

Joyce is more circumspect. He doesn't agree that Williams's conclusion applies to all reasons. But he does think it applies to the sort of normative reasons that are needed for moral language.

My objection is only with external reason claims that do not know their place - that overstep themselves by claiming to transcend all institutions.

Once again we see the importance to Joyce of the imperative that is categorical, that "transcends all institutions."

If we go along with Joyce's definitions and assumptions, then his error-theory conclusion is unavoidable. Joyce admits that he has not "proven" error theory - he has only tried to make it probable. His next move, though, is pretty weird: he tries to treat morality as a work of fiction. More on that next time!