Normativity and Motivation



According to Christine Korsgaard, there is a distinction between explanatory and normative adequacy for a moral theory. In a really interesting passage, Korsgaard asks us to think from two points of view - a third person point of view and a first-person point of view. She then takes a standard evolutionary explanation of moral obligation and asks us to consider its truth from both points of view:

Suppose someone proposes a moral theory which gives morality a genetic basis. Let's call this 'the evolutionary theory'. According to the evolutionary theory, right actions are those which promote the preservation of the species, and wrong actions are those which are detrimental to that goal. Furthermore, the evolutionary theorist can prove, with empirical evidence, that because this is so, human beings have evolved deep and powerful instincts in favour of doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong. Now this theory, if it could be proved, would give an account of our moral motives which was adequate from the point of view of explanation. Our moral instincts would have the same basis and so the same kind of power as the sexual drive and the urge to care for and defend our children. And we know from experience that those instincts can induce people to do pretty much anything, even things which are profoundly detrimental to their own private interests or happiness.

But now ask yourself whether, if you believed this theory, it would be adequate from your own point of view. Suppose morality demands that you yourself make a serious sacrifice like giving up your life, or hurting someone that you love. Is it really enough for you to think that this action promotes the preservation of the species? You might find yourself thinking thoughts like these: why after all should the preservation of the species count so much more than the happiness of the individuals in it? Why should it matter so much more than my happiness and the happiness of those I care most about? Maybe it's not worth it. Or suppose the case is like this: there are Jews in your house and Nazis at the door. You know you will get into serious trouble, even risk death yourself, if you conceal the Jews. Yet you feel morally obligated to risk death rather than disclose the presence of the Jews. But now you know that this motive has its basis in an instinct designed to preserve the species. Then you might think: why should I risk death in order to help preserve the species that produced the Nazis? (Sources of Normativity, 14-15)

The upshot of Korsgaard's reflection is that while evolutionary theory might explain an action, it "would not justify it from your own point of view." (15). Thus, though a theory might offer an explanation for our motivations, it may not be normatively adequate. This is because:

The normative question is a first-person question that arises for the moral agent who must actually do what morality says. When you want to know what a philosopher's theory of normativity is, you must place yourself in the position of an agent on whom morality is making a difficult claim. You then ask the philosopher: must I really do this? Why must I do it? And his answer is his answer to the normative question.
To achieve normative adequacy for a moral theory one must explain both how we might come to have moral instincts and what makes those instincts sufficiently motivating for an agent to perform an action. This is because, obligatory actions are strongly motivated actions. We are strongly motivated to praise good actions and condemn bad actions. We aspire to emulate the life of the virtuous and eschew the life of the wicked. We are incensed by cases in which an evil-doer faces no punishment or a hero is forgotten. On occasion, our motivations lead us to perform actions for which there is significant personal cost. The point is: we sometimes perform those actions solely for a moral reason.

So, what exactly is it that motivates us?

Robert Adams argues that obligations are necessarily social in nature: If there is an obligation, then there is a social context. He argues that when we fail to perform an obligatory action, we experience guilt. The experience of guilt implies that we have (i) harmed another person and (ii) alienated ourselves from other people.

The problem with such an explanation is that it seems the obligations are only in place as long as there is a social group in which those obligations are binding. If obligations are identical to actual demands made by social groups, then there are only non-objective social obligations. This is so for two reasons. First, social groups might not exist. And if they didn't obligations wouldn't either. But could we really believe that murder, rape and a host of evil actions would be morally justified? It may be the case that no one could carry out any of these actions, but it is implausible to suggest that their status changes depending on the existence of social groups. Second, social groups might demand different obligations. One social group might decide against imposing an obligation to tell the truth on its members.

What would be lost in both cases is the objective nature of obligations. As Korsgaard suggests, it is the objective nature of obligations that seems to propel people to act to meet them even at great personal cost. It is far more plausible that there are objective social obligations. And, if so, then obligations are not identical to actual demands made by social groups.

Consequently, Adams goes on to argue that if obligations are social in nature, then God exists: If obligations are placed upon us by God, then those obligations are both social and objective. They are permanently in place and thus sufficiently motivating. This seems eminently plausible. God's existence would explain the force of obligations in a way not open to the naturalist.

Notes: "Divine Necessity" by Robert Adams



Adams writes "to refute two...objections to the doctrine of divine necessity" (742). In doing so, he provides a refutation for evolutionary naturalism and an argument for the existence of God.

Obj #1: The proposition, 'God exists', cannot be a necessary truth because only analytic truths can be necessary truths but existential propositions cannot be analytic truths. 'God exists' is an existential proposition. Therefore, 'God exists' cannot be a necessary truth.

Why think analytic propositions cannot be existential propositions? An analytic proposition is a conditional the consequent of which is a correct analysis of the antecedent. For example, the proposition 'if he is a bachelor, then he is unmarried' (or 'all bachelors are unmarried') is an analytic proposition. Due to their conditional nature, analytic propositions do not imply existence. 'If he is a bachelor, then he is unmarried' is true even if there are no bachelors to be found.

Resp: Adams argues that not all necessary truths are analytic. Necessary truths are propositions the denial of which entail a contradiction. However, we cannot explain what necessity is without circularity. Saying that necessity is explained by the contradiction fails to explain anything more than the contradiction itself. This is also true of analyticity:

No doubt all the theorems of a good or valid or semantically satisfactory system of formal logic are indeed necessary truths. But it would be circular to appeal to this fact to explain what we mean by 'necessary' here; for what makes a system of formal logic good or valid or semantically satisfactory is at least in part the necessary truth of all its theorems.

Adams asks us to consider three propositions:

(A) All husbands are married
(B) God is the creator of the universe
(C) Everything green has some spatial property

(A) is clearly an analytic truth. 'Married' provides a partial analysis of 'husband' ('married man' provides a complete analysis of 'husband'). One might think that analyticity is to be explained semantically. What we mean by 'husband' is 'married man'. But even though what we mean by God is 'the creator of the universe' this does not provide an analysis of 'God'. It might have been the case that God refrained from creating the universe. We presuppose the additional notion of the necessity of (A) while not doing so when we consider (B).

Adams further claims that we consider (C) a necessary truth, but it is not an analytic truth. While there cannot be any such thing as a green thing without it having a spatial property, it is far from clear that 'has some spatial property' provides a partial or complete analysis of 'green thing'.

Thus, Adams concludes, we cannot rule out existential propositions as necessary since we have not established a sufficiently precise analysis of necessity itself.

Obj #2: Necessary truths are conceptual in nature and do not have any bearing on the real world. The proposition, 'necessarily, God exists' has significant bearing on the real world. Indeed, it determines something about everything in the world. Thus, it cannot be a necessary truth.

Adams cites A.J. Ayer who confesses that if there are necessary truths that determine anything about the real world, then those truths cannot be gained by experience:

we shall be obliged to admit that there are some truths about the world which we can know independently of experience; that there are some properties which we can ascribe to all objects, even though we cannot conceivably observe that all objects have them. And we shall have to accept it as a mysterious inexplicable fact that our thought has this power to reveal to us authoritatively the nature of objects which we have never observed (Language, Truth and Logic, 73)

Resp: Adams takes Ayer to be suggesting that accepting that necessary truths that determine something in the real world entails accepting that objects not yet experienced come under those necessary truths. For Ayer, this entails an epistemological leap. However, Adams suggests that the same is true of abstract objects. We believe not only that modus ponens relates the propositions we grasp today, but those we will grasp tomorrow and those we will never grasp. What explains this feature of thought is the concept of necessity we are pursuing.

The upshot of Adams' discussion is that Human beings have the ability to recognize necessary truths non-empirically. But what explains this ability?

Adams imagines an evolutionary account: Having true beliefs is conducive to human survival. As a species, we have acquired this ability from our ancestors and will pass it on to our progeny ensuring the survival of our species. Having access to mathematical truths has aided our survival in the past, and our continual growth in the field helps ensure our future survival.

Adams suggests, however, that the evolutionary account offers a less satisfying explanation for human knowledge of modality. There appears to be no evolutionary advantage to a belief that is necessarily true over a belief that it is plainly true.

Adams asks us to consider the following explanation:

Suppose that necessary truths do determine and explain facts about the real world. If God of His very nature knows the necessary truths, and if He has created us, He could have constructed us in such a way that we would at least commonly recognize necessary truths as necessary. In this way there would be a causal connection between what is necessarily true about real objects and our believing it to be necessarily true about them. It would not be an incredible accident or an inexplicable mystery that our beliefs agreed with the objects in this. (751)

Adams argues that such an explanation is the best explanation for human knowledge of necessary truths and an argument for the existence of God. Adams recognizes the Augustinian nature of the view. On this view, God necessarily exists and thinks all necessary and possible truths. This provides the best explanation for two plausible truths about necessities and possibilities: they are discovered and not created by human beings and they are thought by some mind. If God is the one who thinks those thoughts and God necessarily exists, then we are able to think them 'after' him. 

Robert Adams, "Divine Necessity," The Journal of Philosophy 80.11 (1983): 741–752.

Combatting AI Hype



In "The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions" Rodney Brooks argues that we ought to push back against mistaken predictions about artificial intelligence. Optimism about A.I. has simultaneously led to utopian visions of a workless future and fears of an AI that might destroy us. His main point is that we ought to stop falling for AI hype.

First, if we don't know what something will be able to do, we will have a hard time knowing what it won't be able to do:

If something is magic, it is hard to know its limitations...This is a problem we all have with imagined future technology. If it is far enough away from the technology we have and understand today, then we do not know its limitations. And if it becomes indistinguishable from magic, anything one says about it is no longer falsifiable... [But] nothing in the universe is without limit. Watch out for arguments about future technology that is magical. Such an argument can never be refuted. It is a faith-based argument, not a scientific argument.

Second, Brooks distinguishes between performance and competence. When a person performs an action, we naturally assume that person has a set of accompanying competences. When it comes to assessing a computer, this assumption is false:

...suppose a person tells us that a particular photo shows people playing Frisbee in the park. We naturally assume that this person can answer questions like What is the shape of a Frisbee? Roughly how far can a person throw a Frisbee? Can a person eat a Frisbee? Roughly how many people play Frisbee at once? Can a three-month-old person play Frisbee? Is today’s weather suitable for playing Frisbee? ...Computers that can label images like “people playing Frisbee in a park” have no chance of answering those questions. Besides the fact that they can only label more images and cannot answer questions at all, they have no idea what a person is, that parks are usually outside, that people have ages, that weather is anything more than how it makes a photo look, etc.

Third, Brooks points out that terms used to describe human domains of learning cannot be used in the same way to describe advances in AI:

When people hear that a computer can beat the world chess champion (in 1997) or one of the world’s best Go players (in 2016), they tend to think that it is “playing” the game just as a human would. Of course, in reality those programs had no idea what a game actually was, or even that they were playing. They were also much less adaptable. When humans play a game, a small change in rules does not throw them off. Not so for AlphaGo or Deep Blue.

Fourth, the assumption that computers get better exponentially over time is false. If we calculated the power of an iPod exponentially,

we would expect a $400 iPod to have 160,000 gigabytes of memory. But the top iPhone of today (which costs much more than $400) has only 256 gigabytes of memory, less than double the capacity of the 2007 iPod. This particular exponential collapsed very suddenly once the amount of memory got to the point where it was big enough to hold any reasonable person’s music library and apps, photos, and videos. Exponentials can collapse when a physical limit is hit, or when there is no more economic rationale to continue them.
Similarly, we have seen a sudden increase in performance of AI systems thanks to the success of deep learning. Many people seem to think that means we will continue to see AI performance increase by equal multiples on a regular basis. But the deep-learning success was 30 years in the making, and it was an isolated event.

Fifth, Hollywood has perpetuated the myth of the unexpected change, one that will turn a powerful AI against the human species. However, Brooks points out that technological change is seldom that rapid.

Long before there are evil super-intelligences that want to get rid of us, there will be somewhat less intelligent, less belligerent machines. Before that, there will be really grumpy machines. Before that, quite annoying machines. And before them, arrogant, unpleasant machines. We will change our world along the way, adjusting both the environment for new technologies and the new technologies themselves. I am not saying there may not be challenges. I am saying that they will not be sudden and unexpected, as many people think.

Finally, the rate at which it is possible to deploy new hardware in the world is much slower than we think. Brooks proves several examples of industries that are still dependent on decades-old hardware. For example, he points out that the US air force still relies on planes built in 1961 that are expected to remain in service until at least 2040.

A lot of AI researchers and pundits imagine that the world is already digital, and that simply introducing new AI systems will immediately trickle down to operational changes in the field, in the supply chain, on the factory floor, in the design of products. Nothing could be further from the truth. Almost all innovations in robotics and AI take far, far, longer to be really widely deployed than people in the field and outside the field imagine.






CERN: "The Universe Should Not Exist"



Physicists puzzle over how the universe got going. The most plausible answer that does not rely on the existence of God is that the universe emerged from a 'big bang'. However, it is not clear that the theory stands up to scrutiny. Apparently, the theory seems to entail that there would be no universe. The New York Post reports the following:

Our existence is one giant, unexplainable head scratch. The universe shouldn’t technically exist, according to top scientists who have spent their careers trying to figure out how the beginning of everything didn’t immediately destroy itself.

Apparently, the big bang theory of the origin of the universe entails that there is a difference between matter and antimatter sufficient to explain the present dominance of matter. Apart from electric charge, no one has been able to find one. The trouble is that if there is no such difference (and no explanation), then there is no explanation for the existence of the universe, at least not an explanation that appeals to a big bang. Consider the gravity of the following conclusions from a CERN research project:

In a press release from the University of Gutenberg: Scientists are still in search of a difference between protons and antiprotons which would help to potentially explain the existence of matter in our universe. However, physicists in the BASE collaboration at the CERN research center have been able to measure the magnetic force of antiprotons with almost unbelievable precision. Nevertheless, the data do not provide any information about how matter formed in the early universe as particles and antiparticles would have had to completely destroy one another.

It is not merely that without an explanation of the kind they're looking for we are left with a mystery, the the trouble is that research continues to supply disconfirmatory evidence for the big bang theory: if the theory of the big bang is true then the universe does not exists. The universe does exist. Ergo, no big bang theory. As researcher, Christian Smorra, comments: "All of our observations find a complete symmetry between matter and antimatter, which is why the universe should not actually exist.

Cosmos concludes: "The standard model predicts the Big Bang should have produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter – but that’s a combustive mixture that would have annihilated itself, leaving nothing behind to make galaxies or planets or people." 

A final comment from WND is worth including: "despite Big Bang assumptions, dark clouds and the ongoing search fo asymmetry between matter and antimatter, the universe remains stable, sustained by some force CERN has not yet considered."

Legal Nativism?



Over at Law and Liberty, John McGinnis favorably quotes legal scholar Harold Berman. Berman apparently told The Fulton County Daily Report (although, I can't for the life of me find the quotation in its original context):

A child says, ‘It’s my toy.’ That’s property law. A child says, ‘You promised me.’ That’s contract law. A child says, ‘He hit me first.’ That’s criminal law. A child says, ‘Daddy said I could.’ That’s constitutional law.

McGinnis finds strong support for Berman's claims in the developemt in of his own daughter: "As my daughter turns two this week, nothing has been more remarkable to this law professor than her already intense relation with rules, vindicating Berman." McGininis proceeds to tell us how his daughter does not appear to have acquired knowledge of the law, but that "the law has categories that appear to map on to inborn modules of our nature."

Such observations lead McGinnis to conclude that "having a child makes me appreciate all the more the reality of a given human nature that has evolved through millions of years." McGinnis concludes this idea of human nature led to the establishment of American ideals in law but the ignorance of which will lead people ever closer to visions of childless utopias.

Whether or not refraining from childbirth leads one to embrace a Brave New World I cannot say. However, McGinnis' comments are illuminating for other reasons.

First, note the appeal to legal categories that are innate to human beings. If they are innate, then they are there from the get go - not acquired through experience. Ever since Chomsky, nativists have been in ascendence. They are far from dominant in some disciplines such as philosophy but fast making gains in cognitive sciences, and linguistics. Until recently, such a view--that there are domain specific modules in the brain the contents of which is composed innate beliefs, concepts or dispositions--was largely the preview of the religious. Theists have long been attracted to arguments reliant upon innately possessed concepts or beliefs, or dispositions to form concepts or beliefs. They are relatively new to other disciplines especially modern science.

Quite whether McGinnis' observations of his child are enough to suggest that she has innate legal categories is difficult to tell. It may be that his child has acquired those categories as she lives with someone who presumably talks about those categories all the time.

Second, do we think the founders had the same view of human nature as McGinnis does today? There is a reason to think not. Consider what McGinnis says:

having a child makes me appreciate all the more the reality of a given human nature that has evolved through millions of years.

McGinnis claims that there is a human nature, but then tells us that that nature has evolved over millions of years. Can this be? Presumably, to evolve is to change over time. Indeed, since Darwin, many have assumed that what was human nature millions of years ago is not what human nature is today.

In contrast, the founders' concept of human nature was probably much more Aristotelian: Human nature is tied to the essence of what it is to be human and such essential properties determine the purpose or goal of human beings.

It is unlikely that the two views make a happy marriage. If human beings evolve in the way McGinnis suggests, then observing a child now tells us nothing about the nature of human beings; it only tells us the nature of this or that human being as he or she is at this or that time. 

It is the Times who tell me the source of the quote from Berman, but I can't find it. See here

The Value of Hard Work



"Labor not to be rich" (Prov 23:4)

"The thoughts of the diligent tend only to plenteousness; but of every one that is hasty only to want" (Prov 21:5)


"So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." (1 Cor 10:31)

Hard work has a non-monetry value prior to its evaluation by those who pay for it. It's a good thing no matter what one is paid to do it. The monetary value applied to work does not necessarily reflect its value. In part, this is due to kinds of work being more or less available, but it is also due to the kinds of goods and services a culture most values.

The value of hard work is also diminished by the manner in which it is done. A complaining, joyless worker produces worthless work. A thoughtless worker who rushes through his tasks devalues what he achieves. A hasty worker is destined for the the same kind of poverty as the one who has done no work at all.

In contrast, the diligent worker is one who does good work. His work is valuable due to the good manner in which he does it. A little done well each day is better than much done in haste. An inspired worker fills his days with purpose. A persistent worker will overcome obstacles and deserve praise from his co-workers.

So, let's work hard today. And work well.

[Addendum: Work is also either good or bad depending on the value of what is produced. A porn producer's work is worthless. In contrast, a farmer's work is good.]

Generous Interpretation - The Bedrock of Good Relations



Relationships only work when we generally impute good motives to the speakers of sentences. Due to the nature of natural human languages, vagueness and ambiguity are inevitable in speech. Every-day talk is not supposed to be precise. But it works well because we assume the best of other people.

At least in public discourse in America, this assumption is no longer true. It seems we assume the worst motives in other people (at least of those whose political opinions are not the same as our own). Even when we agree with them, we appear unable to impute good motives to our opponents (let alone when we disagree).

One's policy in hermeneutics--the interpretation of text--is always to assume the best in the writer - that he or she intends to tell the truth, that there are clear distinctions in the mind even if not necessarily in speech. The job of a listener is rather like a court of law - to assume the innocence of the speaker until proven otherwise.

Sometimes this takes hard work - one has to fill in the blanks and act generously towards other people. But the bedrock of good relationships is the hard work of generous interpretation. If we want a family, church, workplace, town, or country that is harmonious, it will take work - not to fight each other but to speak truthfully and interpret generously.

This is not incompatible with the sinfulness of human beings - it does not require that we view each other as essentially good. Rather, it requires generosity on the part of a listener. Generosity is not a listener's obligation; it is given freely and it is given to those who may be just as prone to sinful speech as we all are. But without such generosity there can be only animosity. And with enough of that there can be only strife.

Free Will: More Than One Game in Town



I have spent many an hour in the company of friends who hold to a form of libertarian free will. Most conversations on the matter are gracious and good spirited. Some people are slightly mystified by my Calvinism, but they earnestly seek to know what it is and why anyone would hold to such a thing.

Occasionally, however, I have confronted the more extreme type who claims that there can be only one kind of free will. They represent a necessary-truth type of libertarian free will proponent. Evan Minton is of this stripe. He argues that libertarian free will is the only game in town. We either have the libertarian kind or we have no freedom at all:

"Libertarian Free Will is the only true free will there is. If you deny that, you might as well deny that we have free will altogether. I believe we do have free will, and I have both philosophical reasons as well as scriptural reasons for holding this belief."

Notice the trick: If you don't hold to x kind of y, then you don't got not y at all. This greases the skids of one's argument. Minton no longer has to argue that LFW is a better account than any other version; he merely has to argue that there is such a thing as free will.

What else could one claim using a similar strategy? Consider an analogous set of statements:

Platonic universals are the only true universals. If you deny that, you might as well deny the existence of universals. I believe there are universals, and I have good reasons for holding this belief. 

One could do the same with kinds of theism, views on time, or nearly any other metaphysical issue one might think of.

What makes Minton think that any other form of free will cannot really be a form of free? Minton seems to think that free will is by definition libertarian. Consider the following claim:

Compatibilism...doesn't actually let us affirm the two propositions; (A) Man is determined, and (B) Man is free. Why? Because on compatibilism, man still cannot choose between alternatives. 

This is a specious suggestion. The argument should not be over the definition of free will, but over what the necessary conditions are for an action to count as freely performed

Libertarians and Compatibilists about free will should admit that there is more than one kind of philosophically and theologically respectable kind of free will. Compatibilists should argue that compatibilism is the more respectable of the two and likewise for libertarians, but we ought not to argue that the other view is impossible.

Note: Minton does not appear to be quite as committed to his by definition argument as he first appears. His post contains five arguments against compatibilism. I may or may not respond on a later post. 

Original Sin: Disposition or Ability.


Since the fall, human beings are said to be born with original or inherited sin. By whatever means we inherit this problem, we have it innately. We do not acquire it sometime in our lives. Paul tells us that Adam's sin affects the whole human species (Rom 5:12). Luther wrote, "all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers' wombs." Calvin wrote that original sin is "a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God's wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls 'works of the flesh' (Gal 5:19)."

The doctrine of original sin (OS) is rightly regarded as a species of nativism. Nativism is the view that features of human beings are 'within us' and are not acquired. Those features might include capacities, dispositions, concepts, or beliefs. 

According to a weak version, OS is the lack of a capacity--the inability to please God--and is only overcome by an act of God. A stronger version implies that OS is what causes sinful actions and not merely that all actions fail to please God. For example, Calvin says that OS "brings forth" sin. If so, then it must have some further meaning that accounts for a positive "inclination" to act in a sinful way. But what is it? 

It is tempting to say that what's within is a desire to sin. But is it really plausible that an infant has such a desire? Desires appear to be acquired by children as they mature. If so, then desire is not a necessary condition for original sin. 

One plausible answer is that OS leaves post-fall human beings with an innate disposition to perform sinful actions. For example, Wayne Grudem writes, "our nature includes a disposition to sin... Children do not have to be taught how to do wrong." But what exactly is a disposition? A disposition is commonly thought to be what we mean when we ascribe a property like 'fragile' to an object. Consider a glass. A glass is fragile. In other words, a glass has the disposition to shatter when struck. 

What is odd about the disposition of a glass is that it never actually has to do anything to have the property of being fragile. What if it is never struck? It would never shatter but somehow it will always have the disposition to shatter when struck. 

The simplest way to think about it is to consider a stimulus condition (the striking of the glass) and a manifestation of the disposition in question (shattering). Something like:


is disposed to A when iff O would A if C. 


In the case of our glass, this is pretty clear: The glass is disposed to shatter when struck iff the glass would shatter if struck. Now, one might come up with all sorts of counter examples such as what might happen if the glass is wrapped in bubble wrap, but this just makes the analysis longer. One only need add 'not being wrapped in bubble wrap when struck' to make it work.

Consider a definition of OS using the simple analysis of dispositions:

A human being is disposed to sin when tempted iff the human being would sin if tempted.

The trouble comes down to what counts as the stimulus condition. Clearly, not every human being sins when tempted. Thus, temptation is not a sufficient stimulus condition. Whereas a clause added to the stimulus condition of a glass dispels the counter example in the bubble wrap case, it is not so clear that this would would for OS. One cannot add a clause that would ensure a tempted person will sin without referring to some other intrinsic quality of the human being. Furthermore, if temptation is sufficient for sin, then there is precious little reason we would have for holding a sinner responsible for his actions.

One might suggest this alternative:

A human being is disposed to sin when he desires to sin iff the human being would sin if he desires to sin.

It is still not clear that every human being sins when he desires to sin. Surely that is quite usual - the denial of our desires for a greater good and the avoidance of bad consequences. Furthermore, on this analysis, the stimulus condition is the feature of the human being we are calling a disposition. But this is what we are trying to analyze!

If there is no stimulus condition external to what we are trying to provide an analysis of then a dispositional analysis of OS is not possible.

Perhaps, then, we should turn to the idea of an ability or capacity. On the weak view of OS, we are said to lack the ability to please God. On the strong view we are said to have a positive ability to commit sin couched in terms of 'inclinations' or 'natures that produce sin'. But what is it to have an innate ability to commit evil? Plausibly, to have an ability is to have a power to act. Since only agents act, abilities are unique to agents. So, it could be said that strong OS is a kind of ability. This may in turn be analyzed in hypothetical terms:

For S to have the ability to sin is for it to be the case that S would perform a sinful action if S were to have certain relevant volitions.

On this view, a person has the property of being able to sin even though he or she may not actually sin. An infant who dies before performing a sinful action may nonetheless be said to have the ability to sin if he or she had wanted to. Furthermore, this analysis can account for the general condition of OS without ever being in a position to perform a sinful action. Consider a person who is never given the opportunity to sin. Could that person have OS? Though that person does not have a specific ability to sin, she still has the general ability to sin.

One might object that prior to the fall, human beings were untainted by sin, but they were able to commit sin (as demonstrated by their actual sin in the garden). But if being able to sin is what we mean by original sin, then we would have to say that pre-fall Adam was tainted by it. This is surely not the case given Paul's argument that sin entered the human species through Adam (Rom 5:12). Furthermore, how is it that we could ever be rid of original sin if it is an ability had by pre-fall Adam? Surely, if pre-fall Adam had it, then we will always have it!

In order to respond to the first objection, recall that the weak version of OS states that a human being has OS iff that human being cannot please God. What the strong version suggests is that there is an additional feature of human beings that is jointly sufficient for the doctrine. In other words, the doctrine of original sin is about both the lack of capacity to please God and the capacity to carry out wrongful actions. If so, then pre-fall Adam has the capacity to commit sin, but does not yet lack the ability to please God. Consequently, one might say that OS only applies to those who have the ability to commit sin and lack the ability to please God.

In regards to the objection about the future prospects of human beings, one might reply that though we presently have the ability to sin, we will lack this ability in our glorified bodies. At the resurrection of the dead, a glorified body is given to each person who belongs to the Lord. In that body, the person lacks the ability to sin and never lacks the ability to please God. In the meantime, believers are able to please God due to the imputed righteousness of Christ (who lacked the ability to sin, and never lacked the ability to please God).

Language and Fellowship



"Aphasia, the loss of language following a brain injury, is devastating, and in severe cases family members may feel that the whole person is lost forever." (Stephen Pinker, The Language Instinct, 2).

Is fellowship possible without language? I don't mean without the constant presence of language. Two people might not talk for a while but feel close to one another, but what if they never spoke to one another. What if, in the very nature of things, no one spoke? I suppose we could not know what our fellowship would be like. Would we be able to communicate in some way - by looking at each other? Perhaps we really can see each other's souls in each other's eyes.

Intuitively, however, such a situation presupposes the possibility of speech. Special looks across a table are special precisely because they are unusual. What is normal about fellowship is some form of communication between people.

Consider the ultimate fellowship - the fellowship between the three persons of the Trinity. There is never a division between them; they are utterly loving toward one another. Yet, it is difficult to think of such a fellowship to be communication-free. Indeed, our only insights into their fellowship is via conversations between one member and another. A paradigmatic example is found in the Lord Jesus' high priestly pray in John's gospel. Jesus both portrays an intimate divine fellowship but suggests that those whom Jesus saves will also participate in that fellowship: "...that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us..." (John 17:21).

Of course, it is not likely that anyone can adequately describe what such a fellowship will be like. It is somewhat beyond our imagination. However, it is also difficult to imagine that it would lack conversation.


Classical Education: Loving the Rock of Reality



"Why Latin? Why Logic? Why only 'great' books?" 

Such are the questions levied at the classicist. They are good questions, but the best answers are not found in pragmatics, a list of the benefits of a classical education. Instead, the reason anyone ultimately prefers a classical approach to education is that she holds to a classical worldview. I say 'ultimately' because pragmatic answers don't count for nothing. One cannot help using them in class to garner support for Latin verb endings. "Throughout history, the best authors were great Latinists" I said the other day. I had in mind one student whose mother had told me that she would like to be a writer. Motivating a student to say 'amō, amās, amat..." thirty times a day is one thing, but adopting a clear reason for committing oneself to the classical project is quite another. To do that, one needs to off one's modern viewpoint and lean into the worldview of a classicist. One can be inconsistent for some desired good, but it is better to attempt to line up one's assumptions about the world and follow their trail.

In The Mirror of Language, Marcia Colish describes it well:

Most of the classical philosophers whom the Middle Ages knew and regarded as authoritative held that there was an objective order of being prior to the subjective order of knowing. Following their lead, medieval philosophers endorsed the idea of an epistemology grounded in and controlled by its objects of knowledge with equal assurance and vigor. And, notwithstanding the scholastic demand  for a theory of cognition explaining man's knowledge of the world of nature, the object to which medieval thinkers normally addressed themselves was the world of spiritual reality, with preeminent attention to God. The medieval theory of knowledge was a direct consequence of this radically ontological emphasis. Epistemology was conceived as a function of metaphysics. The existence of an objective order of being was the primary condition which was held to make human thought possible at all. Furthermore, medieval thinkers identified being par excellence with the God of the Bible. Thus, they held, the Being of God Himself was the guarantee, the criterion, and the conditio sine qua non of whatever men might know about him, or about anything else (Marcia Colish, The Mirror of Language: A Study in the Medieval Theory of Knowledge. 1968, 1).

In sum, human thought is possible only if there is an objective order of being including God as the ultimate being. If the world exhibits objective order, then the content of our classes ought to be determined by it. Note that the classical worldview begins with God, then moves to created reality, and finally arrives at our ability to know anything.

In contrast, those who followed educational theorist and father of modern education, John Dewey, began with the knower and then asked how education might induce his flourishing. Dewey compared the classical way with a rock. It is static and immovable. Instead, he insisted, education is more like a plant, an ever adapting organism that, given the right environment, will flourish. In his view, unless what you are teaching connects with what a student experiences, it won't aid flourishing.

Dewey characterizes the difference accurately. The idea driving a classicist is that the body of knowledge we are responsible for is largely unchanging. It grows over time like a library, but it is not revolutionized for the sake of progress. It is rocklike in the sense that a student should knock up against it. It is solid. This is a way of saying that the content of one's class serves as the measure of things. To be committed to the classical project is to love the rock!

According to the classicist, language functions to mediate reality to human beings. Since reality is ordered by God, then reality is fundementally normative. Such normativity entails a static (and growing) body of knowledge obtained through the careful use of the powers of human learning. Language serves as the means by which one is able to access reality:

"The symbolic theory of knowledge developed in the Middle Ages was cast in terms of the relationship between words, on the one hand, and reality, on the other. It was the attempt of medieval men to reflect, in the mirror of the trivium, what they believed to be the one normative epistemological relationship between man and God." (4)

Words function to point to reality. If reality is an ordered reality governed by God, then words don't take on a pragmatic function in education. Rather, they reflect ('as in a mirror') the that reality. Again, this entails the unchanging nature 'body' of knowledge. Since the very nature of reality remains the same, so does what is said about it:

"The object of knowledge always remains the yardstick against which any statement about it must be measured. Statements are thus held not to be heuristic, or productive of knowledge in the first instance, but expressive of a knowledge of already existing in the mind of the knower. Axiomatic to this epistemology is the assurance of the subject's anterior knowledge of the object, a knowledge indispensable for his recognition of the truth of the words expressing it... The word of the speaker, although it cannot produce knowledge of the object, can point to it if it is not already in the mind of the subject. If the subject already knows the object, the word of the speaker can recall it to him, making it vividly present in his mind." (5)
Colish rehearses the views of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Dante showing how each one developed a theory of language to reflect the normative nature of words, definitions, grammar, and logic.  

The Logical Problem of Language Acquisition



In a recent interview, linguist, Noam Chomsky, repeated his claim that there must be some innate feature of human beings that makes it possible for them to acquire natural languages:

“No one holds that the rules of language are innate. Rather, the faculty of language has a crucial genetic component. If that were not true, it would be a miracle that children acquire a language. That is obvious from the first moment of birth, when the child begins to pick out linguistically relevant information from the noisy environment, then following a predictable course of acquisition which, demonstrably, goes far beyond the evidence available, from the simplest words on to complex constructions and their interpretations. An ape with essentially the same auditory system, placed in the same environment, would detect nothing but noise. Either this is magic, or there is an innate component to the language faculty, as in the case of all other aspects of growth and development.”

Chomsky is not always clear about what he thinks is innate. Does Chomsky think that humans have innate knowledge of anything? Is it an innate ability? If the latter, how could anyone disagree? It seems obvious that human beings have an innate ability to acquire natural languages and that this is a unique ability of the human species. If the former, then it is unclear what makes Chomsky deny that the rules of grammar are innate. Sometimes Chomsky sounds like he thinks human beings have propositional knowledge of the rules of grammar. For example, in Knowledge of Language, he writes, "it seems reasonably clear...how unconscious knowledge issues in conscious knowledge" (p. 270). Devitt suggests that Chomsky is guilty of conflating innate ability with innate knowledge of propositions (Devitt, Ignorance of Language, 246). 

Fiona Cowie argues that the crucial component of Chomsky's theory is that human beings have a domain-specific learning faculty that enables language acquisition to take place. In contrast, empiricists deny that human learning faculties are domain-specific. What we must have, empiricists suggest, is a general ability to learn. We use the same facility to acquire any kind of knowledge (Fiona Cowie, What's Within?). 

What Chomsky means by 'crucial genetic component' is a feature of human brains, genetically inherited, and the consequence of an evolutionary leap. Chomsky arrives at this conclusion as a result of trying to supply a theory to explain the fact that human language learners (children) pick up languages without sufficient experience. Chomsky assumes that there must be some other cause that produces a linguistically capable human being. He argues both that the available experiences are too few--not enough information is given to a language learner--and that they are too many (there are so many non-linguistic inputs available)


The latter problem was raised by Karl Popper. Popper argues that any causal series has a beginning—the entity causing the representation—and an end—the mental state representing the entity. The problem Popper highlights is that given the mass of options for inputs from a particular environment there is nothing that can determine which particular bit of the environment triggers the series. If so, then one needs to appeal to some other factor apart from the causal series to determine which bit of the environment is the beginning of the chain (and, mutatis mutandis the end of the series). According to Popper, there is a set of mind-dependent factors such as purpose and interest that determine what, out of an incredibly complex and large amount of environmental inputs ought to be the thing to think about (Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations; the Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 395–402).

The former problem is commonly called the 'poverty of stimulus argument'. The argument suggests that Children ‘sample’ a finite set of sentences and from that set are able to construct novel sentences. The finite set might include three well-formed sentences and infer that a fourth sentence is also well formed. However, if the fourth sentence is not well formed, there is no negative evidence to show that it is not admissible. 

Cowie suggests (i) “it is likely that John will leave” (ii) “John is likely to leave” and (iii) “it is possible that John will leave” as the three candidate sentences. Sentence (iv) is “John is possible to leave.” If there is no evidence given to the learner that rules out (iv), the learner is justified in continuing to use the sentence. But no one does. In fact, we universally rule it out. The task posed by the logical problem is to explain why we do so. Chomsky posits that we have some innate ability to recognize (iv) as incorrect. 

Both of these arguments taken together imply at least that there is more to language acquisition than a general ability to learn. If our ability to learn language is only part of a general ability, then what accounts (a) for the lazer-like focus of a learner on language inputs and (b) for the ability to rule out deviant sentences despite lacking apparent criteria for doing so? According to Chomsky, only an innately possessed domain-specific faculty can explain language acquisition in human beings. 

It is difficult to find fault with Chomsky's observation that language acquisition is miracle-like. In fact, I have always thought that the fact that we humans can learn anything at all is miraculous! Even the chief opponents of Chomsky's theory grant that if there is no innate, domain-specific language module complete with its own universal grammar, then language acquisition is a mystery - we simply do not know what makes human learning possible. Perhaps, say empiricists, at some point in the future, we will discover something about our brains that will explain the miracle. 

However, there are a few difficulties with Chomsky's theory. First, if we have a domain specific language learning faculty, then what explains our ability to learn other things? Surely, learning to drive, cook, construct buildings, draw, sing, and all the other things we know how to do require their own domain-specific learning faculties. But this seems implausible. As Putnam argues:

If Chomsky admits that a domain can be as wide as empirical science..., then he has granted that something exists that may fittingly be called 'general intelligence'... On the other hand, if domains become so small that each domain can use only learning strategies that are highly specific in purpose..., then it becomes a miracle that these skills... were not used at all until after the evolution of the race was complete (Hilary Putnam, in Language and Learning, ed. Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, 296). 

One might reply that domains evolve in the same way organs evolve. One would have to postulate that at every major intellectual discovery (nuclear physics, mathematics) there is a corresponding evolutionary leap producing a domain-specific learning module. As Putnam points out, the number of organs are limited, but the number of domains is 'virtually unlimited.' Isn't it more likely, Putnam suggests, that we have a general faculty of learning that is applied to novel domains of learning.

A further problem is that if the criteria for the correctness of a grammar is determined by the module we have been given through evolution, then it is difficult to account for the objective nature of it. We tend to think of correctness being a property of the thing that has it. In this case, sentences are well or poorly formed. Analogously, in formal logic, we don't think that the criteria for well-formed formulas are properties of our minds. 

I have recently argued that our ability to recognize good from bad sentences is analogous to a moral conscience. The power in question does not entail a prior knowledge of a set of rules, but the power to recognize objective rules. If so, then the task at hand is how to explain such a power. Surely having the power to recognize something implies a prior knowledge of what to look for even if that knowledge is only tacit. Furthermore, we are able to recognize all sorts of things given only limited information about them. At least on the surface of it, it appears that we would have to know more about what we are recognizing than experience has provided. How can we explain this power?

At this point, the question requires some auxiliary theory to help explain the phenomena. The impasse between the two sides--nativism and empiricism--provokes an appeal to a thesis about reality. What is it about reality that might help? Jerold Katz, a former colleague of Chomsky's, rebelled against the prevailing linguistic conceptualism at MIT. And there can be no more a rebellious act at an academic institution known for its science than to embrace Platonism! Katz did so and produced several works arguing that language is an abstract object.

Theism is another auxiliary thesis about reality and it would go a long way to explain how human beings learn. It would also do so whilst remaining conceptualist about human language abilities.

It seems to me that there are four problems to be solved:
  1. The intention problem - just how do we explain the human ability to pick out words and sentences from the plethora of sensory input?
  2. The criteria problem - How do we explain the human ability to recognize good and bad sentences without negative evidence for some of the bad ones?
  3. The justification problem - What justifies our belief in a universal grammar?
  4. The normativity problem - What is it about reality that would account for the objective normativity? 
Problem (1) implies that human mental acts are designed. We are built in such a way as to be able to attend our minds on something rather than something else. If God exists and created human beings, then human beings would be designed to pick out words from background noise. 

Problem (2) requires an innate knowledge of some universal grammar, but why suggest that this knowledge is within a human mind? As some philosophers suggest, the mind's ability to test sentences for grammaticality would require enormous prior knowledge. If so, then an infinite mind would know it.

Problem (3) is a problem facing all naturalistic nativist theories. Just because something is in the head doesn't make it right. If necessary truths are innately known, they are justified only if there is some reason to think them true. But, if naturalism is true, one is wise to wonder how. Nativists like Descartes suggested that the answer is God. He had a point. Without a divine mind who cannot be wrong about anything, innate knowledge in human beings is merely innate belief.

Problem (4) arises when one reflects on the human ability to recognize good and bad sentences. Chomsky clearly accepts that humans are able to weed out offending strings of words. He thinks that our underlying grammar (UG) is normative. But what explains our ability to recognize normativity? Analogously, we recognize actions are good and bad. Many philosophers, such as Richard Swinburne, have argued that such an awareness is best explained by the existence of God. If naturalism is true, however, it becomes much more difficult to explain normativity in the universe.