Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Simple Argument Against Free Will

Why did you do it?

Because I chose to do it.

Why did you choose to do it?

Because it was the best available way to get what I wanted.

Why did you want that?

Because it helped bring about what I wanted most overall.

Why did you want that most overall?

Because that's the kind of person I am.

Why are you that kind of person?

Because that's the way I was made by God, nature, and/or society.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Lingo: The Doctrine of Double Effect

In November 2009, the staff at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona had a dilemma: they could let a pregnant woman die along with her unborn child, or abort the child to save the mother's life. They chose to save one life because they could not save two.

The Catholic Church responded by declaring excommunication for those involved.1

What moral reasoning led to this?! It can't only be the result of considering unborn humans to be the moral peers of adult humans.

The Space Station

Imagine two astronauts on a space station which is struck by a micrometeoroid that destroys the life support system and passes through the skull of one of the astronauts. This injury causes unconsciousness and starts a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. The uninjured astronaut has enough equipment and expertise to know her partner will die within the next 12 hours, but the uninjured astronaut will run out of air before the repair crew arrives if her partner does not die within the next hour.

I think most people would consider this situation tragic, but ultimately agree it is morally justifiable for the astronaut who has the opportunity to survive to do so, even if it means killing — or allowing mission control to remotely kill — her already dying partner.

Official Policy

It's a safe bet that the Catholic Church would consider it as bad as murder to kill the dying astronaut. In 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life:
"Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. [....] The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end."2
Sounds good, until you realize this particular way of honoring life sometimes requires the death of additional innocents (like the Phoenix mother or the hypothetical astronaut).

A Bit of History

Historically speaking, the Pope didn't inherit this uncompromising principle from Jesus Christ (who might have rebuked the Pope with, "The rule against killing was made to serve human life, not human life to serve the rule.")3 Instead, the official Catholic teaching originates from something St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in response to a question about killing in self-defense:
"Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental [....] Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one's life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one's intention is to save one's own life, is not unlawful [....]
Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one's own life than of another's. But as it is unlawful to take a man's life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above, it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense [....]"4
This has become known as the doctrine of double effect (or the DDE), i.e. an act with both a good and a bad effect may be morally permissible if the good effect is intended and the bad effect is unintended.

The DDE is a very fine-grained distinction. It allows a forceful defense without taking care to avoid killing an attacker, so long as the defender never thinks, "I will defend myself by killing my attacker." This makes some sense when striking an attacker's head with a heavy object, but it's hard to see how running an attacker through with a sword isn't a deliberate decision to kill. The DDE's prohibition on intending to kill as a means to a good end is the basis for not allowing a deliberate abortion as the means to save the life of a woman.

You may be wondering, "If the DDE has a loophole for unintentional killing in self-defense, might it have a loophole for unintentional abortion which saves the life of a woman?" Yes, it does!

When Cancer Is Preferable

The current policy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states:
"Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child."5
This allows, for example, the removal of a cancerous uterus even if this effectively constitutes an abortion. The intent — and direct action — is the removal of the uterus, which just happens to kill anything in the uterus. The next line of the policy states, "In case of extrauterine pregnancy, no intervention is morally licit which constitutes a direct abortion."6 This means that any implantation outside the uterus which will kill both woman and child must be allowed to kill both (not the situation in the Phoenix case, but it falls into the same category).

A More Convenient Space Station

In the original thought experiment, I pictured both astronauts together in a room with the air running out. The DDE would forbid killing the fatally injured astronaut as a means to the good end of saving the other one's life. But let's make a few modifications....

This time, the astronauts are in separate modules when the micrometeor strikes. The life control system still works, but the module containing the dying, unconscious astronaut is venting air from the entire station, which will (again) result in both astronauts dying before the repair crew arrives. The doors to the damaged module automatically sealed shut. No one in; no one out. The only thing the healthy astronaut can do to survive is shut off airflow into the damaged module.

The DDE would allow this life-saving action because the direct, intended means of saving the life of the healthy astronaut is to stop the air leak...which just happens to kill the dying astronaut inside the damaged module.

So What?

My primary goal for this post was to explain the doctrine of double effect, not so much to criticize it. I have shown how the DDE comes up in real-world life and death situations and that it responds in odd ways to the details of similar situations. This means it's a principle that is both questionable and urgently important to question.

2. Pope John Paul II. Evangelium Vitae. Part 57.
3. See Mark 2:27.
4. Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Second part of the second part. Question 64. Article 7.
5. USCCB. Ethical and religious directives for catholic health care services (fourth edition). Directive 47.
6. Ibid. Directive 48.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thoughts on Science

When I was in elementary school, I was very interested in science. I loved flipping through books about different kinds of animals and plants. Pictures of thirty kinds of snakes? Sold! I was fascinated by atlases, especially when they peeled away the oceans to show underwater landscapes. Other planets and comets were cool too! I played around with simple optics, making rainbows from prisms and burning words into pieces of wood with my magnifying glass. I had two sets of children's encyclopedias — Childcraft and Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia of Science — which I studied for countless hours.

Yet for all that, I had a limited view of science. I thought of science as a collection of interesting observations, a list of things in the world today. What I didn't understand is that science is primarily a method of learning about the world. All the things I thought constituted 'science' were really just some of the fruits of scientific method.

Forbidden Fruits

I have a fuzzy memory of my parents removing one volume from an encyclopedia set, or maybe one of the Time-Life nature books we had. It had something to do with "millions of years" or biological evolution (probably both). I wasn't supposed to put these in the same "things in the world" category as planets and trees.

A few years later, I was taught something like the following at my private Christian high school:
Science can only give us the data; it can't tell us how to interpret the data. So while scientists may find fossils in the ground, they can't tell us scientifically that those fossils are millions of years old. In fact, scientists who talk about "millions of years" or 'evolution' are making up those ideas out of disobedience to God.
It should come as no surprise that I wasn't given a clear understanding of how evolution is supposed to work or why people think the Earth is not just millions but billions of years old. Learning "both sides" would have been a step up.

For as long as I was a fundamentalist Christian, I accepted the claim that these parts of science were made up by non-Christians for religious reasons. The Bible explained how creation happened and so I didn't need to know any more specifics to know 'evolutionists' were misinterpreting the data. I was so swept up in my religion that I had become incurious about this world.


During my four years at Iowa State I came to see Christianity as just another human religion. ...but that's a story for another time. The point is that I no longer had this enormous pressure to believe life on Earth was created about six thousand years ago. Yet instead of saying, "Well, I don't believe the Bible is reliable so I'll just accept mainstream science now," I decided to find out why mainstream science claims the Earth is billions of years old and that living species are related. I was still prepared to hold contrarian views on those points if I didn't find the evidence compelling. Losing trust in religion-based knowledge didn't automatically boost my confidence in science-based knowledge.

(Note — I'm not claiming a loss of religion is necessary to fairly investigate scientific claims. This is simply my own personal history. I didn't investigate scientific claims until I left my childhood religion.)

So I started doing what I advocate in an earlier post:1 I started reading both sides of the argument. The decisive stroke came when I read G. Brent Dalrymple's book The Age of the Earth. He did something amazing no author had bothered to do in my previous reading. Dalrymple gave a serious, patient, and readable explanation for why scientists believe the Earth is billions instead of mere thousands of years old. He didn't hide or downplay other answers scientists had given in the past. Instead, he showed why they had arrived at their conclusions and how those conclusions were replaced by better explanations.

After reading The Age of the Earth, I could see that many of the arguments for a young Earth were simply ignorant. No one who knew what I knew would even try to make those arguments in the way they were made. The next time you hear someone claim young Earth views are just as scientifically valid, ask them if they can give a very rough sketch of the significance of isochron dating. When you get a blank stare, be nice and recommend Dalrymple's book or chapter 3 of Kenneth Miller's best seller Finding Darwin's God.


My time at the university library taught me more than facts about the age of the Earth. The truly important lesson was that science is a method, not just a set of facts. Scientists aren't authorities on the truth; they're experts at discovering the a slow, never fully certain, but remarkably effective way.

Can experts be wrong? Of course! But it's foolish to assume that whenever the results of scientific inquiry are at odds with your own beliefs, the experts must be doing something wrong. Remember, these are people who are very familiar with the evidence and arguments. They probably have good reasons for holding the beliefs they do (which is a nice way of saying you're probably wrong). And the best part is that science is more or less a public exercise, so any sufficiently motivated person can find out why the experts believe what they do.

Today, I hold the fruits of mainstream science in high esteem, not because some authority told me I must, but because I have an appreciation for the method that produced them.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Disagreement As Evidence

When two people disagree, the usual approach is to start going over evidence and arguments. But what happens when Person A is fully satisfied that Person B understands the same evidence and arguments, yet still disagrees? Does this disagreement itself constitute additional evidence that Person A should take into account, perhaps by adjusting her position? Or would Person A be right to maintain her confidence?

These are the kinds of questions addressed in Feldman and Warfield's short anthology Disagreement.1 In this post, I will primarily be sticking to one chapter which hits the central points.

Epistemic Peers

"Epistemic peer" is a term that pops up in most of the chapters. It's a shorthand way of talking about two or more people who have access to the relevant evidence and are mutually familiar with the different arguments they all hold. Thomas Kelly offers these three examples:2
  • Two members of a jury, when it's time to decide 'guilty' or 'not-guilty.'
  • Two weather forecasters on the chance of rain tomorrow.
  • Two professional philosophers on whether free will is compatible with determinism.
(A large portion of these peer disagreement scenarios were about philosophers, for the obvious reason that these chapters were written by philosophers.)

Disagreement isn't such a problem when it happens between non peers on a particular topic. If I find out one of my beliefs about the moons of Jupiter is in conflict with what an astrophysicist believes, I should take this to indicate it's very likely that I'm ignorant of some relevant evidence and I should lower my confidence until I can investigate further. Meanwhile, the astrophysicist need not consider lowering her confidence just because I disagree unless I can demonstrate status as an epistemic peer.

Two Extremes

I found Thomas Kelly's chapter "Peer Disagreement and Higher-Order Evidence" to have the most helpful terminology, at least as a starting point. Search link:

Peer Disagreement and Higher-Order Evidence — Thomas Kelly

Here, Kelly examines two very different responses to peer disagreement, then ends up combining them. The first extreme response:
"The Equal Weight View: In cases of peer disagreement, one should give equal weight to the opinion of a peer and to one's own opinion."
A pro-argument. You and I are carrying thermometers which have agreed in the past. I check mine and conclude it's 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but then I find out you just checked yours and have concluded it is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. I know you're as fanatical about accurate measurement as I am, so it seems I must lower my confidence in "60 degrees" and raise my confidence in "65 degrees" until my confidence is evenly split between the two.3

A con-argument. Given the evidence available, the rationally correct level of confidence that hypothesis H is true is 10% (quite unlikely!). You and I come to two different, higher levels of confidence than that. Suppose I'm 20% confident that H is true and you are 80% confident. According to the Equal Weight View, we should both split the difference and be 50% confident that H is true. But it seems wrong that I should have to adjust my close-to-appropriate confidence so much in response to your way-off-base confidence.4

Perhaps there are better con-arguments against the Equal Weight View, but I found this one unpersuasive. In the scenario, you and I have already tried our best individually to form a correct level of confidence in hypothesis H. Expecting us both to recognize that my answer is more justified by the evidence and your answer is less justified seems to be going against the conditions of the hypothetical situation.

The second extreme response:
"The No Independent Weight View: In at least some cases of peer disagreement, it can be perfectly reasonable to give no weight at all to the opinion of the other party."
and its sibling:
"The Symmetrical No Independent Weight View: In at least some cases of peer disagreement, both parties to the dispute might be perfectly reasonable even if neither gives any weight at all to the opinion of the other party."
(Though, really, the other extreme would replace "at least some cases" with "all cases." In other words, a person could always respond to peer disagreement by not making any adjustment to their own confidence level. I could take the stance that my peer must show me evidence or arguments besides mere disagreement before I should be expected to budge.)

A pro-argument. Suppose I examine the evidence and become 80% confident hypothesis H is true, but I also take the position that confidence levels 70% through 90% are within reasonable range. You examine the evidence and become 75% confident H is true, and also hold that 65% through 85% are within reasonable range. We meet and find out we disagree, but we're both close enough that we consider the other's answer reasonable. It doesn't seem like we should be rationally required to split the difference.5

Another quick example: an Atheist peer and a Deist peer may disagree quite substantially but still consider the other view within the range of reasonableness, given the nature of the evidence. That last bit — still considering the quality of the original evidence when dealing with disagreement — is what Kelly thinks is missing from a strict adherence to the Equal Weight View.

I don't have a specific con-argument. However, those who find the Equal Weight View strongly persuasive would want to know when it makes sense to set the Equal Weight View aside. More on that shortly.

Combining Forces

If one view sounds pretty good and so does the other, why not try combining them? That's what Kelly does with his Total Evidence View. He argues that we should take all of the following into account during peer disagreement:
  • The original evidence (the first-order evidence).
  • My own confidence level.
  • Your confidence level (which, together with my own confidence level forms the higher-order evidence).
By contrast, the Equal Weight View would leave out the original evidence at this stage, with the assumption that it is already "baked into" our respective confidence levels.

The obvious question now is: "How, exactly, do does the nature (or quality) of the original evidence weigh in?" Can we construct a neat formula which reduces to the Equal Weight View as a special case and the No Independent Weight View as another special case? Kelly doesn't try to do this. Instead, he gives the following rough outline:
"In some cases, the first-order evidence might be extremely substantial compared to the higher-order evidence; in such cases, the former tends to swamp the latter. In other cases, the first-order evidence might be quite insubstantial compared to the higher-order evidence; in such cases, the latter tends to swamp the former. [...] In still other cases, the two kinds of evidence might play a more or less equal role in fixing facts about what is reasonable to believe."6
An example of the first-order 'swamping' the second-order. Suppose we go out to dinner, decide to split the bill, and we both calculate what half of the bill should be. I come up with an answer of $20 each. You come up with an answer of $130 each. It's very obvious that $130 is more than the entire bill. Even if I have known you to be equally reliable at math before today, I can completely disregard your answer because it's so absurd.7

Frankly, I'm not sold on the Total Evidence View. In this dinner math example, it's doubtful we would still disagree after talking it over briefly. Maybe that's unfair since it's such a trivial example, but I thought the main point of this "philosophy of disagreement" stuff was how to handle disagreements with seemingly reasonable people with whom we've hashed out an argument as far as it seems we can on the first-order evidence. I do tend to think the quality of the original evidence should be "baked into" our confidence levels before considering whether disagreement itself constitutes additional evidence.

I still don't have any very strong views about whether peer disagreement counts as evidence. It's a good question which I hope to keep exploring.

Disagreement Disagreements

When I started reading this book, I wondered if one of the writers would turn the lens of disagreement theory back toward disagreements about disagreement theory. Yep! Adam Elga delivered with his chapter "How to Disagree about How to Disagree."

What I found most interesting was the suggestion that positions about how to handle disagreements might be self-undermining. If I hold a "split the difference" style position and you disagree, how can I consistently hold fast to my position about how to handle disagreements? Elga argues that, yes, this would be hypocritical...unless we can somehow make a principled exception for the principle itself.

A principle that makes an exception for itself? How scandalous! But consider the hypothetical case that Consumer Reports magazine not only rates consumer products but also rates magazines of its own kind. Wouldn't it have to give itself top marks all the time for its product ratings to make any sense? How could Consumer Reports give Super Waffle Toaster a 3/5 rating (or however it's done) without implying that it stands behind its 3/5 rating as the most accurate rating any such magazine could give of the product?
"In order to be consistent, a fundamental policy, rule or method must be dogmatic with respect to its own correctness. This general constraint provides independent motivation for a view on disagreement to treat disagreement about disagreement in a special way."8
Interesting. Now I'm on the lookout for when this principle of principled exceptions might apply in other contexts.

1. Feldman, R., & Warfield, T. A. (Eds.). 2010. Disagreement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2. p 111.
3. Adapted from p 114.
4. Adapted from p 122.
5. Adapted from p 118.
6. p 142.
7. Adapted from p 149. 
8. p 185.