Sunday, December 30, 2007

TMP 4: From Preferences and Existence, to Preferences and Arguments

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

The book has gotten a lot denser, and seems to be flirting with a dangerous path. I'm starting to have some difficulty understanding why Stefan is saying some of the things he's saying, and it's becoming a little harder to interpret his arguments in a way that would make them make sense. However, Stefan has tied up some of the loose ends I pointed out in my last post, and it seems unfair to suppose that he won't be able to do the same with these issues.

For example, on page 33, Stefan somewhat addresses the issue of opportunity cost which I discussed earlier (though he doesn't make his point in the language of the framework which he has been building, which is somewhat frustrating, having dedicated so much effort to figuring out how it worked!). He also clarifies his concept of universally preferred alternatives in the first way that I suggested he could, which is to deny that all sets of alternatives contain universally preferable choices. He writes, "Clearly, some preferences are subjective. Musical tastes, personal hobbies, favourite literature and so on are all subjective and personal preferences." I wonder, though, if he would still want to affirm the universal preferability of a statement like, "If someone wants to enjoy listening to music, she should listen to music which corresponds to her tastes." It seems like that would still work.

However, I'm concerned with how Stefan proceeds from there. At the end of page 33, Stefan writes, "When I say that some preferences may be objective, I do not mean that all people follow these preferences at all times. If I were to argue that breathing is an objective preference, I could easily be countered by the example of those who commit suicide by hanging themselves. If I were to argue that eating is an objective preference, my argument could be countered with examples of hunger strikes and anorexia." I agree that these would be good counterexamples. But before moving on, it might be helpful to point out that these two examples are very different from each other.

It's clear that someone who commits suicide by hanging (unless she does it by accident, a possibility which I don't think Stefan is concerned with) would not want to consider breathing to be a preferable behavior. If fact, so far as she wanted her death to be caused by her asphyxiation, she would want to say that breathing would have been decidedly incompatible with her achieving her ends. Or alternatively, we would say that it was preferable for her not to breathe.

With the person who was involved in the hunger strike, it's likely that we would want to say that he wanted to survive. But if a hunger striker died of malnutrition (again, not by accident, but through an act of will), we wouldn't want to say that he acted contrary to preferable behavior. What he did was similar to the scuba diver in my previous post. He valued his cause more than he valued his life, and so sacrificed the achievement of his end of survival in order to achieve his incompatible and more valued end of furthering his cause. Just like the scuba diver, he wanted to live, but he should have starved to death. So though his case is different than the one of the suicidal person, we would similarly want to say that it was preferable for him not to eat.

What made me nervous was when Stefan wrote, "Thus when I talk about universal preferences, I am talking about what people should prefer, not what they always do prefer." The reason this bothered me is that the above examples do not illustrate this point at all. A good illustration of this point would have been one along the lines of my big-handed musician choosing a piccolo, or of the small-handed musician picking up an upright bass. The person who hung herself was acting consistently with what her preferred course of action should have been, because she was achieving her ends. The same is true of the hunger striker. On the other hand, the small-handed person would not be acting consistently with how she should have if she chose the upright bass.

By saying this in the way that he does, it seems like Stefan is implying something that comes way out of left field: that the ends chosen by the suicidal person and the hunger striker are somehow bad ends. Luckily, it seems like Stefan moves away from this point in his subsequent examples, where he argues that the scientific method is the only way to produce knowledge about the universe (I totally called it in my last post!), and a non-functioning ceremony should not be chosen to cure a disease. In passing, I'd point out that there could be entirely non-supernatural reasons why performing a mystic ritual could cure believers of certain ailments, but that's besides the point.

But as long as I was misinterpreting Stefan about the issue that I expressed concern about above, it seems like we're still working in the right direction. Just as nitpicky points, I want to point out two more things in this section which jumped out as potential problems. The first is that on page 32, Stefan wrote, "Preference exists as a relationship between consciousness and matter, just as gravity exists as a relationship between bodies of mass." The analogy implies a necessary, immutable relationship which doesn't seem to exist in the case of preferences. I agree that preference is a relationship between someone who prefers and the object of the preference, but it seems like a very different kind of relationship from the one between bodies of mass.

The second issue comes up when, on page 32, Stefan writes, " is reasonable to assume that whatever a person is doing in the present is what he or she "prefers" to do." This is a minor issue, but I think the word "action" is better than "doing," because it distinguishes between things that we actively choose to do and things that we don't really choose to do (like when someone wakes up because she was shaken, or when a child who has been conditioned to respond to certain commands unthinkingly obeys a particular order from his parents). Since I'm pretty sure Stefan means "action," this doesn't bear discussion.

I think I'm going to call it a night.


Anonymous said...

"(I totally called it in my last post!)"

Lol. You did indeed.

I'm finding this fascinating, how you are analyzing-as-you-go, rather than taking the whole thing in and then combing back over it.

Agree that comparing consciousness + preference to two bodies of mass is really odd.

Mike Barskey said...

"He valued his cause more than he valued his life, and so sacrificed the achievement of his end of survival in order to achieve his incompatible and more valued end of furthering his cause."

This is a polite, eloquent, concise, accurate way to put this. It's very important because so many people define "sacrifice" in a way that confuses the definition of "value." If you value something, you act to achieve it. If you value more than one thing, you want to act to achieve them both, but if the actions or ends are mutually exclusive then you must choose which value to pursue. It does not necessarily mean than one value is preferable and the other is not; it could mean that they are both preferable, but one more than the other.

Danny Shahar said...

Glad you approve. I'd be careful in saying one of the values is "more preferable" than the other. The term preferable seems to mean "required," which makes it difficult to see how something could be "more required" than something else. If I want to go dancing, but I want to scuba dive even more, and so I choose not to dance, I wouldn't want to say that I was required to dance, but required to scuba dive even more. Is that fair?

Mike Barskey said...

"The term preferable seems to mean 'required'"

Do you mean that "preferable" seems to mean "required" in the context of Stef's book? If so, then I agree with you, and your description of a stronger desire to dance than scuba dive would indeed not equate to being more required to dance than to scuba dive.

But in plain English "preferable" does not mean "required." It means exactly what your example portrays, a stronger desire for one option than another (dancing over scuba diving).

Danny Shahar said...

Stefan redefines the word "preferable" in his book to mean "required," so in discussing his book, I'll stick to that definition. I agree that it's a very different way of using the term from the common usage, but as long as he uses the term consistently throughout his book, it's acceptable for him to use whatever definition he wants.

Mike Barskey said...

OK, that makes sense. I didn't read the book, so knowing that you are using the word as defined in the book is important. Thanks.

Thanks, also, for the detailed review/critique of this book!

Danny Shahar said...

Glad you're enjoying it! Sorry I haven't had time to get any further than I have...

Anonymous said...

Your analysis is very tight. Far beyond your arguments themselves you really seem to have a grasp on the principles of reasoning. I think that's cool, you managed to entertain me this morning.

Danny Shahar said...

Wow, thanks!

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