Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Imagining conditionals and trouble for Kant

Responding to Aidan's concerns about imagination and modality, I'm going to spell out in greater detail how one comes to know the truth-value of subjunctive conditionals, and how one evaluates claims about necessary truths truth or falsity.

First, subjunctive conditionals, which have the form "if p were true, q". We imagine the closest world where p and then apply our whole set of beliefs to the facts of that world, to determine whether q in that world. So suppose I'm considering the subjunctive conditional, "If Gore had won the election, America wouldn't have invaded Iraq." I imagine the counterfactual situation, and extend my imagination into the future by applying my beliefs about Gore's intelligence, honesty, and rationality. My beliefs lead me to imagine a world where Gore doesn't invade Iraq and instead launches some kind of global antipoverty program after invading Afghanistan. So I accept the subjunctive conditional.

Now, claims about necessary truths. Let me just consider those which have the form "necessarily, if p then q". This actually seems simpler for the imagination account than the case of subjunctive conditionals does. "necessarily, if p then q" is false iff the following obtains in any one world: "p ^ ¬q". So we just try to imagine a world where p ^ ¬q obtains. If we can successfully imagine such a thing, the claim is false.

This, it seems to me, is exactly how I go about trying to think up counterexamples. Kant says, "If everyone made false promises all the time, then the institution of promising would necessarily collapse." He intends his claim to hold across all worlds, not just ones close to ours, so I'm licensed to imagine some pretty wacky worlds. I can imagine a world where everyone makes false promises all the time. Can I imagine the institution of promising flourishing there? Well, yes, if I imagine also that there's a psychoactive chemical in the water that causes everyone to forget all false promises, and gives them false memories according to which people have made great sacrifices to keep their promises. Since I can imagine (a world full of false promising) ^ ¬(the collapse of the institution of promising), Kant's claim is false.

8 comments:

Blar said...

What does that interpretation of Kant do to the categorical imperative (first formulation)? Does it drastically reduce the number of cases that violate the CI? Or, in addition to being able to imagine a world where p ^ ¬q , do you also have to be able to will such a world? How would this willing work? I imagine that it must require something other than there being a possible world that you could will where p ^ ¬q , because then you could just make everything else about that world utopian. Do you have to will the closest world where p ^ ¬q ?

Jonathan said...

We imagine the closest world where p and then apply our whole set of beliefs to the facts of that world, to determine whether q in that world.

Oh, if only it were that simple, Neil. You can't use all your beliefs. Otherwise, you might invoke your belief that the President of the United States started a war in Iraq, and come to believe that if Gore had been President, then Gore would have started a war in Iraq. (Hell, you might even invoke your belief that the President is a Republican and conclude that if Gore were President, then Gore would be a Republican.)

One of the hard questions about counterfactuals is how to figure out which things to import, and which things to hold constant.

Laura said...

Can any counterfactual really be falsified, even without imagining other worlds? Isn't it possible with some positive probability that if people stopped keeping promises, the institution would survive even in our world because people really wanted to believe in it, or learned some sort of code that if you promise (a), you'll do (b), so a promise of (a) just becomes like a promise of (b)? Isn't "anything possible" until we actually see the converse?

Jonathan said...

This is just an epistemic worry, right? How can we be sure that this counterfactual is correct? Well, it's hard to be really, really sure.

But I think it's probably just as hard to be really, really sure about anything about the future.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Blar, I think that my counterexample to Kant shows that Kant's theory doesn't make false promises come out as immoral, and this suggests that the number of cases that violate the CI is really small. I really don't know what to say about the question of how the willing of particular counterfactual situations interacts the first formulation of the CI.

Thanks, Jonathan, that's completely right.

tlaura, a lot of things are possible, both about the actual world and about counterfactual situations. It's possible with some incredibly low probability that Bush is actually a Communist, and is trying to set up the revolution. But we regard ourselves as justified in believing that this isn't the case, and there's no good reason to think our beliefs are unjustified.

Now, maybe your worry is that it's going to be impossible to directly falsify a counterfactual using only empirical means. Empirical data is from the actual world, and it can't immediately disprove any claim about how things would've gone in other possible worlds. But it seems that we have some amount of counterfactual knowledge -- for example, I know that if I had jumped out of the 4th story window here at 2:30, I wouldn't have written this comment. Empirical knowledge plays some role in explaining this -- I know how gravity accelerates falling objects, and how a high-speed impact against the ground will affect a human being. Giving a general account of exactly how we achieve this kind of knowledge is certainly not easy, but it seems pretty clear that we have some knowledge of this kind.

Julian Elson said...

I really don't understand this. I should probably ask an actual Kantian about this, instead of asking you, but it seems like Kant wants to avoid saying, "if everyone did X, where X is a morally wrong behavior, the world would be a worse place," because that would be the dreaded consequentialism, so he says something like, "X is a morally wrong behavior if is impossible to consistently will that the maxim which justifies X be the universal law."

It's somewhat clear how this works with promises, but let's say I formulate the maxim, "everyone over age 55 should be executed." This seems to me to be immoral, and Kant would no doubt agree, but it seems like we could have a society where we did that, and though the consequences would be bad, the society would not poof out of existence out of self-contradiction.

One might object that one cannot consistently will that everyone over 55 be executed and be 57 yourself, because then you are willing your own non-existence, which means you can't really will it, and since being 57 rather than 40 is a contingent fact of your personal circumstances rather than a necessary fact of being a rational being, willing the execution of all 55+ers springs from heteronomy.

But that's silly, because everyone who is over 55 was at some point younger than 55, so they are willing that their lives be cut a bit short, not their own non-existence per se. Your age isn't really contingent in the sense that, say, your sex is: it's part of a life cycle shared by pretty much all people.

This conflicts, of course, with the second formulation of the categorical imperative (respect for autonomy), but Kant claims that the different formulations of the categorical imperative are not seperate axioms to be used independently to explain moral law, but different formulations of the same principle, so anything which violates the first formulation of the categorical imperative ought to violate the second too, and vice versa.

Maybe I'll e-mail my old philosophy professor, and ask her if she can clarify this. She seems to think Kant is pretty cool, so maybe she'll give a more sympathetic explanation than one you might give (though, usually, this is the sort of thing where she says, "the categorical imperative isn't supposed to be used as a formula for deriving morality, it's just supposed to explain it," which is okay, I suppose, and a good reason not to try to go from the categorical imperative to what moral norms are justified, but it seems like you should at least be able to go the opposite direction, from moral norms to why they're justified by the categorical imperative.)

I feel like I must be missing something incredibly obvious here.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Julian! do you think that I'm consequentializing Kant here? I'm not. I'm just arguing against people who say that one wills a contradiction in willing the universality of false promises. If I can imagine a possible world where "if you need money, make a false promise to get it" is a universal law for all rational beings, there's no contradiction. Usually Kantians say that the contradiction arises because the institution of promising would collapse and promising wouldn't work anymore, but I'm pointing out a world in which that's not the case.

Julian Elson said...

No, no, I never meant to imply such a thing! I'm just sayin'... well, I understand that we can't take the categorical imperative and derive moral norms from it, but I'd think we should at least be able to take our moral norms and see how they fit into the categorical imperative, and I can't seem to do that, even with very obviously immoral stuff (like, say, killing everyone over 55).