Friday, March 11, 2016

Isaac Newton, Alph, Betty, and Modelling Desires

In my defense of my account of morality, I have worried about the presentation that I have used to express the basic ideas used in this theory.

I present them by describing a universe that consists of a single person (Alph) with a single desire (to gather stones).

At the start, I describe specifically what it is to have a "desire that I am gathering stones". It is a desire that motivates Alph to realize a state of affairs within which the proposition, "I am gathering stones" is true. It is not a desire that stones be gathered. The creation of a pile of stones is an unintended consequence of realizing a state in which "I am gathering stones" is true, but it is not the goal or the end.

The description goes on from here. It shows the distinction between means and ends as Alph runs out of stones to gather and now must scatter stones as a means to once against realize a state in which "I am gathering stones" is true.

I introduce a second person, Betty, and give Alph the ability to choose whether Betty has a desire to gather stones or to scatter stones. I point out that Alph has a reason to cause Betty to desire to scatter stones, because this would allow Alph to continually gather stones without running out of stones to gather.

In writing this, I have always had a worry that a critic would look at this and report how such a story cannot possibly have anything interesting to say about the real world. The imagined critic would say that this is the wrong way to go about such a project.

I could not see how this skepticism could be turned into a substantive objection. Indeed, I pointed out how, in a physics class, one would learn the principles of mechanics through a method of instruction that involved frictionless surfaces and massless strings - simplifications that allowed one to look more precisely at what it is we wanted to study.

And still I remained bothered by the skeptic who refused to accept this as providing any type of useful information.

In anticipation of returning to graduate school, I have gone online to "The Great Courses" and purchased a course on introductory philosophy, "Great Ideas of Philosophy, 2nd Edition", taught by Professor Daniel N. Robinson of Oxford University.

Lecture 27, "Newton - The Saint of Science"

Professor Robinson describes Newton's "Great Idea" this way:

First, [Newton] reduces the problem. He renders the problem in utterly abstract terms. He reduces the problem to the problem of an ideal mass - a point, revolving around a center of force. No need to look at planets or peer through telescopes. Rather, once can sit with a pencil and a piece of paper . . . and determine the behavior of an ideal mass making revolutions around a center of force. Now this becomes an idealized model of an imaginable world - a possible world.
This actually makes me feel better about my idealized world consisting of a single person and a single desire, adding complexities, to explain the fundamental concepts from which a theory of morality would come to be constructed. In fact, it almost wants me to go back and start over, to create this idealized world and to explain these concepts, without the hesitation that I have felt in the past from second-guessing myself.

Because I do, in fact, think that all of the elements of morality can be demonstrated as complexity gets added to this simple model.

In more general terms, this provides me with yet another example of a problem that arises when an individual focuses too narrowly on a given field of study and ignores those things he judges to be irrelevant. Under normal circumstances, I would never have studied Newton because Newton was not a moral philosopher - so he would have nothing to say on a topic that interests me.

However, as happened here, I sometimes resolve (or I am forced - as when I was compelled to take 'core requirements' in college) to study outside of my interest, and I find hugely important information. A second example is when I was forced to take a course in the philosophy of mind and discovered that desires are propositional attitudes whereby a desire that P motivates an agent to realize a state of affairs in which P is true.

Perhaps, now, I can actually write that book.

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