Dark Bilious Vapors

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Home » Archives » January 2005 » Philosophical Ideas II: Attributions of Ability

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01/18/2005: Philosophical Ideas II: Attributions of Ability

From David Lewis's essay "The Paradoxes of Time Travel":

To say that something can happen means that its happening is composssible with certain facts. Which facts? That is determined, but sometimes not determined well enough, by context. An ape can't speak a human language -- say, Finnish -- but I can. Facts about the anatomy and operation of the ape's larynx and nervous system are not compossible with his speaking Finnish. The corresponding facts about my larynx and nervous system are compossible with my speaking Finnish. But don't take me along to Helsinki as your interpreter: I can't speak Finnish. My speaking Finnish is compossible with the facts considered so far, but not with further facts about my lack of training. What I can do, relative to one set of facts, I cannot do, relative to another, more inclusive, set. Whenever the context leaves it open which facts are to count as relevant, it is possible to equivocate about whether I can speak Finnish. It is likewise possible for me to equivocate about whether it is possible for me to speak Finnish, or whether I am able to, or whether I have the ability or capacity or power or potentiality to. Our many words for much the same thing are little help since they do not seem to correspond to different fixed delineations of the relevant facts.

For further reflection: certain ethical claims seem to be logically related to corresponding attributions of ability, i.e. "ought implies can." If attributions of ability are context dependent as Lewis claims, what does this tell us about the corresponding ethical claims?

(Lewis's essay can be found in The Philosophy of Time.)

Brock on 01.18.05 @ 09:24 PM CST


Replies: 4 comments

on Tuesday, January 18th, 2005 at 10:40 PM CST, yt@writeme.com">whitey said

It's not attributes that are relative to context, but the truth of statements about attributes. Attributes are what they are, independently of what anyone may say or think about them. But the truth of a statement sometimes depends on its context.

Lewis's famous example is the statement 'all the beer is in the refrigerator'. The truth of this statement is contextually determined: by which refrigerator is being referred to; by what quantity of beer is at issue; etc.

The truth of some ethical statements are determined by context, but that doesn't mean - and Lewis never suggested that it did - that ethical ATTRIBUTES are determined by context, or that the truth of ALL ethical statements are relative to context.

Some moral properties exist independently of context, and some moral statements are necessarily true.

on Tuesday, January 18th, 2005 at 11:27 PM CST, SadPunk said

Lewis is apparently trying to say that "upon further review," in the words of that great philosopher Ed Hochuli, the past exists solely as the aggregate definition of the present's possibility; i.e., that presently extant fact is nothing but a delineator of what the word/concept "can" means right now.

To me, this looks like linguistic hopscotch; he changes the strictness of the interpretation in going from "I can" to "I can't speak Finnish," not to mention that the latter is a lazy linguistic construct; we may say "I can't speak Finnish," but we mean "I don't"; it's not inability, but lack of training that's expressed.

I don't speak Chinese, but I've memorized a phrase or two passably enough that a native speaker can understand; I myself have no idea what the individual words mean. Ergo, I can speak Chinese, even though I don't.

I'm reminded of John Stuart Mill's proposed test of a thing's desirability.

on Wednesday, January 19th, 2005 at 6:13 AM CST, Brock said


I used the word "attributions," meaning sentences, not "attributes." Nevertheless, if an attribute is a sentence fragment, e.g. the predicate "can speak Finnish," I'd have to say the same about attributes. The reason the sentences are equivocal and context dependent is that the attributes are equivocal and context dependent.

I don't mean to put ethical claims in Lewis's mouth. The bit at the end is just my own observation; and it's really more an open-ended question than a statement.

And it's not all ethical sentences that may be affected, just ones of the form "S ought to do X." If I say "S ought to do X," and you reply "But S can't do X," which context is the correct one for evaluting "S can't do X"? Does the initial ethical claim specify the context enough to make the ability claim definitely true or false? If not, the ethical claim would seem to be equivocal as well, given the logical relationship between the two.

on Wednesday, January 19th, 2005 at 10:29 AM CST, SadPunk said

Hee hee. When I first saw Brock's post, I thought he was calling me "whitey." This seemed odd because I have one old friend who actually does call me that.

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