Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Norman Malcolm's "lady-philosopher" and Sliding Doors

In the Brewery Arts Centre last night with friends, I had a vague pretext to tell the story of Wittgenstein’s worry and then relief when Norman Malcolm (pictured) didn’t marry a ‘lady philosopher’. All ended happily, I reported, thinking of Wittgenstein, Malcolm and the non-philosopher Mrs Malcolm acting out the moon, earth and sun’s paths through the cosmos on Jesus Green.

But this morning I had a follow up email:

How do you know that it all worked out fine with the philosopher not getting himself a philosopher-wife? Or what I mean to say is: How do you know it wouldn't have been fine if he had gotten her? Isn't there some kind of philosophical construct that describes the certainty of uncertainty to any situation that could have several endings or more simply put just like in 'sliding doors' with Gwyneth Paltrow?
Laura x

So here is a bad reply to a question that that question at least presupposes.

Suppose you make a life changing decision (you do, or you don’t, marry a lady philosopher, you do, or don’t, change jobs or move country etc) and then wonder whether you made the right decision. What sense attaches to that question?

In some cases, it seems that we do have a fairly clear idea. Last Saturday at Pizza Express I had the Etna having deliberated for a little while as to the rival merits of the old American Hot. If I were to ask, at the time, whether I’d made the right choice I might mean something like: if I had had the American Hot, would I have liked it more than I do like this Etna? I compare the counter-factual taste with the actual taste.

This is a fairly sophisticated use of ‘compare’. I cannot actually compare a real pizza with an unreal one (the one I didn’t order and thus didn’t cause to be made and thus didn’t exist). But we can extend the idea of actual comparisons of actual pizza. Imagine if like Prince Charles having 12 different eggs each cooked for longer and longer times to find the perfect soft boiled egg every morning I ordered both pizzas and ate the one I preferred. Now we just skip the actual other pizza and ask whether I would have preferred it. We can teach small children to do this and thus save on the restaurant bill.

But suppose that had I had the American Hot – in that possible world – by chance or by some complex causal chain, the waitress would have dropped it on my lap or a light fitting would have fallen on my head, killing me. Would I have preferred that to the Etna I actually had with no such upset? That seems the wrong question. I want to know which I would have preferred it all other things being equal. Hold everything else constant in the actual and the possible world and compare only the different pizza experiences. That is, I think, what we normally mean if we ask whether we’ve made the right choice in the ‘Express.

What if the American Hot always causes me, or would cause me, an allergic reaction? That might factor into an assessment of what is to be compared or not. If the deliberation is practical, it should include the predictable consequences of the competing choices. But sometimes I might wonder whether, aside from allergic reactions, I would have preferred it. We can think either way.

But in complex cases, this whole approach does not seem possible. Changing partners, jobs, countries etc changes lots of things (such as the friends one ends up with) in unpredictable ways and these other things may matter enormously to an assessment of how and why one is as happy, or not, as one is. So the idea that one can compare the actual case with something else is put under threat. Who knows what significant factors would have changed had I taken, or not taken, that job? What friends, what exercise regime, what diet, what state of health? Unlike the convergence in the film Sliding Doors, it seems to me that the differences, given a different initial major choice, get bigger and bigger very quickly. So even if one undertakes to try to think about another choice all other things being equal, it is unclear that that phrase has, in this context, a clear meaning. I could not have that job in Otago and live in Kendal eg. But what are the limits to what has to stay fixed and what change?

That thought also puts another one under threat: did one make the right choice? Without the possibility of asking whether the other choice would have been better there is now also no sense equivalent to the pizza case of having chosen correctly.

But there is at least one other way of approaching that idea. Here is an analogy based on an idea from Crispin Wright (though I doubt he would approve the extension!). These days we all know that colour is a complicated business. Colours are related to light but not simply to some wavelengths. There is no pink or brown in the spectrum, eg. Facts about the eye play a role also. One response to this is to think that colour is not real and in the world in the way that length or mass is. Instead, to be green is to be judged to be green on a summer's afternoon by someone with statistically normal vision. So the judgement that x is green fixes the facts about that bit of the world. Well, roughly. It's like the euthyphro paradox: do the gods love what is good because it is good? Or is it good because the gods love it? The sketch of a view of colour links it to the second option.

That is not, however, to say that such judgements cannot go wrong. The lighting may be wrong or the colour vision defective. But ultimately what is right or wrong does not depend on independent facts about colour. The facts about colour depend, ultimately, the other way round on judgement. So we might try to save the idea of a correct choice in complex cases by a similar move: if one followed the right procedures and made no procedural errors, then that is the notion of correctness in play. The standard of correctness just is making the judgement in the right way. If we want to, we can then milk a notion of the alternative having been worse from that to say, if the choice were made correctly and took into account the appropriate factors, then the alternative would have been worse: that is what correctness in such a choice amounts to. (But like the colour case, the facts about the other case depend on, rather than disciplining, the correct judgement.) On reflection, pizza choice is probably Iike that too.

So given that listening to what Wittgenstein said was always the right thing for his disciples, the real Mrs Malcolm was bound to be better than the hypothetical lady-philosopher Wittgenstein feared.