Monday, June 13, 2011

so what are my chances? I mean, *objectively*

In the first chapter entitled “Loomings” of Melville’s Moby Dick (or, The Whale), Ishmael (a character who’s also the narrator) ponders why it might be that he, rather than some other bloke, who is about to play the character he’s about to play on the whaling voyage. Let’s enter into his psyche and see how he frames the question:

“And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that part of the bill must have run something like this:

“Grand contested Election of the Presidency of the United States.”

“whaling voyage by one ishmael.”


…I cannot tell you why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces…”

That is, why is that it is Ishmael who is to go whaling, as opposed to being a presidential candidate, or a soldier in Afghanistan? And, of course, we could ask the same question for the one who is the presidential candidate or who is the Afghan soldier. Is there some sufficient reason why the Fates (or God or whoever or whatever) decided it was to be Ishmael and not, say, Ahab, or Elijah, to play the role? An affirmative answer to this question amounts to a view that Leibniz advocated, namely, that the reason why it was Ishmael and not some other person is because to be Ishmael is to be (among other things) a bloke who’s going on a whaling voyage. On this view, to ask “why me?” is like asking, “why is a cat a cat, or flower or flower?”—viz., it’s a silly question. Just as it’s silly to wonder why a flower is indeed a flower, so is it silly to wonder why Ishmael must live Ishmael’s life. To generalize Leibniz’ thesis, we get something like the following:

(L) For any subject S and any predicate P, if S has P it is because P is part of what it means to be S.

(L) strikes me as one of the most absurd theses I’ve ever heard. It would entail that Stalin could not have been a douche bag, or that I could not be typing this right now.

But, back to our original question, so as to figure out why it was Ishmael, and not, say, Elijah who goes on the whaling voyage instead. It might be suggested that the reason why is because Ishmael had certain qualities or dispositions, like wanting to go to sea, and Elijah didn’t, and so this is the reason why Ishmael went on the voyage and not Elijah. Understood one way, this answer is really only superficially distinct from (L), for it suggests that to be Ishmael just is to be such that you want to go to sea. And if this answer is meant in a way that does not entail (L) it just relocates or pushes our original question to another level. That is, even if we accept that the reason why Ishmael went on the whaling voyage is because he wanted to go to sea, we can now ask: why was it Ishmael and not Elijah who is such that he wanted to go to sea? Indeed, it seems that any answer q for some question ‘why p?’, we could equally ask ‘why q?’, and so on ad infinitum. But suppose the p’s and q’s don’t go on forever and they stop at p*. It seems to me that the *only* reason why we could stop and no longer have to ask why p*?’ is if p* is such that, unlike the rest of the p’s and q’s, it is necessarily true—that it’s impossible that ~p* be true. But if this is the right story, if ultimately the reason why it is Ishmael who goes on the whaling voyage and not Elijah is because there is some p* that is necessarily true and p*’s truth necessitates (viz., is sufficient for) the truth of all the p’s and q’s that get us to the fact that it’s Ishmael who goes on the whaling voyage, it seems that we’re left with the following thesis:

(L’) For any proposition p or q that is true, there is some p* that (a) is necessarily true, and (b) is sufficient to make both p and q true.

The problem with (L’), though, is that it has the same consequence of (L). If there is some p* that is necessarily true and its being true is sufficient to necessitate the fact that Ishmael goes on the whaling voyage, it follows that it’s impossible that Ishmael not go on his whaling voyage. And so we should reject (L’) for the same reason we rejected (L).

Well, is there some third option? I think so: perhaps there is no reason why it was Ishmael who went on the whaling voyage and not Elijah. If this is right, we can generalize to the following thesis:

(C) There is some p such that there is no reason why p is true rather than false.

I find (C) absurd, but not nearly as absurd as (L) and (L’). Therefore, (C).



I once asked a girl, “You don’t think we’d work even in the best possible world wherein there’s no sin?”

“No,” she said, “because I wouldn’t be me in such a world.”

What a dark saying, that she wouldn’t be herself in the best possible world. I think what she meant was something to the effect of, “In a world with no sin—in the best possible world— I wouldn’t exist. And neither would you for that matter.”

The reason why my USP 45 stays locked in my safe during those “endless nights” is because I believe and hope with every fiber of being that she’s damn wrong. Not so much that we wouldn’t be “together” in the best possible world (though that thought itself can throw me into the abyss), but that we couldn’t be in the best possible world.



Blogger Louis said...

Why couldn't there be a contingent reason why Ishmael went on the whaling voyage and not Elijah? Eg. because Ishmael freely decided to go, though he would have remained Ishmael had he not? Did you already entertain and accept or reject as much?

9:33 AM  

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