Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Can we adopt the Experience Requirement and take accomplishments seriously?

(For a more succint version of this argument, click here.)

I will argue that any theory with the Experience Requirement cannot acknowledge the prudential value (or value for the subject or intrinsic contribution to a subject's well-being) of accomplishments. The Experience Requirement says that something (some state of the world) can be good for A only if it is experienced by A, more formally:

if X is a state of the world, and X is good/bad for A, and the (dis)value of X for A derives from P being the case, and if P being the case is not a mental state of A, X must include A's experience of P being the case

Consider the following EXAMPLE:

1. Suppose that Brutus wants to kill Caesar; he stabs Caesar who dies immediately. Soon after that, Brutus is brought to a prison, where he lies in complete isolation. One year after the stabbing, Jesus comes to Rome and resurrects Caesar.

We want the Experience Requirement to imply that Caesar's resurrection cannot make Brutus' life better/worse, as this is not a state of the world Brutus is conscious of. This creates a problem for any theory that, beside the Experience Requirement, wishes to include achievements, or accomplishments, among the states of the world that contribute intrinsically (when experienced) to a subject's well-being. (A theory that purports to make both claim would be a particular type of G-theory.)

Intuitively, we would say that Caesar's resurrection deprives Brutus of his main accomplishment in life. (The resurrection seems to undo the killing, or whatever good thing was achieved through it.) So a theory that acknowledges the prudential value of accomplishments cannot exclude the relevance of the resurrection. On the other hand the Experience Requirement says that the resurrection cannot make Brutus' life worse (it lies outside his experience.)

(If you think that a killing is not the sort of event that can be undone by a resurrecting, simply assume that Brutus' goal – his accomplishment-defining goal - was that of getting rid FOREVER of the man who was the greatest danger for Rome's republican institutions.)

Can one defend the Experience Requirement from the charge of contradicting the value of accomplishments? A possibility could be to show that there is a theory in which both objective accomplishments and the Experience Requirement determine what is good for a subject. That such a theory exists is suggested by the fact that Experience Requirement does not collapse necessarily into a form of Mental Statism (only the mental states of a subject determine his welfare.) In fact, the Experience Requirement still permits to distinguish "authentic" and "inauthentic" experiences of accomplishments. What I mean by "authentic" I shall now explain:

Brutus' experience of killing Caesar is an "authentic" experience of an accomplishment. It is authentic because the killing of Caesar was, at the time of the experience, a real accomplishment. It was not an illusory getting-rid-of-a-dangerous-dictator. In that minute in which Brutus experienced the dying of Caesar, this dying was real, and through it Rome was really gotten rid of a dangerous dictator.

One way to make sense of the notion of authentic experience is in terms of what I shall call the law of "TEMPORAL ATTRIBUTION" of accomplishments to lives: whether someone accomplishes something at t, is uniquely determined by the state of the world at that time, t.

According to this definition, Brutus accomplished something when he stabbed Caesar, in that he really killed him, and (for some time) got rid of a dangerous dictator. Notice the difference between this authentic experience of an accomplishment and an experience as of an accomplishment, such as one Brutus could have had by using the Matrix. The Experience Requirement allows us to distinguish among the two kinds of experience, since the Matrix one does not correspond to anything that is a real accomplishment even at the time of the (experience as of a ) killing. Is this a reasonable middle way between Mental Statism and, as it is sometimes called, welfare "externalism"?

This middle position does not stand. The principle of Temporal Attribution implies that, in establishing whether Brutus' killing of Caesar was good for him, we should consider the state of the world at the time of the killing (which determines whether the killing is an accomplishment or not.) The state of the world at that time of the killing includes a lot of facts of which Brutus was not conscious of. Suppose that it includes the following FACT.

A mad scientist made a Caesar clone, that we shall call ErsatzCaesar. ErsatzCaesar has the same intentions as the original one, and is potentially able to convince everybody in Rome that the man killed by Brutus was not the man who had lead Rome's victorious army till that point.

In this scenario we cannot consider Brutus' killing of Caesar as an accomplishment, even at the time it takes place. (I take it for the moment that the accomplishment consists in protecting republican institutions against its enemies.) Because of the clone, Brutus' experience of the killing of Caesar does not count an authentic experience of an accomplishment, and is not good for him. The existence of the clone is bad for Brutus, even if it is not part of that portion of the world that Brutus experiences. So the principle of temporal attribution goes against the Experience Requirement.

Even if you do not accept this example as relevant, you still have to admit that the theory we get if

  1. we count authentic experience to be better for a subject than illusory ones and
  2. define authentic experiences through the principle of temporal attribution

is entirely ad-hoc. It includes many events of which Brutus is not conscious of, but it excludes all future events.

This only shows that the concept of "authentic" experience of an accomplishment must be built in a different manner in order to fit with the Experience Requirement. The focus must not be on the state of the world corresponding to the instants of time in which the experience of the accomplishment takes place, but on the state of the world made up by those real features of the world that are part of the subject's awareness of reality. So authentic experiences of accomplishments must be defined by something along the following lines

EXPERIENCE CONDITION: "an agent has an authentic experience of an accomplishment if
  1. he experiences a (real) state of the world (e.g. Caesar dying)
  2. this state of the world is brought about by him, and
  3. it qualifies as an accomplishment from the standpoint of all the (true) facts the agent is aware of."

A theory that prizes authentic experiences of accomplishments (in the sense defined by the Experience Condition) is not a form of Mental Statism. The Matrix-experience as of killing Caesar would still not count as an accomplishment because in that case there is no state of the world that could qualify as an accomplishment from the standpoint of all the true facts the agent knows. In the Matrix case the subject simply is aware of no true fact.

Does the latter view (authentic experiences of accomplishments are better than inauthentic ones) amount to recognizing the value of accomplishments for well-being? No: because what we defined as "authentic experiences of accomplishments" lacks the essential element that makes accomplishments what they are.

The property of an action that we may call its being an accomplishment does not supervene – as a rule - on those features of the action and of the action's context the agent is conscious of. To see why, consider that particular aspect of accomplishments that is the action's success: what it is in virtue of that an action fulfils the goal set by the agent doing that action. The idea of success is constitutive of the concept of accomplishment.

Given that the success of an action is only accidentally, if ever, determined by only those facts that enter the agent's experience, the Experience Condition simply excludes too much and does not leave us with anything that would resemble a theory that takes seriously the value of accomplishments.

Therefore, we cannot buy any meaningful notion of accomplishments if we buy the Experience Requirement. The Experience Requirement and the prudential value of accomplishments are simply mutually exclusive.

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