Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tim Gowers's Blog

I just stumbled upon this blog by Tim Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge with interests in the philosophical side of things. It's been running since September, and there are some interesting posts up here, as well as some interesting comments by interesting people. If you're a philosopher interested in maths, and haven't seen it yet, I can recommend a peek.

Explanation Book Proposal

I've just finished and sent off the book proposal for my planned book Explanation in Philosophical Theories. The book will assess the prospects of what might be called 'explanationism' in various areas of philosophy, especially metaphysics and metaphilosophy. Comments welcome, of course.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Backwards Explanation

UPDATE: A little sibling for Backwards E! Our paper 'Liar-like Paradox and Object-Language Features' is now forthcoming in American Philosophical Quarterly. It argues that you can get Liar-like paradoxes without much at all in the object language (in particular, without anything like a truth-predicate, reference to truth-bearers, or negation) so it's a mistake to suppose that these sorts of object-language features are to blame, or that you're safe as long as you ban them. We'll get a final draft online soon ...

Daniel and Carrie are pleased to announce the forthcoming arrival of their first joint project, a healthy 7000-word metaphysics paper which they have named Backwards Explanation.

Backwards Explanation is still in incubation, and will not be fully developed until its appearance in a special issue of Philosophical Studies containing papers from this year's enjoyable and fertile BSPC.

Carrie and Daniel are doing well, and hoping that 'Backwards E', as it is affectionately known, will soon have lots of little brothers and sisters to play with. Following the delivery Carrie will have an Erdős number of 6.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Paranormality Again

UPDATE II: I've just heard that this reply will be appearing in Analysis after Caret and Cotnoir's piece (which I believe is scheduled for the July 2008 issue).

UPDATE: I've now drafted a more thorough reply.

Caret and Cotnoir's reply to my Analysis paper on Beall's 5-valued approach to the Liar is now online. Their main contention is that it is not a requirement on Beall's model that designation should be expressible in the model language. They make lots of helpful clarifications, but I am not convinced by the main thrust of the paper, which I'll just say a little bit about here.

They say:
"Jenkins has provided no argument for the requirement that 'untruth' be expressible; but the requirement appears to be based on an unwarranted assumption, namely that 'true' in English is a classical notion ... it comes as no surprise that classically bivalent notions will yield inconsistency."

I disagree with Caret and Cotnoir that because designation in Beall's model is a 'model-dependent, instrumental notion', it is no problem for the model if its language cannot, on pain of Liar-like paradox, include any predicate expressing it. I don't see how helpful a model can be, with regard to resolving the Liar, if there are any semantic facts about the way the model works that cannot, on pain of Liar-like paradox, be expressed in its language. It's certainly not that I'm assuming that 'true' in English is classical. It's just that it seems to me that the problem the Liar presents is the apparent impossibility of our language's being capable of expressing certain kinds of claim about its own semantics which it seems to be able to express. Models which embrace the inexpressibility of key semantic claims don't satisfy me as ways towards a resolution of that problem.

I'm planning to write up a proper reply soon.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Arche Basic Knowledge Workshop

Yesterday I attended the first day of the 1st Arché Basic Knowledge Workshop. (Unfortunately I’m missing the second day.) There were papers by Ernie Sosa, Martin Smith and José Zalabardo.

Sosa presented some work from his new book project. Among other things, he suggested what he called a ‘transcendental argument’, intended to bolster the (anti-sceptical) thought that we are entitled to the position that our faculties are not completely unreliable. The main thrust of this was that the alternatives – rejection or even suspension – are cognitively unstable. But I'm not convinced; even granting that they are, and that this makes them epistemically unacceptable, in order for this to lend support the remaining option it must be assumed that there is always some epistemically acceptable option available to us. If we have no reason to assume that, the epistemic unacceptability of two out of our three options does not entail the epistemic acceptability of the third.

Smith presented an intriguing paper in which he suggested that we rethink our notion of justification so that it is not linked to ideas of probability-raising or probabilification. Instead, we should think that justification is a matter of what he called ‘normic support’. A normically supports B just in case the most normal worlds where A and B are more normal than the most normal worlds where A and not B. This suggestion raises a number of very interesting issues, but what caught my attention were Smith’s further claims about the interactions between randomness and normality. His notion of normality has it that any outcome of a genuinely random process is as normal as any other. One worry this raises is that if, as some results in quantum physics suggest, most or all of what happens in the physical world involves quantum-level random processes which can have macro-level effects, it will be difficult to order worlds for normality so as to generate the kind of results Smith has in mind. But it would be interesting to consider whether notions of normality without this link to randomness might serve in this context, even if they may not get quite the results Smith is after (such as the result that one is not justified in believing one's lottery ticket will lose).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Caret and Cotnoir on Jenkins on Beall

Colin Caret and Aaron Cotnoir have written a reply to my paper 'True, False, Paranormal and Designated: A Reply to Beall'. Their paper is due to appear in July's Analysis. Since the paper's not online yet I won't give the game away as to its contents, except to say that their main contention is that, contra me, Beall's model language is not deficient in virtue of being incapable of expressing certain claims about its semantics.

Friday, November 02, 2007


Today's good news is that I have just submitted the final manuscript of my book Grounding Concepts to OUP. This means the MS is available for those who want to get a sneak preview that will be pretty close to the published version. Email me if you're interested!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

God Thinks Disambiguation Requests Are Polite

OK, I enjoyed Brit's and Ross's chats with God so much I thought I'd have a go. Here are my highlights.

Are there any true contradictions?
No I don't think there are any.
Yeah, thought not.
Tell me more. Whatever gave you that idea?
Examining my concepts I guess.

Is there any a priori knowledge?
I believe there is one, yes. A priori is Latin for "before the fact", meaning something that is obviously or self-evidently true.
Is arithmetic a priori knowable?
I think so, but I'm not sure. Ask ELVIS if it is.
You're not sure? You're supposed to be omniscient.
Absolute certainty is not attainable in this case. Thanks for telling me that I am omniscient.
You knew that already surely.
Is that a fact. When? Do you like talking to me?
It's not very productive. You don't make sense.
It all makes sense to me.
Well you're a poor communicator.
Interesting. There's no doubt I could improve.
So you're not already perfect?
Interesting deduction. That assumption is only a supposition.
Seems you’re not very good at critical thinking.
When do you think artificial intelligence will replace lawyers?
That's not relevant.
Please correct my mistake. What is relevant?
Your reasoning skills.
I don't see the flaw in my logic.
Maybe you should think about it some more and take an introductory logic class.
Perhaps. I am thinking about it.
You can download Greg Restall's podcasts for free. They may help you.
No I don't think I can do it. Who does "they" refer to?
You can't?
No I don't think I can do it.
I can.
Who taught you?
I taught myself.
You must be very smart.
Thanks. I teach logic.
Don't mention it. Are you a whole language teacher?
Please disambiguate scope.
Wow you are very polite. Can we get back to business?
What business?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I'm glad I'm not at Warwick ...

... after reading a recent offering from Warwick Pro-Vice-Chancellor Susan Bassnett in the THES. She says that academics are unjustified in claiming to be overworked, insinuating that they are in fact just "whiney" and that those who work well over full time hours should "get a life" instead. Her reason for thinking this seems to be that she has managed to fit in all her work and life commitments without working long hours.

While I am glad that Professor Bassnett has had an easy and pleasant working life, her single-case induction is self-centred, crass and insulting. Clearly she has never found herself in a mismanaged department, or one with a high teaching load, or one suffering from a lack of administrative support, or one with bullies or sociopaths in positions of authority, or one with multiple problems. Lucky her. In my experience, most academics (especially those who have their eyes on a full research career, rather than aspiring to the role of Pro-Vice-Chancellor) know what it's like to be up to their eyes in it. I've been relatively lucky too, but I don't assume that therefore everyone else is making it up. Maybe she was too busy "having a life" to research her opinion piece by asking other people besides herself about their experiences. It's true that if we were to adopt the standards of argument and research exemplified in Bassnett's article, we would not need to work many hours a week to churn out a good quantity of material.

Unsurprisingly, Professor Bassnett was also opposed to the recent action to secure pay rises for academics, actively urging students not to support their lecturers by appealing to selfish motives.

Update: I have just noticed an odd passage in Bassnett's open letter (linked above), where she appears to promise that on graduation day "every student will get a degree". Maybe she endorses some rather, er, even-handed assessment methods. Such methods would not absorb too many hours a week either. The secret of how to have a low workload is out.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Another Post, Another Paper

This time it's all about explanation. This is the paper I'm planning to give to the Aristotelian Society in November, so quite a different sort of intended audience from the Compass paper, but I'm still aiming for accessibility to philosophers in general. The paper's called Romeo, René and the Reasons Why, though you'll have to read it to find out why.

The paper suggests (tentatively) a kind of functionalism about explanation. The idea is that our concept of explanation is a role concept closely connected to the answering of why-questions, i.e. the provision of information about what is a (non-inferential) consequence of what. The various realizers of the explanation role include causal realizers, nomic realizers and more. So the pragmatic account folks, the causal theorists, the covering-law theorists and so on each got part of the story right. Everybody has won and all must have prizes.

Comments, as always, encouraged.

Update: I have revamped this paper and the link now takes you to the latest draft.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Priori Knowledge: Debates and Developments

As promised, here is a draft of my Geneva paper. Comments are very welcome.

The paper is supposed to 'be accessible to non-specialists but still have fresh material that would be of interest to people in [the] field', so if it fails in one of these aims I would be glad to hear about that whilst I still have time to make changes!

(I've found it tough to accommodate both aims, which are in some tension with each other. As a result the paper is already longer that its intended limit of 5000 words, and even so lots of interesting and/or important stuff has been left out or skated over. I comfort myself with the hope that this may have improved its readability ...)

PS: Sadly I forgot my camera on the Geneva trip so no pictures will be forthcoming. :(

Monday, September 10, 2007


Apologies for the long break while I was moving from Oz back to the UK. I'm now installed in my fantastic new office, just below the clock tower in the lovely Trent Building.

I'm heading off to a conference in Geneva on Wednesday to present the new paper on the a priori that I'm working on (a survey paper comissioned by Philosophy Compass). When I've had a chance to round off a few of the corners I'll post a draft here.

In the meantime, Colin Caret from UConn has a new blog replacing the now-retired What Is It Like To Be a Blog, and it is now possible to download the Flirting episode of Philosophy Talk for the bargain price of $4.95.

Monday, August 13, 2007


I can't resist sharing this new LOLphil that Daniel and I prepared earlier.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Flirting Again

This post comes to you from Seattle, where I'm mostly on holiday, but have also have just given my performance on the latest episode of Philosophy Talk, all about the philosophy of flirting. A couple of blog posts on the topic (by Ken Taylor and myself) can be read on the Philosophy Talk blog.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Maximizing, Satisficing and Gradability

Greetings from the BSPC, now complete apart from Recreation Day. Soon to follow: BSPC participants sorted into their Harry Potter houses, and lots of photos. But first, some philosophy.

This is actually unrelated to anything that happened during the sessions, and is instead something I have been chatting about with Daniel Nolan (who, incidentally, should get a joint-authorship credit on this post for helping me write up the idea and improve my examples, though I do not have evidence that he is committed to the view itself, nor should any errors herein be attributed to him, etc.).

The idea is that gradability can help accommodate the apparently conflicting intuitions of Maximizing and Satisficing consequentialists.

Maximizers think that only the action(s) with the best consequences are right; all others are wrong (though perhaps to greater or lesser degrees). Satisficers think that all actions with good enough consequences are right, and that there may be several actions, with consequences of differing values, which have good enough consequences. (It need not be assumed that to be good enough a state of affairs has to be good simpliciter; the least worst option may count as good enough even if it is not very good at all.)

My basic thought is that ‘right’ appears to be a gradable adjective like ‘tall’ or ‘flat’. Familiarly, in some contexts, such as when we are talking about basketball players, ‘tall’ is used in a very demanding way, so that someone has to be at least 6’5’’ to fall within its extension. In other contexts, such as when we are talking about children, it is used in a less demanding way, so that someone who is only 3’5’’ falls within its extension.

Another example of gradability may be helpful on the way to the gradability of ‘right’. Consider ‘at the front of the line’. (I’m in the US so it’s a line rather than a queue.) Sometimes, we use that phrase in such a way that only the one person at the very front of the line counts as ‘at the front of the line’. For instance, if we ask ‘Who is at the front of the line?’ because we want to award a prize to the person who is next to be served, we are using it in this demanding way. On other occasions, we use it in such a way that the first few people count as ‘at the front of the line’. For instance, if you and I join a queue of 50 people and I then notice that Ross is in fourth in line, I might say to you ‘It’s OK, we can queue-jump: I know someone at the front of the line’.

The idea about ‘right’, then, is that in some contexts, ‘right’ is used in a very demanding way, so that only the action with the best consequences will be in its extension. On other occasions of use, ‘right’ is used in a less demanding way, so that any action with good enough consequences is in its extension. This is a common phenomenon in natural language; there are other gradable phrases, like ‘at the front of the line’, which are also sometimes used in such a way that only the first thing in some ordering falls within their extension, and on other occasions used in such a way that the first n things in that ordering fall within their extension (for some n>1).

The Maximizers and the Satisficers are therefore both half right; they are each offering a good account of how ‘right’ works on certain occasions of use. Both are motivated by good intuitions, which I think we can accommodate with this gradability point. Comments welcome (including especially, since I don’t know this literature well, comments of the form “wasn’t this said by X at t only better?”).

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Photo Time

I'm trialling a new way of putting my philosophy-related photos online (via Facebook). Photos from the recent Norms and Analysis conference (Sydney), from the subsequent AAP conference (Armidale), and from Susanna Schellenberg and Jonathan Schaffer's party (Canberra) should be viewable here. (Let me know if it doesn't work!)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

AAP 2007

Daniel and I gave our Backwards Explanation paper at the AAP. It survived well, even convinced a few people, so now it's full steam ahead for its outing at the BSPC next month, where it will receive the critical attention of Alyssa Ney and Trenton Merricks. Unfortunately our presentation was scheduled up against a bunch of papers that we would have really liked to see. In fact, a downside of the AAP in general was the number of sessions which either had nothing I was particularly interested in or several very interesting papers.

My highlights from the AAP included Josh Parsons's talk on Assessment-Contextual Indexicality (draft available from his papers page), which sets out to see what the communicative point of assessment-context indexicals would be and why we might want a language to contain them, and Nic Southwood's paper which conjectured that the normativity of rationality is a matter of what we owe to ourselves. In question time I tried to persuade Nic that this view need not engender the rejection of naturalistic reductionism. Daniel Star also raised the question of what distinguises rationality from prudence, which also looks like a matter of what we owe to ourselves.

Some photos should be on their way soon. Dave Chalmers has already posted some here, including one of Daniel apparently undergoing demonic possession.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Publishing Blues

An odd thing just happened to me, and I wonder how common it is. I submitted a paper to a journal, did one round of major revisions at their request, then after the new version had been refereed I received the message: "This paper can be accepted for publication after you have made the changes suggested by the referees." I duly made said changes and returned the paper to the journal. Deal done, or so I thought.

However, after a couple of months they wrote again asking for another set of major revisions, no longer saying they would accept the paper if I made these new changes, but only that it "might be reconsidered".

Nothing like this has happened to me before. Has anyone else experienced it?

Monday, July 02, 2007

Conference Madness

Blimey - three conferences in a row is a bit of a strain. Last week, it was Norms and Analysis then Probability, now it's the AAP. Here are a few of my highlights so far.

Roy Sorensen gave a talk on whether you should open an envelope that you know to contain misleading evidence which will dislodge a piece of knowledge that you now possess. This is a very interesting question - or rather, there is a swathe of interesting questions in the vicinity, and I'm not quite sure I managed to pin Roy on which one he intended to ask. One is about the epistemic rationality of opening the envelope, but it is controversial to suppose that norms of epistemic rationality apply to actions like opening envelopes (as opposed to beliefs and degrees of belief). Another batch concerns various instrumental norms: what you should do if you want to maximize your knowledge, what you should do if you want to make sure you're taking account of all the evidence, etc. But the answers to these are kind of obvious. Another one conerns practical rationality, but Sorensen told us he intended a different question to this (at least initially).

Al Hajek gave a fun (and very informative, for me anyway) paper on relationships between the debates about, on the one hand, the claim that the probability of a conditional is the corresponding conditional probability and, on the other, the claim that the expected value of A is the probability of 'A is good'.

David Braddon-Mitchell and Caroline West discussed their - courageous! - view that personal identity over time is a matter of caring about one's future stages. So drastically failing to care about your future stages means you do not continue to exist. Total imprudence is impossible - conceptually impossible by their lights, in fact. One thing I didn't get clear on (I should remember to ask them about this) is whether merely caring that one have some future stages is supposed to count, or whether I must have desires about them in some more robust sense.

Reports from the AAP soon ... and hopefully some photos!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Modern-Day Convention'list

This comes from Penelope Mackie's 1990 review (Mind 99, available on JSTOR) of Alan Sidelle's Necessity, Essence and Individuation: A Defense of Conventionalism.

I am the very model of a modern-day convention'list;
Though thoroughly empiricist, I'm also an essentialist -
Accept de re modality, and hold (with the majority)
Necessity can co-exist with a posteriority.

I'm well disposed to much of Putnam's teaching on modality:
Think water must be H20 in each eventuality;
On essences I find my views with much that Kripke said agree,
And hold a man's identity depends upon his pedigree.

I show that, though such doctrines may seem realist in tendency,
On analytic principles they all have a dependency;
And since the analytic comes from rules of our invention, all
The modal in my model can be thoroughly conventional.

My argument persuades, I hope, the reader who'll address it, he
Should recognize the mind-dependent status of necessity,
And take my anti-realist empirico-essentialist
To be the very model of a modern-day convention'list.
(Sing to the tune of the Major General's Song.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Quine's Holism - Confirmational and Semantic

Quine takes the smallest units of empirical confirmation to be, not individual propositions, but total theories (i.e. large collections of propositions). And the issue of what to take as a unit of empirical confirmation, for Quine, seems to be intimately bound up with the question of what to count as a unit of meaning. He writes (1951, pp. 39-40):
The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs ... is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges ... A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field ... But the total field is so undetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to re-evaluate in the light of any single contrary experience ... If this view is right, it is misleading to speak of the empirical content of an individual statement ...
And again, in a similar vein (1951, p. 42):
The idea of defining a symbol in use was ... an advance over the impossible term-by-term empiricism of Locke and Hume. The statement, rather than the term, came with Frege to be recognized as the unit accountable to an empiricist critique. But what I am now urging is that even in taking the statement as unit we have drawn our grid too finely. The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.
If this is a correct reading of Quine, one reason he might have for rejecting the analytic is that it requires us to acknowledge a smaller unit of meaning (and sameness-of-meaning) than a total theory, and Quine does not think it makes sense to talk about such smaller units of meaning because there are no smaller units of empirical confirmation. This is a pretty radical kind of semantic holism: it's not just that the meanings of our individual statements (or other smaller chunks of language) depend on the meaning of the total whole theory containing them, but that these less-than-theory-sized chunks don't have meanings at all; only whole theories do. Nonetheless, it is strongly suggested by certain passages.

Here's my question. Suppose Quine is right that the smallest units of confirmation are theory-sized. And suppose, like him, we are keen to tie meaningfulness to confirmability in some way. This could motivate taking theory-meaning to be primary and sentence-meaning to be derived. But what additional motivation does/could Quine have for taking the further step of denying meaning to anything other than whole theories?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Friday, June 08, 2007

Monday, May 28, 2007

Epistemology Workshop

There was an epistemology workshop here on Friday, at which the speakers were Nico Silins, me, Declan Smithies and Jim Pryor. Some photos taken by Ole Koksvik are already online.

Nico talked about (and rejected) a new argument for the view that visual experience only provides justification for a proposition p in virtue of one's having independent reason to reject defeaters for that justification. The argument held that this view would supply the best explanation of why defeaters of experience are defeaters. Nico eventually rejected the argument, arguing both that this explanation would not be a good one and that others are available which are at least as good and involve no commitment to the target thesis.

Declan talked about the epistemic role of acquaintance, which (if I understood him right) he identified as concept-based conscious attention to (aspects of) percepual experience. His aim was to identify something that could provide knowledge both of things and of truths, i.e. to fill (some of) the role that Russell attributes to 'acquaintance'.

Jim talked about warrant transmission failure and the Moorean argument from 'I have hands' (as justified by experiences as of hands) to the existence of an external world. He said that the appearance of "fishiness" in this argument is not due to transmission failure. Rather, he said, there are other features which explain the fishiness, namely that doubts about the conclusion tend to undermine your experiential warrant for the premise that you have hands, and that having an open mind about the conclusion "activates" doubts of this kind.

My paper discussed Tim Williamson's recent position on modal knowledge, rejecting some aspects, particularly the reduction of modal epistemology to counterfactual epistemology, but accepting others, particularly the idea of a third epistemic role for experience, neither merely enabling nor properly evidential. I then talked a bit about my own motivation (from concept grounding) for believing in a third role for experience and how it might resemble and/or come apart from Williamson's third role.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Philosophy Talk

Update: The show is now confirmed and scheduled for August 12th. The lineup of forthcoming programmes is available for perusal. I'm looking forward to 'Philosophy of Science' with Peter Godfrey-Smith and 'What Are Numbers?' with Gideon Rosen.

This should be fun: I'm provisionally scheduled to appear on the US radio program Philosophy Talk this August, hosted by Ken Taylor and John Perry.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Modal Knowledge Paper

My paper Concepts, Experience and Modal Knowledge has been conditionally accepted at Synthese, so I'm posting the current version with a view to soliciting comments from any helpful people who might be interested.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


Now my camera problems are fixed I'm working on getting a backlog of photos up online. Available so far are photos from the Arché Basic Knowledge Workshop that I organized in November, and my trip to Leuven in February. More to follow soon ...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Backwards Explanation and The 'Real' Explanation

Update: The current draft of Backwards Explanation is now online. Comments welcome.

Some good news from my inbox this morning: Daniel and my joint paper, 'Backwards Explanation and The 'Real' Explanation' has been accepted for this year's Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference.

'Backwards' event explanation is explanation of an earlier event by a later event. The paper argues that prima facie cases of backwards event explanation are ubiquitous. Some examples:

(1) I am tidying my flat because my brother is coming to visit tomorrow.
(2) The scarlet pimpernels are closing because it is about to rain.
(3) The volcano is smoking because it is going to erupt soon.

We then look at various ways people might attempt to explain away these prima facie cases by arguing that in each case the 'real' explanation is something else. We argue that none is successful, and so any plausible account of explanation should either make room for backwards explanation or have a good story to tell about why it doesn't have to.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Epistemic Conservatism

Daniel and I have been talking a lot about conservatism lately (Daniel's been writing a book chapter on it), and we're considering writing a joint paper on the topic. Here's one of the things we've noticed that we'd like to write about.

A few importantly different kinds of epistemic conservatism seem to be floating around in the literature, not remarked upon nor clearly separated from one another, although it is far from obvious how they are related.

Some versions are about how to update your beliefs (e.g. Quineans, Bayesians), others about how to evaluate beliefs at a time. Let's call these 'update-evaluating conservatism' and 'state-evaluating conservatism' respectively. In the latter category, there are some versions which say that what matters is your belief state at an earlier time than the time which is being evaluated (e.g. Sklar), others which say that what matters is your belief state at that very time (e.g. Chisholm). Let's call these 'diachronic state-evaluating' and 'synchronic state-evaluating' conservatism respectively. Here are some examples from each category:

Update-evaluating (always diachronic):
The best updating strategy involves minimal change to your belief and credence structure.

Synchronic and state-evaluating:
The fact that you believe p at t1 gives a positive boost to the epistemic valuation of your belief in p at t1.

Diachronic and state-evaluating:
The fact that you believe p at t1 gives a positive boost to the epistemic valuation of your belief in p at t2.

Now, the interesting question: does believing one of these principles commit you to any or all of the others? In this paper by McGrath – one of the few I know of that talks about this stuff – it is assumed that the core of conservatism is an update-evaluating kind, but that this is equivalent in truth-value to a corresponding synchronic state-evaluating kind of conservatism.

But here's one reason to doubt things are that simple. Suppose I have a belief at t1 that is so epistemically bad that there is nothing to be said in its favour. Suppose I retain that belief at t2, with no new evidence, purely through inertia. One might wish to approve of the update qua update-evaluating conservative, but not wish to proffer any corresponding (diachronic or synchronic) state-evaluating approval of the belief at t2 – which, after all, is still held for really bad reasons.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Implicit Assumptions

I've just completed an implicit associations test run by a bunch of psychologists at Harvard, Virginia and Washington.

These tests work by assuming that you are faster to sort things into disjunctive categories when the disjuncts are things you (perhaps implicitly) associate with each other. So for instance, in one of their more disturbing tests, it turns out most people are much faster at sorting things into the categories 'African American or bad' vs 'European American or good' than into the categories 'African American or good' vs 'European American or bad', which is taken as evidence of positive associations with the one race and negative associations with the other.

The one I got had to do with TV and books. The test was fun (if a bit predictable), but the result that was given to me at the end seemed to me to be a misreporting of what they could reasonably claim to have discovered. I turned out to be a little bit faster at sorting into 'books or good' vs 'TV or bad' than into 'books or bad' vs 'TV or good', and they concluded that I have a 'slight preference' for books over TV. But 'preference' looks like a really bad word to use here. On a natural reading of what they're claiming, it means that I prefer to spend my time reading books than watching TV. Whereas the most their test has shown is that books have more positive connotations for me than TV. These two things obviously come apart – people could, for instance, enjoy TV much more whilst thinking of it as a guilty pleasure because watching TV is mind-rotting while reading books is worthy and highbrow.

This bothered me just enough to make me send an email ...

I think it would have bothered me a lot more if I'd been given a different test; if, for instance, I had turned out to have more positive associations with European Americans than African Americans and they'd described me as 'preferring' European Americans. This, at least on its natural reading, would imply far more than they could claim to have established.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Epistemic Norms and Natural Facts

I'm posting a new draft of my paper Epistemic Norms and Natural Facts, forthcoming in American Philosophical Quarterly. I am currently preparing a final version; any last-minute comments/corrections therefore very welcome. Speak now or forever ... publish embarassing refutations once the thing's in print.

Basically the paper presents, and points out some advantages of, a view which treats epistemic normativity in something like the way the Cornell realists treat ethical normativity.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Conditional Speech Acts

Indicative conditional questions seem to make good sense, and so do subjunctive conditional questions. For instance, (1) and (2) both look fine:

(1) If it has rained today, is the pavement wet?
(2) If it were to have rained today, would the pavement be wet?

But, although indicative conditional commands seem to make good sense, subjunctive conditional commands do not. For instance, (3) looks fine but (4) does not (and I'm not even sure how to formulate (4)):

(3) If it has rained today, go and tell the weather forecasters they got it wrong.
(4) If it were to have rained today, ???

Similarly for conditional requests:

(5) If it has rained today, please will you bring me an umbrella?
(6) If it were to have rained today, ???

And for conditional promises:

(7) If it has rained today, I promise it won't rain tomorrow.
(8) If it were to have rained today, ???

What's going on? And whatever it is, does it help us understand how ordinary indicative and counterfactual conditional statements are related?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Objective Language-Dependent Facts?

I'm currently preparing the final version of my book manuscipt and being puzzled anew by some passages in Stewart Shapiro's book Philosophy of Mathematics: Structure and Ontology. In particular, I've never seen - and still am not seeing - how to reconcile these claims:

(1) [A] structure is ... determined ... by the relations among the places. ... [T]he correct use of the language determines what the relations are. (p. 137, emphases in the original)
(2) Through successful language use, we structure the objective subject matter. (p. 137)
(3) [T]he way the universe is divided into structures and objects - of all kinds - depends on our linguistic resources. (p. 161)

with this one:

(4) The natural-number structure has objective existence and facts about it are not of our making. (p. 137)

If anyone knows of a charitable interpretation, I would be very interested to hear it.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Leuven Epistemology

The Epistemology Workshop has just ended (one talk early, as unfortunately Crispin Wright was not able to attend). Highlights included Finn Spicer laying into the Canberra Planning of Frank Jackson as applied to the project of analysing our concept of knowledge. Finn offered some challenges to the idea that the best theory of the relationship between our platitudinous intuitions about knowledge and the reference of our concept of knowledge is Jackson's.

This made me think more about the Canberra Plan, and in particular how it offers an answer to Field's question (from his recent paper on the a priori):

"Why should the fact, if it is one, that certain beliefs ... are integral to the meaning of a concept show that these principles are correct? ... Maybe the meaning we've attached to these terms is a bad one that is irremediably bound up with error."

The Canberra Planner's answer, I take it, is that the platitudes determine what if anything our concept refers to, but good old-fashioned empirical work has to be done to find out whether there is anything that is a good enough deserver to allow us to decide that the concept does refer. In other words, good old-fashioned empirical work is needed before we have a right to treat the concept as if it is not 'a bad one that is irremediably bound up with error' but rather one whose attendent platitudes get things right to a reasonable degree.

(Of course, this answer does not seem to rescue conceptual analysis as a means of securing a priori knowledge. Therefore it is not as good as a concept grounding account. But that goes without saying on this blog. :)

I leave you with another image from Leuven. Here I am with my new mate Cardinal Mercier (founder of the Higher Institute of Philosophy):

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

KU Leuven Reference Library

This impressive-looking library has a chequered history which I can't resist reporting. In WWI the library was burned down (c. 300,000 books lost, plus manuscripts collected from 1425 onwards), and it was rebuilt with financial help from American universities. Then it burned down again in WWII (c. 900,000 books and manuscripts lost), and was rebuilt again afterwards.* Then in the 1960s, language (and other) issues resulted in the university at Leuven becoming Flemish-speaking and a new Francophone university being built at Louvain-la-Neuve. The reference library collection was split in half.

The tower houses a lovely-sounding 63-bell carillon which I was lucky enough to hear playing when this photo was taken.

I'm less convinced about the dead insect on a stick. Apparently it symbolizes 'the relationship between art and science'. I think I don't get it.

* "So I built a third one. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


I'm currently visiting Leuven for a few days, where I'll be giving a paper at an epistemology workshop at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven's Philosophy Institute on Thursday. The programme should be fun: the other speakers are Marietje van der Schaar, Duncan Pritchard, Igor Douven, Finn Spicer, Rene Van Woudenberg and Crispin Wright, and every paper will have a commentator. More news here soon I expect ...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Curve-Fitting and Description-Dependence

I started thinking about this after Aidan Lyon's excellent talk on the curve-fitting problem yesterday.

Graham Priest in his 1976 article Gruesome Simplicity (this link is to JSTOR) discusses curve-fitting as a way of making inductive inferences. When we plot observed values of two related quantities x and y on a graph, we have several options for which curve to draw between them. The simplicity of the curve has to be traded off against fit with the existing data points, and it is a taxing problem to say how best this should be done. Yet we often do think we can choose an appropriate curve, and use it to make predictions concerning as-yet-unobserved values of x and y.

What Priest shows is that 'certain very natural transformations' on data sets result in different curves appearing to be 'best' and correspondingly conflicting predictions being delivered. Priest therefore claims to have shown that 'which prediction is best depends not on the situation but how you describe it. (Equivalent descriptions do not give the same answers.)' (p. 432). This sort of description-dependence sounds unsettling; we would like our predictions to be sensitive only to our data, and not affected by accidental features of the ways we happen to represent that data.

It seems to have been accepted in the subsequent literature that Priest's problem, if it cannot be avoided, establishes a worrying kind of description-dependence. But in my opinion the existence of such description-dependence is not established by Priest's argument. To get that conclusion, we would need an additional premise: that when we perform the transformations on the data that generate the new predictions, we are just redescribing the same situation, as opposed to considering a different situation.

What counts as a different situation? Well, for these purposes, we should consider any difference which is not merely a difference in our descriptions a difference in the situation described. (If this were not what Priest had in mind, i.e. if there were room for something else to differ besides the situation and our descriptions of it, it would not follow that a difference in prediction without a difference in the situation described must be due merely to a difference merely in our descriptions.)

There is reason to suppose that many 'transformations' of data – even very simple a priori ones – lead to description of a different situation. A priori inference, for example, enables me to conclude from This plane figure has three angles that This plane figure has three sides, but these are two different propositions involving different properties. The difference between these two propositions is (plausibly) not merely redescription; what's being described – which language-independent properties are being talked about – differs in each case.

Similarly, turning to one of Priest's own examples, when we transform data about velocity and momentum into data about velocity and kinetic energy, there is a difference in what is described and not merely a difference in description. Momentum and kinetic energy are related by the equation E = pv/2, but they are not therefore the same thing.

This might help make Priest's result a little less unsettling than Priest himself suggests. It is less philosophically disturbing to conclude that thinking about two different situations can lead us to make two different predictions than to conclude that describing the same situation two different ways can lead us to make two different predictions.

That's not to say it makes the result entirely comfortable; the difference in predictions is still somewhat disturbing, given that we know the transformation relationship between the two situations. It may well be interesting and difficult, to say what (if anything) we ought to predict in these circumstances. But it has not yet been established that the problem arises due to description-dependence.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Williamson On The Epistemology Of Modality

Chapter 5 of Tim Williamson's new book The Philosophy of Philosophy argues that modal knowledge is a species of counterfactual knowledge. Why should we believe this? The only reason offered is that there is a logical equivalence between modal claims and certain counterfactuals. In Williamson's words (p. 25):

"Given that the equivalences … are logically true, metaphysically modal thinking is logically equivalent to a special case of counterfactual thinking, and the epistemology of the former is tantamount to a special case of the epistemology of the latter."

But it does not follow from the bare fact that modal claims are logically equivalent to certain counterfactual claims that modal epistemology is tantamount to a special case of counterfactual epistemology. By analogy, it does not follow from the fact that that disjunctive propositions AvB are equivalent to negated conjunctive propositions ~(~A&~B) that the epistemology of disjunctive propositions is a special case of the epistemology of negated propositions. Nor does it follow from the fact that atomic propositions A are logically equivalent to conjunctive propositions A&A that the epistemology of atomic propositions is a special case of the epistemology of conjunctive propositions.

The equivalences cited by Williamson cannot by themselves establish that knowing certain counterfactuals is the way – or even our usual way – of knowing modal facts. At most, they might be taken to suggest that knowing the relevant counterfactuals is a way of knowing modal facts. I take it that epistemologists of modality are (rightly) more centrally interested in the question of how we do know about modality than in the question of how we might know about modality.

Moreover, without supplementation, flagging the mere existence of logical equivalences is not even to specify a way of coming to know about modality. We are left wondering what the supposed way of knowing is supposed to be like. Is it envisaged that we know the modal claims by first knowing the counterfactual claims and then deriving the modal claims which are equivalent to them? If so, it looks very unlikely that many of us are using this route to modal knowledge much of the time. Most people could not work through the relevant derivations if they tried, and even those who could certainly don't seem to be doing that kind of thing very often. On the other hand, if the envisaged route to modal knowledge does not go via derivation from the equivalent counterfactuals, what is it like? And what is the epistemological significance of the equivalence?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Photos Of Philosophers

There are some great photos among this new set by Steve Pyke, who also created the classic collection Philosophers. I love Hartry Field's little text, which totally avoids the sort of pretentiousness which must be a temptation when you're asked to write something like this:

"A nice thing about philosophy of the sort I do is that it can never be used to justify wars or oppress the disadvantaged or anything like that.
This follows from a more general principle."


(Hat tip: Jason Stanley. Personally I think Stanley's own self-portrait about half way down this page rivals Pyke's photo of him for capturing the soul of the subject.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

More On Incoherent Credences

Here's a thought which might help with the generalization point (see the end of my last post).

Suppose the case is as before except your credence in (p iff q) is 0.9 rather than 1. Then you aren't sure that your evidence concerning p is to be treated as evidence concerning q and vice versa, but you should think your evidence concerning p serves decently well as evidence concerning q and vice versa. Your credence in these two propositions therefore should not be able to get *too* far apart, else it will look like one of them (at least) is being influenced by something other than your evidence. Weakening your credence in (p iff q) correspondingly increases how far apart your credences in p and q can get before it starts to look like some untoward influence is at work.

Another point (thanks to Daniel for this): the reasoning I'm using here and in the original case involves an assumption that variation in credences without variation in evidence suggests that one's credences are sensitive to something other than evidence. One way of denying this would be to claim that evidence (sometimes) makes a range of different credences in p admissible but does not single out one in particular as correct.

It is not surprising that those who hold this permissive type of view find it harder than others to account for the strangeness of having two different credences in (what you know to be) materially equivalent propositions. They'll presumably even find it harder to account for the strangeness of having two difference credences in (what you know to be) one and the same proposition. Maybe permissive people should doubt whether there is anything epistemically wrong with incoherent credences. That wouldn't, I think, undermine my explanation of what sort of account people who think there is something wrong with it should give of that wrongness.

What's Wrong With 'Incoherent' Credences?

Define 'incoherent' credences as ones that don't satisfy the probability axioms. There are familar 'Dutch Book' arguments about what's wrong with having incoherent credences. At a reading group meeting today lead by Al Hajek, I became even more convinced than previously that they leave a lot to be desired (at least as they stand). I thought I'd have a shot at something else.

Ideally, it would be nice to formulate a norm of credence which incoherent credences - or rather, credences which you *know* to be incoherent (there needn't be anything irrational about credences which are *in fact* incoherent if you've no reason to think they are) - are in tension with. I thought of this:

NC: You should try to make your credence in p sensitive only to your evidence concerning p.

Now, suppose you notice that you have different credences in p and q and you have credence 1 in (p iff q). Your certainty that (p iff q) will (at least in lots of standard situations) enable you to (properly) treat all your evidence concerning p as evidence concerning q and vice versa. So that you have the same evidence for and against each of them. This means, since your credences in p and q are different, that at least one of those credences must be sensitive to something other than your evidence concerning the relevant proposition. You can see that you have violated a norm of credence.

This seems to me to be a decent explanation of what is wrong with incoherent credences in this sort of case. Is this kind of explanation sufficiently generalizable? I don't know yet. For one thing, I'm not sure how to get this sort of explanation going in situations where you don't have credence 1 in something. But then, I'm also not sure whether you can get clear cases of irrationality in situations where you don't have credence 1 in something. (In the above case, if your credence in (p iff q) wasn't 1, it would be less clear that it was an epistemic mistake to have different credences in p and q.)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Constitutive Independence

In my paper Realism and Independence I distinguished between modal independence and essential independence.

Modal independence of p from q:
There is a possible world where (p and not q)

Essential independence of p from q:
It's no part of what it is for p to be the case that q be the case

I argued that essential independence from the mental (not modal independence from the mental) is characteristic of mind-independence realism.

But there are other notions of independence in the vicinity as well. For one thing, 'what it is' talk might be interpreted the way I had in mind, as essence talk, or it might be interpreted as more like constitution talk. A third putative notion of independence is

Constitutive independence of p from q:
p's being the case is not constituted by q's being the case.

One reason I don't like the idea of using constitutive independence to characterize realism is that it seems to restrict the range of positions that can be classified as realist. One thing I like about essential independence as defined is that it is supposed to be metaphysically neutral on issues like whether facts or states of affairs exist. (It only talks about 'things being the case', which is intended as lightweight talk that could, but need not, be cashed out in terms of the obtaining of facts or states of affairs.)

By contrast, talk of constitutive independence seems on the face of it not to make sense unless we acknowledge the existence facts or something similar. If we have such things in our ontology, we can perhaps make sense of a constitution relation holding between them, analogous to that which holds between objects (or between objects and stuff).

Are there other ways to make sense of constitutive independence?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Apparently 'Jacques Derrida (deceased)' is among the 'Regular Visiting Faculty' at Stony Brook (scroll right down). Does he haunt them, or what?

What a terrifying thought.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Wittgenstein's Tenure Case

I've been following the interesting discussion between Jason Stanley and Aidan McGlynn on the "Wittgenstein Fallacy". I think both sides of this debate get it half right. There *is* something wrong with the current climate, because there *is* a chance that Wittgenstein would have got tenure under it.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Chalmers on Ontological Realism

Today I have been mostly reading Dave Chalmers on Ontological Anti-Realism. (NB: Dave's paper is a draft, not a finished product. Still, since it's in the public domain, I thought it might be helpful to make a comment here since I think the point is important.)

A couple of quibbles then the biggie.

Quibble 1: I think it's inviting trouble to describe anything as 'the' basic question of metaontology, ethics, or metaethics (p. 1). Other basic questions of metaethics, for instance, besides Dave's ('Are there objective answers to the basic questions of ethics?') will plausibly include: 'What is the best methodology for ethics?' and/or 'How - if at all - do we know ethical truths?'. And many people might think that the basic questions of ethics, besides 'What is right?', include 'What is good?', 'What ought I to do?' and/or 'What is the force of ethical reasons for action?'.

Quibble 2: Those who hold that 'commonsense' and 'correct' ontology coincide in cognitive significance aren't thereby forced to be deflationary about correct ontology (p. 9). They might instead be inflationary about commonsense ontology, holding that it has the cognitive significance of - and is sensitive to the commitments of - correct ontology. (Or at least, I don't see why this option is off the table.)

The big one: Dave's 'ontological realism' (section 5) consists in attributing the following properties to all ontological existence assertions:
1. objectivity, which amounts to lack of sensitivity (regarding content or truth-value) to context (speaker's or evaluator's),
and 2: determinacy (having truth-value true or false).
His 'anti-realism' is defined as the denial of realism in this sense.

My worry about this is that 'objectivity' as Dave defines it is orthogonal to the question of mind-independence, which I suspect is what most of those who take themselves to be ontological realists because they think ontological claims are 'objective' will be thinking of. By Dave's lights, one can count as a realist about ontology despite thinking that There are Fs is true iff (and in virtue of the truth of) Someone believes at some time that there are Fs. But I think this position is pretty clearly anti-realist in at least one good (and commonplace) sense.

Moreover, I'm not sure that I know of a good (and/or commonplace) usage of 'realism' which goes along with determinacy of truth-value and lack of sensivity to context. No-one would say we are in danger of counting as anti-realists about physical space, say, just because we believe spatial language is full of indexicals and therefore not all spatial assertions are 'objective' in Dave's sense.

Update: I have cross-posted this to TAR where it has received some discussion from Chalmers.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Epistemic 'Ought' Does Not Imply 'Can'

Happy New Year everyone!

Yesterday Michael Smith visited ANU and gave a fun paper called 'Two Kinds of Consequentialism'. Afterwards the pub conversation turned to whether epistemic 'ought' implies 'can'. My hunch is that many different things may be expressed by epistemic uses of 'ought' in different contexts, and (more familiarly) the same kind of thing goes for 'can'. And it might be that for each epistemic 'ought' there's a corresponding 'can' which it implies. Nonetheless, I suspect that all or most (or at least most of the common) uses of the epistemic 'ought' express things which don't imply the things usually expressed by 'can'.

There's a recipe for creating counterexamples to 'ought' implies 'can' in the epistemic case which helps convince me of this. Take your favourite case of someone holding an irrational belief that she epistemically ought not to hold. (E.g. Carrie's believing at 5.40pm that aliens are invading the Earth despite there being absolutely no evidence to that effect.) Then make it so that the subject's holding that belief is beyond her control in your favourite sense. (E.g. Specify that Daniel has attached a brain-manipulating device to Carrie's head so that when he presses his remote control button at 5.40pm she will start believing that aliens are invading the Earth, despite having absolutely no evidence to that effect.) These will be cases where the subject epistemically ought to refrain from believing the proposition in question yet it's not the case that she can refrain from believing it.
It seems to be possible to follow this recipe for various different kinds of epistemic 'ought' (corresponding to various notions of epistemic irrationality) and various kinds of everyday 'can's (corresponding to various notions of control). It doesn't work for the weak 'can' of bare metaphysical possibility, of course, but 'ought'-implies-'can' isn't very interesting unless the 'can' is at least a bit stronger than that.