Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Useful Scheduling Resource

A site I've been using a fair amount recently is called "When is Good?". This site is amazingly useful, and I figured I should spread the word about it.

Suppose you are trying to find a good meeting time for a reading group you are organizing, or that you are, perhaps, scheduling your dissertation defense. The "When is Good" site gives you a really easy way to collate the information you want about everybody's schedules. You enter some basic information about the event and the range of dates you are looking at, and it will give you a link to distribute to all of the potential participants. All they have to do is fill out their availability in that range. You get a separate page to look at that collects all the results together, and shows you which times work for everyone. It also tells you how many people have conflicts for any given time, and lets you exclude individual respondents to see what times work best for subsets of the groups.

It is free to use the site (you don't even need to register an account), though you can apparently join as a premium member and get some helpful add-ons (like giving people a way to indicate whether a time that they are available is ideal or not).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Some Reactions to Malebranche

I, along with Kenny Pearce, have been reading some selections from Malebranche's Search after Truth, and one of the things that comes up pretty early on is Malebranche's account of judgment/belief. Since I haven't posted much philosophical content recently, and as I find Malebranche's account pretty interesting, I decided to allow myself some time this morning to indulge in a little (potentially underinformed) Malebranche interpretation. All quotations are taken from the Hackett "Malebranche: Philosophical Selections" (Steven Nadler, ed.).

Malebranche, like many other Early Moderns, endorses the understanding/will division of the faculties of the mind. Both faculties are described in terms of what it is they receive:
The mind of man likewise contains two faculties; the first, which is the understanding, is that of receiving various ideas, that is of perceiving various things; the second, which is the will, is that of receiving inclinations, or of willing different things. (p. 8)

Regarding the understanding as passive with respect to the receipt of ideas, Malebranche concludes that "it is the understanding that perceives or knows, since only it receives ideas of objects; for it is the same thing for the soul to perceive an object as to receive the idea that represents that object" (p. 9). Here I want to note that Malebranche might win among the early moderns for giving the best, most succinct statement of a non-inferential version of indirect realism. I don't know nearly enough Malebranche to know if the view stated here is consistently embraced throughout his works, but this is just a really nice statement of the view that perception of objects consists in the mind's interaction with ideas of said objects. This is in contrast to views on which the mind, in the first instance, perceives its own ideas, followed by an act of inference to the existence of the objects of those ideas (often described as "indirect perception"). I think both of the two views merit the title "Indirect Realism", but the view on which the mind's interaction with its ideas is constitutive of perception has some strong advantages over views which require us to infer our way to those objects.

Back to the issue at hand though, you might think that if the understanding is the faculty that perceives or knows then the understanding is also the faculty that judges. But not so for Malebranche. In fact, since everything the understanding does, for Malebranche, is to perceive, Malebranche notes about his own view that "it might fairly be concluded [...] that the understanding never judges since it does nothing but perceive (or that judgments and inferences on the part of the understanding are but pure perceptions)" (p. 13).

The parenthetical at the end there is ambiguous when taken out of context, as it could be taken to suggest that Malebranche just beats Hume to the punch at endorsing the view that "belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures" (T. 1.4.1, p. 183). However, the view in parentheses is not an alternative to the view that "the understanding never judges", rather an explication of what role the understanding plays in judgment. The section in question ends with this:
The understanding, therefore, does nothing but perceive the relations between ideas, whcih relations, when they are clear, are expressed by clear ideas; for the relation of six to three, for example, is equal to two, and is expressed by two. And only the will judges and reasons, by voluntarily remaining with what the understanding represents to it, as has just been said [p. 14, emphasis added]

The following section is titled "That judgments and inferences depend on the will", and describes this situation of voluntarily remaining with the representations of the understanding as a type of assent or consent. So, now we've got the relevant aspects of the view on the table, I want to highlight what I take to be some of the most interesting aspects of the view.

The view, as I understand it, is that judgment consists in voluntarily assenting (or consenting) to a representation provided by the understanding. In particular, this voluntary assent is not a positive act of the mind (i.e. not the mental equivalent of getting out a seal of approval and affixing it to the representation), but instead is a sort of voluntary omission. Suspension of judgment then is the positive act*, and occurs when we continue to investigate the representation, rather than letting the matter stand. A Stalnakerian account of updating the context set is really a sort of striking parallel here. On a standard version of something like Stalnaker's picture of conversational dynamics, propositions that are put forward get added to the context set unless they are challenged, rather than because there is some distinctive response that one issues to allow them in. If we are talking and I say, "the weather was nice yesterday, and I hope it will be tomorrow", you don't need to say, "I agree about the weather yesterday" in order for my claim about the weather to successfully incorporate itself into the context set. Rather, you would need to go our of your way to prevent it from succeeding.

As far as voluntarist views of judgment go, there is something very appealing about the view that judgment involves a voluntary omission. It seems that we can try to explain the intuitions against doxastic voluntarism on a picture like this, by observing that, in cases of judgment, there is a sense in which the will didn't really do anything. Judgment results from a voluntary failure to resist the representation, in the same way that we might think that my failure to act when I witness a harm I could have prevented is a voluntary omission.

Returning for a moment to the comparison with Hume's views, it is worth noting that there is a certain sense in which we can take Hume and Malebranche to be closer together in their views than I indicated before. Setting aside a major component of Hume's view (according to which judgments do not require multiple ideas), the "intrinsic" composition of the mental state that is a judgment is basically the same for Hume and for Malebranch. All the "ingredients" come from the understanding. The difference lies in the fact that Malebranch requires that an additional extrinsic condition be met, and so not every mental state that is intrinsically like a judgment winds up also being a judgment. Hume on the other hand gives an account of judgment on which only these intrinsic features matter (well, on my reading of Hume, at least).

Anyone who knows more about Malebranche's theory of judgment, or who has recommendations of good papers about it, should definitely let me know.

*Malebranche's occaisionalism may gum up the works somewhat in an attempt to spell this out more precisely, but the gist is that judgment is a sort of privation, while suspension of judgment is something positive. At the same time, I think Sean Greenberg argues that this view of judgment as a voluntary omission is crucial for combining the occaisionalism with the view "that rash judgments are sinful, and that all sin is voluntary" while still attributing all real changes that occur to God.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dissertation Submission Procedures

Today I started looking through the Formatting guidelines for doctoral dissertations here at USC, alongside the rest of the paperwork that is required for submitting one's dissertation. I'll be defending my dissertation in the early part of the spring semester, and I am especially glad I found out now about how many different forms and documents I'll need to have ready so that I can officially submit the dissertation and receive my degree in May.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

APA Committee On the Status and Future of the Profession

A while ago, I nominated myself for consideration as a member of some of the APA's committees. Today, I received notice that I have been selected for a three year term (from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2014) as a member of the APA Committee on the Status and Future of the Profession:
The Committee is charged with studying and making recommendations to the Board of Officers concerning trends in graduate and undergraduate education in philosophy and conditions relevant to the employment of philosophers in academic and non-academic work. To this end the Committee conducts periodic surveys of philosophers and philosophy departments and monitors changes in higher education in the humanities as reported by the learned societies and by government agencies, working closely with other APA Committees when appropriate.

I had actually been assuming that I had been rejected for a position on an APA committee, since I hadn't heard anything about it since nominating myself last June. Which made this news quite a pleasant surprise.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

History of Philosophy Roundtable @ UCSD

My attempt to avoid disappearing from the blog as I geared up for the job market was, sadly, unsuccessful. This probably also has something to do with having taken over as the managing editor of the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly. At any rate, I have a brief bit of news to post, relevant, principally, to folks in southern California. I am presenting some of my work at the History of Philosophy Roundtable.

This Friday, October 15th, I will be presenting work from chapter 4 of my dissertation. My paper/talk is titled "How to Avoid Mis-Reiding Hume's Maxim of Conceivability", which I am aware contains a painfully awful pun, and for that I apologize.

As I understand it, the format is read-ahead, so, after a short intro, the bulk of the time is just discussion/Q&A on the paper. I am really excited, as this seems like a good opportunity to get valuable feedback on my work.

If I were blogging more, I would almost certainly be blogging about the seminar I am sitting in on that is covering Thomas Reid's "Essays on the Active Powers". I would also be blogging about the reading group a few of us in the department are organizing on a couple of the sorely under-appreciated women philosophers from the (early) modern period. I put "early" in parentheses because one of the figures, Lady Mary Shepherd, was writing in the 1800s, which is a bit late for "early modern", but she has some really interesting discussions of Thomas Reid, George Berkeley, and David Hume, so she fits fairly naturally with study of those figures.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

History of Early Modern Philosophy Google Group

I recently started a Google Group as a resource for scholars working in the History of Early Modern Philosophy (link to site).

One thing that a forum like this is good for is the dissemination of calls for papers, conference announcements, etc., but, based on the discussions I've seen on some of the other mailing lists I've seen, it can also be useful for more substantive discussions with colleagues you'd otherwise only interact with at conferences, or as a resource for finding out where to look in the secondary literature for discussions of specific issues.

Spread the word!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Dissertation and Job Market

My posting frequency will be even lower than usual for the forseeable future, as I am working on getting my dissertation and job market materials into appropriate shape for entering the job market this fall.

I will try not to disappear entirely.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Funny Anecdote with Very Narrow Appeal

This story will only be amusing to people who have the relevant background in Frege's philosophy of language and about the programming language LISP:

During my undergrad years, my friend Dennis (a computer science major) was excitedly informing me about the progress he'd been making in teaching himself the programming language LISP:
"First, I wrote a program that lets you play Mastermind. It generates the puzzle, and lets you take ten guesses."
"Ok. That sounds cool."
"I'm not done. So, then I wrote a program that can play mastermind against the first program."
"Does it guess randomly, or what?"
"No, I programmed it with the algorithm to solve any mastermind puzzle in less than six guesses."
"Wait, so, do you just check which guesses the one program says to make?"
"No, in LISP, programs are all functions, and functions can take other functions as arguments, so, I just have the one program call the other program as its argument."
"And what does that do?"
"Oh, umm, it takes a little while and then returns the value True."

You'll all just have to take my word for it that this strikes one as funny if they hear it just after learning about the Fregean view on what sentences refer to.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Dissertation Epigraph (care of Thomas Reid)

In my dissertation, I investigate David Hume's account of cognition (i.e. the acts of conception, judgment, and reasoning) and offer a qualified defense of Hume's account from a number of criticisms and objections. Without a doubt, the critic who plays the most prominent role in my discussion is Thomas Reid. This is because Reid was a) Hume's contemporary, b) a fierce critic of Hume, and c) an exceptionally sharp thinker. In my view, Reid's largest shortcoming as an objector (not just to Hume, but to most of his targets) is that he is insufficiently charitable.

Since I am engaged in defending Hume from Reid's attacks (and thus think of him as the principle antagonist in my dissertation), I was pleasantly surprised to discover, in Reid's Essays on the Intellectual Powers, a passage that near-perfectly encapsulates my own attitudes towards Hume:
A system of consequences, however absurd, acutely and justly drawn from a few principles, in very abstract matters, is of real utility in science, and may be made subservient to real knowledge. This merit MR HUME’s metaphysical writings have in a great degree. Thomas Reid, EIP II.12

As this is the very outlook that motivates my investigations of Hume's views, I've decided that it will make an appropriate epigraph for my dissertation.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Expressivist Semantics and Locke's Theory of Language

I've been doing some reading on the relationship between historical philosophy and contemporary philosophy (much of which also concerns methodological considerations for either or both of those pursuits). While many of the papers I've read from the volume acknowledge that knowing contemporary philosophy can enrich one's historical work, and people I know who work on contemporary philosophy occasionally acknowledge that understanding the views of historical figures can enrich one's contemporary philosophizing, I wanted to give a relatively straightforward example of a place where it seems extremely likely to me that strong benefits are to be had from both approaching historical/interpretive issues through the lens of certain contemporary debates, and from approaching contemporary issues through the lens of certain historical debates. In this instance, it is the case of meta-ethical expressivism and Locke's theory of language (and more specifically: problems arising from sentences that are "logically complex" or are "attitude" ascriptions).

Generally speaking, Expressivism is a sort of mentalistic approach to giving the meaning or significance of language. An expressivist semantics for a language L assigns, to each meaningful sentence of L, a mental state, which that sentence is said to express. Roughly, a sentence S expresses a mental state M, when ordinary, sincere, assertive utterances of S are properly related to the speaker's being in state M (this way of stating it sets aside complications arising from context-sensitivity, and I will continue to ignore those throughout this post).

On the assumption that belief is a propositional attitude, it is relatively easy to translate any traditional truth-conditional semantic theory into a corresponding expressivist theory. For any proposition P and any sentence S, if the truth-conditional theory assigns P to S, there is a correlate expressivist theory which assigns the belief that P to S.

Though this fact about the ability to translate such theories is itself interesting, it primarily helps us demarcate an especially uninteresting sub-class of expressivist semantic theories (i.e. those that are the belief-y correlates of traditional truth-conditional theories). More often, the reason contemporary philosophers adopt an expressivist view of language would be out of a belief in the inadequacy both of traditional truth-conditional semantic theories and of the uninteresting expressivist correlates of such theories for a given portion of language. Consequently, when I describe a view as "expressivism about X", I mean to be picking out views on which the move to an expressivist framework is intended to capture the way in which X-type sentences do not simply express belief in the-proposition-traditional-truth-conditional-semantics-would-have-assigned, but, instead, express some other attitude.

So, non-cognitivists in metaethics who adopt an expressivist approach to theorizing about language do so because they think (many) sentences with moral/normative terms express states that are importantly distinct from the beliefs expressed by descriptive sentences. Typically, they regard moral thought as involving states that feature some desire-like phenomena (broadly construed), and thus, think that moral/normative sentences express some non-cognitive mental states, rather than ordinary belief (or perhaps, in addition to expressing some ordinary belief). Not all expressivist positions have to be strictly non-cognitivist, however. One version of expressivism about epistemic modals is to treat "Must(P)" as differing from "P" not in terms of which proposition is believed when one utters the sentences sincerely, but, instead, as differing in the amount of confidence in P required for sincere utterance, and thus, treat "Must(P)" as expressing highly confident belief in P, while "P" merely expresses belief in P (more likely, such an account would be done in terms of subjective credences, rather than all-out belief and different levels of confidence, but the point stands).

In defense of the claim that a little anachronism can provide benefits for history, I am going to cherry-pick the example of Locke, who was helpfully explicit about the relationship of thought and language. While it is clearly somewhat anachronistic, it is relatively easy to read expressivist positions back into someone like Locke, due to his view that the role of language is principally to publicly manifest one's mental life:

Locke provides a nice example of this (selection from Locke's Essay, 4.VII, "Of Particles"):
The Mind, in communicating its thought to others, does not only need signs of the Ideas it has then before it, but others also, to shew or intimate some particular action of its own, at that time, relating to those Ideas. This it does several ways; as, Is, and Is not, are the general marks of the Mind, affirming or denying. But besides affirmation, or negation, without which, there is in Words no Truth or Falshood, the Mind does, in declaring its Sentiments to others, connect, not only the parts of Propositions, but whole Sentences one to another, with their several Relations and Dependencies, to make a coherent Discourse.
Neither is it enough, for the explaining of these Words, to render them, as is usually in Dictionaries, by Words of another Tongue which came nearest to their signification: For what is meant by them, is commonly as hard to be understood in one, as another Language. They are all marks of some Action, or Intimation of the Mind; and therefore to understand them rightly, the several views, postures, stands, turns, limitations, and exceptions, and several other Thoughts of the Mind, for which we have either none, or very deficient Names, are diligently to be studied. Of these, there are a great variety, much exceeding the number of Particles, that most Languages have, to express them by: and therefore it is not to be wondred, that most of these Particles have divers, and sometimes almost opposite significations.

Locke goes on to give a quasi-treament of the various actions of the mind that can be signified by the term "but", which I won't get into here.

While there are obviously some lurking interpretive questions, it is at least natural to come away from passages like this with the thought that Locke thinks a) the basic account of the meaning of simple declarative/descriptive sentences is to be given in terms of the judgments they signify, and that b) a complete account of linguistic significance will invoke actions other affirmation and denial (as attested by the case of particles other than the copula, such as "but").

Note that this commitment places Locke's view fairly squarely within a framework fitting the definition of "expressivism" given above, and further, that the view of particles like "but" would clearly render it what I was thinking of as an interesting version of expressivism.

In fact, given i) his claim that we signify the connections among "not only the parts of Propositions, but whole Sentences one to another", and ii) his use of a sentential connective like "but" as a central example of this phenomenon, one would expect him to be an expressivist about other connectives, such as "if...then..." (and thus for the conditional sentences containing them). Unfortunately, the chapter on particles is only about 2 pages long, and doesn't contain (or even suggest, really) all that much in the way of guidance on how we could systematically construct the rest of his theory of language.

At the outset of this post, I said I was going to illustrate how projects in historical philosophy can benefit from attention to contemporary philosophy as well as how projects in contemporary philosophy can benefit from attention to the history of philosophy. So far, I have, at best, shown that we can draw some connections between historical and contemporary issues. Now I'd like to explain how such connections can produce the benefits I've indicated:

At the New England Colloquium on Early Modern Philosophy, Jennifer Smalligan Marusic presented a paper investigating issues arising for Locke and Arnauld's theories of judgment, on which propositions are formed in the mind by way of acts of judgment (acts of affirmation and denial). One concern surrounding such judgment-based theories of proposition-formation is that they appear to rule out merely entertaining a proposition (or, at least, merely entertaining a proposition without having previously judged it). Another natural concern is that, if "is" signifies affirmation, then we get surprising predictions about the judgments possessed by someone competently uttering disjunctions ("Either Susan is smartest or Nancy is smartest"), externally negations ("it is not the case that Philip is loud"), conditionals ("if Carol is happy, then Lisa is happy"), or attitude ascriptions ("Beth thinks Lupe is smartest", "Tom hopes that Alejandro is home").

If "is" signifies that the speaker is doing some affirming of the ideas signified by the terms/phrases flanking the "is", then the sentences just mentioned should all signify affirmations which they do not, in fact, seem to signify. For instance, sincerely uttering "Beth thinks Lupe is smartest" doesn't seem to involve the speaker judging Lupe to be smartest, and "Tom hopes that Alejandro is home" doesn't signify that anyone judges that Alejandro is home).

Some have (in the face of such worries) opted for proto-Fregean readings of Lockean judgment, in which "affirmation" is forming-but-not-necessarily-endorsing an affirmative proposition. In her talk (which was excellent), Marusic made a compelling case against such proto-Fregean interpretations of Locke and Arnauld and in favor of the reading which generates these worries, while also exploring ways that Locke and Arnauld, on her preferred interpretation, might be able to resolve the worries.

My point in discussing this may already be apparent to those familiar with non-cognitivist accounts of moral terms, who no doubt recognize in this challenge, a belief-based cousin to the Frege-Geach problem for emotivism about, say, "good" (I am here referring to the version of the problem presented by Geach and later by Searle, as described on pp. 705-7 of Mark Schroeder's paper).

If, as those views maintain, the moral sense of "good" indicates/expresses commendation, then something (though it is unclear what) should be commended in an utterance of the sentence "if giving money to charity is good, then giving money to Oxfam is good". But, prima facie, one could endorse the conditional without commending charitable donation (generally) or donations to Oxfam (specifically).

I won't take the time here to carefully detail why I think the parallel is more than just superficial similarity, but I will observe that both problems arise because a claim about what a term is doing appears to work well in certain basic/ground-level sentential contexts, but does not seem to generalize well across all possible occurrences of the term, and seems to fail, in particular, with respect to occurrences of the term either in "logically complex" sentences or inside the "scope" of an "attitude ascription". As this post is getting quite long, I will attempt to briefly wrap up, and indicate the potential benefits:

If the problem faced by Locke's view of judgment and language is as similar to the problem faced by contemporary meta-ethical expressivism as I have suggested, we can learn quite a bit about the individual problems by observing the similarities and differences they exhibit when it comes to evaluating proposed solutions. If a proposal looks promising in the one case, but not the other, that would be useful information for the people working to solve either one individually. If some proposals look equally promising for both problems, that is also useful information. If the approach to language embodied in Locke's view can avoid the problems (without simply invoking Fregean or proto-Fregean resources), we might find that working within the range of currently dominant frameworks (which were heavily influenced by Frege and Russell's approaches to philosophy of language) unduly constrains various expressivist projects. Solving the Frege-Geach problem is one thing, but it is an additional constraint to do so while preserving a particular story about why there is no Frege-Geach problem for the descriptive case.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Hume's Inaccurate Predictions

In the introductory section of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume contrasts two ways of doing philosophy. While I don't want to try and sort out the interpretive issues of how, precisely, he means to distinguish the two categories here, his discussion includes a set of (retrospectively) bizarre predictions about the longterm popularity of practitioners of the different styles. He says:
This also must be confessed, that the most durable, as well as justest fame, has been acquired by the easy philosophy, and that abstract reasoners seem hitherto to have enjoyed only a momentary reputation, from the caprice or ignorance of their own age, but have not been able to support their renown with more equitable posterity. It is easy for a profound philosopher to commit a mistake in his subtile reasonings; and one mistake is the necessary parent of another, while he pushes on his consequences, and is not deterred from embracing any conclusion, by its unusual appearance, or its contradiction to popular opinion. But a philosopher, who purposes only to represent the common sense of mankind in more beautiful and more engaging colours, if by accident he falls into error, goes no farther; but renewing his appeal to common sense, and the natural sentiments of the mind, returns into the right path, and secures himself from any dangerous illusions. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present; but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed. La Bruyere passes the seas, and still maintains his reputation: but the glory of Malebranche is confined to his own nation, and to his own age. And Addison, perhaps, will be read with pleasure, when Locke shall be entirely forgotten. (source)

From the perspective of contemporary academic philosophy in the United States, at least, these predictions are exactly backwards. I've had a decent amount of exposure to Aristotle's actual views, while the main thing I know about Cicero is that he also went by "Tully", and is thus a convenient example for illustrating Frege's Puzzle. While Malebranch wasn't a major focus of my early modern studies, he certainly got more attention that La Bruyere, and it is pretty clear that Locke has not been "entirely forgotten".

While I don't know how these figures reputations turned out outside of academia, or even outside of philosophy departments (and it is also possible that my experiences are not really representative), I always find this paragraph somewhat jarring as I settle in to read the Enquiry.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Simplicity Follow-Up

As I could have predicted, much of what I wrote in the previous post is not especially novel. From Alan Baker's SEP entry on Simplicity:
With respect to question (ii) ["What is the role of simplicity principles in different areas of inquiry?"], there is an important distinction to be made between two sorts of simplicity principle. Occam's Razor may be formulated as an epistemic principle: if theory T is simpler than theory T*, then it is rational (other things being equal) to believe T rather than T*. Or it may be formulated as a methodological principle: if T is simpler than T* then it is rational to adopt T as one's working theory for scientific purposes. These two conceptions of Occam's Razor require different sorts of justification in answer to question (iii)[Is there a rational justification for such simplicity principles?].

While this system of classifying ways of formulating Occam's Razor is pretty clearly in the same neighborhood as the contrast I was suggesting, I notice that Baker characterizes the methodological approach to Occam's Razor as facing the following practical challenge:
Justifying a methodological principle requires answering a pragmatic question: why does it make practical sense for theorists to adopt parsimonious theories? Most attention in the literature has centered on the first, epistemic question. It is easy to see how syntactic elegance in a theory can bring with it pragmatic advantages such as being more perspicuous, being easier to use and manipulate, and so on. But the case is more difficult to make for ontological parsimony. It is unclear what particular pragmatic disadvantages accrue to theories which postulate extra kinds of entities; indeed—as was mentioned in the previous section—such postulations can often bring with them striking syntactic simplification.

I quoted this passage because the sort of defense I gave for methodological simplicity was that it is easier to discover the limits of simpler theories, and (consequently) easier to learn how complex a theory must be in order to account for certain sorts of things. The methodology I described is not really the method of "adopting" a simple theory of practical purposes. It is the methodology of investigating the versatility of simple theories, without any further claim about epistemic or practical advantages of outright adopting that theory.

Baker's breakdown into epistemic and methodological seems to draw out the contrast between preferring simplicity because believing the simpler theory is a better way to arrive at true beliefs about the thing it is a theory of, versus preferring simplicity because proceeding as if the simpler theory is true is a better way to actually make predictions about and exert influence on the thing it is a theory of. My proposal, on the other hand, prefers simplicity because investigating simpler theories is a more efficient way to learn about the explanatory power of various sets of primitive resources. In itself, it carries no recommendation for believing the theory or for proceeding as if the theory were true.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Two Ways of Caring about Simplicity

I am not familiar with the literature on theoretical/ontological simplicity, so this post might be rehashing material that is well-worn among people who focus on such issues.

I think we can distinguish between two different ways in which a preference for simplicity can be manifested in philosophical inquiry. The first is in the role of adjudicating competing explanations. We have before us a set of rival theories, in competition as explanations of something or other, and we want to generate a ranking of theories from worst to best (presumably so that we may proceed to infer the best explanation). A ranking is going to be generated by scoring the theories in terms of some theoretical virtues (as in, the virtues possessed by theories). Caring about simplicity or parsimony can be manifested by making these rankings sensitive to the relative simplicity of the competing theories. As a first thought about this, it seems to me like simplicity isn't just going to be less important than, say, the virtue of capturing the data but that we will want a method of ranking that produces a lexical ordering where, for any two theories T1 and T2, if T1 is substantially better at capturing the data than T2, T1 outranks T2 regardless of their relative degrees of parsimony/simplicity. At the same time, as I said, I don't know the literature on this and it might be that something like noise in the data would weigh against such lexical orderings in favor of simply placing a lot more weight on data-capture than on simplicity. It is clear that there are a bunch of ways to actually institute the preference for simplicity as playing a role in ranking competing theories, and we can think about those as different versions of the view that simplicity matters in our evaluations of proposed explanations.

Contrast that way of valuing simplicity with a role it can play in guiding theory construction. We have some area of inquiry, like theory of mind, and maybe a general program or explanatory project we are keen to pursue, and we employ simplicity as a guide in our pursuit of the project. Here, caring about simplicity or parsimony can be manifested as a methodological commitment to be conservative with respect to the postulation of new primitive resources. As an example from the early modern period, philosophers offering reductive theories of mind (often in terms of a set of mental faculties/behaviors and a set of mental contents, like ideas) exhibited a wide range of different approaches to theory construction. Some were pretty liberal in introducing new primitive mental faculties or behaviors, while others tried to analyze all of our mental activities in terms of a quite small set of privileged faculties or behaviors.

It seems like the main advantages of adopting this sort of methodological preference for simplicity are: a) that, by severely constraining one's range of options for analyzing things, it consequently provides the theorist with increased direction for proposing analyses (roughly: there is a smaller search space of proposals using only the sparse resources), and b) that, by having fewer resources, it is easier to exhaust them, and thus, our investigations are likely to give us information about what the bare minimum of resources are for addressing a given issue (roughly: fewer resources means, in principle, less you can explain, and so you are more likely to find your explanatory needs outstripping your explanatory resources).

Incidentally, this is a big part of how I understand Hume's project in Book I of the Treatise. Hume's empiricism leads him to adopt hefty constraints on the nature and variety of ideas available on his theory, and Hume further limits himself by proposing only one fundamental type of cognitive activity (which can alternately be labeled conception if we are talking about the typing of cognitive states, or being present to the mind/understanding (with some or other degree of "force"/"vivacity") if we are speaking of the underlying analysis in terms of impressions and ideas. In the case of interpreting Hume, the (a) advantage outlined above produces a nice secondary benefit: it sufficiently narrows the range of viable interpretations of Hume's position on particular issues to inspire confidence about making progress on a number of interpretive debates.

Turning back to things not-directly-related-to-my-dissertation: It seems as though there are important differences between these two ways of implementing a preference for simplicity.

First, the former way assumes we have the array of competing theories already laid out in front of us, and we already know that we are selecting among adequate theories. On the other hand, the latter approach is recommended by, among other things, the high potential for generating inadequate theories. The attempt to rank theories looks like it should be supported by considerations having to do with a propensity for the simplest adequate theory to be true (or for simplicity of an adequate theory evidence of its truth), while the constraint on theory construction is supported by the utility of finding out the explanatory limits of a given set of resources.

Second, when using simplicity in ranking theories, it is important to note that just because T1 is the simplest adequate theory to explain P, and T2 is the simplest adequate theory to explain Q, it does not follow that T1&T2 is the simplest adequate theory to explain P&Q. It may be that T8 was pretty complex among the adequate explanations of P, and T12 was pretty complex among the adequate explanations of Q, but T12 and T8 overlap in such a way that T12&T8 is the simplest explanation of P&Q. So, the ranking of competing explanations of P (in isolation) may wind up being highly misleading about which theory of P we should prefer (all things considered). On the other hand, if T1 is not complex enough to account for P, it is also not complex enough to account for P&Q.

I am inclined to think the latter approach is safer in some sense, since it never delivers recommendations against the true view. I'll probably check out the SEP article on simplicity when I get a chance, but if you have particular recommendations for things worth reading on these topics, let me know.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Hume on Unreasonable Affections

On the question of whether passions can be unreasonable, Hume writes, famously:
[I]t is only in two senses, that any affection can be called unreasonable. First, When a passion, such as hope or fear, grief or joy, despair or security, is founded on the supposition or the existence of objects, which really do not exist. Secondly, When in exerting any passion in action, we chuse means insufficient for the designed end, and deceive ourselves in our judgment of causes and effects. Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it.

On a natural reading of this passage, Hume has in mind cases like these:
False Supposition: Tom's fear of Casper the ghost. Given that there are no ghosts (and, in particular, that Casper the ghost does not exist), Tom's fear is founded on a false supposition (the supposition that Casper exists). Thus, Tom's fear can be called unreasonable.

Insufficient Means: Jane's decision to eat an apple (when motivated by her aversion to scurvy). Given that eating apples will not help one avoid scurvy, Jane's decision to eat the apple is founded on a false judgment about causes (of scurvy) and effects (of eating apples). Thus, Jane's decision (and/or action) can be called unreasonable.

Note that Hume's account of what makes for an "unreasonable" belief seems to be the following: A belief that P is unreasonable if and only if ~P. I'll come back to this point in a later post, but it is important to notice it here.

A natural criticism of Hume's position is that these cases don't seem to be cases of unreasonable emotions/decisions/actions. If anything, the false beliefs giving rise to Tom's fear and Jane's decision seem to help (rather than hinder) the reasonableness. What would be unreasonable, the thought goes, is for Tom to fear Caspar when he doesn't believe that Caspar exists (or for Jane to eat an apple as a way to avoid scurvy when she doesn't think apples prevent scurvy). To the first part of this criticism (the claim that the affections in these two cases are not unreasonable), I think Hume has room to maneuver. He even makes a point of articulating that "properly speaking" it is the judgments involved (and not the passions) which are unreasonable. So, what about the thought that there are these other cases, in which the passions are unreasonable?

Interestingly, Hume's framework leaves no room for such cases. Passions are secondary impressions (aka "impressions of reflection"), and thus, are responses to antecedent mental activity. In these cases, the passions can't be present in the absence of the relevant judgments. Setting aside the question of whether this is a desirable feature for Hume's mechanics of mind, it is, at least, an explanation of why Hume doesn't consider such cases: they are impossible, not irrational.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Corrupt the Youth: Bring Philosophy to the Schools

Through a link to this blog post at the philosophy teaching blog In Socrates' Wake, I found out about PLATO, the Philosophy Learning And Teaching Organization, which is "a national support and resource-sharing organization for parents teachers, philosophers, and others involved in teaching philosophy to pre-college students." (note to PLATO's web-designer: the main text on the website should be actual text, not an image of text).

Does anyone know of countries/places/particular schools where logic and/or critical reasoning courses are staple elements of the K-12 (or equivalent) curriculum?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Stipulations and Semantics

I want to consider how the relatively common (and not particularly controversial) practice of stipulatively introducing terms into a language fares relative to three conceptions of the basic business of semantic theories. The three conceptions I am interested in are:

A) Propositional semantics
B) Expressivist semantics
C) Speech-act Theoretic Semantics

Very roughly, the (A) conception of semantics is one on which the business of semantics is to assign propositions to sentences. On this type of view, a basic idea is that a true utterance of some sentence will place constraints on how the world can be, and the job of a semantic theory is to assign a proposition that is properly related to those constraints.

Very roughly, the (B) conception of semantics is one on which the business of semantics is to assign mental states to sentences. On this type of view, a basic idea is that the sincere utterance of some sentence will require certain goings-on in the speaker's mind, and the job of a semantic theory is to assign a mental-state that is properly related to those requirements.

Very roughly, the (C) conception of semantics is one on which the business of semantics is to assign speech-acts to sentences. On this type of view, a basic idea is that a successful utterance of some sentence will have certain effects on the conversation or audience, and the job of a semantic theory is to assign a speech-act that is properly related to those effects.

I've obviously oversimplified these views a great deal, and we could quibble about my formulations or about what I take to be key components of the views, but, this rough sketch of the views is sufficient for my purposes.

Now, if the only mental state ever proponents of (B) invoked was belief, and the only speech-act proponents of (C) ever mentioned was assertion, and the thing one needed to believe for sincerity always lined up with the assertion made by successfully uttering it, and that thing also lined up with what the world needed to be like for the sentence to be true, it would not seem like these conceptions were really at odds with one another. However, proponents of (B) do not assign _only_ beliefs to sentences, and proponents of (C) do not assign _only_ assertion. Theorists who find (B) appealing may be motivated by non-cognitivism about normative terms, or by the desire to offer a semantic treatment of slurs or pejoratives (either of which could involve assigning non-cognitive mental states to sentences containing the respective terms). Proponents of (C) might be motivated by wanting to distinguish conditional assertion from the assertion of a conditional. These clearly aren't all the reasons one could be pulled towards the views, but just a way to see how the (B) and (C) conceptions can genuinely come apart from (A) and from each other.

My interest in this post is in how these conceptions of semantics interact with the practice of introducing a new term and giving it a stipulated definition. Here is a brief example of the practice:

Let 'garzy' be a common noun that picks out all parties having at least 100 attendees and only parties having at least 100 attendees.
Now that we've introduced 'garzy', I can use it: If I were the sort of person inclined to do such things, I could go around talking about garzies, ask people whether the gathering they attended was a garzy, and I could attempt to plan a garzy, etc. Some of these require people to go along with my introduction and use the term themselves, but that doesn't cause problems for my investigation.

I want to contrast the foregoing example with the following pair of cases:

1. Let 'morko' be a common noun that picks out all people who read philosophy blog posts, and only people who read philosophy blog posts, and, further, let it be the case that sentences using 'morko' express the attitude of hatred towards people who read philosophy blog posts.
Now that I have introduced 'morko', it seems like I can use it, but not quite as I have stipulated. For instance, I can say that, spammers aside, only morkos comment on my blog posts, and I can ask whether morkos are making up an increasing proportion of blog readers in general, etc. Now I'm not 100% sure that those previous sentences were meaningful/good in the relevant sense, but I am sure that I didn't just express hatred for people who read philosophy blog posts, and that the sentences I used don't express hatred for people who read philosophy blog posts.

2. Let 'rutu' be a common noun that picks out all bananas and only bananas, and further, let it be the case that sentences using 'rutu' express (in addition to the assertoric speech-acts they would ordinarily have, the speech act of apologizing for discussing bananas.
Now that I have introduced 'rutu', it seems like I can use it, but not quite as I have stipulated. For instance, I can say that my favorite fruit is the rutu (though the assertion would be false), and I can ask whether you had any rutu in the last week or so, etc. However, I don't think I've apologized for discussing bananas, and I don't think the sentences I used express an apology for discussing bananas.

Now, it isn't all-by-itself a problem for the (B) or (C) conceptions that I can stipulate truth-conditional contributions of an invented term and start using it pretty easily. And it isn't all-by-itself a problem for the (B) or (C) conceptions that I can't stipulate any expressivist or speech-act theoretic contributions of an invented term and start using it pretty easily. However, those two things combined do seem to raise a question for those conceptions of semantics: Why is it that some parts of semantics can be stipulated and not others? The (A) conception is the only one on which invented terms can have their semantic values given straightforwardly by stipulation. The (B) conception allows new terms to have a stipulative contribution to what belief might be required for sincere utterance of the sentence, but not for non-cognitive contributions to the semantic value. The (C) conception allows new terms to have a stipulative contribution to what assertion is made by successful utterance, but not for non-assertoric contributions to the semantic value. There may be some explanation for why only the semantic values that map neatly onto (A)-type conceptions of semantic value can be stipulatively defined, but it seems like one is needed. I should also note that I'm not basing the argument on some pre-theoretic intuition that semantic value should be apt for stipulative definition, rather, I am noting a contrast within the realm of (B)- and (C)-type semantic values, and observing that there should be some account of why there is such a contrast.

I should note that not everyone seems to agree with me on the inability to stipulate these other sorts of contribution. Dave Barnett, for instance, in a paper on conditionals, stipulatively introduces a connective that has a suppositional semantics, and, if I remember correctly, in "Thinking How to Live", Alan Gibbard introduces a stipulatively expressive predicate in one chapter (I'll have to verify both of these. At least one of them may have been a thought experiment about what would happen if some possible term had such-and-such semantics, which is quite different from the stipulative definition of an actual term as having those semantics).

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Weinberg on Intuitions/Methodology at the APA

At the Pacific APA, there was a pretty interesting Symposium on the role of intuitions in philosophy. The three presenters were George Bealer (offering a defense of the use of intuitions), Jonathan Weinberg (offering a criticism of the use of intuitions), and Brian Talbot (offering a moderate, empirically-based defense of the use of some intuitions).

I've been wanting to write up a brief post on Weinberg's talk. The talk contained an argument along the following lines:
Two sorts of argument widely employed in philosophy are (a) Compact Deductive Arguments, and (b) Inference to the Best Explanation arguments (broadly construed). Weinberg then argued that (a) is amenable to traditional armchair methodology, while (b) requires revising philosophical methodology in the manner articulated/defended/preferred by experimental philosophers. Weinberg concluded that this makes experimental philosophy a necessary/appropriate/inevitable next stage of philosophy.

During the Q&A, I asked why the methodological revision called for by this situation was the adoption of empirical methods, rather than an increased reliance/use of Compact Deductive Arguments (and reduction in the use of IBE arguments). In reply, Weinberg i) acknowledged that his talk hadn't established the appropriateness of using IBE, and ii) indicated that he would be curious to know what philosophy would look like if my proposed methodological revision occurred.

I don't mean to be taking a stand on whether to abandon IBE arguments, adopt such-and-such experimental methods, or challenge Weinberg's position that using IBE arguments requires the adoption of such-and-such experimental methods. All I wanted to point out is that one could have substantively agreed with almost everything Weinberg sought to establish, and not have felt much pressure at all to abandon the armchair.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Referee Hours

Not that I get tapped for referee work all the time, but it happens often enough that I decided to figure out a strategy for ensuring that whenever I do get tapped, I get the work done in a timely manner. Since the strategy I've developed has been at least somewhat effective so far, I figured I would share it in case anyone else is interested.

The problem with the work I need to do as a referee is that, pretty much perpetually, I am going to have a lot of other academic work of my own on my plate, much of which can legitimately be prioritized over the task of refereeing. What this means is that finding time to referee is a project doomed to failure. My other work will usually just expand to fill up all of my work hours. Instead, I realized I need to plan time to referee. So, on the model of office hours, I've designated two hours a week (10:00 am to Noon on Thursdays, if you are curious) as referee hours. And, much like office hours, this is simply a block of time during which I impose a temporary shift in my priorities. If there is refereeing work on my plate, it is (barring unusual circumstances and major deadlines), the primary thing to do during those two hours. And, just as I find myself using my office hours to do my own work if no students come in to see me, I can similarly spend the referee hours doing my own work if I have no outstanding referee requests.

So far, I have been surprised at how effective of a way this is to keep the refereeing I've agreed to do from falling off my radar.

Monday, March 29, 2010

San Francisco APA

In just a couple days I am headed to San Francisco for the APA. The timing is good in that I will have almost entirely recovered from my trip to Scotland by then (recovered in the sense of getting back to a normal amount of sleep which takes place during the right periods for the time zone I am in, etc.) The timing is bad in that, as soon as I am easing back into my normal work routine here, I am heading off for another conference. Of course, the silver lining to that cloud is that it reminds me that I like my work so much that the major downside to attending a conference is that I don't get to spend as much time actually working as I'd like.

If you will be at the San Francisco APA, and want to hear me talk about Cognitivism about intentions (roughly, the view that intentions are at least partially constituted by beliefs), you should come see my session on Thursday, April 1st, at 2:00 pm.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reid Conference: Talks I Saw

I just got back from a week in Scotland, where I attended a fantastic conference on Thomas Reid.

In this post, I am just going to give a list of all the talks I saw, and actually write up more about some specific talks later (note: for many of the conference sessions, I had difficult choices about which talk to attend, and I also left the conference a day early, if that gives you any indication of how much was going on at this conference):
  • Thomas Reid in the History of Moral Thought (James Harris)
  • Thomas Reid's Experimentum Crucis (Todd Buras)
  • Thomas Reid Between Externalism and Internalism (René van Woudenberg)
  • Dugald Stewart on Innate Ideas and the Origin of Knowledge (Emanuele Levi Mortera)
  • An Open Revolt against the Authority of Reid: Thomas Brown and the Developments of Common Sense Philosophy (Christina Paoletti)
  • The Enkinaesthetic Foundation for the Development of Reidian Artificial Signs (Susan Stuart)
  • Reid's Assault on the Theory of Ideas (Lewis Powell)
  • Thomas Reid and the Moral Philosophy of Samuel Stanhope Smith (Bradford Bow)
  • Thomas Reid in the US: a Potato-Pop-Gun? (Jean-Marie Chevalier)
  • Direct Realism and The Infinite Divisibility of Time in Thomas Reid (James Bruce)
  • Reid's Theory of Language (David Alexander)
  • What Kind of Realism? Reid on Aesthetic Response (Laurent Jaffro)
  • Reid on Consciousness (Dialogue between Rebecca Copenhaver and Udo Thiel)
  • Reid on Virtuous Habits, Belief, and Moral Responsibility (Esther Kroeker)
  • Reid and His Fellow Scots on Moral Foundations (Phyllis Vandenberg)
  • Instinctive Exertions and the Conception of Power (Chris Lindsay)
  • Reid on the Moral Faculty (Keith Lehrer)
  • Reid on Acquired Perception (Rebecca Copenhaver)
  • Four Questions About Acquired Perception (James Van Cleve)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Temple Grandin and David Hume on General Ideas

A few weeks ago, Mark Schroeder linked me to a TED talk by Temple Grandin. Grandin is autistic, and, in her talk, one thing she attempted to convey was an aspect of her own cognition that she regards as unusual. She said:
So, what is "thinking in pictures"? It's literally movies in your head. My mind works like Google for images. Now, when I was a young kid I didn't know my thinking was different. I thought everybody thought in pictures. And then when I did my book, Thinking In Pictures, I start interviewing people about how they think. And I was shocked to find out that my thinking was quite different. Like if I say, "Think about a church steeple" most people get this sort of generalized generic one. Now, maybe that's not true in this room, but it's going to be true in a lot of different places. I see only specific pictures. They flash up into my memory, just like Google for pictures. And in the movie, they've got a great scene in there, where the word "shoe" is said, and a whole bunch of '50s and '60s shoes pop into my imagination.

Mark suggested I compare this description of her cognition with Hume's analysis of abstract reasoning. In the Treatise (1.1.7), Hume tells us:
When we have found a resemblance among several objects, that often occur to us, we apply the same name to all of them, whatever differences we may observe in the degrees of their quantity and quality, and whatever other differences may appear among them. After we have acquired a custom of this kind, the hearing of that name revives the idea of one of these objects, and makes the imagination conceive it with all its particular circumstances and proportions. But as the same word is suppos'd to have been frequently applied to other individuals, that are different in many respects from that idea, which is immediately present to the mind; the word not being able to revive the idea of all these individuals, but only touches the soul, if I may be allow'd so to speak, and revives that custom, which we have acquir'd by surveying them. They are not really and in fact present to the mind, but only in power; nor do we draw them all out distinctly in the imagination, but keep ourselves in a readiness to survey any of them, as we may be prompted by a present design or necessity. The word raises up an individual idea, along with a certain custom; and that custom produces any other individual one, for which we may have occasion. But as the production of all the ideas, to which the name may be apply'd, is in most eases impossible, we abridge that work by a more partial consideration, and find but few inconveniences to arise in our reasoning from that abridgment.

I think Mark was right to note a striking parallel between Grandin's description of thinking in pictures and Hume's account of abstract reasoning (though I definitely don't mean to suggest that Hume was autistic).

At any rate, I thought this was pretty interesting, and figured I would share.

Monday, March 15, 2010

More Presentation Excitement!

Five Things:

First, I added a "widget" to the right that is a list of all my upcoming presentations, so if you are keen to know about my upcoming presentations, that is a good place to find out.

Second, I found out today that my abstract was one of six accepted for the New England Colloquium in Early Modern. The paper I will be presenting there is a significant piece of my dissertation.

Third, I also added an entry for a Colloquium presentation at my home department (USC). The principle aim of this presentation will be for me to get experience in preparation for the job talks I will hopefully be giving next year when I am on the job market.

Fourth, because of all the travel I am already committed to (and the amount of work I am hoping to accomplish this summer), I had to pass up an opportunity to comment on a paper for the upcoming Hume conference in Antwerp.

Fifth, a number of people have asked me if/when I will be making more Robotic Dialogues. The answer is that I hope/intend to make more in the not-too-distant future, but obviously robot parodies of philosophy take a back seat to actually working on my dissertation and the like.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Socratic Robologues: Euthyphro

I made a video animation thing today:

In this robologue, Robot Socrates investigates the nature of piety with Robot Euthyphro.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Upcoming Presentations

1. Later this month, I head to Aberdeen and Glasgow for the conference Thomas Reid: In His Time and Ours. Those who are curious should feel free to read the abstract for my paper.

2. I already posted about this, but my paper "Toward a Less Confident Cognitivism" was accepted for the Pacific APA in San Francisco in early April. The paper argues that Cognitivists about Intention can avoid the commitment that intending to do X involves believing that one will do X without sacrificing the explanatory power of their Cognitivist assumption.

3. I just heard back that my paper "How Can Hume Suppose What Cannot Even Be Conceived?" was accepted to the 5th Biennial Margaret Dauler Wilson Conference in Early Modern Philosophy (which will be held in June at UC Boulder).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Constituency neither is nor requires Parthood

At the Central APA, I attended a presentation by Greg Fowler and Chris Tillman in which they showed the inconsistency of the following claims relating to the mereological sum of absolutely everything, call it 'U', and the proposition that U exists:

1) U is part of the proposition that U exists.
2) The proposition that U exists is part of U.
3) U is not identical to the proposition that U exists.
4) Parthood is anti-symmetric (i.e. if x is part of y, and y is part of x, x=y).

Their discussion was framed (roughly) as an argument against (4), on the basis of (1)-(3), but I think it is more useful to think of it as an inconsistent tetrad.

If we grant that there is such a thing as the mereological sum of absolutely everything, and we grant the existence of propositions, then (2) would be hard to deny. If everything is a part of U, and there is a proposition that U exists, it is part of U. So, the likely culprits are (1), (3) and (4). But, to me at least, (4) seems to be on better footing than the assumption that there is a mereological sum of absolutely everything, so I'm unlikely to give that up to resolve the tension.

As to (3), I find the following to be a reasonably compelling argument against giving it up: U is not truth evaluable, but the proposition that U exists is truth evaluable, so they are not identical. That said, I think fleshing out a denial of (3) would be among the more interesting responses to the puzzle.

At any rate, I am left with a rejection of (2). Now, Chris and Greg argued that giving this up would cause trouble for explaining the structure of structured propositions, but they only considered denying (2) by denying that structured propositions have any (proper) parts whatsoever. This way of denying (2) is pretty strong, since (2) only asserts that one particular thing is a part of the proposition that U exists. In other words, Chris and Greg argued (compellingly) that parthood is needed in the analysis of constituency, but used that as a basis for concluding that the constituents of a proposition are parts of that proposition.

Here is my flippant argument that constituency neither is nor requires parthood (i.e. that being a constituent of something does not entail being a part of it):
DD1) As a resident of Illinois, I am one of Dick Durbin's constituents.
DD2) I am not one of Dick Durbin's parts.
DDC) So, constituency neither is nor requires parthood.

And here is my almost-as-flippant explanation of why this notion of constituency is relevant to our discussion of propositions:
It is in virtue of being one of Dick Durbin's constituents that I am represented by him in the senate. So, the Dick Durbin argument shows that one can explain why something represents its constituents without the constituents being parts of the thing doing the representing.

So, I'm inclined to think that propositional constituents are represented by the parts of propositions, but need not themselves be parts of propositions.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Prospective Student Season

As we approach one of my favorite parts of the academic year (prospective student recruitment season), it seems a good time to let anyone who is considering coming to USC for their Philosophy Ph.D. know that they should feel free to contact me with any questions they have about the nature of the program, about our departmental culture, about graduate student life at USC/in Los Angeles, or whatever else they might be curious about.

Two things I remember from when I was applying to Grad school:
1) There was something very nice about the part of the process where programs that had accepted me were trying to convince me to choose them, as opposed to the earlier part of the process where I was trying to convince them to choose me.
2) There was something very stressful about the part of the process where programs that had accepted me were trying to convince me to choose them, since I didn't know what information I needed to be trying to get in order to make a good decision about where to go.

At any rate, I am here and I am available to answer your questions: lmpowell at-sign usc dot edu.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Actions: Intentional under some description?

This post is subject to an important correction.
I think the origin of talking about actions "under a description" is Donald Davidson's 1963 "Actions, Reasons and Causes". If I am right, Davidson does not so much provide an argument for his thesis, but rather, simply puts it forward:
"I flip the switch, turn on the light, and illuminate the room. Unbeknownst to me I also alert a prowler to the fact that I am at home. Here I need not have done four things, but only one, of which four descriptions have been given.[...]Since reasons may rationalize what someone does when it is described in one way and not when it is described in another, we cannot treat what was done simply as a term in sentences like 'My reason for flipping the switch was that I wanted to turn on the light'; otherwise we would be forced to conclude from the fact that flipping the switch was identical with alerting the prowler, that my reason for alerting the prowler was that I wanted to turn on the light."

It seems that Davidson's view here has two components:
A) My flipping the switch = my turning on the light = my illuminating the room = my alerting the burglar.
B) My flipping the switch was intentional, though my alerting the burglar was not.

Here is a reason to think that if my φing = my ψing, it is not possible that one was intentional and the other not:
1) If my φing = my ψing, then for any property P, if my φing has property P, so does my ψing.
2) Suppose that my φing was intentional but my ψing was not.
3) Then, there is a property P (namely: being intentional) such that my φing has P, but my ψing does not.
4) Then, it is not the case that my φing = my ψing.
5) So, if my φing = my ψing, it is not the case that my φing was intentional while my ψing was not.

Granted, Davidson, it seems, would either deny (1) or the inference to (3) under the supposition of (2). I would have thought that (1) is an uncontroversial instance of Leibniz's law, so I assume it is more likely for one to deny (3). But, at the same time, being intentional seems like a perfectly nice property.

Since I think we should concede component (B) of Davidson's position, I can only assume the motivation to reject (1) or (3) in my argument comes from some good reasons to accept component (A) of Davidson's position, however, it seems like we also have good reason to abandon (A):
1) My flipping the switch could have occurred without the light being turned on.
2) My turning on the light could not have occurred without the light being turned on.
3) So, my flipping the switch is not the same thing as my turning on the light.
(repeat with the necessary alterations for each of the items being identified).

Here's a naive conclusion to draw from my two arguments: My flipping the switch is not the same thing as my alerting the burglar, and thus, we need not appeal to the notion of an action's being "intentional under some description" to explain how my flipping the switch is intentional when my alerting the burglar is not.

But perhaps I am being insufficiently charitable to the Davidsonian position.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

APA Suggestions

I have two simple suggestions for changes to benefit the APA and its members, but I don't actually know how to go about making these suggestions to the people in charge. If anyone does know how ordinary members can officially propose changes like this, please let me know.

Change 1. Adopt an exclusively PDF-based distribution scheme for Proceedings and Addresses, with hard copies of the issues containing Division meeting programs available at the Division meetings. Or, if not, adopt a principally PDF-based distribution scheme, and allow people to opt-in for receipt of paper copies. Or, if not, at least make PDF access available to any member, and make it very easy for individual members to opt out from receiving a paper copy.

I know I am not the only person to think that there must be a better way for the APA to use the resources that go into producing and mailing hard copies out to all of the APA members, but even if, somehow, eliminating the paper copies doesn't save money, it would still enormously less wasteful, right?

Change 2. Allow members to sign up for e-mail notifications/reminders about deadlines for Division meetings. Since the deadlines for APA meetings are usually pretty far in advance of the meetings themselves, it is easy to forget when the deadlines are coming up (for instance, the last Eastern Division meeting occurred less than two months ago, but the submission deadline for next years is in under two weeks). In principle, the cost of setting up such a service would be negligible, so even if it is only moderately helpful for APA members, it still seems like a good idea.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On Knowing/Saying To

First a question. Does anyone know of any literature (in epistemology or philosophy of language) dealing with sentences like either of the ones below?

1) Tom knows to go to the store.
2) Sara said to go to the bank.

It seems to me that sentence 1 should be of interest to epistemologists because it seems to exhibit something akin to the phenomenon that gets labeled "factivity" in the case of "knows that" ascriptions. By which I mean, just as it only makes sense for someone to utter "Tom knows that the store is open" if they themselves are of the opinion that the store is open, it only makes sense for someone to utter 1 if they stand in the some relevant approval/recommendation relationship to Tom's going to the store.

2 is interesting in the philosophy of language, because it seems to be the relevant way to report an instruction in indirect discourse. For instance, if Sara said, "Go to the bank" (to Jeff), but Jeff didn't hear her, and asked me what she said, I might report her utterance by saying 2. Insofar as some philosophers of language invoke considerations about indirect discourse as evidence for propositions (and/or as evidence about the nature of such propositions), sentences like 2 seem to be just as relevant when we raise questions about the existence/natures of instructions (understood as objects of a similar kind to propositions).

It is an interesting dissimilarity between 1 and 2 that a) only Tom can be the agent of "go to the store", while b) Sara is going to be generally dispreferred as a possible agent of "go to the bank" and c) the agent of "go to the bank" in 2 seems highly context sensitive (that is, there are readings corresponding to "Sara said for us to go to the bank", "Sara said for him to go to the bank", "Sara said for you to go to the bank", etc.)

I don't have any big "a-ha" thoughts on any of this yet, which is partially why I am hoping someone has written something about them. Both constructions seem deserving of attention, though.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Better Statement of the Puzzle for Reid on Color Perception

Here is a much shorter, clearer statement of the puzzle I see for Reid on color perception:

1) A perceiver observing a uniformly blue sphere would only perceive something uniformly blue if one sees the sphere as a 3-dimensional object.
2) An original perceiver observing a uniformly blue sphere would not see the sphere as a 3-dimensional object
3) So, an original perceiver observing a uniformly blue sphere would see something variably colored, rather than uniformly blue.
4) No external object being perceived is variably colored.
5) So, either a) the original perception is of the sphere, but is not correct., or b) the original perception is correct, but not a perception of something external.
6) Reid's direct realist account of perception requires that the original perceptions are correct, so, not (5a).
7) Reid's direct realist account of perception requires that the original perceptions are of external objects, so, not (5b).

Reid is committed to (1)-(3) by the passage I quoted in the previous post.
I don't have a source for (4), but I am not sure what externally existing object is variably colored in a perceptual situation involving a perceiver and a uniformly blue sphere.
(5) follows because the perception is either correct (and therefore not of any external object) or not. If it is incorrect, it may as well be a perception of the sphere.
(6) comes from the veridicality of perception on Reid's picture (he goes to some lengths to argue that the sense do not deceive us), and (7) comes from the fact that Reid is insistent that the objects of perception are external objects (and their qualities).

So, this is the puzzle. Reid can avoid the puzzle when it comes to visible and linear distances, for instance, because there are two different (but related) qualities he can invoke. But there is no such distinction available when it comes to color.

A Puzzle for Reid on Color Perception

Thomas Reid recognizes a distinction between qualities originally perceived by a given sense modality and an expanded range of qualities that can be perceived via that sense modality as the result of nature, custom/habit, or experience. Specific parts of Reid's story generate a puzzle about color perception (though I should add the caveat that I haven't yet looked through the secondary literature carefully to see if this has already been discussed).
Reid includes color on the list of original perceptions of vision, but he also makes the following remarks (all bolding added by me, for emphasis):
"Thus, if a sphere of one uniform color be set before me, I perceive evidently by my eye its spherical figure, and its three dimensions. All the world will acknowledge, that by sight only, without touching it, I may be certain that it is a sphere; yet it is no less certain, that, by the original power of sight, I could not perceive it to be a sphere, and to have three dimensions. The eye originally could perceive only two dimensions, and a gradual variation of colour on the different sides of the object.
It is experience that teaches me that the variation of colour is an effect of spherical convexity, and of the distribution of light and shade. But so rapid is the progress of the thought, from the effect to the cause, that we attend only to the last, and can hardly be persuaded that we do not immediately see the three dimensions of the sphere.
Nay, it may be observed, that, in this case, the acquired perception in a manner effaces the original one; for the sphere is seen to be of one uniform color, though originally there would have appeared a gradual variation of color: But that apparent variation, we learn to interpret as the effect of light and shade falling upon a sphere of one uniform color."

The puzzle for Reid is that basically all ordinary color perception turns out to be a case where the original perceptions are in conflict with the acquired perceptions, and, what's worse, if we have to choose one as "veridical", it would be the acquired perceptions, not the original ones.

See, Reid takes color to be a real quality of objects. Now, (supposing the sphere in Reid's example to be blue), if being blue is a quality of objects, the "uniformly colored" sphere is either uniformly blue, or it is not uniformly blue. Since Reid introduces the sphere as uniformly colored, let's grant that the sphere is uniformly blue. But, recall that this is an acquired perception of the sphere's color, which means that an unexperienced visual observer would see, as Reid points out, something with gradually varying colors. Note, however, that, ex hypothesi, the sphere is uniformly colored, and so, either original color perceptions are generally not veridical (contra Reid's position on perception) or, the original color perceptions are not of the externally existing object (contra Reid's position on perception). Put another way, Reid's plausible story about acquired perception requires either non-veridical original color perceptions, or non-external objects of original perception. Reid doesn't want either of these, so his view of color perception is in trouble.

So that's the puzzle. My plan now is to see whether there is any way for Reid to wriggle out of this puzzle (or if I am radically misinterpreting him on the status of colors or on perception, or the like).

Reid Conference Program

The annual conference of the British Society for the History of Philosophy this year is a conference in honor of Thomas Reid. The conference, "Thomas Reid: From His Time To Ours", lasts for a whole week (March 21-26), and spans two different universities (Aberdeen and Glasgow).

The program for the conference has now been posted, and my first response is: wow, that is a lot of conference, and my second response is being excited about seeing my name on the program.

Anyway, this looks like it will be a pretty exciting conference, and I am glad my paper got accepted, giving me a pretty good excuse to go all the way to Scotland to attend it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Pacific APA News: Possible Location Change

I just received an e-mail from the APA seeking feedback on an issue arising from a labor dispute between San Francisco's unionized hotel workers and the collection of hotels that employ union workers.

The hotel workers are calling for a boycott because of disputes with management over something to do with their health care packages (I don't have the specifics because the e-mail linked to a survey with more information, but I finished the survey without copying down the info, and I can't re-open the survey after submitting it). It is important to note that the workers are not striking now, and the information provided by the APA suggests it is very unlikely for the workers to go on strike.

The union is calling for a boycott of many of San Francisco's hotels (including the Westin St. Francis where the APA meeting was supposed to be). The poll was aimed at finding out whether people preferred to keep the meeting at the Westin St. Francis (and make arrangements for people who wish to present their work outside the hotel at nearby venues), move the meeting somewhere else in the greater bay area, or move the meeting to another major city entirely. One constraint is the APA policy to use a union hotel for APA meetings (presumably this is part of why there is no discussion of moving to another hotel within San Francisco).

For what it is worth, my survey responses heavily favored the first two options over the last one (in part because I already purchased plane tickets to San Francisco), and I also wound up leaning towards leaving things at the Westin rather than moving to another part of the bay area.

It seems as though participating in the requested boycott would cause serious upheaval for the APA's plans, and for the plans of many individual members of the APA, especially given that the issue may well be resolved before March (though I don't have any information about how likely that is to happen).

I know that, when I was making hotel arrangements, I had considered laying down the money upfront for a non-refundable reservation at a nearby hotel because it was somewhat cheaper than the discounted rate at the Westin. I'd be pretty concerned right now if I had actually gone ahead with that reservation.

I should also note that if the APA was deciding whether to plan future APA meetings in San Francisco (as opposed to deciding whether to change the plans for the upcoming meeting), I'd be much more sympathetic to the boycott request.

If anyone has a link to something a bit more official on all this, please post it in the comments.

Telescopes and the Role of Language in Philosophy

John Stuart Mill and Timothy Williamson both analogize the role of language in philophical inquiry to the role of telescopes in astronomical inquiry. I don't know that I have anything particularly illuminating to say about this shared analogy, but I thought I would reproduce the relevant passages here.

First, here are the first two paragraphs from chapter one of Mill's System of Logic (titled: "Of the Necessity of Commencing with an Analysis of Language"):

"It is so much the established practice of writers on logic to commence their treatises by a few general observations (in most cases, it is true, rather meagre) on Terms and their varieties, that it will, perhaps, scarcely be required from me in merely following the common usage, to be as particular in assigning my reasons, as it is usually expected those who deviate from it.

The practice, indeed, is recommended by considerations far too obvious to require a formal justification. Logic is a portion of the Art of Thinking: Language is evidently, and by the admission of all philosophers, one of the principal instruments or helps of thought; and any imperfection in the instrument, or in the mode of employing it, is confessedly liable, still more than in almost any other art, to confuse and impede the process, and destroy all ground of confidence in the result. For a mind not previously versed in the meaning and right use of the various kinds of words, to attempt the study of methods of philosophizing, would be as if some one should attempt to become an astronomical observer, having never learned to adjust the focal distance of his optical instruments so as to see distinctly."

And here is Williamson's way of putting a very similar point, in "Must Do Better":
"Philosophers who refuse to bother about semantics, on the grounds that they want to study the non-linguistic world, not our talk about that world, resemble astronomers who refuse to bother about the theory of telescopes, on the grounds that they want to study the stars, not our observation of them. Such an attitude may be good enough for amateurs; applied to more advanced inquiries, it produces crude errors. Those metaphysicians who ignore language in order not to project it onto the world are the very ones most likely to fall into just that fallacy, because the validity of their reasoning depends on unexamined assumptions about the structure of the language in which they reason."

Note that, despite the importance both place on questions of language, neither philosopher is adopting the position that philosophical inquiry is fundamentally inquiry about language. In fact, as revealed by the telescope analogy, both seem to be committed to the view that philosophical inquiry is often not about language.

Intrinsicness and the Duplication Account

Last Friday, Maya Eddon presented a paper ("Intrinsicality and Hyperintensionality") arguing against the adequacy of the duplication account of intrinsicality (where, intuitively, intrinsic properties are those that objects possess solely in virtue of the way the objects themselves are).

Granting, for purposes of spelling out a duplication account, that there is a privileged set of (perfectly) natural properties, we can define what it is to be a duplicate: an object x is a duplicate of object y if and only if x is like y with respect to the instantiation of all perfectly natural properties.

So, the duplication account of instrinsicality is:
DUP: A property P is intrinsic if and only if it never divides duplicates.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Philosopher's Carnival #102

Welcome to Philosopher's Carnival #102. The Philosopher's Carnival is a round-up of recent philosophy blog posts. I'm going to include my own recommendations alongside the submitted posts, and if there is something good I've missed, be sure to mention it in the comments. All links are after the jump.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Thomas Reid and Acquired Perception

In his Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man Thomas Reid maintains that experience can allow us to improve on our original perceptions, expanding the information available to us by way of our senses. In this category, Reid includes things from our ability to visually perceive tangible sizes and distances of objects (instead of simply the apparent sizes and distances of objects), to things like hearing the size of a bell and a butcher's ability to (visually) see how heavy some quantity of beef is. Reid labels this phenomenon "acquired perception", and takes the position that instances of it do not involve an act of reasoning, but he also indicates that he is not particularly concerned to argue that it is literally a form of perception — "Whether we call it judgment or acquired perception is a verbal difference" (EIP II.14, paragraph 37). Reid indicates that he is calling it "perception" simply to accord with what he regards as common usage of the term (EIP II.22, paragraph 31).

At the same time, one of the many interesting things that I think we can find in Reid's discussion of this topic is a decent way to defend his substantive underlying position (namely that beliefs arising from acquired perception are importantly different from both our original perceptions and from beliefs formed on the basis of reasoning). When Reid is concerned to show that many purported 'fallacies of the senses' are not really fallacies of the senses, he points out that when our acquired perceptions lead us astray, (for example, if one believes that there is a spherical object in front of them on the basis of seeing a really well-done painting of a sphere), we would not fault their faculty of vision (Reid's discussion of this point is from II.22. paragraph 31).

I think Reid could marshall this test in support of his position that acquired perception is not a product of reasoning. I am just as disinclined to consider someone who is taken in by a trompe l'oeil painting or the like a bad reasoner as I am to consider them someone with faulty vision. However, limiting our attention to this case might be considered stacking the deck in favor of Reid's position, since not all of his opponents would group visual perception of 3d shapes and distances as the same sort of acquired perceptions as a butcher's ability to estimate beef weight, or the like.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Fictions about Real Things

I am on the plane from New York back to Los Angeles (currently over Omaha), and since Google was good enough to sponsor free in-flight wifi for all Virgin America flights, I figured I'd take this opportunity to write up a blog post.

I would think that it is utterly uncontroversial that there are some fictions about real people. but, it is often the case that things I take to be utterly uncontroversial are subjects of heated philosophical dispute.

Start with this fiction (which, admittedly, has little aesthetic value):
One day, during his exile on the isle of Elba, Napoleon met a surprisingly friendly group of vampires. After a brief conversation, they parted ways and Napoleon made a mental note not to prejudge vampires. The end.

Here are a couple things I think we should all accept about that story (call it "Vampires on Elba").
1) "Vampires on Elba" is a story about Napoleon
2) The occurrences of "Napoleon" in "Vampires on Elba" refer to Napoleon.

Here is a potential worry for accepting 1 and 2:

It seems to follow from 1 and 2 that:
3) The Napoleon of "Vampires on Elba" is Napoleon.
And, intuitively we would want to accept:
4) The Napoleon of "Vampires on Elba" met some vampires.

But, now we have a contradiction, since:
5) It is not the case that Napoleon met some vampires.

So, 3, 4, and 5 form an inconsistent triad.

Let's take it for granted that 5 is beyond reproach.

We either need to deny 3, deny 4, or argue that there is equivocation going on. And if we deny 3, we will need to figure out whether to reject 1 and 2, or whether 3 doesn't really follow from them at all.

It seems to be the best strategy for rejecting 4 is to argue that it is literally false, but can be used to convey the truth:
4*) According to the fiction "Vampires on Elba", Napoleon met some vampires.

This is somewhat unsatisfying, but does allow us to cleanly preserve 3.

On the other hand, it seems to me that the best strategy for rejecting 3 involves treating "the n of S" (where 'n' is a name and 'S' is the title of a story) as a function that takes one from the referent of n to some other object. I'm going to call this approach the "Cadillac of Minivans" approach. In essence, we reject 3 because it is an identity claim, but the definite description doesn't pick out the object named by 'n', rather, it picks out some relevant counterpart of that object. Note that this is compatible with (and almost requires) treating 'n' as it occurs in 3, as retaining its ordinary reference. Just as "Cadillac" retains its ordinary reference in the phrase "The Cadillac of minivans".

I am not sure whether this strategy is compatible with accepting 1 or 2 (I am more worried about 1, I guess, than about 2).

I am currently inclined to accept 3, and to either maintain that 4 is false, but can be used to make claims about what is true according to the fiction, or maintain that 4 is ambiguous between the false reading and a reading on which it literally makes a claim about what is true according to the fiction.

I'm mostly curious as to whether there is some way to maintain natural readings of 1 and 2, while denying 3. Any thoughts?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Post APA: Sessions I Saw

I wound up attending quite a few sessions at the APA this year, so I thought I'd take an opportunity to recap what I saw before I forget too much of what went on. I hope to have a couple of posts about some of the things that really grabbed my attention/interest from the talks I saw, but for now, here is a list of the talks I made it to. As always, some talks I wanted to see were scheduled at conflicting times, and sometimes the practical necessities of getting a meal prevented me from attending as many sessions as I'd have liked to: