Monday, January 01, 2007

2006: My Web of Beliefs

A new year -- and time also for a new "web of beliefs" post, to highlight some of my recent strands of thought. One significant trend is that I've shifted away from reductionism about normativity and modality, and now prefer to grant these as conceptual primitives. Anyway, here are some of the main areas that captured my attention this past year...

Metaphysics and Modality

This time last year, I was deeply confused about the foundations of modality (possible worlds). An especially pressing concern was that the possible worlds framework seems to commit us to 'narrow fatalism', or the non-contingency of the actual world. Fortunately, I eventually figured it out: our world is not, strictly speaking, a "possible world" (though it does exemplify one of them). I was pretty elated to have finally ironed out that confusion, though it turns out Kripke beat me to it, and my discussion might seem rather lame to a more experienced philosopher who never suffered my confusion in the first place.

The other main thing that had puzzled me was how to understand the notion of "could have been" in the first place. I soon abandoned my old reductionism, and instead set about exploring an intuitive 'primitivist' account, which became the third chapter of my honours thesis.

And then there's 2-D semantics, and all that "conceivability and possibility" stuff that my thesis is about. I think that turned out pretty well, actually. In short, my current view is that there are two kinds of "metaphysical" possibility: there's the primitive one, which is something pretty close to nomological possibility, and then there's the conceptual one, which is something pretty close to broadly logical possibility. Typical uses of "possible worlds" and related modal notions (supervenience, etc.) concern the latter.

Other fun discussions include World Essentialism, The Limits of Truth Conditions, Knowing Sentences, and ontological deflationism.

Rational Holism

This was basically just a continuation of my old interest in indirect utilitarianism and Parfit's "rational irrationality", culminating in my writing sample: "Global Rationality". The basic idea is that we should only employ decision-procedures that we can consistently endorse from a timeless perspective. I've also discussed how such holism might apply to ethics.

In a pragmatic vein, there are some curious theses that we seemingly should accept simply because we have "nothing to lose", epistemically speaking, by doing so.


Another major focus of mine has been procedural liberalism (more here) and related meta-political issues. Better to be rationally mistaken than dogmatically correct, and all that. I see this as a natural extension of my earlier thoughts on 'investing in rational capital'. Rather than narrowly focusing on the immediate problem, our primary objective is to set up a broader system that can be seen in the abstract to produce globally optimal results. (So I guess this is related to the holism stuff too.) As far as the practical implications go, I've developed quite an interest in deliberative democracy, and would like to see implemented more Citizens' Juries and the like.

At least I got the Carnival of Citizens up and running, though I don't know how long it'll last unless it starts receiving broader support. (Have you promoted it on your blog yet? Go on...)

Oh, and some interesting issues are raised in the post on Political Representation: selection vs. control. I'm not too sure what I think of all that.


I've posted a bit on applied ethics and "philosophy of life" stuff, e.g. I think there's something to be said for open relationships, but tend to take a pretty hard line on the need for honesty, etc. There was a fun discussion on the ethics of aiding infidelity. Enlisting my evil twin to play devil's advocate - defending a "pro-life" position on abortion - was also fun.

On a more serious note, Suicide and the End of Persons explores an interesting argument from David Velleman. The Temporal Acrobatics of Harm is probably my favourite ethics post of the year.

Authoritarianism and Meta-ethics revists an old theme, explaining why dogmatism is a greater threat from relativism than moral objectivism.


As far as first-order politics is concerned, I'm still a big fan of basic income, and think that "taxation is theft" libertarians have a confused conception of rights -- especially in light of Significant Negative Duties.

My post on Experience and Testimony refines my earlier criticism of "religious experience" as a basis for theistic belief.

I posted a little bit on representationalism and philosophy of mind.

Infinite Spheres of Utility provide a fun logical paradox. Unchanging Time and the Infinite Past tackles the metaphysics of time (I'm still a 4-dimensionalist). And I figure Hostage-taking Metaphysics is worth a quick mention too.

Finally, from a meta-blogging perspective, I guess my most significant change of attitude came mid-year, with my defence of polemic lasting a whole day before I changed my mind.

So, that was 2006. I wonder what my web will look like this time next year? Thanks for reading, in any case, and have a Happy New Year.


  1. Just to raise an issue,
    "The basic idea is that we should only employ decision-procedures that we can consistently endorse from a timeless perspective."

    what if, applying one procedure in the first half of your life and another theory in the second half was the 'optimal strategy' (at least from an indirect prspective). Or in a more complex world, applying one procedure in a certain situation while applying an incompatable one in another situation. happened to be optiomal?

    or would one assume that is not possible, or that you could not be sure that inconsistancy was better so it is better to assume it doesn't exist?


  2. Ah, that's helpful -- I see now that I was a bit unclear. I didn't mean that you must use the same decision procedure at all times. Rather, to use it at a specific time t, it must be the case that at all other times you can endorse using it at time t (not necessarily the present time). More simply: don't use a procedure you'll later regret. (See linked essay for examples of this, e.g. the "self-torturer".)

    In any case, we may trivially construct a flexible procedure for use at all times. Simply build the time-relative instructions into it. For example, instead of switching from X to Y at time t, always follow rule Z: "At times earlier than t, follow sub-rule X; otherwise, sub-rule Y."

  3. Ahh that makes more sense.
    I guess one last problem, what if you know any action will be one you will regret at some point.

    I presume you take the one you will regret the least from a holistic point of view? (for example - I broke up with her and regretted it for a year but for the next two years I thought it had been a good idea) or do you tend towards the "looking back at my life story" sort of approach? (for example - i regretted breaking up with her but on my death bed I realised it was the right thing)


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