Sunday, January 01, 2006

2005: My Web of Beliefs

Time to summarize the past year's bloggery, in the hopes of illuminating (for my future self's benefit) how my ideas develop over time.


What little I wrote on this topic basically just continued on from themes that emerged the previous year: defending coherentism about justification, and externalism about knowledge. I also returned to the topic of radical skepticism, arguing that dream scenarios needn't threaten our knowledge. My post on truth and certainty explains why relativism is not the way to oppose dogmatism.

For something a little different, I defended pragmatism against evidentialism in Reasons for Belief. I've also developed more of an interest in meta-philosophical questions of justification, e.g. regarding intuitions and thought experiments, whether there is progress in philosophy, etc. I also like to identify particular patterns of argumentation (or fallacy), and how they might be employed by either side of a partisan debate, e.g. "hands-clean hypocrisy" arguments, 'love the sinner', appeals to ineffectuality, etc. It was also fun disagreeing with Timothy Williamson about counterfactuals and intuited counterexamples.  


No surprises here: I'm still an atheist. My previous post links to a couple of old favourites on the Argument from Hell and the problem of evil. My posts on the atrocious S5 modal argument and Anselm's ontological argument for theism were both fun, if a bit more technical. More accessible pieces include my challenge to (some) agnostics, and arguments for the superiority of an atheistic ethics over God-given value - a common theme for me this year. I also discussed the epistemic import of religious experiences, and complained about common demands for 'religious immunity' (from criticism).  


This was an major focus of my blog this last year. Early on I discussed the parallel relations between belief to truth and desire to value, and followed up the previous year's "moral emotions" post with a fun one on chocolate flavoured poo, which continues to attract some disturbing search engine hits!

A common theme was the need to avoid arbitrary ethical foundations (e.g. cultural relativism). An important distinction is clarified in 'two senses of intrinsic value'. I've become more concerned about incorporating normative force into ethical theories, which is problematic on my earlier views about the fact/value gap and the nature of morality (I'm now more sympathetic to complex forms of expressivism, subject to certain constraints). After reading Michael Smith I rejected my old Humeanism for a more expansive view of rationality, which helps us to answer the question 'Why Be Moral?'. This is also related to the fascinating issues of collective rationality, and how the prisoner's dilemma hampers deontological ethics.

Other key essays tackled the topics of moral diversity and skepticism, contrasting internalist moral realism with constructivist non-cognitivism, and how consistency leads to utilitarianism. (The idea of constructed truthmakers seems helpful to moral ontology.)

I discussed utilitarianism quite a lot, actually, defending it against the common objections of treating people as a means, and the 'separateness of persons' objection. I also co-opted the case of the organ-stealing doctor to actually support utilitarianism, which was fun. I advocate indirect utilitarianism, providing greater theoretical support for my old favourite of 'Desire Utilitarianism'. Taking a long-term view brings up difficult questions for consequentialism, and may recommend that society 'invests in rational capital'.

I've also done a lot of work on the topic of well-being. An important point is the 'good to'/'good for' distinction, which allows us to avoid the silly claim that 'people always act selfishly'. I also note that consideration of counterfactual and global preferences allow us to overcome problems with naive desire-satisfactionism. Questioning the relevance of past desires provides a helpful case study of the latter, whereas the former might provide an objective standard for determining whether individuals are better off with certain rights which contradict their cultural values. I think transphysicalism (like transhumanism) is a funky idea.  


Another major area of focus, partly summarized in my post on left-wing values. I've clarified my old ideas about substantive freedom and its political centrality. I currently think the best way to promote this goal is through supplementing the free market with an unconditional basic income.

Although sympathetic to political libertarianism (properly understood), I'm strongly averse to the philosophical position that sees absolute 'rights' as foundational, and capitalism as intrinsically just. I summarize many of the flaws of such a position here. A key conflict arises once we recognize that property rights necessarily restrict others' freedom - I respond by discussing a reasonable resolution (which remarkably derives welfare rights from the assumption of negative liberty as our fundamental value). I like to remind extremist libertarians of why taxation is not theft. See also my essay on 'Libertarian vs. Utilitarian Justice'.

I'm similarly unimpressed with the sort of egalitarianism which sees inequalities as intrinsically bad. My post on Equal Concern explicates my reasons for thinking that justice requires the sort of impartiality found in utilitarianism. (Application of these thoughts can be found in my recent post on educational priorities.) I find egalitarianism especially questionable when the concern is directed at the welfare of groups rather than individuals. I explicate the problems with this (and related thinking) in my post: Why Discrimination is Wrong. My positive vision is described in 'The Human Race'. A climate of fear raises some important concerns about perceptions of men in society. I'm also opposed to our sexist rape laws.

I suppose my newfound support for compulsory voting marks a significant change from my past distrust of democracy. 

Logic and Rationality: 

Parfit's discussion of rational irrationality sparked my fascination with the idea of 'indirect reasons' (which is related to the indirect utilitarianism mentioned above, and also discussed a bit in my essay: ought we to be rational?). There's something about what I once called 'abstract probabilities', or the kinds of evidence or reasons provided by generalizations, that I think could benefit from further attention. I hope to clarify my thinking on this sometime in the future.

I've had a lot of fun discussing philosophical logic and paradoxes, e.g. the surprise examination paradox. My most original thought here probably came up in my posts on value-based liar paradoxes, contextual impossibility, and the raven paradox. My essay on the idle argument built on (and greatly clarified) the previous year's arguments about King Henry's paradox. Other fun posts discussed the possibility of traversing the infinite, and multi-dimensional time.  

Reality and Modality: 

Two conceptions of objectivity contrasts two very different understandings of objectivity. Wholes as summed parts explains the kind of reductionism I like (in contrast to the obviously false kind). My post on formal systems and the absolute explains my old understanding of non-concrete reality (i.e. understanding maths, modality, and normativity, all as kinds of formal constructions). I now think that approach might be inadequate (as hinted at in the 'ethics' section above), but I still think those weird modes of reality are difficult if not impossible to pin down. My post on 'real possibilities' expresses my exasperation here. My latest modality post was on 'the impossibly conceivable counteractual', though I have some reading to do on Dave Chalmers' two-dimensionalism, which might help me make better sense of this. (There's a good chance I'll do my honours sub-thesis on a related topic, if I go to ANU.) My post on conceivability, possibility, and explanation is probably the best outline of my present thoughts on modality.  


The previous link also touches on issues in philosophy of mind, esp. the possibility of phenomenal 'zombies'. I develop this more in my post on conscious causation -- probably my main post on philosophy of mind for the past year. I also discussed some more peripheral issues, e.g. the mind's boundaries, and whether our thoughts are 'private' in any strong sense. Elsewhere, I highlight some obvious but often overlooked consequences of having a physical mind. I've also written about animal minds and intentionality, from a biological perspective.

My post on the camera of consciousness highlights some key thoughts on subjectivity and personal identity. My views on the latter topic have been heavily influenced from reading Derek Parfit's brilliant thought experiments involving vagueness and splitting. My post 'soulless materialism' discusses personhood and the importance of mentality (rather than the mere human physicality that so-called "pro-lifers" tend to concern themselves with). Choosing Determinism summarizes my thoughts on free will, unchanged from last year. But I do have a new transcendentally pragmatic argument for free will, to the effect that you couldn't possibly go wrong in choosing to believe in it: either you're correct, or you had no choice about believing it anyway! Intriguing logic.


I should also point out my 'wishful thinking alert', for the sake of posterity. It describes what philosophical theses I would like to be true (regardless of their actual truth values), which reflects how I want the world to be -- and so perhaps subconsciously influences how I think the world is

Right, that should be enough to keep anyone busy for a few weeks. Happy new year!


  1. Have you considered the possibility that there's a 'first cause' or other 'reason why existence exists', but one that has nothing to do with the anthropomorphic and metaphysically optimistic concepts of God that appear in most known religions?

  2. Yeah, Quentin Smith's Time began with a timeless point explores that sort of idea. It does strike me as far more plausible than the dressed-up religious versions. (Though of course we're still left wondering why this 'first cause' exists, as always, so I don't know how helpful such ideas are.)

  3. Clark wrote:

    "I didn't have time to read all the links. But I've glad you've come on board the externalist position within epistemology. Have you read Williamson's Knowledge and Its Limits yet?

    With regards to the religion issue, I'd be interested in you taking up atheistic ethics not in terms of what grounds ethics or what ethics is or even whether a person is ethic, but why a person would want to be ethic. You touched on it very, very briefly in the post you link to. But it does seem that most theists can offer fairly compelling arguments here. (As can quasi-theists who accept some kind of immortality such as Buddhists or Platonists)

    Good, interesting post. A summary like this is always worth doing and its a nice collection of your good links as well.

    Nope, I haven't read any epistemology at all this last year, though Williamson is definitely on the top of my list if I ever return to the subject. Re: ethics, I had a few relevant links on that topic, most notably my essay 'Why Be Moral?' I can't imagine what extra reasons a theist could give, other than self-interested ones (e.g. the threat of divine punishment, heaven/hell, etc.), which I've previously explained aren't properly moral reasons at all.

  4. But Richard, it isn't clear why reasons to be moral must be moral reasons.

    I'll reread that post. (I don't have time right now) I don't recall it answering my fundamental concern though. If the answer to "why be moral" reduces to either you're moral or your not then there seems ultimately something dissatisfying about it all.


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