Monday, March 31, 2008

Subtracting Presuppositions

Follow-up to: Logical Subtraction and Partial Truth

Yablo proposes that (1) the real content of a statement S is what it says as opposed to presupposes; (2) what it says is what S adds to the presupposition π. That is, the real content R = S - π.

How can we tell what's presupposed? Linguists have developed various tests for this, including the negation test: Denying The # of planets is 8 is not thereby to assert There is no such entity or it is not 8. No, whether we assert or deny the claim, this way of talking presupposes numbers either way. So the real content is merely about how things stand concretely so far as the planets are concerned.

Plugging into the formula:
R = S - π
    = 'The # of planets is 8' - 'There are numbers'.

This remainder, the real content of what's said, is true even if the literal statement S isn't (due to the false presupposition). S is merely partly true, but it's true in the part that we care about.

Here's a vital question for metaphysicians concerned with ontological commitment: Are we committed to the truth of our presuppositions, or merely to what we say (i.e. what our assertions add to what's presupposed)? Ordinary talk presupposes all sorts of ontological extravagance: composite objects, numbers, propositions, properties, tensed reality (past/future), mere possibilia, etc. Such talk helps us to convey important truths, some of which may not even be possible to express in less ontologically loaded terms. So it would be nice if we could maintain this talk in good conscience, without thereby committing ourselves to the ontological presuppositions. Can we?

Sometimes, at least, we can knowingly adopt a false presupposition. Yablo mentions talk of 'the King' to denote Harold the usurper. Harold is not really the King, we all know -- the King is locked away in the dungeon. But nonetheless we may use 'The King is coming!' to warn of Harold's approach. This does not commit one to thinking that Harold truly is the King rather than a mere usurper. The false presupposition is adopted merely for sake of communication, and can be safely subtracted to get at the real content of our assertions. Similarly, we may think, for ontological presuppositions. We presuppose that there are numbers in order to more easily describe how things stand in concrete reality. But we may do this while remaining neutral on the question whether the presupposition is really true.

Yablo also briefly mentioned the popular meta-ontological view that various ontological disputes (e.g. whether numbers really exist) are 'empty' or meaningless. He suggests that we have this intuition in cases where the presupposition that X really exists is perfectly extricable from the ordinary claims which rest upon it. We have no trouble simply subtracting away the disputed metaphysical claims, and assessing the concrete remainder. So it seems like the metaphysics isn't really doing anything. That seems to describe my intuitions pretty well, I must admit. But what are the implications for meta-ontology? Can the subtraction method vindicate our deflationary intuitions? Or does it debunk them, suggesting that there is a further question there -- just not one we're typically concerned with in everyday life? Or must we look elsewhere to adjudicate this issue?

Fascinating questions, I reckon. Now if only I could find some answers...

Logical Subtraction and Partial Truth

Stephen Yablo gave a very impressive series of lectures here last week. His core insight was that often we can communicate important truths by way of assertions that are literally false. The rough explanation for this is that the assertion, though false, may be "partly true", or "true insofar as it concerns a certain subject matter." For example, 'the number of dragons is zero' may be literally false if numbers do not exist. But it is partly true, i.e. true in what it says about dragons (namely, that there aren't any). If you take the literal meaning, and subtract the claim that there are numbers, the remaining content is wholly true.

Sometimes logical subtraction seems unproblematic, as the subtracted element is "perfectly extricable" from what's being said. Other cases, however, are more problematic. When you subtract the redness from scarlet, what's left? 'Tom [the tomato] is scarlet - Tom is red' does not leave any remainder that we can make sense of. It seems perfectly inextricable. Then there may be inbetween cases, such as Wittgenstein's famous question: "what is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?" We have some grasp of this, but as Jaeger has pointed out, "it is not the case that there is exactly one statement R such that 'R & my arm goes up' is logically equivalent to 'I raise my arm'."

Yablo's solution is to say that "P-Q always exists, but it doesn't always project very far out of the Q-region [of logical space]. Inextricability simply means that it is hard [or impossible] to evaluate P-Q in worlds where Q fails."

Intuitively, we can say that:
(i) P-Q is false iff P adds falsity to Q.
(ii) P-Q is true iff not-P adds falsity to Q.
(iii) If neither P nor its negation adds falsity to Q, then P-Q is undefined (lacks a truth value).

Yablo systematizes our intuitive judgments here by appeal to truthmakers, or the reasons why a proposition is true/false. P "adds falsity" to Q if it is false for a Q-compatible reason, i.e. there is a Q-compatible falsity-maker for P.

Example: Let P = 'The King of France is bald' and Q = 'France has a King'. Then P-Q is false, because of the following Q-compatible falsity-maker for P: the list of all the bald people, none of whom is a King of France. This falsity-maker could exist, and so make P false, even if Q were true and France did have a King. This shows that P is false for reasons over and above the falsity of its presupposition Q.

Here is a bit more technical detail. Let R be a potential candidate for P-Q. Yablo suggests that R is a successful candidate, i.e. R extrapolates P beyond Q, iff the following three conditions are satisfied:
- "Equivalence: within Q, R is true (false) in a world iff P is true (false)." That is, if R = P-Q, then it had better be the case that R&Q = P.
- "Reasons: within Q, a world is R (~R) for the same reasons it is P&Q rather than ~P&Q (...)" This is equivalence as applied to subject matter, rather than just truth conditions.
- "Orthogonality: outside Q, R is true (false) for the same reasons as within." This is the key principle, which really gets at the intuitive notion that we are genuinely extrapolating P rather than simply gerrymandering a proposition that happens to overlap with P in the Q-region (and then becomes wildly different beyond that point).

Example: The material conditional 'if Q then P' fails the orthogonality condition. Outside the Q region, it is true for the simple reason that Q is false, regardless of P. Compare the visual aid below: 'if Q then P' has truth conditions 'P or ~Q', so would include all the white region in R. The gerrymandering is visible in the fact that the R region would then turn a sharp 'corner' once it left the P & Q region. It should instead extrapolate cleanly as shown.


- Philosophers' Carnival #66.

- Paul Bloom and Josh Knobe discuss moral psychology on

- This discussion thread (on dualism) is more than a little frustrating, for all the reasons previously noted here. It's curious: you have one side offering arguments, and the other mere ridicule and sloganeering, and yet somehow the latter group thinks of themselves as 'rationalists' in contrast to the so-called "religionist stance" of those of us who were actually offering arguments. Extraordinary. (See: scientism.)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Derivative Objections

[I'm adding a new sidebar category on 'methodology', for posts where I assess certain forms of reasoning, or what I take to be common mistakes in philosophical methodology.]

Suppose I propose an analysis of X (welfare, say) in terms of some more basic phenomenon Y (e.g. desire satisfaction). One might try to object to this by pointing to various paradoxes that result. But it is important to check whether the analysis is really contributing to the alleged problem here. Often, I find, it is not. The problem derives from the underlying phenomena, and is nothing to do with the proposed analysis. The analysis merely enables us to redescribe an old problem in new terms. It doesn't really introduce any new problems. So it is unobjectionable (at least in this respect).

Here's a test: If we can replace all instances of 'X' with the proposed reduction basis 'Y', and the paradox still remains, then there's no objection to the analysis here. What's problematic is the underlying phenomenon Y, but that's going to be a problem for everyone who accepts the existence of Y, regardless of whether they believe that Y can ground X or not.

Examples of this fallacy in action:
(1) Claims that the desire paradox is a special problem for preferentist analyses of wellbeing. "I desire to be poorly off", if we accept preferentism, is just a redescription of the more basic paradox, "I desire that most of my desires be thwarted." It's clearly no objection to a view that it allows old paradoxes to be restated in new terms. It's only objectionable if a view introduces new paradoxes!

(2) All those objections to consequentialism that really derive from the difficulty of evaluating certain states of affairs (see, e.g., infinite spheres of utility, the population paradox, etc.). The consequentialist claim that right action maximizes the good does not add any further paradoxicality to our theorizing about the good. As R.M. Hare once wrote:
It is worth saying right at the beginning that this is not a problem peculiarly for utilitarians... The fact, if it is one, that there are other independent virtues and duties as well [as beneficence] makes no difference to this requirement. Only a theory which allowed no place at all to beneficence... could escape this demand. Anybody, therefore, who is tempted to bring up this objection against utilitarians should ask himself whether he is himself attracted by a theory which leaves out such considerations entirely.

So here's a handy methodological principle: when faced with an objection to a theory that relates X to Y, first check - via my above test - whether it isn't really just a "derivative objection" to Y itself. The theory of X may be a red herring, distracting the discussants from what's really at issue.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Document Freedom Day

Googleblog notes that today is Document Freedom Day. This reminds me that I should stop locking up my work and other information in Microsoft's .doc format, and instead use the standardized open document formats (.odt), which are universal rather than vendor-specific.

Imagine if we all wrote in invisible ink that could only be read by wearing special Microsoft-designed glasses. That would seem unwise, at least if there were better alternatives available (i.e. 'open inks' that anyone's glasses could read). What if not everyone has the special glasses? (Do you really want to make being a Microsoft customer a precondition for communicating with you?) Further: how can we be sure that these special glasses will continue to be made in future? We would be needlessly exposing ourselves to the risk of being unable to read our own words a few decades down the line.

Do yourself and your non-Microsoft-using friends a favour, and download an open document application today. (I personally recommend Open Office, a free and high-powered alternative to Microsoft's entire office suite.)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Arguing with Eliezer: Part II

[My promised concluding thoughts...]

Clearly our disagreements run too deep to do full justice to them in a mere blog post. But I at least hope I've succeeded in indicating where one might reasonably depart from Eliezer's reductionist line. There are also a couple of ad hominem points which struck me as noteworthy. (See my previous post for real arguments; this is mere commentary.)

One is that our beliefs are shaped in reaction to others. Intelligent non-philosophers typically only come across stupid, woolly-headed non-reductionists. The most prominent public intellectuals are typically scientists of a reductionist bent, like Dawkins, whose most prominent opposition is from anti-intellectual rubes and intellectually bankrupt religious apologists. From a purely sociological perspective, it's no surprise that intelligent people might initially be drawn to the former camp. (I know I was.) But that's no substitute for assessing the strongest arguments -- the ones you've probably never even come across unless you've spent a few years doing academic philosophy, or associate with others who have -- on their merits.

Since Eliezer's posts are mostly directed at a general audience - most of whom have not carefully reflected on their beliefs - I agree with 99% of his criticisms. Folks often commit the mind-projection fallacy, are fooled by an empty dispute that 'feels' substantive, and can be irrationally resistant to perfectly legitimate scientific reductions. These are all important insights (though hardly news to philosophers). But he overgeneralizes -- just as to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I think the core problem here is methodological. Eliezer assumes that a debunking explanation of a belief is enough to refute it. Rather than doing the hard work of philosophy -- assessing the arguments for and against P -- he shifts to cognitive science, explaining why I might offer such arguments even if P is false. But this is to commit the genetic fallacy. Any reflective non-reductionist will grant that you can explain all the physical facts (incl. their brain states and vocalizations) without reference to any non-physical facts. Of course. But that doesn't imply anything about whether their belief is justified. Explanation and justification are two completely different things.

Reductionists make this error because they assume that all that stands in need of explanation is the third-personal data of science. Hence (they assume), if you can explain all the empirical data - including the vocalizations of your critics - then there's nothing left for said critics to base their arguments on. This type of genetic fallacy is no fallacy, on this view, because a full empirical explanation exhausts all possible justification.

But this is clearly question-begging, or worse. It assumes an indefensible scientism from the start. Non-reductionists take it as given that there is more than just third-personal empirical data that calls out for explanation. There is the manifest fact of first-personal conscious experience, and the normative facts about what we ought to believe and do, etc. A debunking explanation of why we believe in these phenomena is not sufficient unless one has also successfully debunked the phenomena itself. But that requires actually engaging with non-reductionists and the arguments we offer, rather than simply psychologizing us.

Reductionists, when short on real arguments, like to appeal to meta-arguments, e.g. induction on the historical successes of science. 'There have always been nay-sayers, who questioned the ability of science to explain phenomenon X, and every time they've been proven wrong!' It's a familiar sentiment. But it's also pretty weak. If you bother to look more closely, there are principled reasons to think these cases different. All those examples they point to are instances of third-personal empirical phenomena. I grant that science is supreme in that domain. But, to turn the tables, it's never had any success outside of it. So there's no general reason to think that normativity or first-personal subjective experience are susceptible to purely scientific explanation. So, again, these simplistic meta-arguments are no substitute for the real thing.

Arguing with Eliezer: Part I

I had the pleasure yesterday of meeting Carl Shulman and Eliezer Yudkowsky (of Overcoming Bias fame) while they were in town, and hashing out some of our philosophical disagreements. It was interesting, because they're both very smart, and Eliezer's starkly materialist/reductionist ideology was shared by my past self. So I'm not entirely unsympathetic. But it was also frustrating in some respects, since he seemed to assume that any disagreement was simply due to a failure to appreciate his basic arguments, rather than a considered judgment that they aren't wholly compelling. So let me discuss a couple of issues in more detail, and attempt to lay out some of the reasons why I've shifted away from his blanket reductionism over the years.

(A) Fundamental Normativity. Eliezer holds that normative terms (e.g. 'should') are reducible to a particular framework of assessment -- roughly, the ultimate norms endorsed by the speaker. He calls this 'objective subjectivism', and it bears some similarity to the 'Objective Moral Relativism' I endorsed back in 2005.

I now find this unsatisfying, for several reasons. (1) The most obvious is that there's nothing really normative here, in the sense of an ideal that potentially outstrips any purely descriptive facts (incl. my current preferences and accepted norms). Though Eliezer wouldn't like to admit it, this is less a reduction than an elimination. Anti-realist maneuvers can save many of the appearances of normative practice, but its deepest aspirations are ultimately rejected. (2) His view implies that many normative disagreements are simply terminological; different people mean different things by the term 'ought', so they're simply talking past each other. This is a popular stance to take, especially among non-philosophers, but it is terribly superficial. See my 'Is Normativity Just Semantics?' for more detail. (3) We can go beyond the impoverished instrumental conception of rationality on which this view depends. Ultimate ends may themselves be assessed as more or less irrational. (I first realized this here.)

(B) Fundamental Mentality. My post on 'Dualist Explanations' outlines the case for property dualism, and defuses typical worries of the scientifically minded. Now, Eliezer seems to think that the causal inefficacy of non-physical phenomenal properties ("irreducible consciousness") is a knock-down argument against them. I once agreed, but again, have since changed my mind. My post, 'Why do you think you're conscious?' addresses this challenge in some detail.

There are some bullets to bite either way. I admit it's a bit odd to think that the words I type are not causally related to the facts I purport to describe. (That's an extreme way of putting it; do follow my above link to put this in perspective.) But, upon reflection, I find this commitment less absurd than denying the manifest reality of first-personal conscious experience (as reductive materialists like Dennett and Eliezer do), or engaging in the metaphysical contortions that non-reductive materialists must (see my 'dualist explanations' post).

(C) Epistemology. Eliezer writes:
When "pure thought" tells you that 1 + 1 = 2, "independently of any experience or observation", you are, in effect, observing your own brain as evidence.

I responded:
It's just fundamentally mistaken to conflate reasoning with "observing your own brain as evidence". For one thing, no amount of mere observation will suffice to bring us to a conclusion, as Lewis Carroll's tortoise taught us. Further, it mistakes content and vehicle. When I judge that p, and subsequently infer q, the basis for my inference is simply p - the proposition itself - and not the psychological fact that I judge that p. I could infer some things from the latter fact too, of course, but that's a very different matter.

In discussion, Eliezer emphasized the demands of (what I call) 'meta-coherence' between our first-order and higher-order beliefs. If you reason from p to q, but further believe that your reasoning in this instance was faulty or unreliable, then this should undermine your belief in q. I agree that reasoning presupposes that one's thought processes are reliable, and a subjectively convincing line of thought may be undermined by showing that the thinker was rationally incapacitated at the time (due to a deceptive drug, say). But presuppositions are not premises. So it simply doesn't follow that the following are equally good arguments:
(1) P, therefore Q
(2) If I were to think about it, I would conclude that Q. Therefore Q.

(Related issues are raised in my post on 'Meta-Evidence'. See also my argument for the inescapability of a priori justification.)

Concluding Remarks. Oops, this is too long already -- I've shifted my concluding thoughts to a new post.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Knowledge as Sufficiently Safe Belief

Jack has been posting on epistemic closure principles. I know that I have hands. I also know that, if I have hands, then I'm not a (handless) brain in a vat (BIV). But, it's generally supposed, I can't know that I'm not a BIV.

Something weird's going on here. For an intuitive complaint, look at the abominable conjunctions:
# I know that I have hands, but I don't know that I'm not a handless BIV.
# (Expressed in assertion:) "I have hands, but I can't say whether I'm a handless BIV."

For a principled complaint, it makes no sense to think that I could have less epistemic warrant or evidence for the logically weaker claim. The other entails it. The worlds where I have hands are a proper subset of the worlds where I'm not a handless BIV. It's as silly as thinking that Linda is more likely to be a feminist bank teller than a bank teller.

My favoured solution is due to Keith DeRose. S's belief that P is epistemically safe precisely to the extent that certain possible worlds -- namely, those where S believes P falsely -- are distant. Degree of safety is the fundamental epistemic property, and it satisfies closure principles perfectly, as we should expect. I think I have hands, and I think I'm not a BIV, and the latter belief is at least as safe as the former. (You'd have to go out to at least as distant a possible world in order to find one where I hold the belief falsely.)

Why do closure principles seem to fail for knowledge, then? Simply because the standards for knowledge vary. Knowledge is belief that is sufficiently safe for our purposes. Whether a belief that's safe to degree N so qualifies is an open question, and one that will receive different answers in different contexts. Raising certain possibilities to salience will tend to raise the bar, requiring that the safety level of the belief extend to the possible worlds under consideration. Once the bar is raised so high, even our ordinarily safe beliefs will not qualify as "knowledge". Abominable conjunctions are thus avoided.

So we find that the apparent failure of closure is an artifact of our shifting standards. At the fundamental level, epistemic qualification (i.e., safety) transmits across entailments just fine.

Change Congress (beta) Launched

This presentation, from Stanford's brilliant Lawrence Lessig, is the best thing I've seen all year.

He discusses how institutional corruption undermines public trust (in case of experts such as academics and doctors), and leads to transparently bad policy (in case of government). People may care more about substance than process, but just like the alcoholic who can't save his job, family life, or liver until he addresses his alcoholism, so the most substantial problems facing the world today cannot be solved until we reform our corrupt political processes.

This is a message that should resonate across the political spectrum. Increased transparency, porkbusting, and an end to 'crony capitalism' or anti-market regulatory capture -- these are projects that liberals and conservatives alike can recognize as important and necessary. Public financing is a harder sell, but we may draw on Scott Scheule's insight that what libertarian and conservative principles really call for is limited government, not small government. If we must invest in public financing to prevent government/regulatory capture by corporate interests (and the gross inefficiencies that go along with such market distortion), that's surely a good deal from the perspective of limited government!

Anyway, building on the efforts of existing reform groups, Lessig has launched the Change Congress project to help realize these much-needed reforms. A Google Maps overlay makes transparent the PAC money feeding into each congressional district. Another, once the site is in full swing, will track congressional support for the four key reform proposals. This will make it much easier to see which politicians are doing their bit to guard against corruption, and -- once a critical mass is reached -- to pressure the rest of them to follow suit. (See the presentation for more detail.)

You may notice I've added a 'button' of support to my sidebar. You can get your own here.

Meritocracy vs. Solidarity

This is quite a topic. To begin with, compare and contrast the following five quotes.

(1) Bryan Caplan quotes Harford on peer sanctions/ostracism for "acting white":
[A]s long as African Americans remain disadvantaged and clustered together in ghettos, a black student who studies hard is acquiring the ability to escape from poverty, crime, and deprivation - and from those around him. That may not be popular. People don't like to see their friends developing escape plans; even the option to escape makes us nervous.

[There are] analogues of "acting white" in communities as diverse as the British working class (that certainly matches my experience at school), Italian immigrants in Boston's West End, the Maori of New Zealand, and... Japan's lowest caste.

(2) Caplan adds:
This all sounds great, until you realize that there are plenty of cultures that don't work this way! Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were part of the working class when they arrived. But almost all of the social pressure in Jewish culture was to do well in school and make a better life, not remain in the working class. The same goes for earlier waves of Asian immigration. Japanese-American gardeners of the sixties encouraged the next generation to do well in school and move up; that's why I've haven't heard anyone talk about a "Japanese gardener" for twenty years, even though they were ubiquitous when I was a kid.

(3) Cf. Russell Arben Fox's communitarian perspective:
Read the church's "Black Value System" that Rev. Wright and TUCC uses, and see how he connects the disavowal of middleclassness to a disavowal of the meritocratic (and thus always at least potentially elitist and nonparticipatory and undemocratic) values which hold sway in a capitalist state like our, a state determined above all to discover the most talented individuals out there, and enable (and encourage) them to professionally and socially make lifestyle choices so as to seal themselves off from the rest of their community.

(4) From the linked PDF:
The highest level of achievement for any Black person must be a contribution of substance to the strength and continuity of the Black Community.

(5) Cf. H.E. Baber's The Multicultural Mystique:
White privilege is the privilege of self-invention. Immigrants and members of ethnic minorities do not have that luxury. Even when they are not locked out of the mainstream by discrimination and economic disadvantage, multiculturalist notions of authenticity, role obligation and group loyalty dog them.

Communitarianism creeps me out. It's so oppressive to discourage people from developing their own talents or pursuing their own dreams; to bind them forever to whatever local "community" they happened to be born into -- however parochial, intolerant, and limiting.

I'm so incredibly grateful to be where I am now, to have the opportunity to dedicate my life to the discipline of philosophy; I can't even begin to imagine being nearly so happy doing anything else. The academic philosophical community is the first to which I've felt that I truly belong. But if I had been born a Maori, if my skin were a darker shade, then suddenly I would have been obliged to remain with my ethnic community instead? *shudder*

That's not to defend any kind of egoism, of course. I certainly think we ought to care about more than just our own self-interest, and strive to make the world a better place. But there are any number of ways to do that, some of which may be better or worse suited to our individual talents and temperaments. The world is a big place, and we needn't limit our attention to the little corner of it that we're born into. Utilitarian benevolence sits better with liberalism than communitarianism, it seems to me.

Moreover, I'm not even a pure individualist. I think that self-chosen communities can matter a great deal, and their collective achievements may even outweigh the individual interests of their members. But this only holds insofar as the members endorse it; unchosen communities are not automatically trumps.

So, count me in favour of meritocracy and the upward-mobility (though not the crass materialism) of "middleclassness". Count me in favour of "elitism", understood as the claim that some ways of life are better than others, tempered by the cosmopolitan insistence that the best forms of life not be closed to anyone merely due to the circumstances of their birth. (Sadly, this demand is yet to be met. Much more still needs to be done to enable humanity. But entrenching class divisions in the name of "solidarity" is not the place to start. We should want as many people as possible to join the creative classes -- to vacate the working class and its culture, not hold people there and reinforce it.) Count me in favour of liberalism.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Instituting Informal Peer Review

[Update: Moved to front from 13/3. I've created a wiki to continue the planning and discussion. Click here to sign up and begin editing.]

I want to say a little more about how academics might hope to take advantage of the shift to a 'publish, then filter' world.

The first thing to note is that we already solicit and offer each other informal feedback (i.e. outside of the journal peer review process) in a number of ways -- sending drafts to friends, presenting at conferences, etc. But these opportunities are predictably and unfortunately limited by the constraints of face-to-face social networking (e.g. geography: I never could have spoken with all the wonderful people I'm now surrounded by, back when I lived in New Zealand).

So it would seem desirable to take this informal process, and expand and enhance it by means of appropriate online infrastructure. We could create a website - a global database - to which philosophers could submit their draft papers in exchange for reviewing and rating others' submissions. (Authors could respond to these reviews in turn, either by revising their paper or explaining why they consider the criticisms misguided; the reviewers may subsequently revise their ratings. It's a dynamic process.)

Such feedback could be valuable to the authors. Insightful reviews could be reputation-enhancing for the reviewers. And, emerging from of all this public give-and-take, readers end up with a searchable database of cutting-edge philosophical research, complete with a (rough) metric of quality, to help us find especially interesting and important new papers. (One might variously browse by rating, download popularity, number of reviews/comments, etc.)

As you can probably tell, I like this idea a lot. Unfortunately, I don't have the technical know-how to set up such a thing. (Oisin suggests Drupal?) But I'd be willing to look into it further -- and see if I can get institutional support, etc. -- if there's sufficient interest out there to make such a project worthwhile. Any takers?

Is Logic Overrated?

Good reasoning is invaluable; it's what philosophy is all about. But I'm more skeptical of formal logic's value. Logic is a powerful tool we can use to structure our reasoning and highlight entailment relations. But - like any tool - it can be misused. In particular, I worry that it's just too easy for the manipulation of symbols to substitute for careful thought.

Modal logic is especially susceptible to misapplication, in my experience. The most famous example would have to be the S5 modal argument for God's existence. But it's also not uncommon to come across blog posts where the employed logical apparatus merely serves to build in misunderstandings. The formal steps of the argument may be flawless, but that's all for naught if the entire argument is based on a mistake -- due to failing to understand precisely what all those formalisms really mean.

If one opts to engage in formalism, the hard (philosophical) work lies in interpretation, i.e. ensuring that the formalism adequately captures the intuitive ideas we started with. It's easy to neglect this point, and so produce a formal 'proof' that doesn't really speak to the issue at hand. That's the risk of formalism. The advantages are more well known: they force us to make explicit intermediate steps in our reasoning, and allow these to be easily checked for validity. Do the risks or benefits tend to be greater in practice, do you think?

My tentative (and admittedly under-informed) opinion is that logical formalisms are rarely indispensible, and often well dispensed with. As a rule of thumb, I'd be wary of using formalisms as the central means of making your case. Their best use may instead be to provide a bare-bones outline of the argument's structure, as a supplement to the argument given in prose. Formalism may prove helpful, but it shouldn't be considered sufficient, since there is more to good reasoning than logic alone.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Human Sovereignty

Here's another discussion I've long been meaning to return to. I point out a simple objection to the Free Will Defense against the Problem of Evil:
No-one thinks it impedes free will problematically when humans -- e.g. the police -- prevent acts of intentional evil. Why would it be any worse for God to do the exact same thing?

It doesn't seem that the mere source (human or divine) of an obstruction should make any difference to whether it impedes the criminal's free will. In response, Brandon acknowledged as much, but pointed the issue in a new direction:
[The FWD] can't work on individual autonomy alone; rather, it requires us to say that not only is individual autonomy a good to be valued, but the autonomy of the human race as a whole is a good to be valued.

Is it, though? Is collective self-determination or 'sovereignty' an intrinsic good so important that it could outweigh all the other goods that could result from the perfect enforcement of individual human rights? At the level of the nation, most of us think not. Indeed, we think it morally incumbent upon outside powers to step in to prevent genocide when they are able, to protect innocent individuals -- even those with the misfortune of living in the wrong 'sovereign' nation, under the wrong rulers. (Humanitarian intervention may be questioned on pragmatic grounds, of course. We're not omniscient, so the interference of fallible human actors may do more harm than good. But the principle seems clear enough.) Is there a difference at the level of the human species as a whole? Brandon offers the following thought experiment:
A powerful and very advanced alien species comes to Earth and begins intervening in human affairs, not by interacting with us as equals, but by, effectively, policing us. Even granted that the policing was entirely benevolent and beneficial, I think a great many people would feel, perhaps in virtue of a fellow-feeling with other humans that they don't share with non-humans, that something precious to human life had been exchanged for that benefit. Some, no doubt, would think the exchange worth it; some would forcefully reject it. I suppose how people would react in general would tend to depend on the precise details of the interference. But, regardless of how exactly the demographics would go, I think the scenario does suggest that we tend to assume that human affairs are human affairs, to be determined by human choices. And that suggests that, to the degree we treat the whole human race as an object of value, we treat as valuable the autonomy of the human race as a whole.

Again, as in the standard humanitarian intervention case, I would be worried on pragmatic (indirect utilitarian) grounds. Alien or foreign powers are not generally known for being 'entirely benevolent and beneficial'. So in practice we should be suspicious, and a preference for self-determination may be for the best. But if we may stipulate that the outcomes here are, in fact, most beneficial for people, then that strikes me as a very desirable state of affairs. I would rather have a perfect police force than a local police force. Wouldn't you?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Race Speech

Wow. Has any politician ever given such a serious, thoughtful, and thoroughly good speech on race relations in America? I don't know whether it will play well politically -- it's too nuanced to reduce to a 7-second soundbite. But, reading and listening to the speech in its entirety, I found it deeply impressive. Some highlights...

On his church and relationship to Rev. Wright:
Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions - the good and the bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Pinpointing his fundamental disagreement with Wright:
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope - the audacity to hope - for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

The core of the speech, though, takes a much broader view. Obama explicitly acknowledges the grievances that can lead to racial resentment and anger, for blacks and whites alike, while insisting on the need to overcome such divisions:
We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow...

For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns - this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding...

Finally, Obama highlights the shallowness of the current media/political culture, and guides us back to the real issues:
[W]e have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle - as we did in the OJ trial - or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don't have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together...

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should've been authorized and never should've been waged, and we want to talk about how we'll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

I would not be running for President if I didn't believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Good political blogs?

There are a number of good, thoughtful liberal blogs out there. I'd say hilzoy's Obsidian Wings is far and away the best.

There are a number of good, thoughtful libertarian blogs out there. Here my top vote goes to Will Wilkinson.

Can anyone recommend some comparably good, thoughtful conservative bloggers? (Jeremy Pierce is decent, but only occasionally writes on politics. Russell Arben Fox is also thoughtful, if idiosyncratic -- he certainly doesn't present a mainstream conservative perspective. So neither is quite what I'm looking for here.) Are there any Burkean traditionalists out there, offering wise counsel on the pressing issues of the day?

Consider this an open thread. If you can't recommend any conservatives, feel free to recommend someone else.

Conditional Oughts

I think my favourite ever blog discussion would have to be the exchange I had with Jamie Dreier a couple of years back, over the following paradox:
Suppose you have the chance to bet on the toss of a fair coin, but you have to put up $1000 to win $900. I think each of these is true:

(t) If the coin will land tails, then you should bet on tails.
(h) If the coin will land heads, then you should bet on heads.
(v) The coin will land heads or the coin will land tails.

Now by v-elimination we can conclude that you should write me a check for $1000 and bet. But that is obviously a false conclusion. Yet all the premises are true, and v-elimination is valid.

I've been meaning to blog this ever since, but somehow never got around to it. But that's easily remedied: let me reproduce our exchange (excavated from the 50+ comments thread)...

* * *

RC: distinguish the ‘ought’ of reasons (externalistically construed, as what would be best in objective fact) vs. the more subjective ‘ought’ of rationality (expected utility, etc.).

In the objective sense, the coin argument goes through just fine: you really should bet, and what you should bet on is the winning option. (Go on, what are you waiting for?)

Taking the subjective sense (which is more appropriate for deliberation), the premises (h) and (t) are false, as per Greg’s [comment] #30. Even if the coin will land heads, you rationally shouldn’t bet on it unless this information is actually accessible to you. Jamie’s conditional proof ("Surely you should [bet tails], on that supposition [that the coin lands tails]!") is only convincing if the supposition is supposed to be actually made by the gambler. Certainly if I (qua gambler) may suppose that the coin will land tails, then that’s what I rationally should bet on. But if we’re supposing, abstractly, that the coin lands heads without my having antecedent knowledge of this, then it wouldn’t be rational for my ignorant self to bet at all.

(This line of thought becomes clearer if we append “without your foreknowledge” to the antecedents of (h) and (t).)


JD: Whoa! I thought conditional proof was supposed to be valid for every conditional there is. In conditional proof we do not add the extra assumption that anybody knows the discharged premise, so I find it puzzling that you (and apparently Claudio) think that it’s necessary for validity here.
Anyway, I would be quite happy with an admission that conditional proof fails for these practical conditionals. My view is that it succeeds but modus ponens fails, but I’m okay with the contrary view.


RC: Hi Jamie, sorry I was unclear: my complaint is not with the logic of conditional proof, but rather your claim that “Surely you should [bet tails], on that supposition [that the coin will land tails]!” Let me clarify.

Suppose it’s true that the coin will land tails (without the gambler’s foreknowledge). Does it follow that the gambler rationally should bet tails? No, of course not. Quite the opposite: given his ignorance of the fact, he shouldn’t bet at all. So the conditional “if the coin will land tails then the gambler should bet on tails” is false. Replacing ‘the gambler’ with ‘I’ doesn’t change this. All it does is allow us to equivocate in a way that gives your argument its misleading plausibility.

The equivocation arises when you conflate the gambler with the logician doing the supposing. Compare:

(t1) If the coin will land tails without my foreknowledge, then I should bet tails.

(t2) If I may suppose that the coin will land tails, then I should bet tails.

I take it that (t1) is obviously false, and (t2) obviously true, when using the ’should’ of rationality. Now, (t) really corresponds to (t1), and so is likewise false. But your argument tempts us to treat (t) like (t2) instead.

Suppose the coin will land tails. Now, on that supposition, I ask you: shouldn’t you bet on tails? Surely you should, on that supposition!

This conflates the gambler and the reasoner.

Sure, if I qua gambler get to suppose that the coin will land tails, then that’s what I should bet on. That is, supposing (for sake of CP) that I get to suppose (for sake of deliberation) that the coin will land tails, it follows that I should deliberately bet tails. But applying conditional proof to this will only yield (t2), not (t).

N.B. The gambler should bet tails only if, at the time of decision, they hold that the coin will (probably) land tails. This condition is satisfied if, internal to deliberation, the gambler may suppose that the coin will land tails. So far so good. But if you have an external logical debate with the gambler, and ask them to make this supposition for sake of argument, then the supposition will be discharged by the time they return to their practical deliberation. It will no longer be accessible when they have to decide whether to bet. So the above condition is not satisfied in such a case.

Perhaps a parody-argument would help illustrate. Consider the conditional:

(t*) If the coin will land tails, then you suppose that the coin will land tails.

A groundless claim. But apply Jamie’s reasoning: “Suppose the coin will land tails. Now, on that supposition, I ask you: don’t you suppose that the coin will land tails? Surely you do, on that supposition!” Hmm.


JD: Good, thank you, Richard.
I agree with you entirely about the conditionals you mention, and I think you are absolutely right in bringing out the temptation to conflate the supposition that p with the supposition that the supposer supposes that p.

First, in support of what you’ve said, I think that conflation infects indicative conditionals in many places. Compare this somewhat idiomatic form of conditional:

(if-R) If you believe Richard, then the ought has wide scope.

This conditional is intuitively true. But surely it is grossly implausible that whether the scope of the ought could depend in any way on whether the audience believes Richard. Diagnosis: when we consider (if-R), we imagine that we believe Richard, and then ask ourselves whether the ought has wide scope; but imagining that we believe Richard is very hard to distinguish from imagining that Richard is correct, so our answer is that yes, under that supposition, the ought does have wide scope.

Second, though:
You have replaced ‘should’ with ‘rationally should’, and I want to know how the argument works with just plain ‘should’. And in that case, I don’t buy your analysis. Suppose this ticket is, in fact, the winner; in that case, shouldn’t you spend a dollar on it? Yes (I say)! Only you don’t know it, so it’s understandable that you don’t do what you should.
Or try it with ‘better’. If the coin will land heads, then it is better to make the bet and to make it on heads. Suppose the coin will land heads; now, isn’t it better, on that supposition, that you bet on heads?

Finally, is there an equivocation involved in the argument? Well, I think there must be something like an equivocation at some point (this is what I was saying in [26] about Mike’s remark in [17]). But I don’t believe that ‘ought’, ‘should’, ‘better’, and so on, are all literally ambiguous in just the same way.


RC: Jamie, if we adopt a more objective sense of 'should', isn’t the conclusion of the coin argument then unproblematically true? (Cf. my comment #31.) You should “write… a check for $1000 and bet” on the winning outcome. It’s a pity you don’t know which that is, but that doesn’t falsify the conclusion any more than it does the premises (t) and (h).

Perhaps your point is as follows: granted, it is better to bet on the winning outcome. But it is not better to bet, simpliciter, for that leaves open a 50% chance of losing.

That seems right, but may not connect with the original coin argument as you presented it. The most you can strictly infer from (t), (h), and (v) alone is that “you should bet on tails or you should bet on heads”. To obtain your more general conclusion (that you should bet, simpliciter), you need the further premise(s): if you should bet on tails (heads), then you should bet, simpliciter. But this is simply the denial of the above point. So if we take that point seriously, we should reject this new premise.


JD: Hm, you’re right, Richard, but I feel like that’s a loophole that I just have to be more careful about rather than a serious problem.

Well, here’s a try at repairing with minimal amendment. We can use the principle, “If you ought to do A, and the only way you can A is by doing B, then you ought to do B.”

Now, in each branch of the OR-elimination, I’ll use that principle to conclude, “You ought to bet”, so the overall conclusion resting on the disjunction (but not separately on the disjuncts) will be “You ought to bet”.

How’s that? (I hope that instrumental principle is true! I think it is. I’m less sure that it supports modus ponens itself, of course, but if it doesn’t that works for me.)


RC: the puzzle then seems to come down to this: suppose that it’s best to do B and A, but worst to do B and not-A, compared to the neutral option of not-B. As such, is it better to do B?

I’m not sure if there’s really a determinate answer to this. It seems like the right thing to say is, “It depends whether you’ll go on to do A!”

Similarly for your instrumental principle, and its application to the betting case. You should bet on the winning option. So should you bet? Well, it depends whether you’ll be doing so on the winning option or not…


JD: I agree with all that except for the bit about there being no determinate answer. Aren’t there lots and lots of cases in which whether P or Q is the case depends on whether R is true, but this plainly doesn’t mean that whether P or Q is the case is indeterminate?

Still, when you put it in that nice Boolean way instead of the overtly instrumental way that I put it, I agree that what seemed obviously true to me suddenly seems very questionable. It seems to me that there must be plenty of cases in which you ought to do A&B, but, since you are not in fact going to do B, you ought not to do A, since A&~B is a lot worse than ~A&~B.

* * *

Good stuff -- there's something deeply satisfying about making sense of such logic puzzles. [See also my short essay on the idle argument, which discusses a similarly paradoxical argument for foolhardy battle tactics, which I also owe to Jamie.]

Reasonable Meta-Disagreement?

Can people reasonably disagree about what people can reasonably disagree about? Put another way: can we expect to achieve a reasonable consensus as to where the boundary lies between what we might reasonably dispute vs. what is completely beyond the pale? Or could there even be reasonable disagreement ("meta-disagreement") as to where the boundary lies?

That would be strange. Stepping beyond the pale disqualifies one from reasoned discourse; it means that one can no longer be regarded as a reasonable, respectable interlocutor. If we're unsure about this -- if we think there might be grounds for reasonable dispute there after all -- then it's no longer an automatic disqualifier ("beyond the pale"). But if another could reasonably dispute that some move really was beyond the pale, then it seems they could reasonably go there themselves. So the fact of reasonable meta-disagreement would immediately resolve itself: it entails that the first-order issue may indeed be reasonably disputed. By contraposition: if something really is beyond the pale, then it must be unreasonable to think otherwise. No?

I wonder about this because I recently came across a post from old blog friend Jim Ryan, accusing Obama of being a 'racist degenerate', which struck me as completely beyond the pale. As I explained in the comments, I can see some room for a reasonable conservative to judge Rev. Wright's sermons to be objectionable (personally, I think the fuss is overblown), and - supposing they're objectionable - there's room for reasonable dispute as to whether parishioners (incl. Obama) should have left the Church (again, I'm not convinced). So, there are some reasonable (if misguided) criticisms in this vicinity that could be leveled at Obama's private morality. But Obama has been perfectly clear in distinguishing his pastor's views from his own. Obama's own stance on racial issues is obviously less confrontational, more conciliatory. (Hell, he's written a whole book on the topic.) This is not in question, so it's simply dishonest to ignore these facts and assert that he is 'racist' nonetheless.

More generally, I don't see that the Wright "scandal" is of any genuine public interest. Delving into a candidate's church/community background might provide some weak indication of their views if we didn't have anything else to go on. But nobody seriously contends that Obama is an angry black nationalist (much though his slimier opponents might like to insinuate it). These "revelations" about his church are not enlightening. (It's well known that he joined the church for essentially pragmatic reasons, as a community organizer, to get closer to the community he hoped to serve.) So the only motivation for kicking up a fuss in this case is sheer partisan scandal-mongering: the subjective fact that it may serve to whip up outrage and opposition. There's simply nothing there that's of rational relevance to Obama's candidacy, even if the critics are right on every single point of reasonable dispute.

Everyone should be able to see this dialectical point, it seems to me, even if they disagree on some of the first-order questions. So I don't see how to avoid the conclusion that anyone who continues to charge Obama with 'racist degeneracy' (even after having the above pointed out to them) has simply lost touch with reality.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Philosophers' Carnival #65

Hi, and welcome to the 65th edition of the Philosophers' Carnival - a fortnightly roundup of some of the best philosophical blog posts from around the web. I've narrowed the abundance of submissions down to just twelve of my favourites. Enjoy!

Moral and Political Philosophy

Avery Archer discusses McDowell On Virtue. Can one plausibly maintain that 'virtue is knowledge' -- a matter of moral perception -- or does this imply that non-virtue is merely a matter of ignorance and hence involuntary?

Justin at Show-Me The Argument argues that anti-gay attitudes are sexist. There's some lively debate in the comments section.

Zombat relates consciousness to moral status and moral agency. Do phenomenal zombies have moral status? If not, could they be moral agents nonetheless?

Roman Altshuler argues that "Kant’s claim that we act on maxims that we adopt is not an empirical thesis, and that we cannot take it as such without lobotomizing his moral philosophy."

Let me recommend Harry Brighouse's Crooked Timber post on the ethics of voting, which touches on broader issues of coercion and obligation.

Mind and Language

Gary Williams discusses the classic problem of perception: "Am I merely perceiving representations, or ideas, in my head, or am I really looking at the external world?" He advocates James Gibson's solution: that we perceive the 'ambient optic array' of light bouncing about our immediate environment.

Kenny Pearce presents Berkeley's Theory of Reference and the Critique of Matter, explaining why semantic holism ("some symbols may not correspond to anything at all, but gain meaning by being part of the system") is no defence against the anti-materialist objection that we have no grip on "the idea of 'material stuff' abstracted away from any particular qualities a particular object might have."


David Gawthorne defends the neo-Meinongian, anti-Quinean view that we can quantify over non-existent things. Responding to Lewis' objection that this is really just the view that every conceivable thing exists, Gawthorne argues that such philosophers have lost their grip on the pre-theoretic notion of existence that we really care about. (I have some sympathy for such concerns...)

Jason Zarri hopes to deflate debates by assigning a different term to each view: knowledge1, knowledge2, etc., so that the disputants are seen to be simply talking past each other. It's an interesting question just when this sort of move is legitimate.

Over in Platonic Heaven, we find a discussion of the abstract/concrete distinction. In particular, Joongol Kim objects to the analysis: "an entity is concrete iff it belongs to an ontic category to which belongs something that has spatial or temporal parts."

Andrew Cullison offers some objections to the view that "material objects just are regions of space."

Finally, Andrew Bacon has a great post on counterparts and actuality, defusing Delia Graff Fara's objections to counterpart theory by subtly clarifying how we should interpret the actuality operator on the assumption that a single possible world can represent multiple possibilities. Highly recommended!

Concluding Remarks

That's it for this edition of the Philosophers' Carnival, I hope you enjoyed it. While you're here at Philosophy, et cetera, feel free to have a look around and join in any of the discussions that interest you.

N.B. Academics are especially invited to consider my proposed online draft-sharing and feedback system and vote in the sidebar poll, so that I can gauge the level of interest for such a project. Thanks!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Publish Then Filter

A common theme in analyses of the Internet is the transformation from a 'filter then publish' to a 'publish, then filter' world. The high costs of publishing previously forced the former model on us: anyone who wanted to see their work in print first had to win over the gatekeepers (editors of newspapers, journals, etc.). But now anyone and his dog can publish for free over the Internet. So the contemporary challenge is post-publication filtering, i.e. how to find the gems in the torrent of information out there.

One option is to turn to the old gatekeepers for guidance. Anyone can self-publish, but not everyone can publish in the pages of the NY Times or Nous. So we can keep ourselves in a world of informational scarcity if we limit our attention to particular locations which impose pre-publication filtering.

That's fine as far as it goes, but it is an extremely conservative response to the new information ecology. It makes us no worse off than before, at least. But it's worth raising the question: might we have an opportunity now to improve the way we do things? I've already mentioned open-access, which is of course a no-brainer. But that is just a minor tweak, still firmly within the old 'filter then publish' paradigm. To be clear: I think there is an important place for this, at least for the foreseeable future. But I wonder whether we could supplement this with some form of more widely distributed post-publication peer review.

I imagine, for example, the Philosophy Papers Online database could be expanded to allow registered philosophers to rate and/or review the papers found therein. (If measures are needed to 'guard the guardians', these reviews themselves could be subject to peer review -- Slashdot style -- and weighted accordingly. Other online communities have already solved the technical question of how to create a software infrastructure that supports peer production. All we have to do is implement it.)

This would make PhOnline a vastly more valuable resource, since users could browse the most highly rated papers, using these peer ratings as a guide to the most important new scholarship. (At present, users may search by author, title, or date, but there is no way to gauge quality.) This would only work if other philosophers put in the effort to review their colleagues' work. But we already do this for journals, so I don't see why we wouldn't also do this for each other. Depending on how it's set up (i.e. not anonymous review), there could be additional incentives to perform this service, as quality reviewers would benefit from reputational gains within the profession. It could even be technologically enforced, e.g. by requiring that users offer a few reviews before they are allowed to submit another paper of their own to the database.

(In that case, perhaps it would be best to start this project from scratch, rather than trying to build upon an already existing database of papers.)

John Holbo offers a variation on this sentiment (but restricted, I take it, to work that has already passed through the old channels of official credentialing -- I would want to expand this to "unpublished" drafts):
If overproduction is inevitable, which I grant, the primary question is not how to fund it but how to ameliorate the damage it does us. (Having gone overboard by describing excess scholarship as 'effluent' I should probably add: producing things no one wants to read is perfectly harmless so long as these undesired things do not collectively block the road.) The question is how to overproduce with intellectual dignity?

The answer, I think, is that a supplement is needed to a pre-publication peer review process that inevitably hyper-produces hypertrophic 'conformist excellence within the heuristic contraints ...' The supplement should be a hyper-efficient post-publication peer review process that tells you what you might actually want to read.

A simple normative principle. Every scholarly book published in the humanities should be widely read, discussed and reviewed - should have it's own lively blog comment box, not to put too fine a point on it. Because any scholarly book incapable of rousing a modest measure of sustained, considerate, intelligent chat from a few dozen souls who specialize in that area shouldn't have been published as a book - i.e. after several years labor and an average production cost of $25,000. Turning the point around: any book worth that time and expense, that fails to be widely read, discussed and reviewed - that is not given it's own blog comment box - has been dramatically failed by the academic culture in which it was so unfortunate as to be born. [...]

Why is this really quite low normative standard of healthy discussion not presently met? The technological barriers are non-existent, the financial barriers negligible. It's cultural dysfunction. Sheer institutional sclerosis.

The Real Circulation Problem - of which low book sales are a symptom - concerns ideas, not paper. The academic humanities have simply never grown hyper-efficient networks for post-publication peer review that are remotely adequate to the excessive volume of peer-reviewed scholarship generated, especially in just the last few decades. This is the real scholarly argument for moving aggressively online, although it is bolstered by many economic arguments. As I have written before, the beast has poor circulation. The only way to get the blood of ideas moving is to rub its sorry limbs vigorously with ... conversations. Intelligent, bloggy bookchat by scholars, to label this crucial ingredient as the essentially unpretentious thing it is. That isn't scholarship; but - in a world with too much scholarship - it may be an indispensable complement to scholarship.

Cf. Tyler Cowen, for a more radical long-term projection:
I don't envision the free access system as the status quo but free. Papers would be ranked directly in terms of status and popularity rather than ranked through the journals they are published in. Ultimately there wouldn't be journals and this would make a big difference as journals are the current carrier of selective incentives and status rewards...

I'm not sure about this -- what about blind review? We'll presumably want to retain this somehow, if not by journals than via some similar formal means of competition. (Though others have suggested that googling spells the doom of blind review, in which case it's hard to imagine why journals would survive in the long term.) In any case, journals certainly aren't going anywhere in the short term. So I'm really proposing a supplementary system (not a replacement) that I think we'd all benefit from right away.

Update: I've shifted discussion of my specific proposal to a new post.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Open Access Publishing

Crooked Timber has an interesting discussion about publishing in open access journals, and what it would take to get people to make the switch.

For an even better read, see the old Leiter Reports thread: 'Time to End For-Profit Journals?' As Tim Crane wrote:
In the age of online publication, there is no reason why publishers should make so much money from our work. We don't need publishers in order to have peer-reviewed quality journals. We don't need paper publication for journals. Philosophers' Imprint has shown how you can have an excellent free e-journal which is peer-reviewed, and the Notre Dame Philosophical reviews is now one of the leading places for book reviews. Of course, these projects cost money too -- but it would be a better use of libraries' budgets to administer e-journals which are free for the whole world, than to fill the bank accounts of Springer, Elsevier and the like.

I couldn't agree more. The Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy (which I've heard is now also open for discussion notes) also deserves a mention. Are there any other open access philosophy journals of similar (top) quality?

These successes aside, it can be difficult for new journals to become established. So it seems the thing to do would be for the academic community to force the old journals to switch to open access. Cf. Laura Schroeter's comment:
The Springer journals pricing policy is egregiously out of line with even the most expensive philosophy journals. But it's hard to support a boycott of the journal, since Phil Studies is one of the best run philosophy journals in terms of editorial policy, turnaround times, volume and quality of published articles.

The fact that Springer owns the title to Phil Studies puts it in a position of power. But it does seem like philosophers could have some important leverage here. One radical solution would be to arrange to transfer the entire editorial board associated with Philosophical Studies to a university-sponsored online journal called, say, New Philosophical Studies. I don't know if there would any be legal problems with this sort of move. There would certainly be plenty of practical difficulties. But it seems clear that such a move would be in the long term interest of the academics who actually use the journal.

What do you think?

Update: more here.

Respect and Religious Belief

There's been some recent blog chatter (Brandon offers links) on the question whether to "respect" religious beliefs (in a sense that goes beyond mere tolerance to incorporate some form of esteem). Everyone agrees, of course, that a religious person may be respected on other grounds, despite the odd nutty belief (don't we all have some of those?). And it also seems uncontroversial that false beliefs may be reasonably - and thus respectably - held. So I take it the real question is whether irrational beliefs can be inherently respectable. (Or maybe the question is whether religious belief is generally irrational. I can never quite tell.)

My basic view is that a belief is respectable precisely insofar as the agent is reasonable in believing it. I suspect that most religious beliefs are irrationally held. So I don't respect that. I think most people would do better (qua epistemic agent) to become atheists instead.

Two points bear noting, however: (1) This is not a guaranteed improvement. Better to be a reasonably mistaken deist than an atheist whose views stem from scientism, say. (2) There's nothing particularly unique about religion here. Most people have all sorts of unreasonable beliefs on philosophical matters (relativism, egoism, etc.). So, in principle, there's plenty of disrespect to go around. I guess religious belief is just a peculiarly salient example.

To respond to others' points:

* I'm intrigued by Brandon's suggestion that false belief contents may warrant respect "as beautiful, ingenious, or such". Such aesthetic values might ground respect for a fictional story or a mental state like imagining, which does not aim at truth. But belief aims at truth. So I do not think that these values can make the contents in question respectable as beliefs.

(Aside: some religious people may merely see themselves as engaging in a cultural/"spiritual" practice with no genuine epistemic component at all. They mouth the words of the hymn, as part of their practice, but they do not really believe the content in any ordinary, literal sense. This strikes me as entirely unobjectionable. But it's not what I'm talking about here.)

* Many people seem to think that others' beliefs should not be rationally challenged. It's "nasty" to be critical, or some such. On the contrary, I think that our public culture is deplorably uncritical.

Having said that, I'm more sympathetic to Bad Jim's comment that respect is "something we owe to the boundaries of social intercourse". In our personal lives, some disagreements may be better left unaired. It would be obnoxious to constantly disrupt one's social interactions by bringing up irrelevant disagreements. But that's quite consistent with thinking that there is an appropriate time and place for hashing out such disagreements.

* I instantly lose respect for anyone who confuses this criticality with 'militancy'.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Shady Gambles

Roger White has proven, to my satisfaction, that perfectly rational agents could not have imprecise credences. In this post, I want to explain away a potential source of contrary intuitions. It seems perfectly reasonable -- and perhaps even rationally required -- to refrain from accepting bets on issues you are completely ignorant about. But if I were required to always have precise credence, then there are many (intuitively dubious) bets that I would have to accept. For example, suppose I have no evidence for or against a proposition P. If I must give it a precise credence of 0.5, then I must accept any better-than-even bet (e.g. costing $10 if P is false, and paying $15 if P is true).

The worry is that this leaves me very vulnerable to exploitation from more knowledgeable dealers. They might offer me deals that seem tempting in my ignorance, but which they have carefully set up so that the option I'm expected to choose is in fact a loser. The offering of a bet is itself a piece of new evidence: since the bookie is out to rip me off, an offer that looks "too good to be true" probably is. So it's a good practical rule of thumb to be disposed not to accept bets that others are keen to offer you.

Of course, we want to bracket these practical considerations for philosophy's sake. To avoid any fear of shady dealings or manipulation, we may suppose the details of the bet were determined by some completely random process. In that case, my intuitions sharpen up considerably. It no longer seems permissible to reject a better-than-even bet. Let me now offer an argument to back this up.

We saw in the previous post that a better-than-even Bet A can be combined with its converse Bet B (i.e. offering the same, better-than-even payoffs for the opposite result) to yield a sure win ($5 in the case of $15 vs. -$10 payoffs). So, even if you don't know anything else, you at least know that it's more desirable to take both bets than neither. The expected payoff is (say) $5 rather than zero.

But now suppose you are offered the following: we flip a coin, and if it lands heads you're committed to Bet A only, and if tails you get Bet B only. Is this a game you should accept? It seems so. If you play it over and over again, you can expect to make ever increasing winnings ($5 for every two games, on average). And it's perfectly random, so your one-shot expected utility must be positive too.

So, if you're offered Bet A alone (assuming the background conditions are such that the details of this bet were selected via some random, non-shady process), you should take it. A sharp credence of 0.5 won't leave you vulnerable in these properly sanitized conditions.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Combining Bets

Suppose you have no idea whether P is true. Is it rationally permissible for you to reject the following bet?

(A) You win $15 if P is true, and lose $10 if P is false.

If so, the following bet is presumably also permissible to turn down:

(B) You win $15 if P is false, and lose $10 if P is true.

But if someone offers you both bets at once, it would be crazy to turn them down: you can net $5 no matter the outcome, it's a guaranteed win! We may take this to show that the rational status of bets is not closed under conjunction. It can be rationally permissible to reject A, and permissible to reject B, but impermissible to reject (A and B).

What if you do not know that both bets will be offered? Suppose you are offered A, and permissibly reject it. Then, to your surprise, you are offered B. Are you now rationally required to accept bet B, based on the principle that it would be irrational to reject both? That would be bizarre. Instead, I'd suggest that the rational principle in play is the following:

(Sure Win) It is irrational to knowingly turn down a sure win (unless it comes with opportunity costs, etc.).

It is irrational to reject A and B together, for together they offer a sure win. But the person who rejects A, and is only later offered B, was never offered a sure win. Bet A by itself (with no guarantee that B will be offered too) is not a sure win. So it may be permissibly rejected. And once you've rejected A, bet B by itself is not a sure win either. So it too may now be rejected without violating the Sure Win principle.

Why am I going on about this, you ask? Adam Elga uses this combination of bets to argue that a rational agent must be disposed to accept at least one of them (and so have precise credences). But it seems like a bad argument to me, since the defender of imprecise credence can appeal to the Sure Win principle - as I did above - to explain why the irrationality of the combined bet rejection does not imply the irrationality of rejecting either bet alone. Right?

[See also: Is Imprecise Credence Rational?]

Civic Virtue and Negative Campaigning

David Brooks speaks of "negativity and cheap-shot campaigning". But it's worth noting that these are two very different things. Cheap shots obviously detract from the quality of our politics, as does gratuitous negativity and demonization. But, just as obviously, not all negativity is unwarranted. Sometimes -- no, often -- other politicians are up to no good, and it's important and worthwhile to draw attention to this. (How else are we to hold them to account?) Negativity is entirely appropriate in response to substantive flaws or wrong-doing.

How is it that people so often fail to appreciate such a perfectly obvious point? Perhaps it is a side-effect of popular subjectivism. Since all perspectives are "equally valid", there's no distinction to be made between legitimate and illegitimate criticism. There's "no truth of the matter," so whenever people disagree they must simply be trying to impose their own will by means of verbal force. It's a game that involves only emotions, not reasons. Criticism is mean and nasty, something only bad people engage in. Nice people are always happy and co-operative, appealing to our positive emotions rather than negative ones. So the story goes.

Once we reject subjectivism, however, a better alternative presents itself: not 'be positive', but be reasonable -- do what the situation calls for. If there is good reason to criticise the opposition, then do so. Otherwise, don't. Simple.

The upshot: you can't just complain that the other team is engaging in 'negative campaigning'. There's nothing wrong with negativity per se. The real question is whether their negativity is justified: i.e. whether their claims are important and true.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Grim Aesthetic

A motivational poster tells you to "Be Positive!" Do you take the message to heart, or roll your eyes? Which response would you recommend? Which is more reasonable?

One occasionally hears things like this:
[C]onsistent enthusiasm contributes a lot to everyone’s happiness. We non-joyous types suck energy and cheer from the joyous ones. We rely on them to buoy us with their good spirit and to cushion our agitation and anxiety.

At the same time, because of a dark element in human nature, we’re sometimes provoked to try to shake the joyous ones out of their fog of illusion—to make them see that the play was actually stupid, the money was wasted, the meeting was pointless. Instead of shielding their joy, we blast it. Why is this?

Perhaps we think that reality matters, and that people shouldn't waste their lives in a "fog of illusion". On this view, there's something intrinsically valuable about really grappling with the grim facts of reality. The "blissfully ignorant" are really experiencing false happiness. To intentionally seek this out is essentially to abdicate the project of living, in the truest or most authentic sense. So goes the grim aesthetic: false smiles are ugly.

On a related (if slightly different) issue, see this old post at The Enlightenment Project:
I thought these [church] women were sickening. They had the best of intentions and, from the moral point of view were better people than me, but I found their interest in the minutia of other peoples lives, particularly their interest in other people's various miseries, incomprehensible and their compassion and smarm disgusting. They weren't merely gossips and they certainly weren't malicious--they were really interested in people's affairs, really cared and really wanted to help which is surely good from the moral point of view--but from the aesthetic point of view, in my very gut, I was nauseated...

Reading lots of liberal stuff, I'm amazed at how denatured many liberals are--how they fail to understand the natural tendency for violence and the aesthetic appeal of toughness, how they just don't get the fact that we're carnivorous, that rage is our natural condition, and how they utterly fail to understand the contempt and disgust most us feel for the Daughters of the King, for smarm, whining, softness, weakness, and what passes as "compassion."

Much of the liberal denaturing program seems clearly desirable. We should certainly hope to become less violent, enraged, etc. Vegetarianism is admirable. Isn't compassion? (I can certainly identify with the aesthetic which finds 'soft smarmy concern' repellent. But is this a perspective we can really endorse on reflection? Only if the 'compassion' in question is really a self-centered desire to be personally helpful, rather than a more abstracted desire that others be as well-off as possible. Note that the former preference may have bad consequences, e.g. if the best way to help is to earn lots and give money to Oxfam, rather than volunteer one's labour directly.)

Perhaps there are troubling trade-offs between the virtues. Those who focus on compassion and sensitivity may neglect inquiry into uncomfortable truths (the recognition of which may even lead to long-term gains in human happiness). So it may be desirable to have people of all types. (Another example: increases in apparent vices like aggression and pride might also make one work harder and so become more efficacious. Happier people might be lazier, etc. Cf. 'Excellent Imbalance'.) As H.E. put it:
The fault of the Church is in taking a particular personality type as virtue, not recognizing that this kind of character is morally neutral and can be directed to good or ill, and maybe even more than that, failing to recognize that lacking this kind of character isn't in and of itself a moral defect.

Another possibility is that our personalities are not so malleable in any case, so telling a naturally grim person they ought to "be positive" is effectively to say that they shouldn't be themselves -- hardly helpful advice.

What do you think?

(Perhaps the 'getting involved in other people's lives' point is independent of the 'always look on the bright side' question. But I suspect both stances are, in practice, correlated with a certain down-to-earth, sociable outlook. Grim, hard-headed intellectuals, on the other hand, are notoriously reclusive!)