Thoughts Arguments and Rants


As of July 8 I will be posting on Crooked Timber. This blog will keep running, but it will be more focussed on metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of language than it used to be, with other posts going to Crooked Timber.


The philosophy papers blog is updated. There won’t be any more updates to either blog until Sunday because I’m going to the Mardi Gras Ethics Conference. This should be fun, even if I have to get up at 4 in the morning to get there.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/27/2003 03:50:00 AM


I haven’t been mentioning it all the time, but the philosophy papers blog has been featuring several new reviews from Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. This is already one of the best sources for free philosophy on the internet, and these days seems to updated even more frequently than the Stanford Encyclopaedia. Hopefully in a few years there will be many sources of free philosophy, and in a way the 600 or so personal websites that contain free papers (linked in the sidebar of the philosophy papers blog) should count as extra sources. But for now NDPR and Stanford Encyclopaedia are the best high volume sources of philosophy, with Philosopher’s Imprint also notable if you want a more upmarket publication.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/26/2003 02:04:00 PM

The philosophy papers blog is updated.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/26/2003 06:48:00 AM

I produced yet another version of the Truer paper. It is somewhat less polished than previous versions in terms of style, but it is I think an improvement in terms of structure. I prefer to think of it as the tenth first draft of the paper than as the tenth draft, not least because tenth drafts should look more polished than this. My confidence in my theories of vagueness never wavers, but I can never seem to find the right way to express them. Maybe we’re getting closer to a solution with this draft though.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/26/2003 01:03:00 AM

Comments seem to be down again, which is sad. Since the Haloscan website is also down, this could be a fairly serious problem. If you have anything you particularly want posted, some advice for poor Farrington, email me and I’ll try posting it manually.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/26/2003 12:07:00 AM


Matthew Yglesias wants to know

Is there any reason at all for me to take G.E. Moore’s “open question”argument seriously in light of the collapse of the analytic/synthetic distinction and the rise of a posteriori necessity? There really doesn't seem to be, but I have a hard time understanding why I was assigned the paper unless there is.

Against all my better judgement, I left my first thoughts on the matter on his comments board, and you should too.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/25/2003 12:53:00 PM

The philosophy papers blog is updated. Two new papers, one on colour and one on two-dimensionalism, straight from someone else’s computer to your desktop.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/25/2003 08:49:00 AM


How many people think that the following two sentences have different implicatures with respect to Jack’s beer drinking?

(1) Jack drank the whiskey or some of the beers

(2) Jack drank the whiskey or all of the beers

Now there is one difference between them in terms of implicature. (1) implicates Jack did not drink both beer and whiskey, while (2) does not. It merely implicates that he did not drink the whiskey and all of the beer. But is there a difference that’s solely about beer, and in particular about whether Jack drank all of it? If you do think there’s a difference, try saying exactly what it is. And then try deriving it from anything like a plausible theory of implicature generation. And then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably need a drink.

Seriously, I would like feedback about whether (1) and (2) produce different implicatures. Unfortunately, last I checked Haloscan was down (again) so unless things improve the feedback will have to be through some of the comments.

For some more detailed thoughts than mine on the puzzle, try this paper by Uli Sauerland.

UPDATE: It’s common ground that (3) implicates that Jack did not have both whiskey and gin. What, precisely, does (4) implicate? That he did not have more than one of the drinks? That he had all three?

(3) Jack drank whiskey or gin

(4) Jack drank whiskey, gin or vodka

This may be relevant to Sauerland’s proposal for solving the original pizzle, if I understand that solution correctly.

FURTHER UPDATE: I messed up the original description of the case, and I’ve now tinkered with it a bit. That’s been happening a lot today.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/24/2003 08:39:00 PM

80-something% of the hits I get on this blog are to do with Google searches about the success of France in wartime expeditions. This has so flooded the search engines that I don’t get particularly detailed feedback about who else is coming here. But I still see cool Google searches that reach the philosophy papers blog. My favourite is:

How to wright good philosophy papers

I think there is potential in verbing Crispin this way.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/24/2003 06:49:00 PM

Variants on Sleeping Beauty

When I first thought of this case I thought it was interesting in a novel way and showed that Lewis was right all along about Sleeping Beauty. Then I thought it showed that Elga was right about Sleeping Beauty. And now I’m not sure it’s even a new case, in which case it probably shows nothing at all about Sleeping Beauty. But what the hell, this is a blog, may we well write it up and see if someone smarter than me can figure out the philosophy. (For a starter on Sleeping Beauty, try Adam Elga’s paper here.)

Assume the following facts, just for fun:

  • There is a newspaper, call it Times, that is authoritative, it is known to only print truths.
  • There is a coin flip every day as part of a giant city lottery. It takes place at 3 o’clock, and the results are announced in a billboard by the clock tower. It is known to be a fair coin, with a chance 0.5 of landing heads, and 0.5 of landing tails.
  • It is practically conceivable that someone could create a brain in a vat that felt in almost every respect like a normal human. Like a particular normal human, that is.

Here’s the case then.

Farrington walked past the clock tower a little before 3. He knew it was a little before 3, because he saw the crowds milling around waiting for the results of the coin flip. A while later, about ninety minutes he thought, though he couldn’t be sure, he picked up Times and started reading it over a beer. If someone asked him, which no one did, how confident he was that it was before 4:30, he would have said that he was exactly 50% confident in that. He thought it just as likely that it was before or after 4:30, based on his evidence about what time it was when he passed the clock tower, and how long it had been since then.

He noticed that an odd experiment was planned. Some researchers were secretly and remotely monitoring the brain states someone from the town, and at 4:30 today, they were planning on creating an epistemic duplicate of that person, just as he was at 4:30. The new person would be a brain in a vat, but in almost every respect he would look from the inside like a real person.

There was some ethical concern about consciously creating a being like this, so the researchers had decided to introduce some randomness into the procedure. If the coin toss today landed heads, they would call it off for now, and maybe use someone else as the basis for duplication. But if it landed tails, they would go ahead. Relying on the luck of the draw would, they thought, give God enough role in creation to not create theological headaches. (The paper did not make clear just which theologian had thought this was even remotely plausible, but let that pass.)

The newspaper also noted that the subject of this experiment, one Farrington, a clerk at Crosbie & Allenye, had not been told about the experiment, but it was hoped that since he rarely read Times, he would not find out about it. At this Farrington shook. He was the only Farrington at Crosbie & Alleyne. He was the one who would possibly be duplicated. Indeed, if it were now after 4:30, and if the coin had landed tails, he had been duplicated. Indeed, in that case, for all he knew, he was not Farrington, but rather some duplicate. Disturbing thoughts for before a second drink.

Now the questions.

What probability should Farrington (or whoever our hero now is) now assign to each of the following five possibilities

P1: It is before 4:30 and the coin landed heads.

P2: It is before 4:30 and the coin landed tails.

P3: It is after 4:30 and the coin landed heads

P4: It is after 4:30 and the coin landed tails and he is the original Farrington.

P5: It is after 4:30 and the coin landed tails and he is the duplicate Farrington.

Elga’s indifference principle says that P4 and P5 should be treated alike. Beyond that, we are left to our own devices. I have various thoughts, but I might just leave the puzzle out for now, and post the thoughts later.

You are more than invited to leave suggested answers in the comment box.

UPDATE: Thanks to Cian Dorr for spotting a slip-up in the description of the cases. So far the votes in the comments thread are 1 for <1/5,1/5,1/5,1/5,1/5> and 1 (in the next comments thread) for <1/4,1/4,1/4,1/8,1/8>. These two are, probably not coincidentally, the two options I take to be most plausible, though I also think <1/4,1/4,1/6,1/6,1/6> has some virtues. Of course, this all assumes that Elga’s indifference principle is right, and hence that options where P4 and P5 are not given the same value are to be ignored.

I would put the argument for <1/5,1/5,1/5,1/5,1/5> slightly differently to Cian. Extend this case (rather than some other fictional case) by assuming that someone authoritative tells Farrington that he is the original. Imagine perhaps he reads in the story that there is some distinctive mental task that the duplicate cannot do, and Farrington convinces himself that he can do it. It is plausible (a) that he should then conditionalise on ~P5, and (b) the results of this should be that his probability distribution over the five events is <1/4,1/4,1/4,1/4,0>, as it was before he read the story. Given that constraint, and that P4 and P5 get the same value, <1/5,1/5,1/5,1/5,1/5> is the only possible combination. I’m not sure about (b), but it is fairly plausible. Having said all that, do read Cian’s paper on Sleeping Beauty to see the views of someone who’s thought about that problem a little more deeply than I.

FURTHER UPDATE: Wo agrees with <1/4,1/4,1/4,1/8,1/8>. He also thinks that Cian’s argument for <1/5,1/5,1/5,1/5,1/5> is better than mine, even though neither of them end up working.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/24/2003 02:00:00 PM

Just one new paper on the philosophy papers blog today, a paper by Tim Bayne called On the Morality of Gamete Donation.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/24/2003 06:55:00 AM


Via Kai von Fintel, I noticed the latest Mind is out. It is not yet up on Ingenta, which is where I normally get my news. I hope this doesn’t mean I have to start watching every journal home page rather than just watch Ingenta. Anyway, for now the news is that there is an edition of Mind out, so we all have more reading to do.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/23/2003 08:39:00 PM

This reminds me of Ramsey’s argument against intuitionism. Saying p or ~p as if you are being informative always looks amusingly silly. If p or ~p was not trivially true, then what you said would be informative. If what you said was informative, then it would not look amusingly silly. If intuitionism is true, p or ~p is not always trivially true. Conclusion: intuitionism is not true. Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of Ramsey at home, so I can’t find the citation on the spot. (It’s at the start of Mathematical Logic I think.) I am interpolating slightly, and of course Ramsey was half-or-more-joking in making the argument, but it is still kind of cute.

(Just in case you care, I think an intuitionist should probably deny premise 3 here. If you think that p or ~p is uninformative, then someone saying it as if it is informative will look silly. But all that shows is you think intuitionism is false, not that it is false. Since you are fallible, not much follows.)

Link via Atrios.

UPDATE: Looking more closely at the picture to which I linked, I’m not sure it hasn’t been doctored. (Not that I ever said that it had not been!) The letters are suspiciously clear, and the caption is not parallel to the bottom of the screen. And, most worryingly, most of the folks that have been reporting the story are generally somewhat counter-indicative. So, as I'm sure you would have done without my advice, don’t believe everything you see on the internet.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/23/2003 02:16:00 PM

The philosophy papers blog is updated, and there are new papers on Bayesianism and personal identity.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/23/2003 10:37:00 AM


Several people have been writing about intelligence recently, apparently because The Bell Curve somehow became a topic of conversation recently. (I can’t remember how it came up, despite constantly reading the boards where it did come up. Emergent properties, or proprieties, or improprieties, I guess.)

The best thing to do if you want intelligent discussion about the topic is to read Kevin Drum, Matthew Yglesias, Kieran Healy, Nathan Newman, Brad DeLong, The Sixth Internationalist, or, especially, Atrios here, here, here, here or here. I just have one fairly geeky point to append to those discussions.

One of the points that has come up a bit, more on the message boards on those blogs than in the actual posts, is whether there really is a relation more intelligent than. There is a recurring worry, quite reasonable I think, that trying to identify such a relation will involve somehow drawing illicit comparisons between those who are better at one kind of intellectual activity, say pattern recognition, and those who are better at another, say conceptualisation. But really there’s no reason for the mere existence of a relation more intelligent than to imply that such comparisons need be made. For we can believe there is a real relation here, but that it is non-linear. For some pairs of people, it is not the case that x is more intelligent than y, nor y more intelligent than x, nor are they equally intelligent. English does not treat non-linear relations well, particularly not non-linear comparatives, so the best we can say about such a case is that x and y are differently intelligent. Picasso, Joyce and Einstein, for instance, might well be regarded as simply differently intelligent to each other, neither more nor less nor equally intelligent.

Saying that the more intelligent than relation is real and non-linear seems to me to draw a nice middle ground between those who want to insist, on the basis of some obvious cases, that some people are more intelligent than others, and those who worry that ‘measures’ like IQ are fundamentally flawed. For if more intelligent than is non-linear, then any linear representation of intelligence will be necessarily distortive. There’s just no way to collapse a non-linear ranking onto a linear ranking, which a numerical ranking must be, without artificially ranking some kinds of intelligence above others, just because of the way that we draw the ranking.

If more intelligent than is linear, then the flaws in IQ measurement are correctable in principle, if it is not, then they are not. If more intelligent than is non-linear, then we’d expect that attempts to map it onto a linear scale would produce some successes, but inevitably there would be serious bugs that seem to move around, rather than vanish, when one tinkers with the system. To my relatively untrained eye, that looks a lot like what has happened with the data.

UPDATE: On reading more closely, I see that the point I’m trying to make here isn’t that different from the point Matthew Yglesias is making. The only difference is that I care about a geeky distinction that has, as far as I can tell, no implications for the rest of the debate. One hypothesis is that the phrase more intelligent than is indeterminate between a number of linear relations. Another is that it is ambiguous between all those relations. These are reasonable responses to the data. John Broome takes the intuitions I think are support for non-linearity to be reasons for believing in massive indeterminacy. But they aren’t my response. I think more intelligent than could be semantically reasonably determinate, and even have a fairly public meaning, and still denote a non-linear relation. If what you care about are conceptual flaws in IQ measurement, then any of the three hypotheses here will be sufficient to show they are really badly flawed. Indeed, they will all show something of the same flaw. Just which of the three is correct is very much a “philosopher’s question”.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/22/2003 10:35:00 PM

The philosophy papers blog is updated. The highlights are new numbers of the AJP and BJPS. There are lots of (seemingly) interesting metaphysics and epistemology articles in both, with issues surrounding Humean supervenience recurring in lots of the papers.

If you’re searching for “French Military Victories”, and I’m impressed how many of you are, either scroll down, or follow this or that link.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/22/2003 10:19:00 AM


The philosophy papers blog has been updated, and there are a lot of updates. The news includes Roberto Casati on Methodological issues in the study of the depiction of cast shadows and on Representational Advantages, R. Jay Wallace on Moral Psychology, Peter Carruthers On Being Simple Minded, Mike Fara on The Paradox of Believability, new entries to Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews and the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, and new editions of Angelaki, International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, and the Journal of Logic, Language and Information. I feel out of breath just typing all that.

In other news, Kieran Healy provides somewhat more useful homeland security advice that you’ll get from homeland security.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/21/2003 06:21:00 AM


This is possibly getting childish by now.

I noted yesterday that one ‘journalist’ was either suckered into repeating a story about there being no hits for “French Military Victories” on google, or was deliberately lying to help spread the story. It was noted in the comments section that there are in fact 91 hits for this phrase. I couldn’t tell whether that was a high or low number, because it is a slightly awkward phrase. It’s much more like a headline than a string of words that would naturally occur in text, and most of the Google corpus is text, not headings. So I thought I’d check some other countries. Just for fun. (No I’m not obsessive. This really took about two minutes. Honestly.)

Canadian Military Victories - 0 hits
Chinese Military Victories - 0 hits
Portuguese Military Victories - 0 hits
Australian Military Victories - 1 hit
Irish Military Victories - 1 hit
Macedonian Military Victories - 1 hit
English Military Victories - 3 hits
Turkish Military Victories - 3 hits
Spanish Military Victories - 5 hits
Japanese Military Victories - 7 hits
Polish Military Victories - 9 hits
Roman Military Victories - 15 hits
German Military Victories - 31 hits
American Military Victories - 44 hits
British Military Victories - 48 hits
French Military Victories - 91 hits

I think the lesson is: If America and Britain want to take out France, they better hope either Australia or Ireland are on their side rather than France’s. Or there could be a lesson about believing anything you read on the internet.

UPDATE: OK, this might be getting a little bit obsessive. But I checked through those 91 hits, and of course some of them are manifestations of the Groundskeeper Willie meme. But it looks like fewer than 43 of them are. Only 13 include the word 'google', for instance. At first glance it looks like by the Google test, France is the most successful military nation in history. I should either give up the Google test, or give up my argument yesterday that military might is overrated. Too much to think about!>

FURTHER UPDATE: This post is getting more attention than anything else I’ve written, which is a little unfortunate, save perhaps as an illustration of how memes spread. Of course, it is by now (March 12) radically out of date, since the total number of hits for THAT PHRASE is 219. Interestingly, if you only search for pages with THAT PHRASE modified in the last three months, the total is 178, suggesting at least 41 such pages are not concerned with the latest brouhaha. And some of the 178 are also not connected to googlarious jokes, so there are almost certainly more than 48 pages that genuinely contain THE PHRASE. To be sure, most of those are tourist sites, descriptions of the Arc de Triomphe or Versaille or the like, but that all just goes to show how silly it is to use Google as a measure of military effectiveness.

I should also pause to note that my original analysis of the whole situation, that if France is so awful militarily but still important enough for Americans to obsess about, that tells us less about France and more about the relative importance of military might and diplomatic skill in determining world power, has been pretty well vindicated over the past month. For all their apparent pettiness, France is going to come out of this situation with its share of world power raised, and America has already lost an enormous share of its power. To take just one example, the probability of the Euro shortly becoming just as important a currency in the world as the dollar has been dramatically raised by the actions of the French and the American government, and this is something Americans should be seriously concerned about.

YET FURTHER UPDATE: 2 people emailed me today claiming that if you type in THE PHRASE and hit I’m feeling lucky, you get the answer that there are no hits. This simply isn’t true, though I can see why they might think it. For one thing, sometimes if you type that in and hit I’m feeling lucky, you get taken right here. I know this, because the trackback from how people got here is just that process. But I’m guessing that sometimes people got a site like this, which of course is not a Google screen, it’s just a copy of a Google screen. You can tell this by noting (a) the URL is not to, and (b) it has a sitemeter tracker at the bottom of the screen! The ‘joke’ here is simply that some people reverse engineered a Google page to say something they thought was funny, and managed to work it high enough in the Google chain that sometimes it shows up, not that Google ever delivers no hits result. And not that it would matter if it did. As noted above, there are no hits for Macedonian except one for the current Macedonian army. Anyone who wants to draw conclusions about the historical ability of Macedonian armies on this basis is invited to purchase this lovely bridge I have for sale.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/20/2003 06:19:00 PM looks like it should be, when fully functional, a very good resource for people working in political philosophy and related areas. Right now it has a lot of teasers and very few links, which is odd. I don’t quite understand what resource allocation process leads one to spend all the time finding out who has online papers and writing up a long list of them, but doesn’t already include links to them. I mean, they must know the links, or they wouldn’t know the people should be included on such a list. And it doesn’t take much longer than to post a link than to list a name. Very odd. I hope it is functional soon, so I can add some more political theory names to the rolls we’re scanning for the philosophy papers blog. Since I got the names for that from Dave Chalmers and Kai von Fintel, it is biased right now towards mind and semantics right now. Since these also happen to be my interests (well, not as much mind, but close to it) I won’t really radically change that bias without sites like this one popping up.

Link via Chris Bertram.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/20/2003 01:13:00 PM

The philosophy papers blog is updated. There is a fourth preprint from Analysis July 2003. At this rate there’ll be no need for the printed version. Which, of course, there shouldn’t be in this day and age.

Via Kieran Healy, this is a guide to how to read at universities. It recommends, in a word, skimming. As Matthew Yglesias already pointed out, this is awful advice for philosophy students, or profs, who should read everything slowly and often. Matthew links to this (very good) guide to reading philosophy papers by Jim Pryor as some counterevidence. Matthew and Kieran suggest that the phenomenon of expecting students to read a page closely rather than a book skimmingly is distinctive to analytic philosophy. This isn’t quite true, even in local areas. In semantics courses at least, and I imagine syntax courses too, the standard is more like a page than a book. I don’t know what happens in other parts of linguistics, though I wouldn’t be shocked if socio-linguistics, say, was more like sociology than like philosophy.

Not that semantics courses should move more rapidly. If anything, I think they go by too quickly. I spent hours yesterday musing over the correct interpretation of two five word sentences that arose while reading a fascinating paper on only and always. Damon only feeds the pigeons. Many people always leave tips. At this speed, a paragraph or two a day is actually asking quite a bit.

More seriously, I find properly reading one philosophy paper a day about all I can do around other things. Auntie says that I should write less and read more, but I think plagiarised fictional entities are not obviously the best source of wisdom.

This all started because Kieran linked to this interesting blog by Timothy Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore. (The blog is his homepage, which is a pretty exciting idea.) On Burke’s page he has a commencement address he gave a couple of years ago, which has lots of good (and funny) comments, but also several not-always-justified swipes at universities. One of the primary complaints is that universities, as opposed to liberal arts colleges, are too fragmented and don’t allow enough opportunity for interdisciplinary work. This may be true at lots of universities, but it certainly isn’t true at Brown. If anything, Brown goes too far in promoting interdisciplinary work. (At least among faculty – the students of course have no breadth requirements.) For instance, the new-ish brain sciences program is so keen on developing links across departments that they are considering adding some philosophers, including me, to their lists of affiliated faculty. For someone who is a little bit wobbly on the distinction between neurons and synapses before the first cup of coffee in the morning or three, this is pretty exciting!

Enough with this academic nonsense though. The really important question of the day is whether this Timothy Burke is this Tim Burke.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/20/2003 11:22:00 AM


French Military Victories

Matthew Yglesias had a post yesterday asking why people, including I guess me, use the word “meme”. For me, it basically does just mean idea, but there’s a deliberate connotation that it is an idea whose spread is more or less viral, rather than something that has spread by what I like to think of as rational methods. To take one prominent example.

Eugene Volokh linked to this apparently amusing graphic of a Google page showing that a search for French military victories revealed no hits, and asking if the author wanted to search for French military defeates instead. There’s been this idea (meme?) running around the right blog-predicament recently that the French are awful at war. Since the French seem to be doing pretty well for themselves in most respects nowadays, you could be forgiven for wondering why this doesn’t lead to a thought that war is a wee bit overrated. Reading the official history of the French military from east blogland (helpfully mirrored by a not-so-right site), and reflecting on how powerful and prosperous France currently is, you’d think the French slogan should be A few more defeats like this and we shall rule the world. But let that pass.

(Well, don’t let it pass quite so quickly. The right-wing discussion of French military history reminded me of nothing so much as the discussion of church teaching in Grace. In both cases the unintentional humour index is reaching Steinbrennerian heights.)

Anyway, the Google screenshot was obviously a joke, and I’m pleased in a Benthamite way that some people were amused by it. What I was more amused by was that people are apparently taking it as fact. So here’s Geoff Metcalf writing in

A friend recently sent me an amusing item that prompted some follow-up research. If you go to a search engine like and type in the query “French Military Victories,” guess what you get?

Type in Geoff Metcalf and you’ll get 9,700. Try George Bush and you get overwhelmed with 2,570,000. But for “French military victories,” zero, zilch, nada …

Now that, folks, is a meme.

Is it possible that Metcalf is being deliberately sarcastic/ironic here? I mean, it’s possible, but it’s a very odd, and oddly specific way to do so, if he is so doing. Is it possible he knows this is wrong and is intentionally lying? Well, that wouldn’t be the case. Would it? Was he just too lazy to do the search? The mind boggles.

So the philosophically interesting questions are these.

First, what is a ‘viral’-like spread of an idea rather than a rational spead? Auntie thinks that when I call a method of idea-transmission viral, I just mean that I disapprove of it. Auntie is very reductionist some days.

Secondly, is it part of the meaning of “meme” that it spreads virally, or just an implicature? I guess the latter, but I have no clear answer.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/19/2003 02:53:00 PM

The philosophy papers blog is up. A new vagueness paper by Nick Smith, (but why do we have to wait until its accepted for publication before it goes online?), and several semantics papers.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/19/2003 06:56:00 AM


While on the topic of comments, let me highly recommend two papers by Kai von Fintel that he mentioned in the comments thread on my little discussion below about negative polarity items (NPIs). They are

Counterfactuals in a Dynamic Context

NPI Licensing, Strawson-Entailment, and Context-Dependency

There is a lot there that is interesting, particularly if you are interested in NPIs. (And I think they’re one of the most fascinating subjects I have ever come across, but that’s probably because I’m a geek.) But in terms of contact with topics that have traditionally considered parts of philosophy, the papers are noteworthy for their work on conditionals. Von Fintel provides some of the best arguments you will find for the claim that the apparent difference in inferential behaviour between ordinary language conditionals and strict implication conditionals in modal logics is to be explained in terms of pragmatics rather than semantics.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/18/2003 08:57:00 PM

The good news about having a comments service provided for free is that, well, it’s free. The bad news is that with free services, you generally get what you pay for. So it’s been rather buggy the last week or so. The upshot is that at least some comments got eaten. One of them was from Kent Bach, a comment on my plaintive little bleat about the absence of clear successes in philosophy. Here’s the comment:

It is surely a myth that there is no consensus in philosophy other than that there is no consensus. And many philosophers surely resist challenging what they take to be a matter of consensus. But this raises the question of illusory consensus, something on which there is not a consensus but on which there is a consensus that there is one. An illusory consensus, whether in politics, social life, or philosophy, is what R.D. Laing, in “The Politics of Experience,”aptly described as “a conformity to a presence that is everywhere elsewhere.”

You can worry about what everyone else thinks even if you're mistaken about what it is that they do think. The interesting case is when what you take to be what everyone else thinks is what they falsely take to be what everyone else thinks.

There is also the question of domain restriction, of who counts as everyone else (who "they" are).

Note that Kent, unlike your humble author, picked up the (intentionally!) paradoxical element in the original question.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/18/2003 08:37:00 PM

From a suggestion by Chris Bertram, I’ve added the Equality Exchange to the list of pages that I’m tracking for the philosophy papers blog. I wouldn’t normally report details like this (especially after the last attempted report contained so many errors) but I wanted to recommend anyone interested in getting cutting edge work on political philosophy to take a peek at the site.

This is the second focussed manuscript exchange site I’ve been alerted to recently, the other being Chris Barker and Peter Laserhohn’s semantics archive. Two questions? Are there more sites like this out there? Should there be? There is the Rutgers Optimality Archive, but that’s clearly not philosophical. (Not that there’s anything wrong with people working on Word, foot, and syllable structure in Burmese, in fact I’m rather glad someone is working on it, but even my generous conception of what counts as philosophy that doesn’t count.) A trading place for papers on metaphysics, say, could be fun.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/18/2003 04:53:00 PM

Chris Bertram has two good posts up on the arguments in favour of attacking Iraq. Bertram is no hawk, but the arguments he discusses are much more nuanced, and much more credible, than you are ever likely to hear from the people in the White House. I haven’t ever really taken the administration’s proposals seriously because, as far as I can tell, anyone who mentions Iraq and Al Qaeda in the same sentence has no authority on either, so none of the White House’s arguments even get to first base. Such a view is certainly convenient, it frees up more time for thinking about things on which I can make a difference, but it isn’t obviously a position that is particularly stable in the long-term.

Matthew Yglesias has a post up quite reasonably zinging Andrew Sullivan for some intemperate comments about how brain scanning will soon take over from performance testing as a way of evaluating intellectual capacity. I’m no expert on these things, but Jerry Fodor tells me that the philosophical challenges to doing this are still quite staggering. Fodor says that when it comes to general-purpose reasoning, we have made more or less no progress whatsoever in figuring out how the mind works, which is possibly a slight overstatement, but possibly not.

The research Sullivan is reporting doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in this regard. It is perfectly consistent (indeed seems to somewhat suggest) the idea that brain activity in one area is correlated with some particular skills. Which could all well be true, and tell you nothing at all about how humans ever come up with things like insightful philosophical analyses of intelligence.

Draw from this what conclusions you will, but in baseball the story of the last five years has been the relative success of teams that try and predict performance on the basis of performance, rather than on a physiological assessment of performative capacity. Since we know a wee bit more about what, physiologicaly speaking, makes for a good hitter than what makes for a good novelist, I suspect performance based analysis will be around for a while yet in fields other than baseball.

The main thing I don’t understand is Sullivan’s loathing of ‘blank slaters’. He says, “Blank slaters, be afraid. Your time is running out.” My scanty reading of history suggested that the US Founding Fathers, a group who I thought Sullivan admired, were influenced as much as anyone by John Locke, who, if memory serves, was the most famous Blank Slater in history. That’s a small caricature of Locke’s views, to be sure, but it’s not to hard to read a Lockean influence on some of the truths that the founders took to be self-evident. I’m a card-carrying Chomksyite nativist, but I don’t feel at all like addressing this kind of gunslinging rhetoric towards those who are not. Chomsky has been known to be wrong before you know.

UPDATE: On second thoughts, I have no idea what Sullivan was thinking with the Blank Slaters quip, unless it was just a gratuitous decision to slap people he didn’t like. The Blank Slate theory is that people don’t come into the world with fixed beliefs, or perhaps even with fixed character. The theory wasn’t one about abilities at all. One can believe everything in Locke and think that people have different abilities to learn from experience. Or one can believe with Chomsky that we come endowed with a rich stock of beliefs and dispositions, but we are all equally so endowed. As far as I can tell, the messy/blank slate question doesn’t even have evidential relevance to the question of how much people vary in their intellectual abilities, especially since the best arguments for messy slates normally posit that all of us (or at least 99.something% of us) are wired the same way. And the larger point that Matthew was making, and that I second, that performance based testing is going to be the last word for as far into the future as the eye can see, remains. Possibly I’m misrepresenting Sullivan, so here’s the full quote.
THE FUTURE OF I.Q.: Fascinating new research from some Washington University researchers into the nature of general intelligence. We're beginning to be able to measure such intelligence not simply from the results of written or practical tests but from live imaging of actual brain activity. Egalitarian ideologues have long resisted the notion that there is such a thing as general intelligence and that it is at least partly hard-wired and inherited. But as science advances, and our understanding of working memory and intelligence deepens, the evidence for such intelligence could become irrefutable. Imagine at some distant date going into an exam room and getting hooked up to brain monitors. No need for grad students grading papers. No need for SAT results. Just a brain scan to check how smart you are. Fantasy now. But you can already see the implications of current research. Blank slaters, be afraid. Your time is running out.
Reporting and deciding are now appropriately allocated.

FURTHER UPDATE: I edited the first paragraph slightly to make it clear I wasn’t attributing the pro-war arguments to Bertram, just noting that he was doing a better job of saying what the hawks should be saying than the hawks themselves are.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/18/2003 12:28:00 PM

The philosophy papers blog is still fairly quiet, with the holiday (and the snowstorm?) keeping most people from publishing updates. Still, the two pages that are updated are usually high quality. Jessica Wilson has a new paper on physicalism and an updated draft of a review of John Perry’s book on consciousness. Strictly speaking the paper on physicalism is an update to an earlier paper as well, but she’s given it a new title, and seems to have made substantial revisions, so I’ll call it a new paper. (Seems? -ed. Well, it’s eight pages shorter and while I’m too lazy to confirm that’s a substantial revision, it sure seems like one, and by the way, this editor meme is getting a little out of hand.) And Nick Bostrom has one new and one revised ethics papers out. At first the new paper looks like it is arguing that it is tragic thing that the sun will eventually die out and we are wasting the finite amount of time we have until that sad occurrence by doing things like watching Joe Millionaire rather getting to and colonising the galaxy. But eventually it turns out that what’s more important is that we not mess up the colonisation, because that would be a catastrophe on a different order of magnitude to missing a few years of colonisation, so perhaps Joe Millionaire is not so bad. (Bet that’s not a conclusion you ever thought you’d see a halfway decent argument for. I still haven’t. -ed.)

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/18/2003 04:27:00 AM


Kevin Drum asks a good question about the status of consensus in philosophy

My question is this: is it safe to say that there is a clean, precise, and widely agreed upon belief that there is no subject in the philosophical world on which there is a clean, precise, and widely agreed upon belief? Or not?

I think not, because there are some areas in logic where there are clean, precise and widely agreed upon, if not consensus, beliefs. For instance, Tarski’s definition of truth for quantified sentences in terms of variable assignments is I think clean, precise and widely agreed upon. (Notable dissenters include the Montagovians who decry the use of variables. But I think this is widely agreed upon in philosophy, even if it is a little more contentious in linguistics.) And the definition of identity as the smallest reflexive relation I think is clean, precise and widely agreed upon (cpwa, for short). And the definition of propositional validity in terms of truth-tables is cpwa, at least outside Australia and Holland.

I now expect howls of protest from people working on quantifiers, identity and/or propositional validity.

To the extent that the answer is yes, that’s because topics cease to be “in the philosophical world” once a cpwa conclusion is reached. How to analyse velocity used to be a philosophical topic, but now that we can define it as derivative of position wrt time, there is less philosophical energy spent on it. Indeed, what little philosophical work (i.e. work by philosophers) on velocity there is tends to be looking for ways in which the consensus view might be mistaken. There’s generally little point in writing long papers sticking up for cpwa beliefs.

Finally, and this is really a cheating answer, if we look through we find lots of areas on which there is today a cpwa belief. For instance, there is a cpwa belief about Plato’s epistemology, Anselm’s theology, Bentham’s ethics, Bradley’s ontology and Ayer’s theory of mental content: they are false.

Suggestions for further cpwa beliefs would be greatly appreciated.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/17/2003 11:00:00 PM

Content Holism and Privileged Access

A while ago I wrote a little argument claiming that no version of a privileged access theory could account for disagreement about foundational questions in mereology. Practically no one believed it, but despite that I didn’t decide to write it up as anything further. I did, however, have one other thought on the matter that seems worth at least putting here.

The motivation for the idea that externalism about content and privileged access are incompatible is fairly easy to see. Intuitively, it is only plausible that we have privileged access to the intrinsic features of our occurrent mental states. Even that kind of privileged access claim may be too strong, but it seems that is the strongest we could have. It is generally implausible that I have privileged access to the extrinsic features of my occurrent states. To argue by example (i.e. fallaciously) it is plausible that I have privileged access to the fact that I am experiencing a particularly vivid shade of red now, it is implausible that I have privleged access to the fact that I am experiencing a more vivid shade of red than anyone else in my building is currently experiencing.

It is a matter of no little delicacy how to turn this consideration into an argument for the incompatibility of externalism and privileged access. As John Heil pointed out back in 1988, in the right kind of context, privileged access to the intrinsic features of my occurrent thoughts might suffice for knowledge of their wide contents. His point was simply that an externalist about content will think that the content of a higher-order thought about my own occurrent thought will have its content fixed by the environment, just as the first-order occurrent thought will have. If the first-order and higher-order thought are in the same environment (which, barring some sci-fi type fantasy, they are) and the higher-order thought is sensitive to the intrinsic features of the first-order thought, my having that higher-order thought might constitute knowledge of the wide content of the first-order thought. None of this is to say that no argument from the general inaccessibility of extrinsic features of the thought to the inaccessibility of their content will go through, just that, well, it is delicate how to get one to work.

The point that doesn’t seem to have been brought up much in the literature on this subject is that the same kind of consideration tells against privileged access on most internalist theories of content. Most people deny that we have privileged access to our unconscious beliefs and desires. And most people think that we have at least some unconscious beliefs and desires, though Freud probably overstated how many, and how dramatic, they are. And most internalists about content are holists, who think that the content of a particular thought is determined, inter alia, by its relations to other thoughts.

I think that if you hold all three of those views, and they are fairly plausible, there is at least a prima facie case that you’ll have to give up privileged access about content. For now you too think that the content of an occurrent thought is an extrinsic feature of that thought, although it may well be an intrinsic feature of your mind.

This is only a prima facie case because it isn’t obvious how to turn it into a full-blown argument. I made a few attempts to do so over the weekend and all of them ran aground on Heil-style considerations. The agents I considered didn’t know all the relations that obtained between their conscious beliefs and their unconscious beliefs that determined the content of their conscious beliefs, but still their higher-order beliefs about their conscious beliefs counted as knowledge of content, because those higher-order beliefs were also related to their subconscious beliefs in just the right way. So that’s why this is a blog entry rather than a new little draft paper, because I can’t yet see how to pull off the most important step in the argument. Anyone who has any ideas about how to do so is more than welcome to try. Do let me know how the results turn out.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/17/2003 09:40:00 PM

I finally got around to reading the Hall and Paul paper on causation and preemption that ends with the invective against cheap counterexamples. And...I have a cheap counterexample. One of the theses that does a lot of work in the paper is Intrinsicness.

Intrinsicness: Let S’ be a structure of events consisting of event E’, together with all of its causes back to some earlier time t. Let S be a structure of events that intrinsically matches S’ in relevant respects, and that exists in a world with the same laws. Let E be the event in S that corresponds to E’ in S’. Let C’ be some event in S’ distinct from E’, and let C be the event in S that corresponds to C’. Then C is a cause of E.

Well, here’s the counterexample. Let Brian- be me minus a small part of the end of the nail on my left big toe. In this world @, I throw a bottle at the wall, and it shatters. The cause of the bottle's shattering is my throwing it at the wall, not Brian-’s ‘throwing’ it at the wall. More precisely, his movements are not a throwing, though they seem to constitute an event. In world w´, I trimmed that toenail last night, so I am now a duplicate of Brian-. I throw the same bottle at the same wall with the same force and direction at the same time. In this world my throwing is a cause of the bottle's shattering. But it is a duplicate event of Brian-’s ‘throwing’ in this world, which is not a cause.

Perhaps it is not so cheap though. There is a deepish philosophical point here. Whether an event counts as a cause seems to depend on which naturalish properties it instantiates. And, as Ted Sider has pointed out from time to time, naturalish properties are almost always extrinsic because they are almost always maximal. So these cases can be multiplied with ease - the only problem is finding one that is sufficiently amusing.

Note also that the ‘relevant respects’ qualifier won't help here. The two events, one them a cause, the other a non-cause, are perfect duplicates, so they match in all intrinsic features.

Ned and Laurie note that there is one well-known class of counterexamples to Intrinsicness, cases of double prevention. But they hold out some hope that this can be dealt with by positing two kinds of causation. If maximality related problems generalise, however, Intrinsicness will turn out not to be true of any concept of causation.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/17/2003 12:09:00 PM

After there being no news yesterday, I was so nervous about not having updates to the philosophy papers blog that I did today’s a few hours early. There’s lots of fun stuff: the Laurie Paul papers that I already mentioned, five new papers by Ruth Millikan, and a long interview with David Armstrong.

I’ve been trying to come up with something to say about the Restall-Priest paper on the two-envelope paradox, and I can’t really find the right words. My impression is that their paper doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, but I can’t say exactly why. If you’re game, read the paper and see where in their taxonomy of versions of the two-envelope paradox the following version falls: envelopes A and B are marked with invisible ink, a St. Petersburg process of the kind described in Broome (1995) is used to select an amount of money to put in A, then a coin is tossed to determine whether we will put twice as much or half as much into B, then another coin is tossed to determine whether you receive envelope A or envelope B. As it turns out, though you don’t know this, you got envelope A. I think they recommend switching envelopes in that circumstance, which may be good advice, but I just can’t tell.

UPDATE: Greg has posted a response, pointing out that there is potentially an ambiguity in ‘ought to switch’ that might help them get out of the problem. I don’t think that helps, but Greg has promised a more detailed response in the future, which will probably demonstrate that I’m wrong.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/17/2003 03:18:00 AM

Chris Bertram notes that the kind of examples we use to support our theories tend to be reflective of our cultural surroundings. Two features in particular seem to be important: what the latest technological fashion is, and what games are prevalent in our corner of spacetime. Since these examples not only prop up existing theory, but drive theory change and selection, it might turn out that what games people (around us) play determines rather large scale features of our world-views. (—So the closest we could get to an objective philosopher is one who spends all day watching ESPN so (s)he doesn’t have a mind driven by one particular source of examples? —Perhaps!)

Getting away from my special pleading, Bertram’s post is well worth reading, as it seems is the book on which he is commenting (Philip Mirowski's Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science).

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/17/2003 02:00:00 AM

By way of introduction, Kieran Healy mentions a few favoured philosopher bugging techniques. I wonder what it says about the disciplines that philosophers, at least philosophers I know, don’t know any sociologist bugging techniques. In fact, I couldn’t really think of any other discipline we instinctively bug. Our default attitude to a discipine is to either hero-worship (if the discipline is, e.g. physics) or somewhat contempuously ignore (did you know some universities still have English departments?). Hmmm...Kieran does mention that we aren’t the most socialised lot on the planet, and I guess that fits the available data.

Getting back to philosophy, and in the spirit of fishing for intuitions, how plausible do people find the principle that if S believes that ~p, then S does not know that p? This is implied by Lewis’s theory of knowledge, and it always struck me as fairly plausible, but I’ve been worrying that there are a few potential counterexamples. So one consequence of the view is that if S believes that Twain is an author, and believes that Clemens is not an author, and the second belief is the negation of the first belief (as on a Russellian account of belief), then S does not know that Twain is an author. The spirit of the idea is that there are several ways to defeat a claim to knowledge, and belief in the negation of the allegedly known proposition is always a defeater. In the abstract it sounds fairly plausible, but in the Clemens/Twain case it might be hard to sustain.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/17/2003 01:53:00 AM


I’d have sworn Dublin ceased being part of the United Kingdom 80-odd years ago, but apparently not according to Yahoo Maps. Since I normally trust Yahoo Maps for everything when I’m driving, maybe I should trust them with history as well.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/16/2003 05:34:00 PM

Since I seem to have stopped updating the events page, I’ll post things to the blog when they come up. In particular, everyone in the area should know about:

February 21st and 22nd, 2003

Keynote Speaker: Christine Korsgaard, Harvard University



3:00 - 4:20
"Thau on Qualia and Representational Content"
James John, MIT
Commentator: Matt Konig

4:30 - 5:50
"Apt Affect: Moral Concept Mastery and the Phenomenology of Emotions"
Elisa Hurley, Georgetown University
Commentator: Josh Bliss

6:00 - 7:20
"Second Order Predication and the Metaphysics of Properties"
Andy Egan, MIT
Commentator: Alyssa Ney




Breakfast (at the Philosophy department)

10:00 - 11:20
"We're All Epistemic Deontologists Now"
Nathan Nobis, University of Rochester
Commentator: Christopher Kane

11:30 - 12:50
"Property Dualism, Mental Causation, and Counterfactuals"
Kelly Trogdon, UC-Irvine
Commentator: E.J. Coffman, Notre Dame

1:00 Lunch

2:30 - 3:50
"The Schizophrenia of Optimific Ethical Theories"
Ian Stoner, University of New Mexico
Commentator: Allan Hazlett

4:00 - 6:00
Keynote talk:
Christine Korsgaard, Harvard University

Reception and Dinner

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/16/2003 04:38:00 PM

I don’t remember the Syracuse Post-Standard being a particularly lefty newspaper when I was there, but it seems to be giving more play to this story than most of the media.
Free Speech Trampled in Standstill

There's a peace march scheduled in New York City today. But it will be more like a peace standstill. Unlike the 602 cities around the globe where protesters plan to march together to protest a war on Iraq, New York authorities won't allow it.

The Bloomberg administration made the decision well before last week's heightened security alert. A federal three-judge panel affirmed it - even though The New York Times reported a police commander told a federal judge that he had no reason to expect violence.

The Homeland Security Department alerted the country that there's a possible threat, but urged Americans to go on with our lives. Anyone considering marching with 100,000 other people can decide for themselves whether to take the risk.

But there's more to it than that. The Bush administration - which is in the midst of trying to sell the war to the public - filed a brief urging the judges to uphold denial of the permit. And the Bloomberg administration has no intention of forcing a St. Patrick's Day standstill instead of a parade - even though it's bigger and likely more raucous.

"The court bought, hook, line and sinker, the undifferentiated-fear factor," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which argued marches are a vital form of free speech.

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a speaker at the rally said, "I really cannot believe that a major city in the leading democracy in the world can refuse people this particular right."

Link, of course, via Atrios, who is in particuarly fine form today. I could repost every one of his stories, but it might be more efficient to just recommend you head over there.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/16/2003 03:50:00 PM

I just managed to lose a post from yesterday. It wasn’t a particularly long post - just noting that Greg Restall had three new papers posted and you really should read them - but it is annoying to lose posts. Anyway, no one should think I was deliberately editing the history books (which for reasons I have never entirely fathomed is widely thought poorly of in these virtual parts), nor that Blog*spot messed up (which happens, but didn’t happen this time). I just messed up.

UPDATE: I just checked to see that link work, and I saw that Greg’s site has been redesigned. It now has more information on it than you (or at least I) could possibly take in at once. He now seems to be running two blogs (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) both of which have RSS feeds (news and snippets). If he keeps updating at the rate he has for the last few days I’m going to have to stop moaning about there not being other philosophy blogs out there. And then what am I supposed to write about?!

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/16/2003 03:25:00 PM

Laurie Paul has posted the introduction to the famous-before-it’s-even-published Collins Hall and Paul volume on causation. The intro is 67 pages long and there is still more to be added, so these may yet become the Collins Hall and Paul volumeson causation before all is said and done.

Now even if I don’t write a paper for the day there will still be interesting material on the webpage tomorrow. This isn’t the motivation I needed I think.

UPDATE: And Laurie has a paper on pre-emption co-written with Ned Hall posted today. I’d like to say my complaining about slow news days was having an effect, but that would be too transparent a lie I’m afraid. I only saw the paper about four minutes ago, so I haven’t quite had time to read it all, but the conclusion seemed striking.

We leave those questions with the reader, hoping she will treat them with the seriousness they deserve. For we think that there is no hope of undertaking a meaningful philosophical investigation of causation without addressing them. The days of seeking out clever counterexamples—while ignoring the deeper issues that lie behind them—are over.
Not around here they aren’t! I have a God-given right to seek out clever counterexamples for their own sake, and I’m not giving it up without a fight. I wonder if I could get research funding for a pool table so I can work on billiard ball examples...

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/16/2003 03:22:00 PM

I added some new bookmarks to the website tracker. Just in case anyone is particularly interested, here are the pages I added. I will try and keep adding more pages as time becomes available, because it the more comprehensive this list is, the better it will be.

Phillip Kitcher

Richard Healey

David Schmidtz

David Owen

Sally Haslanger

Sharon Street

Andrew Arana

Allen Wood

Luis Alonso-Ovalle

John Burgess

John Collins

James Joyce

Ian Proops

Bas van Fraassen

Liam Murphy

Joseph Raz

Christine Korsgaard

Solomon Feferman

Thomas Hofweber

David Barker-Plummer

Stephen Darwall

UPDATE: This post turned out to be a bit of a disaster, because I wasn’t very careful in checking some of the addresses. So don’t take this correction as evidence that all of the other lines are right. But I have changed the address for Luis Alonso-Ovalle.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/16/2003 02:23:00 PM

I would like to say the philosophy papers blog update is up, but there was nothing to update. A few too many people are taking the long weekend off I fear. I can’t tell whether the right reaction to this is to find more pages to scan for the updates, or to write something myself so there will be something updated. I might try both, just for fun.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/16/2003 12:47:00 PM


If you’re trying to demonstrate the extent of human irrationality, there are a few ways you could go. Most of them involve setting a trap for average subjects and seeing how many people fall into it.

If the traps are carefully set so as to test precise hypotheses about ways in which humans are prone to err, and you carefully measure the results and develop that theory in light of those results, you might well end up with a Nobel Prize.

If instead you just design a parody of the White House and see how many people are offended by the result without noticing that it is parodic, well you won’t win a Nobel Prize, but you’ll have much more amusing feedback.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/14/2003 11:59:00 PM

Fooling All the People All the Time?

Brown University’s response to the “Code Orange”.

The evidence on which the “Code Orange” was based.

You know, I’m glad Brown is thinking about my safety, but I do wish that we wouldn’t have to spend all these resources in response to what is pretty clearly a politically motivated decision from the White House.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/14/2003 04:56:00 PM

The Dr Evil paper is now in PDF format and the references are done. So I think it has now reached first-draft status.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/14/2003 04:42:00 PM

I finally got around to reading Jeff King’s paper on syntactic evidence for semantic theories, and I was struck by one of the examples he uses. At first I thought what he said was obviously wrong, but on reflection I think it might not be so obvious. (Most of the paper seems right to me, at least on a first reading through, but I didn’t have anything detailed to say about those parts. Well, except to note that debates in philosophy of language are getting pointed nowadays.)

Anyway, here was the point that I think I disagree with. Jeff wants to argue that syntactic data can be sometimes used to support semantic theories. One example of this (not the only one) involves negative polarity items (NPIs). Examples of NPIs are ever and any when it is meant as an existential quantifier. It seems these words can only appear inside the scope of a negation, or in a context that behaves in some ways as if it were inside the scope of a negation.

Simplifying the argument a little bit, Jeff seems to suggest that the following argument could be used to provide support for its conclusion.

(1) NPIs are licenced in the antecedents of conditionals

(2) NPIs are only licenced in downwards entailing contexts

(3) The antecedent of a conditional is a downwards entailing context

A ‘downwards entailing context’ is (roughly) one where replacing a more general term with a more specific term produces a logically weaker sentence. So while (3a) does not entail (3b), thus showing ordinary contexts are not downwards entailing, (3c) does entail (3d), showing negated contexts are not downwards entailing.

(3a) I will be given a birthday cake tomorrow.

(3b) I will be given a poisonous birthday cake tomorrow.

(3c) I will not be given a birthday cake tomorrow.

(3d) I will not be given a poisonous birthday cake tomorrow.

(I assume here that poisonous birthday cakes are still birthday cakes. I do hope that’s true, or all my examples here will be no good.)

(2) was first proposed (to the best of my knowledge) in William Ladusaw’s dissertation in I think 1979, and it has been revised a little since then, but many people I think hold that it is something like the right theory of when NPIs are licenced. But it does have one striking consequence: it implies (3). To give you a sense of how surprising (3) is, note that it implies that (4) entails (5).

(4) If I am given a birthday cake tomorrow, I will be happy.

(5) If I am given a poisonous birthday cake tomorrow, I will be happy.

Now, many people think that (4) could be true while (5) is false. It is certainly the case that there are contexts in which one could say (4) and not say (5). Perhaps the best explanation for that is pragmatic. Those who think that indicative conditionals are either material or strict implications will hold that it is pragmatic. But perhaps it is semantic. Officially, I think it is semantic, though I think the other side of the case has merit.

Here’s where I think I disagree with Jeff. Imagine I am undecided about whether (4) really does entail (5). I think that the argument (1), (2) therefore (3) has no force whatsoever towards pushing me to think that it does. Rather, I think that only evidence to do with conditionals can tell in favour of the entailment of (5) by (4), and if that evidence is not sufficient to support the entailment claim, all the worse for premise (2).

At least, that was what I thought at first. On second thoughts, I think maybe I was a little too dogmatic here. On further review, though, I think my dogmatism was in the right direction. To test this, try a little thought experiment.

Imagine you think that all the evidence, except the evidence about conditionals, supports (2), or some slightly tidied up version of it. (This is not too hard to imagine I think, (2) does remarkably well at capturing most of the data.) And imagine that you think that while there are pragmatic explanations of the apparent counter-examples to If Fa then p entails If Fa and Ga then p, you think those explanations are fairly weak. (Again, not too hard to imagine.) Does the inductive evidence in favour of (2), which we acknowledge is substantial, and the obvious truth of (1) give you reason to take those pragmatic explanations more seriously, and more generally more reason to believe that If Fa then p does entailIf Fa and Ga then p? I still think no, but I can see why this might look like dogmatism to some.

I sometimes play at being a semanticist, but at heart I’m always a philosopher. And one of the occupational hazards of being a philosopher is that one takes methodological questions much more seriously than perhaps one ought. So at some level I care more about the methodological question raised in the last paragraph than I care about the facts about conditionals and NPIs. At that level, I’m rather grateful to Jeff for raising this question, because it’s one of the harder methodological questions I think I’ve seen for a while.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/14/2003 03:16:00 PM

The anti-war rally in Melbourne last night drew over 100,000 people according to one conservative newspaper, and 120,000 according to another. So those numbers are probably not over-estimates. Since the organisers only claimed 200,000, and organisers are usually out by a lot in these things, the evidence suggests there probably were 100-120,000 there. For a city the size of Melbourne, that seems like a lot. Should be interesting to watch more numbers come in from rallies around the world this weekend.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/14/2003 02:54:00 PM

The philosophy papers blog update is up.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/14/2003 02:47:00 PM


Joshua Knobe has developed a webpage on experimental work in philosophy. Thanks to my little online experiment I get to be on it. Woohoo! If you know anyone he hasn’t mentioned who is doing experimental work who should be added to his list, email him with the details.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/13/2003 04:58:00 PM

I decided to add a polemical paragraph to the Dr Evil paper, because obviously the main problem now is that it is too short and has too little polemic in it. Here it is.

My primary theoretical objection to INDIFFERENCE is that the propositions it purports to provide guidance on are really uncertain, but it treats them as risky. Once we acknowledge the risk/uncertainty distinction, it is natural to think that our default state is uncertainty. Getting to a position where we can legitimately treat a proposition as risky is a cognitive achievement. Traditional indifference principles fail because they trivialise this achievement. An extreme version of such a principle says we can justify assigning a particular numerical probability, 0.5, to propositions merely on the basis of ignorance of any evidence telling for or against it. This might not be an issue to those who think that “probability is a measure of your ignorance.” (Poole, Mackworth and Goebel 1997) But to those of us who think probability is the very guide to life, such a position is unacceptable. It seems to violate, we might say, the platitude ‘garbage in, garbage out’ since it takes ignorance as input, and produces a guide to life as output. INDIFFERENCE is more subtle than these traditional indifference principles, but this theoretical objection remains. The evidence that O’Leary or Morgan or Leslie has does not warrant treating propositions about their identity as risky rather than uncertain. When decisions they must make turns on questions of their identity, their ignorance provides little or no guidance, certainly not a well-sharpened guide to action.
Maybe that kind of polemicism is more appropriate for a blog than a paper. In that case it will be correctly published in one place at least.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/13/2003 04:05:00 PM

Some people have suggested I should be doing even more political ranting here. This would be a mistake for many reasons, not least that I am simply not as good as it as real professionals.

For more cerebral enlightenment, H Allan Orr has a fairly good review of Pinker’s Blank Slate in the latest New York Review Of Books. In everything I’ve read about the book (not including the book itself, because, well, life is short) the general impression is that Pinker does a rip-roaring job of torching a straw man, but that his preferred kind of nativism is just as implausibly extreme as Locke’s or Hume’s empiricism. Have there been any reviews not saying basically that?

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/13/2003 01:42:00 PM

The philosophy papers blog has been updated, but there is not much there. The highlight is an NDPR piece by Fred Dallmayr, a review of Jürgen Habermas’s Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity.

NDPR lists the author as the slightly less well known Habermas Jürgen. But even that is misleading, because the primary focus of the review is the editorial contributions made by Eduardo Mendieta, the essays by Habermas being I guess a little more well known. Still, there are some interesting things here especially for a slow news day like today.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/13/2003 10:21:00 AM


I think this is the best news I have seen in a while, though English readers may disagree.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/12/2003 11:36:00 PM

The philosophy papers blog has been updated. Lots of new material including papers by Cian Dorr, Jeff King, Henry Stapp, and Gerard O'Brien.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/12/2003 11:28:00 AM

I thought it had been harder to find academic jobs in Australia recently. (Via The Age.)

"The commission's summary of findings states that student-teacher ratios have increased somewhat, yet the detail of the report reveals that the ratio of students to teaching staff has actually increased from 14.3 in 1993 to 19.9 in 2001," he said.

"Australian universities would need to have employed almost 10,000 equivalent full-time academic staff to have restored our student-staff ratio to its 1993 level."

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/12/2003 08:05:00 AM

So I’ve been reading A. D. Smith’s The Problem of Perception recently. It has lots of nice features, so naturally I’m going to blog about the bits that aren’t so good. I would try and write something substantial but it’s late and I’m tired, so I’ll write something snarky instead. From page 11:

There can be little doubt that the Philosophy of Language, together with “Philosophical Logic” and more recently, “Cognitive Science,” have come to overshadow all other areas of theoretical philosophy within the analytical tradition, and that discussions in this area are typically conducted in a manner that avoids any sustained confrontation with the Problem of Perception.

Capitalisation and scare quotes in original.

You know, from inside the Philosophy of Language camp, it certainly doesn’t feel like philosophy of language has taken over analytic philosophy. I’m certain this isn’t what is meant, but I’m sure that if you did a quick search through Jobs for Philosophers you’d find many more jobs for ethicists, historians, metaphysicians, epistemologists and philosophers of mind than you would for philosophers of language. What was presumably meant was that philosophy of language was taking over all those other disciplines, especially metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of mind. Maybe that’s true, maybe not. Well, I’m too young to remember what things were like before the linguistic turn, so my first-hand judgements are presumably not veridical. But it certainly doesn’t feel like one can get very far at a metaphysics or epistemology conference dropping clever witticisms about the semantic import of focus, or about the relationship between polarity licensing and implicature.

I know a few people have, shall we say, issues with the term ‘philosophical logic’, so perhaps the scare quotes are justified there. But ‘cognitive science’ can’t be unselfconsciously used? Is it still a neologism that side of the pond? We have entire departments of cognitive science. I’m even a member (in a way) of one of them.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/12/2003 01:44:00 AM


This is fun, and part of why we philosophers are fond of physicists sometimes.

For Astronomers, Big Bang Confirmation

The most detailed and precise map yet produced of the universe just after its birth confirms the Big Bang theory in triumphant detail and opens new chapters in the early history of the cosmos, astronomers said yesterday....

In a nutshell, the universe is 13.7 billion years old, plus or minus one percent; a recent previous estimate had a margin of error three times as much. By weight it is 4 percent atoms, 23 percent dark matter — presumably undiscovered elementary particles left over from the Big Bang — and 73 percent dark energy. And it is geometrically "flat," meaning that parallel lines will not meet over cosmic scales....

"The data are good enough to rule out whole classes of inflationary theories," Dr. Spergel said. That is a boon, he said, for particle physicists, who want to know what laws governed the universe at the beginning of time.

"It really is a big hint for them," he said.

Dr. Andrei Linde, a cosmologist at Stanford and one of the fathers of inflation theory, and the inventor of the model that was ruled out, said that it was "great" that theories were getting culled.

He said that it was "painful" for him that one of his theories got killed, but that it was good news that several of his other versions were doing well.

I guess the quote from Linde about it being “great” that one of his theories was refuted is slightly playing to the media. But it is nice to see the importance of testability acknowledged in such a way. On the other hand, it’s 96% ‘dark’ stuff. And we thought philosophy still had some questions to answer.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/11/2003 11:30:00 PM

From the dept of thoughts I wish I had had first. Kai von Fintel has a blog for his graduate semantics class. As well as interesting updates on thecourse, the blog contains links to the textbook that is being (further) developed while the course is being run. Most readers of this site will be familiar with much of the content presented in the textbook, and indeed will see claims that don’t match up with their preferred doctrine every other page. Still, the book is (so far at least!) well worth reading as a model for how to present some quite difficult material in a very accessible manner. Since it is licenced under a creative commons licence, you can even borrow the parts you most like as long as you are suitably generous with accreditation.

posted by Brian Weatherson 2/11/2003 08:44:00 PM

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