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30 August, 2002

Me and Chopped Liver

JC
Beall says that “Everybody agrees that if classical logic is
non-negotiable, then epistemicism is the best response to the sorites (and
vagueness, generally).” What am I then, chopped liver? I don’t quite think
classical logic is non-negotiable, but I think it is at the end of the day
correct, and I’m not an epistemicist. (My middle ground, my Third Way, is
detailed here.) I used to think Delia Graff also fit
the category of someone who took classical logic to be non-negotiable, but it now
seems that she takes her contextualist theory of vagueness to be a supplement
to, rather than a competitor with, epistemicism.

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 2:51 pm

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29 August, 2002

Things I Was Wrong About II

I was going to write a weblog entry about
how I’d changed my mind about imaginative resistance. I now think Tamar Gendler is right, and that the
reason we don’t imagine morally deviant situations is not because they
are impossible. And I think her reason for rejecting that view is right: there
are other impossibilities we don’t resist in the same way, so the impossibility
can’t be the entire story, and probably isn’t even the interesting part of the
story. I still don’t think that Tamar’s examples really show this, and I
certainly don’t think her theory works, and I have a new theory that I think is
better.

Anyway,
I was going to write all this in a weblog entry. Then it started getting too
long, and I thought it was getting to be about 3000 words, and it was getting
to be about September 1, which means that 3000 word papers should be sent to an
APA, so I’d do that. Then it started getting too long for that, at which point
I decided that I really should take care of my syllabus before writing 6000
word papers. Then I decided to write the next draft of the paper I’m writing
with Adam Sennet on knowledge and linguistic understanding (see earlier entry),
which didn’t help at all with getting a syllabus written.

So
why did I change my mind about the first thing. Well, two cases. First, the
Restaurant at the End of the Universe, whose description follows:

 

The Restaurant at
the End of the Universe is one of the most extraordinary ventures in the entire
history of catering.

It is built on the fragmented remains
of an eventually ruined planet which is enclosed in a vast time bubble and projected
forward in time to the precise moment of the End of the Universe.

This is, many would say, impossible.

In it, guests take their places at
table and eat sumptuous meals whilst watching the whole of creation explode
around them.

This is, many would say, equally
impossible.

You can arrive for any sitting you
like without prior reservation because you can book retrospectively, as it were
when you return to your own time.

This is, many would now insist,
absolutely impossible.

At the Restaurant you can meet and
dine with a fascinating cross-section of the entire population of space and
time.

This, it can be explained patiently,
is also impossible.

You can visit it as many times as you
like and be sure of never meeting yourself, because of the embarrassment this
usually causes.

This, even if the rest were true,
which it isn’t, is patently impossible, say the doubters.

All you have to do is deposit one penny in a savings account in
your own era, and when you arrive at the End of Time the operation of compound
interest means that the fabulous cost of your meal has been paid for.

This, many claim, is not merely
impossible but clearly insane, which is why the advertising executives of the
star system of Bastablon came up with this slogan: “If you’ve done six impossible things this morning, why not
round it off with breakfast at Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the
Universe?”

 

Well, by the end it’s a little hard to
imagine this all happening, but by my estimation, the imaginative resistance
kicks in long after the situation becomes blatantly impossible.

Second
example: Back to the Future. Remember the scene where Marty McFly starts
to fade from existence because he derailed the situation that led to his
parents getting together. It all gets sorted out in the end. But we can imagine
a variable movie, Back to the Future´ (great name, what?), in which it
doesn’t. In that scene, presumably the last of the primed movie, Marty McFly’s
tamperings cause him to not exist. And not just in the sense that any regular
suicide or Darwin Awardee might
cause themselves to no longer exist. No, in that movie Marty McFly would cause
himself to have never existed. And that’s about as blatantly impossible as you
can imagine. But, in a sense, you still can imagine it. We get nothing like the
same kind of resistance that we get in ethical cases, etc.

We
don’t even have to prime the movie to get this odd result. In the movie as it
is played, Marty McFly gets involved in time travel because, inter alia,
he is from such an unconfident loser family, and the result of this is that he
is not from an unconfident loser family. This is just obviously
impossible, but if you ask anyone to describe the plot of the movie to you,
(they will pretend they never saw it, then attempt to change the conversation
to avoid admitting they saw it, then) they will say something just like this.
Upshot: Gendler is right, regular impossibility doesn’t trigger resistance, so
we need a different explanation for resistance in the moral cases.

Postscript
to all this. Most of the imaginative resistance literature discusses the thin
moral concepts. But the point seems to extend to the thick moral concepts, like
friendship. At least, it does if one has the right amount of resistance
to the following story:

 

Well, Frankie Lee
and Judas Priest,

They were the
best of friends.

So when Frankie
Lee needed money one day,

Judas quickly
pulled out a roll of tens

And placed them
on a footstool

Just above the
plotted plain,

Sayin’, “Take
your pick, Frankie Boy,

My loss will be
your gain.”

Bob Dylan, The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 2:43 pm

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26 August, 2002

Knowledge and Understanding

In a recent paper in Mind Dean
Pettit argues that knowing what a term means is not necessary for understanding
the term. He has three examples designed to show this, all cases where we
allegedly have understanding without knowledge of meaning. I don’t find any of
the examples particularly convincing, though I think they are very interesting
examples of a rather different philosophical point.

Here’s
the first example. Travelling in Germany a certain native English speaker who
knows a smattering of German, Mr. Nogot, sees an unfamiliar word,
“Krankenschwester” and asks a local what it means. The local says, “It means nurse.”
This is true, and hr hereby comes to believe it, and hence interprets any
occurrence of “Krankenschwester” in what appears to be a German sentence as
meaning nurse. Pettit suggests that this is enough to understand the
German word “Krankenschwester”, assuming Nogot already possessed the concept
NURSE, and I tend to agree. But he thinks this is not enough to guarantee that
he knows that “Krankenschwester” means nurse. Imagine that the
local always says, “It means nurse” when asked a question in English. In
that case his belief that “Krankenschwester” means nurse is only
accidentally true, and hence does not amount to knowledge. As Pettit notes,
this seems to be a Gettier example, a justified true belief that is not
knowledge. Pettit claims that whatever is lacking from beliefs in Gettier cases
that makes them fail to be knowledge is lacking in this case also.

At
this point Pettit’s argument is no stronger than the argument that Gettier
cases are not cases of knowledge. Quite understandably, Pettit doesn’t think
his argument is vulnerable at just this point, since most everyone thinks that
Gettier cases are not cases of knowledge. But not exactly everyone! I’ve argued
elsewhere that the argument that Gettier
cases are not cases of knowledge is not exactly watertight. Indeed many
theorists accept an ‘argument’ here that is little more than an appeal to raw
intuition. Which is not to say there is no other argument against the claim
that knowledge is justified true belief, but let’s just focus on the appeals to
intuition, which is what it seems Pettit relies upon. There are, at least,
three reasons why we might suspect that such an appeal to intuition won’t do
enough to carry the argument as far as he wants it to go.

 

Reason One: Not Everyone Shares the
Intuitions

In a fascinating recent paper,
Jonathan Weinburg, Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich show that epistemic
intuitions differ radically across cultural groups. In particular, many East
Asians, and people from the Indian Subcontinent, tend to think that Gettier
cases are cases of knowledge. In the studies they conducted, about 55%
of East Asians, and 60% of Sub-Continentals, said that a Gettier case was a
case of knowledge, as compared to about 25% of Westerners. The sample sizes are
rather small, but the differences are statistically significant. Given that the
intuition that Gettier cases are not cases of knowledge is culturally bound,
why should we rest much weight on it? One could try appealing to the great
achievements of Western culture, but since this is serious philosophy and not
Fox News such ‘arguments’ won’t get very far. One could try to argue that the
Western intuitions are embedded in a better overall package. The problem is
that this is simply false. Other experiments Weinburg et al run show
that most Western respondents, especially college-educated Western respondents,
tend to hold absurd sceptical positions. For instance, 70% of the Western
respondents said that a person looking at a zebra could not know that it
was a zebra unless he was in a position to distinguish it from a well-disguised
mule! On the other hand, 50% of the Sub-Continental respondents said that
knowledge was possible in this case. I’d think this is pretty good evidence
that the Sub-Continental intuitions are better guides to knowledge than
the intuitions of us Westies, and they think that Gettier cases are
cases of knowledge.

 

Reason Two: We All Make Mistakes
Sometimes

Ignore all that, and pretend that somehow
the relevant intuitions do support the idea that Gettier cases are not cases of
knowledge. Why should we think that this implies that Gettier cases are not
cases of knowledge? After all, we all make mistakes, and perhaps sometimes we
all make them together. For instance, there’s lots of empirical evidence that
most people have horribly confused intuitions about whether particular
decisions under uncertainty are rational. Here we say that some decisions are
not rational even if most everyone has the intuition that they are. Why do we
say this? Because accepting that the decisions in question are rational would
commit us to denying some principles that we want to hold onto, such as the transitivity
of preferability, or, more contentiously, the sure-thing principle. Could we
find similar reasons to abandon the intuition that Gettier cases are not cases
of knowledge? Well, the principle that understanding requires knowledge seems
just as secure to me as the sure-thing principle! As an argument for the theory that understanding requires knowledge this
is pretty weak, but since that theory is really the null hypothesis, it seems
that we should be allowed to appeal to that status in judging arguments. (This
line of thought is similar to the line I ran in the counterexamples paper.)

 

Reason
Three: The Intuitions are not Constant

Grant that neither of the above arguments works, so as long as well-educated
Westerners intuit that Gettier cases are not cases of knowledge, that’s enough
evidence to say that they aren’t knowledge. That still won’t get Pettit the
result he needs, because it’s not ever so clear that intuition really does support
this. At least in this particular case, this seems to be the most important of
the three reasons.

When
philosophers say that intuitively x
does not know that p, what they
usually mean is that when asking themselves, “Does x know that p?” they find
it more intuitive to say, “No.” But there are other questions, with potentially
inconsistent answers, that may be more important in terms of judging what our
intuitions really are. Consider the following three intuition pumps.

 

The
mixed room
: Thirteen people are in the ballroom.
Six of them are native German speakers. Six of them are monolingual English
speakers. And the thirteenth is Mr. Nogot. How many people in the room know
what “Krankenschwester” means in German? I think the intuitively plausible answer
here is seven, not six.

 

The
homogenous room
: As in the mixed room, except the
six monolingual English speakers leave. Is it now true that everyone in the
room knows what “Krankenschwester” means in German? Again, it seems very
plausible to say yes here.

 

The
bet
: Herr Sieger and Herr Verlierer are placing
bets on all sorts of things while they wile the day away. (They have decided to
keep all conversations in English, just to help us foreigners!) As they see Mr.
Nogot approach, Seiger says to Verlierer, “I bet that he knows what
‘Krankenschwester’ means in German.” and Verlierer accepts the bet. After some
simple research, they discover all the facts about Nogot as described above.
Who do you think would win the bet? I think that it’s very intuitive that
Sieger wins, or at least should if the games are being fairly played.

 

We have three methods for testing
intuitions that all point towards Nogot knowing
that “Krankenschwester” means nurse.
But why think that these methods have more evidential force than the simple
method of asking ourselves whether Nogot knows that “Krankenschwester” means nurse? Because in other cases where we
agree on what the answers should be, after reflection, methods like the three
listed here get the answer right and
the simple method gets the answer wrong.
Let’s take a case familiar from Grice. Grice attributes to Hart the view that
in order for it to be true that Nocare drove home carefully, it must not only
be the case that Nocare should have receptive to possible dangers and disposed
to avoid them, but that his method of doing so must be reasonable. So if Nocare stopped at every driveway to check whether
a dog was about to run out, which he did, that would not be careful in Hart’s language, because it
is unreasonable.

Grice
accepts that it would be odd to say that Nocare was careful in this case.
Indeed, it may even be odd to think this, or even intuit it. But that doesn’t
mean that intuition unreservedly says that Nocare was not careful, for when we
apply the above methods we get the correct result that, intuitively, he was
careful. (Very careful, as it turns out.) Imagine Sieger had bet that Nocare
would drive home carefully. Intuitively, he’d win again. Or imagine the
ballroom contains six paradigmatically careful drivers, and six hoons, and
Nocare. Then it contains seven people
who drove home carefully, not six.

I
want to mention one other case here which has some deeper philosophical
importance. (Deeper only because it touches a point in philosophical logic!) Imagine
that a bar serves no whiskey on a particular day, and the whiskey it had on the
shelf was not poisoned. Then it is not exactly intuitively obvious that every
whiskey it sold that day was poisonous. This might be thought to lead some
support to an Aristotelian view of the universal quantifier, where it is only
true that all Fs are Gs if there are in fact Fs. But a version of the homogenous room
test shows that this is the wrong conclusion to draw. Imagine further that
every whiskey the bar ever sold in its existence was poisonous, although as
noted it did not sell whiskey ever day. In that case it seems intuitively true
that every day the bar was open, every whiskey it sold was poisonous. The
proper conclusion to draw is that the intuitive oddness of the belief that
every whiskey it sold on the quiet day was poisonous is driven by some factor
other than the outright falsity of that belief. It’s a hard question just what
the extra factor is. I’m assured by some very trustworthy sources that the
traditional Gricean explanations here are not very plausible. (As if they are
elsewhere.)

So
let’s summarise the dialectical situation. For this example to prove what
Pettit wants, he needs it to be given that Nogot does not know that
“Krankenschwester” means nurse,
because Pettit’s relation to the proposition that “Krankenschwester” means nurse is as a subject’s relation to a
Gettier belief. But the only evidence that this means he doesn’t know the proposition is that we have a
strong intuition that in this case he doesn’t know it. And since (a) the
intuition is not widely shared, including by groups with more reliable
intuitions than ours, (b) the case bears some resemblances to cases where we
all agree intuition goes wrong, and© we only seem to have the intuition if
the intuition probe is designed in a certain way, and that way of designing
intuition probes leads to less reliable intuitions than other probes, it seems
like this isn’t much of an argument after all!

Coming
later (perhaps): what to say about the other examples in the paper.

 

PS: I wouldn’t have thought of
most of the things to say in this note if not for conversations with various
Syracusans, or now more frequently ex-Syracusans, over the years, so I
don’t want to take too much credit for it
all. Indeed, if all goes to plan much of the above material will find its way
into a paper I’m writing on Pettit’s article with another ex-Syracusan, Adam
Sennet. So some of this should count as co-written. But I don’t think the
standards for claiming work on one’s own weblog that is read by about 10 people
a week should be too high, so I don’t feel too bad about putting it under my
name here!

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 8:51 pm

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25 August, 2002

Papers Getting Accepted

I haven’t posted anything for a while
because things here have been rather busy. There will be some philosophical
posts presently, but for now I just thought I’d note that, for I think the
first time in my life, I had two 10,000 word papers accepted for
publication this week. Many Many Problems was
accepted in The Philosophical Quarterly,
and Keynes and Wittgenstein was accepted for a
volume being put together by Nova
Publishing
. I’m kind of fond of both papers in different ways, so I’m
pleased they’re both out. The Keynes paper contains the only serious historical
research I have ever done, and probably the only serious historical research
I’ll ever do, so for me it’s a bit of a landmark! Of course, only the Phil
Quarterly paper counts as anything like a refereed publication, so we shouldn’t
make too much of this, but it’s still pleasant to keep work churning out.

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 12:39 pm

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18 August, 2002

How to Get Rich Quick

Roy Sorensen (2001)
says the club Secretary Liberation, as defined by Charles Chihara (1979)
couldn’t exist. Secretary Liberation has as its defining rule that membership
is open to all and only those secretaries who are not allowed to belong to
clubs of which they are secretary. There’s obviously going to be a problem if
Secretary Liberation hires a secretary – we cannot consistently say that he is
allowed to join, or that he is not. Sorensen concludes, “the existence of such
a club would imply a contradiction, that is that there could be a secretary of
Secretary Liberation.” (76).

Sorensen’s
reasoning here is fallacious. True, if Secretary Liberation hires a secretary,
then a contradiction will be true. But all we can conclude from that is that
Secretary Liberation cannot hire a secretary, not that it could not exist.
In this respect, Secretary Liberation is ontologically no worse off that
Secretary Equalisation, whose constitutive constitution explicitly bars the
club members from hiring a secretary. If either club hires a secretary, it will
follow that a clause in that club’s constitution is false, and hence that the
club ceases to exist. Remember these constitutions are constitutive of the
club. But that’s all consistent with either club existing at least until the
secretary is hired. And we all agree that Secretary Equalisation could exist,
just as Secretary Fraternisation, whose constitution requires that the club
always have a secretary, could exist. At least for a while.

Having
settled that Secretary Liberation could exist, let’s pretend that it does, and
see what happens when they try and hire a secretary. One thing that may happen
is that the club may cease to exist. It may, to use an old phrase, vanish in a
puff of logic. But this is unlikely. For one thing, clubs do not cease existing
that easily. For another, Timothy Williamson (1999) has provided an argument
from plausible principles of quantified tense logic that nothing ever ceases
existing. What logic threatened to take away, logic has returned. It follows
that whomever is hired will simply not be the secretary. The poor chap can do
all the filing, mailing and general organising he likes, but logic dictates
that he won’t be a secretary. This is presumably bad news for a functionalist
account of secretariness. Which is sad, since if a functional analysis was
going to work anywhere, you’d think it would work here. (Certainly you’d
think that if anything was going to work in philosophy ever, it would be in the
secretary’s office.)

Set
aside worries about the death of functionalism, because we can turn this all
around to quite good use. Just as Secretary Liberation could exist, so could
Fat Secretary Liberation. As the name implies, membership is open to all and
only fat secretaries who are not allowed to be members of the club of which
they are secretary. And Fat Secretary Liberation could hire a secretary, though
he better not be fat. In fact, once he was hired, he could, in principle, not
become fat. Nice work, if you can get it. Inventing words like we’re inventing
clubs, say someone is beamerless if they are not currently in possession
of a BMW. Importantly, renting a BMW, even for a day, gives you possession in
the relevant, stipulated, sense, so you are not beamerless. Now here’s the get
rich quick strategy.

 

Step one: Rent a BMW.

Step two: Found Beamerless Secretary Liberation, whose membership shall be
open to all and only beamerless secretaries who are not allowed to join clubs
of which they are secretary.

Step three: Appoint yourself secretary.

 

The
BMW is now yours for life, since logic forbids you from returning it. To be sure, whomever you rented the BMW from
may well sue for its return, especially if they do not quite understand the
situation, but since returning it would result in a contradiction being true,
and courts never enforce contradictions (outside Australia) this suit would be
unsuccessful.

The
BMW here was arbitrary, so variants on that strategy can be used to get
anything you ever wanted for a minimal price. Your material wellbeing is
assured. And when you are next asked what use is philosophy, point to the
yacht, the mansion, the shiny cars and say, “Without philosophy, none of this
would be mine.”

 

PS: If you want the
references cited above, perhaps so you can implement this great plan, email me.

PPS: If you do implement this
plan, and get away with it, really email me. For one thing, I’ll
want some royalties. For another, I’ll be so amazed that I’ll probably drop
dead with shock, and you’ll be able to stop feeling guilty about not sending me
any royalties.

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 8:29 pm

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17 August, 2002

Some Things I Was Wrong About Part I

By nature I’m basically a consequentialist.
I’ve never been too committed to any particular view about just which kinds of
things should be maximised, but until recently I’d never seriously doubted that
the right ethical theory involved maximising something or other interesting.
Now, I’m not so sure.

Here
is one quite general way to respond to all sorts of ‘counterexamples’ to
consequentialism. The form of these should be familiar: we find an action a such that doing a would maximise the amount of happiness in the world, or the
number of satisfied preferences, or whatever, but despite this we still think
that a is intuitively the wrong thing
to do. Now we could follow Jack Smart in deprecating the importance of these
kinds of intuition, and I think it’s important to work out just how far this
kind of move can be taken. But we don’t have to do this to save
consequentialism in its most general form. Because we can just say that our
ethical theory is to produce the best kind of society we can, and if we think a makes society worse, then a does not have the best consequences,
so there is no ethical obligation to perform a. This is rather rough as it stands, but in most cases it seems to
me that it lets us save consequentialism from familiar objections to specific
kinds of utilitarianism without making the Smart move.

Anyway,
it now seems to me that this won’t work in general. The problem cases arise in
a very narrow range of cases, certainly not the kinds of cases we expect to
find in worlds anything like this one. In fact, we have to be living in a
community of moral saints, or near enough to it, for the cases to arise. Assume
we are in such a community. It seems to me that we’d be missing something –
moral diversity. It’s kind of fun to have a few mostly harmless wrongdoers
around, and it would be sad if they weren’t there. Just which kinds of
wrongdoers is a bit of an open question. I use pie-throwers as the main example
of fun wrongdoers, but really there’s all sorts of cases. Here’s the troubling
set of propositions that seem true about the pie-thrower in the world of moral
saints

(a) The existence of the
pie-thrower makes the world a better place, in the sense that from behind the
veil of ignorance we’d prefer to be in a world with a pie-thrower or two than
one consisting entirely of moral saints;

(b) Throwing pies at
people for amusement, which I assume is pretty much what the pie-thrower does,
is morally wrong; and

(c) The reason that
throwing such pies has good consequences is because
it is morally wrong.

 

(c) is important here. If we only had (a)
and, allegedly, (b) then we could follow Jack and simply deny (b). It turns out
that harming other people for one’s own amusement is morally justified, and
indeed morally obligatory, in a saintly world! But I think© undercuts this
defence. It seems to me that the benefits of pie-throwing, such as the
amusement it generates among others, and the moral discourse it might prompt,
arise in part because of the moral wrongness of the act.

This
all needs considerably more elaboration, probably more than a non-ethicist like
me can provide. So I’m co-writing a paper on all this, although since my
co-author (Andy Egan from MIT) is also a
non-ethicist there’s a serious possibility that our treatment will be, er,
shallow. (Some may say ‘infantile’, but they are basically evil people and you,
dear reader, should ignore them.) When the paper is ready, I’ll post a draft
here.

The
title is because there’s several more of these ‘I was wrong’s to follow in
upcoming days, when the horrendous heat here slows down enough to allow me to
write about them.

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 8:58 pm

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