Dispositions and Habituals

Michael Fara’s paper Dispositions and Habituals is forthcoming in NoŻs, which is good news for us since it’s an excellent paper. Here’s the abstract:

Conditional accounts of disposition ascriptions, even quite sophisticated ones, are mistaken. Instead, we should accept the “Habitual Account” of disposition ascriptions, according to which attributions of dispositions entail habitual sentences, not conditional sentences.

Political Compass

Brian Leiter (who has an excellent post on the US Philosophy hierachy) wants more blogistan philosophers to take the political compass test. Like many young philosophers, I do whatever Brian Leiter says I should, so I took the test. My results are:

Economic Left/Right: -0.75
Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.64

For some reason negative means left/libertarian. I think this reveals a deep, possibly Freudian, bias on the part of the testmakers.

I’m not very sure about the utility of these markers. This is a point Matthew Yglesias has made several times, but itís worth making again. If you thought a 1D graph obscured things, youíll probably think the 2D graph isnít much better.

I tend to have fairly extreme economic views, for instance. I tend to favour what are (at least by American standards) extremely pro-union, pro-worker positions. I think the minimum wage should be $8 to $10, for example, and I think it should be much easier to unionise than it currently is. Iím happier than most to resort to regulation at the first sign of market failure. So I favour pretty tough labelling laws, smoking bans in workplaces, etc. But Iím also strongly free-trade, especially when it comes to being opposed to tariffs. (I’m more willing to go along with political boycotts, e.g. of South Africa during apartheid.) I donít think a tax that discriminates between people who buy goods from other countries and people who donít is morally defensible, whether or not itís economically useful. (It isnít, but thatís somewhat beside the point if its immoral.)

But do I come out as an extremist here? No, my extreme views Ďbalance outí by their lights. Itís not as if this is a particularly original position – in many respects my views are just those Bertrand Russell had at a similar age – but it doesn’t fit naturally on their graph. So I turn out to be a Ďmoderateí. Cíest la vie.

Citation Etiquette

In a paper I’m currently writing I need to note the existence of each of the following, without any direct comment on them:

  • Gettier’s argument that knowledge is not justified true belief
  • Kripke’s argument that there are contingent a priori truths
  • Evans’s distinction between deep and superficial contingency

Given none of them are been discussed in any detail, which of them need a citation? My first guess was no on Gettier, yes on Evans and maybe on Kripke. This suggests 30 years is about when philosophical views pass into common knowledge.

(Shouldn’t I cite everything? No – I wouldn’t dream of citing Einstein if I just noted the existence of relativity theory. The question is when, if ever, philosophical views acquire that status.)

Making Time Travel Sound Bad

This will be a slightly obscure post, but hopefully I will make it less obscure in the future.

In “The Self and the Future”, one of the nice things Bernard Williams does is show us how a relatively pleasant sounding story (I move into a nicer body and get given bunches of money) can be retold as a nightmare scenario (I will be tortured, but before that all my memories and dispositions will be wiped away, and the memories and dispositions of a vain jock written into my brain) by just changing the perspective a little.

Do you think there could be time travel stories that sound quite pleasant at first that could be retold as torture stories by a Williams-style translation? I’m trying to write up some classes on time travel and personal identity, and it will be fun if I can think of such stories. But I can’t immediately see how to write them.

Perhaps more to follow…

Computability and Logic

I’m teaching an upper level logic course from the fourth edition of Computability and Logic, which as anyone who has used it knows has an impressive number of errors. These are almost all relatively trivial typing and typesetting errors, but the problem with a book this error-riddled is that when something happens that you can’t quite follow, there’s a temptation to blame the book rather than your tiny addled brain. This is almost always a mistake when working in this area, but sometimes it becomes irresistable.

For instance, on page 194 (of the first printing) there’s a definition of what it is for x to be the code number of a simple atomic sentence, where a simple atomic sentence is one that doesn’t contain identity or function symbols. The account given there is that x is the code number for a sequence such that:

  • The first member of that sequence is the code number of an n-place predicate, where 2n+2 is the length of the sequence
  • The second member of that sequence is 1 (the code number of ‘(’)
  • The next n odd-numbered places in the sequence are filled by the code numbers for atomic terms, which under our current hypothesis are constants or variables
  • The intermediate even-numbered places in the sequence are filled by the number 5 (the code number of ‘,’)
  • The last member of the sequence is 3 (the code number of ‘)’)

Now when we reinstate function symbols, we’re just told that the definition of an atomic term has to change to allow for the possibility that, for example, (0, 0) could be an atomic term. Apart from that, the book suggests, the definition of an atomic sentence can be preserved. But of course it can’t – because atomic terms no longer take only 1 character. So if R is a two place predicate, R((0,0),0) is an atomic sentence despite satisfying only two of the five above requirements.

I don’t think this is too hard a problem to patch, but given the level of detail that’s gone into for the function-free language, it’s surprising that this is not only elided, but suggested to be a non-problem.

Having said all that, I should say that there is a lot to like about the fourth edition of C&L, especially for those of us who want to teach a course primarily on the incompleteness theorems and their implications for the logic of provability, and don’t want to take a detour through Turing machines to get there. And the problem sets are a great addition. So I think Burgess did a great job with the book. But sometimes I’m left scratching my head trying to follow what’s going on, and I’m not sure it’s always my fault.


Also from Kent Bach, this NY Times Op-Ed on hiring practices by top universities is well worth a read. The main example used is the NYU philosophy department. The author, David Kirp, doesn’t really seem to approve of the hiring they’ve been doing.

What’s good for a university’s reputation, however, isn’t necessarily good for its students’ education. Since the standing of top-rung professors, their bankable asset, depends on what they write, not how they teach, their main loyalty isn’t to their students or their institution.

While Mr. Sexton says he is determined to turn this trend around at New York University, some recent initiatives there have reinforced this professorial narcissism. Take the university’s philosophy department. In 1995, the department didn’t even have a Ph.D. program. Just five years later it was rated as the top department in the web-based publication “The Philosophical Gourmet,” the philosophers’ version of the U.S. News & World Report college ranking and the bible for prospective graduate students.

A bevy of star hires has elevated the department’s academic standing, and with it the university’s. But the new recruits have only modest teaching responsibilities; especially in big undergraduate courses, the burden of teaching falls on graduate student instructors and adjunct faculty, higher education’s replaceable parts. What’s more, the newcomers are narrow-gauge specialists whose intellectual insularity ó a disengagement from both the classroom and the common public sphere ó presents a formidable obstacle to the neighborliness that Mr. Sexton now asks of his “blue team.” (My emphasis.)

That’s rather unfair as a comment on some of the NYU hires, especially Kit Fine and Hartry Field, who have made significant contributions to many areas of philosophy. What might be fair to say is that they don’t do work that has an immediate public impact, but then again I suspect one could say the same thing about many top-notch physicists.

Journal Boycott

The SF Chronicle reports that two UCSF scientists are leading a boycott of six journals published by Cell Press, a division of Reed-Elsevier. The immediate cause of the boycott is that Cell wants the UC system to pay $90,000 for electronic subscriptions to the six journals, and the scientists regard that as exorbitant.

A few things stand out about the boycott.

It is being supported by the university administration. The vice dean of research and the vice chancellor of academic affairs at UCSF are quoted in the article supporting the boycott. This is not just the kind of peasant revolt that I’ve occasionally encouraged.

I don’t know enough about the area to judge whether this is accurate, but one of the journals being targetted, Cell is described in the article as a ‘must-read’ journal. It looks like this is no mere skirmish over third-tier publications. We’ll see how serious the scientists really are when they have to decide whether to boycott the New England Journal of Medicine, or The Lancet if similar disputes arise. But if Cell did publish important work on AIDS in recent years, as the article says, this is already an important dispute.

Finally, this isn’t something that can be solved by going electronic, because the dispute is over the cost of electronic subscriptions. I know UC is a big system, and it’s fair that they should pay more than your average site for a licence, but $90,000 for six journals still seems ridiculous, especially if they are not available unbundled, and really only one of the six is strongly wanted.

Thanks to Kent Bach for passing along this link. I’ve posted the text of the article to the extended entry section. Continue reading “Journal Boycott”


I spent yesterday at the MIT/UMass/UConn/Brown Semantics Workshop. It was lots of fun, even if it has a slightly unwieldy name. In the future the conference will be the Southern New England Workshop in Semantics (SNEWS), and we’ll try to present long drawly papers at the end to live down to the name. Next year the conference will be at Brown for the first time, and I encourage everyone in the area who’s interested in semantics to attend.

It was lots of fun seeing all these semantics papers. Despite all the presentations being by graduate students (at least I think they were all grad students, apologies if I’m misclassifying anyone) the quality was as high as I’m used to from philosophy conferences. It was also really nice to see people presenting theories with testable consequences, and then watching them get tested during discussion. Whatever their other virtues, it’s rare to see that at metaphysics or epistemology presentations.

The best presentation was by Pranav Anand of work he’s doing with Andrew Nevins. They make a convincing case that Zazaki, a language spoken in Turkish Kurdistan, contains monsters. (An early version of this paper, attributed just to Nevins, is online here.)

In Zazaki the translation of (1) can mean either (2) or (3).

(1) Melanie said that I’m an idiot.
(2) Melanie said that Brian is an idiot.
(3) Melanie said that Melanie is an idiot.

There were two surprising qualifications of this. Apparently the monstrous readings are not available for all propositional attitude verbs. So (4) must mean (5).

(4) Melanie believes that I’m an idiot.
(5) Melanie believes that Brian is an idiot.

And there is a coordination constraint on the readings of the indexicals. They must either all behave monstrously, or all behave ‘normally’. So if I’m reporting to Ted an utterance of Melanie’s to Charlotte, then (6) can mean (7) or (8), but not (9) or (10).

(6) Melanie said that I owe you money.
(7) Melanie said that Brian owes Ted money.
(8) Melanie said that Melanie owes Charlotte money.
(9) Melanie said that Brian owes Charlotte money.
(10) Melanie said that Melanie owes Ted money.

Given those results you might think that we have a confusion of direct with indirect speech reports here, but they test for that hypothesis and make some convincing arguments that no such confusion is happening. They then have some very complicated examples involving embedded reports to test various hypotheses about how to understand these monsters.

There’s been a few other papers arguing for the existence of monsters in various languages, but these results seem much more convincing than any others previously presented. The paper is just an excellent combination of theoretical and applied work, and hopefully it will be in print somewhere prominent soon.

I also learned about one other surprising result that I’d never heard before. Present a five year old with the following scenario: there are four horses, three of them are ridden by boys and the fourth is not, and there is nothing else in the picture. Then ask the child whether the following sentence is true or false: Every boy is riding a horse. A large percentage of the children will say this is not true. There’s various hypotheses about what is driving this, and a few results about what modifications of the experimental setting will improve children’s results.

The writers in this field commonly distinguish between child-like and adult-like answers to the questions, but it seemed to me that’s being too generous to adults. After all, adults make a very similar mistake in the Wason Selection Task. It would be interesting to know whether the same things that improve performance in the Wason Selection Task improve performance among children.