Don’t be Misled

This is what I need more of – theoretical justifications for not reading things.

Neil Levy, Open-Mindedness and the Duty to Gather Evidence; Or, Reflections Upon Not Reading the Volokh Conspiracy (PDF)

At times Neil comes perilously close to endorsing Kripke’s paradox. Assume p is something I know. So any evidence against p is evidence for something false. Evidence for something false is misleading evidence. It’s bad to attend to misleading evidence. So I shouldn’t attend to evidence against p. So more generally I should ignore evidence that tells against things I know.

But Neil’s main point is more subtle than that. It’s that it can be a bad idea to approach a topic as an expert when in fact you’re not one. And that seems like good advice, even if you really should be reading the Volokh Conspiracy (for instance).


Note to self – check these things before accepting new job. It seems Cornell’s standard personal webspace does not support CGI scripts. I’m sure I can work around this somehow, but I should have done this a month ago I think rather than now. Worst case scenario, I’ll use my office computer as a server and run the blogs off that. That way I could get my own URLs I guess. Alternatively, I could buy a second computer to use as a departmental server and do all kinds of neat tricks with it. Seriously, I think I can use OPP as justification for getting MT installed somewhere, and then once that’s in I can run TAR off it. Still, it would have been easier if MT was already running for me.

Game Theory on the Spot

As noted before, I’ve never understood a lot of the attraction behind game theory. In particular, I’ve never heard a convincing argument for why Nash equilibria should be considered especially interesting. The only argument I know of for choosing your side of a Nas equilibria in a one-shot game involves assuming, while deciding what to do, that the other guy knows what decision you will make. This doesn’t even make sense as an idealisation. There’s a better chance of defending the importance of Nash equilibria in repeated games, and I think this is what evolutionary game theorists make a living from. But even there it doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the most famous game of all, Prisoner’s Dilemma, we know that the best strategy in repeated games is not to choose the equilbrium option, but instead to uphold mutual cooperation for as long as possible.

The only time Nash equilibria even look like being important is in repeated zero-sum games. In that case I can almost understand the argument for choosing an equilibrium option. (At least, I can see why that’s a not altogether ridiculous heuristic.) One of the many benefits of the existence of professional sports is that we get a large sample of repeated zero-sum games. And in one relatively easy to model game, penalty kicks, it turns out players really do act like they are playing their side of the equilibrium position, even in surprising ways.

Testing Mixed Strategy Equilibria When Players Are Heterogeneous: The Case of Penalty Kicks in Soccer (P.A. Chiappori, S. Levitt, T. Groseclose). (paper, tables) (Hat tip: Tangotiger)

Some of you will have seen this before, because it was published in American Economic Review, but I think it will be news to enough people to post here. The results are interesting, but mostly I’m just jealous that those guys got to spend research time talking to footballers and watching game video. I haven’t heard any work that sounded less like research since I heard about that UC Davis prof whose research consists in part of making porn movies.

Around the Philosophy Blogs

Jonathan has a post and a very long discussion thread on Hume’s Law. I think some of the discussion could have benefited from looking at Gillian Russell’s paper on Hume’s Law, but it’s still pretty interesting. And I never have comments threads that go 33 deep, although the Homestar Runner post keeps approaching that level.

Ektopos is keeping a list of philosophy blogs, and it’s now reached 50. But it’s already out of date, since it doesn’t include this blog. (By the way, despite the efforts of that blogger to stay anonymous, I think I have enough evidence to figure out who they are. Their secret is safe though, because I’m too lazy to do said figuring out.)

While on the topic, I’d include Crooked Timber as a philosophy blog, but we don’t seem to make it to Ektopos. For that matter, caoine (which I definitely don’t know how to pronounce) is much more a philosophy blog than many of the 50 on that list. I thought maybe they were not counting undergrad blogs, but Hot Abercrombie Chick is a freshman, so that can’t be a policy.


Imagine, if you will, a person, but not any actual person. Let’s call the person you imagine Jerry. When you imagine Jerry, do you imagine Jerry having a middle ear? Do you imagine Jerry having eyelashes? (If you particuarly focussed on the eyelashes when imagining Jerry, think of some other visible but not particularly salient body part, like cuticles.)

I think the answer in each case is no, though the answer to a similar question is yes. If you think of your imagination as a little fiction, it is fictional that Jerry has a middle ear, and eyelashes, and cuticles, and so on. That’s because fictions, including very simple fictions like Jerry exists are governed by what Walton calls the Reality Principle, which (roughly) says that real world facts are made fictional unless something stops them being imported into the fiction. But I don’t think you imagine Jerry having all these features.

I think imagining a person in full detail, right down to the cells and beyond, is beyond the capacity of any individual, although you can imagine a person and it be fictional that they have all kinds of detailed characteristics. So I think you can’t imagine a zombie, though (for all I’ve said here) you can imagine a zombie-like creature in rough outline and it be fictional in the imagination that the creature is a zombie. But this is very tentative, even for a blogpost.

Throwing Away Ideas

Everywhere I go now, this blog is a major topic of conversation. If I wasn’t so fond of it, I might start to resent the attention it gets. One of the things that came up was a worry that I was giving away ideas without getting much credit. This would be a serious worry if it were true, but I don’t think it is for a number of reasons.
Continue reading “Throwing Away Ideas”

Silly Questions

First three examples of oddities in fiction, and then a purported explanation of them all. Much of this post arose in conversation with Andy Egan. Most of the rest, including the first example, comes from section 4.5 of Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe.

Othello (Walton)

In Act 2, scene 2, Othello utters the following lines.

Had it pleased heaven
To try me with affliction, had they raised
All kinds of sores and shames on my bare head,
Steeped me in poverty to the very lips,
Given to captivity me and my utmost hopes;
I should have founds in some place of my soul
A drop of patience. But alas…

In the real world anyone who could compose these lines would be a first-rate poet. The standards for being a first-rate poet are no different in Othello’s world to ours. Othello does compose those lines. Yet it is not fictional that Othello is a first-rate poet.

555 (Egan)

In every movie nowadays, every phone number we hear starts 555. Yet it is not (it seems) fictional that every phone number starts 555, nor that we are seeing a non-random sample of phone numbers.

Censorship (Weatherson)

In airplane versions of movies, profanity is censored. But the censorship normally takes place only on the soundtrack, not the screen. So when the passenger hears the Mob boss say “Kill the lowlife scum”, the Mob boss’s lips are mouthing a much more obscene phrase. Anyone who could produce that sound while moving their lips that way would be a skilled ventriloquist, both really and fictionally. Yet it is not fictional that the Mob boss is a skilled ventriloquist.

Walton suggests that often (not always, but often) the response to ‘silly’ worries like these is to say that the odd claims are true in a story, but are ‘de-emphasised’. Very roughly, that means that they are the kind of fictional truths that it a skilled participant in the fictional game will not attend to. I want to argue that in some cases, including these, actually less is true in the fiction than first appears. (My disagreement with Walton here is a matter of degree – I’m basically saying his solution to the problem posed by blue jeans in Greek plays should be generalised.)
Continue reading “Silly Questions”

Conceiving the Impossible

Imagine a world in which there are nothing but two atoms. If you are not a believer in mereological sums, you will think that you are thereby imagining a situation in which (1) is true.

(1) ExEy (~x=y & Az (z=x v z=y))

The conceiving of this imagined non-believer is positive and primary, as far as I can tell. Is it ideal conception? Well in one sense no, because it isn’t really a situation in which (1) is true. But that’s a sense in which conceivability trivially entails possibility. In Dave Chalmers’ preferred sense,

S is ideally conceivable when there is a possible subject for whom S is prima facie conceivable, with justification that is undefeatable by better reasoning.

In that sense, I think (1) is ideally conceivable. Some people believe that the 2 atom room verifies (1), and some of them won’t be talked out of this by better reasoning. There’s an important point about the epistemology of metaphysics here. Ultimately getting to the right answer involves a matter of judgement. There’s no valid argument from premises everyone accepts to the impossibility of (1). At least, there’s no such argument now, and there’s no reason to think that there ever will be one.

Could we restrict the ideal conceivers to those with appropriately good judgement? Yes, but only at the cost of trivialising the conceivability/possibility thesis.

In the paper I linked, Dave briefly discusses this case, and suggests somewhat tentatively “that there is no fact of the matter about the issue, or that it can only be settled by terminological refinement”. But it’s wildly unclear how either of these strategies will help. (Here I’m following some arguments Ted Sider has made really closely.) It’s implausible that there might be no fact of the matter about claims stated using only logical vocabulary, like (1). It’s also implausible that extra refinement of the terms will help. If the logical terms aren’t refined enough to use in stating propositions, who knows what is?

So I’m inclined to conclude that this is a case of conceivability without possibility. I don’t know if this case has been discussed widely, or indeed if it’s been discussed at all outside of a small note in Dave’s paper. So this is something I should do a little more research on.

One quick note about (1) to end with. Lots of people actually take (1) to be prima facie conceivable. The fact that they do so is, to those of us who are otherwise inclined to believe it is impossible, no evidence whatsoever that (1) really is possible. So why should the prima facie conceivability of zombies be any different?

Job Gossip

I don’t normally post about philosophy moves. This isn’t because I’m averse to discussing the stuff. As anyone whose been stuck in a bar with me during hiring season knows, it’s just about my favourite topic of conversation. But I normally like to stay a little above the fray here. But I wanted to make a few comments on Scott Soames’s move to USC, discussed already by Brian Leiter and Kai von Fintel

First, and obviously, this is a really big move for USC. High profile philosophers do move. Philosophers at the peak of their careers do move. Philosophers do move from higher ranked schools to lower ranked schools. But it’s pretty rare to see all three happen at once, to anything like the degree we’ve seen here. Soames was already a very important figure in philosophy before the last few years. But the quantity and quality of his work in the last few years has just been staggering. (And I’m saying this about someone with whom I very rarely agree on the issues.) He’s a great great addition to the USC department. Conversely, it’s a big loss for Princeton, but if anyone is in a position to bear losses like that, it’s Princeton.

Having said that, I’m not sure whether Brian knows anything special that makes him say it increases the probability Jeff King will move from Davis to USC. UC Davis is a pretty good department, in my opinion the most under-rated in the country, so Jeff is facing a pretty tough decision. (Or was so facing. For all I know he’s decided what he is doing.)