Papers Blog

The mammoth papers blog entry only took an hour to put together, which was much less than I’d feared. And I got it done in time that tomorrow can have a separate entry. There are dozens of links there, so if you want some bedtime reading…

Fellowship at Merton

This isn’t normally a classifieds column, but I was asked to pass this along and it looks like it could be interesting to many readers.

Research Fellowship in Philosophy

Merton College proposes to elect to a four-year Research Fellowship in Philosophy to commence in October 2004. This career development post will provide a promising academic at an early stage in his or her career with the opportunity to develop skills in teaching and academic administration, in combination with substantial support for research. The teaching commitment will be up to six hours per week in full term and the College is particularly seeking candidates able to teach some of the following subjects: Elementary Logic, Philosophy of Mathematics, and the History of Philosophy from Descartes to Kant.

The stipend will be £20,671 p.a. and the Fellow will be entitled to meals in College and to other benefits.

Full details of the post and its conditions are set out in the further particulars, obtainable from the Sub-Warden’s Secretary, Merton College, Oxford, OX1 4JD (e-mail: The closing date for applications is Friday 19 March 2004. Merton College is an equal opportunities employer.

We’re Back

I returned from Louisiana to find 80 emails needing to be answered, and 57 webpages that had changed and needed to br processed for the papers blog. So apologies to everyone if I take a while to respond to everything.

There are several points I’ll come back to from the trip, but I thought it would be nice to start with this story.

As regular readers may recall, in the cloning paper Sarah and I rely quite heavily on Liz Harman‘s1 paper “Can we Harm and Benefit in Creating”[2]. As it turned out, I delivered the parts of the paper that most directly appealed to Liz’s work, and Liz was sitting in the front row of the audience. So I could get fairly quick feedback on whether I was getting Liz’s views right by just looking at whether she was nodding in approval or not.

As you might expect, this was rather terrifying. I normally like to have a very long lead time between saying something and it being evaluated. Fortunately, it seems we were following the lines of Liz’s theory well enough – or at least she was polite enough to make it look like we were even when we weren’t.

The conference overall was great. James Stacey Taylor and the krewe at LSU put on another great show, and I’m again grateful to have gone there. As I said, hopefully more stories to follow.

1 So the set of people to whose authority I’m prepared to gratuitously appeal is now, it seems, {Joyce, Keynes, Lewis, Fodor, Harman}. I’m not sure whether that’s too much appeal to authority or too little.

2 Doesn’t it seem like there should be a link to the paper here? This paper has been delivered at enough places that it should be posted on a webpage by now somewhere.

Tidying Up

Continuing the very welcome trend of philosophers posting exciting books, Mark Kalderon posts the first three chapters of his book Moral Fictionalism. Lots of people have been talking about this well in advance of publication, and I think it should be very good.

The Bush administration’s complete disregard for scientific knowledge in policy making doesn’t get as much airplay as some of the administration’s other shortcoming, but it is an important issue. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue. There’s nothing conservative about ignoring relevant science – I can’t imagine John Howard or Peter Costello acting the way the Bush administration has. Anyway, don’t take my word for how bad they are, take the word of twenty Nobel Laureates . (Hat tip: Brian Leiter.

Allan Hazlett thinks my beliefs about which adjectives are essentially pre-nominal are pretend.

Just for fun: Republicans for Voldemort. (Hat tip: caoine)

Much thanks to everyone who has written in with congratulations and good wishes regarding my move to Cornell. There’s been some interest shown in where TAR will move to if I can’t leave it at Brown. I’m touched that you think I’m not cybersquatting as is.

I’m off to Louisiana for a few days. Just to test how much attention my logic class today I made a joke at the start about how neat it was that we get Mardi Gras off (Brown holds the President’s Day holiday a week late) and then mentioned at the end I was off to a conference in Louisiana. A few picked up the connection. The conference, run by James Stacey Taylor, was wonderful last year, and if it’s as good this year I’ll be having a fun few days. I might be updating TAR while I’m away – or I might just be ethicising and partying.

And the winner is Ithaca

My favouritist blog post included, amongst the many halluncinations of grandeur, a comparison between your humble narrator and Odysseus. At the time I had a real difficulty finding commonalities between the two of us that would justify such a comparison. Well soon we will have something in common: as of next August we will both be Ithacans.

I’m moving to Cornell.

As well as improving Cornell’s strengths in my core areas, I’ll be starting a new speciality in Martian philosophy, teaching logical positivism and in charge of the sheep dip.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll probably know that I had quite a few choices available. Before I decided what to do I was dreading how I’d feel afterwards, because each of the choices was so appealing and I feared I’d regret all the missed opportunities. In general I’m much too susceptible to regret. I can come home, turn on the TV, watch the Sox overcome a 3 run deficit in last 2 innings of an important game, and my first thought is “That would have been great if I’d watched the whole thing.” It’s important to remember there is such a thing as opportunity cost, but it can really wreak havoc with your emotional well-being if you take it too seriously. So I was worried that I’d reflect too much on the virtues of the paths not taken, and be miserable for months. Maybe that will still happen, but for now I’m managing to be happier about Cornell’s possibilities that upset about the (considerable) virtues of the other suitors. I’d say more about how great each of these other departments is, but (a) you probably know that already, and (b) it might just make me depressed.

So for now it’s yay yay Cornell. Go Big Red philosophy!

A Game

Game theory becomes much more fun when we make it harder to adopt mixed strategies. I’d be interested to know what any game theorists reading this (or non-game-theorists) think the players should do in the following game.

A and B are playing for $1,000,000. Each of them has to choose a number: either 0 or 1. If they choose the same number, A gets the $1,000,000. If they choose different numbers, B gets the $1,000,000. Neither is capable of making a genuinely random choice, left to their own devices. They are able to make random choices by flipping coins, but any coin they flip while making the choice must be forfeited, and all coins have positive value. What should they do?

The idea for this game is borrowed from this paper by Roger Koppl and Barkley Rosser Jr that I’ve mentioned previously. One of the many things that make the game interesting is that there is (I think) no Nash equilibrium in the game.

By the way, in case you’re thinking “Why is he talking about this game? Is there a hidden agenda here?” there is a hidden agenda, but it isn’t very well worked out. At some level I think I think there shouldn’t be such a thing as game theory. What’s currently game theory should be viewed as just decision theory where one of the unknown variables is a decision by another agent. But any argument to that conclusion is a long way off. A long, long way off.


After a small delay due somewhat to my work habits and somewhat to the lack of material to work with, the papers blog is up today. Adam Morton features two short papers on conditionals.

There’s an interesting discussion going on around the web about whether there is a bias against conservatives in academia. The best piece so far is by Timothy Burke, and the pieces by John Holbo and Belle Waring are well worth reading too. I have a fair bit of sympathy for the line David Velleman was taking in the comments thread on John’s piece, but I don’t know how widespread the issue he discusses is. (This isn’t a snarky “I don’t know” meaning “not”, as I might sometimes use. It really is an “I don’t know” meaning “I don’t know”. The area of specialisation breakdown of US English and History departments is outside even my range of knowledge.)

I don’t know whether this spam fighter that Chris Potts links to could possible work, but maybe it’s worth trying. Since it’s apparently against the law to kill spammers, or even wittily threaten to do so, alternative measures are in order.

Supacrush has some good suggestions for avoiding procrastination. If you want to avoid actually doing work, putting yourself in a position of having to choose between incommensurable values is, I find, very effective. Admittedly this isn’t the only work-avoiding technique that works, but it really is very good.

Knowing Chemistry

Or, Part CCLXXXIV of my long-running argument that knowledge requires much less by way of epistemic goodies than most epistemologists think.

Brad DeLong is teaching his 10 year old daughter chemistry.

The Ten-Year-Old has thoughtfully gone off and is drawing pictures of how the eight electrons in the valence shell might “orbit” the nucleus, and wondering why eight electrons in the valence shell is a particularly stable configuration.

She doesn’t know Coulomb’s force law. She knows no orbital mechanics. She definitely does not know that the solar-system model of the classical atom is self-contradictory. She knows no spherical harmonics. She knows no quantum mechanics. Yet, still, she now knows more about electrons and their impact on chemistry than anybody in the world knew a century ago, back before Niels Bohr.

All very cute and all, but shouldn’t some epistemologist be coming along around now saying that if she has that many false beliefs at the base of her chemical beliefs, then none of the superstructure really constitutes knowledge. After all, inference from inconsistent premises is hardly a reliable form of belief formation now, is it?


I’m a fair way out of my comfortable depth here, so take this with a larger grain of salt than usual. And I make no claims whatsoever about originality – for all I know this could have been covered fifteen times over in the relevant literature. (As might most things I write.) But I thought it was interesting enough to write up.

The question at issue concerns some points that came up because I happened to be simultaneously reading Michael Strevens’s work on explanation and idealisation (not online) alongside John Sutton’s book on models in economics. I might post something later about how one of Sutton’s cases appears to raise a difficulty for Strevens’s theory, but let’s start on a friendlier note: one of the cases he discusses seems really good news for Strevens’s theory.

We start with the biased auction game – one I’ll call Bias. (This game is discussed in detail by Sutton.)

There are two players – Wise and Unwise. An amount of money v is picked from [0,1] at random and placed in an envelope. Wise is told how much money is in the envelope, and Unwise is not. The two players are then invited to bid on the envelope. This will be a ‘single-shot’ auction – each player gets to make one bid, and the higher bid wins. Neither player must bid, and there is no reserve price. What does/should each player do?

The Nash equilibrium for Bias is a little surprising. Wise should bid v/2, and Unwise should bid an amount chosen at random from [0,{1/2}]. Wise’s expected gain is, as you can tell, v/2, and Unwise’s expected gain is 0. Still, if Unwise does not bid the game cannot go into equilibrium, because then Wise can bid an arbitrarily small amount. So she must bid, even though this has no expected benefit for her.

Now assume that an instance of Bias is played, with each player knowing they will not play again, and Wise and Unwise do just as expected. (Assume we are shown not just Unwise’s bid, but her procedure for generating the bid.) We ask:

Why did Unwise bid?

Allegedly explanatory answer:

Because the only Nash equilibrium for the game includes a bid by her.

Is this a good explanation? I’d say, as it stands, no.

Is this a causal explanation? Well, no. If Unwise did not bid, then Wise could have bid an arbitrarily low amount, then Unwise count have made an expected profit by bidding. So there’s a chain of reasoning that leads to Unwise bidding. But it isn’t a causal explanation unless we are told this is what Unwise thought, and that simply isn’t in evidence.

Is this a unifying explanation? Not as it stands, but it easily could be. Many aspects of game behaviour can be unified under the assumption that the players select options that make Nash equilibria possible. But that doesn’t seem to make it a good explanation, unless we have specific evidence that players were motivated by a desire to move towards Nash equilibria.

Prima facie this looks like bad news for unificationist theories of explanation. But turning that into a full objection might take actual, er, research about what actual unificationists say, which has never been TAR’s strongest feature.

Just in case it isn’t obvious, note that the question asked here is not Why did Unwise maximise her expected utility? I think Bayesian answers to that question are easy. The question is why she chose one particular utility maximising strategy (bidding with the bid value chosen probabilistically) rather than not bid, which has just as high an expected utility.

(I should have mentioned when I first wrote this up that the ideas here owe quite a bit to comments made in my philosophy of economics seminar, especially by Alyssa Ney.)

Lewis Reading

I didn’t mean the comments thread below to turn into an outbreak of serious Lewis study, but #1 Bad Boy asked an interesting question.

What papers or books do you think are essential for a beginning graduate student to read of Lewis’s. I know this is probably a long list, but try keep it to 5 papers and 2 books

I guessed papers were less than books, so 1 book and 6 papers would be OK.

On the Plurality of Worlds – 1986
“Psychophysical and Theoretical Identifications” – 1972
“The Paradoxes of Time Travel” – 1976
“Counterfactual Dependence and Time’s Arrow” – 1979
“New Work for a Theory of Universals” – 1983
“Reduction of Mind” – 1994
“Causation as Influence” – 2000

This is obviously reflecting my interests a lot, so others may have different ideas. So this is a little challenge for the weekend, how would you answer Bad Boy’s question? One ground rule – no including the collections of papers as books. Otherwise Philosophical Papers volume 1 and Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology make it too easy.

By the way, Papers in M&E (or The Bible for Young Metaphysicians as I like to think of it) is fully available online at Amazon.