Irrelevant Counterfactuals

I was talking to Eliza Block the other day about ‘irrelevant’ counterfactuals, counterfactuals where the antecedent is intuitively irrelevant to the consequent, and by the end I was wondering why anyone should think there’s a serious problem here. In case I forget why this is so, I’ll write it down. (I can’t remember how many of these ideas were Eliza’s, or even which she agreed with, or which ideas are completely familiar, hence the somewhat cautious statement of where this all came from.)

So the problem cases are meant to be things like.

(1) Had I driven from Berlin to Moscow this summer, Churchill would have been Prime Minister of Britain during WWII.

Clearly there is something wrong in a Gricean sense with (1). But is there a semantic problem with (1)? I.e. is it false? If so Lewis’s theory of counterfactuals has a problem, since (1) is true on Lewis’s theory. It seems to me the answer to that is no, (1) is pretty clearly true. Here’s the argument for that.

First, (2) seems to be true.

(2) Had I driven from Berlin to Moscow this summer, I would have driven from the city where Hitler died to the city where Stalin died.

(I hope my history facts are right here – otherwise make relevant substitutions.)

Moreover, if (2) is true then (3), which just involves filling out the details of the relevant deaths in some detail, is true.

(3) Had I driven from Berlin to Moscow this summer, I would have driven from the city where Hitler died after the defeat of his army in WWII at the hands of the Allies, led in large part by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to the city where Stalin died.

Now we need a schematic principle. It is that the following inference is valid.

Had it been that p, it would have been that q
Necessarily, if q then r
Had it been that p, it would have been that r

That seems right, and so, it seems, is (4).

(4) Necessarily, if I drove from the city where Hitler died after the defeat of his army in WWII at the hands of the Allies, led in large part by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to the city where Stalin died, then Churchill was Prime Minister of Britain during WWII.

And from (3) and (4), (1) follows by the principle. It may take a bit of work to do it, but it seems for any old counterfactual that seems ‘irrelevant’ but turns out to be true on Lewis’s theory we can construct a similar argument.

More Intolerant Vague Terms

Most of my seminar classes are small, especially if you only count the students who are actually enrolled. By that standard, some of them are very small.

Forget for now about the truth values of those claims (they are truer than I’d normally care to admit) and just focus on their semantic content. I think very small in the last sentence is vague. But it’s a tricky kind of vagueness. In particular, it doesn’t seem susceptible to (normal kinds) of Sorites arguments. Conditionals of the following form don’t seem particularly compelling.

(S) If a seminar class with 3 enrolled students is very small, then a seminar class with 4 enrolled students is very small.

In degree-of-truth-speak, there will be a sizable gap between the truth values of any two sentences on this list (unless they both get truth value 0 or 1).

(0) A seminar class with 0 enrolled students is very small.
(1) A seminar class with 1 enrolled students is very small.
(2) A seminar class with 2 enrolled students is very small.
(3) A seminar class with 3 enrolled students is very small.
(4) A seminar class with 4 enrolled students is very small.
(5) A seminar class with 5 enrolled students is very small.

This seems to me just fatal for definitions of vagueness in terms of either Sorites-susceptibility or smooth variation between applicability and non-applicability. And it strongly suggests (to me at least!) that we’re well off returning to something like the definition in terms of borderline cases.

In case it isn’t completely obvious, I should note that this argument leans very heavily on the ideas presented in Delia Graff’s Gap Principles, Penumbral Consequence, and Infinitely Higher-Order Vagueness, though of course Delia wouldn’t like the conclusions.

Humour as Motivation

Some people think that seeing that action x is right is ipso facto motivation to do x. Of course there are caveats needed. The motivation may be overridden by other things. If you’re depressed, or otherwise practically irrational, there might be moral opinions without motivation. And really the picture is more plausible in the negative case – seeing that something is bad is motivation not to do it. It’s kinda rare I think that there’s exactly one right thing to do, so the motivational force of seeing that some action is among the morally good actions is not that motivating. Seeing that something you’d otherwise be motivated to do is immoral, however, might have more motivational force.

Even with all the caveats, the idea that there is an internal connection between moral opinions and motivation is contentious. But I want to (for now) take that internal connection for granted and see how far we can extend it. In particular, I’m interested in the following question: for which positive evaluative features is there an internal connection between seeing something has the feature and being motivated a certain way?

Modulo some worries about just what doxastic action amounts to, epistemic properties seem to produce clear cases of this. There is an internal connection (modulo kinds of irrationality) between seeing that it would be irrational to believe p and being motivated to not believe p. One doesn’t have to be independently motivated to be epistemically rational in order to be moved away from belief that p by seeing that belief that p in your situation would be irrational. Rather, it’s constitutive of rationality that to believe that believing p is irrational provides motivating reason to not believe p. So this is a nice paradigm of the kind of internal connection we’re talking about.

What, then, about the broadly aesthetic virtues? In particular, is it the case that seeing that it would be funny to phi is in itself motivation to phi for the practically rational? Certainly seeing that it would be funny to phi is often correlated with motivation to phi in practically rational people. But perhaps this is because those people have a standing desire to do what is funny, and it is this desire, coupled with the belief that it would be funny to phi, that produces the motivation.

(At least I think there’s a correlation here. Daniel Nolan suggested that really what happens is that seeing it would be funny to phi leads (perhaps internally) to being motivated to get someone else to phi. I think we need a large research grant to check just what the facts are here.)

I’ve been asking a few people about this over recent weeks, and the (tounge-in-cheek?) answer is normally that there is an internal connection. But it would be nice to have arguments to this effect, or to the opposite effect. Taking the arguments from the moral case and changing a few words has all the advantages of theft over honest toil, so let’s try that.

Michael Smith (well really Michael Smith’s counterpart in meta-aesthetics, but it’s funnier in the untrue version) argues that if we don’t posit an internal connection, then we’ll have to say that genuinely funny people are humour fetishists. They just do funny things because they have a de dicto desire to do what is funny. But that’s implausible, because truly funny people are at most motivated by a de re desire to do what is funny. That is, they are motivated to do each funny thing that becomes available, not to do the humourous whatever that turns out to be.

For the other side, David Brink (again really his counterpart Brink*) brings up the case of the ahumourist, the person who sees that certain actions are funny but simply doesn’t feel any motivational force towards doing them. This is not because she is depressed, or practically irrational, she just isn’t moved by comedic considerations. The standard response to Brink*, which seems right to me, is that the ahumourist doesn’t really see that actions are funny, but merely that they satisfy “funny”.

There’s a danger this post is outstaying its welcome, so let me just note the three ideas I had for how to make a paper out of this question.

First, I could do what I’ve been doing so far and see how the arguments from the moral internalism/externalism debate work when transposed into the key of funny. The motivation wouldn’t be to understand humour, but to get a better insight into the workings (and strengths) of those arguments.

Second, I could do just that but really with the intent of working out whether internalism about the comedic (or the beautiful) is plausible. That seems like an interesting question to me, though perhaps not to anyone else. (There’s a certain conception of philosophy on which meta-aesthetics is absolutely central, since it requires discussion of normativity, intentionality and modality, the three central issues in philosophy. The fact that there aren’t many meta-aestheticians in top philosophy programs does undermine this conception of philosophy just a little bit.)

Third, I could try writing up the internalism/externalism about the comedic debate just for laughs. When I started thinking about this that was certainly the plan, though I’m now thinking the question deserves a little more serious thought than that.

(Thanks to Daniel Nolan and Ralph Wedgwood for helpful suggestions about this, neither of whom should be held responsible for the resulting insane proposals.)

Measure 4 Measure

When I was just in London I saw a performance of Measure for Measure at the Globe. It was a great performance, but I think it’s quite a flawed play. Plays at the Globe often make me think about the imaginative resistance debate, and this one was no exception. First a little history.

I used to think that it was impossible to have moral deviance true in a fiction. I think the version of my imaginative resistance paper online still says that. But I’ve since changed my mind. I now think (tentatively!) that there’s merely a strong default presumption against having morally deviant claims true in a fiction. So it’s impossible to tell a paragraph length story in which morally deviant claims are true, because you just can’t do enough to overcome the presumptions in such a short time. But perhaps it is possible in longer works. (There’s still an asymmetry between moral deviance and factual deviance, and that’s still in need of explanation, but it isn’t as extreme an asymmetry as I thought.)

Seeing Measure for Measure however pushed me back towards the camp of those who think moral deviance is really impossible. Or at least it forces me to revise my views on how the default presumptions can be overridden. (If they can.) I had thought that the following two factors would be centrally important in generating this override. First, the moral deviance must be central to the story. (In the way, for example, it’s central to the Odyssey that Odysseues is a good guy, and hence his actions are morally permissible.) Second, the quality of the writing matters. Badly written propaganda for a morally deviant view won’t work; it requires real talent to overcome the default presumptions.

Now in Measure for Measure I think it is central to the story that the Duke is the good guy. And it’s central to the play’s status as a comedy that the resolution he orders at the end is a just and proper resolution of what has happened. (And Shakespeare of course is a decent writer.) But it just doesn’t seem true that the ending is just and proper. In the performance at the Globe they made quite a point of the fact that Isabella doesn’t get a choice in the matter of whether she is marrying the Duke. Given what she’s been through, this is a particularly egregious failing on the part of the play, and certainly a sense in which the ending is less than morally perfect. In fact none of the forced marriages seem particularly morally praiseworthy. And it isn’t clear why Angelo should not be punished severely for what he’s done, so the Duke’s treatment of him isn’t obviously just either.

I haven’t looked up any of the scholarly treatments of the play, so it’s possible I’m entirely misrepresenting things. Maybe it is meant to be more complicated and it’s not even meant to be true in the fiction that the resolution in act V is just. But if things are meant to be taken as they seem, we have a case where the author doesn’t get his way on which moral propositions are true in the fiction, despite (a) being a writer of Shakespearean talent and (b) making those moral propositions central to the play’s status as the kind of play it is.

Of course one could say similar things about many other Shakespearean comedies, particularly the treatment of Shylock. So this isn’t meant to be a great insight, but it wasn’t something I had noticed before last week at the Globe.

Conferences at UC Riverside

UC Riverside is hosting a pair of conferences over the winter to celebrate publication of two books by members of their faculty. This seems like a splendid idea. One conference is on Howard Wettstein’s The Magic Prism and the other on Gary Watson’s Agency and Answerability. Many more details about the conferences are available here. Thanks to John Fischer, of the Garden of Forking Paths blog (among other things!) for the link.

I Want the Interpretation I Can’t Have

The latest installment in a running series … philosophy thoughts had while listening to Smiths songs.

So presumably the desire-ascription in the title of I Want The One I Can’t Have is meant to be de re rather than de dicto. There is some particular one that Morrissey can’t have, and he wants him/her/it. But I was wondering whether it was possible to have a de dicto interpretation of the title. We could start meandering off here into the wisdom of self-destructive desires, but there’s a more pressing matter of syntax and semantics to attend to.

It’s rather hard, on its own, to read the title as a claim that Morrissey wants the one, whoever it is, he can’t have, as such. But we should be able to get that reading out, because when the title appears inside a quantifier it is clearly meant to have (something like) the de dicto reading. As in…

Not being able to eat dishes containing stewed rhubarb is so awful. It always seems to brighten up anything, from steak to green curry. But I can’t eat it. Most of the time I’m completely paralysed ordering food because I look at the menu and I want the one I can’t have.

Not entirely natural English, but I think you get the drift. (I was toying with an example closer to the original meaning of the title, but it seemed a little tacky.) Anyway, maybe the whinger in this example could, when he walks into a new restaurant, say on inductive grounds “I want the one I can’t have”, meaning he wants the dish, whatever it is, that he can’t have because it contains rhubarb.

It’s tricky to do a full analysis of this because it’s tricky to analyse sentences of the form I want NP. The temptation is to treat them as being elliptical for I want to VP NP, and then treat that as elliptical for I want that I VP NP, and then analyse I want as a modal. This is all a little absurd, but if we just treat want in I want NP as a regular transitive verb, it is hard to see how to get the de re / de dicto distinction to fall out. Since I’m sure that this is a relatively well-trodden area of syntax/sematics, I won’t try and resolve it here.

Truth and Realism

I haven’t had serious blog access since the Truth and Realism conference, so I haven’t had a chance to congratulate Patrick Greenough and Michael Lynch for the wonderful conference they put on. So I hereby, belatedly, congratulate them heartily!

I’ll have more to say later (depending on blog access) on the papers by Robert Brandom and Crispin Wright, which were the two most interesting (to me at least) papers there. (I had read Ernie Sosa’s paper before, so it wasn’t as interesting as a new paper.) But there were lots of interesting and thought-provoking points came up in papers and, more frequently I think, in discussions.

The conference ran like a charm. The amount of organisation that must have gone into it boggles the mind. Some of the grad students (and undergraduates!) who worked throughout the conference to make sure everything was in its right place deserve sainthoods, or at least jobs in decent philosophy departments. So many things can go wrong at a gig this size, and as far as I could see none of them did, which is a remarkable achievement.

The only quibble I’d have was that the speaker line-up was a little top-heavy. Personally I’d have preferred to see Patrick and/or Michael doing papers rather than some of the more, erm, distinguished presenters. But it might have looked odd to have slotted themselves between the big names.

And it was fun having so many famous philosophers around. At the first dinner I was sitting next to Dorothy Edgington, and opposite Simon Blackburn, Robert Brandom and Richard Rorty. (Blackburn and Brandom kept up a good-natured game of who-can-tell-the-funniest-story for most of the night, ending in a high-scoring draw.) The next night seated in a row were (I think – I’m doing this from memory): Ernie Sosa, Kit Fine, Tim Williamson and John Hawthorne. Some of these dinner tables have enough stars to be top 10 philosophy programs. For a philosophy-junkie it was a little kid-in-candy-store-ish.

The gender balance wasn’t great but it was better than at the two epistemology conferences I was recently at. Something like 3 or 4 to 1 rather than 5 or 6 to 1. I think having such a focus on big famous names probably hurt here a little.

What I would like to be able to do would be to cap off this post with a parody of Sorted for E’s and Wizz rewritten as the story of the conference. The idea of comparing a conference like this to a mid-90s rave party sounds kinda fun. And some of the lines only have to be minimally changed

I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere, somewhere on a beach in Scotland

while others are fine just as they are

At 4 o’clock the normal world seems very, very, very far away.

But I’m just not enough of a writer to pull off a song-length parody that doesn’t sound rather awful. And that wouldn’t be a fitting tribute to a fine conference.

Federation Fellowships

As Brian Leiter reported, it’s a wonderful day for philosophy in Australia. David Chalmers, Paul Griffiths and Philip Pettit have been awarded Federation Fellowships, which are among the biggest and most prestigious awards in Australian academia. The awards are for five years, and having the three of them around (even more than they are now) should be great for Australian philosophy.


So Mind rejected my paper on Patrick’s Vagueness as Tolerance. I was a little disappointed, especially since it was a relatively positive referee’s report for a rejection, but I should be able to cannabalise most of the paper for other purposes.

The two-boundary problem can be worked into the first section of the Defining Vagueness paper I’ve been sketching the last few days. The section about disjunctive Sorites arguments has already appeared in True, Truer, Truest and will probably be worked into a longer paper one day on pragmatic responses to the Sorites. And the vague demonstratives point I might turn into a self-standing paper for Analysis or something similar.

Still, it would have been nice to have a paper in Mind. I’m now 0fer something moderately large there – I think 4 or 5. On the other hand it’s been years since any other journal has turned down one of my little offerings. If I didn’t like that journal I wouldn’t keep sending things there.