Email Blog etc

I haven’t really caught up with everything since being up in Syracuse for the weekend. So apologies for being so slow in replying to several emails – hopefully I’ll get back to them today. And the blog might get updated soon as well. The papers blog is up at least. Here are a couple of other links.

In the meantime, here are two more links.

Student Photos

I like my new employers. I was just thinking I should buy a cheap digital camera so I could take photographs of my students to help with my (usually pitiful) attempts to remember everyone’s name. But I’ve been beaten to it – Cornell sends out PDFs with photos of all the students in one’s class. Now I just have to not lose the email with the photos in it.

Vagueness Lectures

Everything is running slowly today because I’m slowly getting back up to speed after the Syracuse Workshop. The papers blog will be posted shortly. In the meantime, Kees van Deetmer has the Powerpoints for five lectures on vagueness that he delivered at ESSLLI this year up on his website.

Disagreement and Naturalness

Wo has a post up criticising my views on conceptual disagreement. I won’t summarise the complaint, because you can head over there for that. Instead a few quick responses.

First, I think this passage contains a mistaken step. (See his post for the explanation of the numbering.)

Note that reason (5) probably collapses into reason (4) if ideal rationality suffices to find out which classes are natural to what degree. At any rate, (5) is covered by (4) together with (3) if ideal rationality and sufficient information about our world in principle suffice to know facts about naturalness. So if (5) is really meant to be an additional explanation, degrees of naturalness must be neither a priori knowable nor a posteriori knowable: they must be altogether unknowable.

I agree with the first two sentences, but not the third. And here’s why. I think that ideal rationality does not guarantee knowledge of facts about naturalness, especially when we’re dealing with moral concepts. But that does not mean those facts are not knowable. It just means that failure to know them is not a failure of rationality. If the concepts are moral concepts, it might be a moral failing.

Let’s go back to the case that motivates a lot of this. A and B disagree about whether in a particular thought-experiment, what C does is right or wrong. I claim that facts about what the moral concepts really are, facts that are partially constituted by facts about naturalness, are relevant to determining who’s right here and who’s wrong. Let’s say A, who thinks what C does is wrong, is herself wrong and B is right. I claim A can be wrong despite knowing all the relevant facts and being perfectly rational if A lacks appropriate moral insight – a failing I don’t think is comfortably described as a failure of rationality. (Though see Michael Smith for a contrasting view.) That doesn’t mean that B can’t know that what C does is right. Moral insight might increase knowledge without, I think, lack of moral insight, or distorted moral ‘sight’ being a failure of rationality.[1]

There’s a parallel here to philosophy of mind. You don’t want to endorse the following cheap argument for mysterianism. Lots of smart people disagree about consciousness. In all probability they will keep disagreeing. Therefore the facts about consciousness are unknowable. The problem, of course, is that even if perfectly rational people disagree, it might still be the case that, due in effect to epistemic luck, the one’s who are right know the true story. That’s the same as what I think is going on in ethics.

Even if my theory needed semantic inscrutability, I don’t think it would be as bad as Wo makes it out to be, for three reasons.

First, the epistemic theory of vagueness needs exactly the kind of semantic inscrutability that my theory allegedly does, and it seems that’s not an objection to the epistemic theory of vagueness. The best objections, I think (and this is going to be a partisan observation) are to the underlying metaphysics behind the epistemic theory, not to its epistemology.

Second, the example involving “cat” Wo gives seems uncomfortably similar to examples like “fish” where we have let facts about naturalness override pre-theoretical intuitions. The benefit of having terms lock onto stable kinds is a communicative benefit, so it can override intuitions. (It is possibly important here that although natural kinds do not impress themselves so vividly on the mind that all rational persons are aware of them, they are scrutable. So maybe this just amounts to the main point.)

Third, the example Wo gives just about has to be underdescribed because of Kripkenstein worries. I think that unless we use naturalness in our theory of menal content, in which case the worries about scrutability for linguistic content that Wo raises will reappear for mental content, then it is just impossible to have intuitions about all possible cases. In which case a predicate, which unless classical semantics is on holiday applies or doesn’t apply in every case, can’t match intuitions about 100% of cases. So I’m not sure how to really understand Wo’s case, and all the ways I have of understanding it involve appeals back to naturalness.

1 I know the metaphysics of morality presupposed here is rather spooky. Perhaps my settled view on this will be something rather different. I can say with some confidence that the time-slice of me Wo is directly responding to believed something like that, though whether more philosophically mature time-slices will agree is yet to be determined. I do think that there’s an interesting metaphysics of morality here, one that shouldn’t be too easily dismissed.

Gender-Neutral Pronouns

I had always thought there was a dialect of English where he could be used as a gender-neutral pronoun. That is, I always thought there was a dialect of English where one could say (1) without presupposing that the person we hire next will be male.

(1) The person we hire next will be able to teach whatever courses he wants.

Now I always (or at least as long as I can remember) thought it was a bad idea to speak such a dialect, because there was the obvious possibility for confusion between the gender-neutral pronoun and the gender-biased pronoun. And since the effects of such confusion could easily be to reinforce stereotypes and assumptions that shouldn’t be reinforced, I thought it was politically bad idea as well as being an inefficient means of communication. But as I said, I thought there was such a dialect.

Geoff Pullum has convinced me otherwise. There is no such dialect of English. If there was, there would be a dialct of English where the following sentences would be acceptable.

  • *Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself.
  • *Was it your father or your mother who broke his leg on a ski trip?

And clearly neither of these is acceptable in any dialect of English. So I now think that using ‘he’ as a purportedly gender-neutral pronoun doesn’t involve speaking a dialect I’d rather wasn’t used, it is just a mistake. As Geoff points out, English has a perfectly adequate gender-neutral pronoun – they – and it should be used instead of he in these contexts.

Luminosity and Decision Theory

Yet another post inspired by conversations with John Hawthorne. I think on this case some of his comments were in turn inspired by conversations with Tim Williamson. (It should be obvious where that comes in.) I also had several discussions at Bellingham about this, most productively with Daniel Nolan and Eleanor Mason. And Fred Feldman’s paper (and Liz Harman’s comments on it) were also helpful. After all that, maybe one or two of the ideas are mine. It’s all in a long dialogue because I don’t want to go on record endorsing any one of these positions. But it should be clear where my sympathies lie. A lot of the discussion turns on cases discussed by Frank Jackson in his 1991 paper, “Decision-Theoretic Consequentialism and the Nearest and Dearest Objection.”

Continue reading “Luminosity and Decision Theory”

Papers Blog – August 18

The papers blog is up for the day.

I get a lot of requests to add new sites to the pages tracked list. One of the most recent was from the journal ElectroNeurobiology. Now there are a couple of issues to note here. First, its contents are more along the lines of what we think of as neurology than philosophy, though obviously there are cross-over issues of interest, especially since they are particularly interested in issues to do with consciousness. Second, a lot of the papers are in Spanish. So I’m not sure how many papers from there will be philosophical enough, and English enough(!), to track on the blog. But it might be of interest to a lot of readers, hence the link.