Northwest Philosophy Cnference

The program for the Northwest Philosophy Conference is online with many of the papers being accessible. Sadly Michael O’Rourke’s enticingly titled paper Mmm…Pudding! is not one of the linked papers, though maybe that will be fixed in the near future. As of a few hours ago there were still some commentary slots open though I imagine they’ll fill up quickly, so if you’re interested contact the organisers.

Williamson on Intuition

It turns out one of the Williamson papers I linked to the other day contains an argument that I had been (for somewhat independent reasons) running in Tamar’s seminar on Tuesday night. Here’s the position Williamson is arguing against, and that I was also opposing last Tuesday.

Philosophical ‘Intuitions’ and Scepticism about Judgement

The result is the uneasy conception which many contemporary analytic philosophers have of their own methodology. They think that, in philosophy, our ultimate evidence consists only of intuitions. Under pressure, they take that not to mean that our ultimate evidence consists of the mainly non-psychological putative truths that are the contents of those intuitions. Rather, they take it to mean that our ultimate evidence consists of the psychological truths that we have intuitions with those contents, whether true or false. That is, our ultimate evidence in philosophy amounts only to psychological facts about ourselves.

Williamson goes on to run through some of the reasons this line is wrong, and some responses to defences of it.. Again, much the same thing happened in the seminar, with me somewhat inexpertly playing the Williamson role, perhaps without the required conviction to be fully convincing. So I was a little surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, to find the person cited as being most guilty of this kind of approach as being me, particularly me qua author of this paper. It’s not an unfair reading of the paper on Tim’s part, quite the opposite, so this isn’t a complaint about Tim’s citation. In fact being unfavourably cited by the great and the good beats being ignored every day so I’m not complaining a bit. But it seemed like an apt opportunity to explore the issue a bit.
Continue reading “Williamson on Intuition”

Vagueness Experiment

A while ago, back when this site had very few readers, I ran a small experiment concerning forced choice Sorites marches. Now that a few more readers look over the site, I’m running the experiment again to see whether the results I got from a small sample hold up with a slightly larger sample. It’s obviously dubious to use self-selected samples like this, but this time I’m at least checking for duplicate entires, so the results will be a little more plausible. Anyway, if you’d like to take the experiment, here it is:

Vagueness Experiment

UPDATE: 134 entries so far. Keep them coming in! And much thanks to Experimental Philosophy for sending subjects readers across.

New Paper

Here’s a short paper I wrote up on the issues that arose in my (mistaken) post about David Christensen’s paper a few days ago.

Three Objections to Maher on Continuity
Patrick Maher’s argument for probabilism turns on a representation theorem. He provides detailed defences for two of the axioms he uses in that theorem, transitivity and independence, but a third axiom, continuity, receives very little defence. And it seems to have many undesirable consequences, three of which I set out in this note.

As always, it’s a first draft, and since in this case it’s a first draft of something fairly technical, I may well have made some mistakes. But I think the objections work, at least if I’ve understood the technical details correctly.

Why Not Gettier Intuitions?

Lycan makes four complaints about my paper, and I think they’re all basically fair. But I do think I’ve got more that I can say by way of expanding on one point.

Third, I believe intuitions have enough authority that if we want to reject one, we ought to explain it away. I think Weatherson agrees, and of course he is well aware that this happens often in philosophy. Why, then, is there so widespread instant agreement that Gettier victims do not know? As noted above, Hetherington put in some work on this, however plausible or implausible we think his explanations are; but unless I have missed it, Weatherson does not offer anything comparable.

That’s right – in the paper I don’t say anything at all about this. I wasn’t trying to explain why people have Gettier intuitions, and it’s an interesting and relevant issue. As it turns out, I do have an explanation for this. The people who have Gettier intuitions are (on the whole) basically sceptics who have (perhaps) talked themselves out of their most sceptical intuitions but not this one. More carefully, people who have Gettier intuitions are disposed to intuitively apply KNOW in very few cases where possibilities of error are salient. Some of them may have convinced themselves that we KNOW we are not brains in vats, or that a mule is not a very cleverly disguised football official, but the underlying sceptical intuitions are still doing too much work.

I have two pieces of evidence for this. The first is the quite striking correlation across groups between the answers to the Gettier questions and the answer to the (not) painted zebra question in the Weinberg, Nichols and Stich experiments. The second is that all the kind of arguments/considerations that usually promote KNOWLEDGE-scepticism are triggered in Gettier cases. The possibility of falsehood is salient, and the belief is not Nozick-sensitive. The third is that to generate Gettier intuitions, it really helps to use verbs like KNOW rather than verbs like know. So consider the following situation.

The Beatles tour plans have recently been changed. They will be starting the tour in New Zealand rather than Australia. John and Paul decided this, so they know it is happening. Ringo has a Gettiered justified true belief that they are starting in New Zealand. And X knows, though she knows Y does not, that John just told George about the plans. X also knows all of the above. Now consider this dialogue.

Y: Do all the Beatles know they’re starting in New Zealand?
X: Yep. John just told George.

I think X’s utterance here is perfectly acceptable. As far as I can tell it is true. Maybe if Y had asked a different question, such as

Y: Do all the Beatles know they’re starting in New Zealand?

X’s answer would be wrong. (I can sort of see why it would be inappropriate, I don’t think this is because it isn’t true however.) So I think Gettier intuitions, like many sceptical intuitions, are the result of the odd effects of focal stress. My guess is that they are the effects of mistaking the changes stress causes to speaker meanings for changes to truth-conditional content. But maybe they are correct that know and KNOW are semantically different. (That is, maybe sceptics were right about KNOW but wrong about the verb we usually use in knowledge ascriptions. I’d like to think that isn’t true, but I don’t have a ton of actual arguments against it.) In any case, the same kinds of considerations that drive KNOWLEDGE-scepticism seem to drive Gettier intuitions when the core verb is KNOW.

What Good is Philosophy Education?

I was pleased to see this paragraph from Matthew Yglesias.

As a journalist, I keenly feel the pain of the generalist. I find myself in Mead’s shoes all the time — needing to somehow touch on a range of material that I am perfectly aware I don’t understand nearly as well as those people who’ve spent years focusing in on it narrowly. I like to think that having studied philosophy as an undergraduate is a reasonably good preparation for such a task. Obviously, I never wind up writing an article about meta-ethics or the way structurally similar issues about reductionism pop up in diverse areas (insofar as I know a lot about anything, it’s these things), but what philosophy fundamentally teaches you about (especially as an undergraduate when you don’t really have the time to master any particular sub-area) is how to spot an unsound argument, irrespective of the topic of discussion. That’s a useful and generally applicable thing. And I think we’ll see it pop up again and again in this discussion.

I like to think that some of the specific things I teach in undergraduate classes have relevance to what my students go on to do, but ultimately I’d be happy if most of the students picked up just the kind of skills Matt is talking about. One of the side effects of philosophy being so abstract and disconnected from everyday considerations is that to do well at it, you have to be good at reasoning about unfamiliar topics. And in the modern economy that’s a very valuable skill.


Another quick note on Lycan, this one more in agreement.

Indeed, that difficulty was predictable, because (a) it was almost irresistible to start the further analysis with a subjunctive of some kind, and (b) any time any analysis of anything contains a subjunctive, irrelevant counterexamples will ensue. (b) is worth a paper of its own.

I always thought the best simple description of the “Conditional Fallacy” in Shope’s paper of the same name was the fallacy of thinking that the analysis you’re after contains (subjunctive) conditionals. Shope said something more subtle, but that was the easiest takeaway line. I’m glad to see someone else agrees!