I’ll be off in Chicago for the APA Central most of this week, so posting will be light-to-non-existent. I’ll try and get the papers blog updated before I go, but no promises.

One thing that will be going on it when it gets done is the new book by Robert May and Robert Fiengo, De Lingua Beliefs.

The topic of this book is beliefs speakers have about the language they know and use, beliefs that we refer to, as a class, as de lingua beliefs. Of the various de lingua beliefs a speaker may have, we explore those speakers have about the reference and coreference of linguistic expressions. Our interest is drawn to these beliefs because they reflect, in our view, fundamental aspects of our underlying linguistic competence, and how we employ that competence in aid of our communicative ends. Thematically, our inquires are broken into two parts: (i) the nature and genesis of linguistic beliefs, and (ii) the explanatory roles such beliefs play in language use. Exploring (i) takes us to issues of a fundamentally grammatical order, to aspects of linguistic theory wherein we seek descriptions of the resources available to speakers for generating linguistic beliefs. Consideration of (ii) builds on this foundation to the insight that the content of beliefs about the reference of expressions can be taken to be part of what we say by our utterances, a formal part of propositional content. This has direct consequences, explored in detail, for our understanding of the informativeness of identity statements and the failure of substitutions in attributions of propositional attitudes.

Smart Words

I was reading over Jack Smart’s “Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism” for 101 tomorrow, and I came across the following wonderful line in the middle of a rousing condemnation of rule utilitarianism.

You might as well say that a person ought to be picked to play for Australia just because all his brothers have been, or that then Australian team should be composed entirely of the Harvey family because this would be better than composing it entirely of any other family.

If only I could write so well. Sadly I fear my students over here won’t get all the references.

By the way, wasn’t Trevor Chappell picked for Australia on just this principle? Maybe some selectors read Smart and missed the intended rhetorical force.

Science and Common Sense

For various reasons I was playing around with ways of summarising what is distinctive about Lewis’s contributions to philosophy, and I thought the following idea sounded interesting. I’m not sure whether it also sounds true, but I thought I’d put it forward for consideration.

One of the signature tasks of philosophy is to figure out the relationship between science and common sense. By ‘common sense’ here we don’t mean platitudes that people utter, as much as the tacit knowledge that lets us navigate the world successfully without sufficient explicit knowledge to pass any given tenth grade science course. Making that tacit knowledge explicit is one of philosophy’s tasks, and one at which Lewis excelled, but perhaps less crucial than relating it to the scientific image. Four options stand out here.

First, we could say that science has shown that common sense is badly wrong, and in need of radical overhaul. This way lies eliminitivism.

Second, we could say that common sense shows that science is either wrong or, at the very least, incomplete. Various forms of dualism and idealism lie this way.

Those two options say there is a tension between science and common sense. The next two options are for reconcilation.

So third, we could say that proper appreciation of science as we find it reveals a place for our common sense concepts. Various forms of naturalism, at least as that term is understood in America, go this way.

Lewis promoted, and to a large extent pioneered, a fourth way. By investigating the structure of common sense closely, we find that it is fit to be reconciled with science, almost any way that science turns out will turn out to be compatible with common sense.

This kind of approach, if it works, allows you to keep two of Lewis’s distinctive attitudes, attitudes he often displayed side by side. First, it’s not an open scientific question whether there are, say, psychological states such as beliefs and desires. Second, philosophy can’t overturn what science shows us. If we go with option three (not to mention option one), there is a danger that science will overturn tacit folk knowledge. That would be bad. If we go with option two, we’ll be using philosophy to overturn science. That would be worse. So option four it is.

The trick then is to make common sense fit for science, roughly however that science turns out to go. Lewis’s strategy here has three parts.

First, show that the ontological and ideological commitments of common sense (or at least the bits of common sense we are committed to keeping) are thin enough that science is guaranteed to meet them.

Second, provide a broadly functional analysis of common sense concepts, passing the question of what realises those functional roles to science. The functional roles are specified in a Wittgensteinian ‘near-enough-is-good-enough’ way, so as to maximise the chance that science will find realisers. (I don’t distinguish here between theories that provide functional definitions of folk terms, theories that provide rigidified functional definitions, and theories that take functional roles to be reference fixers, though that’s something we’d like to know when we do the details.)

Third, provide a broadly subjectivist account of those folk concepts that don’t look like science will find distinctive realisers for them. Lewis’s subjectivism about ethics and contextualism about epistemology fit into this part of the project.

At every stage the devil is in the details, but we can see a way to carry out option four in this outline. A large percentage of Lewis’s work can be seen as carrying out this three-step plan.

If this is the right picture in outline, then these paragraphs would be an introduction to a work saying how Lewis carried this off. That work would probably be book length, so I won’t try it here. But I wonder what people think of the broad story?

Four Colours?

Richard Zach reports that Georges Gonthier has a paper verifying the four colour map theorem. I found this odd, since I thought that Hud Hudson had shown that the theorem is not actually true, at least not as typically stated. Hudson’s proof is here though that link may not be accessible to everyone.

65536 (or so) Definitions of Physicalism

I was just reading the Powerpoints for David Chalmers’ 65536 Definitions of Physicalism (warning – powerpoint) and I was struck by a couple of things. First, I wasn’t entirely sure we got 16 options for the type E at the end of the definition, but that’s just a quibble. What I really wanted to write about was this slide.

Test for when an issue involving C is just terminological:

  1. Give away the term C, in favor of C1, C2, etc.
  1. Is the issue still statable, without using C? Is there a substantive disagreement about the truth of some sentence in the new vocabulary?

This test seems to overgenerate. Let’s just pick one example. Manny says that executing an innocent to stop a riot is not morally good. Jack says it is (in the right circumstances) morally good. Is this dispute solely about terminological term ‘C’, i.e. goodness? Let’s apply Chalmers’s test.

It seems Manny uses ‘good’ to mean ‘in accord with the maxims we could will to be universal’, and Jack uses ‘good’ to mean ‘maximises preference satisfaction’. These are C1 and C2. Now it seems there is no dispute. Manny and Jack agree that the action (executing the innocent) is not in accord with the maxims we could will to be universal. And they agree that it does maximise preference satisfaction. So they just had a terminological dispute.

But disputes between Kantians and utilitarians are not terminological, they are among the most important disputes in philosophy. Sometimes we can’t rephrase a philosophical dispute because it really is just terminological. And sometimes we can’t rephrase it because we’ve hit philosophical bedrock, and our terms latch onto the most important philosophical concepts there are. In these cases, any reformulation would fail not because the original issue was terminological, but because the reformulation would just miss the point.

How Causal is Causal Decision Theory?

Suzy has a favourite bottle. She values it at $100.

Billy has thrown a rock at Suzy’s favourite bottle. It will soon hit and shatter the bottle.

Suzy cannot intercept Billy’s rock or save the bottle, but she can throw her own rock at the bottle so that it hits at the same time as Billy’s, and jointly causes the shattering.

The bottle fairy gives Suzy $1 for every bottle she shatters with a rock, including those she co-shatters.

What should Suzy do?

Standard versions of “causal decision theory” say that Suzy should throw the rock. She will lose the bottle either way, and this way she gets $1 from the bottle fairy.

A more purely causal theory, one that says you should do what has the best causal consequences, would say that she shouldn’t throw. Throwing causes a net $99 loss for Suzy – destroying her $100 bottle and getting back $1 from the bottle fairy. Not throwing has no salient causal consequences. Since nothing beats a $99 loss, she shouldn’t throw.

What are usually called causal decision theories are really counterfactual decision theories. Suzy should throw because she would be better off if she threw than if she didn’t throw. That her throwing would cause a net loss, and holding her arm would not, is irrelevant. I side with the counterfactual theories here over the purely causal theories, but the main point I want to make is that what is standardly called causal decision theory does not just say “Do whatever has the best causal consequences.”

In Daniel Nolan’s book on David Lewis he wonders why Lewis doesn’t link his ethical theory more closely to his causal decision theory. I think it is cases like this that show why we might want decision theory and ethics to come apart. What I’ve been calling a purely causal decision theory is more appropriate for ethical decision making. (Or at least it seems to be according to Lewis.) We can see this by changing my example a little.

Change the example so the bottle is Sally’s, not Suzy’s. She values it at $100. Suzy assigns no value to the bottle, but does value the $1 she will get from the bottle fairy for breaking it. It would be wrong in standard cases (i.e. when the bottle is safe) for Suzy to break Sally’s $100 bottle for the $1 from the bottle fairy. Lewis’s view, I think, is that the same is true even when Billy’s rock is bound to break the bottle anyway. The world would not be worse off if Suzy threw her rock and co-broke the bottle. But it would be vicious of Suzy to do this – even if X is going to occur anyway it is wrong to cause X if X is a bad outcome.

Here is a less charitable way of putting Lewis’s position. The sunk costs fallacy is a fallacy for prudential decision making, but it is not always a fallacy for ethical decision making.

Coincidentally, as I was writing this the iPod played Bob Dylan singing “Unless you have made no mistakes in your life, be careful of the stones that you throw.”

Pain Brian

Peter Sutton mentioned the following kind of case the other day, which I think is worthy of some consideration.

Zombie Brian is someone just like me who has no inner life. Some debate has ensued about whether Zombie Brian is a real possibility or not, much of that debate starting with the assumption that Zombie Brian can be clearly and distinctly conceived.

Pain Brian is someone just like me whose inner life consists of perpetual excruciating pain, on top of my normal feelings. If property dualism is correct, Pain Brian is a real, if immensely tragic, possibility.

But I don’t conceive of Pain Brian as easily as I conceive of Zombie Brian. I’m really not sure what it would be to be constantly in pain and acting just the way I act. I strongly suspect Pain Brian is a metaphysical impossibility.

Some I’m sure will have the intuition that Pain Brian is possible. Others will argue (not without reason) that even though Pain Brian is a real possibility, there are reasons to do with his ‘distance’ from real possibility that we could not conceive him. I just wanted to note that it is interesting that arguments from intuition like this don’t always point in the direction of dualism – sometimes they can point just as well towards physicalism.

BSD Grad Conference

What looks to me like the biggest annual philosophy grad conference, the Berkeley-Stanford-Davis conference, is on this Saturday and the schedule of papers includes links to the nearly 30 papers being presented.