Robbie Williams on Conditionals

Robbie Williams writes

Tonight (24th) I’m giving a talk to a phil language group at Rutgers. I’m going to be presenting some material on modal accounts of indicative conditionals (a la Stalnaker, Weatherson, Nolan). This piece has evolved quite a bit during the last few weeks as I’ve been working on it. A bit unexpectedly, I’ve ended up with an argument for Weatherson’s views.

I don’t know why this should be surprising. I’m never surprised when I argue for Weatherson’s views.

Two more serious points.

If I’ve understood Robbie right, he isn’t really arguing for my views. What he’s arguing for are the points that I took wholesale from Stalnaker, i.e. Stalnaker’s views. What’s distinctively mine (if anything) are some quirky claims about the details of how indexicals in consequents behave, and some even quirkier claims about how to understand the tacit epistemic modals in (most) indicative conditionals. But I don’t think you need either of those quirks to get what Robbie wants. You just need the basic Stalnakerian foundations, and that’s all to Stalnaker’s credit, not mine.

The other point is that I think Robbie has not only ended up with Stalnaker’s views, he’s really ended up with Stalnaker’s methodology as well. This was all made fairly clear in Stalnaker’s paper at the (very successful) Ryle at Ryerson conference this weekend.

We’d like, for all sorts of reasons, to say that indicative conditionals have truth conditions. We’d also like to explain the two features that make it seem unlikely that they have truth conditions. Those are (a) that a lot of instances of CCCP look to be correct, and (b) assertions of conditionals have many of the same pragmatic features as conditional assertions would have (were there any such things in everyday life). And the real virtue of Stalnaker’s position is that he carves out a position with just these things. The construal of indicative conditionals as epistemic modals, plus a couple of independently motivated assumptions about pragmatics, gets us just the right results. Stalnaker’s paper at the weekend was about a (somewhat charitable) reading of Ryle as stressing the desirability of a theory that threaded the needle between truth-conditional and non-truth-conditional theories of conditionals in just this way, and on this point Ryle (as read by Stalnaker) seems very insightful.

So if I’ve understood Robbie right, he’s joined the party. Excellent news; the forces of truth and light have another excellent soldier on their side! But I fear he might be in the same boat as I was for a long time, certainly including the time I wrote Indicatives and Subjunctives. That is, he’s underestimating a little how much of this stuff Stalnaker already had right back in the early papers, and how much of the job here and now consists of carefully explaining the Stalnakerian position, not amending it.

(I don’t think this is the paper he’s talking about in the post, but this paper features some of what Robbie is saying about conditionals for those who want a little more detail.)

A Few Links

While we wait for Game Two to start…

  • If you want to be part of the greatest ever research project (on contextualism at least), there are two postdoctoral fellowships currently being advertised at Arché.

Baseball and Philosophy

Andy Egan pointed out the following quote from Josh Beckett after his ALCS MVP win.

Don Sutton used to tell me, ‘Every time you go out there, you’re going to be a different guy. So throughout the course of the year you can be between 30 and 35 people.’

Not only does Heraclitus live, it seems he has a wicked fastball.

Ryle at Ryerson

This weekend I’m going to be at the Ryle at Ryerson conference. It looks like it should be a lot of fun, so any readers who are anywhere near Toronto are encouraged to come along.

When I finish applying sufficient polish to the paper I’m presenting (hopefully later today!) I’ll post it. It will be related to my paper on epistemic deontology, but with more emphasis on the moral psychology, and much more emphasis on Ryle.

A Conference at Rutgers

On October 26, 27 and 28 there will be a conference at Rutgers (New Brunswick) on metaphysics and physics. The focii of the conference are questions concerning how physics and metaphysics have, do, and ought to inform each other. The speakers are Alan Code, Dean Zimmerman, Cian Dorr, Tim Maudlin, Yuri Balashov and David Albert. If you’re interested in attending, contact the conference organiser Heather Demerast (heatheremerast aht googlemail dawt com).

I’ll be commenting on Dean’s paper. It looks like it should be a fun conference, although some of us may be attending with one eye on the baseball/the nearest iPhone.

The Evil Demon Argument

I’m reading Janet Broughton’s Descartes’ Method of Doubt, and I was struck by how different Descartes seemed to me than he seems to mainstream Descartes interpreters. I’m assuming here that what Broughton takes for granted is generally accepted throughout contemporary Descartes scholarship, which seems like a decent principle.

The big difference is how much weight to give to the discussion of past failures at the start of Meditation One. Here is the Cottingham translation of the relevant passage.

Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have accepted either from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.

I think Descartes is making, or at least proposing, the following argument.

  1. We cannot gain knowledge from any method that has deceived us once in the past.
  2. All our methods for forming beliefs have deceived us (at least) once in the past.
  1. So we have no knowledge.

I don’t think this argument is entirely contained in that paragraph. Perhaps some of the discussion of dreams is supposed to back up premise 1. But I do think the argument is entirely finished by the time the evil demon comes into the picture. As of course it must be, since we haven’t (as far as we know) been deceived by evil demons in the past, and this argument turns on errors we know we’ve made.

I have three opinions about the role of this argument in the Meditations, which I’ll state in increasing order of absurdity (or at least heterodoxy).

  1. The argument here is independent of the evil demon argument, so the evil demon argument is not the only sceptical argument Descartes makes.
  2. This argument, the argument from past failure, is the sceptical argument with which Descartes is primarily concerned.
  1. Descartes does not make what is commonly construed as The Evil Demon Argument. The evil demon enters the story not so Descartes can state a sceptical argument, but so we (and he) can appreciate the consequences of the sceptical argument that he has already made, namely the argument from prior error.

Perhaps the first of these points is widely held; I should finish the Broughton (and perhaps read other things) before commenting more. But I’m pretty sure 2 and 3 are not commonplace views. Still, I think they can make sense of several puzzling features of the text.

One of these puzzles, which Broughton mentions, is that Descartes never clearly expresses what is wrong with the Evil Demon argument. This would be odd if it was his key argument. But note that he does say what is wrong with the argument from past failure. Indeed, a centrepiece of the book is the argument that premise 2 of that argument fails, because the method Believe what you clearly and distinctly perceive has never led to failure.

I’ll say more about this when I finish Broughton’s book, but I thought I’d start by posting my quirky views, leaving the real arguments for them for later.

In Your Right Mind?

Just for fun: take a look at this moving image.  Don’t read the accompanying text straight away - first decide whether you think the figure is spinning clockwise or anti-clockwise.  (Apparently this will tell you something interesting about your brain use, though I think the illusion is interesting enough regardless of the reliability of this claim.)  At first I could only see it spinning clockwise; now I can only see it spinning anti-clockwise.  Apparently some people can change what they see at will, but not me.

HT: Talkin’ ‘Bout Stuff

Update: I have now been able to change at will a couple of times, by focussing on one of the hands and thinking about when it would have to be in front and when behind if the figure were spinning in the opposite direction!

Geelong and Princeton

I have been rather absurdly lucky with sporting results” recently. But despite all this good fortune, I was still hoping for one more good result. That was the first ever sporting team I seriously followed, the Geelong football club, to win a Premiership. And, as many of you will know by now, on Saturday they did. I got to see most of the game, over a rather dodgy internet connection, but it was pretty good to see the game even in lo-res.

I never really expected Geelong would win after all their disasters of the recent past. What I absolutely wouldn’t have expected was to see them win, host a small party in the US for some local Australians watching the game, and have the story of the party written up back in the Geelong paper. That didn’t happen to me, but it did happen to Mark Johnston. It turns out that several of the best and brightest philosophers are Geelong fans. (As they should be, being so attached to the true and the good.) Anyway, well done Mark on what seems to have been as successful a footy-watching party as can be imagined!

Thanks to Michael Smith for the link.

PS: I’m aware that I have too many pro-attitudes towards sporting teams. I’m trying to cut back. So we won’t have obsessive posts here about the Rugby World Cup, for instance. About the baseball playoffs, we make no promises…