Peter Lipton

As readers of Leiter will already be aware, Professor Peter Lipton died suddenly on Sunday. 

This is a big loss for philosophy.  Peter was an excellent philosopher, with wide research interests, particularly in the philosophy of science, epistemology and the philosophy of mind, a willingness to think and talk about pretty much anything and a very inclusive attitude to discussing philosophy. His papers are exemplary for their clarity and style.  He was also an inspiring teacher; I remember his undergraduate lectures as among the best I have seen. 

I am just finishing off a paper on explanation for the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society; as Peter was the person who first inspired my interest in this topic, and also (typically) sent me several pages of encouraging and helpful comments on this very paper shortly before he died, I have decided to dedicate the paper to his memory.

An obituary has been posted on the Cambridge HPS website.

Three Links

Weekend updates…

  • Acer Nethercott sent along this story about the standard kilogram, which might or might not have been losing weight.

The international prototype was no longer the same mass as the other cylinders. And, since then, the drift has continued. “Relative to the average of all the sister copies made over the last 100 years you could say it is losing weight, but by definition it can’t,” explained Dr Richard Steiner of the National Institute of Standards and technology (NIST) in the US. “So the others are really gaining mass.”

  • Ole Hjortland reports that Vincent Hendricks is about to start a philosophy TV show for national distribution in Denmark. Well done Vincent – I imagine the show will be a great success!
  • Geoff Pullum writes of our favourite little street in St Andrews.

Academic Jobs Wiki

…is online here. It looks like not all tenure-track jobs have been posted yet, because I only count around 170 tenure-track jobs there, but it’s a very useful resource.

Gillies on Wide-Scopism

I’ve been meaning to write up something on this excellent post by Robbie Williams on this excellent paper by Thony Gillies. But that post was getting long, so instead I thought I’d note one point from Thony’s paper that he doesn’t make as explicit as perhaps it should be. The point is that “wide-scope” interpretations of weak modals in the consequents of conditionals are massively implausible.

This is quite relevant to a debate in ethics about the interpretation of conditionals like “If p, you ought to do q”. One view, sometimes called “the wide-scope view” is that the deontic modal has wide scope, so the structure of that conditional is something like Ought (If p, you do q). There is a long thread on this over at PEA Soup. It seems to me that Gillies has shown that this view is untenable.

Gillies is mostly interested in epistemic modals, but it is pretty trivial to transpose his arguments to the ethical case. Here is one way to do this. Given reasonable background assumptions, e.g. that Alice and Bill are two normal human beings, (1) is false.

(1) If you kill Alice, you may kill Bill.

But (2) will be true despite the intuitive falsity of (1).

(2) You may make it the case that: if you kill Alice, you kill Bill.

That will certainly be true if the inner conditional in (2) is a material conditional. Since you may refrain from killing Alice, you may make the material conditional true. But, and this is the interesting point, it is also true on views that make the conditional much stronger.

For example, imagine that you, as a favour to Alice an Bill, drive them to the airport. You are a careful driver, and you stay out of accidents. But accidents happen on roads. Assuming you are (properly) free of homicidal tendencies, it may be that the only conceivable sate in which you kill Alice is one where you are part of a horrific accident that kills everyone in the car. So in the nearest world in which you kill Alice, you kill Bill. Indeed in all salient worlds in which you kill Alice, you kill Bill. But nothing wrong with this, provided you take all appropriate precautions that such a world is not actualised.

So the wide-scope interpretation of (1) is implausible. And it is implausible on general grounds that the ‘may’ in (1) takes narrow scope with respect to the conditional, but a strong modal like ‘ought’ should take wide scope. So the wide scope view is wrong.

Of course, there were reasons that people were pushed to the wide-scope view. Happily, I think Gillies’s positive view about how to interpret context-sensitive terms in the consequent of conditionals can explain (away) those motivations. But that’s for another post. For now I just wanted to publicise this neat argument against the wide-scope view.

Leiter Thread on Epistemology

I guess most everyone who reads this blog also reads Leiter, but I thought it was worth noting a comments thread over at Leiter’s place on hot topics in epistemology. I’d certainly be interested in knowing what everyone thinks are the central topics in epistemology circa November 2007, so head over there and comment!

Two Conferences

I meant at the time to post up comments on the two conferences I recently attended: the Ryle conference at Ryerson University in Toronto, and the Metaphysics and Physics conference at Rutgers. Both were lots of fun, and I’ll hopefully have my paper from the Ryle conference posted soon.

Anyway, this is a belated thanks to the organisers of the conferences (David Hunter at Ryerson, and Barry Loewer and Heather Demarest at Rutgers) for putting on such good lineups. I think/hope I learned a lot from each.

Naming my Pets

The BBC notes that it is illegal to name a pig “Napoleon” in France. Good job we saved it for the aarkvark then.

(p. 96 of Naming and Necessity)