I’m thinking of writing something about ontological indeterminacy and the continuum hypothesis, and this post is basically a request for any background stuff I should know about.

Here are some of the questions I’m interested in. Assume that we have a world with continuum many atoms. One might wonder whether there are some atoms in that world such that (a) there are uncountably many of them, and (b) there are fewer of them than there are atoms in the world. Here’s a proposed answer to that question: It is metaphysically indeterminate. There is, in some deep sense, no fact of the matter about whether there are, or are not, such atoms.

I don’t much like metaphysical indeterminacy, so I don’t much like that answer. But I’m not sure there’s an obvious and clear counterargument to it. Hopefully when I start seriously thinking/reading about this, I’ll come up with a clear counterargument! Any suggestions for where I should start such reading would be much appreciated.

Here are two related questions.

Could it be contingent whether there are such atoms as described above? That is, might there be two worlds, alike in their distribution of atoms (and for that matter in the properties those atoms have) but unlike in terms of which pluralities of atoms exist?

If we assume unrestricted composition, we can reask the last two questions about objects. So the first question becomes, could it be indeterminate whether there is an object with uncountably many, but fewer than continuum many, atomic parts? And the second becomes, could it be contingent whether there is an object with uncountably many, but fewer than continuum many, atomic parts?

On a slightly different note, there’s another question about vagueness and composition that kicks in at the ‘top’ of the set-theoretic hierarchy.

Lewis believed that the union of some sets, if it existed, was their fusion. He also believed in unrestricted composition. Since it isn’t always true that some sets have a union, he inferred that there are proper classes that are not sets, and which are the fusions of sets that lack a union.

Here’s an alternative position to Lewis’s. Set-theoretic union just is fusion, as applied to sets. If some sets have a union, that’s their fusion. If they don’t have a union, they don’t have a fusion. I think the alternative position has some attraction (it lets us have an unrestricted version of the axiom of pairing, for instance, and it gives us a closer connection between mereology and set theory), but for now I’m just interested in some questions about this position, not about its truth.

So the same two questions arise. Could it be indeterminate whether Lewis’s position, or this alternative position, is correct? And could it be contingent whether Lewis’s position, or this alternative position, is correct? Any readers have advice on where I should look for guidance?

Site News

Last weekend this site was hacked into by spammers and porn purveyors. There wasn’t a lot of front-end damage, but it left a lot of mess behind the scenes, so I’ve been spending a bit of time cleaning up. The main problem was that every page now had a massive amount of hidden text in the footer, linking to more nefarious sites. This upset the Googlebot, so there’s a danger this site will drop off Google for a while while I confirm that the site is clean. So if you’re searching for TAR on Google, it might not always show up. Hopefully I’ll be able to convince Google soon that all is well, and we won’t see an interruption of service. In the meantime, some other news from the site.

  • While cleaning everything up, I seem to have disabled new registration for the site. I’ve fixed that now, so it’s possible to register and comment on posts. Sorry for the inconvenience this caused.
  • I’ve disabled the Twitter feed in the sidebar. That’s partially because we weren’t using it much, and partially because I’m not sure whether it was related to the security failure that led to the hacking.
  • On the other hand, several TAR writers still have their own Twitter feeds. For example, mine is @bweatherson. In the future, any requests for announcements on this blog will be sent to the Twitter feed instead, unless I’m personally involved with the project being announced. (E.g., it’s a conference I’m speaking at.) So for instance there’s now an announcement about the Conditionals and Conditionalisation conference here. I think Twitter is a much more suitable platform for simple links elsewhere than the blog. And I don’t know why people ever want an announcement that’s more than a link – anything worth publicising is worth making a webpage for.
  • I’ve added little avatars to the comments to make them look more amusing. Right now you get a randomly generated monster. If you’d like to replace that with some other picture, you just need to get an account at Gravatar that’s linked to the same email account as your account here. Right now I have a picture of me looking lost in Scotland, but I might replace that soon with something more NewYorkeseque.

Thomson on Harm and Harming

At her paper at the Rocky Mountain ethics conference, Judith Jarvis Thomson discussed various accounts of the metaphysics of harm. Somewhat surprisingly, she accepted the following equivalence.

  • A harms B iff A causes B to suffer a harm.

Even more surprisingly, she defended this by saying it was a general claim about how causal verbs work. But this isn’t at all how causal words work. Compare this claim.

  • A breaks B’s window iff A causes B’s window to be broken.

Here’s a counterexample to that. A is a speaker at a philosophy conference. She makes an outrageous claim about the semantics of causal verb. This so upsets C that he storms out of the room, and in his anger punches the window of B’s car. The window breaks. Now it seems clear that A has caused B’s window to be broken, with of course some help from C, but A didn’t break B’s window.

So I was thinking that the biconditional about harming and causing harms would also be false. And I was thinking that cases of indirect causation, like this one, would be examples of when they were false. But when I wrote up the case, it became less clear.

So question: In the case just described, where C breaks B’s window, does A harm B? It’s clear that A does cause B to suffer a harm. And if pushed I would say that A didn’t harm B – that only C harmed B. But my intuitions are nowhere near as clear as I hoped. What do you think?

Reflections on Refereeing and Journals

There have been a lot of discussions of refereeing over at Brian Leiter’s blog over the last few weeks. I think many of these discussions suffer from a misapprehension of how refereeing works. In particular, many people are equating the time it takes for them to get a verdict on their paper with the amount of time it takes for a referee to write a report. This equation would work iff the following steps took zero time.

  1. Processing a submission (i.e. entering it into the system, getting it ready for editors etc).
  2. Deciding whether the paper was worth refereeing.
  3. Choosing who should referee it.
  4. Contacting that referee, and getting them to either agree to referee it, or decline to referee it, or alternatively waiting/re-emailing them enough to assume they’ve tacitly declined.
  5. Repeating steps 3-4 ad nauseum until one has sufficient referees.
  6. If a referee agrees to referee a paper, repeating steps 3-5 until one has a referee who will, eventually, referee the paper.
  7. Reading the referee report and making a decision on the paper.
  8. Contacting the author to inform them of that decision.

In most cases where I’ve been familiar with long long times from submission to decision, many of those steps have taken a very very long time. I’m hopeful that in the future the use of journal management software can improve steps 1, 4 and 8. But there will still be a lot of ways for things to fail other than for the person who referees the paper taking too long. Indeed, typically the person who writes the review the author gets is part of the solution to the long delays, not the central problem.

So while everyone else is talking about speeding up review times, I think the following three steps would make just as big a difference, if not more of a difference.

  1. When someone asks you to referee a paper, reply more or less immediately.
  2. If you decline, suggest alternative referees who can referee it, and who the editors will likely not have thought of. Junior faculty, or even trustworthy grad students, are excellent suggestions. Suggesting that Tim Williamson referee the paper on luminosity that you’re too busy to referee isn’t so helpful. If the paper is on a relatively specialised topic, this step is more or less essential, else the editors literally run out of people they know and trust who are experts on that topic.
  3. Never, under any circumstances, fail to review a paper that you’ve agreed to review.

Journals which send copies of the paper along with requests to referee the paper make it much easier for potential reviewers to make an informed decision about whether to review, and hence help with point 3. I think this practice (which isn’t I think universal) should be much encouraged.

There’s another issue lurking around here that I think deserves discussion. Some journals have a blind initial review/selection of referees. Many, I believe, do not. Making this stage blind is very time-consuming. It requires that there be a staff member who handles all interactions between the author and the editor, and who can tell the editor whether the suggested referee is the author and/or too close to the author. Since most staff members do not work 24/7/365, and some have even be known to do things like get sick or go on annual vacation, this can introduce large delays into the system.

(It’s an important point here that many journals have precisely one staffer. A move to a system like Philosophy Compass has, where the administrative work is done at a publisher’s office, and there are people to spread the work around when one is on leave, helps remove these delays a lot. I think something important would be lost if the administration of all journals moved ‘off-campus’ like this, but it would smooth out some of the administrative bumps that I’ve noticed on-campus journals are suspectible to.)

If you don’t have blind initial screening by editors, and blind assignment of editors, these steps can be cut out, and staff time can be spent on other activities. (Such as dealing with complaints from subscribers, and fun stuff like that.) So I’m interested in knowing how important people think it is that papers be blinded from editors, and whether this is worth introducing delays (sometimes weeks long delays) into the system?

BSPC on Twitter

I guess the Twitter feed I tried to set up for TAR didn’t really work. But several TAR bloggers have their own feeds, including me. And I’ll be tweeting the BSPC conference all week. You can either follow my account, @bweatherson, or the #BSPC2009 tag. If anyone else at the conference wants to tweet about what’s happening, it might be useful to also use that tag.