JFP Analysis 2004-5

By now the APA interviews are in the books, so analysis of Jobs for Philosophers is a little out-of-date. But hopefully this is still of some historical interest going forward.

Analysis of jobs advertised in Jobs for Philosophers October and November 2004

The most striking thing to me was the paucity of jobs in logic. I don’t know if that’s compensated for by people using open area searches to hire logic people, or if departments are thinking that logic is not a pressing need, or it is simply random variation. Apart from that the numbers are pretty much as you might have expected.

On more sombre notes, if you want to donate money to earthquake/tsunami victims, there are a number of good links here.

Philosophy in Questionable Taste

Cornell students obviously have too much time on their hands. (And very soon I’ll be able to do something about that…)

Back when I was a wee grad student, one of the jokes circulating the internet, and eventually stuck to the wall of the grad ‘office’ concerned the putative causes of death of various philosophers. (My favourite was Thales: Drowned.) The list seems to have grown under Hugh Mellor’s supervision, and the current version is here.

In a similar spirit, Cornell students have started work on break-up lines of the philosophers. They’ve mostly associated lines with schools at this stage, but I think expanding to individual philosophers would be a splendid idea.

Here’s the list (mostly below the fold) Paul Kelleher sent me, along with attributions. (My favourite, by the way, is the quasi-realist. I might yet use that one day.) Feel free to stick the list to the wall of your office, or to add more in comments. Unlike earlier threads, self-attributions are more than encouraged!

The Teleologist: We aren’t meant for each other. (P.K.)
The Deontologist: We aren’t right for each other. (P.K.)
The Consequentialist: We aren’t optimal for each other. (P.K.)
The Solipsist: It’s not you, it’s me. (P.K.)
The Empiricist: I think we should see other people. (P.K.)
The Rationalist: I’m not a priority to you any more. (P.K.)
Continue reading “Philosophy in Questionable Taste”

Lewis and Strauss

With the release of the wonderful AJP volume in honour of David Lewis, it is worth pausing to consider the future of Lewisian philosophy. Others who know enough about history that they aren’t doomed to repeat it might be able to say something serious here about how Lewis’s immediate legacy will compare to other greats. For better or worse, that’s not what I can do with any plausibility. But implausibility has never stopped me before.

So let’s start with a simple induction. Many intellectual giants suffer the indignity of having doctrines named after them that they never endorsed. This leads latter day scholars to come along asking “Was X an X-ian”. This question has been asked about Hume, Marx and Keynes, amongst others I’m sure. By induction, the same thing will happen to Lewis eventually. It’s just a matter of when. So here’s the first question.

How long until the first “Was Lewis a Lewisian” paper?

I’m putting the over/under line at 2015, and taking the under. (If only because I can write the paper in 2014 if no one else does.)

You might be tempted to think that no such paper could be written, because Lewis’s writing is so clear that no one could attribute meanings to him that he didn’t actually endorse. The argument form here is historically dubious. Russell too was a clear writer, but compare Russell’s theory of “Russell” with the Russellian theory of “Russell”. Yet I come not to question the validity of this argument, but rather its soundness.

Lewis appeared to write clear, transparent philosophical prose. But it is clear to those with eyes to see it, that many layers of meaning lay hidden beneath those welcoming texts.

For instance, the folk take Lewis’s masterpiece On the Plurality of Worlds to be an argument for the plurality of worlds. And this clearly is the exoteric meaning of Lewis’s text. But could a thinker of Lewis’s quality really have believed in this metaphysical monstrosity? It is hard to credit. The real meaning must lay deeper.

For a long time I thought that the book was obviously an argument for the existence of God. Lewis conspicuously fails to discuss theological ersatzism – the view that ersatz possible worlds are really constituents of the mind of God. Given the devastating attacks Lewis launches on rival theories, and the utter implausibility of Lewis’s preferred alternative, I thought the esoteric message was clear. Philosophy needs a theory of modality. Theological ersatzism is the only viable theory of modality, the others being disposed of in Lewis’s book. Theological ersatzism needs God. Hence God exists. A fittingly impressive argument for a great thinker’s masterpiece.

But, and let this be a lesson in how intricate Lewis’s texts can be, I too had been deceived. The clue I missed was from the paper Putnam’s Paradox. Lewis ever so clearly lays out Putnam’s ‘paradoxical’ argument for anti-realism. And then, in his customary fashion, provides a solution so outlandish that the trained scholar is clearly meant to reject it. He even acknowledges that the solution bears the trademarks of medieval scholastic corruption of Greek thought.

This paper poses a puzzle though. Why, if Lewis thought Putnam’s argument was sound, is he so hostile to Putnam in the paper? Returning to Plurality makes everything clear. As the title of Part 2, “Paradox in Paradise…” indicates, Lewis thinks the paradox spreads throughout paradise, and infects all talk related to modality. And as he says in Part 1, ever so slyly using the literal voice, this covers all manner of things philosophers care to think about. Putnam’s error, Lewis is saying, was to not see how far his anti-realist argument spreads. Plurality, when read in light of Putnam’s Paradox argues for anti-realism about modality, and hence for all of metaphysics.

This clearly rebounds on the theological argument above. For if God exists, then theological ersatzism is true, and hence a (reductive) realism about modality is correct. But we should be anti-realists about modality, so we must be anti-realists about theology.

That line of reasoning seemed compelling, but it was delicate enough that I would have expected Lewis to offer some kind of confirmation that it was correct. And he does in Evil for Freedom’s Sake. There he argues that the various realist positions on God, classical theism and atheism, are reduced to an indecorous squabble over burdens of proof. The clear message is that the Putnamian anti-realism he defended in Putnam’s Paradox and expanded upon in Plurality should be extended to theology.

As I have been deceived before about the meanings of Lewis’s texts, I fear there may yet be much more meaning meandering beneath the meniscus. Anyone who can come up with a better explanation is more than encouraged, nay is entreated, to do so.

This post owes a lot to Brad DeLong’s work on Strauss, which taught me everything I know about textual interpretation. Thanks also to Michael Glanzburg for some helpful suggestions.

Cloning and the Non-Identity Problem

I’ve received lots of useful feedback on my earlier cloning post, and on at least one point, the risks involved in cloning, it’s clear I need to revise and expand my remarks. But first another little defence of cloning that popped into my mind.

Many people worry about the possible psychological consequences of cloning. Of course we can’t know what these will be until we try, but it’s certainly worth trying to figure out what these will be before going ahead with cloning. In one respect in one (fairly significant) situation, I think the psychological effects will be quite positive.

Consider a couple who cannot have children because the man is infertile. Their only way of having a child is to use a sperm bank. I think this is morally acceptable, but in most cases it has one cost: the child will not know who her genetic father is. So she does not know her full lineage. Now while that’s not the worst harm ever, I think it is something that could be bad, and for some people it might cause a notable amount of psychological pain.

(This is definitely not meant to be a universal truth. Many adopted children have no interest in finding out who their biological parents are. But we know that many do, so many people value knowing their genetic lineage.)

If the child is cloned from her mother, she will be in a position to know her full lineage (at least for the first generation or two). I think a cloned child may prefer that state of affairs to being the (biological) child of a stranger. Some children may be indifferent between the two, but I’m not sure that many children would prefer being the biological child of a stranger to being the clone of their mother.

(As an aside, here’s another possible benefit of cloning – one that I don’t think is really beneficial but which may appeal to some. In the case I described, it would be possible for the child to be a clone of the father. In that case there will be a sense (and only a sense) in which the child is the product of both parents, since it will grow to human size in the mother’s womb, as well as being the father’s clone. If the fact that reproduction involves both parents is meant to be important, this is a way of sorta kinda allowing for that. I don’t particularly approve of the division of reproductive labour here, so I wouldn’t think this approach is particularly worthwhile, but I can see how some might. If you think Aristotle should have been right, and the form should be contributed by the father and the matter by the mother, you should love this approach. I don’t, so my defence of cloning rests on separate grounds.)

Back to the main point. Here’s an argument I considered about the risks involved in cloning.

1. In all probability, the cloned child will be better off existing than not existing, even if it suffers various physical ailments as a result of being a clone.
2. If it is better off existing than not existing, then the harms it suffers are no reason to not produce it.
C. The harms that likely go along with being a clone do not provide a reason against producing a clone.

This would be a fairly powerful argument if it worked, because it would mean that even if we were fairly confident that a cloned human would be defective in various ways, as long as it was not so badly off that it was better off not existing, it would be acceptable to produce it.

One worry about the argument is that one of the concepts involved, being better off existing than not existing, might be nonsensical. It certainly pushes our understanding of ‘better off’ about as far as it can reasonably be pushed. I don’t have any argument here, and I recognise that on some theories of value this might not make a lot of sense, but I think we can understand this concept. (I’m possibly going to be convinced that this appearance of understanding is chimerical. Perhaps that’s for cloning post 3.)

The bigger problem with the argument is that premise 2 is pretty clearly false. Here’s two cases showing that it is false.

The Bridesmaid Dress (due to Dan Brock)
A woman knows that if she conceives this month, the child she conceives will suffer some severe ailments, but not so severe that it would be better off not existing. But if she puts off conceiving, she will not fit into her bridesmaid dress at a wedding scheduled for nine and a half months time. So she goes ahead and conceives.

The Barometer (due to Gerald Dworkin)
A couple knows that if they conceive while the barometric pressure is below a certain threshold, the child they conceive will likely suffer a similar severe ailment to in the previous case. But they don’t bother to check the pressure before conceiving, and the pressure is too low and the child does suffer the ailment.

In each case the child so conceived is better off existing than not existing, but the harms it suffers are sufficient reason to not bring it into existence. (Some might think the child cannot be harmed by something that makes it, all things considered, better off – namely being conceived. I’ve been convinced by Liz Harman’s arguments that this is the wrong way to think about harm. Unfortunately Liz’s arguments on this point are not available online. When they are I’ll try to link to them because I think they’re helpful in understanding cases like Brock’s and Dworkin’s, which I think are very relevant to the cloning debate.)

So do these cases show that cloning should be banned? No, because there are a lot of distinctions to draw, and the overall effect of the distinctions is to weaken the argument against cloning. But the matters here are very delicate.

The first distinction is between the immoral and the illegal. I agree with the usual judgements that in Brock’s and Dworkin’s cases the agents act immorally. I’m not so sure they act illegally. Would it be proper to have criminal sanctions against the agents in these cases? My tentative opinion is no. Whatever the morality of reproduction, I’m tentatively an absolutist about a legal right to reproduction.

The second distinction is between conceiving and helping others to conceive. This is relevant to the cloning debate, because part of what we care about is the role of the medical practitioners in these cases. If a doctor helped the woman in Brock’s case to conceive, when she could have refrained from helping until the danger of the child suffering the ailment had passed, she acts immorally. (Doesn’t she? I could be wrong here, but it seems she does.) And it might be appropriate to have legal, or at least professional, sanctions in such a case. So while the moral/legal distinction weakens the case for a ban, it does not have as much bite when applied not to parents but to their ‘assistants’, especially if those assistants have professional obligations not to harm others.

The third distinction, and the crucial one, is between cases like Brock’s and Dworkin’s and cases where any child those agents have has a risk of such an ailment. I think this makes quite a difference to the case. In this case, where any child a woman or a couple ever have has a serious risk of major suffering, consider the following four questions.

  • Is it immoral to conceive in such a situation?
  • Should it be illegal to conceive in such a situation?
  • Is it immoral to assist in conception in such a situation?
  • Should it be illegal to assist in conception in such a situation?

My answers are: Tentatively no, Definitely no, Tentatively no, Slightly stronger no. (I know a blogger should have firmer opinions, but I think these are hard questions.)

Now I think when we are thinking about legalising cloning, on the proviso that its use is restricted to those couples who otherwise could not have children, the last question is the salient one. And I since I think there should be no law against such assistance, I think there should be no law against cloning. (At least for this reason.) But note I’ve effectively conceded that there should at least be restrictions on cloning, until we lose our grounds for believing that it is a very risky process for the child involved.

At this point a concern several people raised becomes pressing. What counts as “otherwise could not have children”? There are (at least) four possibilities.

  1. Could not conceive by traditional means.
  2. Could not conceive by traditional or modern (e.g. IVF) means without using sperm or eggs from third parties.
  3. Could not conceive by traditional or modern (e.g. IVF) means even with using sperm or eggs from third parties.
  4. Could not conceive by any means or adopt a child.

They haven’t put it this way, but several people have in effect suggested that adoption is an alternative to cloning. That becomes important here, because I think it’s important to the evaluation of the Brock/Dworkin style examples that there be no alternative to having a child in the risky way. And it isn’t just a matter of of a technical disagreement, because if we agree that cloning be restricted to those who could not otherwise have children, and that means 4, then we are in effect ruling out cloning, because for the forseeable future there will be a steady supply of adoptable children.

At risk of sounding like a wimp, I’m going to stop here for now rather than argue about which of these 4 is the contextually appropriate way to understand ‘could not otherwise have children’. I think the right answer is 2 or 3 (probably 2) but if there’s a good argument for 4, that would be a better argument against cloning than I’d previously considered. Maybe I’ll say more about this in later posts.

Scylla, Charybdis and Contextualism

I was rereading “Elusive Knowledge” today when I noticed Lewis is one of the many people who take the Scylla and Charybdis story to be a metaphor for any situation where it takes skill to plot a middle ground between two dangerous edges.

We are caught between the rock of fallibilism and the whirlpool of scepticism. Both are mad! … Better fallibilism than scepticism, but it would be better still to dodge the choice. I think we can. We will be alarmingly close to the rock, and also alarmingly close to the whirlpool, but if we steer with care we can – just barely – escape them both.

This is, I think, exactly how the story is most commonly used nowadays. But of course it isn’t the story Homer has Odysseus tell. In that story it’s just taken as a given that you can’t escape them both. Any path that takes you out of Scylla’s reach leaves you vulnerable to the whirlpool. The only thing to do is to cut your losses, sail past Scylla’s shore, trim the sails for high speed and don’t put up too much of a fight, and you’ll get by only losing 6 or 12 men.

That’s more or less exactly what wise Odysseus does. The only difference is that brave Odysseus does put up a fight. It’s not clear this is rational, and it isn’t entirely clear, at least to me, why he does so, since Circe told him not to do so, and in all other respects Circe’s advice proved sound. (The other option, which Odysseus took on the way back, is to stay out of sight and hope to sail right under Scylla’s nose. That works too, if a God has got your back.)

As I read it, it isn’t a story about finding the tricky middle ground at all, but about learning to cut your losses and move on.

Ironically enough, I think the story in its Homeric version actually serves as a perfect metaphor in the epistemological case. Lewis’s literary sensibilities are sharper than his epistemological sensibilities here. You shouldn’t try and sail between fallibilism and scepticism, you should just head for the fallibilist rock and hope the losses aren’t too great. There are costs, but they are managable. (The empiricist skipper, or at least the internalist navigator, will be lost to the fallibilist monster.) Try and steer a middle course, as Lewis does, and you end up basically being a sceptic, albeit one who has earned (or at least bought) the right to sing out “But in some contexts I can truly say I know what food penguins eat“ as you are sucked into Charybdis’s whirlpool. If there’s one thing that Charybdis can do well, you see, it’s change the context.

Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey translated by Richard Butler, from the Internet Classics Archive

“‘Of these two rocks the one reaches heaven and its peak is lost in a dark cloud. This never leaves it, so that the top is never clear not even in summer and early autumn. No man though he had twenty hands and twenty feet could get a foothold on it and climb it, for it runs sheer up, as smooth as though it had been polished. In the middle of it there is a large cavern, looking West and turned towards Erebus; you must take your ship this way, but the cave is so high up that not even the stoutest archer could send an arrow into it. Inside it Scylla sits and yelps with a voice that you might take to be that of a young hound, but in truth she is a dreadful monster and no one- not even a god- could face her without being terror-struck. She has twelve mis-shapen feet, and six necks of the most prodigious length; and at the end of each neck she has a frightful head with three rows of teeth in each, all set very close together, so that they would crunch any one to death in a moment, and she sits deep within her shady cell thrusting out her heads and peering all round the rock, fishing for dolphins or dogfish or any larger monster that she can catch, of the thousands with which Amphitrite teems. No ship ever yet got past her without losing some men, for she shoots out all her heads at once, and carries off a man in each mouth.

“‘You will find the other rocks lie lower, but they are so close together that there is not more than a bowshot between them. [A large fig tree in full leaf grows upon it], and under it lies the sucking whirlpool of Charybdis. Three times in the day does she vomit forth her waters, and three times she sucks them down again; see that you be not there when she is sucking, for if you are, Neptune himself could not save you; you must hug the Scylla side and drive ship by as fast as you can, for you had better lose six men than your whole crew.’

“‘Is there no way,’ said I, ‘of escaping Charybdis, and at the same time keeping Scylla off when she is trying to harm my men?’

“‘You dare-devil,’ replied the goddess, you are always wanting to fight somebody or something; you will not let yourself be beaten even by the immortals. For Scylla is not mortal; moreover she is savage, extreme, rude, cruel and invincible. There is no help for it; your best chance will be to get by her as fast as ever you can, for if you dawdle about her rock while you are putting on your armour, she may catch you with a second cast of her six heads, and snap up another half dozen of your men; so drive your ship past her at full speed, and roar out lustily to Crataiis who is Scylla’s dam, bad luck to her; she will then stop her from making a second raid upon you.

“Immediately after we had got past the [Sirens’] island I saw a great wave from which spray was rising, and I heard a loud roaring sound. The men were so frightened that they loosed hold of their oars, for the whole sea resounded with the rushing of the waters, but the ship stayed where it was, for the men had left off rowing. I went round, therefore, and exhorted them man by man not to lose heart.

“‘My friends,’ said I, ‘this is not the first time that we have been in danger, and we are in nothing like so bad a case as when the Cyclops shut us up in his cave; nevertheless, my courage and wise counsel saved us then, and we shall live to look back on all this as well. Now, therefore, let us all do as I say, trust in Jove and row on with might and main. As for you, coxswain, these are your orders; attend to them, for the ship is in your hands; turn her head away from these steaming rapids and hug the rock, or she will give you the slip and be over yonder before you know where you are, and you will be the death of us.’

“So they did as I told them; but I said nothing about the awful monster Scylla, for I knew the men would not on rowing if I did, but would huddle together in the hold. In one thing only did I disobey Circe’s strict instructions- I put on my armour. Then seizing two strong spears I took my stand on the ship Is bows, for it was there that I expected first to see the monster of the rock, who was to do my men so much harm; but I could not make her out anywhere, though I strained my eyes with looking the gloomy rock all over and over

“Then we entered the Straits in great fear of mind, for on the one hand was Scylla, and on the other dread Charybdis kept sucking up the salt water. As she vomited it up, it was like the water in a cauldron when it is boiling over upon a great fire, and the spray reached the top of the rocks on either side. When she began to suck again, we could see the water all inside whirling round and round, and it made a deafening sound as it broke against the rocks. We could see the bottom of the whirlpool all black with sand and mud, and the men were at their wit’s ends for fear. While we were taken up with this, and were expecting each moment to be our last, Scylla pounced down suddenly upon us and snatched up my six best men. I was looking at once after both ship and men, and in a moment I saw their hands and feet ever so high above me, struggling in the air as Scylla was carrying them off, and I heard them call out my name in one last despairing cry. As a fisherman, seated, spear in hand, upon some jutting rock throws bait into the water to deceive the poor little fishes, and spears them with the ox’s horn with which his spear is shod, throwing them gasping on to the land as he catches them one by one- even so did Scylla land these panting creatures on her rock and munch them up at the mouth of her den, while they screamed and stretched out their hands to me in their mortal agony. This was the most sickening sight that I saw throughout all my voyages.”

Swinging Sims

I was gratuitously plugging my Sims paper on Crooked Timber, and I got a few comments about how I didn’t really seem to have got to the heart of the worry Bostrom raises (see here and in the comments thread on my post). At first I was inclined to agree (as in the comments thread to Matthew Yglesias’s post, but on reflection I’ve decided I should have come out swinging harder.

Fodor says somewhere that it’s a law that every technical problem has a technical solution. It looks to some like I’m just raising a technical problem for Bostrom, so it’s a law that it has a solution. If all I’ve done is given Bostrom a reason to read up on some more stats to tidy up the argument, then it’s reasonable to believe that there is a way to tidy up the argument even in advance of his expositing it. So let me try and make the argument as non-technically as possible.

Quick summary of Bostrom’s argument, without the technical details because I want to give the non-technical response. Given some plausible hypotheses about the world, most creatures with experiences kinda like yours are simulations, not material objects. So you’re probably a simulation, not a material object. (The technical objections are all to do with what goes on at the point the arguers say ‘So’. To cut a long story short, there’s an unstated premise here, and it’s inconsistent. Let’s, perhaps generously, bracket those objections.)

We can concede the premise. True, the vast majority of things with experiences kinda like mine are simulated. And what I’m kinda like is part of my evidence. But it isn’t all of it, because I know a lot more than what I’m kinda like. And we should never make judgements from a part of our evidence set when there’s potentially more evidence to use.

To pick a salient example, most things with experiences kinda like mine don’t have their emotional well-being tied to Red Sox wins and losses. No reason yet to conclude that how happy I’ll be this October is more-or-less independent of how the Red Sox do, because I know something more about my particular position in the world.

I actually know quite a lot about my position in the world, on a bit of reflection. There are particular combinations of experiences I’ve had that I can be just about certain no one else in the universe has had or will have. (If the universe is infinite I can’t be so sure, but if the universe is infinite the sense in which ‘most’ creatures like me are simulations becomes elusive. I doubt there’s a higher cardinality of simulated beings than material beings.) What’s the percentage of creatures with experiences just like mine that are simulated, and what’s the percentage that’s material? Bostrom doesn’t know. All he can say is because he doesn’t know, it shouldn’t matter, so I should use the percentages of creatures kinda like me. His motto is ignore evidence when you can’t figure out what effect it has.

What do I say? Well some days I say I do know. I know the percentage of beings with experiences just like mine that are material is 100. In that case, by Bostrom’s reasoning, I should infer I’m material. This isn’t an argument that I’m material, it’s an argument that Bostrom’s reasoning, plus what I know about myself, doesn’t undermine my confidence that I’m material. There’s no reductio argument against knowledge of your own materiality from simulation considerations.

Other days I might waver. At least for the sake of the argument I might, because really I feel I do know the relevant percentage and no one’s given me a good reason to think I don’t. But let’s pretend I’m prepared to doubt this really is knowledge. I still don’t feel any force of Bostrom’s argument. Still, there’s a big chunk of evidence I have that Bostrom says I should ignore, and I don’t know why. He says I should pay close attention to the percentage of people kinda like me that are simulations. I say what about the evidence that tells me more about my place in the universe, evidence that I use every day in reasoning about, for instance, how I’ll feel about the Red Sox. He has to say, “I don’t know how to account for that. Maybe that’s good evidence you’re human, maybe it’s further evidence you’re a simulation, maybe (although this seems implausible) it’s neutral between the two because the percentage of people just like you who are material equals the percentage of people kinda like you who are material. But when we don’t know what to do with evidence we should always take the third option, and treat it like it’s neutral evidence.”

I say that looks like one of the three options, that the evidence is neutral, is being given special status, and I want to know why. (Especially since this is the step that leads to the inconsistencies.) And here I think the simulation argument just goes quiet, because it has nothing more to say. I say (very politely giving myself the last word) that this step needs justification, and without it I’m going to mostly ignore the argument.

If I simply don’t know what effect the largest chunk of my evidence has on the probability that I’m material rather than simulated, then it looks like I simply don’t know the probability that I’m material rather than simulated. And if I don’t know that I might be well within my rights to go on acting as if it’s 1, like I believed all along. Whether that’s within my rights or obligatory depends on some hard questions about the status of epistemic conservatism, and in particular on whether epistemic radicalism is useless or positively misguided. I waver on that question too, so the number of days where I think Bostrom has given me any reason at all to worry is vanishing.

UPDATE: I just noticed that John Turri also sprung to my defence against Yglesias. I think Matthew’s post was quite useful, because it made me think about how to spell out the argument without appeal to technical details. Hence the above rant, which was fun to write at least. (And as Andrew McGonigal quite rightly points out in the comments, I pull some punches here regarding various externalisms, criticisms which again don’t rely on technical details.)

Self-Indulgent Blog Post

I’ve been wondering for a while about what I should put as my AOS (Area(s) of Specialisation) on my CV. For a while I’d been playing with the idea of putting None, on the ground that there is no area in which I specialise. But that probably wouldn’t look too good. On the other hand, it seems a bit bizarre to claim I specialise in philosophy of probability and philosophy of language and philosophical logic and metaphysics and epistemology. So I’ve been a bit stuck about what to do about this. Until I saw a job ad the other day that may have resolved the problem for me.
Continue reading “Self-Indulgent Blog Post”