Backwards Causation

In the course of a
rather uncollegial attack on Paul Krugman, Ben Stein
makes the following rather striking claim. The Great Depression was caused by
the New Deal. Now the Depression did not start with the stock market crash of
1929. But it was well underway by 1932. And the New Deal did not start getting
implemented until 1933. Now maybe it was exacerbated by the New Deal, but by
most measures the worst of the Depression was before the New Deal came in. What
can we conclude from all this? That Ben Stein has less grasp of history than
we’d expect of the average high-school sophomore. Well, that wouldn’t be a
philosophically interesting conclusion now, would it? Better to conclude that
Ben Stein believes in backwards
. And since Ben Stein is clearly one of the folk, this means that
the folk believe in backwards causation. (What, you think that a game show host
who dabbles in economics is not part of the folk? If he isn’t, who is?) This is
a philosophical bombshell!

The Ethics of Choosing a Team

In the latest issue of the Journal
of Applied Philosophy
, Nicholas Dixon discusses the ethics of
supporting various sporting teams. The main thesis was that it is (a) morally
acceptable to pick a team for arbitrary reasons and stick to them through at
least some turmoil (that is, to be a partisan
fan), and that (b) this is morally preferable to picking a property F of teams and supporting whatever team
is F (that is, being a puritan fan). The qualification to (a)
was that if the team starts to engage in indefensible practices, then you
should stop supporting the team. Well, I suppose this is right: you shouldn’t
defend the indefensible!

main argument for both (a) and (b) was an analogy between supporting a sporting
team and being in love. I guess there are some
analogies here; though as a Red Sox fan I’m not too sure I want to stress them.
The point is meant to be that (a) it is morally permissible to love a
particular person for somewhat arbitrary reasons and (b) this is preferable to
picking some property F and loving
whatever person you know best instantiates that property. So the analogy is
meant to ground both the permissibility of arbitrariness in team selection, and
the impermissibility of being principled in a certain way about changing teams.
It is also meant to ground the kinds of considerations that lead to justifiably
abandoning (dumping?) teams, though here things get a little murky.

analogy is a little strained in one pretty important dimension. If supporting a
team is like being in love, it is like being in love with someone who doesn’t
love you in return, and who indeed does not know of your existence, and whom
you know does not love you in return, or even know of your existence. The team
does know about, and even care about, a class of people to which you belong in
virtue of supporting the team, but if the analogy here is romantic love, then I
don’t think that’s much of a consolation. Given that important disanalogy, we
might wonder how much of the argument falls apart.

main argument that disappears is the argument for (b). It is not, I think,
impermissible to abandon a love that is so dramatically unrequited if the
initial basis for the love disappears. Anyone who organised their human
relationships this way would lack a crucial virtue. But the important point
here is that there is no relationship with
the team, since the team does not even know of your existence, or care about
you de re. (Since most teams care about their fans de dicto, this qualification is needed.)
So why keep loving them once they cease to be lovable?

have a little interest in this because in some sports, particularly American
football, I am somewhat of a puritan fan. I don’t really understand American
football, so when I watch it I really want to see two things: trick plays and
long passes. And I will quite happily support a team that promises lots of
those plays and then cease supporting them when they cease providing. I’m
probably missing out on something here, the special kind of qualia one gets
from genuinely being committed to a team, but I get quite enough of that as a
Red Sox fan to go on with. So I think purism is morally defensible, and feel
perfectly happy being a purist about the strange game they call ‘football’ in
this country.

another stage, Dixon compares supporting a team to supporting certain artistic
performers. But here any kind of partisan behaviour is absurd. I mean, I liked
Kevin Spacey’s mid-90s work about as much as I liked any artistic work in that
time period. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to even pretend to like his more
recent work. The purist can jump to the next good actor to come along, the
partisan is stuck watching K-Pax all the way to the hidden scenes.

a different point, but I also didn’t like the grounds Dixon endorsed for
abandoning teams as a partisan. Without going into too much detail, he
basically held that the grounds for this should be the on-field behaviour of a
team. He even said that you should dump a team that engages in ‘verbal
intimidation’. I don’t buy this. I wouldn’t like the Australian cricket team
near as much as I do if they didn’t engage in a little verbal intimidation from
time to time. I think a much better ground for abandoning a team is the off
field behaviour of their players. Or, a little more generally, it is the kind
of off-field behaviour that they endorse in virtue of who they sign. So I think
the otherwise superlative season the Seattle Mariners had last year was
tarnished by the fact that they signed Al Martin just after he’d been indicted
on charges of assaulting one of his wives. And whatever the Cubbies do this
year will be tarnished by their using their first draft pick on alleged human Ben Christensen. (See link
for the gruesome details.) Aside that, the odd gratuitous foul or questioning
of one’s opponent’s parentage is entirely acceptable.

was one amusing error in the article: Michael Jordan did play for the Chicago
White Sox (and I guess the Bulls too), but not the Cubbies!

and the Red Sox just beat the Rangers despite an A-Rod home run.

Perception and Justification

Before I got to Syracuse I never thought
about temporal parts. Now I have drafted a couple of papers
on them. Before I got to Brown I never seriously thought about ‘core’
epistemology. I never thought philosophy of science was philosophy enough, but
I guess I suspected it was epistemology enough. Anyway, I’m at Brown, so now I
think about epistemology. And I’ve been thinking about perceptual
justification. I’m a little closer to the skeptical position than seems to be
popular these days, in part because of the following example. (The example is
an obvious ripoff of Bonjour’s Clairvoyant Claire.)

Blind Belinda has been blind since birth. Her blindness is caused by a genetic
disorder; in fact, all of her family is blind, and they mostly mix with other
blind families. So at age 7, when our story takes place, Belinda doesn’t really
know that there is such a thing as sight.

night of the story, Belinda is kidnapped by the BLA, who think blind children
should be integrated into the wider community. She is drugged and carried off,
not blindfolded, of course, while the rest of the family sleeps.

being carried out, Belinda gets a rather fateful bump in her head. It turns out
the reason the disorder caused blindness was just that it caused two parts of
the visual system to not ‘line up’, a good bump and they would be together and
everything would work. (Rather like my car stereo, I’m afraid to say.) So when
Belinda wakes from her little adventure, in a rather strange room, she can see
her surroundings.

BLA, despite allegedly having the blind children’s best interests at heart,
treat their new captives like, well, captives. So when Belinda wakes she is
tied down on a chair, in a soundproof room. The soundproofing is achieved by
having the walls covered in egg-carton like sound mufflers. The bulk of
Belinda’s new visual field is taken up by these things. It looks nothing like a
wall to her – walls she knows about, at least inside walls, are smooth, and
this looks like it would be very rough. She cannot feel this wall, to see if it
really is not smooth (let’s use ‘rough’ for this property, although this isn’t
exactly right to describe the wall in question).

my main intuition is that Belinda’s visual perception that the wall is rough
does not provide her with justification for believing that the wall really is
rough. In general, until Belinda can verify that her new visual perceptions
integrate well with the perceptions provided by sight and sound, something she
can do pretty quickly once the ties are removed, and that she can do to some
degree while tied down, I doubt her visual perception provides much by way of
evidence for anything much. I sort of think, and think Belinda would think this
too while she reflects on her predicament, that she should have the same
attitude towards her visual perceptions that Clairvoyant Claire has towards her
clairvoyant states.

that I don’t say that we need to defeat the skeptic to rely on perceptual
evidence. I think Belinda can trust her visual perceptions once she verifies
them using other perceptual systems. And I don’t think vision is particularly
special here. If Belinda was deaf until the incident, or lacked a sense of
touch, she could also use those new senses to gain justified beliefs, once she
verifies their coherence with her other senses. The main intuition I have here
is that Belinda can trust what she starts with, in this case primarily sound
and touch, and must validate anything else. So skeptics are right that
perception does not lead automatically to justification, Belinda perceives,
even reliably perceives, a rough wall but would not be justified in believing
that the wall is rough. But they are wrong that this matters for us, because we
can justifiably rely on innately functioning sensory equipment.

thoughts anyone has about this case, or about anything else, I’d be happy to hear.

A Puzzle About Determinacy

Which of the premises in this argument is

P1. Everest is determinately a mountain

P2. Something is Everest

C. So, something is determinately a


There must be a false premise, since the
argument is valid, even if ‘Everest’ is a description rather than a proper
name, and the conclusion is obviously false. There is no thing such that it
rather than one of its mereological siblings is determinately a mountain. So
which is it?


It has to be P1, right? But isn’t it
determinately true that Everest is a mountain? Yes, but that doesn’t imply P1.
P0 does not imply P1, as we can tell by noting that P0 is true and P1 false.


P0. Determinately,
Everest is a mountain

P1. Everest
is determinately a mountain


Interesting to note how this compares to K0
and K1


K0. Jack
knows that Everest is a mountain

K1. Everest
is such that Jack knows it is a mountain


It is either an argument for or a
consequence of the theory that names are directly referential that K0 does entail
K1. (It could be both an argument for the theory and a consequence of it.)
Assuming there is a connection between ‘determinately’ and ‘knows that’ (a
connection that everyone on the ‘conservative’ end of the vagueness spectrum
endorses) then the failure of P0 to entail P1 suggests that perhaps K0 does not
entail K1.

Externalism and Self-Knowledge

How many papers on
externalism and self-knowledge can we possibly be expected to read? I just opened
three recent journals at random, Analysis,
AJP and Synthese, and every one of
had one of these. Michael McKinsey
has a lot to answer for. It’s almost enough to stop me thinking about anything
to do with the subject. But not quite.


The Synthese paper (“McKinsey Paradoxes,
Radical Scepticism, and the Transmission of Knowledge across Known Entailments”
by Duncan
, Feb 2002) was all about the Wright-Davies line of blocking
McKinsey’s argument by sort-of-denying closure for reflective knowledge. The
line is that you aren’t meant to be able to infer
(3) from (1) and (2) because it would be question-begging.


(1) A hand is here.

(2) If a hand is here, then the external world

(3) The external world exists.


It turns out that on
their view though, you can properly deduce (4) from (1) and (2). (This is definitely
true for Davies, I think it is true for Wright as well.)


(4) The external world exists and a hand is


If Moore had just
tried to prove that, rather than
taking the risky step of inferring the truth of one of the conjuncts, nothing
would be wrong with his argument. Somehow this doesn’t feel like it gets to the
heart of what’s wrong with Moore. So I refuse to read anything more on that
line of work until I see a reason for thinking that the problematic step here
is from (4) to (3), rather than from (1) and (2) to (4). Now at least I have a
principled reason for not reading all
the McKinsey papers.

First Post

This is designed to be
a location for me to give instant responses, sometimes well thought out,
sometimes not, to new philosophy as it appears. For a while it might be a bit
out of date while I catch up on my reading from the last few months. I’ve been
a little lazy while drafting my vagueness
book and associated papers, so I haven’t had a chance to read the latest
seventeen papers on Michael McKinsey,
as well as all the other fascinating things that are going on in the philosophy


Unlike most weblogs, this one will mainly
update on weekends, because I have to do something like real work during the
week. But any time I come across interesting arguments, or particularly bad
ones that are worthy of attention, I will write something up.