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December 16, 2006
December 15, 2006
Dave Chalmers points out that Timothy Williamson's book manuscript, The Philosophy of Philosophy is online. Chapter 2 is about the methodology of the vagueness debate and of analytic philosophy more generally. Chapter 5, Knowledge of Metaphysical Modality, also looks particularly interesting. Its conclusion is that the epistemology of metaphysical modality is a special case of counterfactual thinking about the spatio-temporal world.
Posted by Joe Salerno at 5:18 PM
December 13, 2006
If one hasn’t worked hard on the topic of vagueness, it can be hard to take epistemicism seriously. You wonder: everyone SAYS that Tim Williamson is unbelievably smart, but since he believes in cutoffs doesn’t that mean there is something seriously wrong with him? I mean, really: how much good sense could he have if he believes that my remark to a visiting speaker ‘The auditorium is a short walk from here’ is true if it’s X inches away and false if it’s X + 1 inches away? Williamson just doesn’t know when to give up on predicate calculus!
Before I thought hard about vagueness I didn’t actually have that attitude but I had some attraction to it. Now that I’ve thought hard about vagueness I think epistemicism is one of the two most plausible theories of vagueness (the other being the semantic nihilism of Sider & Braun, which says that all vague sentences aren’t true).
Shortly before Halloween you are walking to Farmer Fred’s farm. Your children want to see the pumpkins that they will carve. You say to them, in an obviously apt and relevant circumstance, ‘There is a pumpkin by the tree’. Call the situation you were in S1; so ‘There is a pumpkin by the tree’ is true when evaluated with respect to S1. Now an atom or atomic particle inside the pumpkin moves out of the pumpkin. Call the resulting situation S2. Consider the claim you made earlier, in S1, with your use of ‘There is a pumpkin by the tree’: is that claim true when evaluated with respect to S2 instead of S1? Obviously, the answer is ‘yes’, assuming there are any pumpkins and trees at all. When we consider the ordinary, everyday meaning of ‘There is a pumpkin by the tree’, given that it was true and not false in S1 it must be true when evaluated with respect to S2 as well. Continue the process and you get a series like this (pumkin claim = the claim you made in S1 when you uttered 'There is a pumpkin by the tree'), where the first column has the situations and the second column has the alethic status of the pumpkin claim:
S1 ------------ true
S2 ----------- true
S3 ----------- true
Sn ----------- ??
Sbig – 2 ---- false
Sbig – 1 ---- false
Sbig --------- false
It sure seems as though the ‘true’ entries in the second column have to stop somewhere. Perhaps the entries in the second column of our table don’t go from ‘true’ to ‘false’. That is, maybe the claim made by your use in S1 of ‘There is a pumpkin by the tree’, when applied to situations Sn – 1 and Sn goes from true to indeterminate—or maybe to indeterminately indeterminate (or indeterminately indeterminately indeterminately … indeterminate). Or maybe to just plain meaningless. Or maybe to both true and false (so it keeps being true but just adds falsity for some strange reason). Or maybe its status with respect to Sn changes with the wind, or my hair color, or some more likely factor. Or maybe it has no satisfaction status whatsoever with respect to Sn (not even meaningless). Or, what might not be any different, there might be no fact of the matter as to the satisfaction status with respect to Sn (whatever that idea comes to). Or perhaps it becomes incoherent to even apply the pumpkin claim to Sn. Or maybe it isn’t true, it isn’t false, it isn’t neither true nor false, and it isn’t neither true, false, nor neither true nor false (got that?). Finally, maybe the truth about the pumpkin claim with respect to Sn is best captured by a Zen master’s reaction to ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’
The great strength of epistemicism is just this: IT DOESN'T MATTER which of these many options one takes. Be as clever or as simple as you like with your theory regarding the status of the pumpkin claim, it still seems inevitable that its truth-value is ridiculously dependent on the minuscule movement of a single electron (a nanometer, say). After all, we know that the pumpkin claim applied to Sn – 1 is just plain true and not false: surely, S1, S2, S3, S4, and another trillion or so situations involved perfectly good healthy pumpkins, if pumpkins exist at all (the sum total of a trillion of these changes wouldn’t even be visible to the naked eye and wouldn’t effect the functioning of the pumpkin), and ‘There is a pumpkin by the tree’, understood to have its perfectly ordinary meaning expressed in S1, was nothing other than just plain true with respect to those trillion or so situations. However, we also know that it’s not the case that the pumpkin claim applied to Sn is just plain true (because it’s meaningless, indeterminate, indeterminately indeterminate, alethically unstable, alethically overdetermined or inconsistent, lacks any satisfaction status, [insert Zen master’s response], etc). So, something happened as a result of that ridiculously tiny change from Sn – 1 to Sn; it marks some very sharp cutoff that did not happen in the change from Sn – 2 to Sn – 1. It makes no difference (for the existence of satisfaction cutoffs) as to what descriptions of the situation after the change are correct (if any). The point is that ‘There’s a pumpkin by the tree’, understood in the perfectly normal way, is true, meaningful, and not false when evaluated with respect to the first trillion or so situations, but at some point in the series of situations it stops having that exact status.
It’s no good to protest that the table given above can’t be completed, or that it’s indeterminate whether it can be completed, or that it’s indeterminate whether it’s indeterminate whether it can be completed, or…. The first trillion or so slots in the second column CAN be completed: they all have nothing other than ‘true’ in them. Now you tell me: starting from the top, what is the last row we can correctly complete with just ‘true’? The trillionth row? Then that’s our satisfaction cutoff, and I couldn’t care less what you want to say about the trillionth row, no matter how sophisticated it is. You might want to say, ‘We might as well stop at this point, although we could have stopped earlier’. But in the trillionth row you could NOT have stopped putting in ‘true’; that would have been just as much of a mistake as if you had stopped after the first row or the thousandth row.
You might think that I’m illicitly assuming that for any pair of consecutive rows the question ‘Do they have the same alethic status?’ has an answer. Sadly, no! Most everyone will agree that ‘true’ goes in the first row, and they’ll agree that ‘Do the first and second rows have the same alethic status?’ has an answer: ‘yes, they do have the same status’. And most everyone will agree that that ‘Do the second and third rows have the same alethic status?’ has an answer: ‘yes, they do have the same status’. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is going. If one is like Michael Tye, for instance, one will agree with what I just said about the first three rows, but one will hold that ‘Do the nth and (n + 1)st rows have the same alethic status?’ sometimes has an answer but sometimes it doesn’t. Fine: when does it first not have an answer? We know it has answer for the first three rows. Does it first fail to have an answer for rows 10,000 and 10,001? Then that’s our sharp cutoff. That is, whereas the pumpkin claim was true and not false when evaluated with respect to S10,000, there is no answer to whether it’s true and not false when evaluated with respect to S10,001.
Eventually, we take seriously both epistemicism and nihilism!
Posted by Bryan Frances at 1:56 PM
December 07, 2006
The problem of temporary intrinsics, as is well known, has its modal analog---the problem of accidental intrinsics. But each of these problems cuts much deeper than their names suggest. I query whether the deeper problems have a response in the literature.
Here's the initial temporal problem. At one time Brit is bent (because sitting). Later she is straight (because standing). Is this a violation of Leibniz's Law? A well rehearsed endurantist answer is NO. We simply index to times. Brit has both the property being bent at time t and the property being straight at t+1. No contradiction here. Lewis' objection to the fix is that so called intrinsic properties (such as being straight or bent) are now treated as relational since indexed to time. In sum, there are no temporary intrinsics.
The modal analog, the problem of accidental intrinsics, arises in critique of transworld identity---the view that objects may exist in more than one possible world. In the actual world Brit is 5'10''. In other merely possible worlds she is taller. The transworlder will insist that there is no violation of Leibniz's law. Brit has both the property having height 5'10'' in the actual world and the property having height n, where n>5'10'' in world w2. No contradiction here. Again, the reply to the fix is that our intrinsic properties have suddenly become relational.
But isn't the problem with this fix to transworld identity much more general than stated? Indexing to worlds robs objects of their accidental properties (intrinsic and relational). For if an object's properties (and relations) are indexed to worlds, then the object has them necessarily. In every possible world it is true that in w1 Brit is 5'10'' (is a philosopher, lives in St Louis, etc.). The problem with indexing to worlds is then not simply a problem for accidental intrinsics, but a problem for accidental properties and relations more generally. (Analogously, the problem of temporary intrinsics underwrites a problem for temporary properties and relations more generally. No properties are temporal! A fortiori none of them are temporary intrinsics.)
Posted by Joe Salerno at 4:22 PM
December 06, 2006
December 03, 2006
The previous post on spiritual and visual experience has generated comments on several blogs. Some of the comments are based on misunderstandings of the original idea (since I did a lousy job in the initial post). Since the comments are well thought out, I thought it would be worth another post to elaborate on the socks-spirituality comparison so that the misunderstandings go away and I can be refuted properly.
In the socks case, I believe that the socks are blue, and I believe it based on my experience of them. In the spiritual case, I believe that God exists, and I believe it based on my experience of Him.
In the socks case, the scientists in question say to me ‘Yes, I agree that your experience seemed to be of blue socks. Many, perhaps most, of us had pretty much the same experience as you did from the general perspective you took. But more careful empirical examination will show that your experiences were misleading in that they were not of blue socks but really of some weird green socks. The experiences you had were genuine visual perceptions, but were somewhat crude. Further visual experience will show you your error!
In the spiritual case, the naysayers in question say to me ‘Yes, I agree that your experience seemed to be of God. Many, perhaps most, of us had pretty much the same experience as you did from the general perspective you took. But more careful empirical examination will show that your experiences were misleading in that they were not of God but instead were the beginnings of some levels of consciousness that are more advanced than those we have in most situations (and that merit the title ‘spiritual’) but don’t call out for the existence of a god. The experiences you had were genuine spiritual perceptions, but were somewhat crude. Further spiritual experience will show you your error!
In the socks case, as far as I can determine the scientists in question are about as knowledgeable about color, funny color illusions, etc. as anyone. Never mind whether there are other color experts much more knowledgeable about color.
In the spiritual case, as far as I can determine the naysayers in question are about as knowledgeable about spiritual experience as anyone. Never mind whether there are other spiritual experts much more knowledgeable about spirituality.
Finally: in the socks case the color scientists are mistaken; in the spiritual case the naysayers are mistaken. But this stipulation really isn’t very important.
That's all stipulation. Now I claim: in the socks case one is epistemically blameworthy if one retains one’s blue socks belief. Of course, one could easily avoid the blame. The main color scientist could be joking and you find out that she’s joking.
I also claim that if there’s blameworthiness in the socks story, then there’s blameworthiness in the spiritual story.
Most people have misunderstood what the theistic naysayers are saying. They aren’t saying that you (the spiritual theist) have gone insane, or that you are temporarily deranged or having a seizure or anything like that. They aren’t saying you are “screwed up”—exactly how the color scientists aren’t saying you’re screwed up. Your perceptual and spiritual faculties are working fine; it’s just that circumstances are odd and you’ve erred in interpreting them. The naysayer isn’t disrespectful, so to speak, of spiritual experience. Take the socks-spirituality analogy seriously!
In the socks case, you had some utterly typical visual experiences and immediately formed the belief that the socks are blue. We can stipulate, if you like, that the same happened in the spiritual case. I’m not saying that the move from the spiritual experience to the theistic belief amounts to any more of an “interpretation” or “inference” than in the socks case. In the spiritual case there is no more of an argument to the best explanation as in the socks case.
Posted by Bryan Frances at 12:37 PM
December 02, 2006
You see a sock in the usual excellent viewing conditions: just four feet away, in perfect light, etc. It looks, and is, blue. But it’s your colleague’s sock, and his wife is a color scientist and he insists that he is wearing some of her “trick” socks she uses in her experiments, in that although they look blue and normal, they’re actually very weird and really green. We can suppose that he’s made an innocent mistake in that the socks he is wearing are entirely normal and blue. You mistakenly think he trying to fool you even though he’s actually a pillar of honesty, so you persist in your belief that the socks are blue. Suppose his wife comes in and says ‘Well there are those trick socks! We were looking for them all morning in the lab! What are you doing with them on?’ Other people concur with her (her lab assistants and children say). She and other color theorists have created various other strange objects, strange in ways having to do with their color appearances. You are somewhat aware of these objects, involving rapidly rotating disks with special holes in them, unusual materials, and the like. So you know of the existence of such objects.
Your blue-socks belief is true and reliably produced in the entirely ordinary way, but is this belief epistemically upstanding once you’ve encountered the weird-socks story, especially given that you’ve heard and understood loads of intelligent, sincere, and honest experts saying that the socks are really green—not just his wife, but her assistants, other professors, etc.? Don’t you have to rule out, at least to some significant extent (to ask for proof seems to be asking too much) the weird-socks hypothesis to retain the upstanding status of your belief that the socks are blue? I think you would be committing some significant epistemic crimes if you retained your belief.
I just described a case that seems to have the following features: one acquires a true belief under virtually the best and most reliable circumstances possible, the belief initially amounts to knowledge, and yet the awareness of some information that is ultimately misleading but endorsed by relevant professionals and plausible given other information ruins the epistemic upstandingness of the belief (when the belief is retained after the additional information has been encountered).
I find this story interesting. First, I wonder whether it’s really the case that after encountering the ultimately misleading evidence against the blue-socks belief your blue-socks belief is epistemically blameworthy. Second, does the alleged lesson carry over to the belief that God exists? That is, assuming for the sake of argument that one can know that God exists through some kind of quasi-perceptual spiritual experiences of Him, does the presence of alternative, expertly endorsed explanations of that experience render that theistic belief blameworthy—even though the explanations are ultimately misleading?
In the theistic case I assume that one is in the position of the person in the color case: one encounters the alternative explanations and can do nothing to suggest that they’re wrong. I don’t think one can just say, “Well, the alternative explanations must be wrong, as I already know through experience that God exists”. After all, the corresponding explanation in the perceptual case doesn’t seem to work: “Well, the trick-socks explanation being offered by the color scientists must be wrong, as I already know from visual perception that the socks are blue”.
Posted by Bryan Frances at 3:29 AM