Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Rockwell's Anti-Zombie Argument

Over at The Splintered Mind, Teed Rockwell has put up a brief defense of an argument that zombies are impossible. The argument is this:

(1) Zombies are possible if and only if subjective experiences are epiphenomenal.
(2) Subjective experiences are epiphenomenal if and only if we have direct awareness of them.
(3) There is no such thing as direct awareness.

Therefore, etc.

My comments:

Ad (1). This is not true. The closest truth in this vicinity is:

(1`) If it is possible that subjective experiences are epiphenomenal, then zombies are possible.

I can't see why subjective experiences would have to be epiphenomenal in the actual world in order for zombies to be exist in some other world. Why couldn't it be the case that qualia have some functional role in our cognitive architecture in the actual world, but the non-qualitative aspects of cognition subserve that functional role in another world? Perhaps the idea is that properties are individuated by the causal powers they grant when instantiated, so that P = Q only if, necessarily, Px causes p iff Qx causes p. Then a property is actually epiphenomenal iff necessarily epiphenomenal. This is implausible to me, though. Surely some property bestows some causal powers in the actual world that it does not in other worlds. But if that is the case, then qualia could be properties of this sort. They could bestow functional cognitive properties on conscious thinkers in the actual world that they do not in other worlds. Anyway, all this is OK for Rockwell's argument so far, since we only need something of the strength of (1`) for the argument to go through, if (2) and (3) are true.

The real problem is with (2). I suppose what would make (2) plausible is an argument to the effect of:

(4) We are either directly aware of a property's being instantiated, or we infer it.
(5) We infer some fact p on the basis of q only if p causes q.
(6) The instantiations of epiphenomenal properties do not cause anything else.
Therefore, (2).

Then, from (3), we get Rockwell's desired conclusion. As things stand, I lean towards saying that epiphenomenalism is actually false, but might have been true. By (1`), this immediately gets us that zombies are possible. But let's assume that epiphenomenalism is true, and even that (1) is true. In this sort of position, my beef has always been with (5). I always thought that, if epiphenomenalism is true, then we brought qualia into our ontology to explain the justification we have for believing self-ascriptions of certain mental states. The qualitative character of the state of, say, seeing an apple from ten feet away in decent, neutral light is supposed to be what explains how I generally know, or am justified in believing, that I see an apple when I do. This is not to say that the instantiation of a certain quale causes me to believe that I see the apple. Rather, the instantiation of the quale (perhaps given some other conditions about my proper mental functioning) is what provides that belief with its positive epistemic status. But it would be strange to say that the conferral of that epistemic status is a causal matter. I want to say that the instantiation of the quale does not causally affect my belief's epistemic status because the epistemic status of a belief is not the sort of thing that can be caused to be one way or another. I do infer the existence of qualia, in general, but not from their causal roles. I infer them to explain the epistemic status that I confer on mental state self-ascriptions. So qualia are a counterexample to (5) because they are an instance in which inference to the best explanation is not inference from cause to effect.

Hebrew School, Philosophy

Jewish teachers of today cannot, by and large, rely on a religious family culture, nor on an authoritative Jewish community….It is commonly said that education is a reflection of its society. Contemporary Jewish education has the task of creating the very society of which it should be the reflection. Not only must it interpret the received texts, it needs to reinterpret the very conditions of its role, assess the new situation and invent unprecedented methods for meeting it. A repetitive application of traditional approaches will not suffice. There is no substitute for philosophy in this context -- a rethinking of the bases of Jewish life and learning in our times.

- Israel Scheffler, Teachers of My Youth: An American Jewish Experience

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Some Thoughts About Intuitions

Why are intuitions with narrower content so much more evidentially trustworthy or warrant-conferring than intuitions with broader content? Why is it that if many of our narrower intuitions conflict with some of our broader intuitions, we often tend to drop the latter and not the former?

Better to intuit that “water” doesn’t mean the same thing on Earth as on Twin Earth than to intuit semantic externalism. If we intuit the former, this is better evidence against semantic internalism than an intuition that semantic internalism is true would be evidence against it.

Better to intuit that n grains of sand is not a heap and that if n grains of sand is not a heap, then n + 1 grains of sand is not a heap than to intuit that there are no heaps. In this case, I think, our intuition that there are heaps trumps our intuitions of the premises. Perhaps the premises, combined, are “broader” or stronger than the intuition that there are heaps, since they are recursive, and so have an infinite number of instances. Perhaps that is because I already know that there are heaps on the basis, say, of my perceptual evidence and my intuitions that, in this or that case, what I am looking at is a heap.

Better to intuit that I don’t really know that that is the fa├žade of a barn than to intuit that knowledge is not justified true belief. Sometimes I think that my intuition that knowledge is justified true belief trumps my intuition about fake barn country. Perhaps this is because I sometimes think that K = JTB has too many merits to give up so easily. Of course, most of the time, people take the intuition about fake barn country (along with intuitions about other Gettier cases) to trump K = JTB.

I think these examples show that, in general, narrower intuitions are better evidence for their claims than broader intuitions. They don’t show that a narrower intuition always trumps a conflicting broader intuition, since the broader intuition might have more going for it than the conflicting narrower intuition brings against it. They suggest that a narrower intuition trumps a conflicting broader intuition, ceteris paribus.

How do we explain all of this? Part of it is that a narrower claim just, in general, has more warrant or a higher probability, relative to some piece of evidence, than any broader claim (of which the narrower claim is “an instance”), relative to that same evidence. That is, if I see Mike park the car, that is better evidence that Mike knows how to park a car than it is evidence that everyone named “Mike” knows how to park a car, or that everyone Mike’s age knows how to park a car. So, my intuition that p is, in general, better evidence that p than it is evidence that (a stronger claim) p & q, and better evidence that p & q than it is evidence that (an even stronger claim) p & q & r, and so on. If my intuition is that all bachelors are unmarried men, that is better evidence that all bachelors are unmarried men than it is evidence that, say, all men are unmarried men, or that all bachelors are unmarried men and all male college students are unmarried men.

Part of it is that we get more disagreement with intuitions on broader claims. Since much of the time the conflicting intuitions of two individuals will carry just as much evidential weight, these sorts of disagreements don’t affect the evidential standing of the claims of interest one way or another. Intuitions about semantic internalism and semantic externalism won’t get us very far, because people’s intuitions differ and carry equal evidential weight.

But I think the biggest part of the explanation is this. The trustworthiness or warrant-conferring-ness of intuitions is often, if not always, grounded in linguistic competence. If one assents to a sentence in a certain context strictly because one knows how to use a language, then, I think, we generally treat that assent as (prima facie, defeasibly) warranted. The idea might be that if pure knowledge of a language alone prompts assent, then that sentence must command assent in that context purely in virtue of linguistic rules or conventions; and whatever rules or conventions philosophers have to obey, the linguistic rules or conventions of the language of inquiry are surely among them. Whether or not this meta-explanation is right, I think we do, in fact, generally treat such assent as warranted.

But how does one know that the assent is grounded in linguistic competence alone, and not some other feature of the assenter’s cognitive make-up? One test is whether other speakers of the assenter’s language behave similarly. This will yield some false positives, though, since speakers of the assenter’s language have more in common with her, cognitively, than the language alone. This could be what grounds the assent, not linguistic competence, and there is no very compelling reason to think that just any shared cognitive trait will issue warranted pronouncements or steer us towards the true and away from the false.

Another test has fewer false positives. Specify all of the relevant facts that do not formally or pragmatically entail the claim of interest. Then, query the subject on the claim. If she intuitively assents or fails to assent, what could explain it? If we’ve specified the facts the right way, and made sure she understands them, then her assent could not be based on failure to believe the right facts. Perhaps she has failed to reason with the facts the right way? That is one explanation of her assent. But if we have no antecedent reason to doubt her reasoning skills, this is implausible. Perhaps her tacit linguistic knowledge disposes her to respond one way, but some consciously held theoretical commitment trumps this more trustworthy disposition. We should try to rule out this possibility somehow, if we want our intuitions to help us decide the claims they are about. If we do successfully rule it out, I can only see one other alternative explanation. This is that the subject's assent (or failure to assent) is grounded in her linguistic competence.

How does this explain that intuitions with narrower content are more trustworthy than intuitions with broader content? First, because it is easier to specify all of the relevant facts for a narrow claim than for a broader claim. It is easier to say everything about fake barn country, a certain heap of sand, or Twin Earth than it is to say everything about justified true belief, heaps (or, for that matter, vagueness in general), and semantic externalism. That is one thing our second test requires we do. Another thing is to make sure that no conscious theory is over-riding what her linguistic competence disposes the subject to do. Narrower claims meet this requirement more easily, since they are less likely to be obviously consistent or inconsistent with a high-level theory than broader claims at the theoretical level. Lastly, the test requires that we make sure that our subject has not failed to reason with the premises correctly. Since it is easier to reason with fewer premises, ceteris paribus, and we need to specify fewer relevant facts for narrower claims, narrower claims are more likely to pass our second test than broader claims.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Supposed Role of Ontological Expressions

What is the supposed role of ontological expressions, the role which is supposed to be preserved across alternative languages? Before we can sensibly ask whether different sets of ontological expressions play that role equally well we must be clear on what ontological expressions are supposed to do. “Be used for asking questions about what there is” does not suffice as an answer. (Eklund 2008, 30)

It seems to me that the roles of ontological expressions change considerably across languages. The role of the objectual existential quantifier is (sometimes) to say that a description is true of something without saying what that thing is. The role of the objectual universal quantifier is sometimes to say that a description is true of everything without having to say of each thing individually that the description is true of it. Other times, the role of the objectual universal quantifier is to say that a description is true of everything without having to take a position on what things there are. In the hands of one theorist, the role of the substitutional quantifiers, roughly, is to provide truth-conditions for sentences without saying what (features of) objects make the sentence true. In the hands of another theorist, the role of the substitutional quantifiers is to provide truth-conditions for referentially opaque sentences. The role of the various Meinongian ontological notions surrounding being and objects is, well, to state Meinong’s theory of being and objects.

The uses of ontological expressions differ from language to language and from theorist to theorist. As far as I can tell, the common role for ontological expressions in different languages in the hands of different theorists is just this: to do what they are supposed to do in the language according to the purposes of the theorist. This is not to say that just any expression can be ontological, because just any expression has this sort of role. The category of ontological expressions is not defined by the role its members play. I suggested a way of categorizing existence-like expressions in my last post.

Incidentally, I think what I’ve had to say has been more-or-less in line with Carnap. I don’t think Carnap would say that what ontologists (or, given his antipathy towards ontology so described, he might say “linguistically savvy post-ontological philosopher”) ought to be doing is finding the role that ontological expressions ought to play, and then creating languages in which the ontological expressions best fit that role. He said that theorists choose whole languages according to the uses to which they would like to put them. I think he would have said, if prompted, that there is no one use for language in general. I also think he would have said, if prompted, that, for that reason, there is no one use for the ontological apparatus of language in general.

Monday, July 21, 2008


I would like to take a stab at defining “existence-like” as characterized in Eklund (2008).

An expression is existence-like if it is translated by “exists” in English.

For starters, this handles the cases of disputes about mereology. If L has some formal mereology, with formal criteria for when things have a fusion, and s is the sentence in L stating that there is no fusion that is a table of a certain number of particles "arranged table-wise", then I think we would translate s in English with something such as "There is no table composed of x, y, z particles." The quantifier in L is translated in English with a "there is" equivalent to "exists".

The definition also handles a number of cases related to deviant logics. Consider a schema with branching quantification such as:

For all w there is an x,
(1) such that F(w, x, y, z).*
for all y there is a z,

This might seem to present a problem, since different theorists will translate (1) different ways. Proponents of branching quantification – and especially proponents of branching quantification as a resource for schematizing the logical form of actual English sentences – will translate sentences of this form more-or-less homophonically (perhaps adding some punctuation or inflection marks). Proponents of classical FOL, such as Quine, will probably translate it with a sentence of the form:

(2) For all x there is an f, and for all y there is a g, such that F(x, f(x), y, g(y).

So a potentially existence-like expression, such as the branched existential quantifier in (1), will be translated multiple ways in English, depending on the syntactic and ontological commitments of the translator. But this does not seem actually to be a problem for our definition of “existence-like”, since both the classical logician and the proponent of branching quantification translate the “there is” of (1) with a “there is”. Where they differ is on the range of values of the existentially quantified variables.

Another problem is the theorist who thinks that “there is” and “exists” are not synonymous or equivalent, or that existential quantifications are not existence claims. This view can manifest itself in a number of ways. The most obvious case would be one in which a theorist uses a language in which the “existential” quantifiers are interpreted substitutionally and are intended to help regiment some fragment of English discourse containing “there is”, but no fragment containing “exists”. Given her preferred regimentation, and the existence of the name “Pegasus” in English, she might consider the following true:

(3) There is at least one winged horse.

The classical logician, who prefers to regiment “there is” discourse with objectual quantification alone, has a few options here. She can translate the substitutionally regimented counterpart of (3), and other sentences of similar logical form, just as (3), but with “there is” interpreted objectually. She can treat the translatum as either true or false depending on her preferred theory and interpretation of fictions and empty names in English. She can also employ semantic ascent, translating the substitutionally regimented counterpart of (3) as:

(4) “There is at least one winged horse” is true.

Again, she can evaluate (4) based on her preferred theory of truth. Perhaps she thinks “true” is implicitly relativized to something more precise than English; perhaps she thinks (3) isn’t truth-apt.

Now, in the case of (3), if the translation is interpreted objectually, then I think it is clear that the existential quantifier in the substitutionally regimented counterpart of (3) satisfies our definition of “existence-like”. Even if (3) is viewed as true, but elliptical (as required by certain theories of fiction or empty names), I can’t see how even the fully explicit interpretation could lack the expression “there is”. And if there is a “there is” in the fully explicit version of (3), I don’t see how we could deny that that “there is” is the translation of the existential quantifier in the substitutionally regimented counterpart of (3), as required by our definition of “existence-like”.

If we take the route of semantic ascent, things get a little weirder. After all “there is” does occur in (4), but it is mentioned, not used. Still, my intuition is that “there is” is the translation in (4) of the substitutionalist’s existential quantifier. One might want to say that “‘there is’”, and not “there is” is the translation, but “‘there is’” does not occur in (4), strictly speaking. (There is no close-quotation mark after the “there is” in (4).) Alternatively, assume that, if a word in a sentence is not treated by a translation as elliptical, or as an auxiliary term in a construction-yielding particle phrase, then part of the translation of the sentence is a translation of the word. Then, since the substitutionalist’s existential quantifier is not being treated as elliptical or auxiliary in the translation (4), there must be a translation in (4) of that quantifier. But that translation obviously has to be “there is”.

(Note that we encounter a similar sort of situation when the classical logician translates second-order quantification. If she doesn’t want to translate second-order quantification objectually into set theory, then she will most likely treat it metalinguistically. For instance, she might translate “There is a P and an x such that P(x)” as “There is a “P” such that ‘There is an x such that P(x)’ is true”. The second-order quantification over P becomes metalinguistic quantification over “P”.)

Recall that our substitutionalist distinguishes between “there is” and “exists” as between substitutional and objectual quantification. What happens when she wants to translate from another substitutional language into English? She will translate existential quantification with “there is”, but not with “exists”. We have seen that, in these cases, the classical logician, who treats “there is” and “exists” as equivalent, can use either of these translations. In this case, then, not only is it unclear what translatum sentence to use (which is not necessarily a problem for our definition of “existence-like”), it is also unclear whether the translatum should contain “exists” as the translation of a given non-English expression. Since the questions about whether and when to use substitutional or objectual quantification are fundamental ontological questions, and we are defining “existence-like” in order to help answer these questions, it would be silly to require that we settle the questions about whether and when to use substitutional or objectual quantification in order to apply our definition correctly. I think we need to modify the definition. The only modification I can think of that works (and is also the simplest) is this:

An expression is existence-like if it is translated either by “exists” or “there is” in English.

This solves our problem, since both the substitutionalist and the classical logician satisfy this definition. This also solves a similar problem, which we haven’t explored, for Meinongian non-English languages.

This solution might create a problem of its own, however. The substitutionalist and the Meinongian have sought to create an interesting distinction between “exists” and “there is”. To some extent, our modified definition erases that distinction. We just observed that we don’t want our definition to trivially settle ontological questions. Has our modified definition done just that?

I think not. The point of a definition of existence-likeness is to enable us to survey what meanings it is theoretically possible to assign to “exists” and “there is” when doing ontology. From a Carnapian point of view, we could say that the point was to find out what terms in what languages have semantic rules that we can use to explicate “exists” and “there is” in English. Our definition indicates that we can use (separately) the Meinongian and the substitutional rules for “there is”, as well as other rules. But surely if these rules determine existence-like uses for expressions, and the rules do not prohibit the use of other rules for distinct expressions (such as the Meinongian or objectual “exists”), then our definition does not prohibit the use of both these sorts of expressions to state an ontology. Simply because we could use the Meinongian rules for “there is” to explicate “exists” does not mean that we could not use distinct rules to explicate “exists” a different way in the same language. So our definition is not problematic for that sort of reason.

* - I'm having trouble writing branching quantifiers on Blogger. The two quantifier strings on the different lines are supposed to be on two different branches.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Eklund on Carnap

I’m reading Matti Eklund’s really interesting paper “Carnapian Theses in Metaontology and Metaethics”, which raises some of the issues I've addressed recently.

A couple of things. Eklund claims on p. 6 that the internal/external distinction does not require the analytic/synthetic distinction. I disagree because I think a Carnapian should subscribe to something like either of the following arguments.

Suppose that analytic truths are sentences that are true in a language L solely in virtue of L. Every linguistic framework has semantic rules. Linguistic frameworks are languages or language-fragments. If something is true solely in virtue of semantic rules, it is true solely in virtue of language. For some language L, there is at least one sentence that is true in L solely in virtue of L’s semantic rules. Therefore, there is at least one analytic truth in at least one linguistic framework.

Alternatively, suppose that analytic truths are synonyms of logical truths. Every linguistic framework has semantic rules. The semantic rules of a linguistic framework entail all of the synonymy relations between sentences in that framework. For at least one linguistic framework L, at least one logical truth in L has a synonym in L. Therefore, there is at least one analytic truth (which is not just a logical truth) in at least one linguistic framework.

I am presupposing that Carnap is what Eklund calls a “language pluralist”, but I take that to be obvious. I am also presupposing that Carnap thinks true all of the premises of at least one of these arguments, but I think he does. I remember him advocating the view of analyticity in the second argument (Williamson calls it “Frege-analyticity”) somewhere in his correspondence with Quine.

One more thing. Eklund writes: “One less trivial claim would be that ‘there are
numbers’ has different meanings and truth-values in different languages while meaning what it actually means. But this is less trivial at the expense of being committing to some form of relativism, and language pluralism was supposed to be an alternative to relativism.” (11) This isn’t true, since one of the languages might be much more useful than all of the others. If someone can say that there is an objective fact to the effect that we ought to use a language that assigns a certain meaning and value to “there are numbers”, then it seems odd to call her a relativist.

For the Disappointed Theorist

One of the ways you know you are doing a science is when the data force you to change your theory.

— Daniel Kahneman, APS 2006

Mutatis mutandis, "science" and "philosophy".

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Is Anything Wrong With My Ontology of Languages?

The notion of language I've been using here makes unusually fine-grained distinctions. By what criteria do I individuate languages? This is still not very clear to me, and contains some theoretical presuppositions which I’d like to make more explicit. Maybe the presuppositions are inconsistent or involve factual error. A little help figuring out whether this is the case would be appreciated. Anyway - the presuppositions.

A language has a set of wffs (or perhaps a function that assigns degrees of well-formedness to strings), so that if s is well-formed (to degree n) in L1, and not in L2, then L1 is not the same language as L2.

A language can also have a logic. We might conceive of a logic as a class of "transformation rules" in Carnap's sense. If a sequence of strings proves s in L1, but not in L2, then L1 is not the same language as L2.

A language has a semantics. In some sense, perhaps involving no platonistic ontological commitments, a language assigns meanings to sentences, words, and phrases. If x has some semantic property relative to L1, but not relative to L2, then L1 is not the same language as L2.

The meaning of a word, whatever it is (or however it is to be eliminated in favor of some less committal idiom), is sometimes derived in part from the word’s role in some larger theory. “Electron” derives its meaning, in part, from its occurrence in a central chunk of physical theory. “Phlogiston” derives its meaning, in part, from its occurrence in a central chunk of phlogiston theory. Now, “electron” occurs both in

(E) Every electron has a charge of -1

and in

(E`) Every electron has a charge of -10.

“Phlogiston” occurs both in

(P) When a flammable substance is burned, phlogiston escapes it

and in

(P`) It is not the case that when a flammable substance is burned, phlogiston escapes it.

We might suppose that “electron” derives its meaning, in part, from its occurrence in (E) but not in (E`), and that “phlogiston” derives its meaning, in part, from its occurrence in (P) but not in (P`). So there must be some special property of (any combination of) “electron”, (E), and the languages containing them in virtue of which this is the case; likewise for (P) and “phlogiston”. It can’t just be that (E) is true and (E`) is not, because the same distinction can’t be made between (P) and (P`). I don’t think it can just be that (E) is actually in physical theory, and (P) in phlogiston theory. This is because I think theories are best thought of as classes of sentences. “Electron” occurs in both physical theory and physical` theory, which is the set of sentences gotten by replacing (E) with (E`) in physical theory; likewise for “phlogiston”. If physical theory is well-formed or expressible in a language, then physical` theory is almost certainly well-formed or expressible in that language; likewise for phlogiston theory and phlogiston` theory. There is certainly something special about physical theory and phlogiston theory, and it has to do with the meanings of “electron” and “phlogiston”, but it isn’t yet clear what this special something is.

My guess about how to make it clear is basically to individuate languages more finely. Assume that languages have unique assignments of truth-values to certain of their sentences. These include the sentences from which words derive their meanings. Words can derive their meanings only from sentences which are assigned a truth-value by a language. If L1 assigns a different truth-value to s than L2, and t derives its meaning in part from s, then t has a different meaning in L1 than in L2. The hypothesis is that “electron” actually has the meaning it does in the language of physical theory in part because that language assigns the value “true” to (E) but not to (E`), and “electron” is actually used in the language of physical theory, not the language of physical` theory.* We avoid the problems related to “phlogiston” in the following way. (P`) is not incoherent or analytically false in our language. Rather it is elliptical for a complicated statement about the sub-optimality of the language of phlogiston theory. This is the language which gave and continues to give “phlogiston” its meaning. Fully unpacked, (P`) might be glossed “The language of phlogiston theory is sub-optimal because there is no worthwhile concept to which (P) lends meaning.” “Phlogiston” means what it does, and is to be unpacked this way, because it was introduced in the language of phlogiston theory, and not, for instance, the language of phlogiston` theory.

I guess the idea overall is that theories in which theoretical terms derive their meaning, in part, from their occurrence in other sentences of the theory are, as Ayer might have said, disguised linguistic proposals. Or maybe the idea is that languages are disguised theoretical proposals.

I understand that the apparatus here involves a number of assumptions, but I’m ready to take them on unless they’re controverted by fact or internal inconsistency. Well - are they?

* - I say “language”, but I allow that physical theory – the class of strings assigned certain meanings – could be conducted simultaneously in many different languages. The actual meaning and use of “electron” and other special theoretical terms might not determine a single language for physical theory, in our sense of “language”.
Update: At least one thing is wrong with this ontology. I think the epistemology of analyticity for which I have primarily made use of it is no good. Also, I don't like the ellipticality stuff. If semantic representations are mental representations, then this is way implausible.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Maybe history and the news make us seem like assholes...

...because all the nice things we do aren't worth telling each other about.

Even More Comments on The Philosophy of Philosophy

I see something wrong with my previous response to Williamson. The main point of Williamson’s (and our own) discussion of the possible varieties of epistemological analyticity is to explain how we can legitimately do philosophy from the armchair. To avoid one of Williamson’s objections to certain forms of epistemological analyticity, I suggested that understanding and truth should be relativized to languages in such a way that the discarded theoretical terms of discarded theories are not in the language of an up-to-date theorist. There might be analytic truths about phlogiston, and we might have to assent to or know their truth in order for us to understand (some) sentences containing “phlogiston”, but the relevant sort of truth and understanding in play here should be relativized to a language not used in up-to-date theory.

But aren’t philosophers sometimes concerned to know from the armchair the propositional contents of non-metalinguistic sentences, rather than their metalinguistic counterparts? That is, aren’t philosophers sometimes concerned to know, say, that every vixen is a female fox, not just that “Every vixen is a female fox” is true in the language of modern zoology? Knowing that a sentence is true in some language certainly isn’t sufficient for knowing its content, otherwise we would know, for instance, that phlogiston has a real functional role in combustion, and that the sun will rise tomorrow tonk the sun is purple.* Perhaps we might say that we know the content of “Every vixen is a female fox” if we know that it is analytic in our own zoological language and that we ought to be using our own zoological language. Or, to be a little more cautious, we might say that we know the content of "Every vixen is a female fox" if we know that it is analytic in every zoological language L such that (a) we know that L is maximally useful for us and (b) we know that the translation of "Every vixen is a female fox" in L is analytic. But certainly we don’t know what sort of zoological language we ought to be using from the armchair. For instance, we don’t know from the armchair whether the terms “vixen” or “fox” mark useful distinctions.

Still, as long as we understand a chunk of modern zoological theory in its customary linguistic guise, then we are in a position to know from the armchair what language that chunk of zoological theory does use, or what (slightly formalized) language or languages it can be taken to be using, or what language or languages it can be rationally reconstructed as using. This knowledge is a priori in the sense that it is guaranteed by our linguistic competence alone. And, for each of those languages, we are in a position to know from the armchair what the analytic truths are, construed epistemologically. At any rate, if I’m right about how to relativize truth and understanding to languages, then Williamson hasn’t shown that we aren’t in a position to know from the armchair what the analytic truths are, construed epistemologically. If philosophers are sometimes concerned to know from the armchair the propositional contents of non-metalinguistic analytic sentences, then they’re in for a disappointment. But maybe they'll do just fine if they set their sights a little bit lower.

This was Michael Friedman’s idea with the “relativized a priori”, right? Or, if Friedman was right, then this was all Carnap’s idea.
* - Williamson makes roughly this point himself.

I understand “Every vixen is a female fox” and it has some positive epistemic status for me. How does it get that status? … The lazy theorist may try to dismiss the question, saying that it is simply part of our linguistic practice that “Every vixen is a female fox” has positive epistemic status for whoever understands it. But the examples of defective practices [surrounding “phlogiston”, “tonk”, racial pejoratives, and so on] show that it is not simply up to linguistic practices to distribute positive epistemic status as they please. That the practice is to treat some given sentence as having positive epistemic status for competent speakers of the language does not imply that it really has that epistemic status for them. (The Philosophy of Philosophy, 84)

Monday, July 14, 2008


I've started posting my papers on the Google Docs website.

The first paper, "Playing Characters: Towards a Theory of Video Game Role-Playing", is my would-be contribution to the upcoming Final Fantasy and Philosophy anthology. I argue, for a non-professional audience, that role-playing a character in a video game requires a sort of psychological connection of which certain forms of empathy are instances. I also speculate about the general aesthetic characteristics of role-playing video games and the relation between role-playing and real life. It was rejected because it was submitted late and other papers in the anthology address similar questions. It is easily the silliest paper I have ever written.

The second paper, "The Concept of Cognitive Meaningfulness", was my undergraduate thesis in Philosophy at Bard College. I discuss the origins of the concept and criticize various ways of explicating it. It's the only paper I know of just about the concept of cognitive meaningfulness since Part II of Israel Scheffler's Anatomy of Inquiry. It's not perfect, but I still like it.

How to Approach a Linguistic Item

When I encounter a word, phrase, or grammatical construction in need of philosophical explanation or clarification, what do I do? Sometimes the item derives its interest from its relation to something I already find interesting, but sometimes the interest is somehow intrinsic to the item itself. I’m more interested in what I do when the latter happens. What are the questions I have to bear in mind on my first encounter, as a philosopher, with a linguistic item of self-luminescent interest?

First, I think of examples. I look for seemingly typical or non-distinctive instances of the item. I try to situate it in a handful of different sentential and pragmatic contexts.

The next question I ask is: What is useful about this item? I think there are two ways of approaching this from the armchair. The first is to ask how things change after a sentence containing the item of interest is uttered in the intuitively typical or non-distinctive pragmatic contexts. What do I imagine would happen after the utterance? How might an interlocutor respond? What is true now of speaker and listener that was not true before?

The second approach is to ask what we would lose if we were not to allow this (or any heteronymous substitute) into our speech. On this approach, what I imagine is more a whole linguistic and theoretical world than a set of particular speech situations. For instance, would we fail to mark an important distinction? Would we lose some pragmatic tool, some ability (very broadly speaking) to change the social status of people or things? Would we not be able to express an interesting theory?

The first approach to the question of usefulness tells us what actual linguistic facts there are for an analysis or explication of the item to capture. The second approach tells us why it is worth capturing it. Both of these approaches are profitably initiated and conducted from the armchair, but both are also susceptible to experimental and observational test.

Is this it? What am I missing?

The Second Maxim

I feel as if, when philosophers attempt to rationally reconstruct or formalize or explicate some fragment of discourse, we should construe things so that as few (kinds of) sentences are truth-apt as possible. If the first maxim of scientific philosophizing is always to replace undefined primitives with logical constructs, the second maxim is to construe as few utterances as truth-apt assertions as possible. If we are concerned to reconstruct the most parsimonious theory of the world from some corpus of verbal behavior (and natural knowledge), then as little of the behavior should constitute endorsement of part of a theory as possible. Suppose the expressivist meta-ethical theory provides us with a range of terms and constructions (that do not yield truth-apt, assertive sentences) with which we might replace the rationally defensible bits of our current ethical discourse. The non-reductive realist meta-ethical theory provides us with a range of terms and constructions (that do yield truth-apt, assertive sentences) with which we might do the same. If both theories account equally well for the verbal behavior, don’t we have to endorse the expressivist theory? Isn’t the second maxim the reason why?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

More Comments on The Philosophy of Philosophy

In Chapter 4 of The Philosophy of Philosophy, “Epistemological Conceptions of Analyticity”, Williamson argues against epistemologies of analytic truths based on epistemological conceptions of analytic truths, which, in turn, are based on “understanding-assent” links. An understanding-assent link is a sentence like:

(1) Necessarily, whoever understands “All bachelors are unmarried” will assent to it.

I think the idea is that understanding links hold between object-level sentences corresponding to metalinguistic semantic facts, on the one hand, and assent to the content of the object-level sentences, on the other. If an understanding-assent link like (1) is supposed to provide the basis on which I know that “All bachelors are unmarried” is true, then this could be on the basis of a corresponding understanding-knowledge link:

(2) Necessarily, whoever understands “All bachelors are unmarried” knows that it is true.

Knowledge is factive. So, (2) entails:

(3) Necessarily, someone understands “All bachelors are unmarried” only if it is true.

But then, Williamson observes, it is unclear how to proceed with understanding-assent links related to several sorts of terms. I’ll just deal with “phlogiston” and other special theoretical terms from discredited theories, although what I have to say applies to the other sorts of terms he talks about.

It seems that fans of understanding-assent links will have to say that there are some even for “phlogiston”. Intuitively, part of the meaning of "phlogiston" is captured by its role in phlogiston theory. This commits us to:

(4) Necessarily, whoever understands “Phlogiston has the role R” will assent to it.

But phlogiston does not have the role R, because nothing plays the role that phlogiston plays in phlogiston theory. However, it follows from (4) that whoever does not assent to “Phlogiston has the role R” doesn’t understand it. Then it follows that people who think that nothing has role R don’t understand “Phlogiston has the role R”. Intuitively, this is not the case. So fans of understanding-assent links will have to accept something that is intuitively not the case.

I’m sure there are all sorts of ways around the problem Williamson is trying to set up for epistemologies of analytic truths based on understanding-assent links, but I’d like to propose just one.

First, excluding bizarre cases involving private codes, we understand sentences only relative to languages (or, if you like, idiolects). Second, sentences have their truth-values relative to languages (or idiolects). Assume, contrary to Williamson, that assent is generally metalinguistic – to assent to “All bachelors are unmarried” is, generally, to assent to the metalinguistic fact that “All bachelors are unmarried” is true, not to assent the corresponding object-level fact that all bachelors are unmarried. So, fully unpacked, (4) means something like:

(4`) Necessarily, whoever understands “Phlogiston has the role R” in L will assent to the metalinguistic fact that “Phlogiston has the role R” is true in L.

In a theoretically important sense, phlogiston theory is stated in a different language from our current chemical theory. (I think this is the sense in which languages classically do not contain their own truth predicate, and probably the sense in which sentences of a language have determinate logical forms.) When doing chemical theory today, we do not speak the L mentioned in (4`). We are not speaking L even when we say that phlogiston theory is false, or that nothing has the role R. If a fully-spelled out description of R invokes other special theoretical terms of phlogiston theory, perhaps a good interpretation of “Nothing has the role R” is “We should not speak a language in which a sentence of the form ‘x has the role R’ is true, for some name substituted for ‘x’.”

The problem with words like “phlogiston” and “tonk” (and, an eliminativist might say, “believes”) is that it is a bad idea to use them at all (except, perhaps, to say something like that phlogiston doesn’t exist). It is a bad idea to use them because it is a bad idea to use languages that countenance them - languages which commit us to parts of phlogiston theory, or in which everything is true or nothing is true. Still, I think we can endorse understanding-assent links for even these sorts of words by relativizing the understanding and the assent in question to languages that we do not use.

File under: Applied Carnap.

Update: This is a pretty bad objection, now that I look at it again. That's because (4`) is false. If people don't know what language L is - and most people don't, on the ontology of languages necessary to make this work - then they won't (or shouldn't) assent to statements mentioning it, including (4`). And the business about the ellipticality of "Nothing has the role R" seems pretty implausible.

Friday, July 11, 2008


In ordinary second-order logics, is the first-order fragment of the logic complete? That is, are all propositions that are true in all models and expressible strictly in terms of first-order quantification also provable?

Also, intuitively, when one plays a role-playing video game such as Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, or Dragon Warrior, does one pretend to be the character(s) one plays?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Comments on The Philosophy of Philosophy

In Chapter 2 of The Philosophy of Philosophy, “Taking Philosophical Questions at Face Value”, Timothy Williamson argues that a certain philosophical or “proto-philosophical” question is not, explicitly or implicitly, about language. This, what he calls the original question, is: “Was Mars always either dry or not dry?” He shows how a number of ways of answering the original question, through the consideration of intuitionistic, three-valued, and fuzzy logics, still don’t make it a linguistic question, since the answers are not about (i.e. don’t refer to) linguistic items. The answers are “Mars was always either dry or not dry”, “Mars was not always either dry or not dry”, and “It is indefinite whether Mars was always either dry or not dry.” Since none of these answers is about language, the question is not a question about language.

Let’s focus on yes-no questions for now. Say that A is a straightforward answer to a yes-no question Q, stated in language L, iff A is stated in L and expresses what “yes” would express or expresses what “no” would express. Clearly, not every non-straightforward answer to a question is about language. If Susan asks “You ate lunch at Vinny’s last night?”, and Tim responds “Actually, I went to Aunt Suzie’s”, Tim does not give a straightforward answer, but neither does he give a linguistic answer. Nor is every linguistic answer non-straightforward. If Tim responded “True” – as in “What you just said is true, stated indicatively” – I think the answer is both straightforward, because equivalent to “yes”, and linguistic, because about a sentence. Still, most linguistic answers are non-straightforward. If Tim responded “Depends on what you mean by ‘lunch’”, because, say, he ate a borderline meal of salad and an omelet at 11:45, that would be a typical non-straightforward, linguistic answer.

Note also that linguistic questions – questions about language – admit of non-straightforward and perhaps also straightforward non-linguistic answers.
Tim: “… but then I had to jet to the supermarket.”
Susan: “What does ‘jet’ mean?”
Tim: “Somebody jets somewhere whenever they try to get there very quickly.”
Tim: “I had to get there very quickly.”
Tim’s first answer might be straightforward. His second answer is non-straightforward. Neither answer is about language.

The point is that questions that are about language admit of non-linguistic answers, and questions that aren’t about language admit of linguistic answers.

One way for a question to be implicitly, but not explicitly, about language, relative to a kind of answer K, is for all of the members of K to be explicitly about language. Williamson has shown that the original question is not in this way implicitly about language, relative to its philosophical answers, since the philosophical answers are not explicitly about language. But might the question be implicitly about language because the philosophical answers are implicitly about language? I kinda think so, for the following reasons.

1) The original question is stated in English.

2) Languages are partially constituted by their logics. Two things with different logics cannot be the same language.

3) The language of each answer has some formal logic – three-valued, fuzzy, intuitionistic, classical, etc.

4) English has no formal logic – neither three-valued, nor fuzzy, nor intuitionistic, nor classical, etc.

5) Therefore, English does not have the same logic as the language of any of the answers.

6) Therefore, the language of each of the answers is not the same as the language of the original question.

(1) and (3) are obvious. Although I’m not sure Quine would agree with me on (2), I think Williamson would. (4) is probably the most controversial, but I take it that Williamson should agree with me on that as well, judging by what he has to say about Vann McGee in his paper “Understanding and Inference.” But (6) straightforwardly follows from (1)-(4).

Now, once we get to (6), it’s not obvious that every answer in L1 to a question in some other language L2 is thereby a linguistic answer. After all, if a bilingual speaker asks me how the weather is in English, and I answer “Hace fresco”, I have not thereby given a linguistic answer. But, I want to say, that is because it was merely a manner of speaking for me to answer in Spanish. The philosopher who answers in a three-valued language, or a fuzzy language, or an intuitionistic language, or a classical language thinks she has to answer in that language, because that is the right language in which to answer the question, or the only (kind of) language in which to state her theory of vagueness, then the answer is not merely a manner of speaking. The step of translation from the logical language to natural English is a necessary step for the philosopher to give the sort of answer she wants to give. I want to say that it is in virtue of this necessity that the original question is linguistic, at least relative to these sorts of answers grounded in logical metareflection.

I think it is reasonable to say that there is a sense in which a question is implicitly about language, relative to a kind of answer K, iff every member of K is in another language because it must, for the speaker’s most cherished purposes, be in another language. So it is, apparently, with the original question and its philosophical-type answers – or at least the original question and the philosophical-type answers that Williamson has on offer. I guess that if the deconstructionist wants to say (in English) that Mars was always both dry and not dry, because binary distinctions are always unstable and every inscription of both “Mars has always been dry” and “Mars has always not been dry” is internally contradictory, then we have a philosophical English-language answer to our English-language question. But that’s not the kind of philosophy we were talking about, right? Weren’t we looking for the right philosophy of analytic philosophy?