Monthly Archives: July 2008

OPP feed.

Wo has made public an automated feed for online papers in philosophy. This is a wonderfully useful resource… I’m gonna be using it lots.

I wonder whether other branches of academia have similar resources?

HT: Online papers in philosophy, Wo’s weblog

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Branching worlds

I’ve recently discovered some really interesting papers on how to think about belief in a future with branching time. Folks are interested in branching time as it (putatively) emerges out of “decoherence” in the Everett interpretation of standard Quantum mechanics.

The first paper linked to above is forthcoming in BJPS, by Simon Saunders and David Wallace. In it, they argue for a certain kind of parallel between the semantics for personal fission cases and the semantics most charitably applied to language users in branching time, and argue that this sheds lights on the way that beliefs should behave.

Now, lots of clever people are obviously thinking about this, and I haven’t absorbed all the discussion yet. But since it’s really cool stuff, and since I’ve been thinking about related material recently (charity-based metasemantics, fission cases, semantics in branching time) I thought I’d sit down and figure out how things look from my point of view.

I’m sceptical, in fact, whether personal fission itself (and associated de se uncertainty about who one will be) will really help us out here in the way that Saunders and Wallace think. Set aside for now the question of whether faced with a fission case you should feel uncertain which fission-product you will end up as (for discussion of that question, on the assumption that it’s indeterminate which of the Lewisian continuing persons is me, see the indeterminate survival paper I just posted up). But suppose that we do get some sense in which, when you’re about to fission, you have de se uncertainty about where you’ll be, even granted full knowledge of the de dicto facts.

The Saunders-Wallace idea is to try to generalize this de se ignorance as an explanation of the ignorance we’d have if we were placed in a branching universe, and knew what was to happen on every branch. We’d know all the de dicto truths about multiple futures—and we would literally be about to undergo fission, since I’d be causally related in the right kind of ways to multiple person stages in the different futures. So—they claim—ignorance of who I am maps onto ignorance of what I’m about to see next (whether I’m about to see the stuff in the left branch, or in the right). And that explains how we can get ignorance in a branching world, and so lays the groundwork for explaining how we can get a genuine notion of uncertainty/probability/degree of belief off the ground.

I’m a bit worried about the generality of the purported explanation. The basic thought there is that to get a complete story about beliefs in branching universes, we’re going to need to justify degrees of beliefs in matters that happen, if at all, long after we would go out of existence. And so it just doesn’t seem likely that we’re going to get a complete story about uncertainty from consideration of uncertainty about which branch I myself am located within.

To dramatize, consider an instantaneous, omniscient agent. She knows all the de dicto truths about the world (in every future branch) and also exactly where he is located—so no de se ignorance either. But still, this agent might care about other things, and have a certain degree of belief as to whether, e.g. the sea-battle will happen in the future. The kind of degree of belief she has (and any associated “ignorance”) can’t, I think, be a matter of de se ignorance. And I think, for events that happen if at all in the far future, we’re relevantly like the instantaneous omniscient agent.

What else can we do? Well—very speculatively—I think there’s some prospect for using the sort of charity-based considerations David Wallace has pointed to in the literature for getting a direct, epistemic account of why we should adopt this or that degree of belief in borderline cases. The idea would be that we *mimimize inaccuracy of our beliefs* by holding true sentences to exactly the right degrees.

A first caveat: this hangs on having the *right* kind of semantic theory in the background. A Thomason-style supervaluationist semantics for the branching future just won’t cut it, nor will MacFarlane-style relativistic tweaks. I think one way of generalizing the “multiple utterances” idea of Saunders and Wallace holds out some prospect of doing better—but best of all would be a degree-theoretic semantics.

A second caveat: what I’ve got (if anything) is epistemic reason for adopting certain kinds of graded attitude. It’s not clear to me that we have to think of these graded attitudes as a kind of uncertainty. And it’s not so clear why expected utility, as calculated from these attitudes, should be a guide to action. On the other hand, I don’t see clearly the argument that they *don’t* or *shouldn’t* have this pragmatic significance.

So I’ve written up a little note on some of these issues—the treatment of fission that Saunders-Wallace use, the worries about limitations to the de se defence, and some of the ideas about accuracy-based defences of graded beliefs in a branching world. It’s very drafty (far more so than anything I usually put up as work in progres). To some extent it seems like a big blog post, so I thought I’d link to it from here in that spirit. Comments very welcome!

Indeterminate survival: in draft

So, finally, I’ve got another draft prepared. This is a paper focussing on Bernard Williams’ concerns about how to think and feel about indeterminacy in questions of one’s own survival.

Suppose that you know that you know there’s an individual in the future who’s going to get harmed. Should you invest a small amount of money to alleviate the harm? Should you feel anxious about the harm?

Well, obviously if you care about the guy (or just have a modicum of humanity) you probably should. But if it was *you* that was going to suffer the harm, there’d be a particularly distinctive frisson. From a prudential point of view, you’d be compelled to invest minor funds for great benefit. And you really should have that distinctive first-personal phenomenology associated with anxiety on one’s own behalf. Both of these de se attitudes seem important features of our mental life and evaluations.

The puzzle I take from Williams is: are the distinctively first-personal feelings and expectations appropriate in a case where you know that it’s indeterminate whether you survive as the individual who’s going to suffer?

Williams thought that by reflecting on such questions, we could get an argument against account of personal identity that land us with indeterminate cases of survival. I’d like to play the case in a different direction. It seems to me pretty unavoidable that we’ll end up favouring accounts of personal identity that allow for indeterminate cases. So if , when you combine such cases with this or that theory of indeterminacy, you end up saying silly things, I want to take that as a blow to that account of indeterminacy.

It’s not knock-down (what is in philosophy?) but I do think that we can get leverage in this way against rejectionist treatments of indeterminacy, at least as applied to these kind of cases. Rejectionist treatments include those folks who think that characteristic attitudes to borderline cases includes primarily a rejection of the law of excluded middle; and (probably) those folks who think that in such cases we should reject bivalence, even if LEM itself is retained.

In any case, this is definitely something I’m looking for feedback/comments on (particularly on the material on how to think about rational constraints on emotions, which is rather new territory for me). So thoughts very welcome!

Primitivism about indeterminacy: a worry

I’m quite tempted by the view that it is indeterminate that might be one of those fundamental, brute bits of machinery that goes into constructing the world. Imagine, for example, you’re tempted by the thought that in a strong sense the future is “open”, or “unfixed”. Now, maybe one could parlay that into something epistemic (lack of knowledge of what the future is to be), or semantic (indecision over which of the existing branching futures is “the future”) or maybe mere non-existence of the future would capture some of this unfixity thought. But I doubt it. (For discussion of what the openness of the future looks like from this perspective, see Ross and Elizabeth’s forthcoming Phil Studies piece).

The open future is far from the only case you might consider—I go through a range of possible arenas in which one might be friendly to a distinctively metaphysical kind of indeterminacy in this paper—and I think treating “indeterminacy” as a perfectly natural bit of kit is an attractive way to develop that. And, if you’re interested in some further elaboration and defence of this primitivist conception see this piece by Elizabeth and myself—and see also Dave Barnett’s rather different take on a similar idea in a forthcoming piece in AJP (watch out for the terminological clashes–Barnett wants to contrast his view with that of “indeterminists”. I think this is just a different way of deploying the terminology.)

I think everyone should pay more attention to primitivism. It’s a kind of “null” response to the request for an account of indeterminacy—and it’s always interesting to see why the null response is unavailable. I think we’ll learn a lot about what the compulsory questions the a theory of indeterminacy must answer, from seeing what goes wrong when the theory of indeterminacy is as minimal as you can get.

But here I want to try to formulate a certain kind of objection to primitivism about indeterminacy. Something like this has been floating around in the literature—and in conversations!—for a while (Williamson and Field, in particular, are obvious sources for it). I also think the objection if properly formulated would get at something important that lies behind the reaction of people who claim *just not to understand* what a metaphysical conception of indeterminacy would be. (If people know of references where this kind of idea is dealt with explicitly, then I’d be really glad to know about them).

The starting assumption is: saying “it’s an indeterminate case” is a legitimate answer to the query “is that thing red?”. Contrast the following. If someone asks “is that thing red?” and I say: it’s contingent whether it’s red”, then I haven’t made a legitimate conversational move. The information I’ve given is simply irrelevant to it’s actual redness.

So it’s a datum that indeterminacy-answers are in some way relevant to redness (or whatever) questions. And it’s not just that “it is indeterminate whether it is red” has “it is red” buried within it – so does the contingency “answer”, but it is patently irrelevant.

So what sort of relevance does it have? Here’s a brief survey of some answers:

(1) Epistemicist. “It’s indeterminate whether p” has the sort of relevance that answering “I don’t know whether p” has. Obviously it’s not directly relevant to the question of whether p, but at least expresses the inability to give a definitive answer.

(2) Rejectionist (like truth-value gap-ers, inc. certain supervaluationists, and LEM-deniers like Field, intuitionists). Answering “it’s indeterminate” communicates information which, if accepted, should lead you to reject both p, and not-p. So it’s clearly relevant, since it tells the inquirer what their attitudes to p itself should be.

(3) Degree theorist (whether degree-supervaluationist like Lewis, Edgington, or degree-functional person like Smith, Machina, etc). Answering “it’s indeterminate” communicates something like the information that p is half-true. And, at least on suitable elaborations of degree theory, we’ll then now how to shape our credences in p itself: we should have credence 0.5 in p if we have credence 1 that p is half true.

(4) Clarification request. (maybe some contextualists?) “it’s indeterminate that p” conveys that somehow the question is ill-posed, or inappropriate. It’s a way of responding whereby we refuse to answer the question as posed, but invite a reformulation. So we’re asking the person who asked “is it red?” to refine their question to something like “is it scarlet?” or “is it reddish?” or “is it at least not blue?” or “does it have wavelength less than such-and-such?”.

(For a while, I think, it was assumed that every series account of indeterminacy would say that if p was indeterminate, one couldn’t know p (think of parallel discussion of “minimal” conceptions of vagueness—see Patrick Greenough’s Mind paper). If that was right then (1) would be available to everybody. But I don’t think that that’s at all obvious — and in particular, I don’t think it’s obvious the primitivist would endorse it, and if they did, what grounds they would have for saying so).

There are two readings of the challenge we should pull apart. One is purely descriptive. What kind of relevance does indeterminacy have, on the primitivist view? The second is justificatory: why does it have that relevance? Both are relevant here, but the first is the most important. Consider the parallel case of chance. There we know what, descriptively, we want the relevance of “there’s a 20% chance that p” to be: someone learning this information should, ceteris paribus, fix their credence in p to 0.2. And there’s a real question about whether a metaphysical primitive account of chance can justify that story (that’s Lewis’s objection to a putative primitivist treatment of chance facts).

The justification challenge is important, and how exactly to formulate a reasonable challenge here will be a controversial matter. E.g. maybe route (4), above, might appeal to the primitivist. Fine—but why is that response the thing that indeterminacy-information should prompt? I can see the outlines of a story if e.g. we were contextualists. But I don’t see what the primitivist should say.

But the more pressing concern right now is that for the primitivist about indeterminacy, we don’t as yet have a helpful answer to the descriptive question. So we’re not even yet in a position to start engaging with the justificatory project. This is what I see as the source of some dissatisfaction with primitivism – the sense that as an account it somehow leaves something unimportant explained. Until the theorist has told me something more I’m at a loss about what to do with the information that p is indeterminate

Furthermore, at least in certain applications, one’s options on the descriptive question are constrained. Suppose, for example, that you want to say that the future is indeterminate. But you want to allow that one can rationally have different credences for different future events. So I can be 50/50 on whether the sea battle is going to happen tomorrow, and almost certain I’m not about to quantum tunnel through the floor. Clearly, then, nothing like (2) or (3) is going on, where one can read off strong constraints on strength of belief in p from the information that p is indeterminate. (1) doesn’t look like a terribly good model either—especially if you think we can sometimes have knowledge of future facts.

So if you think that the future is primitively unfixed, indeterminate, etc—and friends of mine do—I think (a) you owe a response to the descriptive challenge; (b) then we can start asking about possible justifications for what you say; (c) your choices for (a) are very constrained.

I want to finish up by addressing one response to the kind of questions I’ve been pressing. I ask: what is the relevance of answering “it’s indeterminate” to first-order questions? How should I alter my beliefs in receipt of the information, what does it tell me about the world or the epistemic state of my informant?

You might be tempted to say that your informant communicates, minimally, that it’s at best indeterminate whether she knows that p. Or you might try claiming that in such circumstances it’s indeterminate whether you *should* believe p (i.e. there’s no fact of the matter as to how you should shape your credences on the question of whether p). Arguably, you can derive these from the determinate truth of certain principles (determinacy, truth as the norm of belief, etc) plus a bit of logic. Now, that sort of thing sounds like progress at first glance – even if it doesn’t lay down a recipe for shaping my beliefs, it does sound like it says something relevant to the question of what to do with the information. But I’m not sure about that it really helps. After all, we could say exactly parallel things with the “contingency answer” to the redness question with which we began. Saying “it’s contingent that p” does entail that it’s contingent at best whether one knows that p, and contingent at best whether one should believe p. But that obviously doesn’t help vindicate contingency-answers to questions of whether p. So it seems that the kind of indeterminacy-involving elaborations just given, while they may be *true*, don’t really say all that much.

More wordle clouds…

This is very fun. Wordle clouds for two papers I’m working on right now. (Click through for full effect):

HT: Crooked Timber.

1-year Research fellowship—University of Leeds.

The department of philosophy at Leeds is currently advertising for the following 1-year research fellowship position.  This is a really nice opportunity to do pretty much full time research for a year and get paid at a good level for doing so, in a very friendly and supportive athmosphere. (Previous holders of this post include Ross Cameron (now continuing lecturer at Leeds) and Stephan Leuenberger (now continuing lecturer at Glasgow).)

School of Humanities – Department of Philosophy

Research Fellow

(Full-time, fixed term for 1 year)

This post is partially sponsored by the Centre for Metaphysics and Mind, which is based in the Department. Research interests in metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, philosophy of logic, philosophy of mathematics or epistemology are desirable. Areas of general research interest should include metaphysics, although research specialisation in this area is not essential. You will be expected to make a substantial contribution to the research life of the Department.

You will have completed, or be close to completing, a doctorate in Philosophy, and will be able to provide evidence of excellent research potential. The post is open to candidates who already hold a postdoctoral award.

For general information see http://www.philosophy.leeds.ac.uk

University Grade 7 (£28,290 – £33,780 p.a.)

Informal enquiries to Professor Steven French, Head of Department, tel +44 (0)113 343 4112, email s.r.d.french@leeds.ac.uk.

To apply on line please visit http://www.leeds.ac.uk and click on ‘jobs’. Alternatively application packs are available via email recruitment@admin.leeds.ac.uk tel+44 (0)113 343 5771.

Job ref 316123 Closing date 6 August 2008

Interviews will be held on August 25th

Applicants should ensure that references and two writing samples are submitted by the closing date.

Funded PhD Studentship at Leeds 2008-2011

Department of Philosophy
University of Leeds
PhD Studentship in Theoretical Philosophy
The Department of Philosophy intends to offer a Studentship in Theoretical Philosophy to a suitably qualified candidate for its full-time or part-time PhD programme. The studentship is tenable for 3yr (f-t) or 6yr (p-t) from October 2008 and has both tuition and maintenance components: the tuition component will be equivalent to the full EU PhD fee (currently £3.3k p.a. f-t) and the maintenance component will be equivalent to that of the AHRC Doctoral award (currently £12.6k p.a. f-t).The award is conditional on successful application for admission to study for PhD in the Department. However, applicants need not apply for admission prior to application for this studentship. Renewal of the studentship each year is subject to satisfactory progress towards PhD completion.
The successful applicant will undertake a PhD project in the area of Theoretical Philosophy broadly construed and will be supervised by Dr.Robert Williams, Reader in Theoretical Philosophy (http://www.philosophy.leeds.ac.uk/Staff/JRGW/index.html). For a range of preferred research topics, see link there to Dr.Williams’ personal home page.
The Department operates a professional training and development scheme for postgraduates: as part of this scheme, successful applicants are often given the opportunity to undertake teaching, which is paid at an hourly rate. The Department also offers its PhD students financial support for conference attendance.
Applications should consist in 6 copies of a CV which includes a 500 word PhD-proposal: applicants should also arrange for 2 academic referees to submit references directly to the Department.
All applications and references should be marked Studentship in Theoretical Philosophy, and addressed to Ms Jenneke Stevens, Postgraduate Secretary, Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK email j.m.stevens@leeds.ac.uk tel 0113 343 3263 fax 0113 343 3265.
Closing date 15 August 2008.
The University of Leeds promotes excellence in teaching, learning and research.
We welcome applications from all sections of the community.
All information is available in alternative formats – please contact 0113 343 5771.