Monday, October 30, 2006



So this weekend has been the conference on justification, with participants from UT, from UNAM in Mexico City, and elsewhere. The main point of the conference was to forge ties between philosophers in South America and those in North America, and I think (and hope) that all involved were very pleased by the fruitfulness of the interaction that took place this weekend.

I also got to meet a bunch of people I've wanted to meet for a while. I met Matt Weiner and Clayton Littlejohn - I've often thought that it's a shame there isn't more interaction between the epistemologicists in Texas right now, and I'm delighted this event proved an opportunity to partially rectify that. I also got to talk to Rob Stainton for a while last night - I met Rob when I was at UWO to talk about set theory last spring, and it was good to get a chance to catch up with him. Rob was a postdoc at UNAM, and has remained committed to encouraging interaction between South- and North-American philosophers. And I got to have a very interesting conversation with Ernest Sosa about various topics in epistemology I've been thinking about, which was a complete pleasure. Thanks to all involved for a stimulating weekend, and to Mark, David, Nadia and Karen for all their efforts organising everything.

While I'm on the theme of conferences, I can reveal that the Faculty roundtable for this year's graduate conference will be on epistemic normativity, and will feature Dan Bonevac, Jonathan Dancy and David Sosa. The full CFP will be out very very soon; watch this space.

Via Ole, I see that the programme for the Arche graduate conference next month is now online. It looks great - I only wish I could be there for that and the Basic Knowledge workshop happening the week after. (Thanks to Ole for plugging our conference too)


Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Needing closure

I've been thinking some more about the role of the epistemic closure principle in Hawthorne's presentation of issues generated by the lottery paradox. Hawthorne argues, and with great force, that respecting (at least single-premise) closure is an adequacy constraint on any proposed solution to the lottery proposition. But it's hard not to feel that some of the proposals he discusses respect the letter of closure whilst doing considerable violence to its spirit.

Hawthorne writes:

'As Williamson remarks, such principles articulate what is an extremely intuitive idea, namely that 'deduction is a way of extending one's knowledge' (2000:117). (Consider, for example, the paradigmatic status of mathematical knowledge that proceeds by way of deductive proof).'
(Knowledge and Lotteries: 33. Author's fn suppressed. The reference to Williamson is, of course, to Knowledge and its Limits)

Once some solutions to the lottery paradox are tabled, however, this 'extremely intuitive idea' simply goes AWOL. To fix ideas a little, let me explicitly state the formulation of (single-premise) closure that Hawthorne thinks we need to hang on to:

SPC: Necessarily, if S knows p, competently deduces q, and thereby comes to believe q, while retaining knowledge of p throughout, then S knows q. (34)

And here's an informal statement of the lottery paradox:

I know that I won't have enough money to go on a very expensive dream cruise this year. My lacking sufficient funds for the cruise entails that I won't win the major lottery that I have just bought a ticket for. But until the draw is made and the outcome announced, I don't know that my ticket is a loser.

Paradox ensures once we realise that SPC seems to straightforwardly deliver the result that I do know that my ticket will lose.

Contextualism about 'knows' gains a great deal of appeal from its elegant attempt to do justice both to the Moorean intuition that I do in fact know a great many things about my near(ish) future (such as that I won't be able to afford the cruise this year), and the intuition that I can't know that my ticket will lose in advance of the draw, whilst preserving SPC. The basic thought is that what appears to be a failure of closure is really a context shift (in which, perhaps, certain possibilities become salient), so that the semantic value of 'knows' when it appears in the first premise is different from the semantic value of 'knows' when it appears in the third premise. (82)

So far from competent deduction extending one's knowledge, in this case it actually shifts you into a context where you know less. (Well, this is kinda careless. But I don't really want to get bogged down stating the point as it strictly speaking should be stated).

If anything, things are even worse when we consider the sensitive invariantism Hawthorne tentatively endorses's attempt to preserve SPC. (Actually, on second look, I can't find any discussion in that section specifically on how to preserve SPC. But what follows draws on 176-80 and 160-1). As will be perfectly familiar to readers of this blog, these kinds of invariantist positions make whether or not a subject's true belief counts as knowledge depend in part on their practical enviroment (with different views suggesting different accounts of that dependency). The idea for Hawthorne's version of the view seems to be that I start off reasoning from a known premise, perform a competent deduction, and thereby come to believe that my ticket won't win the lottery. But this latter belief doesn't count as knowledge, since it would be unacceptable for me to employ it as a premise in my practical reasoning (176). Although this again looks like a failure of closure, in fact my knowledge of the premise is detroyed; since SPC requires competent deduction and belief-formation throughout which I retain my knowledge of the premise, there's no violation of SPC.

And again, the intuitive idea that competent deduction extends one's knowledge is clearly a casualty. Now, Hawthorne does give a bunch of motivations for preserving SPC that are entirely independent of the intuitive idea, so I still accept his point that solutions to the lottery paradox that respect that principle deserve more points that those that don't. But the violence done to the intuitive thought is nonetheless a cost of these views which Hawthorne glosses over entirely, as far as I can tell.

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UCLA-USC Graduate Conference

The call for papers has just gone out for the second joint UCLA-USC graduate conference, organised again by Lewis Powell, Robert Shanklin, and others. The first conference, back last February, was a lot of fun, so I'd really recommend submitting if you're are able to.

The conference takes place on the 24th of February, and the keynote speaker is Fred Dretske (Duke). Papers are due by Thanksgiving - see the CFP for details.


Monday, October 23, 2006


UT Austin 2007 Graduate Conference!

Briggs Wright, myself, and the other members of the organising committee for the 2007 UT Austin Graduate Conference are delighted to announce that the conference will take place on the 27th and 28th of April, and that the keynote speakers will be:

Karen Bennett (Princeton): metaphysics and philosophy of mind

Achille Varzi (Columbia): logic, formal semantics and metaphysics

It's going to be hard to top last year's conference, but we're going to give it a damn good shot. Many thanks to Professors Bennett and Varzi for agreeing to be a part of this. A proper call for papers, with further details about the conference, will go out shortly.


Sunday, October 22, 2006



There's a bunch of interesting things coming up at UT Austin over the next while. Let me start by saying that the keynote speakers for this year's grad conference have been decided, and I'll post a preliminary announcement within the next couple of days (with a proper CFP to follow shortly after that).

This weekend there's a conference on Justification organised by Mark Sainsbury. Since there doesn't seem to be a schedule anywhere else online, here it is:

FRIDAY 10/27

9.15 Coffee
9.45 Welcome by David Sosa

10-11.30 Pedro Stepanenko (response: Cory Juhl)

'A non-representationist interpretation of Kant's position against skepticism'

11.45-1 Jonathan Sutton (response: Claudia Lorena Garcia)

'There are no rational pairs of contradictory beliefs (whatever some philosophers of language say)'

1-2 Lunch

2.15-3.15 Angeles Erana

'The dual system theory: a way to bridge the gap between internalism and externalism'

3.30-5 Ernest Sosa

'The epistemology of disagreement'


9.30 Coffee

10-11.30 Miguel Angel Fernandez (response: David Sosa)

'Internalist intuitions, the metaphysics of supervenience and the explanatory demands of epistemic defeat'

11.45-1 Sergio Martinez and Huang Xiang (response: Josh Dever)

'Implications of content-externalism for justification-externalism'

1-2 Lunch

2-3 Matt Weiner

'How to think about justification'

3.15-4.15 Jorge Ornelas

'Pyrrhonism and Externalism'

4.30-5.30 Jim Hankinson


I'm looking forward to having Ernest Sosa in town, and I've been trying to get Matt Weiner down here for about a year now, so I'm pleased that has worked out so well. But most intriguing of all is what's going to happen between 2 and 2.15 on Friday.......

Then on the 3rd-5th of November there's the Texas Lingusitics Society 10, organised by (amongst others) Elias Ponvert and Alexis Palmer. It's not really on a topic I know anything about, so I'm not sure how much of it I'll go to. But Mark Liberman of Language Log fame is giving a talk, so I'll at least be at that and any others that sound both interesting and managable.


Saturday, October 21, 2006


The scope of Dummett's arguments against realism

As soon as you start to look at Dummett's arguments against realism (discussed in the previous post), the issue of their scope becomes really important. There seem to me to be two main issues here (though there are no doubt others I'm just not sensitive to yet). The first is the modus tollens argument sketched by Dummett in 'Wang's Paradox' and discussed in detail in Wright's 'Strict Finitism'. (I'm grateful to Ofra Magidor, for I assume it was she, for forcing me to rethink the significance of this argument after an exchange on TAR). The suggestion is that intuitionism in the philosophy of mathematics isn't a stable resting place; the best arguments in favour of intuitionism over realism about mathematics also favour some kind of strict finitist position over intuitionism. And if strict finitism should prove to be incoherent (as Dummett suggested), that casts suspicion on the intuitionist's original arguments.

It's the second issue about scope I want to discuss here. Dummett has often been taken as offering arguments in favour of global anti-realism, i.e. realism about every domain of discourse. Now, Wright's Truth and Objectivity offered a view of realism/anti-realism debates according to which these battles were to be fought locally over some disputed class of statements: mathematical statements or statements about the past, say. It's perhaps insufficiently appreciated that Dummett saw these debates being settled locally too. Here's a quote from a 1969 paper:

'Perhaps the most interesting question about realism is precisely whether global anti-realism is coherent: for, if it is not coherent, then there must at least be some restrictions on the applicability of the anti-realist argument, and, by finding out what these are, we may hope to take a large step towards seeing how to resolve the various particular disputes. There are a number of reasons for doubting whether global anti-realism is coherent, for instance: behaviourism is one species of anti-realism, namely a rejection of realism concerning mental states and processes; phenomenalism is another species, namely the rejection of realism concerning physical objects and processes; it immediately occurs to us to wonder whether it is possible consistently to maintain an anti-realist position simultaneously in both regards.'
(Dummett T&OE: 367-8)

And from a much later, 1993 paper:

'My original intention had been to prompt what is called a ‘research programme’ in the form of a comparative study of disputes over realism. It had struck me that a variety of different traditional disputes within philosophy took the form of an opposition between a realist view of some particular subject-matter and a rejection of realism concerning that subject-matter; often one side in the dispute was conventionally labeled ‘realist’, though in other cases not. It appeared to me that no agreed method of settling these disputes was available, and that philosophers picked sides in them on the basis of predilection, not because they had discovered a means of resolving them. It further appeared to me that there was a striking parallelism in the arguments used on both sides in each of these disputes, so that, if one prescinded from the particular subject-matter, one could exhibit the abstract structure of the dispute. No two of the disputes seemed to me to be completely isomorphic, so as to have an identical abstract structure in common; but the structures were so similar that it seemed to me fruitful to propose that we should make a comparative study of them, from which, I hoped, principles would emerge for deciding in which cases the realist was in the right and in which cases his opponent.

I was understood, however, not as proposing a research programme, but as putting forward a specific philosophical thesis of great generality: not as suggesting a comparative study of a range of structurally similar problems case by case, but as advancing a single unitary thesis.'
(Dummett, The Seas of Language, 1993: 465-6)

The obvious problem is that the arguments Dummett put forward on the anti-realist's behalf turned on perfectly general questions in the theory of meaning rather than any distinctive features of a certain class of local realism/anti-realism debates; the arguments look like they'll settle every debate in the anti-realist's favour, if they go through at all. As Crispin puts the point: 'the best of the anti-realist arguments have a generality which makes it hard to see how they could succeed anywhere unless sucessful everywhere' (Realism, Meaning & Truth: 2-3). Dummett's suggestion in the 1969 passage quoted above that part of the project of resolving these debates will be to discover the limits of the anti-realist's arguments is fascinating, but the nature of the arguments makes it very hard to see how there could be such limits. This is the second issue concerning their scope.

Unfortunately, Dummett wasn't very consistent on this point as far as I can tell. After reading the 1969 passage, one could be forgiven for being somewhat surprised to find Dummett writing in a famous paper written just four years later:

'It follows that, is so far as an intuitionist position in the philosophy of mathematics (or, at least, the acceptance of an intuitionistic logic for mathematics) is supported by an argument of this first type [I think he's here referring to the manifestation argument, but I'm not quite sure], similar, though not necessarily identical, revisions must be made in the logic accepted for statements of other kinds. What is involved is a thesis in the theory of meaning of the highest possible generality. Such a thesis is vunerable in many places: if it should prove that it cannot be coherently applied to any one region of discourse, to any one class of statements, then the thesis cannot be generally true, and the general argument in favour of it must be fallacious. Construed in this way, therefore, a position in the philosophy of mathematics will be capable of being undermined by considerations which have nothing directly to do with mathematics at all.' ('The Philosophical Basis of Intuitionistic Logic' in T&OE: 227)

This is a startling passage. First of all, it's hard to square Dummett's observation here that '[w]hat is involved here is a thesis [...] of the highest possible generality' with his later surprise that people took him to be putting forward 'a specific philosophical thesis of great generality' (see the 1993 quote above).

More surprising, of course, are the related suggestions that anti-realism must be global, and that if it we discover it cannot be defended for any class of statements, that teaches us not something important about the scope of the anti-realist arguments, but that those arguments 'must be fallacious'.

The 1969 paper ('The Reality of the Past') and the 1973 paper are two of Dummett's most famous contributions to these debate. It's bizarre (almost Russell-esque) to find him expousing such different views on this clearly very important issue within such a short period of time. It's hard not to suspect that the 1973, more pessimistic attitude must be correct. That said though, the 1969 suggestion that there is something interesting and important that can be learned about the scope of Dummett's arguments remains seductive, albeit ellusive. But that's par for the course.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Acquisition and Compositionality

I'm doing an independent study this semester with Dan Bonevac on semantic anti-realism, and this is an important issue which we spend a couple of weeks puzzling over. Let me introduce the debate as briefly as I know how before getting to the issue at hand.

A semantic realist holds the following two theses. Firstly, that understanding is knowledge of truth-conditions. Secondly, that the truth-conditions of some sentences can obtain or fail to obtain unknowably. But Michael Dummett suggested that realism so characterised gives a bad picture of what understanding a declarative sentence consists in, one that fails to take account of insights that can be distilled from the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein. Here's Alex Miller's summary of Dummett's complaints against the realist's claim that understanding could consist in knowledge of potentially verification-transcendent truth-conditions:

'...if our understanding of some sentences of D [D is some disputed aread of discourse, mathematics say] is constituted by grasp of potentially recognition-transcendent truth-conditions, how could we have acquired that understanding, given that our training in the use of sentences is a training to respond to situations which we are, necessarily, capable of recognising to obtain when they obtain? And if our understanding of some sentences of D is constituted by grasp of potentially recognition-transcendent truth conditions, how could we manifest that understanding in our use of those sentences, given that the situations to which we respond are, necessarily, situations which we are capable of recognising to obtain when they obtain?' (Miller 2002: 353)

These two challenges to realism have become known, for obvious reasons, as the acquisition challenge and the manfestation challenge. It's the acquisition challenge that I'll be concerned with here.

Last week Dan and I reread Dummett's classic 1959 paper 'Truth'. It's striking just how ahead of its time this paper is. For example, we were reflecting on the fact that the Investigations has only been in print for 6 years by the time this paper is published, and that Davidson's 'Truth and Meaning' is almost a decade away. It's also striking that there's pretty much no foreshadowing of the manifestation challenge in this paper, but there is a preliminary version of the acquisition challenge (see Truth and Other Enigmas: 17-8). The challenge gets developed throughout Dummett's extensive writings on these topics (which I'm still trying to acquaint myself with), but for me Dummett's own statements of the challenge have always been a little elusive. One of the clearer statements (or at least one of the statements I think I understand best) comes in Wright's introduction to Realism, Meaning & Truth:

'How are we supposed to be able to form any understanding of what it is for a particular statement to be true if the kind of state of affairs it would take to make it true is conceived, ex hypothesi, as something beyond our experience, something which we cannot confirm and which is insulated from any distinctive impact on our consciousness. Obviously such a conception cannot be bestowed ostensively. And the challenge is simply declined if the answer is offered, 'by description'. For it is of our ability to form an understanding of precisely such a description that an account is being demanded; there could be no better description of the relevant kind of state if affairs than the very statement in question.' (13)

Wright remarks: 'This is a pleasantly simple line of argument.'

Nonetheless, as Alex Millar has been keen to point out in a couple of his papers, both Wright and Hale have basically conceded that the acquisition challenge can be met, at least when it's presented in any strong form (Wright, for example, thinks there's still a challenge to the realist in the area, but that its force is parasitic on that of the manifestation challenge. See p16).

The passages where this concession is made are puzzling. Each makes a crucial concession to the realist in a single sentence, and without any reasons offered for why the anti-realist should concede so much. Here's Wright, from the intro again, and with the sentence in question italicized:

'...the most glaring example of our ability to work with concepts which transgress the limits of what we have actually experienced is provided by the understanding each of us has of no end of sentences in our language which we have never previously heard. The anti-realist can hardly deny that we have such an ability in general. Moreover his position will lose any credibility unless he can dissociate it from the old positivist dogma that untestable statements are meaningless. So he should grant that we are able to understand statements of the kind for which he finds the realist interpretation problematic; his quarrell is not with the supposition that we do have such understanding, but only with the realist account of it. But now the realist seems to have a very simply answer. Given that the understanding of statements in general is to be viewed as consisting in possession of a concept of their truth-conditions, acquiring a concept of an evidence-transcendent state of affairs is simply a matter of acquiring an understanding of a statement for which that state of affairs would constitute the truth-condition. And such an understanding is acquired, like the understanding of any previously unheard sentence in the language, by understanding the constituent words and the significance of their mode of combination.' (15-6)

So intially the challenge was to show how we could form a concept of what it would be for there to be sentences with verfication-transcendent truth-conditions, given that we learn a language through a process of training in use, and thus through learning how to respond to, to quote Miller again, 'situations which we are capable of recognising to obtain when they obtain'. The italicized phrase concedes that all it takes to meet this challenge is to show how we can, in a manner consistent with this view of language-acquisition, come to understand one of the sentences for which the anti-realist finds the realist account of understanding bankrupt. And now the answer is easy; compositionality does all the work.

But why on earth should we think that's all it takes to meet Dummett's challenge? Wright doesn't say.

Here's the relevant passage by Hale, again with my italics:

'...a very simple response is available: we come by a grasp of realist truth-conditions by coming to understand sentences having those truth-conditions, and we come to understand such sentences in just the way in which we come to understand the vast majority of sentences in our language, by understanding their words and semantically significant syntax.' ('Realism and its Oppositions' in the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Language: 279)

Again, nothing at all is offered to suggest why the anti-realist is forced to concede the point in italics. Maybe it's obvious, but it certainly isn't obvious to me.

I need to finish reading Miller's 'What is the Acquisition Argument?', though the sections on this compositionality point I've read thus far sadly didn't shed much light on my particular point of confusion. I'm also guessing there might be some discussion in the literature on truth-value links concerning the past and other minds (for example, work by McDowell and Peacocke), where I think I similar move must be made to the one made in these italicized phrases. But I feel I need to do some serious further investigation.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006


String Theory Summarized

For those of you too busy to read even 'The Elegant Universe':

(As ever, check out xkcd. Updates are usually Monday, Wednesday and Friday.)


Saturday, October 14, 2006


Pragmatic Encroachment and Scepticism

The world is still waiting for Hawthorne and Stanley's joint paper on the relationship between knowledge and practical reasoning, expanding on the interesting but overly-brief remarks each made in their respective books. In the meantime, I'm finally reading Fantl and McGrath's 'Evidence, Pragmatics, and Justification' from 2002's Philosophical Review. They provide an extended argument for the dependence of knowledge on pragmatic considerations, and in particular they argue for various principles of increasing strength relating knowledge to rational action.

I'm worried that the principle they end up with has the result that if you know that p, it's rational to take pretty much any bet on whether p (so long as the bet isn't such that you're worse off if you win too). Here's Fantl and McGrath's principle:

S is justified in believing that p only if, for all acts A, S is rational to do A, given p, iff S is rational to do A, in fact. (78)

(One quick note about terminology. By 'S is justified is believing that p' they mean 'that S has good enough evidence to know that p' (67fn). So this really is meant to be a necessary condition on knowledge, and I'll continue to talk about knowledge rather than justification.)

Let the bet be as follows. If p, then S wins $1. If ~p, then I win S's salary each month plus the deeds to S's house. I don't have an argument for this, but my intuitions are that S is rational to take the bet, given p, but probably not rational to take the bet in fact. And I'm willing to hold fast to these calls despite not having said anything about what p is. (If that seems implausible, just up the stakes of the bet even further, so that the consequences of losing are really really dire.) So I'm inclined to agree with John Hawthorne when he writes:

'I wouldn't even bet on the law of noncontradiction at any odds, and I think myself rational on that score.' (Knowledge and Lotteries, p29fn72)

I'm worried, therefore, that Fantl and McGrath have just given us the materials for a sceptical argument, and one with unusually enormous scope; as the quote from Hawthorne brings out, it could extend to supposed paradigms of a priori knowledge.

But hang on. Isn't this just the main thesis behind sensitive invariantism of this sort; what one knows varies with how high the stakes are? When the consequences of a subject's being wrong about p are sufficiently dire, then that subject doesn't know that p.

Well, that's true, but usually we're talking about the stakes given a particular context. A subject who faces financial ruin if she doesn't cash a cheque by the end of the weekend doesn't know that the bank will be open on saturday; a subject who's career depends on getting somewhere by a certain time doesn't know whether the train she is on stop at her station just from overhearing a stranger say so, etc. Were the practical facts about those subjects otherwise, which of their true beliefs count as knowledge might be otherwise too.

But look again at Fantl and McGrath's principle. It doesn't mention contexts or scenarios or practical facts. It just has that big ol' fat 'for all acts' quantifier. So a subject fails to know that p so long as there is some act for which the embedded biconditional fails. I'm suggesting betting at ridiculous odds on p is potentially always going to be such an act, for any p. If so, scepticism abounds.

Now, Fantl and McGrath do address something like this worry. They write:

' might seem that we are imposing an unduly severe restriction on justification and therefore knowledge. There will be some cases in which in order to have knowledge, one will need to have absolute certainty, or something close to it. These will be cases in which something of great importance hinges on whether a belief is true. Doesn't this make the requirements of knowledge too demanding? Can't we have knowledge without absolute certainty?
We can. Nor does our view entail otherwise. After all, in Train Case 1 [a low-stakes case], our view is consistent with the claim that you know that the train is going to Foxboro, even though you have only the evidence of casual testimony. There are many cases--in fact, most cases like this--in which we have knowledge without having a strong form of certainty. Requiring certainty in these cases would be otiose. Our account requires certainty for knowledge only in cases in which certainty is important--its importance consisting in the fact that it is required for being rational to prefer and act as it the relevant proposition is true. This should give the skeptic no consolation.' (79)

This sounds like just what they should be saying to meet the worry expressed above. The problem is, it's just not at all clear how to square these remarks with what their principle actually states. The principle stated above requires, for knowledge that p, that there be no act A such that it is rational to do A given p, but not in fact rational to do A. I don't see how whether the subject in question is in a high-stakes or a low-stakes scenario has any bearing on whether there is such an act A. But maybe I'm missing something important.

Update: Kenny raises a good concern about how I'm understanding Fantl and McGrath's principle in the comments.

Further update: And Jeremy Fantl has generously pointed out that I am indeed missing important things.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Philosophy Dissertations

Just on the off-chance that my readers aren't a proper subset of the readers of Leiter Reports, let me point out Josh Dever's latest online project. He's started collecting philosophy dissertations and putting them online in a standardish format, or posting links to pdf files that are already online. There's only a few up so far, and already there's some really interesting looking stuff - Josh's is there, along with David Sosa's. Sider, MacFarlane and Michael Fara are also represented. And last but certainly not least is Robbie William's thesis, which I still intend to take a serious look at some day.

This seems like a great project. There's a few dissertations I'd be willing to campaign to get online, and I'm sure other people will have their own suggestions. Check out Josh's site here.

I wonder if I can just submit a print out of this blog as my thesis............


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