Archive for November, 2008
I knew virtually nothing about this debate before the meeting and found the paper very helpful in setting out the landscape. My biggest concern with the main argument is that the authors don’t say enough to rule out a ‘location-general’ reading of utterances like ‘it’s raining’, according to which the semantic content of the utterance is true if and only if it is raining anywhere in the world at the context of utterance. They focus instead on a ‘location-neutral’ reading of the utterance, according to which the semantic content of the utterance is true if and only if it is raining at the context of utterance (forget where it’s raining.)
It seems open to reject this location-neutral sense altogether, recognise only the location-general sense, and then use the location-general sense to analyse all of the propositions which C&L apply their location-neutral sense to. Perhaps this is the position taken by Recanati – but in the footnote C&L don’t say enough to be sure. This seems frustrating, as it’s the most natural way a friend of unarticulated constituents might go when faced with the cases C&L discuss.
If we think in terms of an opponent who wants to take this line, C&L’s argument starts to look pretty weak. Their ‘first exercise’, involving claims 7)-10), asks us to intuit that ‘rain’, as an abstract mass noun, is used in a location-neutral sense, and then move (analogically?) from this to the claim that ‘rains’, the verb, has a location-neutral sense. Even if we grant C&L’s intuitions about 7)-10), it seems quite reasonable to resist drawing any conclusions about ‘rains’ from them. Maybe something unusual about abstract mass nouns (and they have plenty of unusual features) accounts for the location-neutrality of 7)-10).
So looked at as an argument rather than as an imaginative exercise, this passage seems easily resistable. And there is prima facie reason to think that there isn’t a location-neutral proposition expressed by utterances of ‘it’s raining’ that is distinct from the location-general proposition ‘it’s raining somewhere or other’ (of course, C&L don’t deny that the location-general proposition exists – they just think that it’s distinct from the location-neutral proposition.) This prima facie reason is that the location-general and the purported location-neutral proposition are true in exactly the same range of possible worlds. On some views of propositions, this suffices for identity. So C&L will have to adopt a view where propositions are structured – but it seems a non-trivial problem to give an account of the structure of the two propositions such that they are interestingly distinct. In any case ,it’s a problem that C&L don’t even begin to address.
Somethings interesting to compare with ‘it’s raining’ (which is the sole focus of this paper) were verbs which have both a transitive and intransitive use. Consider ‘John drove’ and ‘John drove his car’. We don’t want to say that ‘drove’ is ambiguous. So is there an unarticulated constituent in ‘John drove’ which means that it should be analysed ‘John drove (some vehicle or other)? Cappelen and Lepore would presumably want to go with a ‘vehicle-neutral’ sense of ‘drove’ instead; but this seems to render ‘drove’ ambiguous between the intransitive and the transitive verbs.
This week we discussed Schaffer’s ‘Truthmaker Commitments’, which is a critique of a certain view of ontological commitment associated with Armstrong and with Ross Cameron. It’s worth reading Cameron’s reply to Schaffer as well. No presentation to put here as yet; but the papers themselves are quite clear and concise. Various thoughts follow:
Gonzalo raised an issue about the notion of ‘implication’ being used by the quantifier view. If a theory’s ontological commitments are what it says exists, as Schaffer glosses it, then a theory is committed to certain entailments of the particular sentences or propositions which explicitly make it up. But a theory’s commitment should not include necessary existents, whose existence is entailed by any set of sentences. Perhaps, though, this is a problem more with this gloss on the quantifier view than an objection to Quine’s own view.
Schaffer could have said more in defence of the quantifier view against the ‘linguisticism’ charge. The quantifier view by itself decides no ontological questions, if correct. All it does is to say how the true theory is connected with the true ontology. Given the quantifier view, what our ontology is is determined by which theory is true. The quantifier view is compatible both with theories on which there are only particles arranged tablewise, and with theories on which there are particles arranged tablewise, and there are tables, and the tables are not identical with any particles or arrangments of particles. So the quantifier view does not itself determine what exists.
However, even granting this stronger point Schaffer could have made, I think Cameron can stick with the reply he actually gives. This is that the objectionable linguisticism is in the thought that the syntactical structure of the true theory of the world, as expressed in our language, must mirror the ontological structure of reality. Cameron presumably thinks that the process of translating the true theory of the world from Ontologese to English will involve generating some true English existence-assertions where there were no isomorphic existence-assertions in Ontologese. I think this claim does move the debate forward and I’m tempted to agree.
There is another way of responding to this point on behalf of the quantifier theorist. It is that we should stick with English, but English analysed in whatever way it takes to get the true underlying quantificational structure. That is, we could give an analysis of English according to which it has a quantificational structure exactly isomorphic to the quantificational structure of Ontologese. Perhaps higher-order quantification will make this possible for Schaffer; perhaps, as Gonzalo suggested, we might also have to give up eg the association between classical first-order individuals and objects. It looks like the issue between Schaffer and Cameron here is how far we ought to complicate the semantic and logical structure of English in our analyses, and how much we should ascribe to quantifier variance.
Gonzalo also pointed out that some mereological nihilists might be committed to tables even on the truthmaker view. For if they allow many-one quantification, eg ‘the particles=the table’ then even the truthmaker view is committed to tables. So the friend of the quantifier view has a stronger case here than Schaffer realizes.
We thought Cameron’s reply to Schaffer on the ‘denumerably many electrons’ objection was right.
There was more-or-less a consensus that the grounding view of truthmaking (Tgro) does best of the three accounts Schaffer discusses. He dismisses the use of Tgro by a truthmaker theorist, saying ‘Tgro does not concern what there is, but only concerns what is fundamental.’ It seems to me that this can be easily resisted by a truthmaker theorist, as it is by Cameron.
Schaffer’s dilemma for the truthmaker theorist – if existential quantification is not generally ontologically committal, it is mysterious why the specific existential quantification in TNec is committal – didn’t seem persuasive at all. The truthmaker theorist claims to have presented arguments for his view; if good, those arguments are ipso facto good arguments for a distinction between existential quantification in general and existential quantification over truthmakers. Given this, horn A of the dilemma seems to come down to prejudice that there should be no distinction between types of existential quantification.
Much of the issue between Schaffer and Cameron does seem to come down to what we should mean by ‘ontological commitment’. They each offer us clear enough candidate meanings for the phrase – Schaffer takes it to mean ‘what the theory says exists’ while Cameron proposes ‘the demands that the theory places on ontology’. As Cameron says in his reply, it would be dogmatic for Schaffer to simply refuse to recognise a potential distinction here. And once we do recognise the potential distinction, I think there is a case to be made for both candidate meanings for ‘ontological commitment’.
One moral we might draw from this is that philosophers have sometimes been at cross-purposes over a (comparatively new) technical term. It may have been legitimately used in both senses in the past; if so, it might be better to drop talk of ontological commitment altogether. The idea of commitment is still a useful one, for it makes sense of implied or presupposed existence claims, but perhaps we can replace the troublesome term ‘ontological commitment’ with a pair like ‘derivative commitments’ and ‘underlying commitments’.
You can find the handout for this week here. I thought this was a really good paper, and we didn’t find all that much to criticise in it. It was a bit frustrating not to hear more about Fitelson’s positive story, in particular about the bridge principle that he would endorse instead of the various versions of RTE that he criticises. He’s clearly saving the juicy stuff for his book.
In particular, I find it hard to see how he plans to steer a middle ground between the Carnap/Williamson-style ‘a priori priors’ version of objective bayesianism, and the subjective bayesian approach. My naive take on the matter is that you either think that there’s a unique correct set of priors or you don’t. Maybe these priors aren’t a priori knowable (contra the Carnap/Williamson approach), although it seems that a position like this would be committed to complete epistemic rationality being in principle unattainable.
I wasn’t sure how strongly Fitelson meant to criticise the subjective Bayesian’s RTE’. Although as it stands the principle is useless, presumbly the subjective Bayesian wants to find a principle which is extensionally equivalent to RTE’ but which is not useless, because it picks out K’ in a different and more illuminating way. Fitelson gives no argument that this will prove difficult.
Gonzalo pointed out an interesting consequence of Hempel’s confirmation theory – all propositions are equally confirmed simpliciter. Of course, what we are interested in is confirmation of propositions by particular other propositions; this just underlines that Hempel’s confirmation relation is a logical and not an epistemic relation.
Another observation Gonzalo made is that M is trivially false if we allow for properties like ‘being such that this grass is green’. ‘This grass is green’ confirms ‘all grass is green’; but obviously statements like ‘this grass is green and this grass is such that that grass is blue’ do not confirm ‘all grass is green’, as M says it should.
I found this a particularly interesting paper. I’m in firm agreement with the main gist of Williams’ view- that the notion of typicality is in principle better adapted to deal with chancy similarity than the notion of ‘non-remarkableness’. That said, we found plenty of potential pressure points.
- Firstly, I’m not sure that quantum mechanics really has as wide-reaching consequences as is assumed in the paper. Depending on your response to the measurement problem, it could be that outcomes such as plates flying off sideways are not genuine quantum possibilities after all, because the low-amplitude branches are in some way ‘lost in the noise’. Although I think this issue is worth further investigation, I don’t think it’s critical to the debate between Williams, Hawthorne, and Lewis. Their worries can be raised about considerably less unlikely events – in fact, we can restrict consideration just to sequences of coin tosses without significant cost.
- One thought I had about the original ‘Similarity’ proposal – if we read ‘laws’ not always as fundamental microphysical laws, but (depending on context) various kinds of more emergent laws, we could save the proposal without having to introduce quasi-miracles or typicality. A plate flying off sideways may or may not be a violation of quantum-mechanical laws, but it is certainly a violation of the Newtonian laws which hold to a good degree of approximation at the macroscopic level. And maybe these Newtonian laws are the salient laws for consideration of the counterfactual. Similarly with counterfactuals like ‘if I drop this icecube into that mug of hot tea, the icecube will melt’. We don’t even need to go to QM to get counterexamples to this; statistical mechanics describes certain highly-unlikely scenarios where the molecular impacts conspire to prevent melting. But if the salient laws are thermodynamic laws, then the cube must melt. This suggestion is in the spirit of the proposal about deterministic chance I discuss here.
- One serious option that Williams doesn’t seem to exclude is a contextualism about ‘remarkableness’. This would involve events being classified as remarkable or not taking into account the centred world in which they occur. So a string of 100 heads in a row when flipping a fair coin is remarkable taken by itself, but not when we take into account that it is embedded within a string of a trillion coin flips. If we flip a trillion times, we could reasonably expect a string of 100 heads to occur somewhere.
This suggestion seems to ameliorate all of the problems Williams raises for ‘Similarity*’. The monkey producing the dissertation will not be remarkable in the context of worlds where the chances were arranged such that it had a 20% chance of producing one. The problem of the abundance of quasi-miracles is defused by noting that in the context of a long and varied future which is likely to contain various individually unlikely coincidences, particular individual coincidences will no longer count as remarkable. The remarkable subpattern problem can similarly be treated as not remarkable when taken in context of a very long pattern which overall is not particularly remarkable.
How different from the typicality account is this ‘contextualized remarkableness’ account? I’m inclined to say ‘not much’. However, it remains to be seen how the context-shifting would work out in detail – perhaps this kind of account might lead to failures of Agglomeration. It seems to be a big merit of the typicality account that Agglomeration is validated.
- We’d all have liked more detail in the typicality proposal, with particular reference to how the class of relevant natural properties is to be characterized, and which mathematical definition of randomness is to be used. Another concern was what a ‘small, localised atypicality’ might be (as appealed to in point 3 of Chancy Similarity*) – wasn’t typicality explicitly a global notion?
- Despite all this, we thought the typicality account a promising one and liked the way it could be applied both to chancy counterfactuals and to the Elga’s problem of fit.
Another good discussion in week 3. The presentation is here.
Some thoughts which came out of the discussion:
- If Stanley’s argument in section 3 that gradability doesn’t imply context-sensitivity is sound, then it renders section 2 rather superfluous, as that is devoted to arguing that ‘knows’ is not gradable.
- But even if Stanley’s argument in section 3 is sound, his argument against contextualism still looks pretty weak. At most he’s shown that ‘knows’ isn’t contextual in virtue of ‘justified’ being gradable. But it’s a perfectly consistent position to say that the context-sensitivity of knowledge is of a distinctive kind, different from the context-sensitivity of gradable adjectives. Plausibly, Lewisian contextualism is of this sort.
- Stanley’s argument in section 3 doesn’t look sound to me. It rests strongly on the supposed counterexample of a gradable and non-context sensitive predicate ‘ taller than six feet’. This is meant to be gradable because you can be slightly taller than six feet, or much taller than six feet. But I don’t see that this is enough to make it gradable. Consider the infelicity of ‘very taller than six feet’. My view is that you’re either taller than six feet, or you aren’t. No grades involved. Of course, you can be taller than six feet by a large amount, but this doesn’t make you taller than six feet to a greater degree than someone who is just over the threshold.
- Similar comments apply to ‘possible’, which Stanley takes to be gradable. It’s true that we have the idiom ‘very possible that x’. But we can’t say ‘x is possibler than y’. My view is that ‘probable’ is gradable, but ‘possible’ isn’t.
- It’s not clear what Stanley is using as an individuation-criterion for discourses. He claims that it is plausible that context can be shifted within a sentence for individual terms (eg ‘that butterfly is large, but that elephant isn’t large’). But consider sentences like the following: ‘I know that I have hands, because there is no possible scenario in which I don’t – except of course for a really sceptical one, which is of course a possibility we can’t rule out – so maybe in fact I don’t know that I have hands.’ It looks like the standards of the discourse have changed mid-sentence, which undermines the contrast Stanley wants to draw between the context-sensitivity of gradable adjectives and the context-sensitivity of ‘knows’.