MT 2015 — Block 1: State Semantics

We will begin MT 2015 by reading four of Kit Fine’s recent papers on truthmaker semantics during the first four weeks of Michaelmas 2015. The weekly readings corresponding to the first four weeks of MT 2015 are as follows:

  1. Survey of Truthmaker Semantics (Fine)
  2. Counterfactuals Without Possible Worlds (Fine)
  3. Truth-Maker Semantics for Intuitionistic Logic (Fine)
  4. Angellic Content (Fine)

Meetings will be held this term at 6.00pm every Thursday in the Ertegun, 37a St Giles’.

The MLE blog returns!

Yep, that’s right: this blog is now back in business, in order to provide an online accompaniment to the MLE seminar series, now being run by Natalia Hickman and Neil Dewar. Although we can’t promise reports on the seminars in the manner of Al, we will post announcements of upcoming sessions and links to (Weblearn-held) copies of the reading.

We only have one more session this term: that will be on Wednesday of 8th week (4th December), from 4:30pm-6:00pm in the Colin Matthew Room; the paper will be “The Last Dogma of Type Confusions” by Ofra Magidor (presenter to be announced shortly). Other than that, the sessions from this term have been as follows:

Session 1 (Wednesday 23rd October)

Jonathan Schaffer, “Spacetime the One Substance” (presenter: Neil Dewar)

Session 2 (Wednesday 6th November)

Paul Hovda, “What is Classical Mereology?” (presenter: Josh Parsons)

Session 3 (Wednesday 20th November)

Daniel Greco, “Iteration and Fragmentation” (presenter: Natalia Hickman)

The future of this blog…

… is uncertain. Next term we’re passing on the running of the MLE seminar to James Studd and Andrew Bacon – it’ll be up to them if they want to continue blogging here about our discussions. It’s been fun – thanks everyone/anyone for reading!


Week 8 – Bennett on metametaphysics

In my and Natalja’s final session convening MLE we discussed Karen Bennett’s ‘Composition, colocation, and meta-ontology’, available here. The handout is here.

In this paper, Bennett distinguishes three different versions of the ‘dismissive’ attitude towards metaphysical questions, and asks whether any of them are appropriate in the case of the debates over composition and colocation. She (rightly, we thought) argues that we shouldn’t automatically put all metaphysical debates in the same category – dismissivism might be appropriate for some debates, but inappropriate for others.

The three kinds of dismissivism discussed are ‘anti-realism’, which claims that there is no fact of the matter about the answer to some metaphysical question; ‘semanticism’, which claims that some metaphysical question is ‘merely verbal’, and that the answer to it is analytic in our language (whichever language that is); and ‘epistemicism’, which claims that while a metaphysical question does have a non-analytic answer, we are not currently in a position to judge either way on it. Bennett goes on to argue that, for the debates she considers, semanticism is implausible and epistemicism is a live option. But because she doesn’t say much about anti-realism, the positive arguments for epistemicism seem pretty weak. (I wasn’t really convinced by the negative argument against semanticism either – it boils down to the claim that we can’t define things into existence, which will be denied by anyone with neo-Fregean sympathies.)

The argument for the disjunctive conclusion that either anti-realism or epistemicism is true about the debates considered goes via the claim that these debates are ‘difference-minimizing’. I wasn’t entirely sure what this was meant to mean – does whether a debate is difference-minimizing depend on the intrinsic properties of the issue being debated, or on the participants in the debate, or both? For the argument to lead to any substantive conclusions, I think it must be that the issue is intrinsically such that rational philosophers debating it will tend to difference-minimize – but Bennett on various occasion mentions philosophers (Burke, Rea, Cameron, Parsons) who don’t difference-minimize. Couldn’t this form the basis for a counter-argument? I suppose Bennett has to rely on the claim that these philosophers are just badly mistaken and have misjudged the intrinsic properties of the issue the debate is about. Either way, I thought the notion of ‘difference-minimizing’ was too vague and weak to have a strong metametaphysical conclusion founded on it.

Part of the argument that these debates are intrinsically difference-minimizing seems to be that structurally symmetrical problems arise for both sides of the debates. This feature of the dialectic, if genuine, does seem to be of real metametaphysical interest – someone who wanted to defend a form of structuralism about metaphysics might argue that the different sides agree on the structure of the correct view, which is all there really is to a view, so that they’re not really disagreeing at all (I take it this would amount to a form of anti-realism.) But it’s not clear how this feature gives us much motivation for epistemicism – if the debate really is symmetrical in nature, then the claim that there is an unknowable fact of the matter about which side is right seems dubious. Such a fact of the matter would be ‘metaphysically arbitrary’.

In any case, I wasn’t convinced that the debates are totally symmetric. Bennett argues by induction from 4 cases where a ‘twin’ argument can be given against one of the arguments used by one side, but that’s a pretty weak inductive base. Moreover, one of the examples looks flawed. Bennett argues that the ‘causal exclusion’ or ‘overdetermination’ argument used by the nihilist against the believer in composite objects has a twin argument which works against the nihilist – where a believer would say that a ball broke the window, even though the simples arranged ballwise were causally sufficient for the breaking, the nihilist must accept many pluralities of simples, all of which are causally sufficient to break the window. It doesn’t matter exactly which plurality we settle on. But this doesn’t look like a twin for the causal exclusion problem, it looks like a twin for the problem of the many.

Consider the following case – two simples travelling together jointly break a window. Neither of the simples by itself would have been sufficient for the breaking. The believer, who says that the pair which the simples composed was the object which broke the window, seems vulnerable to the causal exclusion argument; the simples were jointly sufficient, so why postulate the ball as a cause? (I’m assuming the simples aren’t many-one identical to the ball.) But the nihilist seems vulnerable to no analogous argument. There’s only one plurality of simples sufficient for the breaking – both of them. Thus, no causal overdetermination. And the reason there’s no argument against the nihilist here is just that, as I’ve set the case up, the problem of the many can’t get a grip. Hence my suggestion that while the nihilist does face an analogue of the problem of the many, he faces no analogue of the causal exclusion argument.

Week 5 – Schroeder on negation

The paper we discussed this week is here and my (very short) handout is here.

Schroeder is offering more of a general structure for an expressivist account than a fully-worked out one, and one of the points he’s fairly vague on is what descriptive predicate should typically follow the ‘is for’ attitude. For the purposes of the paper, he adopts a proposal of Gibbard’s, which analyses disapproval (a technical term for the expressivist) in terms of being for blaming for; so the idea is that ‘Jon thinks murder is wrong’ should be rendered as ‘Jon is for blaming for murdering’.

(Note that we can’t just adopt the ‘is for’ proposal without any descriptive predicate: ‘is for the non-occurrence of’ because this collapses two readings we want to keep distinct; the non-occurrence of not-murdering is the same as the occurrence of murdering, while not blaming for not murdering is not the same as blaming for murdering.)

Taken literally, it looks like there are counterexamples to the analysis in terms of blaming. There are surely cases where we think something is wrong, but are against blaming anyone for it, perhaps because we think that apportioning blame at all would be unhelpful. Similarly, the suggestion that we should use ‘avoiding’ falls foul of cases where we think something is wrong, but are not for avoiding it, because all of the alternatives are worse.

Of course, these observations rest on ordinary usage of ‘blame’ and ‘avoid’. If ‘blaming for’ is a technical term with a stipulative meaning, like ‘disapproval’ and ‘tolerance’ have traditionally been for the expressivist, then perhaps the problem can be nullified. So I’d suggest resurrecting the old Blackburnian terminology of ‘booing’ and ‘hooraying’, and saying that we have tacit knowledge of the meaning of these terms in virtue of our competence with moral discourse.

We can take either of these as primitive, and define the other in terms of it; for example, booing x is equivalent to hooraying not-x, and hooraying y is equivalent to booing not-y. The advantage of this is that it doesn’t seem to be vulnerable to the same kinds of intuitive counterexamples as any of the candidate descriptive predicates that Schroeder mentions. The disadvantage is that we then require two primitive notions in our expressivist semantic, rather than one (the being for relation).

Another thought we had was that the ‘being for’ proposal seems to lose some of the distinctive thought behind expressivism, that moral judgments consist in some attitude to the act whose morality is called into question. On Schroeder’s proposal given in terms of blaming for, thinking murdering is wrong doesn’t involve having some attitude to murdering; rather, it involves having some attitude to blaming for murdering. This allows us to ask for an explanation of why someone has their particular attitude to blaming for murdering. For Schroeder’s kind of expressivist, no explanation is possible; but for a moral realist, an explanation is easily available – it’s because murdering is wrong.

The worry, then, its that the demand on Schroeder’s expressivist for explanation of why someone has some particular attitude to blaming for x seems rather more pressing than the demand on the traditional expressivist to explain why they have some attitude to x itself. This can be thought of as a dilemma for the expressivists – either they have a working semantic theory without sufficient motivation, or they have a well-motivated theory which cannot explain logical validity for moral arguments. Schroeder, who is no expressivist himself, would presumably be happy with this dilemma.

One nice thing we noticed about the proposed analysis is that it disambiguates apparently distinct claims which the normal expressivist view runs together. Where a traditional expressivist would say ‘Jon strongly disapproves of murdering’, Schroeder’s expressivist can disambiguate this as either ‘Jon is strongly for blaming for murder’ or  ‘Jon is for strongly blaming for murder’.

Week 4 – Eagle on ‘might’ counterfactuals

This week we discussed some unpublished material by Antony on ‘might’ counterfactuals. The handout is here, and the paper is here.

We thought a bit about cases in which ‘could’ and ‘might’ come apart. In the paper, Antony discussed sentences like

33b)  If we’d left the gate open, the dog could have got out; yet if we’d left the gate open, it isn’t the case that the dog might have got out.

The felicity of such sentences seems to show that at least some ‘might’ counterfactuals shouldn’t be analysed in terms of ‘could’, but instead should be given an epistemic reading. Antony isn’t averse to this idea – in fact, his final view is that ‘might’ is ambiguous in counterfactual contexts between the epistemic reading and the ability reading. However, this does invite the further question of what determines the appropriate reading for some given ‘might’ counterfactual.

Fron 33b we naturally conclude though the dog has the ability to get out, it is so disposed as to not exercise this ability.  The only way to interpret someone who expresses the conjunction as not contradicting themselves is to give the ‘might’ and the ‘could’ different readings, and the ‘could’ tends to snaffle the ability reading, leaving the epistemic reading for the ‘might’. 33a, on the other hand, is intuitively clashing:

33a) If we’d left the gate open, the dog might have got out; yet if we’d left the gate open, the dog couldn’t have got out.

An explanation for this would be is that the ‘might’ in the first conjunct naturally takes an ability reading, which the second conjunct then contradicts. If this is right, then it looks like ‘the dog couldn’t have got out’ always takes an ability reading, while ‘the dog might have got out’ can take both the ability and epistemic readings.

This suggests the following difference between ‘might’ and ‘could’ in counterfactual contexts. When used as a predicate, as in the examples above, can/could always takes the ability reading. It only takes the epistemic reading when used as a sentence modifer, as in ‘it could be that the dog escaped’. May/might, on the other hand, can take either the epistemic reading or the ability reading when used as as a predicate. Like can/could, may/might always takes an epistemic reading when used as a sentence modifier.

On a separate issue, I wondered about how use of ‘might’ outside of counterfactual contexts fits with the duality account of the relationship between ‘might’ and ‘would’. Assume Goldbach’s conjecture is necessarily true. On a Lewisian account, there are no worlds in which Goldbach’s conjecture is false, so any counterfactual of the form ‘If x were the case, Goldbach’s conjecture might be false’ comes out false. As Williamson has argued, it seems a plausible principle of counterfactual logic that ‘if, whatever were the case, then p’ entails that necessarily p. Putting this together, the Lewisian account of ‘might’ in counterfactuals contexts entails that ‘Goldbach’s conjecture might be false’ is necessarily false. This is a bad result; we want to say that lots of speakers speak truly when they assert Goldbach’s conjecture might be false’, if their epistemic state is such as not to rule out its falsity. I’m sure this has been observed before; I’d be glad of any references.