Saturday, April 26, 2008

Unification Accounts

This is very, very sketchy. I'm trying to make sense of an objection Christensen makes against a certain proposal about coarse and fine beliefs in his Putting Logic in its Place.

Suppose you think talk of both fine and coarse belief pick out some real phenomenon. You might adopt what Christensen calls a 'unification account', an account on which either coarse belief or fine belief is a special case of the other. For example, you might say that the reason talk of coarse belief picks out some real phenomenon is that coarse belief is really just a sufficiently high level of confidence. Coarse belief is just a special case of fine belief. Why not run things the other direction? Why not say that fine belief is really just a special case of coarse belief? Suppose you're moderately confident that it will rain this afternoon. Why not say that talk of fine belief (e.g., Mike's fine belief about Jocko's cheating on an exam) is really just coarse belief, such as the coarse belief that there's, say, a good chance that Jocko cheated on an exam?

Such a view has a certain kind of attraction. It's not a version of eliminativism. It vindicates talk of fine belief. It's not open to the objections raised previously about standards of correctness, aims, and self-knowledge. Nevertheless, the view seems to face a difficulty. Christensen writes, "the problem with this proposal stems from the difficulty of finding an appropriate content for the relevant binary (i.e., coarse) belief". We cannot, he says, understand talk of fine belief in terms of belief about subjective probabilities if subjective probabilities are in turn understood in terms of fine belief. Fair enough. Why not something more objective? He writes, "we risk attributing to the agent a belief about matters too far removed from the apparent subject matter of her belief." (2004: 19).

If I understand this objection, the idea is this. We have various theoretical accounts of probability (e.g., probability understood as frequency, propensity, etc...) and the problem is that we misrepresent the subject's state of mind when he or she has a fine belief is we adopt any of these accounts. So, if we adopt a frequency interpretation we attribute to Mike the belief that within a certain reference class, cheating took place such and such number of times. Or, if we adopt the propensity account we do no better because there is no current setup that is disposed to a certain degree to lead to a certain outcome.

Here's a worry. It might be a mistake to describe Mike in such a way that his subjective conception of things has to do with the conditions a frequency theorist or propensity theorist uses to flesh out a concept of probability, but I don't see that this would show that it would be a mistake to use one of these concepts in ascribing thoughts to Mike. An example should help. My niece asks for a glass of water and I believe that she believes that she wants water. My concept of water is a concept of a chemical kind and I don't think it would be a mistake to use that concept in ascribing her thoughts. Such an ascription is not going to capture her subjective conception of water, perhaps, but it does tell us what her attitudes and beliefs are answerable to. They are answerable to facts about a certain chemical kind that happens to be H2O. Why can't the unification theorist say something similar about this case. In a sense, there's nothing in Mike's head that is about the conditions a theorist of probability uses in unpacking the notion of probability, but what makes it appropriate to ascribe Mike thoughts about the notion of probability being characterized is that in having the thoughts that he does he is answerable to certain considerations that interest the probability theorist.

I worry that this line of objection that Christensen is running rests on a controversial set of assumptions about thought content ascriptions. Maybe there's a different way of understanding the argument. Maybe the idea is that none of the concepts of objective probability are concepts that pick out conditions a normal subject is answerable to in having fine beliefs.

(I don't have a view about the prospects for any sort of unification account.)

Friday, April 25, 2008

A quick one while I'm supposed to be away

I'm down to my final 30 papers!!!!

My mind is stretched in all sorts of ways right now, so I thought I'd quick jot this down.

I'm wondering what the contextualist would say about this sort of example. Peter backs his car out of his driveway and hits a kid on a bike.

Bjorn and John discuss the matter in two different conversational contexts (not with each other). In Bjorn's context the standards for 'knows' are loose enough that had there been no kid there, Peter would have 'known' that the coast was clear. In John's context, however, the standards for 'knows' are stricter so that even if there had been no kid there, Peter would not have 'known' that the coast was clear. Now, it seems that Peter should have known better than to assume that the coast was clear, he could be properly blamed for hitting the kid. It also seems that if his epistemic position was such that he could have known that the coast was clear that it would be a mistake to say that he should have known better than to assume that the coast was clear.

With this in place, it seems that we have two contexts. In one, Bjorn can say that Peter's ignorance was non-culpable ignorance and blame is inappropriate. In another, John can say he should have known better than to just pull out without checking and so blame is perfectly appropriate.

Is this really tolerable? I can't help but think that what determines culpability is fixed entirely by what's in Peter's situation. I really don't like the idea that there could be two contexts in which one can properly say 'He's culpable' and another in which one can say 'He's not culpable'. Saying that, however, it seems that we'd either have to deny the link between 'knows' and 'should have known better than to assume' or the link between blame and 'should have known better than to assume'. To tie this in to earlier discussions, I'm pretty sure that there's such a thing as 'ordinary blame' and I'm pretty sure that ordinary blame interacts with knowledge. I'm starting to believe in ordinary knowledge against my better instincts.

Male rock fans more likely to vote Republican

I was laughing about this the other day while checking email and listening to what plays on your typical classic rock station. In the space of an hour, we heard REO Speedwagon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Clapton, George Thoroughgood.

So, yeah, shocking that your typical "rock" fan isn't a Democrat. Shocking. Your typical American "rock" fan (i.e., someone who freely chooses to listen to the typical "classic rock" station) is Alan Partridge with better teeth. At the very least, that seems to be so for whoever is responsible for programming.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Prelude to the problem of ordinary knowledge

Mark Heller was in town and gave a fantastic paper, "Cheap and Ordinary: Two Things Knowledge Isn't" and I'm now interested in the problems of ordinary knowledge and ordinary justification. The problem emerges early in his Phil Perspectives paper, "Contextualism and Anti-Luck Epistemology", but I think it doesn't go by that name. The problem is something like this. Suppose you adopt a relevant alternatives account of knowledge. Whether or not "S knows that p" is true will depend on whether there are ~p worlds in which S believes p. Contextual standards will determine which range of worlds are relevant. We can report on someone's epistemic condition in wholly non-valuative way. We can simply say that given her epistemic condition, she will have eliminated a certain range of possibilities. However, a knowledge attribution is not wholly non-valuative. It says that someone's epistemic condition is good enough. On his view, two evaluators can agree about S's epistemic condition and disagree about whether S has knowledge because, "the two evaluators simply care about different properties". One evaluator might care about the property of eliminating such and such range of possibilities. The other might care about eliminating a wider or more narrow range. The picture, I take it, is that there are gobs and gobs of properties that 'knows' could pick out depending on context and the interests of the evaluators, but no shiny property of 'ordinary knowledge' that an invariantist can say is 'real' knowledge. If the invariantist's account of the truth-conditions of 'S knows p' depends on there being such a candidate (call this 'ordinary knowledge') so much the worse for them.

Or, something like that.

Anyway, I'll likely post something on this soon, but I was wondering if anyone knows something about contextualism and 'permissible', 'obligatory', etc... I know Timmons defends a version of moral contextualism, but his view isn't really the sort of thing I'm interested in for this project. His contexutalism is supposed to reconcile a kind of moral nihilism with the claim that we can correctly say that certain kinds of actions are wrong. What I wonder is whether there is anything on the problem of 'ordinary permissibility'. Anyone?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

If you're in Chicago

Be sure to see Robert Howell's presentation of "On the Coherence of Inversion". It's Saturday 4:30-5:30 in the colloquium on representation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Whaddya think?

Whatever the relation is between beliefs fine and coarse, if the posts previous on coarse and fine belief are right, it appears to be a mistake to say that a high level of confidence is as intimately connected to a coarse belief as the redness of this cup is to the instance of scarlet that this particular redness is. This seems to get the metaphysics of these states wrong. States this intimately connected would appear to share normative properties, but in insisting that they share normative properties we not only are committed to apparently mistaken claims about the normative properties of coarse and fine beliefs, we seem to trivialize non-trivial epistemic problems that arise when we try to think of how the normative statuses of fine and coarse beliefs interact. Think of a lottery example. Green owns a ticket in an upcoming lottery and knows that the odds are exceptionally good that he will lose. Knowing this, he still wonders whether he will lose and whether to believe that he will. While he might raise the question 'Given the chances, what should I believe?' it seems that the Lockean attitude is that there is really no question here to settle. Given how confident he is that he will lose, he just does believe. As such, he cannot really deliberate about whether to believe given how confident he is. But, Green knows he does not know whether he will lose, which is why he wonders what to believe. Thus, it seems the Lockean trivializes a non-trivial problem.

This point is one that I believe I owe to Weatherson (see his pragmatic encroachment paper), but I thought it was worth mentioning because there is a second problem related to the one he raises. Not only does the Lockean seem to trivialize a non-trivial epistemic problem, it seems the Lockean view makes problematic epistemic problems that seemed otherwise quite trivial. It is often thought that we have a kind of distinctive authority over our own minds. Suppose Green wonders whether to believe he will lose the lottery because he knows he does not know he will lose. In judging that he does not know he will lose, he takes himself to not believe one way or the other. That is precisely why he is in the epistemic predicament he is. It seems that while Green believes he does not believe he will lose tomorrow's lottery drawing, the Lockean will say that this second-order belief is mistaken. We might allow for the odd mistaken second-order belief that represents oneself as not being in a mental state one is in. (If we think about desires, it would be odd to think that as a matter of course we might believe ourselves to desire things we do not. It is less odd to think that we believe ourselves not to desire things we do. It is comforting, actually, if Freud is right.) What is odd about this is that the Lockean will say that Green is fully aware of his coarse belief since he knows full well that he is extremely confident that his ticket will lose. If Green is fully aware of his coarse belief, why does he believe he has no such belief?

The Lockean can say (rightly) that any one of us can be aware of an F without being aware that it is an F, but the question is not how could Green fail to know what he believes, but how could it be that Green would typically misrepresent his own beliefs in these kinds of situations? It seems we would want not to impute to Green this sort of widespread error, a kind of error that can only be remedied by bringing Green to see the Lockean light, in which case his coarse belief becomes a kind of theoretical entity he believes he has only after having inferred its presence because he first ascertained that he is highly confident that something is so.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


I've been slacking. The video is a bit dated, but I've been listening to this song on repeat driving to and from work for the past few weeks. Maybe it's just me, but I think it's improved my lecturing significantly.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hell is (grading) other people

I've been buried under a pile of papers to grade and will be for quite some time. It's not pleasant. Every once in a while I'll come across a gem like this that makes it all worthwhile:
It would seem that if one were to remove, say, all of the years between the day that George Washington defeated Robert E. Lee at the Alamo and the evening I write this paper, there would be less time in the universe.

This kid gets it! Alas. The kids who ask if Lee Harvey Oswald's twin brother Larry really shot a passing bird having taken aim at President Kennedy will just never make it as philosophers. Or historians.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Beliefs Coarse and Fine

This is a follow up to a previous post. I think I have a better sense of what someone might think is wrong with the argument offered previously.

The thesis under consideration is this:
Coarse and fine belief are related as determinable and determinate respectively, because the latter metaphysically makes for the former.

The worry was something like this.
(1) The mere fact that ~p means that mental state MS1 is mistaken if MS1 is the belief that p.
(2) On any Lockean view worth its salt, it is possible that a mental state MS2 is a level of confidence in p's truth less than certainty while also being the belief that p.
(3) If MS1 is related to MS2 as determinable and determinate respectively, if MS1 is mistaken, MS2 is mistaken.
(4) However, the mere fact that ~p does not make MS2 mistaken if MS2 is a level of confidence in p that is less than certainty.
(C) Thus, the Lockean view is wrong because it has the implication that it is possible for MS2 to be both mistaken and not mistaken under the same condition.

Mike raised the following concern. Doesn't the argument equivocate on 'mistaken'?

There's nothing with with MS2 being mistaken in one sense while not being mistsaken in some different sense. So, there's no problem here.

It seemed at first that there's a way of fixing the argument. Consider:
Necessarily, the mere fact that ~p means that there is a sense in which mental state MS1 is mistaken if MS1 is the belief that p. The mere fact that ~p does not mean that there is _any_ sense in which that mental state MS2 is mistaken if MS2 is a level of confidence in the truth that p less than certainty. On any Lockean view worth its salt, a belief that p can consist of a level of confidence less than certainty. But, it seems to follow that MS1 is not MS2. But, it seems that we'd want to say that MS1 could be MS2 in just the same sense that the red of this cup could be an instance of scarlet.

We might agree that there are two ways of thinking of a belief as being mistaken. It might be false or it might be justified. However, in the relevant sense of 'mistaken', I'm assuming only that it is mistaken in the first sense. If there's no sense in which the mere fact that ~p can show that a level of confidence in the hypothesis that p can be a mistake, I don't see that the possible equivocation could really cause trouble for this argument.

To this, I suppose someone might say the following. It might sound odd to say that a level of confidence in p less than certainty is mistaken just because ~p, but that's because the norms we use in contexts where we're focused on coarse grained belief are different from those we use in contexts where we're interested in fine grained belief. The infelicity of saying that a level of confidence less than certainty is mistaken stems from this fact and not the falsity of saying that MS2 is mistaken. The situation might be something like this. I'm holding a red coffee mug. The redness of this cup is an instance of scarlet. It might be that this instance of scarlet is bad (aesthetically) even if the redness of this cup is good because I've been asked to paint it some shade of red. In contexts where the redness is at issue we are interested in my complying with the order to paint the cup red, so it would be odd to say that the redness of the cup is bad in such contexts. In contexts where the fact that the cup is scarlet is at issue, we are interested in the cups aesthetic qualities in ways that whoever asked me to paint the cup red might not have been.

If we think of things this way, we seem to have a problem. We have a problem if we want there to be one and only one set of norms governing beliefs coarse and fine.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mustard, Plum, White, and Green

Suppose Mustard knows he ought to knock down Green's door if he asks him to (e.g., because Green has locked himself out again and needs Mustard to force the door open), knows he ought to knock down Green’s door if Green is in need of medical attention, and knows that he must not knock down Green’s door if neither of these conditions hold. White often takes it upon herself to try to prevent Mustard from doing what he ought and tries to trick him into doing what he ought not. She’s not bad at doing this, but Plum is even better at doing what she does. She only lets White trick Mustard when she knows that White will trick Mustard in such a way that the deception will not lead him to do what he ought all-things considered not do. (For his part, Mustard knows nothing of these battles between Plum and White.) So, let’s say, White tricks Mustard into believing that Green needs him to knock down Green’s door by forging a note and Plum allows Mustard to see the note only because she also knows that Green needs Mustard to knock down the door in order to give him assistance.

Let’s assume that Mustard’s ignorance of Green’s need for assistance is itself non-culpable as is his mistaken belief that the note gives him reason to knock down the door. Are we to say that he has done anything less than what the reasons required on the occasion? I see no trace of wrongdoing on his part, but the reason for which he acted was not a guiding reason that demanded that he knock down the door. The forged note does not give him that reason and if it were the case that he saw only the forged note and Green did not need his assistance, his knocking down the door would have been all-things considered wrong. He has not shown on his part any sort of disposition to disregard the good or actively pursue the bad. It is not the case that he ought to
have done otherwise.

I've seen people say that it is a principle of practical reason that you should act for an undefeated reason. I don't see that Mustard has managed to do this, yet I see nothing wrongful with Mustard's actions. So, I'm sceptical of the principle. If pressed for an explanation as to why that principle is a principle, I've seen people say that trying to act for guiding reasons is a good way of doing what the reasons require. That might be right, but that seems to suggest that the reason to act for undefeated reasons is an instrumental reason. Doing what that instrumental reason serves as a reason for on the basis of a different reason does not seem to be a way of doing less than the reasons require. So, I guess I'm not sceptical of the principle on a certain reading, but it's not a reading that would lead me to think that facts about the explanatory reasons that moved you would have an impact on the justificatory status of the relevant acts.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Coarse and fine belief

Suppose you hold to the following view regarding coarse and fine belief: they are metaphysically determinable and determinate respectively, because the latter metaphysically makes for the former. This is a view defended in a recent paper by Sturgeon and one of its attractions is that it explains why coarse and fine grained belief generate action in concert. There's an objection that seems to me too obvious to be good, but here it is. Necessarily, the mere fact that ~p means that mental state MS1 is mistaken if MS1 is the belief that p. The mere fact that ~p does _never_ means that mental state MS2 is mistaken if MS2 is a level of confidence in the truth that p less than certainty. On any Lockean view worth its salt, a belief that p can consist of a level of confidence less than certainty. But, it seems to follow that MS1 is not MS2. But, it seems that we'd want to say that MS1 could be MS2 in just the same sense that the red of this cup could be an instance of scarlet.


I've just tried to fix this post in light of Mike's suggestions. See here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Email and etiquette

I've pitched in my $.02. There's just no way that it's rude not to respond to an email. If you respond to email, you've gone above and beyond the call of duty. I guess I'll now say thanks to NS for his quick response to my email. (See how natural the view is. You say 'thanks' when people get back to you but you don't thank people for merely doing what etiquette requires.) I guess I should add that it is inappropriate to decide against responding to emails sent by people known to think it's not rude not to respond to emails because this is their view. That's another matter entirely.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Evidentialism and pragmatic encroachment

I've been trying to figure out what unites the evidentialists apart from their use of a common label. Conee and Feldman, for example, formulate evidentialism in such a way that you'd have to agree that two individuals' beliefs are going to be justificationally alike provided that they have the same evidence. I don't see Shah explicitly endorsing this sort of supervenience thesis in his defense of evidentialism. He seems more interested in showing that practical considerations cannot be among the normative reasons for belief. While the fact that believing p will further your practical aims might provide a reason for performing actions that have as a causal consequence your ending up with that belief, those are reasons for performing actions and _not_ reasons for belief.

On its face, it seems that Shah's thesis about reasons for belief is weaker than the thesis Conee and Feldman defend. Think about the dialectical situation. A standard thing for evidentialists like Conee and Feldman to say to link talk about evidence to talk about a belief's justificatory status is that a belief will be justified provided that there is sufficient evidence for the belief. If features of the practical situation can go towards determining whether there is sufficient evidence, we could say that while all the normative reasons that bear on whether to believe p are pieces of evidence the standards that determine whether there is sufficient evidence can vary in such a way that A and B have the same evidence but only A has sufficient evidence for believing some proposition.

It might be that Shah doesn't want to rule out the possibility of this sort of pragmatic encroachment but only show that when it comes to the normative reasons that bear on whether to believe p those reasons are constituted by pieces of evidence only. But, then his argument only addresses one sort of pragmatist (i.e., the one that thinks that practical considerations can be reasons for belief) and leaves untouched the arguments for pragmatic encroachment you'll find in Fantl and McGrath. So, could someone argue from the claim that only pieces of evidence are normative reasons that bear on whether to believe p to the further claim that the justificatory status of our beliefs will be determined by the evidence and only the evidence?

Whatever such an argument looked like, it would have to show that facts about the justificatory status of our beliefs supervene on facts about the normative reasons and are independent of any further facts not about those normative reasons. I'm curious as to whether people think this is a plausible thesis or whether it would be better to think that the arguments Shah offers cannot be taken to support the sort of evidentialist thesis you'll find defended by Conee and Feldman.

Fwiw, I think there are connections between normative reasons and a belief's justificatory status and think that there is something close to the assumption needed to close the gap between the two evidentialist theses that is right. I worry, however, that the assumptions about normative reasons that bear on whether to believe and the justificatory status of our beliefs are not going to lead to the evidentialist view. They might lead us to say pragmatic encroachment is impossible, but that's a different matter.

Alright, I have to go grade a pile of papers.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Needles and pins

Visibly agitated, Adam is sticking pins into a cushion. Are we really going to say that he acts rightly if he's doing so in order to put away all the pins that had fallen on the floor but impermissibly if he's doing so in the hopes of putting a hex on someone?

I've seen a test for determining whether motives and intentions contribute to the rightness or wrongness of an action. The thought is that if certain intentions or motives can constitute a kind of wrong (e.g., the motive of malice), when present and there are no overriding reasons to perform X, it is impermissible to X and this is chalked up to the deontic significance of the motive that would lead to X-ing. I can't help but think that this can't be the right test. It seems that someone who puts pins in a cushion might act from the motive from malice, there might be no further reasons that bear on whether to place the pins there, but I just can't accept that they've acted impermissibly in putting the pins to the doll and ought to have acted otherwise.

I'd like to think a slightly more promising test that would also support the idea that motives and intentions can contribute to the wrongness of an action is this. We do not ask whether the agent ought to act otherwise or acts impermissibly in acting from a certain motive or on a certain intention, but ask instead whether they will thereby generate further duties that they ought not feel free creating. I'm not sure how well this proposal stands up to the example. I guess we could say that someone who acts from the motive of hexing another thereby has a duty to work on his self-control? Maybe they have a duty to seek forgiveness from their intended victim? I sort of like this account, but I have to confess I'd not want to have to respond to the argument from silly malicious attempts if I ever were to defend the view that motives and intentions can have deontic significance.