Can a widespread local realist be a global anti-realist?--and the preface paradox

I have been thinking about whether there might be something like the preface paradox in the scientific realism debates. There is now a distinction being drawn between local (or 'retail') realism, in which one argues for the truth of particular scientific theories (e.g. quantum mechanics) or the existence of particular scientific entities (e.g. quarks), on the one hand, and global (or 'wholesale') realism, in which one argues for the approximate truth (or referential success) of mature scientific theories in general.

What I'm wondering is whether it can be justified and/or rational to be an everywhere local realist (so QM is approximately true, and general relativity is approximately true, and population genetics is (approximately) true, etc.), but still be a global anti-realist -- say, because you place a lot of weight on the pessimistic induction on the history of science. Or, on the other hand, whether everywhere local realism really pushes us towards global realism.

I'm currently guessing that one CAN be an everywhere local realist without being a global one, for the following two reasons.
(1) One standard response to the preface paradox seems perhaps even more applicable here than in the preface case: while the author assigns a high probability to each individual assertion in her book, the probability of (p & q & r & ...) will be low.
(2) Also, although if A is true and B is true, then 'A and B' must be true, it seems to me that even if A is approximately true and B is approximately true, then 'A and B' need not be approximately true, for A and B could be contradictory (for example, the prima facie conflict between quantum mechanics and general relativity).

I'm happy to hear any reasons for the opposite view, viz. that widespread local realism pushes us towards global realism.


Azzouni and existential commitment in science

Last week Jody Azzouni was here to give a pair of talks: one about scientific theories, another about his view that English is inconsistent in a pretty radical way: Every sentence is both true and false. They were both a lot of fun, and Jody is a great interlocutor -- he kept both presentations relatively short and to the point to there'd be more time for questions and clarifications. I also have a soft spot for arguments defending unpopular ideas -- though I usually side with the orthodoxy, incredible ideas are often a bit more interesting to think about.

In the philosophy of science talk, Jody was building on his work on what he calls "thick epistemic access." His argument was that we should not (contra Quinean orthodoxy) have existential committment to all the posits of our current best scientific theory, but rather only those posits to which we have thick epistemic access. (See e.g. Kenny's post here for a quick but accurate description of thick v. thin v. ultrathin posits.)

I was wondering, however, whether the Quinean orthodoxy could be undermined in a more direct way that does not involve developing a whole epistemological apparatus to distinguish when we really do have strong evidence that such-and-such thing exists. (Such a question is certainly philosophically interesting and worthwhile, but it is likely to be complex and contentious in places.) Rather, I thought a simpler argument against the Quinean orthodoxy could go as follows:
Science is rife with idealizations -- some of which are ineliminable/ indispensible. But no one should be committed to such idealizations, since they are (almost by definition) deliberate and conscious falsifications in our theoretical account of the world. So existential commitment does not follow our best theories as well as Quine would like.

I realize that (1) there may sometimes be a legitimate question about whether a given bit of a theory is an idealization or not, but that just shows the term 'idealization' is vague -- all parties agree there is some idealization in science, even if they don't agree on every case. Also, (2) most examples of idealizations are not entities, but rather inaccurate properties (e.g., treating some body that we know to exist, like a point particle: we give an inaccurate description of the thing's dimensions). So maybe pointing out the widespread use of idealization will not create widespread problems for the Quinean orthodoxy.


Why no 'scientific wisdom'?

Why do people often talk about 'scientific knowledge,' but we virtually never hear of scientific wisdom? Is there something about the content or practices of science that precludes them from counting as wisdom? After all, if ‘wisdom’ means something in the neighborhood of 'deep, important, or fundamental knowledge,' it seems (to me at least) that science should be a paradigm case of wisdom.

Is this merely a linguistic quirk that bears no relation to the relationship between the nature of science and the nature of wisdom? Or does the fact that we rarely—if ever—speak of 'scientific wisdom' reveal something important? Here's a reason for thinking the latter.

Science provides instrumental reasons for action only, not categorical ones: If you want to build a nuclear bomb, then the atomic theory of matter will be an extremely useful tool in designing the weapon. It is no part of physics—or any other of the (paradigmatic?) (natural?) sciences—to say whether you should build a bomb or not. Science does not inform us as to what should be valued for its own sake, and not merely as a means to some further end (though e.g. sociology could inform us what is in fact valued). The information provided by science only helps us acquire those things we already value. This is closely related, if not identical, to the old saw that science tells us about facts, and says nothing about values. Wisdom, in contrast, is thought to involve knowledge of what should be valued for its own sake (as well as how best to achieve those ends). That is, wisdom can offer categorical reasons, whereas science provides instrumental ones only.

The literature on the relationship between science and values is both vast and contentious. However, I do not know of anyone who says that the content of theories in natural science includes claims about what is valuable for its own sake. (I could be oblivious and/or uninformed about this; I'm no expert in this sub-field.) It may be that the scientific ethos includes e.g. valuing truth over personal gain, but that’s not part of the general theory of relativity.

So now we have a reason why no one says 'scientific wisdom'—science is silent on what is valuable for its own sake, whereas wisdom requires this information.


proxy bleg for a textbook

A post by request: one of my colleagues will be teaching a course for philosophy majors called "Contemporary Philosophy" focusing on what is current in the discipline now. Does anyone know of any good textbooks/anthologies that would work well for such a course?


antimeta in the house

One of my favorite bloggers, Kenny of Antimeta, was in Vegas last weekend and gave an interesting talk on philosophy of mathematics to our department. His basic aim was to find criteria that separated probabilistic proofs from other proofs (including, hopefully, proof sketches and computer-aided proofs). I'm not going to discuss that directly here.

I'm interested in a related claim Kenny made: that in mathematics, a theorem will be accepted only if the proof does not (he put it variously) appeal to authority/ depend on the reliability of other people/ rely on the testimony of others. That is, for a specialist in the field, they should be able to start out as serious skeptics of the theorem's truth, but end up at the close of the proof as believers. The contrast with experimental science is pretty clear: even specialists in a sub-field of experimental science have to trust (to some degree) the experimental reports of their fellow-workers, or the field would grind to a halt.

Question: Is there such a thing as mathematical fraud, of the sort we hear about periodically in experimental science? If not, that fact looks like evidence for Kenny's distinction being important and robust (since fraud is much harder in the absence of trust).

Comment 1: Some of the posters on FOM endorse Kenny's idea to the extreme: someone suggested that Fermat's Last Theorem will not really be proved until it is written in a way that average mathematics PhDs (whoever that is) can work through it themselves. I don't think Kenny wants to say anything nearly that strong, but the fact that such a strong position exists is a sign that the sentiment Kenny claims to discern really is there in the mathematics community.

Comment 2: At the end of the talk, Kenny suggested that philosophy may be closer to mathematics than experimental science in this regard. He may be right, but one thing that distinguishes philosophy from math in this regard is that in philosophy far more than in mathematics, one person's modus ponens is another person's modus tollens. This is just a direct result of mathematical axioms' being widely accepted throughout the mathematical community, whereas philosophers will challenge any premise, no matter how obvious or fruitful.


Yet another way to think about Quine's critique of Carnap

Several of the blog entries here have been about the Quine-Carnap debate over the status of analytic truth. Generally, I don't feel the force of Quine's arguments as they are usually presented, either because his interpretation of Carnap is unfair or inaccurate, or the arguments just aren't that persuasive. Multiple commentators on the Quine-Carnap debate have suggested that the two are 'talking past each other,' at least to some degree. So, I am constantly trying to find a way to make Quine's view make sense to me, AND simultaneously really disagree with Carnap. This seems like installment 19 or so in that endeavor.

Carnap and Quine agree that language can be studied at various levels of abstraction. Using Carnap's taxonomy, we start at the level of pragmatics, where we study how individual speakers use expressions under particular circumstances. This level contains the most detail: speakers, their circumstances, plus the meanings of the words for particular speakers under particular circumstances. At the next, more abstract level, we have semantics, which abstracts away from particular speakers and particular circumstances. And at the highest level, we have syntax, which abstracts away the meanings of words, leaving just the symbols, the way they are put together, and which strings follow from others.

In each transition from pragmatics to semantics to syntax, some information about language is omitted/ discarded. (Like the move from Euclidean geometry to neutral geometry, which drops the parallel postulate.) Now, we can conceive of Quine's indeterminacy of meaning thesis (the radical translation thought experiment) as critiquing Carnap in the following way: Carnap is importing or introducing new information at the semantic level, because the semantic facts Carnap includes in a semantically-characterized language [a "semantic system"] cannot be 'read off' even the information contained at the pragmatic level. The analogy in the geometry case shows why this is clearly an unacceptable maneuver. It would be: thinking that there exists some claim that could be proved in neutral geometry (= Euclid's first four postulates only) but couldn't be proved in Euclidean geometry.

This may not be Quine's actual worry; his concern may stem from the fact that applied semantics (or whatever branch of language study) underdetermines pure semantics (or whatever). However, Carnap is perfectly happy to accept that claim: Creath says this is why Carnap's copy of Word and Object Ch.2 (Indeterminacy of Translation) has no marginalia. [But how does the geometry analogy fare here? Would Carnap admit that applied geometry underdetermines pure geometry? My guess is yes; and that that's not so bad...


Is arithmetic empirical?

One of the questions I've been wanting to think about (in part because of my interest in the Quine-Carnap relationship) but haven't really got around to yet is: Is there any important sense in which arithmetic is empirical? I know there is some good literature on the subject, but I've thus far only perused it without really digging into it.

For me, one consideration that makes me think it might not be crazy to think of arithmetic as empirical is what happened with geometry and general relativity. If Einstein can show that the space in which we live is non-Euclidean, isn't it at least imaginable that some future scientist will show us that the 'true' arithmetic of our physical world is non-classical (which I suppose means: it does not obey the Peano axioms). [There could still be a mathematical structure that obeys classical arithmetic, just as Euclidean space is still a mathematical object that obeys all five of Euclid's axioms.]

However, I've always had a hard time imagining what possible observation could cast doubt on classical arithmetic. In last week's Science, there's a report that at least might merit consideration as a candidate. Researchers found that if you add one photon to a light beam and then take one away, you observe a different end-state than if you reverse the order of operations, i.e., first remove one and then add one. In other words, x + 1 - 1 does not equal x - 1 + 1. Even stranger, the authors find that "under certain conditions, the removal of a photon from a light field can lead to an increase in the mean number of photons in that light field," that is, (roughly) that x-1>x. The summary and background for non-specialists is here, and the full technical report is here (both behind subscription walls).

Now, this effect depends on the failure of commutation relations ubiquitous in quantum mechanics, so it is quite possible that this in no sense makes arithmetic look empirical. But I'm not 100% sure about that. Any thoughts?


Logic job at Alberta

From my man at the University of Alberta, Ingo Brigandt, comes news of a logic job in his department:

The Department of Philosophy, University of Alberta, invites applications for a tenure-track position in Philosophy, with a specialization in Logic. Other areas of research and teaching specialization and competence are open. The appointment will be made at the rank of Assistant Professor, effective July 1, 2008. Responsibilities include undergraduate and graduate teaching and maintaining an active research programme. Tenure stream faculty normally teach four one term courses per year. Candidates should hold a PhD in Philosophy and provide evidence of scholarly and teaching excellence. Salary is commensurate with qualifications and experience, and the benefit package is comprehensive. Applicants should arrange to send a letter of application indicating the position applied for and describing areas of research interest, curriculum vitae, all university transcripts, a sample of written work, letters from three referees, and, if available, a teaching dossier and teaching evaluations to Bruce Hunter, Chair, Logic Search, Department of Philosophy, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, CANADA, T6G 2E5. CLOSING DATE: November 10, 2007. The University of Alberta hires on the basis of merit. We are committed to the principle of equity in employment. We welcome diversity and encourage applications from all qualified women and men, including persons with disabilities, members of visible minorities, and Aboriginal persons. All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply; however, Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be given priority. For further information concerning the Department, please consult http://www.uofaweb.ualberta.ca/philosophy/.

Ingo also tells me that Alberta will be advertising a postdoc and an open Associate professor position this year, so all you Oilers fans should start polishing your CVs.


Haslanger on conceptual analysis and social construction

Last Friday we were lucky enough to have Sally Haslanger visit. She gave a lecture that was open to (and aimed at) the general public, called "But mom, crop-tops are cute! The Social Critique of Social Knowledge". We also basically had a seminar on some of her recent work on social constructionism and the metaphysics, epistemology, and semantics of social kinds, where we peppered her with questions and she enlightened us. We also talked a fair amount about the current deplorable level of sexism in academic philosophy. (Her recent paper on this topic has generated a good deal of discussion, and I, like much of the rest of the philosophical blogosphere, can unequivocally recommend it.)

One thing that I especially like about her work is that she takes the basic ideas of social constructionism and (re-?)formulates them in a way that is much more palatable to analytic philosophers. I always felt some basic affinity for the social constructionist project, yet oftentimes the way it is couched by sociologists, anthropologists, social historians, etc. either confuses me or seems just a bit too crazy. She translates good bits into the idiom of current Anglophone philosophy in a very helpful way.

An example: Social constructionists might say that our conceptual scheme forces us into ways of thinking and acting that is often opaque to ourselves; that our concepts somehow create an illusory false consciousness that 'masks' their true nature. Haslanger has a nice way of thinking about such an idea that (I think) makes sense to an analytic philosopher. How can we misunderstand our own concepts? She says we should distinguish between the manifest concept, which is (roughly) captured by the dictionary definition an ordinary language-user would give, and the operative concept, which is (roughly) captured by the way the community in question actually draws distinctions/ applies the concept in practice. As an example of where these two things pull apart, she suggests race: the 'ordinary' person's definition of race will include some sort of biological (or at least broadly physical/ natural) component; yet the way we actually classify people as white, black, etc. actually does not track some single shared genetic -- or even biological -- trait. So now we have (to my mind) a clean account of where the 'illusion' or 'opacity' comes in: the operative concept will be used in the vast majority of everyday life, but when we consciously reflect on what we're doing (specifically, what distinction we are drawing), then the manifest concept takes the leading role.

What should we do when the manifest and operative concepts split apart like this? Haslanger does not want to say that we should always opt for one over the other as somehow the real meaning. Rather, she says, when we have this mismatch, that creates an opportunity to re-think the question 'What, exactly, do we want this concept for? -- What function (if any) do we want this concept to serve in our thinking?' And here we have a third concept, which she calls the 'target concept.' And here is where the normative aspects of ideology critique can appear: what should this concept be? (Note: we do not need a mismatch between operative and manifest concepts in order to ask about the target concept -- but the presence of a conflict generates a desire for a resolution, and the target concept holds out the promise of resolving the conflict between the operative and manifest concepts.)

I'm pretty sure I haven't captured Sally's ideas in exactly the way she would put them, but I hope I'm not horribly far off. If this is in the ballpark, I'm wondering about a couple of things concerning this tripartite picture:

(1) Are there really ethical ways to sort entities and unethical ones? Just creating a set with a certain group of members does not seem to me like the kind of thing that can be moral or immoral. Of course, classifications can be used to commit horrible injustices – insert any oppressed group here for an example. But, I want to say, just as the atomic theory of matter is not really ethically good or bad in itself, though it can be used to build an atomic bomb which can be used to commit ethical atrocities, the act of classification is not good or bad in itself (even though it may be a necessary precondition for injustice – or reparation). [I should note that after her talk, Sally did mention that she had thought a lot about whether the normative dimension of ideology critique should be separated from the conceptual analysis part; so this remark would be no news to her.]

(2) This is my being thick, I think. I’m having trouble seeing how exactly the idea of ideology (as studied by people in the social sciences) maps onto Haslanger’s tripartite conceptual scheme. Why? Because ideology (when it’s working ‘well’) is “implicit” knowledge, i.e., it is taken for granted and deployed without even noticing that we are using it, only semiconsciously or unconsciously. When it is articulated explicitly, it ceases to be as effective. So that sounds like it maps onto the ‘operative concept.’ But e.g. in the case of race, a social constructionist or an eliminativist about race wants to say the idea of race being biologically grounded is a key part of racial ideology – but that is the ‘manifest concept.’ So maybe ideology doesn’t map neatly onto Haslanger’s conceptual classifications, but I got the sense that she wanted it to.

It was great having Sally here. She is as rigorous and uncompromising an analytical philosopher as you could hope to meet, but she actually works on things that matter to people’s lives. So she really should be a model to the philosophical community.


Out of Africa

I came back from Africa just in time for the new school term. To my pleasant surprise, we have returned uneaten by the wildlife, and (apparently) uninfected by any of the various diseases that the guidebooks said were rampant in sub-Saharan Africa.

I had hoped that spending over a month working in (first) rural schools and (second) refugee camps, that I would have some sort of insight or revelation about circumstances in the developing world, or the proper relationship affluent Western people and countries should have with developing areas. Or some epiphany about globalization etc. No such luck. I met many people who were very smart, very kind and generous, and very funny. I worked on some very small projects with some of these folks. I miss them now. But no deep enlightenment about the difficult conditions of the majority of the world's inhabitants.

I also didn't have any real thoughts about philosophical stuff; just one little note that I might try to incorporate into an intro to political philosophy class. So one issue that comes up in political philosophy 101 in the debate between Hobbes and Locke is whether it is worse to live in the state of nature, or under a dictator. Hobbes says the former is worse, Locke the latter. I always thought this was an important question in the dialectic between the two, but answering it seemed difficult to impossible -- how could you really decide?

Well, during the 50 hours or so I spent riding travel buses in Zambia, I read a great book by Martin Meredith, called The State of Africa: A History of 50 Years of Independence. It was perfect for an ignoramus like me: not too much detail, but still plenty of concrete material. And the history of the last several decades in Africa makes Locke's answer to the above question look prima facie pretty good. The large majority of the strongmen were absolutely brutal to citizens, and not just people who "got on the dictator's bad side" -- you could be from the wrong tribe; you could have starvation-inducing taxes levied upon you; as we see in Zimbabwe today, your currency could be massively devalued to the point of worthlessness. If you have a problem, then you are killed -- horrifically -- along with your friends and family. In the state of nature, you at least have a chance of overpowering your neighbor; but imagine if, in a Hobbesian state of nature, God gave one person the power of throwing deadly lightning bolts at will... that's what a strongman's presence is like. And as e.g. Mobutu's power in the DRC waned, and his paramilitary power dwindled, you no longer have a capricious and wrathful Zeus hanging over your head. (Though then another strongman, Kabila, fills the void, backed by neighboring countries, and horrors continue.)

I say this is prima facie evidence, because I think a Hobbesian could conceivably retort that as the strongman's ability to throw thunderbolts decreases, some other social entity steps in to take his place, so that the people are not in the state of nature. But this is all just my amateurish speculation; I am certainly not an expert in early modern British political philosophy.


Off to Africa, and 2nd birthday

This blog turns two years old today. I'm only averaging about two and a half posts per month, and certainly fewer than that this year. I'm finding myself spending more time on polishing up articles (and a book), and less on writing about brand-new, half-baked ideas better suited for a blog dedicated to obscurity and confusion.

Posting will be even lighter over the next 7 weeks or so, since my wife and I are headed to Zambia under the auspices of a couple of non-profits that she works with: FORGE, which works in refugee camps, and Project Educate, which aims to improve educational, medical, and other infrastructure in western Zambia. We're looking forward to the trip with a lot of anticipation, but a bit of trepidation too, since neither of us have ever been to Africa.

And many, many thanks to the folks who have provided feedback on the book manuscript. I am in your debt. If anyone wants a copy WITH the archival material appendix, please email me. I can't put it on the web, because the Archive from which it comes maintains control over it. This updated version also was my first sustained undertaking with LaTeX, so there are still typographic kinks in it.


Help me write a book

This post falls under the category of "shameless begging." I am in the later stages of writing a book (based on my dissertation) called Carnap, Quine, and Tarski's Year Together. The plan is to send the manuscript to the publisher in about two months, i.e. very early July. Between then and now, the only thing I'm working on is the book.

I need your help with this. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, large or small, on the manuscript. It definitely needs to be looked at by a fresh set of eyes (preferably attached to a clever mind, but I'll take what I can get). The manuscript can be downloaded, as a 1MB Word file, here.

Thanks in advance to anyone who lends a hand. In my limited experience, the greater the number of people who tear apart something I've written, the better the final product is.


Can a sentence without a truth-value ever be approximately true?

I am curious to hear people's thoughts on the question in the title. There has been a lot of philosophical work done on the idea that a sentence can be strictly speaking false, yet nonetheless approximately true (or 'truthlike' or 'verisimilar'). For example: I am 5'11", but if someone said 'Greg is 6 feet tall,' we want to say that that claim is approximately true or something like that. But what if the claim was (strictly speaking) neither true nor false? (Readers may insert their own favorite truth-valueless sentence here.)

I ask because, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm toying with the idea that the Pessimistic Induction over the history of science plus something like Kuhnian incommensurability (esp. untranslatability) will lead us not to the conclusion that current science is likely to be false, but rather is likely to lack a truth-value. For if we cannot translate the claims of a pre-revolutionary language into the post-revolutionary one, then the pre-revolutionary language (from our current point of view) is truth-valueless, not false.

I ask the question in the title because one common realist response to the Pessimistic induction is: "Well, yes, our current scientific theories are probably not exactly true, but they are approximately true." If truth-valueless sentences cannot be approximately true, then this response is not available to the realist.


APA wrap-up: Kyle Stanford's "New Induction"

My time at the APA last weekend was pretty good: I learned a few new things, met some new people I've been wanting to meet, and got to catch up with a couple old friends. Particularly helpful/ enlightening presentations included Angela Potochnick on how the context of inquiry shapes explanation, Ken Waters (plus commenters Jay Odenbaugh and Michael Strevens) on causes that make a difference (not, I learned, to be confused with the conception of causes as 'difference-makers'), and the Author-Meets-Critics session on Kyle Stanford's Exceeding Our Grasp.

Stanford's basic claim is that current scientific theories are underdetermined -- not because we can generate empircially equivalent rivals to our currently accepted theories, but rather because at many, many times in the past, the scientific community has been unable to conceive of good alternatives to the then-current theory. The evidence that such alternatives exist is the fact that they are proposed and accepted centuries later: thus, Newton's mechanics did not consider special relativity as an alternative hypothesis; Newton's, when he proposed his gravitation theory, did not consider the general theory of relativity as an alternative; no classical physicists before 1900 considered quantum mechanics as an alternative explanation of the data, and so on. This is what Stanford calls the "New Induction" over the history of science.

The idea, as just presented, strikes me as a promising line to take. But there is one aspect of Stanford's presentation of the problem that I don't understand. Fiona Cowie asked (in part) about this in the question and answer session, but I still didn't follow the answer. Stanford says that (e.g.) in 1700, the special theory of relativity and Newtonian mechanics were "(roughly) equally well-confirmed". Similarly for the other cases: the future theory is supposedly just as confirmed as the old one -- even in the past.

I don't understand why Stanford says this for two reasons: (1) He doesn't need the theories to be equally well-confirmed for his point to hold (viz., scientists aren't even conceiving of a hypothesis that will later be accepted as superior), and (2) it seems false to me, on any reasonable (i.e., not hardcore hypothetico-deductive)notion of confirmation. In 1700, it is true that special relativity and Newtonian mechanics agreed on all the consequences that could then be observed. But someone who, in 1700, said "Newton is approximately right, yet when something goes really, really fast its length will contract and its local time will dilate from the point of view of slower-moving observers" -- there is NO evidence at all for postulating that further bit of theory. And it's the same with GTR (what evidence would there've been for gravitation being a 10-component tensor instead of a scalar?) and especially QM (what evidence was there for thinking a body cannot have a determinate position and momentum simultaneously?). In 1700, these now-accepted alternatives were consistent with the data, but they were not equally well-confirmed.

Note: a very similar line of objection is pushed at the end of P.D. Magnus's "What's New about the New Induction?" (Synthese, 2006), though he develops it slightly differently, I think. (As I understand him, P.D. claims that in 1700, STR, GTR and QM would look like 'gruesome' hypotheses.)


Off to the Pacfic APA

I'll be at the APA in San Francisco from this Wednesday til Saturday afternoon; I'm be commenting on a paper by Barry Ward on the paradox of confirmation (a.k.a. the Ravens paradox).

So if you're there, and you want to catch up/ chat/ harrass me etc., please track me down.


semantic pathology spotted in the wild

Perhaps the most famous instance of a sentence that exhibits semantic pathology is the Liar: 'This sentence is false'; if the 'this' strikes you as problematic --

(1) (1) is false.

But there are many other types of semantic pathology, such as the 'heterological' paradox and the so-called 'truth-teller': 'This sentence is true.' My colleague James Woodbridge is doing a lot of interesting research in this area; check out his work if you are interested.

This is not a serious post about semantic pathology, but rather just a field report. I sometimes wonder whether these examples like the truth-teller are all that important, since it's hard to imagine circumstances under which speakers might utter it. But I think I may have found a couple of instances of something akin to the truth-teller "in the wild":

(i) A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Spamalot, the musical adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. One of the songs contained (something close to) the following line: "This is the song that goes like this."

(ii) In the instructions for the Pennsylvania state tax forms, I found (something like) the following:

"You are eligible for the Tax Forgiveness credit if you meet the following requirements:

1. ...
2. ...
3. You meet the eligibility requirements for the Tax Forgiveness Credit.
4. ..."


Carnap on what's 'really wrong with the Aufbau'

When I was going through some of the photocopied material I have from the Rudolf Carnap archive, I found the following interesting (to me) remark. Carnap is discussing with Nelson Goodman a draft of Goodman's dissertation (A Study of Qualities, which much later became The Structure of Appearance). Goodman points out various supposed technical defects with Carnap's method of quasi-analysis presented in the Aufbau, and Carnap says roughly the following:

The real problem with my Aufbau is not the various counter-examples that can be constructed against my particular version of quasi-analysis (which I already knew about), but rather the assumption of extensionality.

(I haven't quoted, because I don't think it's allowed.) I like this because (a) it's a really smart philosopher saying 'My book rests on a mistake,' and (b) it fits with my pet theory that the real break between Carnap and Quine stems in large part from Carnap moving away from the extensional languages he espoused in Logical Syntax, while Quine held fast to the extensional standard throughout his life (see the posthumous "Confessions of a Confirmed Extensionalist").


confusion and prokaryotes

One of my recurrent interests is confusion, especially in science. The way I understand this concept is as follows: a term or concept is confused = that term or concept takes 2 or more entities to be one entity (where 'entity' covers individual objects, properties, relations, etc.). In other words, a confused concept or term conflates distinct things. I think the phenomenon of confusion is important in science because part of what happens in many scientific revolutions is that, from the point of view of the new scientific framework, the old scientific framework is confused -- or vice versa. (Re: 'vice versa': Einstein's principle of equivalence, for example, would be seen as an unjustified conflation from the viewpoint of a classical physicist: gravitation and inertia are two separate things, and running them together as Einstein does is an unjustified conflation.)

I've recently started looking at another potential case of confusion in science, but I'm a bit uncertain about it, and would like to air it to get reactions.

In high-school biology class, we are told that the highest/ most basic division among life on Earth is between 2 kingdoms: prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Eukaryotes are all those organisms whose genetic material is encapsulated within a nucleus; Prokaryotes are organisms whose genetic material is not. In other words, Prokaryote=df not-Eukaryote.

However, in the last 2-3 decades, the highest taxonomic level has slowly switched to a three-group classification: Eukaryotes, Archaebacteria, and (Eu)bacteria. Why? The short answer is: "on the molecular level, [archaebacteria] resemble other procaryotes, the eubacteria, no more (probably less) than they do the eukaryotes" (C. Woese et al., PNAS 1990 p.4577).

The upshot for present purposes is that there are actually two distinct highest taxa whose genetic material is not enclosed within a nucleus, viz. the archaebacteria and the eubacteria. From this point of view, it appears that 'prokaryote' conflates the archaebacteria and the eubacteria. But if we recall the earlier characterization of 'prokaryote' as simply 'not-eukaryote,' then 'prokaryote' does not appear to be a confused term. So the question is: Is 'prokaryote' confused, or not? (And why?) I'm happy to hear just intuitions, as well as intuitions backed up with some sort of argument or evidence.

P.s. -- For some readers, this discussion will immediately call to mind Quine's solution to the 'grue' paradox in his paper "Natural Kinds" (in Ontological Relativity and other essays). There, Quine notes that if the predicate P picks out a natural kind, then not-P usually doesn't. A hackneyed example: 'gold' picks out a natural kind (any matter with atomic number 79), but 'not-gold' does not, because it covers many, many completely disparate things -- there are too many ways to be not gold for 'not-gold' to refer to a natural kind.

This might make us think that many/ most predicates of the form not-P are, in fact, confused, since such predicates most often apply to many different natural kinds. All I can say at this point is: that sounds counterintuitive to me... it doesn't feel to me like 'not-gold' conflates distinct things.


Scott Soames' "Actually" in Vegas

One of my favorite philosophers, Scott Soames, was in Vegas last weekend; he gave a great talk entitled "Actually", and he and his wife Martha took a trip with some of the folks in my department out to the beautiful Valley of Fire state park.

One of the main points Soames pushed was that "actually" plays two very different roles in philosophical semantics. 'Actually p', spoken in a given world W1, means 'p is true in world W1' (sorry, I can't do corner-quotes in Blogger). Now, Soames says there are two ways to specify this world W1:
(1) by picking it out purely indexically, in the way 'I' picks out the speaker of the token, 'now' picks out the moment of utterance, etc. -- so on this way, 'actually p' means 'p is true in THIS world' (or '...in OUR world').

(2) by (roughly- see Soames' paper for the gory details) giving the proposition associated with the Carnapian state-description of W1. (A state-description assigns a value of true or false to every atomic sentence in a language.)

Scott pointed out that if we pick out world W1 in the second way, then 'Actually p' is a priori: once you have a state-description of the world in which that sentence is uttered, then you have all the information you need to figure out its truth-value. This runs contra the conventional wisdom that says 'Actually p' is a posteriori, since we only learn whether p is true in this world via experience; Soames's point was that 'Actually p' is learned via experience when we use way (1) of picking out the world W1, but since there is this other way (2), 'Actually p' is in fact knowABLE a priori, if not knowN a priori in practical cases.

This is very clever, and I need to think more about it, but I think my esteemed colleague James Woodbridge had the best question/ objection of the afternoon. He said 'Actually p' does not just mean 'p is true at world W1,' but rather 'p is true at W1 AND W1 is actual/ instantiated.' Someone could give me the entire state-description of the world we currently inhabit, and then I could calculate from that description that p is true in a world satisfying such a description -- but I still wouldn't know that 'Actually p' is true, because I wouldn't know that the state-description matched this world. (And I was too slow on the uptake to grasp Soames's reply to James.)

My favorite part of Soames's whole talk, though, was the following approximate quotation:
"Perhaps the contingent a priori is just an old wives' tale."
I know I can't get my grandmother to stop talking about Kripke...


Methodological naturalism without metaphysical naturalism

A student of mine pointed out to me this recent New York Times article. It's about Marcus Ross, who recently received his Ph.D. in geology, writing a perfectly normal geology dissertation about what happened 10-15 million years ago -- except this guy is actually a young earth creationist, that is, he believes the Earth is no more than 10,000 years old, based on a literal interpretation of Genesis. Ross says he works within one "paradigm" when writing his dissertation and working within the geological community, but he does not accept this paradigm for all contexts.

A number of interesting things could be said about this (and many are in the NYT article). I wanted to highlight one of the more philosophical aspects of this case. In the context of the debate over Intelligent Design, the anti-evolutionists often say 'Darwinism is a religious belief (perhaps atheism in disguise).' Many pro-evolutionists respond by drawing a distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism, where only the second is anything close to a religious belief. Here's a rough characterization:

(Methodological Naturalism) Scientific explanations cannot appeal to supernatural causes.

(Metaphysical Naturalism) There are no supernatural causes.

The pro-evolutionists say that science only requires methodological naturalism, not the metaphysical naturalism that is pretty close to atheism. So one could be a methodological naturalist, but need not be a metaphysical naturalist (though presumably not vice versa). One natural response the anti-evolutionist could make is that this distinction is contrived, artificial, or otherwise objectionable.

Well, now Marcus Ross is a striking real-life example of someone who is a methodological naturalist without being a metaphysical naturalist. You might think this would make the pro-evolutionists happy -- but as the NYT article makes clear, not all of them are. There are different reasons for this dissatisfaction (e.g., the young earth creationists can now claim this bona fide geologist is on their side). But one thing that perhaps drives the dissatisfaction is that, to quote the student who showed me this article, this person's beliefs seem "crazy". His mental life seems fragmented or segregated in the extreme.

Somewhat ironically, this case appears to serve as a particularly vivid example in favor of the anti-evolutionists' claim that the distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism is bogus. On the other hand, in defense of the distinction, perhaps it is not this geologist's metaphysical supernaturalism that makes his stance seem odd, but rather his further beliefs about the particular, specific nature of the divine causes, viz., creating the Earth 10,000 years ago or so.


A difference between science and the humanities?

This post is going to be overly ambitious and overreaching, but isn't that what the blogosphere is all about? Classes started this past week, and I am teaching an upper-level course in philosophy of science. I started the class with the (overly ambitious) question 'What is science?' We had an interesting conversation, and I learned a bit from my students. There was an extended discussion about which particular parts of forensic science really do count as science, and the question 'What is science?' really matters there, because once something is declared accepted science, then it can be admitted into evidence in a court of law.

I had one thought concerning how to distinguish science from the humanities, which I didn't share with my students, but I figured I might try to articulate here. I think it may just be a slightly different way of putting a tired old point, but here goes.

Both the sciences and the humanities seek understanding; both offer explanations of various bits of the world. At a very abstract level, though, the kind of things each tries to explain is different. Obviously, (e.g.) Hamlet is a very different kind of thing than (e.g.) thermometer readings -- I have a more 'formal' difference in mind. When an English professor gives an interpretation of Hamlet, she has (basically: see (3) in next paragraph) ALL the stuff to be explained in front of her: the text is complete, finished. To put the point in terms of evidence instead of explanation, all the data/evidence she can offer for her preferred interpretation of the text is already in. This stands in clear contrast with (most of?) the sciences: new data is constantly being gathered, and new observations need to be explained. If a similar process were occurring in the Hamlet case, a new Act of that play would be produced every week, and various interpretations were shown to be stronger or weaker as new 'data' (i.e. texts) came streaming in.

I think many parts of philosophy are more like the Hamlet case. Take ethics for example. Murder, stealing, lying, etc. are morally wrong. This is in some sense the 'received/ established text' from which the ethicist works: an ethical theory has to explain why those things are wrong. Of course, there are thought-experiments designed to probe various parts of our ethical intuitions, but (1) these often yield contentious/ equivocal results, and (2) more importantly, I only want to say philosophy is more like the Hamlet case, not that it's identical. (Plus, (3) the English professor could potentially get some new information "around the margins" (to put it metaphorically): further historical details of Shakespeare's life, earlier drafts of texts, various facts about the circumstances of production, etc. -- there is clearly a continuum here with absolutely no new data on one end and lots of new data on the other.)

Another philosophical example would be philosophy of arithmetic. We've known that 7+5=12 for some time now, and the philosopher wants to explain how and why we know it's true. We're not getting a whole lot of new 'data' about arithmetic. As a final example, consider the enterprise that falls under the heading of 'interpretation' of various special scientific theories -- an enterprise which is frequently thought of as being particularly close to science. This industry is perhaps most developed in the case of quantum mechanics, but it thrives in general relativity, statistical mechanics, population genetics, etc. as well. On my criterion, these projects (usually) fall much closer to the 'humanities' end of the spectrum: the game here is to take some standard formulation of the theory in question (e.g. of quantum mechanics) and provide an explanation of that theory. The formulation of (e.g.) quantum mechanics is, I think, like the text of Hamlet, insofar as it is taken to exhaust what needs to be explained. However, sometimes this explanation will (either by itself, or with further specification) generate new experimental predictions. When that happens (as in some cases of spontaneous-collapse interpretations of quantum mechanics), then the project becomes more scientific on the above criterion, and less like the humanities.

Perhaps the criterion I've suggested here can partly explain why many (though by no means all!) physicists express exasperation with the philosophy of physics, and consider the enterprise pointless.


philosophy on TV

This is not a substantive post, but I wanted to let people know that (1) this blog has not died (yet), and (2) I saw Aristotle quoted in a TV commercial last night. The commercial opened up with Yao Ming (a famous basketball player, for those of you who don't care about such stuff) practicing shooting 18-foot shots, making one after another. Then the screen is replaced with the text: "Excellence is not an act but a habit. --Aristotle"

I think the ad was paid for by the NBA, but I'm not sure. I'm now trying to figure out how to market my own writings to fit various basketball-related themes... I could use the royalties, but I don't see how "Tarski's theory of truth was not motivated by physicalism" or "Developmental biology may not reduce to molecular biology" could tie in with any of the, uh, virtues extolled by basketball culture.

p.s.: Does anyone know why one of Shaquille O'Neal's nicknames is "The Big Aristotle"?