A datum on the reception of the 'Verifiability Criterion of Meaning'

One of my pet views about logical empiricism is that the verifiability criterion of meaning, for those who actually espoused some version of it (as opposed to attributed it to someone else), often does not mean exactly what the average professional philosopher in 2011 thinks it means.

I just stumbled across a new data point that suggests the reception of the verifiability criterion was more accurate than the straw-man version popular today. Here's Susan Stebbing, in 1933's "Logical Positivism and Analysis":
A proposition is understood only if it is verifiable; it is verifiable if, and only if, we know the conditions under which the proposition would be true, and the conditions under which it is false.(p.13)
Just as Carnap says in "Overcoming Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language," the meaning of a sentence is given by its truth-conditions. (One cannot be a complete revolutionary about the verifiability principle: the texts rule that out. Discussions of observations appear in treatments of the verifiability principle--these 'truth-conditions' are often further articulated as something like 'sets of possible experiences,' where 'possible' is taken very broadly.)


A new kind of semantics for confusion

(There's a decent amount of set-up/ review in this post, before I reach the main point -- the new idea comes in the 4th paragraph.) I took a grad seminar with Joe Camp on the topic of confusion 8 years ago, and have been thinking on-and-off about it ever since. Camp illustrates the phenomenon with the example of Fred, who buys an ant colony. At the time of purchase, Fred is told that there is one big ant in the colony, and a bunch of smaller ones. Unbeknownst to Fred, however, there are actually two big ants in his colony (we'll call them 'Ant A' and 'Ant B'). Fred says to himself "I'm going to call the big ant in my colony 'Charley'." Fred then goes on to say various sentences including the word 'Charley,' and to make various inferences involving such sentences.

The questions that most interest me about confusion concern truth and consequence: 1. What truth-value, if any, should we assign to such sentences? (Think about 'Charley is an ant', Charley is not an ant,' or 'Charley=Charley'.) 2. How should we make sense of logical consequence in languages containing 'Charley' and similar words? (Think about: 'Everything is an ant; thus Charley is an ant', 'Charley is a big ant; thus there is a big ant,' and 'Charley is an ant; thus Charley exists').

For people who don't want to say that every atomic sentence containing 'Charley' is false, or is truth-valueless, the (apparently?) most common strategy is to use a supervaluational strategy: 'Charley is an ant' is true, because it is true on every disambiguation: 'Ant A is an ant' is true, and so is 'Ant B is an ant'. The same goes for 'Charley=Charley.' For logical consequence, there are two ways we could go: 'local' or 'global', in the jargon current in recent work on the logic of vagueness. The 'global' option: If every premise is true on every complete disambiguation, then the conclusion is true on every complete disambiguation. The 'local' option: for every complete disambiguation, if all the premises are true, then so is the conclusion. (If an argument is locally valid, then it's globally valid, but not conversely.)

So here's my new idea: what if, instead of using supervaluations (which were initially introduced in the 60's to handle empty names), could we instead use something like the other main contender for the model theory of empty names, usually called 'inner domain-outer domain' semantics? In this semantics, extra entities are added to the 'outer domain,' which serve as the referents for empty names (such as 'Santa Claus'). But the quantifiers only range over the 'inner domain,' in which all the objects exist. So 'Santa exists' will be false.

The idea to try an inner domain-outer domain semantics for confused terms resulted from re-reading Krista Lawlor's "A Notional Worlds Approach to Confusion." She objects to the supervaluational approach, because "[i]n supervaluing, we give up on understanding the confused belief." Why?
Fred’s ontological commitments involve one big ant (‘Charley’), not two. Our assignment of truth and falsity to Fred’s beliefs rests on our ontology, not Fred’s. We evaluate Fred’s beliefs for how far they might lead us astray, by our lights. In a very clear sense we give up on understanding Fred, in favor of using him, we might say, as an instrument (and a not-too-well-calibrated one at that), for detecting the facts as we understand them. (p.153)
I don't know yet whether I agree with this argument. But I do think it's a plausible argument, and thus it is worth trying to devise a type of formal semantics that respects the idea behind it. If there were one object in the outer domain that is the referent of 'Charley,' perhaps we have not 'given up on understanding' Fred's belief.

The obvious next question is: what are these individuals in the outer domain? Which one is the referent of 'Charley'? The short answer is 'I don't know,' but I think there have to be some constraints on this individual, related to Ant A and Ant B's properties (this would be a difference with the old inner/outer domain semantics for empty names -- there, the inner-domain individuals do not themselves impose constraints on the outer-domain individuals). Ruth Garrett Millikan describes confused concepts as "amalgams" of distinct concepts; so could we somehow make the individual in the outer domain associated with the name 'Charley' an amalgam of Ant A and Ant B? But what would such an amalgamated individual be (or: 'How should we model such an amalgamated individual in this formal semantics')? First-thought candidates include the set {Ant A, Ant B}, or the mereological fusion of Ant A and Ant B, but neither of those seem obviously right. Obviously, I'm just at the very beginning of thinking about this, and any thoughts would be very appreciated.


Carnap's FBI files

Carnap's FBI file is available on the web:


Thanks to Chris W├╝thrich for the tip.


Ethical disagreement and ethical anti-realism

For one of my classes, I've been reading John Doris and Stephen Stich's Stanford Encyclopedia article "Moral Psychology: Empirical Approaches," and in particular the section "Moral Disagreement". They offer the following argument against moral realism/ moral objectivity (they use both terms):

(P1) If morality is objective, then [all?] moral disagreements will decrease over time.
(P2) Many moral disagreements do not decrease over time.
Thus, morality is not objective.

In support of (P2), they point to Nisbett's interesting findings about differences between non-latino whites in the Southern U.S. vs. in the Northern U.S. on the subject of when and to what extent force is justified. Very roughly, Southerners think violence is warranted and excusable in a wider range of cases than Northerners (if you aren't familiar with Nisbett's data on this, it's fascinating; Doris and Stich do a great job of summarizing and explaining it). Another example in support of (P2) is that Western Europeans and East Asians respond (on average) differently to the 'magistrate and the mob' thought-experiment: Westerners are more likely to say that an innocent man should be set free, even if setting him free leads to a riot killing many people. Their final example is Hopi attitudes about harming animals.

Doris and Stich recognize that most realists will direct their criticisms at (P1): disagreement can persist because people are selfish, biased, or unaware of certain things -- but if we were all disinterested, unbiased, and fully informed, then disagreements would eventually vanish.

I was wondering about another type of reaction to their argument. I wonder whether we could say that, for some moral disagreements, there is a fact of the matter about whether one side is right and the other wrong, whereas for other moral disagreements, there is no fact of the matter about which side is correct.

Perhaps this is conceptually incoherent, and a 'sometimes objective, sometimes not' position is unworkable. But I think it is intuitively appealing in some other cases, such as athletic merit. For example, think about the question 'Who is the best baseball player in the world?' I think it's defensible to say that there is no fact of the matter about this question. There will be a fact of the matter for various more specific questions, like which professional player had the most home runs this year. But since different players have different strengths and weaknesses, and because there are different demands on different positions, there is no fact of the matter as to which one person is the best player. However, there is a fact of the matter about whether Albert Pujols is a better baseball player than I am.

What's going on here? It seems to me that there are a number of dimensions or variables we use when evaluating a baseball player. At the most coarse-grained level, these variables would be the ability to hit, throw, and field. Now, Pujols is much better than I am at all three; that is why he is better than me period. But if one person is not better than the other on all three, then it will matter how we weight the different variables, and (I'm thinking) that there is no fact of the matter as to the unique correct weighting of the various variables.

It could be that something similar is going on in the three ethical examples of disagreement Doris and Stich present. In each of these three, there are various ethical principles in play, that could be weighted differently, and there is no fact of the matter as to exactly which weighting is the right one. In the case of the Magistrate and the Mob, utilitarian (and/or communitarian) principles conflict with a fairness principle. Now, everybody agrees that other things being equal, we should not punish the innocent, or choose a greater harm over a lesser harm. But those two ceteris paribus principles conflict in this case.

Perhaps a similar (if not identical) account could be given in the Northerner/ Southerner case: most people agree that most transgressions should be punished. But which transgressions, exactly? -- And how much punishment, exactly? Everyone who punishes must balance justice against avoiding cruelty. Alternatively, this case might be better understood as an instance of vagueness -- but many people (but not epistemicists) believe that there is no fact of the matter concerning whether a particular borderline patch of red-orange really is red.

So in short: some ethical claims are objective, and some are not, just as some claims about who is a better baseball player are objective and others not.

I am not an ethicist. Is this proposal already out there in the literature? (Ted Sider has an article "Hell and Vagueness" that discusses cases of borderline ethical goodness, but does not address the objectivity of morality.)


Edison and philosophical progress

I stumbled across the following quotation from Thomas Edison, and thought it might offer a way to give a positive answer to the question (which is the subject of an upcoming conference) "Does philosophy make progress?"
If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed.
I think there are several areas in philosophy where people show fairly conclusively (modulo choice of logic) that a certain set of prima facie plausible views are inconsistent and/or have counterexamples. So we have eliminated certain possibilities (least as well as any intellectual endeavor can eliminate any possibilities), and that elimination constitutes progress.


Carnap on YouTube

For all you Rudolf Carnap fans out there: about 20 minutes of Carnap interview footage (in German) has been posted on YouTube. Here's the first and the second parts.


On the relation between philosophy of science and political action

Did any other philosophers of science out there notice this on last night's Colbert Report?


Looking for places to send your manuscript?

I'm sure many readers are working on new papers over the summer. If you'd like to present your work in upstate New York in early November, submit your manuscript to the annual Creighton Club meeting.

If your work-in-progress deals with the history of analytic philosophy, please consider sending it to the Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy. It's open access, so your work will be disseminated widely.


Stephen Colbert, philosopher of science

The pessimistic induction makes an appearance on a recent episode of the Colbert Report. (The relevant bit starts at 4:55 in the video clip.)


logic bleg

I have a question for the logically savvy:

Suppose A is a logical truth ( |= A ).

In which logics (if any) does the following fail?

(A&B) → C
B → C



When did 'analytic philosophy' become an actor's category?

The title question is better phrased as: when did 'analytic philosophy,' with something very close to its current meaning, become an actor's category?

I started thinking about this after reading Ryle's 1929 review of Heidegger's Being and Time in Mind; interestingly, it did not really contain any of the things so-called 'analytic' philosophers are 'supposed to' say about so-called 'continental philosophers.' Ryle does not treat Heidegger as somehow alien, or as engaged in a fundamentally different pursuit.

Anyway, here's a google books ngram, from 1900 to 2000, with 'analytic philosophy' in blue and 'continental philosophy' in red.

Here's a bigger version of the graph. You'll see that there's no real significant appearance of 'analytic philosophy' until the early 1940s, and that 'contintental philosophy' doesn't appear with much frequency until much later.

With a little bit of googling, I found John Wisdom's 1934 Problems of Mind and Matter referring to analytic philosophy as a definite type of philosophy. However, 'analytic philosophy' in that book appears to be more narrowly confined to something like G.E. Moore's analysis. For example, Wisdom says in the introduction: "Speculating and analyzing are operations which differ in kind: the object of the one is the truth; the object of the other is clarity. It is with the latter that we shall be concerned. ... [T]he analytic philosopher... is not one who learns new truths, but one who gains new insight into old truths" (1-2). Although this characterization does capture an important part of analytic philosophy, I think it leaves out a large amount of what we today think of as analytic philosophy. I have not read through the whole book yet, so I could be wrong about Wisdom restricting his meaning to Moorean analysis. I also found a 1935 Analysis article by A.C. Ewing, "Two Kinds of Analysis," in which the phrases "the analytic school" and "analytic philosophy" apparently apply to Moorean analysis and its adherents (Russell's analysis of descriptions is also mentioned as an example).

In a 2-part 1936 Journal of Philosophy essay, Ernest Nagel reports on a Bildungsreise he took in Europe. The title of the essay is "Impressions and Appraisals of Analytic Philosophy in Europe (I, II)." Here Nagel unites under the heading of 'analytic philosophy' Moorean analysis, early and middle Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle and their intellectual allies, and the Polish logicians and nominalists. This is the first instance I could find via quick googling of 'analytic philosophy' meaning roughly what it does for us today. But my search has been very casual and cursory; I expect a more careful and thorough investigation will turn up earlier uses of 'analytic philosophy' in roughly our sense. If you find one, please post it in the comments.


A question about necessary truths and non-referring terms

Someone must have already thought about this. If you know who, I'd appreciate a reference.

In our Kripkean era, most philosophers hold that sentences like 'Hesperus=Phosphorus' and 'Cicero=Tully' are necessarily true, if they are true. In other words, if these two sentences are true in our world, then they are true in every possible world (accessible to ours).

But I'm not so sure about this received view. In other possible worlds, Venus does not exist, and therefore in those other worlds the names 'Hesperus' and 'Phosphorus' lack referents. But on most standard semantics for non-referring names, 'Hesperus=Phosphorus' will NOT be true. (For the free logic cognoscenti: that sentence will be false on a negative semantics, truth-valueless on neutral semantics, and truth-valueless on a positive supervaluational semantics. It could only be true on a positive, inner-domain/ outer-domain [roughly Meinongian] semantics.) In short: 'Hesperus=Phosphorus' will be untrue on 3 of the 4 extant semantics for non-referring names.

So, if we want to maintain that 'Hesperus=Phosphorus' is necessary if true, then it looks like we're stuck with only unpalatable options:
(i) accept the roughly Meinongian semantics that makes 'Hesperus=Phosporus' true in possible worlds where Venus does not exist.
(ii) Say that Venus exists in all possible worlds accessible from ours.

But I would rather accept that 'Hesperus=Phosphorus' is NOT a necessary truth, than accept either (i) or (ii).


logic humor

If you like logic humor, then have a look at this, which I just saw on Lambda the Ultimate.

If you don't like logic humor, then... enjoy being a normal human being.


On Richard Joyce's debunking argument

Debunking explanations of morality are receiving a lot of attention recently. In my senior seminar, we are reading Richard Joyce's The Evolution of Morality (2006). He thinks that if our current best explanation of our capacity for making moral judgments via evolution by natural selection is correct, then our moral beliefs are unjustified. The basic idea is that this current best explanation never appeals to the truth of our moral judgments in explaining why and how the moral faculties evolved.

Here's a nice summary of his argument:
We have an empirically confirmed theory about where our moral judgments come from (we are supposing). This theory [i] doesn't state or imply that they are true, [ii] it doesn't have has a background assumption that they are true, and, importantly, [iii] their truth is not surreptitiously buried in the theory by virtue of any form of moral naturalism. This amounts to the discovery that our moral beliefs are the product of a process that is entirely independent of their truth, which forces the recognition that we have no grounds one way or the other for maintaining those beliefs. (p.211; emphasis mine)
I have italicized the inference that I think is mistaken.

Consider the following belief-forming mechanism: If I read something Stephen Hawking writes about astrophysics, then I believe it. Suppose the correct explanation (corresponding to 'empirically confirmed theory' above) of why I believe that there was a big bang is that Hawking wrote 'There was a big bang,' I read it, and that I have this belief-forming mechanism.

This explanation (/'theory') of why I have this belief
(i) 'doesn't state or imply that 'There was a big bang' is true';
(ii) 'doesn't have as a background assumption that my various Hawking-derived astrophysical beliefs are true'; and
(iii) the truth of 'There was a big bang' is not 'surreptitiously buried' anywhere in the explanation of why I have this belief.

And yet, this does not 'amount to the discovery that my Hawking-derived astronomical beliefs are entirely independent of their truth.' (Of course, you can insert any other genuine expert and area in for 'Hawking' and 'astrophysics,' if you think Hawking's writings in the field aren't truth-tracking.)

So Joyce needs more than (i-iii) to demonstrate that moral judgments are unreliable.


Moore's paradox (or something like it) in the mail

A few days ago, I received a postcard. On one side is a picture of Barack Obama, with the caption "I value your ongoing support," and a facsimile of his autograph. On the other side, it says "This communication is not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee."

Granted, this is not precisely Moore's paradox, but it seems close. (Hmm... what's the relationship between uttering P and uttering 'I authorize the communication of P'?)



An open letter to the Board of Regents for the Nevada System of Higher Education

I just sent the following letter to the Regents of the Nevada System of Higher Education. If you'd like to do something too, Leiter has the emails you need; and there's also a conversation for those interested over at New APPS.


March 9, 2011

Dear Regent Leavitt,

I am deeply worried, saddened, and upset by the news that UNLV will eliminate the Social Work, Philosophy, and Women’s Studies departments if Governor Sandoval’s Budget passes.

UNLV will be completely unable to attract good faculty in the future, when future job candidates learn that tenured faculty can lose their jobs. This puts UNLV at an enormous disadvantage when trying to hire good professors: the only people who will accept a job offer from UNLV will be those who cannot get a job anywhere else—and even those people will try to find another job elsewhere as soon as they can. Furthermore, many faculty currently at UNLV who are good enough to land a job offer elsewhere will be applying for jobs next year: ‘if it can happen to Social Work, Women’s Studies, or Philosophy, then it can happen to me.’ So saving a few dollars by destroying the reasonable expectation of tenure will harm the entire university’s ability to attract and retain good faculty members.

I was an assistant professor in the Philosophy Department at UNLV from the Fall of 2006 through the Spring of 2009. I had other job offers in 2006, but I declined them, because I was very impressed with the quality of the philosophy faculty. They are smart, they are good teachers, and they put enormous amounts of time into their work and their students. (For example, many department members would often come to the undergraduate philosophy club meetings if invited by the students, taking time out of their lives to spend more time with students, for nothing in return other than the satisfaction of being a good teacher.) UNLV was getting their money’s worth, and then some. Furthermore, in the last 5 years, the department began to be impressive on a national scale: they hired newly minted Ph.D.’s graduating from the very best departments in the world, managed to hire a senior scholar away from a top 10 program, and the department members’ articles began appearing in the most elite journals. It makes me sick that this slow, steady climb is simply going to be destroyed.

So, for the sake of the entire University’s ability to attract and retain faculty, and because UNLV has successfully built up an impressive faculty, please do not eliminate the Philosophy, Social Work, and Women’s Studies departments.


Greg Frost-Arnold


A question about coherence

For the record, I am not sympathetic to the coherence theory of truth. But I would like to understand what it is, especially since some logical empiricists (Neurath in particular) entertained it. So here's the question.

The coherence theory of truth maintains:
p is true if and only if p coheres with S
where p is an arbitrary proposition, and S is a special set of propositions. Many people criticize the coherence theory on the grounds that there is no principled way to pick out this special set, but let's bracket that (very important) issue for the moment.

So the obvious question to ask about the above statement of the coherence theory is: What is coherence? There are a number of answers out there, but everyone agrees that logical consistency is a necessary condition for coherence (but insufficient*). In other words:
If p coheres with S, then the set of propositions {p∪S} is consistent.
And now it looks like we're making some progress in understanding what the coherence theory is committed to, because logical consistency is a notion that we have a clear and independently-motivated handle on.

But wait -- our 'clear and independently-motivated' notion of logical consistency depends, of course, on the notion of truth: a set of sentences is consistent iff it's possible that they all be true. But the coherentist's notion of truth is exactly what we were originally trying to explicate here. So it seems like we've got a circular definition.

(Note: one can characterize consistency in purely syntactic terms; for example, in logics where Ex Falso Quodlibet holds: A set of sentences is consistent iff there is a sentence that cannot be derived from that set. Perhaps that is what the coherentist might do?)

* Given certain reasonable instances of S, there will be two propositions q and not-q that are each individually consistent with S. But both can't be true.


bad pun alert (illustrated)

Any argument that commits the fallacy of equivocation is an ad homonym argument.


Existential questions in Google auto-complete

For some reason, I really like the fact that people are three times more interested in their mail than the existence of a higher being.


trouble for causal-historical theories of reference determination?

From the Jan 31, 2011 New Yorker:

"Lou Gehrig may not actually have had the disease that bears his name" (p.44).

So what happened at the baptism of the phrase 'Lou Gehrig's disease'?


hooray for philosophy

A sign that the apocalypse might not be imminent.

(HT: Emily Nacol)