Dispatches from the Ivory Tower

In celebration of my ten years in the blogosphere I have been compiling some of my past posts into thematic meta-posts. The first of these listed my posts on the higher-order thought theory of consciousness. Continuing in this theme below are links to posts I have done over the past ten years reporting on talks/conferences/classes I have attended. I wrote these mostly so that I would not forget about these sessions but they may be interesting to others as well. Sadly, there are several things I have been to in the last year or so that I have not had the tim to sit down and write about…ah well maybe some day!

  1. 09/05/07 Kripke
    • Notes on Kripke’s discussion of existence as a predicate and fiction
  2. 09/05/2007 Devitt
  3. 09/05 Devitt II
  4. 09/19/07 -Devitt on Meaning
    • Notes on Devitt’s class on semantics
  5. Flamming LIPS!
  6. Back to the Grind & Meta-Metaethics
  7. Day Two of the Yale/UConn Conference
  8. Peter Singer on Climate Change and Ethics
    • Notes on Singer’s talk at LaGuardia
  9. Where Am I?
    • Reflections on my talk at the American Philosophical Association talk in 2008
  10. Fodor on Natural Selection
    • Reflections on the Society of Philosophy and Psychology meeting June 2008
  11. Kripke’s Argument Against 4-Dimensionalism
    • Based on a class given at the Graduate Center
  12. Reflections on Zoombies and Shombies Or: After the Showdown at the APA
    • Reflections on my session at the American Philosophical Association in 2009
  13. Kripke on the Structure of Possible Worlds
    • Notes on a talk given at the Graduate Center in September 2009
  14. Unconscious Trait Inferences
    • Notes on social psychologist James Uleman‘s talk at the CUNY Cogsci Speaker Series September 2009
  15. Attributing Mental States
    • Notes on James Dow‘s talk at the CUNY Cogsci Speaker Series September 2009
  16. Busy Bees Busily Buzzing ‘Bout
  17. Shombies & Illuminati
  18. A Couple More Thoughts on Shombies and Illuminati
    • Some reflections after Kati Balog’s presentation at the NYU philosophy of mind discussion group in November 2009
  19. Attention and Mental Paint
    • Notes on Ned Block’s session at the Mind and Language Seminar in January 2010
  20. HOT Damn it’s a HO Down-Showdown
    • Notes on David Rosenthal’s session at the NYU Mind and Language Seminar in March 2010
  21. The Identity Theory in 2-D
    • Some thoughts in response to theOnline Consciousness Conference in February 2010
  22. Part-Time Zombies
    • Reflections on Michael Pauen‘s Cogsci talk at CUNY in March of 2010
  23. The Singularity, Again
    • Reflections on David Chalmers’ at the NYU Mind and Language seminar in April of 2010
  24. The New New Dualism
  25. Dream a Little Dream
    • Reflections on Miguel Angel Sebastian’s cogsci talk in July of 2010
  26. Explaining Consciousness & Its Consequences
    • Reflections on my talk at the CUNY Cog Sci Speaker Series August 2010
  27. Levine on the Phenomenology of Thought
    • Reflections on Levine’s talk at the Graduate Center in September 2010
  28. Swamp Thing About Mary
    • Reflections on Pete Mandik’s Cogsci talk at CUNY in October 2010
  29. Burge on the Origins of Perception
    • Reflections on a workshop on the predicative structure of experience sponsored by the New York Consciousness Project in October of 2010
  30. Phenomenally HOT
    • Reflections on the first session of Ned Block and David Carmel’s seminar on Conceptual and Empirical Issues about Perception, Attention and Consciousness at NYU January 2011
  31. Some Thoughts About Color
  32. Stazicker on Attention and Mental Paint
  33. Sid Kouider on Partial Awareness
    • a few notes about Sid Kouider’s recent presentation at the CUNY CogSci Colloquium in October 2011
  34. The 2D Argument Against Non-Materialism
    • Reflections on my Tucson Talk in April 2012
  35. Peter Godfrey-Smith on Evolution And Memory
    • Notes from the CUNY Cog Sci Speaker Series in September 2012
  36. The Nature of Phenomenal Consciousness
    • Reflections on my talk at the Graduate Center in September 2012
  37. Giulio Tononi on Consciousness as Integrated Information
    • Notes from the inaugural lecture of the new NYU Center for Mind and Brain by Giulio Tononi
  38. Mental Qualities 02/07/13: Cognitive Phenomenology
  39. Mental Qualities 02/21/13: Phenomenal Concepts
    • Notes/Reflections from David Rosenthal’s class in 2013
  40. The Geometrical Structure of Space and Time
    • Reflections on a session of Tim Maudlin’s course I sat in on in February 2014
  41. Towards some Reflections on the Tucson Conferences
    • Reflections on my presentations at the Tucson conferences
  42. Existentialism is a Transhumanism
    • Reflections on the NEH Seminar in Transhumanism and Technohumanism at LaGuardia I co-directed in 2015-2016

Zombies vs Shombies

Richard Marshall, a writer for 3am Magazine, has been interviewing philosophers. After interviewing a long list of distinguished philosophers, including Peter Carruthers, Josh Knobe, Brian Leiter, Alex Rosenberg, Eric Schwitzgebel, Jason Stanley, Alfred Mele, Graham Priest, Kit Fine, Patricia Churchland, Eric Olson, Michael Lynch, Pete Mandik, Eddy Nahmais, J.C. Beal, Sarah Sawyer, Gila Sher, Cecile Fabre, Christine Korsgaard, among others, they seem to be scraping the bottom of the barrel, since they just published my interview. I had a great time engaging in some Existential Psychoanalysis of myself!

Expressivism and the T-Schema

Expressivist like Blackburn like to invoke deflationary accounts of truth as a way to save the common sense intuition that moral judgements can be straightforwardly true or false. I have elsewhere argued that this strategy fails to absolve the espressivist from giving an account of justification and, without some kind of modification, the expressivist is committed to relativism. Blackburn’s expressivism collapses into pure autobiography.

Here is another way to make the argument. Take the following claim: Eating meat is immoral. According to the deflationist this will be true just in case eating meat is immoral. This can be put in terms of the T-Schema as so,

“Eating meat is immoral’ is true if and only if eating meat is immoral

But what are to make of the right hand side of this bi-conditional? We cannot take it as naming some fact according to the expressivist. It seems we must, then, give it the expressivist meaning. Doing so yeilds the B-schema

“Eating meat is immoral’ is true if and only if Boo eating meat

This makes it clear that deflationsim about truth cannot help the Blackburns of the world avoid giving a real theory of moral justification.

Or is there some other interpretationof the right hand side of the bi-conditional?

58th Philosophers’ Carnival

Welcome to 58th edition of the Philosophers’ Carnival!

I am happy to be hosting the carnival again and glad to see that it seems to be doing well. I always liked the way that Avery did the 46th (international) Carnival and so I modeled this edition on his ‘psuedo-conference’ format. What follows is, indeed, a ‘narrow cross-section of philosophy from accross the web’.

Special Session on the Employability of Philosophers

  1. Presenter: Tom Brooks, The Brooks Blog
    The truth is out there: employers want philosophers
  2. Respondent: Rich Cochrane, Big Ideas
    The Value of a Philosophical Education

Symposium on Philosophy of Science

  1. Sharon Crasnow, Knowledge and Experience
    Is Science Based on Faith?
  2. Matt Brown, Weitermachen!
    Common Sense, Science, and “Evidence for Use”

Symposium on Race and Liberty 

  1. Richard Chapell, Philosophy, et cetera
    Implicit Interference
  2. Joseph Orosco, Engage: Conversations in Philosophy
    It’s Only Racism When I Say It Is

Invited Session

 Symposium on Philosophy of Consciousness

  1. Tanasije Gjorgoski, A brood comb
    The Myth of ‘Phenomenal/Conscious Experience’
  2. Richard Brown, Philosophy Sucks!
    Priming and Change Blindness
  3. Gabriel Gottlieb, Self and World
    Pre-reflective Consciousness: A Fichtean Intervention

Symposium on Metaphysics and Epistemology

  1. Marco, El Blog de Marcos
    Truthmaking and Explanation
  2. Kenny Pearce, blog.kennypearce.net
    What Does Bayesian Epistemology Have To Do With Probabilities?

Symposium on Philosophy of Religion

  1. Dave Maier, DuckRabbit
    D’Souza vs. Dawkins
  2. Enigman, Enigmania
    Is the Free-will Defence Defensible?
  3. Chris Hallquist, The Uncredible Hallq
    What’s the deal with philosophy of religion?

I hope you enjoyed! Be sure to check out future editions of the Philosophers’ Carnival.

    Submit your blog article to the next edition of philosophers’ carnival using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page

Truth and Necessity

I have been reading Jason Stanely’s paper on names and rigid designation from the Oxford Companion to the Philosophy of Language in the course of doing some research for my frigidity v. rigidity axe-grinding. It is an interesting and informative, though technical, introduction to issues about rigidity and I will come back to its relation to frigidity in a later post… but one thing caught my attention early on. He says, 

consider Kripke’s class of strongly rigid designators (Kripke, 1980, p. 48). This class contains the rigid designators of necessary existents. That is, this class contains all and only those designators d of an object x which exists in all possible worlds, which designate the same thing in all possible worlds (viz. x). For example, the descriptive phrase “the result of adding two and three” is a strongly rigid designator, since its actual denotation, namely the number five, exists in all possible worlds, and the phrase denotes that number with respect to all possible worlds.

Is it really the case that ‘the number five exists in all possible worlds’? Isn’t there a possible world where fictionalism about math is true? In that world 2+2=4 is not true because ‘2’ stands for an existing object, viz. The Number Two, it is true because ‘in the story we tell about mathematics’ ‘2’ stands for The Number Two in just the same way that ‘Santa wears a red suit’ is true, not because ‘Santa’ picks out some guy who wears a red suit but because ‘in the story about Santa’ ‘Santa’ picks out a guywho wears a red suit. Maybe fictionalism about math isn’t actual, but surely it’s possible, isn’t it? 

We can give the same kind of argument for any proposed ‘strongly rigid’ designator. Take God for instance. It take it that Atheism is a legitimate possibility for the actual world. That is, it migt actually turn out to be the case that there is no God. Of course it might also turn out to be the case that there isn’t one. Each of these seems to me to be a metaphysical possibility, not merely an epistemic possibility. If so then there is a possible world where God does not exist (it may or may not be the actual world). Isn’t this some reason to prefer, when faced with the possiblility of a proof of necessary existence, to take my view (fix it) rather than Williamson’s (accept it)? That is, isn’t there an issue here about whether there are any ‘strongly rigid’ designators? 

Truth, Justification, and the Quasi-realist Way

In an earlier post (The Meaning and Use of ‘is True’) I argued that when discussing minimalism about truth we need to distinguish between redundancy theories (claims about the meaning is ‘is true’) and deflationism (claims about the nature of the property that the predicate is supposed to pick out). Once we see that redundancy theories conflate meaning and use we need an independant reason to accept deflationsim about truth. In this post I will argue against deflationism by arguing that it cannot account for our common sense feelings about justification in moral judgements by looking at the way that Simon Blackburn has appealed to minimalism in formulating his quasi-realist form of expressivism.

The basic problem for the deflationsist is that whatever account of moral contradiction they give will also be the correct account of contradiction in matters of taste. So ‘broccoli is disgusting’ will be true if and only if broccoli is disgusting and someone who said that it was not would really be contradicting me. From within the ‘taste framework’ broccoli is disgusting and I can just see that the Broccoli-ban and their feelings about the taste of broccoli are just objectively wrong. Of course all that any of this means is that I accept or agree with the sentiment that I expressed when I said that broccoli was disgusting. The story we tell here exactly parallels the story that is told in the case of moral judgments about cruelty, the Taliban, or whatever.

But clearly there could not be more of a difference between these two kinds of judgments. In particular, it seems obvious that this story about broccoli is just wrong. Common sense tells us that our feelings about broccoli may depend on two things. One, we may think that broccoli has a certain specific kind of taste and some people like that taste and others dislike it, which one it is may depend on what the person can taste, or it may depend on how they were raised, or just simply that they are disposed to like it or not and all of these vary from person to person. So there is nothing wrong with a person who thinks that broccoli tastes good, they simply have different tastes than ours and which you have doesn’t really matter. On the other hand we might say that broccoli has no determinate taste, it all depends on the person who does the tasting and the way that their taste buds are constituted.  Taste is a secondary property whose reality is totally mind dependant. So whether it is disgusting or not is relative to a person’s make up. Either of these common sense explanations of what is going on in the broccoli case differs dramatically from the common sense view of moral discourse. Only a madman would claim that our feelings about Saddam Hussein, the slaughter of children, truth telling, or promise keeping depended on us in either of the two ways mentioned above. Even Blackburn is not that reckless! He explicitly denies that anything like this is the right way to characterize moral disagreement. But the problem is that there is no way to distinguish these kinds of claims from the theoretical stand point of quasi-realism.

Since the theory is unable to distinguish these obviously distinguishable kinds of judgments, there must be something seriously wrong with deflationism about truth as it relates to a theory of justification. In fact, it seems obvious what is wrong with it. It very obviously and flagrantly turns moral matters into matters of personal taste. It does this by invoking redundancy and claiming that all there is to truth is its function in natural language of voicing agreement. To say that something is true is simply to repeat what we have said. If we happen to have said something about rape or the taste of broccoli makes no difference. Once we take the deflationary account of truth seriously we are no longer able to take moral discourse seriously.

Blackburn cannot respond that we can distinguish talk about broccoli and talk about genocide by the level of emotional commitment that we have to claims in one area as opposed to claims in the other because it is not inconsistent, on his view, that there be people who take broccoli as seriously as we take suffering. Thus the Broccoli-ban are every bit as serious about people who disagree with their feelings about the taste of broccoli, even to the point of putting dissenters to death. It may be the case that Simon Blackburn does not take talk about broccoli that seriously, but so what? If this is to be anything more than a mere autobiographical report what we need is a way to say that someone who did take talk about broccoli as serious as the Broccoli-ban is mistaken and further that their being mistaken is not simply an opinion of mine. Something, in short, that allows us to distinguish our talk about what depends solely on us and what does not. The deflationary theory of truth fares very badly here. It will only seem plausible if one thinks that that is all there is to truth, but this belief is not forced on us.

Not only does quasi-realism have no way to distinguish between the Taliban and the Broccoli-ban that is not mere autobiography we can see that the very same problem arises for other moral claims. Suppose someone from the Taliban were to respond to Blackburn that their views on women were the correct ones to have and that
Blackburn was wrong when he says that they (the Taliban) are objectively wrong. Let us suppose that they laugh at the idea that women are equal to men in any serious way. Then, according to the analysis that is on offer we are to conclude that what they have said is true just in case they really hold the attitudes that they say they do.
Blackburn then points out that they are ‘blind to the nature of women and the possibilities open to them’ and so on, but the important question of WHY it is that the Taliban have to agree with him on this point is left begging to be addressed. Of course by this I do not merely mean that the Taliban may irrationally refuse to admit that the evidence against them is compelling but rather the stronger claim that in some deep sense there is no way to really say which is right here. Each is saying something true when they express their moral sentiments about women. This is, of course, nothing more than relativism.

The Meaning and Use of ‘is True’

The first thing that we need to do is to make a distinction between the redundancy theory of truth, which is a claim about the use of the predicate ‘is true’ in a natural language, and deflationsim, which is a metaphysical claim about the nature of the property picked out by ‘is true’. Usually what you find is that people just use ‘minimalism’ and ignore this difference though they seem to think that redundancy is true and so therefore deflationsism is true (Blackburn is a classic example of this).

The main motivation for redundancy is a collapsing of the meaning/use distinction that is characteristic of Horwich and other neo-Wittgensienians. If the meaning of a word just is the way that that word is used, the function it conventionally plays in a public language game, then finding out how people use the truth predicate and abstracting the rule that defines its function (the T-schema) is finding out the essence of our concept of truth. But there are reasons not to conflate meaning and use (which I won’t go into here). While I do think that people often use the word ‘true’ as a way of communicating that they agree with either what they themselves, or someone else, has said this communicative use of the predicate ‘is true’ depends on its having the correspondence meaning. ‘True’, the English word, means something like ‘being in accordance with the actual state of affairs’ and so it is easy to see how I could use it to express agreement with what has already been said; to say that something is true is to say that it is really the way things are. So in conversation I am able to exploit that meaning in order to indicate that I agree with something that has been said, I am in effect saying ‘yes, that is in accordance with the facts’.

We exploit the meanings of words in this way quite often. Searle (Searle 1969/2001, p. 142) pointed out a similar phenomenon with ‘promise.’ Suppose a parent says to their lazy child “clean your room or I promise I will take away your cell phone!” It is very odd to think the parent is actually promising to do anything here since the thing promised is not something that the child wants the parent to do. In fact this kind of utterance is most likely a threat or a warning. Or consider a professor confronting a student suspected of plagiarism. The professor says “this passage is taken from Wikipedia” and the student says “I didn’t plagiarize! I promise I didn’t!” This doesn’t look like a promise either, how can you promise that you did not do something? This is rather an emphatic denial of the professor’s accusation. How is this possible? It is because the verb ‘to promise’ is one of the strongest indicators of commitment in the English language, and so we adapt it in these cases as a way of indicating that we are really committed. It would be very hard to explain, from Horwich’s view, how the predicate came to have the function of indicating agreement in the first place without appealing to the correspondence meaning that the word has. If this is right then one of the motivations for accepting deflationsim about truth falls apart.

There is No Santa Claus

Philosophers often speak about Santa Claus in the context of discussing the problem of names without reference. Since ‘Santa Claus’ does not refer (that is, there is no Santa Claus) what are we to say about sentences that have the name. Is ‘Santa Claus is Jolly’ true? False? Neither true nor false? Nonsense? There are those who defend each of these positions. Yet there is a more pressing issue that has received almost no attention from philosophers. I speak of the moral issue of lying to our children about the existence of Santa. It is commonly recognized that we have a duty to be truthful and yet millions of Americans engage in the most elaborate deceit imaginable all aimed at duping their children. Is this a moral action on their part? It is my position that it is not. Let me now make the case.

What then is it to lie? Common sense dictates that one lies when one utters a falsehood with the intent to deceive. Thus, our common sense idea of a lie focuses on the speaker and his intentions not on the hearer and their expectations. Perhaps more reasonable is our common sense feeling that it is sometimes OK to lie when the consequences of telling the truth are dire. So, if someone asks where you mother is and clearly has the intention of finding her and commit murder most foul, few of us would feel that we violate our moral duty to tell the truth by lying to this person. So is it the case that telling the truth about Santa would cause more harm to our children? Hardly! In fact the opposite seems to be the case. We actually cause more harm by perpetuating this falsehood. In the first instance what we do is to teach our children that they cannot trust us. They then lack any reason to believe what the parent says about other, more important things. For instance, the child might equate what the parent says about God with what they say about Santa. In the second place what we do is to teach our children that it is OK to lie for no good reason. What the child learns is that the truth is not valuable. So, far from being a harmless ‘white lie’ this is quite a damaging tradition

The most common defense for this behavior appeals to a sense of the mystery of child-hood or ‘child-like innocence’. What is wrong, it is often asked, with having a little magic in ones childhood? Isn’t it just like a child believing in Red Riding Hood or Hobbit’s End? The difference between these kinds of cases should be obvious. In one case we tell the child that it is a fable, or a fairy tale. In the other case we go out of our way to deceive the child. I mean, no one leaves things out for the Big Bad Wolf. Santa Claus is portrayed as real, not only in the story but also by the parents. No parents pretend that Darth Vader is real but when I was on a plane on Christmas Eve the PILOT announced over the intercom that he had spotted Santa on the radar!!!!  And, while it may be Ok to omit certain information in order to protect a child it is absolutely immoral to actively perpetuate a lie.

Thus, according to both deontological and utilitarian moral theories it is immoral to lie to ones kid about the existence of Santa Claus. It causes more harm than good and we violate our duty to tell the truth. I think it hardly worth mentioning that it is also vicious and so would be ruled out by any virtue ethics. There is no moral theory that condones this behavior. We do our children, and ourselves, a great disservice by prolonging this nonsense.