June 30, 2004

Like Rain on Your Wedding Day

The entry in which I announced that I was closing comments on old entries, in order to fight comment spam, just got comment spammed. Wasn't old enough, I don't think.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 10:56 AM | Comments (0)

June 28, 2004

Mind the Gap

Interesting post and discussion from Tom Runnacles about what bothers him about analytic philosophy. (Tom posts rarely, so if I want to get my CT linking round-robin I have to jump on this one.) The substance of Tom's kvetch is that philosophers don't really answer philosophical problems, which seem mostly to be skeptical problems. Tom quotes Thomas Nagel:

Skeptical theories take the contents of our ordinary or scientific beliefs about the world to go beyond their grounds in ways that make them impossible to defend against doubt. There are ways we might be wrong that we canít rule out. Once we notice this unclosable gap we cannot, except with conscious irrationality, maintain our confidence in those beliefs.

Nagel goes on to discuss reductionist approaches (which dismiss skeptical arguments by making our beliefs be about the things we can know) and heroic arguments (which try, and fail, to answer the problem) and snarks off my favorite approach in a footnote:

A fourth reaction is to turn oneís back on the abyss and announce that one is now on the other side. This was done by G.E.Moore.

My kvetch is--so our beliefs cannot be defended against doubt. So what? It's not obvious why defending against all doubt, ruling out every way in which we might be wrong, is necessary for us to maintain our beliefs without conscious irrationality. Like Moore perhaps, I am more confident that it is rational for me to believe the evidence of my senses than I am in the premises of any argument to the contrary. Also that it is rational for me to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow and that Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan. And the flat rejection of skepticism still leaves a lot of work for philosophy to do--how does that knowledge work, for instance, or what can we know once we're on the other side of the chasm?

The first Moorean approach is basically what Brian advocates in Tom's comments:

The point isnít necessarily to turn oneís back on the abyss. Rather, you start off making the rather mundane observation that we are in fact on the other side, so we must have got here somehow, and that tells you quite a bit about how the abyss can be crossed.

The second is closer to what I'm mostly interested in. Namely, given that we have a general overall idea of what beliefs are justified--common sense as it stands up to rigorous empirical investigation--what specific beliefs do turn out to be justified, how do they get to be that way, and what is the significance of justification at all? I don't claim to be able to satisfy the people who are worried about whether they might be brains in vats--but still, I think there's interesting territory on the other side of the gap, and we can get there if we just take bigger steps and don't look at our feet all the time. No reason to leave it completely unexplored.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 02:20 PM | Comments (0)

Ah, Quantifier Domains

Some people ask, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" The Poor Man does something about it.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 11:49 AM | Comments (0)

June 26, 2004

Can Justification Just Fall Short of Knowledge?

(Cross-posted to Certain Doubts)

We all know that justified true belief can fail to be knowledge when funny stuff happens (or at least most of us think this). What I want to ask is whether a JTB can fail to be knowledge for a more mundane reason--because the belief is justified, but it isn't justified enough to count as knowledge.

Another way, perhaps, to put this is to question a line from section 6 of Ralph Wedgwood's paper "The Aim of Belief": "[T]here is no way for a rational thinker to pursue the truth except in a way that, if it succeeds, will result in knowledge." Is this so?

Here's a case I'd like to survey you on. Charlie Brown, a baseball general manager, is trying to decide who to pick in the amateur draft. He looks at the prospects and comes to believe, based on his high school performance, that Joe Shlabotnik will be a good major league player someday. Indeed, Joe does turn out to be a good major leaguer. So Charlie had a true belief; it also seems as though it may have been justified, because it was based on performance. Yet I would think that it falls short of knowledge, because predicting someone's eventual major league performance on the basis of his high school performance is too uncertain.

(Apologies to non-baseball fans; the argument probably transfers to any sport, though baseball performance is notoriously difficult to predict.)

Indeed, I'd argue that Charlie is much better off knowing that his pursuit of the truth about Joe's future performance will not result in knowledge. I'm convinced by Tim Williamson's argument that one of the advantages of knowledge over JTB is that it is less likely to be abandoned in the face of counterevidence. Yet Charlie should be ready to abandon his belief in Joe's future in the face of counterevidence. Given the chancy nature of baseball prospects, a general manager has to be prepared to abandon someone who looked promising but who isn't panning out, or he may damage his team by keeping on an underperforming player. Players who you know to be good will be kept in the lineup after a poor start (I remember Barry Bonds batting under .200 one May when he was in Pittsburgh and going on to win the MVP--er, sorry again to non-baseball fans); players who you think to be good won't.

Does this case convince you? Do you think Charlie is only justified in believing that Joe will probably be good? Do you think it casts any sort of light on the kind of justification that's necessary for knowledge?

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:53 PM | Comments (8)

Experiments and Intuitions

I provoked Jonathan Weinberg into providing an account of the purpose of folk-philosophical surveys. I recommend the whole discussion there, and also Keith DeRose's responses ("Re 9") to a comment by Eddy Nahmias about similar issues.

My own position concerning Jonathan's destructive project of anti-intuitionism is that there are two things going on. One is that philosophers often use unsupported intuitions about particular cases, such as the Gettier intuitions about when justified true belief fails to be knowledge; saying perhaps "We can just see that this isn't knowledge." Here it is a good idea to figure out whether people agree with you, because the idea behind this citation of intuitions is that the extension of the word 'knowledge' is determined (at least in part) by its use in the language, and if you're making that move you need to know what that use really is.

Another is that philosophers sometimes use "intuition" as a way of saying "I just find this argument convincing." There the proper reaction to learning that someone has a different intuition is to figure out if you can persuade them to your view, or to consider their arguments and see whether they persuade you. Philosophers are known to publicly differ on this sort of intuition all the time; learning that some of the folk differ from you too shouldn't be such a shock. Perhaps if all the folk hold a certain view that gives that view a slight advantage, but it's not clear that it does more.

Jonathan, in response to a comment from Neil Levy, says that philosophers' intuitions concerning KNOWLEDGE or FREE WILL or CAUSE shouldn't be given any more weight over the folks'. I'm not quite sure whether he just means to be ruling out the first kind of case ("This is just what free will is") or the second as well. That, I think, has the potential to be self-defeating; how would such an experimentalist argue for the idea that what is important is studying what the folk think? Do we survey the folk and see what they think about that question, or do we try to convince philosophers? If the latter, how do we do that without privileging what the philosophers think is important--which is my second kind of intuition?

In case you want more of this, I'm reproducing most of my comment on Jonathan's thread below the fold.

It seems to me that there are two different uses of the word "intuition" at issue here. One comes up in Gettier-type cases--people say, "Intuitively, these cases aren't knowledge." What they mean is: There's this word "know" that everyone uses, we're competent speakers of English so we can use it, and so by looking at our intuition we are revealing facts about this ordinary word "know" that everyone uses. And I agree that that is empirically exposed, and if your purpose is to get at some non-technical sense of knowledge you'd better make sure that that's what you're getting at.

But the role of "intuition" in many free will debates seems to me fundamentally different. When someone says something like "Intuitively, if you can't do otherwise you're not responsible" or "Intuitively, in the Frankfurt case Jones is responsible for his action," they're not explicate what the folk mean when they use the word "responsible"--they're trying to say what matters for responsibility. To mangle a quote from Wittgenstein, intuition is an unnecessary shuffle--it's the philosophers' way of saying "this argument works" or "this argument stinks."

One of the differences between the free will case and the knowledge case has to do with how people talk about the importance of the concept they're discussing. In Gettier cases the initial philosopher's reaction wasn't "We need this connection for knowledge to be something that's worth having," it was "Wow, this doesn't look like knowledge," with analysis of why knowledge might be worth having coming much later. In free will cases the argument always goes something like "The kind of 'freedom' that the compatibilist discusses may be well defined, but it's just not important. You couldn't really ground praise and blame on that sort of 'freedom'." And I take it that the people making that argument, if they were to discover that the folk did ground praise and blame on that sort of freedom, would say that the folk were making a mistake.

(Compare surveys showing that people think that a word is more likely to end 'ing' than to have 'n' as its next-to-last letter--no one's going to think that's right, no matter how overwhelming the survey is!)

So I don't necessarily think that compatibilists should be worried if a survey shows that most all the folk have incompatibilist intuitions. The response could be--"They haven't thought about these problems hard enough to figure out what's important to moral responsibility. We have, and we find these considerations convincing--our opinions count for more because they've been hardened in the fire of philosophical debate." Compatibilists maybe should be worried that about half the philosophers working in the field just don't see the point of their arguments, and vice versa, but that's another story....

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:30 PM | Comments (0)

Revisionist Quagmire

The Thursday night showings of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring were cancelled, so we went to see Dodgeball instead (really). I laughed a lot--Gary Cole and Jason Bateman as the ESPN8 announcers are great--but the whole movie is based on a lie. Dodgeball is not a team sport. Dodgeball was not the kind of P.E. activity where people like the author (and, I suspect, readers) of this blog were humiliated by being picked last. Dodgeball is a Hobbesian war of all against all, in which people like the a-(a-I-s-r)-o-t-b were humiliated by being blasted at close range by the athletically competent. Hollywood, stop trying to subvert our youth!

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:02 PM | Comments (3)

June 24, 2004

Also, Fish-Faced Gargoyle

Hooked tenuously to this discussion of British vs. American uses of "quite," via Prudence Whittaker, the private secretary in Summer Moonshine who constantly says "Quate," my two favorite Wodehousean insults:

"Kickworthy young heel" (Summer Moonshine)
"Pumpkin-headed foozler" (The Code of the Woosters)

P-h f gets the edge for appearing on the same page as this philosophically important piece of dialogue:

"He would!"
"What do you mean, he would?"
"Well, he did, didn't he?"

Your task, should you choose to accept it: Why doesn't "he did" imply "he would"?

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:24 PM | Comments (2)

June 23, 2004

Group Bloggy Blog

Since I dissed the group blogs on my blogroll the other day, I thought I should give them some love today. (Plus I really wanted to use that post title.)

So I'll direct you to this post by Eddy Nahmias on The Garden of Forking Paths. Eddy suggests that, rather than learn the concept of intentional action from paradigm cases of intentional action, children may begin with a disposition to see anything that harms them as intentional, and learn the concept of intention by subtracting paradigm cases of non-agency, unintentional action, and non-responsible action. This seems like a profoundly interesting view, and one that will be of aid and comfort to semicompatibilists like myself, since actions in a deterministic universe might still not resemble any of the paradigm cases of non-intentional actions; though as Tamler Sommers points out in the comments the incompatibilist can still say that determinism is incompatible with what really counts for moral responsibility.

This also seems like the kind of conjecture that should be subjected to experimental philosophy. Fortunately the experimental philosophy and free will blogs have some overlap, including Eddy, so we will likely get to see that in the future.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 02:07 PM | Comments (0)

June 22, 2004


One of my roommates used to accuse me--perhaps with some justice--of "Ignatiusing," after Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, who would go to movies and sit in the front row talking loudly and enthusiastically about how bad they were.

In that vein--if you really, sincerely think that a photograph is so unflattering as to be slanderous, you shouldn't post it on your website. Nor should you link to it.

[UPDATE: Particularly if the image shows up better on certain browsers than it does in the place you got it from, though the original source shows up fine. Actually I don't think that picture is so unflattering, at least not compared to the one seen here. Anyone who would publish or link to that is scum.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 02:18 PM | Comments (0)

Blogroll On, Buddy

I've added several blogs to the 'roll: Joe Shieber's Musings from the Lehigh Valley (another epistemologist's blog, with less silliness than mine), the blogs of Utah grad students Diana Buccafurni and Marissa Lelanuja, commentosphere notable Lindsay Beyerstein, and group epistemology blog (run by Jon Kvanvig) Certain Doubts.

This last is especially exciting, mostly because it has a lot of top-drawer epistemologists engaged in some pretty serious discussion, but also because they let me post too. I haven't decided on any sort of cross-posting policy; much of the stuff I do here is too silly, non-epistemological, or stream-of-consciousness to post there, but there may be some cross-posting. (My only CD post so far isn't crossposted, though.)

I've also added Dave Chalmers' list of philosophy blogs. There's been a recent explosion of philosophy blogs, with new group blogs on philosophy of religion, experimental philosophy, and free will, with more on the way, and I'm probably not going to be able to keep up with them all. So I'm delegating. The "Philosophy" section of the blogroll is probably going to stay the same for a while, but hopefully Dave will update (if he's not busy moving back to Australia!).

(Oh, and I think the world's only source for Fafblog! is also new in the blogroll.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 02:00 PM | Comments (3)

Knowing in Advance

Muscling in on our territory, Noam Schieber writes:

All vice presidential speculation at this point faces a basic epistemological problem: It's highly likely John Kerry hasn't made up his own mind yet. If that's true, then it's literally impossible to know who he's going to pick at this point--even if you had perfect insight into his thought process.

Sez you!

The impossibility claim doesn't follow if you think that Kerry's thought process might be deterministic--say, as part of a deterministic universe. Then, on just any theory, even before (well before) Kerry makes his choice, it is in principle possible to know what his choice will be--at least, if it is in principle possible to know the present state of the world and the laws of the universe. You might be skeptical about either of those, but the futurity of Kerry's choice doesn't create a special problem.

Of course, nobody is likely to gain knowledge of Kerry's choice that way. But even if we think the outcome of Kerry's thought process is not yet determined, there are still theories on which it is possible at this point to know who he's going to pick. If I were familiar with Kerry's thought processes, I realized that the reasons to which he most characteristically responded militated in favor of choosing Yooden Vranx as his VP candidate, and he did choose Vranx, then it's arguable that I did know (all along) that Kerry would choose Vranx. This would means that knowledge doesn't supervene on intrinsic states of the knower (since I would be in the same intrinsic state even if Kerry went on to choose someone else), but most people will accept that. It also means that knowledge doesn't even supervene on the entire state of the universe up to the point at which the knowledge takes place, and that'll be more controversial, but still not obviously insane.

If you don't accept this sort of knowledge, you may have trouble sustaining the assertion view of knowledge (unless you accept determinism). For we quite frequently do make predictions concerning people's future choices; "They won't accept that paper," "So-and-so will bring up contextualism if you present that view," "X-and-Y will never wear that shirt," "N.N. won't go to the Kenny G concert." If future choices are unknowable, then these predictions should not be made.

We may be able to say, with Timothy Williamson, that these predictions are only made in contexts in which the rules of assertion are laxly enforced--but the lax enforcement line has never been very satisfying to me. (The other norm on assertion, that all assertions should be prefaced with the statement "All hail Matt Weiner, emperor of the universe," is VERY laxly enforced. I am working on that.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:27 PM | Comments (0)


The people who named this must read very slowly, but it rocks anyway. The summary for "Chariots of Fire" reminds me of Kenneth Koch. Via fling93, commenting on Brad DeLong.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:45 PM | Comments (0)

Pass around the Bottle

Pass around the Bottle and We'll All Take a Drink

I'm listening* to Sarah Vowell on This American Life--and where does that pipsqueak Ira Glass get off describing Jon Langford as semi-legendary? Jon's more of a legend (to me) than you'll ever be--discussing the history of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which was "John Brown's Body" and a Methodist hymn before that. I have one to add to her list of later changes ("Solidarity Forever," the 1994 World Cup theme, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Burning of the School"):

Pass around the bottle and we'll all take a drink (x3)
As we go marching by

Ch: Glory, glory to old Georgia
As we go marching on

Hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree (x3)
As we go marching on

Old Abe Tankey won't you fill 'em up again (x3) [UPDATE: Mark is much more experienced at transcribing than I am, but it sounds like "Old Aunt Peggy" to me]
As we go marching on

From Mark Wilson's notes (there's your philosophical tie-in) to the Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers (where I heard this):

This parody of you-know-what was widely recorded by early hillbilly groups, particularly those from Georgia, and was widely printed in songbooks from the period with composer credits to "E.V. Body." Most versions are more "southern" in character and advocate hanging John Brown rather than Jefferson Davis on a sour apple tree.

Vowell points out though, that the Jeff Davis version is actually in the original--well, the original "John Brown's Body"--so perhaps the Skillet Lickers were tapping into something older than the version in the songbooks. Perhaps not, though. Anyway, it's a pity that it didn't stay in--I think the country would be a better place had we treated the political officials of the Confederacy much more harshly and the freed slaves much less so.

("The great Jon Langford," that's more like it.)

*And what tense should I use when the time I'm writing it isn't even the time I'm going to post it? This is bylined June 20, 2004, 9:32 pm.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:35 PM | Comments (0)

June 21, 2004


How did Fafnir get a transcript of my dissertation defense?

Posted by Matt Weiner at 04:11 PM | Comments (0)

June 20, 2004

Shifting Standards

If I wanted to make a deep point out of this post it would be as follows:

Grant me, for the moment, that the tense structures of our language embody at least a mild presupposition that the time at which an utterance is uttered is the same as the time at which it is heard. (Nobody seems willing to grant me that, which may or may not undermine the ensuing argument.)

Then suppose that on different occasions we may need more or less supporting evidence in order to be justified in acting on a certain belief. These are the familiar airport and bank cases--the worse the consequeneces of false belief, the better your evidence needs to be in order to act.

Now also suppose that our language embodies an assumption that the stakes are pretty much the same for everyone involved and under discussion in a certain conversation. This doesn't seem completely outlandish--but anyway, just grant me that.

Then, if "know" entails "have good enough evidence for, given the stakes," we would expect "know" to behave kind of oddly in cases in which the stakes aren't the same for everyone involved. So in the airport case, when you ask, "Does that guy know whether the plane stops in Chicago?" you are effectively asking (among other things) "Does that guy have good enough evidence for believing that the plane stops in Chicago that we are justified in acting on that belief, given what we have at stake"--where "we" includes me, you, and him. And if the stakes are different for him than they are for me and you, we will be pulled different ways--both toward affirming that he knows (given his stakes, his evidence is good enough) and denying it (given our stakes, his evidence isn't good enough).

And I think that's why the debate between contextualists and invariantists concerning these cases gets hairy. The word "know" is being put under more strain than it was designed for--being pulled in two directions at once.

(That might be more convincing if my original example worked better! For a more respectable model, look at Anil Gupta's discussion of people who think "up" is both a direction in absolute space and a normal to the earth's surface: "Meaning and Misconceptions," in Language, Logic, and Concepts, ed. by Jackendoff, Bloom, and Wynn, MIT Press, 1999.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:59 PM | Comments (2)

June 19, 2004

The Great Irish-American Novel

In a post on the book Mystic River, Henry Farrell says: "I remember going to a conference on Anglo-Irish literature ten years ago, where one of the panelists complained that nobody had written the Great Irish-American Novel." (Here's the current link, but CT is experiencing link trouble--go to crookedtimber.org and search the site for "Mystic River" or "Neighborhood Values.")

May I nominate Alice McDermott? Her novels sweep through many generations and social strata of Irish-American society, and have a lot to say about the experiences of people trying to make the move from the working class to the middle class. Take the family in Child of My Heart that moves to Long Island because they've realize their daughter is a good marriage prospect, and they want her to meet a better class of people. And Child of My Heart is probably the least sociological of her novels.

Also--they're fantastic. The dynamics of a huge extended family in Charming Billy are handled with amazing ease, and the treatment of time in That Night is absolutely virtuosic. I believe That Night was also published more than ten years ago, though it may not be as purely Irish-American as the rest. (For my money At Weddings and Wakes is a bit overrated--as the narrative shifts from one time to another, you can feel McDermott pushing it; in That Night time shifts seem to flow organically out of the story.)

(Child of My Heart also answers Roy Edroso's question: Do they still write books that can make you cry? Although I think Roy is overdoing the old-man thing a bit when he says that they don't write nothin' like Remains of the Day anymore. RotD is less than twenty years old.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:15 PM | Comments (0)

Close Textual Analysis (TMBG Department)

I don't put enough artistic stuff on this site, and I'm listening to They Might Be Giants' Lincoln as I type this (but not as you read it!), so I thought I should share an insight I had a couple of weeks ago. (The mark of a classic is that you can listen to it a thousand times and always find something new.)

So: Pay close attention to the segue from "Piece of Dirt" to "Mr. Me." Not only does the singer in PoD find himself "haunted by a spooky man named me," but he talks of "set[ting] his sails" (so long ago that they have revoked his sailor's badge). Then in the next song, Mr. Me--surely that same spooky man--flounders in the misty sea so long that he ends up really, really, really sad. Setting his sails doesn't seem to have worked out too well.

"Mr. Me" does seem to entertain a possibility of redemption through companionship--take his hand and mister, make him glad--but it's hard to see this as likely, given how often and enthusiastically TMBG tell us that he ended up really, really, really sad. Maybe this is a suggestion that the lovelorn wistfulness of "Piece of Dirt" will end badly.

("Mr. Me" has now been reserved as a title for a post on Anscombe's example of what it would be like if the first person were a proper name. Unfortunately I'm not likely to have any thoughts about Anscombe's argument that are coherent enough for a blog post--yeah, that's a low bar--so the title will have to stand alone.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:48 PM | Comments (2)

Old Comments Closed

Comment spam got me down, so all threads more than twelve days old will be closed to comments from now on. Thanks to Chris in the comments here for pointing my way to this plugin.

Now can anyone tell me if there's an easy way to display a message saying that comments are closed, the way they do on Crooked Timber? I'd like to tell people that they can e-mail me if they want a thread reopened, and anyway it seems polite to let people know before they start typing.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:19 PM | Comments (2)

June 17, 2004

Wioll Haven Be

When you are writing to someone who is now on vacation, but who will not read the message until they get back, which of these should you write?

(1) I hope you are having a good vacation
(2) I hope you had a good vacation
(3) I hope you will have had a good vacation
(4) I hoped, when I wrote this, that you would be having a good vacation
(5) As of this writing, I hope that, as you read this, you have had a good vacation

I suppose (1) is the best, but it always sounds odd to me; when they read it, they won't be having a good vacation. (2) also sounds good, but there seems to be an anomaly--I hope at t1, but "you had a good vacation" isn't true at t1 but at a later t2, the time of your reading, at which time I may not be hoping any more (I may be asleep). Perhaps there is something about the sequence of tenses that expains this. (3) fixes the apparent problem with (2) but sounds horrible. (4) and (5) are just ridiculous.

Sometimes, when you're writing something that you expect to be read later, what's important is obviously the time of reading, and so you allow that to be the present tense. Example: "You are here" (not "You will be here when you read this"). Sometimes, though these examples are harder to construct, what's important is the time of writing. Example: "I am stranded on a desert island. I am sending out thousands of these messages in bottles" (not "I was, and may still be, a castaway on a desert island"). In (1)-(5) what's being said isn't that important at all, so there's no obvious fix as to whether the tenses should be anchored to the the time of writing or the time of reasoning.

If there's a point to this at all, it's that perhaps our linguistic structures embody assumptions that don't always hold. Perhaps language was designed to deal with cases in which the hearer hears what's said at the same time as the speaker says it. So when that doesn't hold, we run into some linguistic confusion. If these cases were important enough, we'd have to develop linguistic structures for dealing with them, but they're not so we haven't.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 11:44 AM | Comments (8)

June 16, 2004

Annals of Implicature

9/11 Panel Casts Doubt on Iraq-al-Qaida Link

(headline of what is now the top story on Google News)

[UPDATE: Fontana Labs at Unfogged picks up on the importance of implicatures, with a Public Enemy reference thrown in. I surrender.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 03:37 PM | Comments (0)


Well, that didn't happen. I have sent out backdated grant proposals saying that the project is to read at least a chapter a day for some period surrounding the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday. Henry has more, including a discussion that reveals that it's hard to tell what's going on in the first sentence, let alone what ineluctable modality of the visible is.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:03 PM | Comments (0)

June 15, 2004

Six Reasons to Do Epistemology

Here are six questions that you might want epistemology to help you with. They're arranged in order, though in order of what I'm not sure, and they're obviously not exhaustive.

(1) What actions should we take in order to ensure that we have the best beliefs we can possibly have?

(2) What actions should we take in order to ensure that the things we tell other people are the best things we can tell them (where those actions include telling them or not telling them things)?

(3) What belief-forming processes are good for a given individual to have, or for a species to have, or good in general?

(4) What beliefs are good for a given individual to have?

(5) Given the evidence that an individual has, to what extent does that evidence support certain propositions?

(6) What beliefs are good to have in general, irrespective of the believer's individual position?

You will noticed that I haven't included old chestnuts like "What is knowledge?" or "What is justification?" That's not just because the list isn't exhaustive--it's also because when we've come up with a conception of knowledge or justification, the question may remain: Given that conception, (why) should we care about whether we can attain knowledge/justification? My view is that the answer, with respect to contemporary conceptions of knowledge, is that each of the questions (1)-(6) by itself motivates the importance some concept other than knowledge. In particular, I think the answer to (6) is probably either "Good beliefs are true" or "Good beliefs are beliefs that are true and supported by an understanding of why they are true." This latter is a conception of knowledge, but it's not the contemporary post-Gettier one; it's more like the Platonic conception that Michelle pushed a while back.

(So if I don't think that any of these questions in itself motivates the importance of knowledge, do I think that knowledge is unimportant? No--I think knowledge is important as a one-stop shop for a useful approximation of answers to several of these questions. To say "S knows that P" is to say quickly that S's belief that P does pretty well with respect to at least some of those six concepts.)

My favorite question here tends to be question 5, because that's what I see as the purely epistemic one. If we want to exclude pragmatic factors, it seems to me that we should also be excluding factors such as "How much work will it take to carry out this epistemic procedure?" and "What are the procedures that I can carry out given my cognitive limitations?" And questions (1)-(4) seem to me to depend on these factors--for instance, (1) depends both on what I can manage to carry out and whether it's worth the effort to get the best possible information, (3) depends on our cognitive powers, and (4) may well depend on the natural history of our species. ((6) abstracts not only from our information-processing limitations but from our information-gathering limitations as well! So I think it's pretty well transcended the epistemic.)

You'll notice that this means that, unlike Jonathan Kvanvig, I am happy to say that knowledge isn't purely epistemic. In fact, if it weren't for our information-processing limitations, we wouldn't have any use for the concept of knowledge (on my theory)--if knowledge is a compromise among several independently important desiderata, creatures without cognitive limitations could just keep track of all those desiderata, without shorthand.

This is also what I meant by my gnomic earlier comments that perfect information-processing machines wouldn't have many categorical beliefs. Question (5) abstracts from our information-processing limitations, and it rarely produces the result that our evidence gives perfect support to a belief. Usually, could we get the answer, it would be of the form "On this evidence, P is very very very likely." (I don't want to commit myself to the idea that this could always be expressed by a probability.)

Up till a couple of days ago I would have said that the answer to (5) is the answer to the question "How much does our evidence support a certain belief?" But it is probably better to reserve the word "justified" for question (4), so that a belief that is justified is a belief that the subject should have. And Matt McGrath has convinced me that not to use "justified tout court" in your answer to question (4) and degree of justification in the answer to question (5). Pragmatic factors enter into (4) so that different degrees of evidential support may be required for justification of different beliefs (or the same belief for different people)--the worse the consequences of false belief, the more support is needed to justify false belief. Then one belief can be justified and another not even though the first has less evidential support--to say that the second is "more justified" just confuses the issue.

Well, that's pretty much an explanation of the entire framework in which I think about epistemology. Let me end with a plug for Certain Doubts, a new epistemology group blog with Kvanvig, McGrath, a frightening array of other contributors, and a substantial omission in its blogroll.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 11:49 AM | Comments (0)


Fafnir and Giblets are both right, although I prefer Big Fun and Kind of Blue as exemplars of their respective eras. But neither of them were alive in the '70s? I feel old.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 11:25 AM | Comments (1)

June 13, 2004

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Somewhere in Intention Anscombe says something along the lines of this: "Tremble!" is not a command that we can obey--even if we do tremble because the speaker has said it in a terrible voice. (Much of the Marx Brothers' humor rests on this kind of misunderstanding.)

[UPDATE: The actual quote is: "A voluntary action can be commanded. If someone says 'Tremble' and I tremble I am not obeying him--even if I tremble because he said it in a terrible voice. To play it as obedience would be a kind of sophisticated joke (characteristic of the Marx Brothers) which might be called 'playing language games wrong' (p. 33, section 20). I don't endorse any equation between 'voluntary' and 'commandable'--if you have a loony enough dictator "Grow taller!" can be a command or at least an exhortation, but growing taller isn't voluntary, even if it can be affected by voluntary actions.]

This [UPDATE: that 'Tremble!' is not a command] seems right, and probably is even righter the way Anscombe originally said it. But it leaves me with the question: What is the speech act performed when someone says "Tremble!" It doesn't seem to be advice, or request, or any of the other standard uses of the imperative either.

My stab at it:

What is being conveyed is

(1) It is appropriate for you to tremble.

And it's reasonable to use the imperative to do this because (1) is a kind of sentence that is intimately related to advice. Take the following advice (which might be felicitous under similar circumstances):

(2) Run away.

That seems to be felicitous pretty much whenever (3) is true:

(3) It is appropriate for you to run away.

If "Tremble!" were literally advice, it wouldn't make sense in most contexts, because there will rarely be any point in taking an action in order to bring it about that you tremble. (It would make sense if a director said it to an actor.) So that puts pressure on the addressee to find an alternate meaning. And (1), which is closely related to advice to tremble, may well be appropriate.

As ever, I'd appreciate hearing from anyone who knows about this, or who just has an uninformed opinion like me.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:34 PM | Comments (3)


The hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday is coming up so I thought I should try to read Ulysses before it happens--also so I can understand what Weatherson is always on about. Actually finishing the book by then may be too much for me, but I can try. At least this time I've made it farther than I usually do (each previous attempt, I've blown up around "ineluctable modality of the visible," which may be from St. Augustine).

Insights so far:

Recognizable no-wavish rock lyric allusions in Chapter 1: 2. (Scraping Foetus off the Wheel, "Water Torture," quotes "The snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea; Sonic Youth, "Secret Girl," quotes "I am the boy who can enjoy invisibility"). Recognizable n-wrla's in Chapters 2-7; 0.

My copy of Uri Caine's The Sidewalks of New York lists "Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?" as from 1909, but apparently that's the American version, so it's OK for Bloom to hum it in 1904. (What would I do for useless information if not for the Interweb?)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:25 PM | Comments (0)

June 12, 2004

I'm Too Sexy for My Cat

Apparently Right Said Fred was a song before it was a band. If you don't understand this post you're either too young or too old.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:39 PM | Comments (0)

June 10, 2004

RIP Robert Quine

Believed to be suicide. Via alicublog, who adds some fitting (if old-cranky) tribute.

W.V.O. was Robert's uncle. Why the hell didn't I know that already?

Posted by Matt Weiner at 06:31 PM | Comments (0)

LDS and Stem Cells: Timely Revelation

Today I was surprised to see an editorial in the Deseret News, the LDS*-oriented newspaper, calling for federal funding for stem-cell research. Soon came the explanation: Matthew Yglesias, at TAPPED, links to an August 2001 Slate piece by Drew Clark explaining the LDS position on stem cells.

The position also makes it seem as though the LDS position on abortion is not quite as firmly engrained as the Catholic Church's. Perhaps that's why the street preachers who picket LDS sites to encourage Mormons to convert to Christianity occasionally hold up pictures of aborted fetuses.

Now if someone can explain why the D-News also ran two cartoons criticizing Bush today....

*"Latter Day Saints," often called "Mormon."

Posted by Matt Weiner at 05:43 PM | Comments (2)

This Makes Me Want to Vomit

This, too.

That is all.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 11:14 AM | Comments (0)

June 09, 2004


Via Joe Shieber, Fantl and M. McGrath's paper "Evidence, Pragmatics, and Justification", arguing against evidentialism.

Fantl and McGrath argue that whether a belief is justified can depend on prudential factors*--the familiar Airport-type cases, in which little rides on the correctness of A's belief that p, much rides on the correctness of B's belief that p, so the same evidence may justify A's belief but not justify B's--where by "justified" F & McG. mean "good enough for knowledge, adding in what else is needed." This is meant to refute evidentialism, taken to be the idea that epistemological properties depend only on the evidence that is available.

My first thought here was: I can swallow their whole argument and be as much of an evidentialist as I want to be. Because I have no problem with the idea that being justified tout court depends on factors other than evidence. All I want is that the degree to which a belief is justified depends only on evidence.

Compare: Whether someone is tall tout court depends on contextually set factors other than their height. But how tall they are depends only on their height. This doesn't lead me to be extrinsicist or anything about tallness. It just makes me say that the basic facts about height concern how tall someone is, and the question "How tall is tall?" can rely on extrinsic context-dependent factors without affecting the basic facts concerning someone's height.

Now, the problem I see is that to say that a belief is justified may not be just to draw an arbitrary line at some (evidentially determined) degree of justification. It is to ask the question: Should I just plain believe this? This may seem like a more important question than the degree of justification that our evidence gives to the proposition.

Well, quite possibly it is a more important question. (I tell my students that an argument prefaced "may seem" or "some people think" is like the guy wearing the red shirt on Star Trek--you know it's going to die by the end of the episode. But not this time.) My belief is that perfect information-processing machines wouldn't have (many) categorical beliefs at all but would just keep track of degrees of support. Since we're not perfect i-p machines, we need categorical beliefs; and non-evidential factors will affect which categorical beliefs we should have. There's much more to be said about that, but not here.

*What they're calling pragmatics, but they don't mean implicatures and the like.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 04:18 PM | Comments (4)

June 08, 2004

Transit of Venus

NTodd has a picture of Venus' transit across the sun, visible in the eastern U.S. for a couple of hourse this morning.

...which I'm going to use as an excuse to flog Shirley Hazzard's Transit of Venus, an absolute masterpiece. Better than Stephen King. Better than Gene Wolfe, even. (Hazzard's book is intricately constructed and wonderfully written in a slightly chill, elliptical style, and the continuity isn't retroactive.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:16 PM | Comments (0)

I See by Your Outfit that You Are a Cowboy

I've been thinking a bit about seeing that, partly because of background beliefs, or Searle's Background, or whatever you want to call them (it).

One of the issues in the area is how much you can know by perception. If it is Background for Alice that only upsilon particles leave this sort of track in the cloud chamber, does she simply see that this reaction produced an upsilon particle, where Sarah (who is less trained) sees only that this reaction produced this track and infers that it produced an upsilon?

The "see that" idiom is here quite natural. And if seeing that is always knowledge by perception, you can perceive all sorts of wondrous things. For instance, you can see into the future:

(1) Looking at the sky, Morgan saw that it was going to rain.

You can see counterfactuals:

(2) Jane saw that the vase was on the edge of the table and that it would have fallen off if Mary had touched it.

You can see probabilities:

(3) Barbara saw that the oak was unlikely to withstand the next severe storm.

All of (1)-(3), I think, may be authentic cases of gaining knowledge through perception, but you can't just see that by looking at the surface form.

Take this:

(4) Alice saw that 961 was a perfect square.

This can be true even if Alice's eyes are closed. Nor is mathematics the only area in which you can see with your eyes closed (or to put it more prosaically, in which "saw that" means roughly "realized or had realized that"):

(5) Alice saw that she would have to persuade Sarah if she was to have any hope of getting her proposal through the board.

(5) can be true if Alice is presenting her proposal and looking at the faces of the board. But it can also be true if Alice is plotting her strategy in advance and mulling over who is likely to pull weight with who. No visual imagining need be involved, I think.

An immediate question: Can visual and nonvisual uses of "see that" be conjoined? That's one test (so I hear) as to whether two different senses of "see" are involved. I think they can be conjoined without much strain:

(6) Alice was staring at her photographs of the strange new bird. What could it feed on, she wondered? Then she saw that there was a slight curvature to the beak, and that only the bolanthus flower could spread its pollen by means of a bird with such a beak. [We may assume that Alice does not see or even imagine a picture of a bolanthus while this is occuring.]


(7) Nash saw that his friends were all talking to the same woman, that she was getting annoyed, that they would be better off each focusing on someone else, that this was a situation that generalized to many game-theoretic setups, and that he could prove that this held across many important cases.

(I'm told that there's a scene in the movie of A Beautiful Mind that can be summed up by (7), and that, much to my informant's chagrin, it doesn't even represent a Nash equilibrium. They shoulda spent more money on philosophical consultants.)

If (6) and (7) work, they could be taken to show that knowledge through ratiocination is just a kind of knowledge of perception. I prefer the conclusion that the acceptability of the "see that" locution doesn't fix how the knowledge is actually obtained.

[A side note: I'm not sure whether "heard that" and "felt that" can actually be used to report the attainment of knowledge through perception. Certainly "hear that" usually means "was told that," and "felt that" usually means "had a feeling that," both non-factive. But does the following work?

(8) Nancy heard that the car was not running smoothly.

More likely perhaps is:

(9) Nancy could hear that the car was not running smoothly

(I think I'm stealing this point from someone)--although the acceptability of (9) may mean that there is a literal reading of "hear that" as "come to know by hearing," since otherwise it seems impossible to generate the intended meaning of (9). Usually, perhaps, the "was told that" reading blocks off the "came to know by hearing" reading, but when you add the conditional the "was told that" reading no longer makes sense.

I vaguely remember a Suzette Haden Elgin self-helpy book that discussed different people's styles of communication, and said that some were more likely to use visual language, some auditory language, and some tactual language. But I don't think this extended to use of "hear that" or "feel that" where visual folks would say "see that"; maybe other people say "realize that" instead.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:22 PM | Comments (3)


The comments on this blog currently get more spam than my regular e-mail accounts do, and it takes a LOT more work to deal with comment spam than e-mail spam. I use MT-blacklist, but a few spambots keep sneaking by. Oh well.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 10:16 AM | Comments (3)

June 07, 2004

Peace on Earth

Just finished Stanislaw Lem's Peace on Earth and it's full of potentially loaded philosophical statements and other quiddities-as you'd probably expect. For instance:

If you want to know what happened to me, you'll have to read this whole story, word by word, even when it doesn't make sense. The sense will come, though probably not completely because you can get to the bottom of it only by callotomy, just as you can't know what it's like to be an otter, say, or a turtle without being turned into an otter or a turtle, and then you can't communicate it because animals don't talk or write.
...the professor broke off with a groan because I kicked him in the kneecap. "Sorry, it wasn't me, it was my left leg," I said quickly. "I didn't mean to..."

And my favorite:

There is a real groundswell of good will, with disagreement only about who is standing in its way. But there is no disagreement that the enemies of brotherly love should be exterminated root and branch.
Posted by Matt Weiner at 11:16 AM | Comments (0)

June 03, 2004

Suggested GRE Question

Clinton sided with Gore. As Clinton saw it, Kim Il Sung had painted himself into a corner and needed an escape hatch--a clear path to back away from the brink without losing face, without appearing to buckle under pressure from the U.S. government. Carter might offer that hatch.

How many metaphors were mixed in the above passage? Pick the range within which the answer falls.

(a) 3-4
(b) 5-6
(c) 7-8.5
(d) None of the above.

Your career in philosophy may depend on the answer.

(Suggested followup: Why, after a vaguely substantive post, did Mr. Weiner immediately follow up with three rather silly ones? And have you had your punk kittens lately?)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 05:29 PM | Comments (0)


Amazon.com will give you a blog whether you like it or not.

Admittedly, this one did have, at the very top, the thing I was looking for (package tracking), but I'm not sure that the blogroll is a good idea even if they do strive to be balanced. All together now--"Lileks?" OK, then, all together now--"Tom Tomorrow?" Hmm, looks like we're not all going to get together on this.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 05:12 PM | Comments (0)


According to this Brian Leiter post, GREs are taken very seriously by all top philosophy departments, up to 1/3 of the ranking at one school. I can't help but wonder--why? It seems to me that emphasizing GREs rewards standardized-test geeks such as myself over people who may have shown that they can do philosophy. Except for the Analytic part of the test, which tracks logic, why should a good performance on the GRE predict a good performance as a philosopher? Comments welcome.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 04:59 PM | Comments (12)

Knowledge and Stability

Marc Moffett has been putting up a lot of interesting stuff. In particular, check his posts on how stable knowledge must be, with lots of cool examples--here's the middle one. The idea, partly, is that you can fail to know because your belief is too unstable--if you have a justified true belief now, but you're going to lose that belief soon, you don't know even now. At least, that's his intuition in certain cases; mine sometimes differ.

I have a quick answer to this problem: I don't care whether you know in these cases, and anyway if I invoke my intuitions on such cases Jonathan Weinberg will burst through the wall and drag me off to Hell like the Kool-Aid Man. But I think Marc is getting at stuff that's important even for a knowledge-derider like myself.

My position is that knowledge is a rough amalgamation of several independently important desiderata--truth and justification most prominently. Another desiderata is stability. As Williamson argues in the "Primeness" chapter of Knowledge and Its Limits, stability is important because it allows for more robust explanation. When asked why the burglar found the silver in the house,

(1) She knew that there was silver in the house

is a better explanation than
(2) She had a justified true belief that there was silver in the house,
because the (2) leaves open the possibility that her belief was based on a false lemma. If the belief was based on a false lemma, then she might have discovered the falsehood of that lemma and given up looking. (1) excludes that--if her belief isn't Gettierized, there's no belief that, when flipped from false to true, should cause her to stop looking. Similarly for evidence she does not possess; if (1) is false and (2) true because the burglar lacks misleading evidence, then she may discover the evidence and so stop looking. (Though I never had a strong intuition about the evidence-you-don't-possess examples.)

Think of this in terms of practical reason. Plans take time to execute. If you're going to act on a belief, you want it to last as long as the plan does--otherwise you'll disrupt your plan midway through. So it's not enough for your belief to be true; it's got to be stably true to serve as a foundation for helpful action. That's the problem with the belief Marc discusses--it's not going to last long enough to do what he needs it to.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 04:53 PM | Comments (0)

June 02, 2004

The Child Screams and Looks Back at You

The other day at dinner, Linda Fiorentino and I were talking about whether doctors should strive for empathy. I won't post Linda's positive thoughts, but she asked whether you would ever want to choose empathy over confidence. Then today I read Russell Banks' "The Child Screams and Looks Back at You" (from Banks' collection Trailerpark.) This excerpt seemed apposite:

Most people, when they call in a physician, deal with him as they would a priest. They say that what they want is a medical opinion, a professional medical man's medical opinion, when what they really want is his blessing. Information is useful only insofar as it provides peace of mind, release from the horrifying visions of dead children, an end to this dream. Most physicians, like most priests, recognize the need and attempt to satisfy it.... There was an obvious, if limited, use for this practice, because it soothed and calmed both the patient and the family members, which made it easier for the physician to make an accurate diagnosis and to secure the aid of the family members in providing treatment. It was worse than useless, however, when an overoptimistic diagnosis of a disease or injury led to the patient's sudden, crazed descent into sickness, pain, paralysis, and death.

Discuss, if you please. (And Linda, is your blog still up? I couldn't find it.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 07:25 PM | Comments (4)

Pop vs. Soda followup

Your home for the pop vs. soda controversy is here. The map was generated by a self-reporting internet survey, so it may not be completely reliable--OTOH, I'd expect s-r i s's to damp down regional variations rather than accentuate them, so I'm inclined to trust the big picture (and the bizarre correlation between brewing beer and calling pop "soda" in the Midwest). The counties that are majority "other" are usually ones with few respondents.

My favorite "other" response for Utah was "My mother always called it 'beer' even though she never drank beer being Mormon and all."

(Yes, blogging is light, and is going to stay that way on days I don't go to the office. Next time I'll hopefully add links to this post.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 10:26 AM | Comments (8)