Friday, October 31, 2008

Can Inferences Sometimes Lead to Knowledge Even if Their Premises Are False?

It seems a little strange to think so, and the philosophers I've asked about this in the last few days tend to say no. But here are three possible examples:

Inferential Ascent:

Consider the following rule: If P is true, then conclude that I believe that P is true. Of course, it's not generally true that for all P I believe that P. (Sadly, I'm not omniscient. Or happily?) However, if I apply this rule in my thinking, I will almost always be right, since employing the rule will require judging, in fact, that P is true. And if I judge that P is true, normally it is also true that I believe that P is true. So if by employing the rule I generate the belief or judgment that I believe that P is true, that belief or judgment is generally correct. The rule is, in a way, self-fulfilling. (Gareth Evans, Fred Dretske, Richard Moran, and Alex Byrne have all advocated rules something like this.)

And of course the conclusion "I believe that P is true" (the conclusion I now believe, having applied the rule) will itself generally be true even if P is false. I'm inclined to think it's usually knowledge.

One question is: Is this really inference? Well, it looks a bit like inference. It seems to play a psychological role like that of inference. What else would it be?

Instrumentalism in Science:

It's a common view in science and in philosophy of science that some scientific theories may not be strictly speaking true (or even approximately true) and yet can be used as "calculating devices" or the like to arrive at truths. For example, on Bas Van Fraassen's view, we shouldn't believe that unobservably small entities like atoms exist, and yet we can use the equations and models of atomic physics to predict events that happen among the things we can observe (such as tracks in a cloud chamber or clicks in a Geiger counter). Let's further suppose that atoms do not in fact exist. Would this be a case of scientific inference in which false premises (about atoms) generate conclusions (about Geiger counters) that count as knowledge?

Perhaps the relevant premise is not "atoms behave [suchly]" but "a model in which atoms are posited as fictions that behave [suchly] generates true claims about observables". But this seems to me needlessly complex and perhaps not accurate to psychological reality for all scientists who'd I'd be inclined to say derive knowledge about observables using atomic models even if some of the crucial statements in those models are false.

Tautologous Conclusions:

In standard two-valued logic, I can derive "P or Q" from P. What if Q, in some particular case, is just "not P"? Perhaps, then, I can derive (and know) "P or not P" from P, even if P is false?

What's the problem here? Why do philosophers seem to be reluctant to say we can sometimes gain knowledge through inference from false premises?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Odor of Evil

My nominee for best use of fart spray in 2008:

Simone Schnall and co-authors (including the always interesting Jonathan Haidt) set up a table on the Stanford campus, asking passing Stanford students to complete a questionnaire on the immorality or not of marrying one's first cousin, having consensual sex with a first cousin, driving rather than walking 1 1/2 miles to work, and releasing a documentary over the objections of immigrants who didn't realize they were being interviewed on film. All respondents completed the questionnaire while standing near a trashbucket. For one group, the bucket was clean and empty; for another it was lightly doused with fart spray so that a mild odor emanated from it; for a third group, the bucket was liberally sprayed and emitted a strong stench. Participants in the odiferous conditions rated all four actions morally worse than in the fart-absent condition.

In other research, Haidt has found that people hypnotically induced to experience disgust are also more inclined to reach negative moral judgments then when they're not experiencing hypnotically-induced disgust; Schnall et al. found that people were more morally condemnatory when completing questionnaires in a disgustingly dirty office than in a clean one, after vividly recalling a disgusting event than after not being instructed to do so, and after watching a disgusting movie scene as opposed to a neutral or sad scene. In the last three of these experiments, they found the difference in moral judgment only among people who, in a post-test, described themselves as being highly aware of bodily states such as hunger and bodily tension. (As an aside, I'm generally mistrustful of the accuracy of people's reports about their typical daily steam of conscious experience, and I wonder if responses on the post-test might be influenced by the strength of either their reaction to the previously presented moral scenarios or their reaction to the disgusting stimulus.)

Moral condemnation and visceral disgust may be more closely related, then, than you think -- or at least than most philosophers seem inclined to think. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is open to dispute. In these scenarios, it seems like a bad thing, since people are being swayed in their judgments by irrelevant factors. Whether it's generally a bad thing, I suppose, will depend on whether there's generally a good relationship between the things that evoke visceral disgust and those worth morally condemning. (Unusual sexual practices? Poor hygiene? Illness? Reflecting on these sorts of cases leads me to suspect that the connection between visceral and moral disgust is overall more misleading than helpful.)

There's a practical moral to all this, too: When you're trying to get people to judge you lightly for all the crap you've done, don't fart!

A New Blog: Cognition and Culture...

here! (Pictures of the Dalai Lama included.)

I've finally recovered (mostly) from jet lag and am settling into Canberra, Australia, where I'll be for 2 1/2 more weeks. New posts coming soon!

Monday, October 13, 2008

New Version of the Moral Sense Test, Especially Designed for Philosophers

Fiery Cushman at Harvard and I are running a new version of the "Moral Sense Test", which asks respondents to make moral judgments about hypothetical scenarios. We're especially hoping to recruit people with philosophy degrees for this test so that we can compare philosophers' and non-philosophers' responses. So while I would encourage all readers of this blog to take the test (your answers, though completely anonymous, will be treasured!), I would especially appreciate it if people with graduate degrees in philosophy would take the time to complete it.

The test should take about 15-20 minutes, and people who have taken earlier versions of the Moral Sense Test have often reported it interesting to think about the kinds of moral dilemmas posed in the test.

Here's the link to the test.

(By the way, I'm off to Australia on Wednesday, and I doubt I'll have time to post to the blog between now and when I recover from my jet lag. But if you notice any problems with the test, do please email me so I can correct it immediately!)

[Update, October 14: Discussion of the test is warmly welcomed either by email or in the comments section of this post. However, if you are planning to take the test, please do so before reading the comments on this post.]

[Update, October 15: By the way, people should feel free to retake the test if they want. Just make sure you answer "yes" to the question of whether you've taken the Moral Sense Test before!]

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Crisis in Chinese Philosophy

The American Philosophical Association's Newsletter on Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies has recently posted a discussion of the crisis in Chinese philosophy -- the perceived crisis being the fact that no highly-ranked North American philosophy department has a specialist in Chinese philosophy. I recommend the entire newsletter to those interested in the state of graduate education in Chinese philosophy -- perhaps starting with Bryan Van Norden's article.

My own take is that the situation is very serious for those hoping to receive graduate training in the area in the near future, but that the crisis is likely to be temporary, given what seems to me the generally increasing quality of work in that field, combined with the gradually increasing ethnic integration of North America.

Update, 5:05 p.m.: Manyul Im has opened a thread on the topic on his Chinese philosophy blog. No comments there yet, but I expect that's where the most informed discussion will be.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Applying to Graduate School in Philosophy

Yes, it's that time! Last year, I wrote a series of long posts on applying to Ph.D. programs in philosophy, based on my experience on admission committees at U.C. Riverside (and also to a lesser extent on my experience as an applicant and graduate student in the 1990s). Since people appear to have found it useful, I uploaded the whole series to the Underblog. There are also links to the original posts, where comments are welcome.

I have received a number of emails from people asking about their particular situations, and while I like to be helpful and I try to respond to all emails, I would encourage potential emailers to read through the posts and the comments to see if I've already addressed your type of situation. If you are in a type of situation that I have not addressed, though, I'd be happy to receive an email -- or even better hear about it in a comment, where my reply might also be useful to others.

I reiterate that these posts represent my own perspective only. Some of the things I say may be inaccurate or unrepresentative of general opinion. (And if so, I'd appreciate hearing from others who have served on admissions committees or who have recent relevant admissions experiences.) What I say is certainly not UCR policy. I won't even be on the admissions committee this year.

A few notes:

(1.) I know very little about M.A. programs, including admissions criteria, graduation rates, placement success, expectations within the programs, etc. I suspect that there's enormous diversity in these dimensions among programs.

(2.) Many students have emailed me or posted comments on applying to grad schools one, a few, or many years after graduation. I advise students to read through the comments section of Part II. There's also some further discussion in Part IV.

(3.) Another big issue is the student with the imperfect GPA or unusual institutional background. There's more discussion of this in the comments sections of several of the Parts.

(4. [update, 2:07 p.m.]) You might also want to check out the comments section on Brian Leiter's blog on the difference between U.S. and U.K. statements of purpose.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Geekend 2008

A brief hiatus: I'm off to Geekend!

In the spirit of the occasion, I offer y'all some nerdcore:

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What Is Philosophy?

How is philosophy different from the other academic disciplines? What makes it worth funding as an academic department? Here, I'll check my email for a minute while you think about your answer....

We could go sociological: We could say that philosophy is whatever it is that people who call themselves "philosophers" do. Or we could say that it is whatever it is that fits best into an integrated tradition arising from the canonical works of canonical figures like Plato and Kant. While neat in a way, this sort of sociological definition seems to me at best a fallback, if no more substantive definition succeeds -- and it strains to accommodate ancient Chinese and Indian philosophers and the possibility of philosophy on other planets or in the distant future when all memory of us has been lost.

Method or content seems the better hope. But is there a distinctively philosophical method or a set of distinctly philosophical topics?

Philosophy cannot, I think, be defined methodologically as an a priori discipline distinguished from the sciences by its focus on truths discoverable from an armchair and immune to empirical refutation. There are, in my view, no such truths. (I know that's contentious.) Speaking more moderately, it doesn't seem that philosophy is limited to such truths. Philosophers of science take stands on the nature of spacetime and natural selection, stands presumably empirically grounded and open to empirical refutation. Atheists and religious philosophers appeal to the appearance, or not, of benevolent design. Philosophers of mind connect their views with those in empirical psychology. Is there then some other method constitutive of philosophy? What could it be? Philosophy seems, if anything, methodologically pluralistic (especially with the rise of experimental philosophy).

A topical characterization of philosophy is more inviting: Philosophers consider such questions as the fundamental nature of reality, the nature of mind and knowledge and reason, general questions about moral right and wrong. But physicists and psychologists and religious leaders also consider these questions. Are they being philosophers when they do so? And what about the possibility of new philosophical questions? Also, a laundry list of questions is not very theoretically appealing. What we want to know is what those sorts of questions have in common that makes them philosophical.

Here's my view: To practice philosophy is to articulate argumentatively broad features of one's worldview, or -- derivatively -- to reflect on subsidiary points crucial to disputes about worldview, with an eye to how they feed into those disputes.

On this view, the empirical is no threat to philosophy. In fact, it would be nuts to develop a broad worldview without one's eyes open to the world. And although the empirical is deeply relevant to philosophy, no set of experiments could ever replace philosophy because no set of experiments could ever settle the most general questions of worldview (including, for example, the extent to which we should allow our beliefs to be governed by the results of scientific experiments). No science or set of sciences could aim at the broad vision of philosophy without thereby becoming philosophy -- becoming either bad philosophy (simplistic naturalized epistemology or cosmology, with substantial philosophical commitments simply assumed without argument and masked behind a web of scientific technicalities) or good, subtle, empirically-informed philosophy, philosophy recognizable to philosophers as philosophy.

This view of philosophy also, I think, properly highlights its importance and its centrality in academia.

I have been accused of aiming to destroy philosophy -- especially metaphysics and ethics -- replacing it with something empirical. However, philosophy is indestructible. People will always argumentatively articulate broad features of worldview. And I myself, even in my most empirical inquiries, aim to do nothing else.

Update, Oct. 2: Joachim Horvath points out in the comments section that important aspects of our worldview include the evolution of human beings from earlier primates and the falsity of geocentrism. But should exploring such questions count as philosophy? My own view is that their being empirical questions doesn't make them unphilosophical, and I would count Darwin and Huxley, Copernicus and Galileo, as doing philosophy when they put forward and defend such broad theses about the position of human beings in the universe. Likewise now, when we know so little about consciousness, the empirical study of basic facts about consciousness -- facts basic enough to count as central to a broad worldview -- should count as philosophy. Of course, later biologists, astronomers, and maybe consciousness scientists who get into narrower questions not involving broad features of our worldview are no longer doing philosophy on my conception. Thus, on my view, doing biology, or astronomy, or psychology can be way of doing philosophy. Perhaps in this respect my view of philosophy diverges more from the mainstream than may be evident on its face from the original post.