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Monday, July 18, 2011

Knowledge-How: A Unified Account

I just received the proofs for my article "Knowledge-How: A Unified Account." Here is the link, if you're interested. And the abstract:

There are two competing views of knowledge-how: intellectualism and anti-intellectualism. According to the reductionist varieties of intellectualism defended by Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson (2001) and Berit Brogaard (2007), knowledge-how simply reduces to knowledge-that. To a first approximation, s knows how to A iff there is a w such that s knows that w is a way to A. For example, John knows how to ride a bicycle if and only if there is a way w such that John knows that w is a way to ride a bicycle. John Bengson and Marc Moffett (2007) defend an antireductionist version of intellectualism that takes knowledge-how to require, in addition to a propositional attitude, that s understands the concepts involved in her attitude. According to the anti-intellectualist accounts originally defended by Gilbert Ryle and many others after him, knowledge-how requires the possession of a practical ability and so knowing that w (for some w) is a way to A does not suffice for knowing-how. For example, John knows how to ride a bicycle only if John has the ability to ride it; if John merely knows that w (for some w) is a way to ride a bicycle, John does not know how to ride a bicycle. Here I argue for a conciliatory position that is compatible with the reductionist variety of intellectualism: knowledge-how is reducible to knowledge-that. But, I argue, there are knowledge states that are not justification entailing and knowledge states that are not belief entailing. Both kinds of knowledge state require the possession of practical abilities. I conclude by arguing that the view defended naturally leads to a disjunctive conception of abilities as either essentially involving mental states or as not essentially involving mental states. Only the former kind of ability is a kind of knowledge-state, that is, a knowledge-how state.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

More or Less: Varieties of Human Cortical Colour Vision

The schedules/programs are now up for the Vancouver conference on cortical color.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Surprising News: UMSL's research faculty ranks in top 10 in the US

This is for "scholarly production among universities with less than 15 doctoral programs". The link is here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lemming's Birthday and a New Version of My Presentism Paper

Happy belated birthday to Lemmings. He turned 5 two days ago. In case you are interested, I have uploaded a new version of my new presentism paper, "Presentism, Primitivism and Cross-Temporal Relations: Lessons from Holistic Ersatzism and
Dynamic Semantics", to my website.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Meaning and Value: How Do They Relate?

A further question that came up in my summer existentialism class was that of what exactly the existentialists are so worried about. What is the ambiguity or dilemma De Beauvoir and others keep talking about?

It may be tempting to answer like this: We all have to die, and death is a scary thing. So, how do we deal with that fear?

However, that answer is far too simple. The dilemma in life turns on value. Most people live a life that is aimed at the future. For example, you go to college in order to increase your chances of getting a good job. Almost everything you do is aimed at something in the future. So, almost everything you do is valuable because it leads to something else. What you do appears to have instrumental value.

On non-existentialist accounts, if your life has meaning, then that meaning is derived from the instrumental value of your actions. But if there is no final destination, which there is not if death is inevitable, then your actions have no instrumental value and hence your life has no meaning.

In class I used an analogy to illustrate this. Suppose you hate driving but are willing to make the trip to Chicago, because being in Chicago has intrinsic value. As it turns out, however, there is no Chicago. It was burned down or was just a fantasy city people thought was real. We can then rightfully say that your trip was meaningless.

Things are different if Chicago exists and you just never make it there because you make a wrong turn and end up in Detroit or die in a car crash. Your trip then had a bad ending but it wasn’t meaningless.

If Chicago doesn’t exist but Detroit does, then your trip needn’t be meaningless, because it can still be aimed at not ending up in Detroit. So, your actions then have instrumental value and your life has meaning derived from the instrumental value of your actions.

Here is how the analogy carries over to the meaning of life. If there is no heaven or hell after death, but sheer nothingness, then your actions in life have no instrumental value. Hence, if meaning is derived from the instrumental value of your actions, your life is meaningless.

The existentialist puzzle does not arise for the theist who posits life after death. Heaven has intrinsic value, and your actions in life are aimed at ending up in heaven. So, your life has meaning derived from the instrumental value of your actions.

But few existentialists are theists. This is why they are in despair. De Beauvoir considers other possible ways of resolving the predicament. Hegel suggested that the Spirit (with a capital S) was greater than mankind and hence greater than you and your life. You might also think mankind, nature or society is greater than you and your life.

If this is true, then it seems that we can resolve the predicament in a way similar to the theists: You simply live your life serving the Spirit, mankind, nature, society, or what have you. If these greater entities have intrinsic value, and your actions are aimed at serving these entities, then your actions have instrumental value. So, if the meaning of life is derived from the instrumental value of your actions, then your life is meaningful. Or so it may seem.

The problem, though, is that if your life is aimed at something that is greater than you, or goes beyond you and your life, then even if your actions have instrumental value, your life can still be meaningless. This is because the Spirit, mankind, nature, society or whatever has nothing to do with your life per se, and we cannot derive the meaning of YOUR life from something that has nothing to do with your life.

The theists are in fact better off in this respect. They posit "life after death" or "eternal life". So, your life doesn’t end. On some theist views, your body ceases to exist but your soul continues. On other views, your body ceases to exist temporarily but will arise again when God introduces heaven on earth. Either way, if there is a heaven, we can say that your life has meaning derived from the instrumental value of your actions – actions aimed at getting you to heaven.

But this is not an option for atheists. De Beauvoir and most of the other existentialists are atheists, so they cannot resolve the puzzle the way the theists can. The solution they propose is to derive meaning from the intrinsic value of your choices rather than from the alleged instrumental value of your actions.

Your choices, however, can only have intrinsic value if you are the true agent in making the choice. If your choice is heavily influenced by upbringing, tradition, culture, authorities, a desire to do well or be famous, etc, then your choice doesn’t have any intrinsic value.

Existentialists don’t recommend that you go against any of these institutions but only that you question your choices and make your own choices. The choices must be choices you make for your own sake and not for the sake of others.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Does Existentialism Entail Ethical Relativism?

One of the questions we discussed in my summer existentialism class was that of whether existentialism, as laid out by Simone De Beauvoir, entails ethical relativism. My argument for the conclusion that it does went it as follows:

According to De Beauvoir, you should choose to be free. This means that what you should do depends on what has meaning for you. You should not do what tradition, authorities, caregivers, peers or culture dictate but rather what can add to the meaning of your life. Of course, this does not mean that because your parents told you to go to college, you should not go to college, but only that if you decide to go to college, it should be because it adds to the personal meaning of your life.

Now, "should", familiarly, comes in many different flavors. In "You should stop for red light", the "should" is a legal (and perhaps a prudential) "should". In "You should aim at maximizing true beliefs and minimizing false ones", the "should" is an epistemic "should". And in "You should wear a condom during sex" the "should" is a prudential "should", and so on.

"Should" in these senses can be overridden. For example, if you are taking a dying friend to the hospital, it needn’t be the case that you should stop for red light. If maximizing true beliefs and minimizing false ones implies sitting in your backyard counting leaves rather than going to class, you should go to class, not maximize true beliefs and minimize false ones. And if you are trying to conceive a child, you shouldn't wear a condom during sex.

These sorts of considerations count against there being a special ethical "should" alongside the legal, prudential and epistemic "should"s. For suppose otherwise. Then it could be that, ethically, you should speak the truth. But we all know that the "should" in this case can be overridden. If the Nazis are banging on your door, asking you whether you know the whereabouts of your friend, you should not tell them, even if you know. In this case, then, it cannot be that, ethically, you should tell the truth. We can conjure up similar scenarios for other things you might think you should do, ethically speaking.

The lesson: Practical reason, and hence ethics, concerns what you should do all things considered. So, you should tell the truth in some situations but not in others. If there is an ethical "should", it’s the all-things-considered "should", and the all-things-considered "should" cannot be overridden.

Return now to the existentialist "should". De Beauvoir intends this modality to be an all-things-considered "should". In other words, she does not take it that you should do what adds to the meaning of your life only in some circumstances. She holds that you should always do what adds to the meaning of your life.

But we cannot have two all-things-considered "should"s. So, if existentialism is true, then the existentialist "should" is the only all-things-considered “should” around.

This then straightforwardly leads us to ethical relativism of a rather extreme kind. If it adds to the meaning of your life to kill the kind 90-year old lady next door who brings you delicious baked goods every Sunday morning, then you should kill her all things considered. You get the idea.

What can the existentialist say in response to this?

She could bite the bullet. But that just feels wrong (to me anyway).

Alternatively, she could argue that these kinds of issues don’t arise. This seems to be what De Beauvoir is getting at on p. 23 of The Ethics of Ambiguity. Here she says that we will eventually reason toward certain universal principles. As rational individuals, we won’t kill to add meaning to our lives, for instance.

The problem, though, is this: What are we to say about people who are too rational, such as serial killers, and people who are too emotional or who are plainly stupid?

Perhaps the existentialist could say that you have to possess a certain level of rationality and emotional sophistication to be able to define your own meaning. But the question then remains why people who are not sufficiently rational or who do not have the right level of emotional sophistication are left to lead a meaningless life.

Summer Existentialism Class 2011

If you were unable to attend our meetings discussing Simone De Beauvoir's The Ethics of Ambiguity and The Second Sex, you can listen to the mp3 files here, either by clicking the play buttons directly on this site or by clicking the links located on top of each window:

Discussion of the Ethics of Ambiguity



Discussion of the Second Sex

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Googling Paper Titles

[From comment section]

Anonymous: I wonder if you have any views about whether authors ought to bring it to journal editors' attention if they discover a referee has googled passages from their paper in an attempt to uncover the author's identity? I don't think this issue has been brought up in discussions of refereeing, but it is a practice I think should definitely stop and making a bit of noise when it happens is perhaps one way to for that to happen. If I were an editor I would certainly want to know if my referees were breaking blind review practice, but I imagine some editors might not be very concerned about this practice and that it may bias them against the author if the latter were to make a stink to them about it.

Me: There is no surefire way to find out if a referee Googled the paper title or passages from the paper to establish the author's identity.

If a referee were to write "since the author is only a graduate student... " in his report, I would be suspicious. But referees don't usually say these kinds of things.

You can protect yourself against this practice by keeping your paper off your website or by re-naming it until it's accepted for publication.

But as you say, referees might Google passages rather than titles, and renaming the paper doesn't protect against that.

In my opinion, the best thing a young author can do is to upload their paper to Google Docs. This allows them to control the share settings. There is a setting that allows people with the link to view the paper but the paper won't show up in Google searches.

This is not a guarantee that a reviewer won't find the paper but at least it wouldn't show up in a Google search, and people who want to check out your website can still use the link on your page to get to the paper.