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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lee Walters on Counterfactuals and Context

(Partial cross-posting from the comment section of a post over at Matters of Substance)

Lee Walters has an interesting paper responding to a paper I co-wrote with Joe Salerno on counterfactuals and context last year. One of Lee's objections is that "once the role of context for Lewis is properly understood, strengthening and the rest [of the argument forms normally claimed to be invalid for counterfactuals] are invalid as Lewis himself claimed". This is exactly what we argue is not the case. Once the role of context is properly understood, this is not the result we get. Consider:

(1) If the speed of light hadn't been constant, then the physics books would not have been mistaken.

(1) has two readings. On the false reading, the physics books would have been the way they actually are. So, the closest worlds are worlds where the speed of light is not constant but where the physics books are just the way they actually are, and hence wrong. On the other reading, even if the speed of light hadn't been constant, the physicists would have been as intelligent as they actually are. So they wouldn't have had the evidence they actually have, and they wouldn't have written the books they actually wrote. So, (1) is true.

The problem, of course, is that a similarity metric that just prioritizes facts about the intelligence of physicists is compatible with the closest worlds being ones where the speed of light isn't constant but where everything else is as close as possible to the way it actually is. So physicists have the same intelligence and the same evidence as they actually do, the books are the way they actually are, and so on. To get the true reading of (1), the similarity metric must specify a large number of facts, including facts about the production of physics books.

But now consider (2) below. To evaluate it non-vacuously, we must bracket a number of these prioritized facts.

(2) If the speed of light hadn't been constant but the world had been just the way it actually is in nearly all other respects, then the physics books would not have been mistaken.

Since we have to bracket prioritized facts in order to evaluate (2) non-vacuously, we are in some sense changing the context when we evaluate it. A context in a Stalnakerian sense is most naturally defined partially in terms of the set of facts that the conversationalists hold fixed. One can, of course, insist that this is the wrong notion of context. But the dispute then is a dispute about what the correct notion of a context is. Why isn't moving in the space of ordered worlds and hence bracketing prioritized background facts just a way of changing the context? After all, to evaluate (2) non-vacuously we have to suppose (for the sake of evaluation) that these prioritized facts do not obtain. That is just a way of changing the context, given our preferred notion of context. But now, when we keep the context fixed, then strengthening etc turn out valid.

Lee claims that "Brogaard and Salerno’s mistake then, is to move from the fact that “the set of contextually determined background facts must remain fixed” (42) to the thought that on Lewis’s semantics these facts must hold at all the worlds relevant to assessing counterfactuals within that context."

However, this is not a mistake. Bracketing prioritized facts for the sake of evaluating a counterfactual non-vacuously just is a way of changing the context. Moving in the space of ordered worlds amounts to bracketing prioritized facts and hence amounts to changing the context, given our preferred notion of context. Note that we are not suggesting that there can't be an overall similarity metric. We are simply suggesting that when we move in the space of ordered worlds, the context may shift. So, our approach is not simply a strict conditionals approach.

Later in the paper Lee claims: "We could, however, consider Brogaard and Salerno not as drawing out a consequence of holding context fixed within Lewis’s semantics, but rather as rejecting Stalnaker-Lewis semantics."

This is a charitable (and somewhat correct) reading of our paper, at least if he takes us to be rejecting the idea that one can bracket prioritized facts in order to evaluate counterfactuals non-vacuously without changing the context at least temporarily.

Lee also says:

"the conclusion of (Wet Match) concerns what would have been the case, if, contrary to fact, the match had been soaked overnight. To hold fixed the fact
that it has not been soaked overnight, is to miss what it is that we are concerned with."

Not true. We allow for context-shifts in our semantics. So, we don't miss "what it is we are concerned with". The conclusion obviously triggers a shift of context.

Lee further claims:

"the following argument is valid for Brogaard and Salerno since one of the background
facts held fixed when considering the premiss, is that the coin landed heads.

If you had bet heads you would have won
Therefore, if the coin had come up tails, it would have come up heads and
you would have won

We do not reason like this and have no interest in counterfactuals assessed in this way."

Exactly. We do not reason in this way. But what this shows is that we don't keep the background fact that the coin landed heads fixed when we evaluate the conclusion. Of course, we don't. We allow context to shift. Lee's case is not a counterexample to our proposal.

Lee also holds that we mis-evaluate the following counterexample to MP:

If a Republican were to win, then if Reagan were not to win, Anderson would win.
A Republican will win.
So, if Reagan were not to win, Anderson would win.

He thinks that we mistakenly have Lewis assign the truth-value true to the first premise. But this is not a mistake. At the closest worlds at which a Republican wins and Reagan does not win, Anderson wins. So (1) is true. Of course, Lee might insist that we have to evaluate the first premise differently. He might insist that we have to go to the closest world where a Republican wins (the actual) and then to a world where Reagan doesn't win. Carter wins there (as he was second in polls though not republican). But that would defeat the purpose of a contextual semantics that is claimed to capture intuitive truth-values. Our semantics has the advantage over the standard one that it does not entail a rejection of MP.

In conclusion Lee says: "we have no interest in counterfactuals assessed a la Brogaard and Salerno".

As we explain in the paper and in an earlier comment over at Matters of Substance, epistemic contextualists seem to assume it. Moreover, a Stalnakerian notion of a context seems to push us in this direction, as I explained earlier in this post.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Metaphysics of Mind Graduate Conference

The program for next week's Metaphysics of Mind graduate conference here at University of Missouri, St. Louis is now complete:

Friday Night—March 6th

1) 5-6:30 PM SGA Chamber Room MSC, Terry Horgan (University of Arizona), “Updating the Agenda for the Metaphysics of Mind”

7 PM Dinner Catered by Chartwells, Venue TBD

Saturday—March 7th

9 AM Coffee and Bagles Clark Hall 209

1) 9:30-10:20 AM, Sara Bernstein (University of Arizona/MIT), “Overdetermination Problems”

Commentator: John Lee

2) 10:20-11:10 AM, Kevin Morris (Brown University), “Reductive Explanation in Two Models of Reduction”

Commentator: David Pruitt

3) 11:10-12 PM, Carolyn Suchy-Dicey (Boston University), "Epistemic Restraint: An Antidote to Zombie Poison"

Commentator: David Johnson

12-1 PM Lunch Catered by Chartwells

4) 1-1:50 PM, Joe Hedger (Arizona State University), “Is Brooks’s Model of Intelligence Scalable to the Level of Human Beings? Some Remarks about his Instrumental AI Approach and Ascription of Intelligence”

Commentator: Dane Muckler

5) 1:50-2:40 PM, Mihnea Capraru (Syracuse), “How to Check if We Have Free Will”

Commentator: Lisa Cagle

Break 2:40-3:00 PM

6) 3-3:50 PM, Markus Kneer (Institut Jean Nicod, Paris / Princeton University), “Imagining being Napoleon”

Commentator: John Fraiser

7) 3:50-4:40 PM, Liz Stillwaggon Swan (State University of New York at Buffalo), “A Structure and Process Account of Consciousness”

Commentator: David Redmond

Sunday—March 8th

10 AM Coffee and Bagels MSC 315

1) 10:30-11:20 AM Daniel Sportiello (Notre Dame), “Fundamental Confusion”

Commentator: John Fuqua

2) 11:20-12:10 PM, Collin Rice (University of Missouri), “Proxytypes, Compositionality, and Content”

Commentator: Jonathan Spelman

3) 12:10-1 PM, Isaac Wiegman (Washington University in St. Louis), “Representation and Explanation in Artificial Neural Networks”

Commentator: James Virtel

Inquiries regarding the conference may be sent to Nick Baima at

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Petition to the APA

Have you signed this yet? (HT: Leiter)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Relative Truth

I recently put together a special issue of Synthese on relative truth. It has just come out in print. Contributors include: David Capps, Andy Egan, Michael Glanzberg, Steven Hales, Max Kolbel, Peter Lasersohn, Michael Lynch, John MacFarlane, Daniel Massey, Sebastiano Moruzzi, Stephen Neale, Duncan Pritchard, Brian Weatherson and Crispin Wright.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Female speakers: a rarity

We all know about the male-dominated philosophy volumes, especially those in mainstream analytic philosophy. Often these volumes have no female contributors. Occasionally they have a token woman. When you point it out to the editors, they have plenty of excuses.

"I invited lots of women but they all said 'no'."
"Hardly any women are working in the area."
"I just asked the most prominent people in the field."
"It's the proceedings from a conference."
"I am just following the norm"

Legitimate reasons? In some cases perhaps. It could indeed be that the editors invited a handful of women who all said 'no', and it could be that hardly any women work in the relevant area. But how often does that happen? The prominent-people and conference excuses are just... well, plain silly. Might it not be that those invited to contribute to volumes on a regular basis have a better shot at becoming the most prominent people in the field? Or is it the other way around? And I can't help but wonder why female speakers weren't represented at the conference or workshop that preceded the volume. Is it because less than 10% females on the main program is the norm, even in areas where it shouldn't be difficult to find qualified female philosophers? Or is it because the qualified women in the area live too far away from the conference site? Or is it because the prominent male philosophers in the audience wouldn't be able to handle the tiny female voices? Naaah, it's probably just that "caring about the status of women in the profession is so twentieth-century" (HT: Feminist Philosophers).

Sunday, February 01, 2009

New Blog

It's Only A Theory is a new group blog that aims at providing a forum for people interested in general philosophy of science. The current contributors are: Marc Lange (UNC), Otavio Bueno (Miami), Chris Pincock (Purdue) and Gabriele Contessa. Should be interesting. Go check it out.