Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Technical difficulties apparently, and LaTeX bonus

Blogger is keeps eating a long post I have on van Fraassen's view of explanation. I don't have the patience to mess with it any more tonight, so I wll simply point out that recently (since February 2007 I guess) a very easy installer for LaTeX has been available on Mac. MacTeX offers a painless installation of LaTeX, the TeXShop front end, and the Excalibur spell checker wrapped up in a 700 mb .dmg file. I recently put LaTeX on a friend's computer and walked them through using it, and it was the easiest installation of it I've done. Heads and shoulders above the old i-Installer way, although that was kind of neat in itself.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Scattered thoughts on a vague distinction in the philosophy of language

This may be quite naive and rambling, but I'll go ahead. There is a difference in views of language that I've been somewhat puzzled by for a while. One approach takes linguistics fairly seriously and focuses more speaker intuitions. These two parts may not be intimately related. Philosophers falling into this camp are, say, Jason Stanley and Francois Recanati. Another camp tends not to pay that much attention to linguistics. There is, maybe, a tendency to view language through the lens of first-order logic, broken into terms and predicates. Philosophers in this camp are, say, Sellars and Dummett. I think Davidson might be read as being on each side at different points in his writings. As it stands, I've drawn nothing resembling a clear line. This may even play out in different approaches to semantics. Why one might concentrate on, say, meaning in terms of reference or meaning in terms of inference. As an aside, I once asked one of my linguistics professors at Stanford what linguists thought something like conceptual role semantics. He said that they didn't really think about it because it was a different sort of project than what they were interested in. He pointed me to this little explanatory piece by Ned Block. That helped put things into perspective, but I digress... I almost want to say that the integration of philosophy of language into other areas of philosophy also cuts along these lines. However, I am fairly sure that is false and more a product of selective memory. People on both sides are interested in integrating philosophy of language into other areas, such as philosophy of mind or of action. In any case, I came across a footnote in van Fraassen's essay on Putnam's paradox which exemplifies one side (It is left as an exercise to the reader to guess which)(The context is a discussion of translation and knowledge of meaning):
"For the sake of example I am here pretending that Dutch and English are two separate languages in actu. I usually think of one's language as everything one has learned to speak, and of natural language as consisting in all the resources we have for speaking and writing."
This, by itself, probably does not force van Fraassen into one or the other grouping, although it seems to lend itself to fitting into one group rather than the other. This idea, it seems, lends itself to viewing language more expansively than usual for linguistic semantics. Interestingly, I think that Lewis in "Language and languages" could be on board with this completely even though he is someone I would usually situate in the first group. I must go ask some linguists what they think of this...

This was a little rambling, but, I am currently stuck on a paper idea. What better way to pass the time than ramble on about approaches to the philosophy of language? Probably doing those model theory proofs now that I think about it... But, I'm pretty sure people that would naturally place themselves in one or the other camp read this, so hopefully someone is interested.

Friday, November 23, 2007

On a distinction I don't quite get

Occasionally I see a distinction drawn in philosophical literature. I think it is usually drawn in terms of entities. The distinction is historical versus essence-bearing. The idea is that if something has an essence, then there is a clearly demarcated core of things to know about that entity. These things are objective, transcend paradigms, or are not dependent on any specific conceptual frames or theories. I think it usually goes along with this view that knowledge about the essences yields necessary truths about the thing and, possibly, that this knowledge can be gotten a priori. I'm not sure since I don't think I've seen this laid out and defended anywhere.

The contrast is entities that are historical. These things have no essences. Their properties are entirely contingent. Their properties are dependent on how they develop over time, a development which could have been otherwise. There is no necessity in their being so. Because of this, possibly, they are not as open to a priori investigation. Knowledge of their properties yields no necessary truths. Arthur Fine has one version of this view in his "Unnatural Attitudes": "But the description of science as an historical entity was intended precisely to undercut at least one version of that idea, the idea that science has an essence. ... If science is an historical entity, however, then no such grand enterprise should tempt us, for its essence or nature is just its contingent, historical existence."

I've seen versions of this distinction used by many philosophers. Ones that spring to mind are Brandom, Rorty, and Fine. I feel like there should be something along these lines in Marx, Nietzsche, Hegel, Quine, Davidson, McDowell, and Kripke, but no instances are forthcoming. [Edit: McDowell, Davidson, and Hegel probably shouldn't be in the list. Kripke is mainly there to endorse the essence side of the distinction. I 'm not really sure if he talks about the other side.] As I said above, I don't think I've ever seen an explicit laying out of this distinction and what it entails. I'm not even sure what sort of distinction it is. Is it a distinction of sorts of aims, looking for essences versus looking for historical developments? Is it a distinction among entities, the essence-haves and -have-nots?

At least at times it has a bit of an intuitive pull. There does seem to be some general distinction, however blurry, that it is rightly drawing. But, this is terribly hand-wavy. A more pointed question is: is the distinction rightly drawn in the exclusive terms I gave above? Is there a helpful sense in which we can understand historical entities as having essences of some sort (barring 'historical' as an essential feature,I suppose)? Are these two categories orthogonal ones? Getting clear on this would help illuminate the claims that people who use it make. For example, if they are orthogonal, then Fine would be wrong to say that viewing science as historical should tempt us away from viewing it as having an essence.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Non-philosophical content

I've heard that in the university in Goettingen, there is a room called Hilbertsraum, which is a play on Hilbert's room and Hilbert space. I think that is kind of clever.

In the Cathedral of Learning in PIttsburgh, most the philosophy seminars occur in the Wilfrid Sellars Seminar Room, which is named, *drum roll*, the Space of Reasons. I also think that is kind of clever.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Brandom versus Habermas

A few years ago there was an exchange between Habermas and Brandom about the status of facts and norms in Brandom's Making It Explicit. I have yet to finish either of their papers, but it looks like a pretty solid exchange. Grundlegung posted a link to what looks like a very good summary and explanation of the debate. Maybe this will help me to finish those papers...

In which I toot my own horn

I found out that I got a small grant to pursue a project on the relation between the philosophy of language and philosophy of science, concentrating on theory change and Mark Wilson's work in Wandering Significance. I'm supposed to write a paper or two over the course of the grant period, so I'll probably be putting some things of that sort up here over the course of the next several months. Which, if you don't get excited by the Brandom and Tractatus stuff that has been dominating lately, will serve as a nice change of pace.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Aristotle and indexicals

In the Topics, Aristotle describes accidents as "now belonging, now not belonging." This is an interesting thing to note since, at least how the translation renders it, it looks like it is part of one sentence. Clearly if you are saying this, it would be spread out over time and would be evaluated in slightly different contexts. The time parameter would have shifted. Considered as written and as a type, rather than a token, it seems reasonable to deny that there is a principled reason to shift the context. The whole thing would be evaluated relative to one context. In that case though what Aristotle says is false and can't be true. It would require something to be both P and not P.

I mention this because one of the features of Kaplan's setup for indexicals is that he evaluates types in context. This is because types, not being spread out in time, can be evaluated relative to one context. This lets us get at the logic of the terms rather than getting bogged down in details about tokenings. Aristotle's example seems to be one place where this supposed virtue breaks down. In order to understand it and properly evaluate it we must consider both the type and the tokenings as temporally spread out.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

And now for something completely different

This term I'm TAing for intro to ethics. For the last part of the course we are reading chunks of Bernard Williams's little book Morality. I was just reading through the preface, which, because unassigned, will likely go unread, and came across this hilarious quote: "This sad truth [that writers on moral philosophy either are hard to take seriously or refuse to write about anything important] is often brought forward as a particular charge against contemporary moral philosophy of the 'analytical' or 'linguistic' style: that it is peculiarly empty and boring. In one way, as a particular charge, that is unfair: most moral philosophy at most times has been empty and boring… Contemporary moral philosophy has found an original way of being boring, which is by not discussing moral issues at all."
Granted, the particular sort of moral philosophy he is talking about has come and gone. However, it is still about as amusing as Anscombe's long list of ad hominems in her essay "Modern Moral Philosophy".

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Kremer's point on the Tractatus

I'm participating in a TLP reading group this term. We're going to make it through the end of the 3's by winter break. One point that I've made several times to individuals, and which came up again in discussion on Friday, is something that I thought would be worth putting online. It is originally due to Michael Kremer, in his excellent "Mathematics and Meaning in the Tractatus." Many people think that in TLP, there is a very strict two part distinction: sentences have sense while names have meaning (Bedeutung). Names have no sense; they just mean the objects to which they refer. The objects are the meaning of the names. This is a pretty natural reading to get out of the 3's. However, sentences also have meaning. Wittgenstein uses "meaning" in two ways throughout TLP. Sometimes he means the stricter sense to characterize the relation between names and objects, and sometimes he uses it in a more general way to talk about whatever significance linguistic units have. The textual evidence for this comes from 4.4241: "When I use two signs with one and the same meaning, I express this by putting the sign '=' between them. So 'a = b' means that the sign 'b' can be substituted for the sign 'a'." The signs used there are the ones normally used as names, lower case letters from the early part of the alphabet. However, combine this with 5.254: "An operation can vanish (e.g. negation in '∼∼p' : ∼∼p = p)." We clearly have propositional signs flanking the '='. This means the two signs have the same meaning. However, they aren't names. Therefore, Wittgenstein has two senses of meaning in place in TLP. This is a fairly straightforward point but it is missed by a lot of people.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Proofs and provability

Earlier today I had a thought about proof theory. Proof theory is, roughly, a formal investigation of the properties of proof systems. (I sort of dig proof theory.) Provability logic is an interpretation of modal logic. It has its own axiom set distinct from S5 and it was, I believe, originated by Goedel and greatly elaborated by Los and Boolos. It assigns the interpretation "is provable" to the box instead of the normal alethic interpretation. So, '[]p' is read as 'p is provable'. Now, the question I have is: what is the relation between proof theory and provability logic? The contexts in which I've seen provability logic didn't connect it to proof theory and those in which I've studied proof theory didn't connect to provability logic. It seems like a big flaw for at least one of the two if there is no connection. Glancing at the SEP reveals that there is at least one article on this topic: Beklemishev, L.D., “Parameter-free Induction and Provably Total Computable Functions,” Theoretical Computer Science, Vol. 224 (1999): 13-33. I haven't tracked this down yet, but I'm going to venture a guess that it isn't too philosophical. (Of course, I could be wildly wrong on this count.) In any case, at the moment I'm not sure what the relationship between provability logic and proof theory is and I have no idea what it should be.

Friday, November 02, 2007

These people are not me

This is kind of funny. If you do a Google image search on my name in quotes(*cough*vanity search*cough cough*), no pictures of me come up. However, pictures of the following do come up: Aidan, Nate, Nate's cat, Bertrand Russell, Goedel, Robbie Williams, and John Perry on the cover of the collection in his honor Situating Semantics. No pictures of me though.

[Edit: As Kenny points out, if you turn off moderate safe search, then you'll get a picture from a few years ago of me with my friend Megan in Coupa Cafe in Palo Alto, CA. You will also get a picture of Trogdor.]

Thursday, November 01, 2007

What's so great about the observable?

This is part of a paper I wrote that I liked. I'd prefer to break it up with most of the post under a fold, but I can't get that functionality to work. If you have any advice, apart from Blogger's help site, let me know and I'll try to apply it here.

In his "Ontological Status of Observables," Paul Churchland charges van Fraassen with being selectively skeptical about the unobservable. He draws our attention to a three-part distinction: (1) the observed, (2) the unobserved but observable, and (3) the unobservable. It would be crazy to only believe in (1), the actually observed things. Churchland thinks van Fraassen does not give a principled reason why his constructive empiricism says to believe in (1) and (2) but not (3). Without the principled distinction van Fraassen's position is unstable since his reasons for not believing in (3) seem to apply also to (2). van Fraassen's view either ends up coinciding with the crazy view or it looks like a form of realism. Churchland's challenge can be posed as: what is the principled reason for believing in (2) but not (3)?
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To press his point, Churchland lists several factors which could contribute to something not being observed. These include: spatiotemporal position, spatial dimension, duration, energy, wavelength, and mass. If any but the first are the reason for being unobserved, then the processes or entities in question will be neither observed nor observable. If something has too great a spatial or temporal distance from us, then it will likewise be unobserved, but it will be observable. Churchland thinks there are practical reasons for privileging spatial and temporal location while labeling things that fail the requirements of the rest of the list "unobservable." He thinks this is due to greater control over our location rather than our sensory make-up. However, practical reasons, he thinks, are not enough to dictate what we should believe in. Churchland's challenge can also be put like this: what principled reasons are there for privileging, with respect to what we should believe in, the first item on the list over the others? Churchland thinks that anything that counts against the other items on the list will count against spatial and temporal distance. Not believing in something due to a failure of anything on the list would be the ludicrous view endorsing only the observed whereas admitting things regardless of which items of the list were violated would be endorsing the unobservable, a form of realism. Van Fraassen has a response to this and the previous form of Churchland's challenge, but before getting to the reply, I will need to present some of van Fraassen's view and make some comments on it.

There are two important things I want to note about Churchland's challenge. The first thing is that the observable/unobservable distinction is not the same as the observable/theoretical distinction. As van Fraassen points out, there are many theoretical entities that are observable and must be described in theoretical terms, like DVD players. The second thing is that the observable/unobservable distinction is an empirical one, the point to which will turn next.

The observable is that which we, some portion of the epistemic community we belong to, can observe while the unobservable is that which we cannot observe, so they are modal notions. van Fraassen sees science as drawing this line of possibility, not philosophy. What we can observe is a matter of the physics and biology involved in being human. For example, there is a fairly constrained spectrum of light that human eyes can pick up and a fairly limited range of sizes that human eyes can see. Humans are physical systems that act as a measuring device. The capabilities of humans as measuring devices will be determined by physics and the other sciences as one sort of measuring device among others. The limits of these devices are to be drawn through scientific investigation and not philosophical speculation and argumentation. Since the line is an empirical matter and not a philosophical one, it is subject to change. Our epistemic community could change, either by welcoming in other species or through the processes of evolution changing some or all of our epistemic constraints. If the standards of observability change, then then accepting a theory as empirically adequate would bring correspondingly different commitments with it.

Van Fraassen gives some examples to illustrate the observable/unobservable distinction. One is the moons of Jupiter, which are observable both with a telescope and without one. A mu-meson in a cloud chamber is unobservable although it is detected by means of the cloud chamber. Observation must be unaided by an apparatus while detection allows the use of one. This is one of the places that Churchland's challenge will be pressed later: if humans are measuring devices, then it seems that we should allow that these measuring devices may be combined with other measuring devices to create a more complex system capable of more measurements.

Churchland's challenge, in its second form, can be met by using some of van Fraassen's distinctions laid out above. To see why spatial and temporal location have a privileged status, we should turn again to van Fraassen's description of humans as measuring devices. Measuring devices will function the same if they are moved in space or in time, that is, their measuring mechanisms will be unaffected. It is assumed here that the idea of measuring mechanism is intuitive and unproblematic. A more thorough response would have to explain this notion in greater detail. A microscope in Pittsburgh will work the same in Buenos Aires and on the moon. Similarly, a voltmeter working yesterday will work also today and in the year 2046. Assuming that the structure of space and time is such that it allows for these sorts of translations of measuring devices without altering their basic measuring mechanisms, the privileging of space and time, in the way Churchland notes, makes sense. A human could be shifted in space or time without the physics and biology of her measuring capacities being affected. If all that separates an observer from a potentially observed event or entity is a spatial or temporal distance, then, using the assumption, the observer could be shifted to a spatiotemporal location that allows her to observe the relevant event or entity.

This response will not work for the other things in Churchland's list. Changing the wavelength observable by the human eye is changing the biology and physics of the measuring device. It is, in effect, made into a different sort of device. Shrinking a human to a size comparable to that of, say, an electron would drastically change at least the biology involved in observation. For example, the biological mechanisms involved in visual perception would have to change to accommodate the comparatively large size of photons at that scale (if perception of that sort is even possible on that scale).

The above considerations lead to the response on van Fraassen's part that it isn't that space and time have a privileged position because we have more control over them, rather it is because we can change along those dimensions without changing the sort of measuring mechanisms we are, biologically and physically. Churchland's example of the fir trees that make observations illustrates this point. While the trees themselves are not capable of locomotion, moving them in space and time wouldn't change the biology and physics of their observational mechanisms. If this line of thought is correct, what is relevant isn't that we can control certain sorts of variation but that certain sorts of variation don't result in altering the sort of measuring device we are.

This line of response would likely not satisfy Churchland although it does provide an answer about why van Fraassen thinks we should believe in the unobserved observables and what is distinctive about the observable. We should believe in more than just the observed because the unobserved observables are those things that we could possibly observe if we had been shifted along dimensions that don't affect how we as devices make our measurements. The unobservables are what we could not observe without changing the sort of measuring devices we are. One line that Churchland should press in response is what makes our current biological and physical mechanisms so special, since, viewed simply as measuring devices, there would not be anything suspect about combining one device with another, e.g. a human with a microscope. This would make van Fraassen's constructive empiricism look like realism.

Unfortunately, van Fraassen doesn't say much positive about this. What is special about our biological and physical mechanisms seems to be that they are ours, and not any other feature. What counts as evidence for us will be determined by these mechanisms. They can change, as mentioned above, but this seems to be fairly restricted. There does seem to be a way to rule out the measuring device composed of a human plus a microscope. First, let us assume that that the microscope uses different physics than our eyes, say, by interacting with light differently. Suppose the former uses diffraction alone while the latter uses refraction alone. The combination of the two requires a different physical mechanism than the eye alone. Further, let us assume that a magnifying glass uses just refraction and allows us to see things that are impossible to see with the naked eye. The combination of an eye with a magnifying glass would result in legitimate observations, as there is no modification to the physical mechanisms involved; it is all refraction. It is unclear whether van Fraassen would agree, but I don't see a way for him to consistently deny this and maintain a principled distinction in the face of Churchland's criticisms.

Grrr argh!

I just spent the last 30 minutes or so trying to follow the directions on Blogger's help page about getting partial posts or folds activated. I followed the directions they gave with weird results. For some reason adding code to the template that doesn't involve changing the font resulted in a page with a different font size. To make this worse, the fold capability doesn't seem to work. I was hoping to post a longer thing I wrote on van Fraassen on observation, but I really don't want to if I can't break it up with a fold. Is it really this hard to get this simple functionality?

[Edit: Hat tip to Daniel for the help. I think it is kind of silly that this functionality requires the user to go in and modify their template code rather than having a built in widget or something to take care of it automatically.]