Pluralism takes all kinds 
A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk to the UNLV philosophy department. I extend a belated thanks to Greg for inviting me and to everyone else for vigorous discussion.

I presented on theory concept pluralism. There's a woefully old version of the paper here.

The gist of my argument is that pluralism about SPECIES concepts in philosophy of biology provides us with a model for pluralism about THEORY concepts. So it's an argument by analogy:
[T]he features that figure in the argument for species concept pluralism are present in the case of theory: There are several distinct THEORY concepts which are employed by practitioners in science studies and philosophy of science. Some of the concepts are inscrutable in important instances. Some of them depend on an arbitrary fineness of grain. Some overlook important temporal and contextual features. Ultimately, no concept applies usefully in all cases.
In another paper I'm working on with Christy Mag Uidhir, we argue that a similar analogy supports pluralism about ART concepts. I insist, however, that the argument won't establish pluralism about every philosophically interesting concept. It doesn't generalize into mad dog pluralism about everything. It won't yield crypto-omnivorous relativism. That would be a reductio of my argument; even if such an extreme position were correct, my little argument by analogy couldn't be enough to establish somethign so extreme.

Todd began the Q&A by suggesting a scenario which might motivate pluralism about FAIRNESS concepts. Karen extended this example in a way I found plausible. In some contexts we may be concerned about equity while in others we might be concerned with procedural impartiality. Our projects in particular situations may lead us to sometimes prefer one FAIRNESS concept over the other, while still keeping them both in our conceptual repertoire.

Even if this is taken as some motivation for fairness concept pluralism, the case is different than species, theory, and art in some significant respects. First, there is nothing conceptually impossible about applying just one FAIRNESS concept to every situation. It would just lead to unpleasant results. In contrast, it is not simply that biology would become a distasteful practice if we used just (for example) BIOLOGICAL SPECIES. There are some organisms to which the concept does not sensibly apply at all.

Bill, James, and others pressed the matter further. They thought my argument might be used to establish pluralism generally in ethics. I think the idea was to run a parallel argument for pluralism about the concept GOOD or the concept RIGHT.

Something funny happens if we try to extend the argument this far, however. In the case of SPECIES, different concepts are appropriate depending on the objects of enquiry (which organisms are in question) and the aims of enquiry (what we want to learn or explain). Biological enquiry itself does not say what questions we should ask or which enquiries are worthwhile. It can say which enquiries are important given our aims or interests, but it can't tell us what our interests should be. To take a specific example: Fruit flies and zebra fish are studied because they are useful as genetic models, but the fact that we do or should care about genetics is not a result of those studies.

Similarly for THEORY: Which concept is appropriate depends on which scientific episodes we are examining and what questions we mean to answer.

And for ART: Which concept is appropriate depends on the particular objects we are considering and on why we care. Someone interested in spiritual contemplation may use a different ART concept than someone interested in brokering art sales.

Even with FAIRNESS: Which concept is appropriate depends on the context in which decisions are being made and on our broader value commitments.

Of we course, we can ask whether it is best to engage in biological enquiry, where we should concentrate our attention in science studies, what role artifacts should play in our lives, and what our values ought to be. In answering questions like these, we appeal to a general conception of the good or the right.

If pluralism about concepts of goodness is supposed to be like the kind of pluralism I advocate, we would have different conceptions of GOOD that we would use as appropriate in different contexts and for different purposes. Yet what purposes should we have? Answering that requires considering what would be good, and so we would need to determine which GOOD is the right one to consider. Vicious circularity ensues.

Thus, it seems to me, there is an important disanalogy between the argument deployed for pluralism about GOOD and all of the other parallel arguments. The analogy is much weaker. This does mean that there still is some analogy, I guess. If you were inclined to be a goodness concept pluralist, then this would provide you with some additional reason for that view.

All I need to avoid the mad-dog-pluralism reductio, however, is to show that my argument by analogy would not establish pluralism about every concept there is. The strong disanalogies in the ethical case are sufficient to do so.*

I now think there is a more direct argument against the reductio: Pluralism about SPECIES means that there are several ways of specifying what a species is. The pluralist may say that 'species' is really just an imprecise way of gesturing at these different specifications. A concept like BIOLOGICAL SPECIES, one among the plurality of species concepts, must be more precise. It may still require context to become fully determinate, but it cannot split into several fundamentally distinct concepts the way SPECIES simpliciter does. If it did, a regress ensues and species concept pluralism dies the death of a thousand cuts. As such, species concept pluralism requires that there are concepts which we are not pluralist about in the way it recommends we be pluralist about SPECIES.

So any position established by analogy with species concept pluralism similarly requires that some concepts be more determinate than the one to which the position applies. SPECIES, THEORY, ART, and perhaps others-- but not everything.**


* I am honestly not sure what to say about the FAIRNESS case, but I do think this: The premises required for applying my argument also make fairness concept pluralism plausible. Either the premises hold or they don't. If so, then my argument would yield a plausible position. If not, then my argument would not yield the position. The reductio fails in either case.

** Of course, this does not show that we should be monists about the concept GOOD. The people advocating mad dog pluralism during the Q&A after my talk did not offer it as a reductio of my position. Rather, they seemed to think it would lead to a kind of moral anti-realism that they found appealing.

Thinking about it now, I don't thin that goodness concept pluralism would require moral anti-realism. In a sense, GE Moore was a pluralist about GOOD. He thought that moral good, truth, and beauty were irreducible and incommensurable values. Moore was not similarly a pluralist about the beautiful, however.

In recent work, Jerrold Levinson argues for pluralism about BEAUTY. He offers a whole roster of more specific concepts.

Although Moore and Levinson aim to establish pluralism by different arguments than mine, both cases nicely illustrate the inconsistency of mad-dog pluralism. In each case, the philosopher aims to replace one concept which has traditionally been thought of singular but mysterious. The replacements must themselves be less mysterious and so more determinate.

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What I'll say to the Russians 
Our department is in the middle of a two-day video conference with philosophers at Moscow State University. The whole thing is pretty freewheeling, with people presenting on the possibility of progress in philosophy and on what they think about the last several decades in their specialty.

I present tomorrow, with the rather grandiose aim of discussing the last fifty years in philosophy of science. I have only been attentive to philosophy of science for the last decade and a half, so I feel like some of this might be confabulation. My usual preference is to work from notes rather than to read a paper. As an aid to the translator, however, I've written up my remarks in advance. I'm posting them here, below the fold.
Read More...

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forall x feedback, gold edition 
Today I got the student comment forms from my teaching last Fall. Again I asked students about the textbook I wrote for intro logic.*

The raw data looks like this:

Did the textbook explain matters clearly?
  yes         69
meh 6
no 3

Did the textbook explain matters in sufficient depth?
  yes         67
meh 5
no 3

Did the book provide enough practice problems of varying kind and difficulty?
  yes         59
meh 8
no 5

5 students said that they couldn't say, because they really didn't use the book.

I've thrown out non-answers. 'Meh' indicates answers which are equivocal or guarded.

Some students found the textbook to be a substitute for lecture; a student can "use the text for classes missed & learn everything." For one, this made lecture entirely redundant: "I honestly found that there were a good amount of days I could skip, because all information was in the text." Others thought that the material could be "learned better in class." For at least one student, the lecture was essential: "It's all about the lectures. If I miss[ed] one I would have felt behind." This seems entirely natural to me, since some people are more careful readers than listeners and v.v.

15 students wished there were more solutions in the back of the book. Some insisted that every practice problem should have a solution in the back. That will not happen, because printed solutions can be used to short circuit the possibility of learning. More than one student has come into my office hours with no idea how to do the practice problems but having copied down all of the answers into their notebook. So perhaps I should add more practice problems altogether, along with more solutions.

Some fragments:

One student complained that the material was "arbitrary" and "hard to understand", but said that they'd never opened the textbook or visited the TAs office hours. Well, duh.

One student commented that the "Textbook was a 2D P.D. Magnus." I think that this was supposed to be a positive thing, but for me the idea falls flat.


* Results from earlier semesters are here and here

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There is no 'you' in 'Wikipedia' 
As the NY Times reports, the free-wheeling days of Wikipedia editing may be over. The crackdown follows a recent incident in which Wikipedia entries reported Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd were reported to be dead. As the Washington Post admits, the false claims only persisted for a few minutes. Nevertheless, the story is headlined "Kennedy, Byrd the Latest Victims of Wikipedia Errors", suggesting that the misreports somehow harmed or inconvenienced the two old and frail senators. Piffle, of course, and the Post story concludes by giving examples of traditional news media misreporting obituaries. [insert apt quote from Mark Twain]

This has led Wikipedia cofounder Jimbo Wales to call for changes in the way Wikipedia works. Wikipedia visitors who are not logged in as trusted users would no longer be able to change articles and have the revisions appear immediately. Instead, their changes would have to be approved by a trusted user before they would become part of the Wikipedia corpus.

It is unclear how much delay this would produce. Wales hopes it would not be more than a week. There is a tension here: If the restriction is only for some articles rather than others, then there will still be an evanescent flux of falsehoods in the rest of the Wikipedia. If the restriction is extended to all or most of the Wikipedia, then the delay will become intolerable.

Delay is also problematic because several users may change a page before any of the changes are accepted. If they are all adding the same information and making the same corrections, then some editor will need to decide which version to use. If they are making different changes in overlapping parts of an article, then some editor will have to fix the grammar and usage to make the changes fit together. In short: Jumbled nightmare.

In addition to adding delay, the process puts more power in the hands of approved Wikipedia users. Note that this is not simply the divide between registered users and anonymous users; the Ted Kennedy death reports were entered by registered user Gfdjklsdgiojksdkf. So the elite corps of trusted Wikipedia users will have responsibility for what appears in these shielded articles.

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Nozick's gedanken machine 
A propos of nothing, I've been thinking about Nozick's experience machine argument. In the SEP, Roger Crisp summarizes the argument in this way:
Imagine that I have a machine that I could plug you into for the rest of your life. This machine would give you experiences of whatever kind you thought most valuable or enjoyablewriting a great novel, bringing about world peace, attending an early Rolling Stones' gig. You would not know you were on the machine, and there is no worry about its breaking down or whatever. Would you plug in? Would it be wise, from the point of your own well-being, to do so? Robert Nozick thinks it would be a big mistake to plug in: "We want to do certain things ... we want to be a certain way ... plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality."
Crisp calls this a "weighty objection to hedonism of any kind." In context, it is clear that he takes it to be an important and decisive objection to hedonism.

When I first read Nozick as an undergrad, I was impressed by this argument. Nozick does not attribute the upshot of the argument to himself. He suggests that you, the reader, would not plug into the machine and that this is sufficient to defeat hedonism. This is a kind of rhetorical trick, though, because it is not obvious that we would not enter the machine.

I didn't notice this trick initially. I was discussing the argument with a non-philosopher friend who said she would certainly enter the machine. On reflection, I began to suspect that much of my disinclination to enter was due to worries about how it would work. We are told that the machine would provide us with whatever experience we would enjoy, but we know that technology has limitations and is prone to breakdown. I can easily imagine scenarios in which I get in the machine and it goes horribly wrong: A lightning strike zaps the machine and fries my brain. The mechanism damages my nervous system and ultimately turns me into a psychotic leper. Economic conditions require it to be unplugged in a couple of years, and I stumble out unable to cope with a world that has changed in my absence. And so on.

We can stipulate as part of the thought experiment that the machine is reliable, safe, and will continue to operate without interruption once I step inside. We can even stipulate that I know these things to be the case. But stipulating these things does not scrub my intuitions of such concerns. If I still feel disinclined to enter, my disinclination does not come with a ticket saying why I am disinclined. My suspicion of technology is part of the way that I think about machines and cannot be waved away so easily. And it would be unwise of me to alter my psychology so that I could it could. It is better for me to always distrust claims that a gizmo is "totally reliable" and "a sure thing", because commercials bombard me with such claims every day.

Nozick's objection that the machine merely gives us 'man-made reality' plays on similar worries. The natural world contains richness and depth that (I worry) would be left out of any virtual world. We can stipulate that the experience machine provides all the richness of the real world, but it is not clear that I can fully accept that stipulation.

At the time, I also thought that my disinclination resulted from worries about other people. My friends and family might be unhappy if I entered the machine, and if I stayed I would be able to make people on balance happier. We might stipulate that other people will all enter their own machines, but perhaps this strains the imagination too much. It suffices to note that this source of disinclination is an argument not against hedonism but against egoism. I am concerned for more than my own happiness, but that doesn't tell us whether the machine can provide happiness or not.

Crisp gives three examples of things I could do in the machine: writing a great novel, bringing about world peace, attending an early Rolling Stones' gig.

He insists that there is a difference between the experience of writing a great novel and actually writing a great novel, but this is ambiguous. He says, "the experience of really writing a great novel is quite different from that of apparently writing a great novel, even though 'from the inside' they may be indistinguishable." Certainly there is a difference between writing a novel which one merely thinks is great and writing a genuinely great novel, but writing a novel in the virtual environment provided by the machine would still count as writing a novel. If it were a great novel, then one would have written a great novel.

The example of attending an early Rolling Stones' gig is similarly problematic. If you have the experience of attending the gig, then it would count as an instance of the relevant performance type.

Of course, bringing about world peace in the machine would not be as good as really bringing about world peace. But this does not settle the question of whether world piece is desirable because of the terrible experiences that result from war or because of something else.

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