In the kingdom of the abstruse 
I am teaching a course in metaphysics this semester. After starting with 'On What There Is', we've been working through The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics. I used a book from the same series in my epistemology class a couple of years ago. They strike a nice balance between including contemporary scholarship and addressing longstanding issues in the field, and they're at about the right level for these advanced-undergrad/intro-grad courses.

Naturally, we spent some time on David Lewis' view that possible worlds are concrete objects. After the first day we spend discussing it, I surveyed student responses to the view. Given three choices, these were the results:
10 at least somewhat plausible
6 not sure
2 utterly untenable
I was gratified at their open-mindedness, although some of the reception was probably due to the fact that I'd spent the last hour answering their puzzled questions about the view.

And it's no surprise that they would have questions. It is an abstruse and kooky view. Nevertheless, metaphysics is the stronghold of abstruse and kooky in philosophy - which is itself already the kingdom of the abstruse. The dictionary I have close to hand gives 'an abstruse philosophical inquiry' as the specimen phrase for 'abstruse.' So kookiness couldn't itself be an objection -

But, lo! It is.

A standard reply to Lewis' view is the incredulous stare. Ted Sider writes
It is an interesting question why most philosophers so vehemently reject Lewisian worlds.... Perhaps I speak for the majority when I say that I do not really know why I find the incredulous stare compelling; I only know that I do.[194]

When we discussed the incredulous stare, several students asked how it's even an argument. The answer, of course, is that it's not. It is an objection by ridicule rather than by argument.*

Where Sider talks about the view of "the majority", Thomas Crisp puts matters in stronger terms. He dismisses without argument "that brand of possible world realism peculiar to Lewis" [240].**

One reason that I'm teaching metaphysics is for the chance to think more about these issues. I have never actually taken a course in analytic metaphysics; everything I know has been picked up en passant. Nevertheless, I have always found Lewis' view appealing. Now I've talked myself into believing it.

So, as I mentioned to my students, Crisp's descriptor should at least be ammended to include me.


* Thomas Reid thought of our God-given capacity for ridicule as the natural counterpart to reason. Where appropriate, we should make arguments. But there are other times where we should just respond to a view with ridicule. There may be something to this, but it was not one of Reid's better ideas.
** I read this as meaning that no one but Lewis holds the view. If Crisp didn't mean to say that, then he could have just called it "Lewis' brand of possible world realism."

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The skinny on the brief 
A paper is either good or it is not. A good short paper is better than a good long one, because it gets right to the good stuff with hemming and hawing; if Gettier had buried his examples deep in some other discussion, the problem might not have been named after him. A bad short paper is better than a bad long one, because it wastes less of the readers' time. So short papers are better than longer ones. QED

This is specious, of course, because the length of a paper is not independent of its quality. Carefully and convincingly explaining something takes time. Nevertheless, it is part of my philosophical self-conception that I write short papers.

A couple of years ago, I put this to the test by tabulating word counts for my published papers. Today I updated the list. Again, I give it the illusion of technical precision by abbreviating article titles and writing word lengths in units of 1000 words. The ones marked with *s are co-authored and, as one would expect, are among the longest. Lines in italics are papers since the last time I did this.

8.2 Reid's defense... (2008)
8.0 On trusting... (2009)
7.8 Realist ennui...* (2005)
6.9 The Identical Rivals...* (forthcoming)
6.9 Is there an elephant...* (2007)
6.5 Reckoning the shape... (2005)
5.9 Distributed cognition... (2007)
5.5 Demonstrative induction... (2008)
5.1 Williamson on knowledge...* (2003)
4.6 Background theories... (2005)
4.4 Peirce... (2005)
4.2 The price of insisting... (2004)
3.9 Success, truth... (2003)
3.3 Un... Identical Rivals (2003)
2.9 Mag Uidhir... (2008)
2.7 Whats new... (2006)
2.6 Hormone research... (2005)
1.7 Reid's dilemma... (2004)
1.3 Early response... (2008)

Although some of my recent papers are among my longest, others are among my shortest. My self-conception survives with only a little bit of rationalization and denial.

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Brown on me on d-cog 
Matthew Brown has a forthcoming paper on science as distributed cognition (d-cog). He gives a generous amount of attention to my discussion of the issue.

In my paper, I characterize d-cog as meaning that a cognitive task is implemented by a process which is not contained inside one thinker's epidermis. As Matt notes, I'm relying here on the task/process distinction and also on an unanalyzed sense of what it is to be a cognitive task. I do this because it lets me give a concise definition of d-cog. The downside of this definition is that giving a d-cog analysis of anything requires specifying its task, and it is not always clear how to specify the task of large-scale scientific practice.

Matt suggests that we might do better to consider a three-fold distinction between operations, actions, and activities. Operations are the automatic, unconscious things we do in performing an action. Actions are short-term, conscious, goal-directed processes. Activities are broader complexes which develop over time.

To apply the distinction to one of my examples: A carpenter might perform the action of cleaning and calibrating a machine. The particular way that the carpenter does this will involve many operations. (The boundary is somewhat fuzzy. If the carpenter does the same action every night for years, then maybe it's just an operation.) The goings-on of the carpentry shop altogether are an activity. The shop's operations might be motivated by the love of carpentry, the desire to make a profit, the desire to do something useful, &c. - and these motivations may shift and change over time.

Matt's point is that the actions and operations have well-defined tasks, and so may be analyzed in terms of the task/process distinction. The activity does not have a well-defined task, and so can't be. My definition of d-cog precludes the activity's being d-cog, and so my definition is inadequate.

He concludes:
So, is science a distributed cognitive system? ... Magnus has challenged it on the basis of whether there is a particular task that science carries out. But what is a cognitive system anyhow, even in the traditional sense of "cognitive system?" This shouldn't stand or fall on the details of a certain framework of cognitive analysis. After all, presumably, I am some kind of cognitive system, even though I am not built to carry out one specific and well-bounded task, even though my cognitive activities ... aren't always as well-bounded as certain cognitive theories might presuppose.
I am not entirely sure what to say, but here is what I'm tempted to say:

Most systems do many different actions. I have no objection to calling the aggregate of actions an activity, but I don't think the broader activity will clearly be cognitive or non-cognitive. The goings-on of the carpentry shop will include some cognitive processes, but they will also include some clearly non-cognitive ones like actually sawing through a board. The goings-on of a human body include cognitive processes like talking and non-cognitive ones like digestion.

I don't have an analysis of what it is to be cognitive. Nevertheless, I think we can recognize some tasks as cognitive (like addition) and others not (like breaking down complex carbohydrates). So a specific action or operation is cognitive if it carries out a cognitive task. A system is cognitive if it involves some cognitive actions or operations.

Matt is a cognitive system because some of his processes execute cognitive tasks (to put the point in my preferred idiom) and because the activity of his life involves actions and operations that are cognitive (to put it in his).This is a pretty thin definition, and it's compatible with my insistence that d-cog can only be made precise in terms of the task/process distinction.

Of course, his paper ends with a suggestion rather than a knockdown argument. He points to rather than elaborates a different sense of d-cog. If it can be worked out and can usefully direct work in science studies, then that would beat the logic-chopping I've done here. We would agree, I think, that the proof will be in the doing.

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Happy fourth blogiversary! 
Thus concludes year four of the blog. The statistics stand at 171 entries using 83,750 words. That's 34 entries and 24,882 words accumulated in the past year. This reverses the year-over-year trend of decreasing blogging.

Admittedly, a great many of the words were William Leue's history of the UAlbany philosophy department. Perhaps I should root around in the storage room some more, in hopes of finding extra content for the coming year. Perhaps invoices for office supplies and photographs of people whom nobody remembers?

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Hectic days make light blogging 
When I have teach logic to one or two hundred students, the class is in one the university's lecture centers. All the LCs have digital projectors, so I can put up tables and charts as needed. Mostly I work through examples which I adapt on the fly, however, so I use the board.

The old lecture centers, which I have used in the past, have actual chalkboards. Admittedly, the fluorescent strip lights over the chalkboards do not all work. Some have graffiti recording the date many years ago when they broke down: no mere dead bulb, but bent and twisted fixtures.

This semester, I'm in a lecture center with new whiteboards and strip lights. The functioning lights make it feel less like a post-apocalyptic movie from the 70s, but I hate the whiteboards. To be precise, I hate whiteboard markers. There is no way to tell by looking at one whether it will write well enough to be seen at the back of the room. It is not enough to test it as I leave the office, either, because a marker that is just fine now may go all ghostly after a few lines of scribbling.

Yesterday, both of the markers I brought went wispy. So I sent my TA back to department to fetch more and muddled along until he got back. He handed me two black markers. One was a whiteboard marker, which got me through the rest of the hour. The other was a permanent marker that had been in the drawer of office supplies. He was in a hurry and grabbed the markers that he could find, and luckily I noticed - but that could have gone horribly wrong. My examples are not so witty that I want them to be tattooed on the board for the weeks it woudl take for someone to come in with marker solvent.

So I have a strong preference for the old lecture centers, with their dysfunctional lights and their chalkboards. There is a wonderful practicality about chalk. I can grab a few pieces on my way to lecture and be sure that they'll write for the whole class period. And each piece of chalk fails gracefully - rather than continuing to make spectral marks long after it's effectively dead, a nub of chalk will produce readable white lines until it is too short to hold.

Some people complain about chalk dust, which admittedly gets all over the place. I get it on my hands over the course of lecture, and from my hands it finds its way to my shirt and pants - but it washes off easily. Although whiteboard markers don't always end up on my hands and clothes, when they do it's a bad scene.

And whiteboard markers use up ink and solvent, leaving behind their plastic carcasses. So chalk is more eco-friendly. Even the boards are green.*

This all makes me feel like a curmudgeon. Should I have waited until tenure before getting so crotchety?


* This is a joke, but I suspect that chalk is less resource intensive. If you actually know about this, say something in the comments.

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