Common sense of the hokum variety 
Via Brian Leiter and Mohan Matthen, I came across Alvin Plantinga's review in the New Republic of Thomas Nagel's newbook. Nagel and Plantinga both deny that life on Earth could have developed naturally, without any explicit purpose. For Nagel, who is an atheist, purpose is supposed to be something intrinsic to nature. For Plantinga, who is a theist, purpose is impressed on nature by God.

So both reject the naturalistic, Darwinian account of how life developed. Plantinga quotes Nagel as complaining that it's "a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense." Further down, he writes, "Nagel supports the commonsense view that the probability of this happening in the time available is extremely low, and he believes that nothing like sufficient evidence to overturn this verdict has been produced." Since this latter quote uses Plagtinga's own words, we get them both endorsing the idea that the naturalistic account violates the common sense view of the world.

As some commenters demonstrate, it's easy to ridicule this talk of common sense. One reason that common sense philosophy collapsed, after all, is that 19th-century know-nothings claimed that all of their dogmas were common sense.

Common sense as originally articulated by Thomas Reid is substantially more subtle.* For Reid, common sense is about faculties of belief formation rather than about specific propositional beliefs. Reliance on our senses is common sense, which means that seeing is prima facie grounds for believing. It is impossible to get enquiry started at all without provisional trust in the operations of our senses, memory, and reason. That trust in the first place is a trust in the faculties rather than in any specific beliefs formed by them.

Note that common sense, understood in Reid's way, doesn't include any specific beliefs. So it doesn't include any specific beliefs about origins of life and the universe.

Yet, I concede, common sense quickly yields some specific judgments. When I see a cat on the mat, I do employ my faculty of perception and judge 'A cat is on the mat'. Yet it is unclear what faculty is supposed to license 'The development of life would be inexplicable without there being some purpose'. I do not look and see it, nor do I receive it from any of the faculties which I trust at the outset of enquiry.

So Nagel and Plantinga are just appealing to common sense in that horrible, know-nothing sense that sunk common sense philosophy.

Plantinga goes on to explicate Nagel's argument by what seems to me to be an equivocation between probability, conditional probability, and likelihood. Further on, though, he parts company with Nagel. Where Nagel wants there to be purposes in nature itself, Plantinga wants them to be put in by God.**

Plantinga's idea is that the existence of God makes life and universe rather more probable than anything else would. He writes, "Given theism, there is no surprise at all that there should be creatures like us who are capable of atomic physics, relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and the like." In a sense, this is simply false. Everyone in the early 20th-century, whether theist or not, found relativity and quantum mechanics to be surprising.

He can reply here by saying that the capability is unsurprising, even if the content itself was a surprise. Theism explains why we can know things, because it posits that God made us to be knowers. Yet, accepting that God gave us truth-apt cognitive faculties, He still gave us limited capacities. Although we can figure out quantum mechanics, there are more complicated things we can't figure out. Why should he not have made our limits different, so that quantum mechanics would be forever beyond our ken?

If we take that question seriously, then it might be surprising even for theism that we are capable of quantum mechanics. If we scoff at the question, then we should not pretend to assign objective prior probabilities to there being creatures just like us given that a god exists. Those probabilities could not be anything more than our own subjective bleatings.

As I've argued elsewhere, arbitrary priors are the opposite of what Reid would have considered common sense.* So, to sound the drum again, the common sense of Nagel and Plantinga is the know-nothing hokum variety.

* For more discussion of this point, see my paper on Reid.

** Regarding the explanation of life in the universe, Plantinga comments that "God himself is living." The theology-cum-biology perplexes me, because I don't see how this could possibly be true in any scientifically useful sense of living.

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Belated seventh blogiversary 
I missed noting the end of this blog's year seven, which occurred back on October 4. It has been my practice to mark the date by tallying up the number of entries and words added to the blog in the course of the year. By subtracting out the entries I've written in the past month and half, I divine that year seven saw 29 new entries and 10,828 total words to end with a total of 273 entries and 126,862 words. That makes it the least productive year of blogging to date. Year eight is already off to a good start, however, including this here bit of puffery.

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In which I talk myself up 
I was at the Philosophy of Science Association meeting last week. Good times. Edification. All that stuff. I won't try to estimate the schmoozing to learning ratio, but the tallies in both columns were considerable. I have now been in the profession long enough that the conference lets me catch up with friends who I haven't seen in years.

Even though my paper was about something else, I talked a bunch about natural kinds. My book is sufficiently new that the publisher did not have a copy of it yet for the book exhibit, so it came up naturally in conversations about what I've been working on. And I spoke with other people whose papers did touch on the topic.

Palgrave's webpage for my book has a link to download a "sample chapter", but that really just means the three-page Introduction. I've pasted in the contents of the Introduction below the fold, in case you'd rather read it here. The download also contains the complete table of contents and index, if you want a more telegraphic but complete summary.

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On the invisibility of women 
For a while now, I've been thinking about discussions of 'natural kinds' in the 19th century. One thing I discuss is a series of papers in Mind which discuss Mill's account of natural kinds. One of these papers is by M. H. Towry. There is a subsequent article by F. and C. L. Franklin of Baltimore, in which they respond to the argument made by "Mr. Towry".

I know that the latter authors were Fabian and Christine Ladd Franklin. She was a student of C.S. Peirce who worked primarily on various problems in logic.

I have not been able to make a positive identification of Towry, although there is circumstantial reason to think that it was Mary Helen Towry White. She wrote a diverse array of stuff over a period of decades. There is a book titled Clanship and the Clans in 1869, which one reference credits to "M. H. Towry (pseud. [i.e. Mary Helen White.])" There is an edited volume Spencer for Children and an adaptation of a French book Life Stories of Famous Children, both from the 1870s. The Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire has an article by "Miss M. H. Towry White, Author of 'Memoirs of the Whites of Wallingwells'."

Although I have e-mailed an antiquarian society and the editorial offices of Mind, I have been unable to confirm that "On the Doctrine of Natural Kinds" is by that very same M. H. Towry. For the purposes of my own writing, it does not matter too much. Towry's article is concise and clear. I can discuss its argument regardless of the author.

Yet it is a striking illustration of how women can easily be written out of history. The initials make it seem like any other Victorian philosopher. Even Franklin&Franklin, responding the Towry the following year, take it to be Mister Towry. I only know that one of the Franklins is a women because I know some backstory about her.

There is another reply to Towry by W. H. S. Monck. Google suggests that this might be William Henry Stanley Monck (1839-1915) who was a Professor of Moral Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin and an amateur astronomer. It was pretty easy to find out about him because he was an academic. Of course, only men were academics.

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Tautologists all agree 
Consider the sentence, "Tautologists all agree."*

Especially uttered in context, we can readily understand that tautologists are folks who announce tautologies. Tautologies are necessarily true, so people who know tautologies have matching beliefs. So tautologists all agree. QED

One might argue against this proof on any of several grounds.

One might object: Neologisms can't just be uttered in ways that give them precise meanings. The entirety of neologizing English literature, from William Shakespeare to Joss Whedon, stands as evidence against this. Neologisms can (at least sometimes) have meanings that are as precise as paleologisms.

One might instead object: Tautologists might announce different tautologies. For example, Timmy says "If p, then p" but Tammy says "All bachelors are unmarried". They don't disagree, but they don't explicitly agree either.

Here's another possible objection: Tautologists might disagree on matters besides the tautologies they utter. So they would disagree as speakers if not strictly qua tautologists.

Let's suppose that the objections can be answered and that the proof given above goes through. That would mean that "Tautologists all agree" is itself a tautology.

Yet "tautologist" is a neologism. Before the first time the sentence was uttered, the word was not explicitly part of anyone's vocabulary. Was the sentence already a tautology before that first utterance?

We might answer no to this question by distinguishing the language pre-utterance from the language post-utterance. The word is not part of English-before, and so the sentence is not a tautology in English-before. The word is a part of English-after, and the sentence is a tautology in that so-slightly different language. This would also allow us to avoid saying that introducing the neologism creates a new tautology. Instead, coining a word shifts from English-before to English-after, and the sentence had (in some logical sense) always been a tautology of the latter language.

We are still left with some staggering consequences, though. Not only is it the case that there is a countable infinity of tautologies you might utter using familiar vocabulary. You might introduce a neologism at any time, and so there are at least as many word-coining tautologies which you could bust out with at any moment.

* Credit for this goes to Cristyn, who said it in response to some tautology which I uttered. She was being snarky, though, because I had uttered the tautology for purposes of non-trivial conversational implicature. As one does.

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