Defer madness 
I wrote most of this entry a couple of weeks ago, after Brian Weatherson pointed to the article in question. Something else came up, so I saved it and moved on. Today I went back, cleaned it up, and posted it.

In a recent paper in Analysis [July 2006, 179-187], Philip Pettit considers the question of whether or not one should acquiesce to the opinion of the majority. He considers three cases, but two are sufficient for the points below.

Case A: Joe is one of many witnesses to an auto accident.* When he saw it, he thought the driver ran a red light. Many other witnesses say that the light was green. Should Joe defer to the majority of reports and conclude that the light was indeed green?

Case B: Joe believes that intelligent design is the best explanation for the existence of order in the universe. The majority of people say otherwise. Should Joe defer to the majority and conclude that intelligent design is hokum?

Pettit suggests that our answer is 'yes' in Case A, but 'no' in Case B. His paper aims to explain and justify the asymmetry.

In a subsequent section, Petit offers a schematic situation. Paraphrasing a bit:
Joe is one of many people who face a given question. Joe and the rest are "equally intelligent, equally informed and equally impartial." Joe disagrees with the answer given by most of the others. Joe knows all of this to be true.
Now, should Joe change his opinion?

Pettit offers the obvious argument for the 'yes' answer: If each person has some independent probability (greater than 1/2) of getting the right answer, then one would be more likely to get the right answer by trusting the majority than the minority. In the limit of large population, probability that the majority will get the right answer approaches one.

This argument gives a 'yes' answer to any instances of the schematic situation. Rather than rebut it, Pettit looks elsewhere for an asymmetry. The difference between Case A and Case B, he suggests, is that the belief that the light was green was closer to the periphery of Joe's web of belief than the belief in intelligent design. Because the latter belief is deeply embedded in his other beliefs, Joe would have to decide if and how to update his other beliefs after deferring to the majority opinion.

Pettit surveys various ways that Joe might try to update his beliefs. If Joe accepts the majority opinion about several questions all at once, then he might end up with inconsistent beliefs. If Joe accepts the majority opinion about one matter, lets that effect his degree of belief, considers the majority opinion regarding a second question, and so on, then the outcome will depend on which question Joe considers first. Since possible inconsistency and path-dependency are to be avoided, Pettit concludes, we should say 'no' in cases where the beliefs are deeply embedded.

Pettit's arguments for inconsistency or path-dependence if Joe defers proceed simply in terms of Joe's beliefs about p, q, and p&q. As such, I suspect that the arguments do not really discriminate between core and peripheral beliefs. Peripheral beliefs can still enter into conjunctions. Admittedly, this suspicion is not an argument; but it does suggest that embeddedness can't explain the asymmetry between Cases A and B.

One real distinction between Case A from Case B is much simpler: Case B is not plausibly an instance of Pettit's general schema, and so the initial argument for a 'yes' answer does not apply. We know that debates about intelligent design do not involve people who are "equally intelligent, equally informed and equally impartial." Both sides would agree on this, although for different reasons; believers in science see the ID crowd as creationist yahoos, and the yahoos portray us as being in the grip of a priori naturalism. Regardless of whatever might be stipulated about Joe and his interlocutors, our background knowledge shapes our intuitions about Case B.

Moreover, path dependence can result if Joe defers in Case A. Suppose there are a dozen witnesses who are evenly divided as to whether the light was red or green. Three of them compare notes before being questioned. Merely as a matter of chance, one of these three will be in the minority. Since the perceptual belief is far from the center of her web, she defers to the other two. Things continue until Joe has a chance to compare notes with his fellow witnesses. By that time, a majority favors one view or the other. This is not quite the same path dependence that worries Pettit; it is not relative to Joe's personal history, but relative to the history of the community. Nevertheless, it is enough to discredit the strategy of deference even for beliefs that are not deeply embedded.

This might seem to be an argument for 'no' in Case A, which would be in tension with the general argument for 'yes' that Pettit begins with. I think that this is just a result of the way the problem is represented. Before Joe discusses the accident with others, he believes that it looked to him that the light was red. Whether he defers to them or not, he should not change his belief about that. Rather, he might change his belief about whether the light was red. Similarly, if he listens to other witness' description of the accident, he will not defer on the basis of their beliefs that the light was green. Rather, he is interested in their reports about whether it looked to them as if the light was red. With this distinction in mind, the cascade to agreement would not occur.

Perhaps there is no such distinction in Case B. For non-perceptual beliefs, one might say, there is no clear distinction between saying how it seemed and judging how it was.** Of course, perceptual beliefs are less embedded in the web of belief. So this would just be Pettit's distinction again.

* He puts the scenarios in the second person, but I have shifted to the third person Joe. It would be presumptuous to stipulate your opinions about intelligent design in Case B.

** I have phrased this as a hypothetical because I am dubious of it. Even if detachment is permitted for some beliefs, it seems like scientific controversies require remembering which evidence one took to be persuasive. As such, Joe should distinguish between having believed a theory on the basis of some evidence and later disbelieving it because his clever friends do. I can distinguish between my sense of a scientific theory based on my (meager) understanding of the evidence and my sense based on what competent scientists tell me; I have beliefs about both, but if asked for a flat-footed judgment about the theory I would probably defer and give the latter.

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Wee-key-pedia guilt 
I have been working on a draft of 'Epistemology and the Wikipedia', a paper which I am going to present next month at the NA-CAP conference. In researching the paper, I have occasionally been struck by an interesting phenomenon. Let's call it Wikipedia Guilt.

The premise of the Wikipedia is that the community will extend and correct it. This is underscored by the rhetoric of Wikipedia's champions. "If you don't like an entry," they say, "write a better one." When I encounter an entry that is shot through with errors, I could do something about it. Often, I do not because-- although I can recognize an article as bunkum-- I lack expertise to replace it with anything authoritative. Yet in researching the paper, I have not even made changes to the entries on philosophical topics that I know a lot about. Although I can rationalize this as critical distance, complaining about solecisms is also a variety of Bad Faith: The entries are hokum partly because I tolerate their persisting as hokum.

To be frank, I try to avoid the Wikipedia when I am not wearing my critical epistemology hat. Nevertheless, I recently succumbed to pangs Wikipedia Guilt and rewrote an entry. This is how it happened:

Cristyn and I were discussing the phrase church key. To me, the canonical church key is made from a single piece of metal with a can punch on one end and a bottle opener on the other. Cristyn was unsure why such a gizmo should be called a church key, except derivatively from earlier gizmos that had looked more like keys.

My first stop for etymology is always the OED, but it just defines 'church-key' as 'the key of the church-door.' No help. On to the web.

Among other pages, my search turned up the Wikipedia entry. This is what it said:
In Medieval Europe, Monks and Nobility were the only brewers. Lagering Cellars in the Monasteries were locked, as the Monks guarded the secrets to their craft. The monks carried keys to these lagering cellars on their cinch - or belts. It was this key from which the "Church Key" opener gets its name.
: Source: Anheuser-Busch Knowledge Base; Internal Dbase
This is a nice story, with an ersatz citation to give it some gravitas. It is almost certainly apocryphal, however, even if the citation is legitimate. The History of the entry revealed that it had been written recently, completely overwriting a more modest entry that merely described what church keys are. This bit of verbal flotsam does not even bother with description; it is all about the bogus etymology.

Feeling a twinge of guilt, I wrote a new entry. Because, you know, I am now an authority on this kind of crap.

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forall x, truth and satisfaction 
Aaron Schiller used forall x for a course he taught in the Spring. A few weeks ago, I had coffee with him and discussed it. He pointed to two weak spots in the chapter on formal semantics, and also relayed his students' desire for more solved problems in the proofs chapter.

These comments jibed with my experience, so I made some changes to the book. I rewrote the section on reasoning about all possible models, breaking it into two parts. I also rewrote the section on truth in QL and the definition of satisfaction. I added two problem sets with solutions to the proofs chapter.

The new version (1.2) is now on-line in several formats. This is the version I will be teaching with in the Fall.

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Any publication you can walk away from is a good publication 
As I have mentioned before, I had a summer job in graduate school working with Mike Kalichman on The Responsible Conduct of Research website. After I left, I was credited as a coauthor.

Having just googled my own name, I notice that the whole thing is being reprinted as a serial in the newsletter of the Program in Research Integrity Education at the University of Arizona. The newsletter is subtitled "A Federally Mandated Compliance Education Program," which makes me wonder if anyone actually reads it. You know, as opposed to keeping it around as a kind of federally-mandated talisman.

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Dear Jay, more about natural kinds 
Jay Odenbaugh wrote a provocative reply to my last post on realism. I was going to leave a short reply in the comments, but it ran long.

Reply to Jay

As I understand Jay's reply, LIZ (lizard front ends) might be a legitimate kind. Yet Jay wants to resist accepting any artibrary set as a kind; he gives the example of the members of the set {Jay's nose, Michael Keaton, Eiffel Tower}. Call this would-be-kind jayskind. He suggests two criteria that might be used to bar such a monster.

(1) Non-circularity

jayskind is not a kind, because the feature that distinguishes members of the set is just that something be a member of the given set.

Yet the items in the things might also be described as things featured in Jay's example; so he adds:

(2) Mind-independence

jayskind is not a kind, because the fact that the members figure in an example is just the result of his deciding that they should.

I do not think mind-independence can be settled so easily. Frog food is a natural kind because it is picked out from the environment by frogs. Although it is a frog-dependent kind, it counts as a natural kind in biological study of frogs. Thorough-going naturalism allows for a scientific study of philosophers. Although jayskind isn't an especially important kind, it is only Jay-dependent in the way that frog food is frog-dependent. Now that he has given it as an example, he cannot change what counts as a member of that set just by thinking a different thought about it.

Jay and I began discussing these issues at the last PSA, and we had the good fortune of having Dick Boyd join the conversation; the frog food example is Boyd's. If I recall Boyd's position correctly, he avoids counting collections like jayskind as a natural by only counting something as a real kind if it appears in some actual enquiry. No one has done a sociological study of the Magnus-Odenbaugh correspondence, and no one will. So jayskind is not a real kind. This embraces the first horn of the dilemma that I posed a while back: Kinds that now appear in our science were not real ones prior to the science in which they appeared. This is at least somewhat odd.

(3) Intension

I thought up this further criterion, which is akin to non-circularity. In Jay's example, there are three things that are members of this would-be kind. Because the extension of the set is stipulated, further members of the kind are precluded. Yet scientific kinds are not like this. They are open ended. Although we think that there are eight (or nine) planets in our solar system, one natural moon orbiting Earth, and zero golden mountains, these numbers are contingent. Nothing about the categories themselves determines the numbers to be 8, 1, or 0.

We can bar monsters like jayskind by insisting that there be more to natural kinds than simply a stipulated extension. Natural kinds have intensions, too. This requires (contra Quine) that there be intensions, but that is not asking too much of our philosophy of language.

Alas, this criterion will probably not be enough for Jay. Although jayskind does not count as a natural kind, things featured in Jay's example still does; and the latter is extensionally equivalent to the former.

'Natural Kind' as a relation

A different way of understanding Boyd's suggestion is this: Being a natural kind is not a second-order property that obtains of a predicate. Rather it is a relation between a predicate and a specified enquiry. "Frog food is a natural kind" must be elliptical for something like "Frog food is a natural kind for biology."

Although we might say that jayskind is a natural kind for the micro-sociology of the Magnus-Odenbaugh correspondence, that seems less brazen than saying that it is a natural kind simpliciter. It is certainly not a natural kind for physics, ecology, pharmacy, gastronomy, or any other interesting area of enquiry.

This would also allow us to distinguish between categories that are natural kinds for some actual enquiry and ones that are natural kinds for some possible enquiry. We would just need quantifiers and predicates that distinguish on kind of enquiry from another. We can say that electron was a natural kind for particle physics even before electrons were discovered; it was the existence of physics that changed, rather than the existence of the kind electron.

How about it, Jay?

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