Rook takes Bishop, Angler takes Trout 
In Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment,* Michael Bishop and J.D. Trout argue that epistemology needs to be informed by empirical results about how humans actually reason. I am sympathetic with this approach, having myself advocated using a psychological hammer to crack a traditionally philosophical nut. Nevertheless, Bishop and Trout too often overreach.

In part this is a matter of rhetoric. They celebrate psychology without pausing too much to consider weaknesses in various lines of research, while denouncing epistemology sans psychology as bankrupt. They advocate combining the two without retreating from that assessment; in the conclusion they write, "Gin is better than vermouth, but they're still better together" [p. 154]. This is an odd metaphor, because gin is only better than vermouth to some tastes and for some purposes; vermouth is key to tomato sauces (where it releases alcohol soluble flavors) and cheese sauces (where it stops long strands from forming). Regardless, lines like that occur throughout the book. They aim to be glib, and they hit a bullseye.

This fresh enthusiasm for empirical results contra the epistemological tradition elides deep problems with their own approach. They advocate what they call 'strategic reliabilism': We ought to engage in whichever reasoning strategy best balances high yield of true beliefs with low cognitive demands; that is, we want to believe true things, but we don't want to think too hard. Of course, this cost-benefit calculation can't be done from the armchair. It is an empirical question as to which strategy best balances these desiderata. Part of the problem, however, is that the truth desideratum isn't just a passion for truth simpliciter. What we want is significant truth.

They discuss this point in a breezy ten-page chapter, but it's mostly just bravado. Many truths are significant because they give us power to do what we want to do. We have prudential reasons for wanting those truths. Since those truths will all be hypothetical imperatives, then their account would just be a kind of vulgar pragmatism if that were all of 'significance'. They avoid that outcome by insisting that some things are objectively significant; for example:
We take it that discovering the truth about the physical or social structure of the world is intrinsically valuable. So even if we can't be sure that it will lead to any practical results, the physicists at CERN and Fermilab have epistemic reasons (beyond their prudential reasons) for spending cognitive resources on trying to discover the Higgs boson. [p. 97]

This is a natural enough thing to say, even though it's wrong.

The point is not even that it's wrong. My writing on the subject all came too late, and I won't fault them for failing to anticipate me.** But they had read Philip Kitcher's Science, Truth, and Democracy, in which he attacks the natural but wrong position.*** Bishop and Trout cite parts of STD approvingly when it suits them to do so, and the core of Kitcher's book is the attack on the notion of objective epistemic significance. They could not have just overlooked it.

It's the 21st-century now, and you can't naïvely rely on two sentences about objective significance when significant truth is a lynchpin of your would-be new paradigm.


* Oxford University Press, 2005. Amazon link

** See variously an excerpt of an old paper, more blogging, the bits on the function of science in my d-cog paper, and this recent draft.

*** Oxford University Press, 2001. Amazon link

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Labouring over master arguments 
I have been teaching Berkeley in my 17th&18th c. philosophy course. It is always a bit of trip, because students never come to the good bishop's defense. That leaves me in the role of trying to make the view seem as plausible as possible. I won't convince any of them, of course, but I can perhaps engage them enough that they can think through the view's consequences without scoffing dismissively.

At the beginning of Part I of the Principles, Berkeley gives what I reconstruct as the following argument:

P1 What you perceive are ideas.

P2 Ideas cannot exist outside minds.

C1 Therefore, what you perceive can't exist outside of some mind.

P3 You perceive (eg) the screen in front of you.

C2 Therefore, the screen in front of you cannot exist outside some mind.


The conclusion is a naked consequence of idealism, the kind of claim that makes people scoff and kick stones.

It is interesting to work through the argument backwards from there: P3 is required if we are not going to be sceptics, and C2 is a deductive consequence of C1 and P3. So any principled resistance will have to come earlier than that.

C1 is similarly a deductive consequence of P1 and P2. So the two options for avoiding the conclusion of the argument are denying P1 or denying P2.

P2 is motivated by our introspection into the nature of ideas and also by Berkeley's attack on abstraction in the Introduction. I had one student this time who was tempted to deny P2, but most are willing to accept it. (Moreover, denying P2 would lead to a wacky metaphysics; possibly even wackier than Berkeley's idealism.)

So that leaves P1. It is a seductive position. Having starting with Descartes' first Meditation, we are invited to consider the play of sensations as a kind of flickering movie in our consciousness. This 'veil of perception' stands between us and the world, and the task of epistemology is to trace out the inferences that lead to belief in an external world behind the theater of sensation. Arguably, this premise frames the whole period from Descartes through the late-18th century. Kant accepted it, after a fashion, but put the empirical world on our side of the screen. Reid rejected the premise, which he called the theory of ideas.* Berkeley brilliantly distills this element of the tradition. He states P1 at the outset, in Sec 1 of Part 1 of the Principles.

That's is where the action is, and Berkeley knew it.

This is fun to teach because it is valid. If we accept P1 and P2, we are committed to idealism: Students always want to know about the consequences of idealism, how it can be reconciled with science and religion, and so on. But it is too late to worry about its consequences once you've accepted the first two premises. However strange they are, you are committed to them.

The argument cleverly, deductively draws the wildest metaphysics out of what seem like plausible premises. The first time I taught the Bishop of Cloyne, back at Bowdoin College, I had a student who stared intently at the argument on the chalkboard after class had ended. He stayed fixed on it even as he got up to leave. "This can't be right," he said. "I don't know what's wrong with it, but something has to be."

So in preparing lecture notes, I jotted down "Berkeley's master argument" above my reconstruction of it. However, I noticed today that Jonathan Dancy identifies a different argument as GB's "master argument" (in the "Analytical Contents" Dancey prepared for the OUP edition of the Principles that he edited.) Roughly, it goes like this:

P1 Necessarily, everything of which you can conceive is conceived by some mind.

C1 Therefore, everything is necessarily conceived by some mind.

P2 You can conceive (eg) the screen in front of you.

C2 Therefore, the screen in front of you is necessarily conceived by some mind; that is, it cannot exist except as conceived.


Admittedly, Berkeley does make this argument in the course of the Principles. Perhaps I have reconstructed it uncharitably, but greater care would not do it any favors. It equivocates like a mongoose eating a garden hose. It slides around modal operators like a hockey player who mistook necessity for a puck. It does things which are too unspeakable to be captured by cheeky metaphors.

So, when I teach the Berkeley, I either skip over this argument entirely or mention it only in passing. There is certainly a tradeoff here. If I discussed the argument in more detail, I could discuss why it is so many kinds of terrible. Although this might teach students something, it would not help them take our man GB seriously. The first argument is much better at that, because it can be pretty seductive.

Unsound, yes. But seductive.


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Making teen moms disappear 
PZ Meyers links to a news item about a Texas high school that is censoring the yearbook. The students staffers of the yearbook wrote a profile of two teen mothers who are part of the graduating class. The excuse for the censorship?
Principal Paul Cash said the topic of the article conflicts with the school's abstinence-based curriculum. He also said he does not think the community would want that topic covered in the yearbook.
Yet, as the story notes, these two girls are among eight or ten students at the high school that are either pregnant or have children. Add to this an untold number of girls who have had abortions, girls who use some form of birth control, and girls who have thus far managed to dodge the sperm-meets-egg bullet in all their carnal recreation.

Although fodder for blogs, this would not be in the purview of this blog if not for one little fact: The high school in question is Burleson High School, my dear alma mater. As I am writing this, I happen to have a copy of the 1992 edition of The Elk yearbook on a shelf within arm's reach. I don't live there anymore, but this hits close to home.

When I was in Burleson, we had informative if disappointingly non-salacious sexual education. I can even recall specific filmstrips from the sex ed in Mrs Pressel's science class. (Remembering filmstrips makes me feel old.) There was some component of parental permission, so that psycho-fundamentalist parents could shield their kids from Captain Condom, but I don't actually recall anyone opting out. We learned about STDs, birth control, and possible consequences of bumping and grinding. Now these banal but useful facts are verboten in elktown, because useful truth is at odds with the school's grotesque sensibilities.

If you find that acknowledging the existence of some of your students conflicts with your curriculum, Principal Cash, the wrong response is to efface the record of their existence.

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forall x, x provides feedback 
Last week I received the student comment forms from my teaching last term. Once again, I asked students a number of specific questions about the textbook, forall x.*

The raw data looks like this:

Did the textbook explain matters clearly?
  yes         23
meh 5
no 1

Did the textbook explain matters in sufficient depth?
  yes         23
meh 3
no 3

Did the book provide enough practice problems of varying kind and difficulty?
  yes         20
meh 3
no 5

I've thrown out non-answers. 'Meh' indicates answers which are equivocal or guardedly positive. There were a couple of enthusiastic answers, which I originally recorded as 'very yes' and 'very no'; these have been assimilated into 'yes' and 'no'.

Students were divided on the relative merits of the textbook and lecture. Six said that textbook was a good supplement, but that lecture was required to clear up confusion. One reported being confused by lecture, but being saved by the book.

Eight students said that they would have liked more solutions to practice problems. Perhaps this is rationalized laziness, but I still think that the costs would probably outweigh the benefits: More solutions would make the book larger-- thus costlier and more unwieldy as a hardcopy. Students who want to check more of their work are welcome to come to either my or the TA's office hours. And there are certainly students who do not come to office hours but would benefit from doing so; I worry that putting more solutions in the book would just give them more of an excuse not to reach out for help.


* I documented results from an earlier term here.

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Police help sound bite victim 
Ron McClamrock and Brian Leiter link to a page at the University of Wellington that offers several answers to the question What is Philosophy? Both approvingly quote this answer:
I see philosophy not as groundwork for science, but as continuous with science. I see philosophy and science as in the same boat - a boat which we can rebuild only at sea while staying afloat in it. There is no external vantage point, no first philosophy. All scientific findings, all scientific conjectures that are at present plausible, are therefore in my view as welcome for use in philosophy as elsewhere. (W.V.O. Quine)

I agree with the sentiment here. However, the context seems wrong. Quine is stating something he believes about philosophy, that it is in some sense continuous with science. This does not tell us what philosophy is, because for Quine all enquiry is continuous with science.

More on point: Quine wrote that philosophy "is one of any number of blanket terms used by deans and librarians in their necessary task of grouping myriad topics and problems of science and scholarship under a manageable number of headings."* He offers this in response to questions about the relation between his work and other things that are done in philosophy departments, like ethics. His answer is that there does not need to be any connection, because there is no core concept of philosophy that includes both kinds of activity.

As such, it is at best misleading to give the first short quotation from Quine as a substantive answer to the question What is Philosophy? He thought there was no such answer. There are things that are called 'philosophy', but (he would say) there is no unified body of enquiry under that label.


* Bontempo and Odell, The Owl of Minerva: Philosophers on Philosophy. Mc-Graw Hill, 1975. page 228.

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