It's only a question 
[A couple of months ago, I was invited to join the giant group blog It's Only a Theory. This post is the first one since then that's been suitable for that venue, so I've cross posted.]

Although there is not consensus about what would make a natural kind natural, most traditional views agree that naturalness is a monadic feature; ie, "K is a natural kind" can be true or false of a given kind without specifying any further parameters. Call this the monadic presumption.

A few philosophers of science have denied this assumption and insisted that a kind is only a natural kind relative to a specified enquiry; ie, it's a relation of the form "K is a natural kind for E." (Proposals of this kind have been made by Dupre and Boyd.)

Consider an example like 'race.' There is no essential biological difference between members of different races, and so it may be tempting to say that race is not a natural kind. This flatfooted conclusion that race is not a natural kind only makes sense given the monadic presumption. On the relational conception, all that follows is that race is not a natural kind for biology.

A sociologist trying to understand social stratification and discrimination in the US South (for example) might need to recognize race, at least in some form. If so, then race would be a natural kind for that sociological enquiry.

It's tempting to say that race is not a natural kind because we want to deny the bogus rationale for discrimination. Recognizing race as a natural kind for sociology doesn't undercut that, however, since the sociologist's 'race' category couldn't justify the practices that it is used to explain.

To take a different example, biological kinds will not be natural kinds for particle physics - but they are nevertheless natural kinds for appropriately specified enquiries.

Although Dupre proposed a relativized conception of natural kinds over twenty years ago, the monadic presumption is still alive; eg, Bird and Tobin, in the SEP entry on Natural Kinds, simply presume it.

What I'm wondering is whether you, reader of this blog, consider the monadic presumption to be the default view of natural kinds. How heterodox is the relativized conception? Do you even consider the relativized conception when you think about natural kinds?

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2009 in review 
Here's the annual bullet-point summary of my blogging for 2009. The crude algorithm takes the first sentence from the first post of every month; cf. 2006, 2007, and 2008.

I. Via daring fireball and makkintosshu, I learned that the URL now redirects to the Wikipedia entry for Hypercard.

II. Today I got the student comment forms from my teaching last Fall. Again I asked students about the textbook I wrote for intro logic.

III. Some people have suggested to me that I should try my hand at writing some newspaper op-ed pieces.

IV: A few weeks ago, I participated in a workshop on underdetermination at the Pittsburgh Center for Philosophy of Science.

V: I was at Cornell last weekend for the Berkeley Bonanza, organized by Andrew Chignell and Melissa Frankel.

VI: I uploaded the first new version of forall x in over a year.

VII: In these two related items, Wikipedian prose appears in print...

VIII: I have always thought that the Swampman thought experiment is analytic philosophy at its worst.

IX: When I have teach logic to one or two hundred students, the class is in one the university's lecture centers.

X: Thus concludes year four of the blog.

XI: Suppose I wake up one morning and find that I believe something (call it Q) that I had not believed before.

XII: Christy Mag Uidhir and I coauthored a paper on art concept pluralism.

Mostly teaching, philosophy conferences, and Wikipedia.

I managed to keep my resolution to have at least one post in every month, although September and November came down to the wire.

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How to be a pluralist about art 
Christy Mag Uidhir and I coauthored a paper on art concept pluralism. It's now forthcoming in Metaphilosophy. Although their backlog of papers means that it won't be in print for over a year, I have posted a preprint.

Link: Art Concept Pluralism

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Alarm clock belief change 
Suppose I wake up one morning and find that I believe something (call it Q) that I had not believed before. Of course, this might happen if I discover some new evidence for Q when I wake up; for example, Q might be 'There is a dog in the street' and I am woken up by its barking. It may also happen that I become aware of a possibility or a consequence of some other belief that I have; inspiration steals over me in the morning. These are all cases where I might be said to have a new reason for believing that I did not have before. Yet sometimes I just find that a belief is more appealing to me when I wake up, with no new reason in its favor.

In more formal terms, we can ask when it is rationally permissible to adjust ones degree of belief in Q. Bayesians have lots to say about revising the credence in Q in light of new evidence. They have less to say about, but nonetheless acknowledge, revising the credence in Q when one discovers a new theoretical possibility that one had not imagined before. (For example: There is a theory T, T has significant consequences for Q, and one had not previously had any a degree of belief in T.) Yet the case I am considering does not involve new evidence or new possibilities. Bayesians would condemn me as irrational, I think.

For subjective Bayesians, rational credence depends on evidence and the space of possibilities along with one's prior probabilities. And one's priors are beyond rational scrutiny. This doesn't seem to make a difference for my case, however, because waking up in the morning is not my first moment as a rational agent. I had credences when I went to bed. In order for conditionalization to have any teeth as a diachronic constraint, Bayesians must say that I ought not shuffle around my credences when I wake up.

Let's generalize a bit. Consider an arbitrary permissive account of rationality; that is, an account which says that two agents in relevantly similar situations might have different beliefs while both still being rational. Suppose that it is rationally permissible in my situation to believe either Q or not-Q. (This might instead be expressed in terms of degrees of belief by supposing that it is rationally permissible to assign different degrees of belief to Q.)

The mere fact that I might rationally believe Q and might rationally believe not-Q is sometimes taken as a sign that I ought to suspend judgement. Roger White gives an argument to this effect. In an old blog post, I answer the argument in this way: The community's ability to generate true beliefs will (in some cases) be furthered by having some members believe Q while others believe not-Q. So rationality should not require us all to suspend judgement, lest the community (and so all of us) end up worse off.

If my reply to White's argument works, then it is OK for me to believe Q when my equally rational counterpart believes not-Q. Nothing in my old post shows that it's OK for me to switch sides, however. So I might still be irrational to change my mind about Q as I wake up in the morning.

In order to reap the advantage of the disagreement allowed by permissive ratianality, the community must be organized so that some of us will believe Q and some us will believe not-Q. Yet the population constraints are probably not so precise that one person more or less on either side will sway the outcome. So my changing my mind as I wake up is not obviously irrational.

I am unsure what to say, but I'll sleep on it.

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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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