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Philosophy Blog

Life at the thought-face.

Friday, September 27, 2002


Poor spelling is a hindrance to accurate writing and clear communication of ideas, but it is not a serious intellectual failing. However, in an exam, which is after all just an opportunity for students to show off their knowledge and intellect, bad spelling reflects badly on the candidate. Here is a collection of spelling mistakes from this year's finals:

are (for our)
consequent (for consequence)
evolute (for evolve!)
fallicious (different script from fallable)
permisserble (diff. script from permissable)
populous (for populace)
thisis (for thesis)
wait (for weight)

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 10:38 AM

Monday, September 23, 2002

Law and Morality

Gossip, the end of which is always to make the gossipers feel superior (that is one way to distinguish gossip from merely sharing inofrmation), is a cruel and unpleasant activity which is conducted purely for pleasure. It can be done in private, behind the victim's back, or in public, and even in print (tabloid newspapers). It can be fun and most people succumb to it at times, but it is something to disapprove of and discourage. Should we also ban it? Does our distatste for gossip, and the fact that the world would be a better place without it, justify making it illegal? Surely not.

What is the point of this example? Well, there are activities which our ethical principles might prohibit but which it would be a mistake to criminalize. This is because the harm done is (usually) small and the main objection is to the fact that participants are taking pleasure in the activity. But if that is the objection, the best way of dealing with it is to change people, to improve their moral education so that they no longer take pleasure in the activity, or perhaps do not think the pleasure is worth the degradation.

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 9:01 AM

Sunday, September 22, 2002


The definition of idealism in common currency holds that it is a sufficient condition for one to be an idealist about X's that one thinks there is a modal dependence of X's upon mental states, be they experiences or thoughts. The modal dependence is the claim that necessarily, if X's exist then appropriate mental states exist.

But this modal definition sems to miss the deeper point of idealism, for it has the consequence that everyone is an idealist about mental states. One way of getting around this is to specify the mental states upon which X's depend to be experiences of, or thoughts about, X's. Then idealism would be false of a given mental state (type) if there is a possible world in which a creature has that state but does not have any higher-order state which is an experience of or thought about it. And the existence of creatures with a mental life but no psychological concepts, such as dogs, would establish that possibility.

This will do for most of us, but it would seem that at least two of the staunchest realists about qualia, Searle and Chalmers, are in trouble here. They both think that consciousness brings with it awareness of one's conscious states. Searle is a bit vague about what this awareness consists in, but Chalmers is explicit: knowledge by acquaintance. Knowledge by acquaintace is not propositional and does not involve concepts, hence if I am acquainted with my pain, so is my dog acquainted with his pain, whether or not he has the concept of pain. Idealism about qualia threatens.

It would be much better not to use modal dependence as one's criterion of idealism. I have argued elsewhere that Berkeley has a concept of ontological dependence, but that has no place in our conceptual scheme. We need a new idea about idealism.

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 12:18 PM

Thursday, September 19, 2002

Bill Hart uses time-travel as an example of something which we appear to be able to imagine, but since it is impossible, we cannot imagine it. Apart from the oddity of using 'imagine' as some sort of success verb so that it is impossible to imagine the impossible, his reasons for thinking time-travel impossible are rather dodgy.

The reasoning goes like this: if (backwards) time-travel were possible, then someone, call him Tim, could go back to his actual father's childhoood and kill him before Tim is conceived (in a fit of Oedipal rage!), thus preventing Tim being born. But that is impossible: if the person Tim shot was his actual father, then that person must have lived long enough to father Tim. Conclusion: backwards time-travel is impossible.

The problem with this argument is that what is definitely impossible is a conjunction: Tim goes back in time AND kills his father (before ...). Why be so sure that if Tim travelled back in time he would succeed in killing his father? Surely, we know, and he knows, that however hard he tries he will fail. Either he will shoot the wrong man, or be caught, or a bird will fly into the line of the speeding bullet, or ...

The thinking behind Hart's argument (and he is not alone in this) is that for any two ordinary mortals who are suitably situated in space and time, it is possible for one to kill the other. Whether Tim, with his loaded gun and good line of sight, can kill his father is independent of the identities of Tim and his victim. The person who believes time-travel to be possible must deny this. Put it like this: Tim is pointing his gun at a 12 year old boy. Is it possible for Tim to kill that boy? That depends on whether the boy is (=) Tim's father or not, because if the boy is Tim's father, then it is true of that boy that he will (actually) go on to father a child. But if that is true of him, it is also true that he does not die now.

The key move here is the thought that a world with a different future is a different world. You and I all know that the actual world is not one of the millions of possible worlds in which our fathers died before we ere conceived. Tim also knows that. If you look at a photo of your father aged 12, you know that that boy (indirect demonstrative reference to a boy existing many years ago, hence future tense verb to follow) will not die before you are conceived. Tim is standing in front to the 12 year old boy, so can make a direct demonstrative reference to him, but he too knows that that boy will not die before ...

Which is not to say that time-travel is posisble, merely that the impossibility of preventing your own birth does not prove it to be impossible. the issue turns on the metaphysics of time, but that is another matter for another day.

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 3:38 PM

It seems that the obvious view, that imagining p is good evidence that p is possible, can be defended against all extant objections. But the interesting question remains whether we have a faculty of imagining/conceiving which is more intellectual than sensuous imagining (e.g. visualizing) but more constrained than supposition? Yablo simply assumes the coherence of such a faculty (PPR 1993) whereas Bill Hart argues against it (The Engines of the Soul, p.15). I think Hart is wrong because he forgets the role of inetntions in determining the imaginative project: the same 'image' can be used in imagining a suitcase and in imagining a cat hiding behind a suitcase. I cannot see how to explain this without allowing that one can imagine p without p being the content of one's sensuous imagination.

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 12:41 PM

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

I needed to get some things clear in my own mind about fox hunting so I wrote this short essay trying to sort things out. I concentrate on the question of the morality of hunting, but of course hunting being wrong is neither necessary nor sufficient for a ban to be right. Hunting could be immoral but a matter of personal choice and thus not something we should ban in a liberal democracy, or it could be morally permissible but so offensive to that majority that it should be banned. But the moral issues must be the beginning of any sensible debate.

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 5:11 PM

Friday, September 06, 2002

Hey, my book is out! The cover is a bit purple, but that is OK - at least it exists at long last. Why not buy a copy? Only 15.99 in paperback.

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 1:31 PM

Monday, September 02, 2002

Is it possible to be a pluralist about philosophical methods and styles? Is there just one way to do philosophy?

I am increasingly inclined to think that there are several different activities, each with different objectives and approaches, and each deserving to be called philosophy. One obvious application of this would be the continental-analytic divide, but I suspect that is too simple. Consider instead the differences between naturalists, Wittgenstein-inspired quietists, and a priori metaphysicians: the questions each asks and the answers each will accept are completely different. The naturalists will have it that the quietists are failing to say anything worthwhile and the metaphysicians are just making guesses; the quietists will have it that the naturalists are not doing philosophy at all and the metaphysicians are self-deceived; the metaphysicians will have it that the others are making no progress becasue they (stupidly) refuse to use all the intellectual resources available to them. Yet a single philosophy department can happily contain people from each camp. How?

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 2:29 PM