Monday, July 14, 2008

Aristotelian Society and Mind Joint sessions, a personal view

A perspectival review of the Joint Sessions. By Jonny Blamey

In the Grim city of Aberdeen in perhaps the coldest July weekend I can remember, over two hundred philosophers gathered in what to me felt like a celebratary festival of rationality.
Kit Fine made an point about methodology in philosophy. He said that you could judge a theory internally, or externally. Internally means you look at the theory from the inside, examine how simple it is, and beautiful and neatly structured. Or you can judge externally, judge how well it does the job of explaining the facts that need to be explained, and how well it fits the facts. Fine suggested that philosophy too often judged theories internally, without paying attention to the facts.
But Kit Fine was talking about metaphysics! He was talking about whether when there is an alloy sphere, there are many things (pluralism) or one thing (Monism)! There are no facts in metaphysics! I thought that was the whole point of metaphysics.

I’m writing about Fitch’s paradox in my thesis at the moment, specifically about the debate between Williamson and Edgington. WIlliamson has got the last word, though I think it is clear that Edgington’s analysis is correct. I went and sat next to her and she said that she had just finished writing an article about it, since many people had nagged her to reply to Williamson’s 1987 paper. She said she’d send me a copy. In general philosophers are good people, and good philosophers are really good people. Dorothy Edgington has got to be one of the best living philosophers. You can see where this is going.

At lunch I sat next to someone I didn’t know and he asked me my name. When I told him, he said “Oh, you’ve just had an article in “Think”. This was genuinely news to me. I didn’t realise it had come out yet. What pleasure! It turned out that he was Julian Baggini, the editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine, who publish Think, so it wasn’t that surprising that he had read my article. We all got a copy of TPM for free at the entrance to the conference, and it is really good. I recommend a subscription to anyone who seriously loves philosophy.

I saw a mysterious looking man called Martin Cooke from Glasgow present a paper on a physically possible supertask that he thought proved that propensity theories were contradictory, or physical tendencies were, if there is a difference. There were a lot of structural similarities with the 2 envelope paradox, so I went over and started talking to him at lunch. We talked for quite along time before we realised that he had actually commented on Blogginthequestion! Under the pseudonym Enigman!
“So you are Enigman!” I declared and shook him firmly by the hand.

Another blog commentator in the graduate sessions was Lee Walters, who gave a talk on Morgenbesser’s coin and counterfactuals, a topic that has been thrashed on Blogginthequestion. I may make the grandiose claim that anything on at the Joint session, you are likely to have read on Blogginthequestion first, but I shan’t because it is false unless you have very low standards for “likely”, I reckon somewhere on 1/25. Dorothy Edgington asked a question and Lee responded with a counter argument that her objection was inconsistent with her general views, revealing that he had read practically everything she had written on the subject.

There was a Society for Women in Philosophy session, which is something I find conceptually interesting. They made it clear that every philosopher was welcome to attend. There were four talks, one male speaker, and one talk with absolutely no relevance to feminism, other than that the speaker was female.

The first talk was about Iris Murdoch and how she made very little mention of the fact that she was of the first generation of women who had been allowed in philosophy. There is something that makes me sad about Iris Murdoch, and perhaps a little angry, and Marije Altorf gave informed and articulate voice to these concerns. Her point was that although Murdoch was a great philosopher and an outstanding novelist, the biographies that came out after her death made very little mention of how she came to write her philosophical work “The Sovereignty of good”, concentrating much more on her sexual exploits and her senile dementia. Although it is inevitable in a biography that the biographer will discuss the sex life of the subject, you would think that any decent biography of a Philosopher as great as Iris Murdoch would pay considerable attention to the development of her ideas. Of the three biographies, there was little more than a page on her position in the history of philosophy and literature. This is really shocking, and forces me to accept the reality of a culture of sexism in philosophy. I told Marije about our Kalbir Sohi’s grad seminar talk and said she’d look him up.

Another interesting talk in this session was from Lina Papadaki from Birkbeck on Pornography. Now here was a talk that no one could deny was dripping with gender tension. The talk was (to over simplify) basically a refutation of the quite extreme view of Malinda Vadas and Catharine MacKinnon that when men use objects as women, the objects become women, since objects are constituted by their use, and this leads to an objectification of women in general, which then makes consent seem morally irrelevant. The talk was fascinating from a metaphysical point of view and an ethical one. If an object becomes a women, why is then consent irrelevant? What was also interesting was the question period, because to get at the issues involved talking about effective masturbation techniques, which has got to be the greatest taboo. Over all I was impressed by the very fact that the discussion was possible, although there was a bit of a gender division afterwards when all us men scurried off to compare notes on various pornography.
In the bar I met Dr Philip Goff, who, the last time I saw him, was looking for work. Now he’s got a job lecturing in Birmingham, so it does happen! People do get jobs in Philosophy. Also it turned out that he was teaching Florian Demont, who is coming to KCL next year and will be attending the Philosophy of probability seminar.

My own session was very intense (from my point of view). I was fourth and last and the session was the last of the conference and I was completely over stimulated. Everyone of the three proceeding talks were about the effects of Stakes in knowledge!! This is the very topic that I gave a talk about in St Andrews two years ago and is the main topic of my thesis. I couldn’t help it, but I lost control of my emotions. I was trembling, my mouth went dry, my eyes on fire and I had a bubbling up of passionate rage. Peter Baumann in the first talk expressed an objection to Stanley’s Subject Relative Invariantism in a brilliantly and beautifully clear and simple way. Briefly its this.

Stanley and Hawthorne both look at a timetable and then get on a train that the timetable says stops at Toy town. It is desperately important to Stanley but not important at all to Hawthorne that the train stops at Toy Town (TT). So, though they have the same evidence, Stanley doesn’t know (TT) but Hawthorne does. Now Stanley, using his own theory works out that Hawthorne knows that (TT). But if Hawthorne knows that (TT) then from factivity, (TT) is true. SO, if Stanley knows that Hawthorne knows, then Stanley knows that (TT). But Stanley doesn’t know that TT, therefore SRI leads to contradiction.

Baumann himself pointed out the obvious counter to this objection, that Stanley doesn’t know that Hawthorne knows (TT), since Stanley himself doesn’t know (TT). At best Stanley knows that Hawthorne will correctly attribute knowledge to himself if (TT) is in fact true. But if (TT) is not true, then Hawthorne will falsely attribute knowledge to himself. But, by hypothesis, Stanley doesn’t know whether or not (TT) is true, so Stanley doesn’t know whether or not Hawthorne knows (TT). Baumann seem to think this counter doesn’t work, since, when Stanley is judging Hawthorn’s knowledge, then the stakes are lower, since whether Hawthorne knows or not is of little importance to Stanley. But I don’t think this works, since it involves shifting Stanley’s interest in the matter. Anyway, I got quite worked up.

I didn’t calm down during the next two talks. I even started ranting a bit, and got the killer “Is that a question?” from Burcu Erciyes. I was in what psychologists used to call “A high state of arousal”, my dopaminergic system was glowing like a Christmas tree. The third talk was by Christoph Kelp, and I was so giddy that I could scarcely listen, my head filling with white noise. It didn’t stop me from raising scatter gun objections.

My turn came and I had an amazing lucid moment where I saw my whole thesis like a crystal in all its awe inspiring over ambitious beauty. I also saw painfully the impossibility of explaining it all in twenty minutes to an audience of people who I had just recently viciously attacked. However I gave it a pretty good shot, and though no one, I suspect, did understand it, the wonderful Herr Baumann did ask some brilliantly pertinent and general questions, which I answered in full pulpit mode and felt like I’d got at least a glimmer of my wider picture across.

It turned out that Kelp had got the job that I think was made for me, in the formal epistemology project in Leuven. I’m thinking about going for a visit.

I talked to Alison Hall, from UCL who gave one of the graduate sessions on linguistics and I told her all about our hero Tim Pritchard. She had heard of him through reputation, and was going to a conference where he was giving a talk somewhere glamorous, Geneva?

Ned Block’s talk rounded off the formal events, and it was so well presented it felt like going and seeing a hollywood film. It was about change blindness with slides. Block reckons that there is evidence of accessible phenomenal content that is not actually accessed, whereas I guess the mainstream view is that in change blindness there is no phenomenal content whatsoever. I wonder if you could rig up some kind of Fitch’s argument to show that in this case there is phenomenal consciousness that is necessarily inaccessible.

To round off the conference we all went to the bar where everyone is friendly and everyone know lots of interesting things, and then we went to a pub which was the same, then we got kicked out of there, got threatened by a professional boxer who used to be in the army, then ended up talking about the fact that Philosophers should get paid huge salaries whilst drinking gin in armchairs in a private granite house. I was thinking, this is it! This is it! And in my mind I flew thrice round the globe in an ecstasy of optimism.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Consciousness of other peoples pain is not the same as feeling their pain, surely?

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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5:09 AM  

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