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Prior Knowledge

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Blogger Problems

A quick warning to my fellow contributors: the Blogger system is notoriously unreliable, and has a nasty habit of eating your posts rather than publishing them. The cost of a free service, I suppose. Anyway, I strongly recommend copying your post to the clipboard (press ctrl-A then ctrl-C in the text editor) before pressing the 'publish' button. That way if something goes wrong, you can just 'paste' your work back in again, rather than having to start from scratch.

Update: Blogger's new recover post feature might also help out here.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


This time a question. Is there anything more fundamental than identity? It seems to me that, at least from our epistemic situation, the most fundamental thing is identity; without identity then all that follows cannot not make any sense.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Immaterial Physicalism

This is an idea I had some time last year and as there are no current posts on the blog I thought I might share it with you. No doubt no one will agree with it but I am looking forward to hearing why.

Basically the view arises from the following two considerations: (1) The materialist claim is that everything is extended. The essence of extension is that it is dividable. There exist some things which are not dividable, such as gravity and other fields. (I should also note that there is a tradition of existence being connected to oneness, if something can be divided then it does not have oneness and thus does not exist, all that exists are the parts that make it up). Thus we have the immaterial half of the thesis. (2) Plain old physicalism; the physical facts exhaust the facts. It just so happens that the physical picture contains some non-extended things. I would like to argue that in fact all physical things are essentially non-extended and that it is the combination of an infinitude of non-extended things that any extended things arise.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Name Change?

I have, for the moment, changed the name of this blog from Splitting Atoms [explanation here] to Prior Knowledge (partly in honour of Arthur Prior).

The new name seems more obviously relevant to philosophy. Which do you guys prefer? Or do you have any alternative suggestions?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Tuesday Seminar: Deontic Reasons

I think this website could serve as a useful forum to discuss issues that arise in Canterbury's weekly seminars. The main post could give a brief overview of the main argument, followed by an open discussion in the comments section.

Yesterday's research seminar was led by Prof. R. Jay Wallace (visiting from the University of California, Berkeley), and discussed the deontic structure of morality.

The full paper is available online, so I'll just quote the abstract here:
Normative reasons apparently come in different varieties. Some are attractive or aspirational, recommending actions in a way that leaves the agent some scope to ignore their claims; other reasons - including those at the center of morality - seem peremptory, demanding compliance in a way that the agent has no discretion to ignore. This paper offers an interpretation of the distinction between what I call aspirational and deontic normativity, paying special attention to the moral realm. I suggest that deontic reasons are grounded in principles that specify reciprocal normative claims, structuring our relationships to other agents. Some conceptions of morality seem much better suited than others to accommodate this distinctive kind of deontic normativity, a thesis I defend by contrasting consequentialist and contractualist approaches.

To illustrate the distinction, Prof. Wallace offered some example scenarios. Suppose that an agent has decisive reason to spend their evening at the cinema - it is a better option for them than any of the available alternatives. The agent might recognise this, but legimately choose to ignore this reason and stay home instead. Such reasons, which an agent has discretion to discount, may be called 'aspirational' reasons. It seems that we have no such discretion in the case of other ('deontic') reasons. If we have a debt to repay, or a friend in need, these provide reasons that we cannot legitimately ignore. What explains this difference?

Wallace points out that deontic structure is not the same thing as conclusive weight. We have (ex hypothesi) conclusive reason to go to the movie, but we nevertheless have discretion to ignore this reason, conclusive or not. Conversely, we might have a deontic reason which is overridden by more powerful considerations. Imagine a medical emergency arises which takes priority over repaying your debt. We are not at liberty to ignore the reasons that arise from our indebtedness; we must recognise their force even as we judge that they are nevertheless overpowered (but not negated) by other reasons.

After dispensing with various other accounts of the distinction, Wallace suggests that the answer may be found by considering the interpersonal context of deliberation as giving rise to reciprocal normativity, which has two key features:
(a) The consideration that grounds my reasons gives someone else a special claim or entitlement to performance on my part.

(b) The consideration that grounds my reasons renders someone else specially vulnerable to being wronged or injured in the case of nonperformance on my part.

He then goes on to explicate this in terms of a 'relational' or contractualist conception of morality, which appeals to those general principles that all might reasonably agree on (as being necessary to a functioning society):
If I discount or neglect my moral reason not to harm someone, for example... I will not merely have acted wrongly, by the terms of a normative standard that applies to my own conduct, but wronged the person I have harmed, insofar as my action will not be justifiable to that person on grounds that it would be reasonable for the person to accept.

Now, I agree that the social considerations make for the most plausible explanation of the aspirational/deontic divide. But I'm not sure if this can be adequately spelled out in contractualist terms, particularly in cases of 'overriding considerations'. Overriding considerations (such as medical emergencies) seem the sort of thing that all could reasonably accept in terms of the general principles of the Social Contract. So my failure to repay my debtor in case of emergency is something that will be justifiable to him. Nevertheless, as noted earlier, the reasons arising from my indebtedness still retain their force even when (justifiably) overriden. So appeals to social justification cannot explain the resilience of deontic force.

(To be clear: there is still a sense in which you've failed your obligation to the debtor and he has a legimate grievance, so the explanation of reciprocal normativity holds strong. But the legitimacy of your action, in accordance with general social principles, is not in question. This makes me think that appealing to the general principles of the social contract might be an inadequate explication of reciprocal normativity.)

Some other issues that might be worth further discussion:
1) Could we dispense with the aspirational/deontic distinction? (What would be the consequences of doing so?)
2) To what extent does it mirror the distinction between self- vs. other-regarding actions (as in, e.g., J.S. Mill's harm principle)?
3) Is Wallace right that consequentialist conceptions of morality cannot account for the a/d distinction?
4) Is he right that contractualist conceptions can account for it?

Feel free to raise any other issues that I've missed...

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Philosophers' Carnival

The eleventh Philosophers' Carnival is coming up next Monday. For those who are new to such things, a "carnival" is a showcase of posts from a wide range of blogs. The carnival "host" also offers a brief description or excerpt from each submitted entry, along with a link which readers can follow to read the whole thing if it catches their interest. The Philosophers' Carnival is a project I started up in August of last year, which serves to showcase specifically philosophical posts from around the net, and is held every three weeks. Full details can be found on the carnival homepage. (I encourage you to click through and view some of the past carnivals - there are a lot of interesting posts on offer!)

Anyway, it'd be cool to include a post from this blog in the upcoming carnival. Self-nominations are very much encouraged - just fill out the online submission form with the details of your post. We're allowed one submission per author, so there's no restriction on how many of us may submit posts to the carnival. If you haven't written a post yet, but would like to write one for the carnival, you've got until the end of the week to do so!

Pleasure Machine

A common question in philosophy is "what does welfare constitute of?" It has been argued by hedonists that welfare is simply the amount of pleasure experienced minus the amount of pain experienced.

A common thought experiment used in arguing that the hedonistic account of welfare is insufficient is to ask people whether they would rather be mislead into thinking that their parents had died horribly (even though they were perfectly safe and happy), or be tricked into believing that their parents were safe and happy (even though they had died horribly). Most people seem to say that they would prefer their parents to be safe and happy, even if they had to believe they were dead, and suffer from the anguish resulting from that belief. In short: people care about things other than their own subjective happiness. Perhaps it follows that what a person would most prefer to happen, is for their own informed desires to be fulfilled in fact.

However, does this show that welfare hedonism is mistaken? I'm not so sure. Let me work a little on the thought experiment. Two highly sophisticated helmets are invented. One, the "depression helmet", when worn allows the person wearing it to go about their life as usual. However, it causes them to believe that all of their desires have been thwarted. The second helmet is called the "ecstasy helmet" and evokes in the subject a pathological optimism: they believe that they have everything in the world they could possibly want and more.

Would you rather actively fulfill all the desires you have in life, or at least see others fulfill them for you (but wear the depression helmet, so as to believe that the opposite is happening and hence be in utter anguish), or would you rather live what you would have called a worthless life, lying in bed all day like a heroin addict (but because you are wearing the ecstasy helmet you think you have everything that you desire, and because of this you are in utter bliss)?

I would say the first option. There are things I value more than my happiness. Perhaps, however, it would make sense to say that even though I prefer option one, I would be much better off in option two. This is what my intuition seems to tell me. In option one I feel about as happy as is possible. In option two, I feel so bad that I might as well be in hell. It seems that the live and well parents of the person in the depression helmet would agree - they would think that this person was in a terrible position (and, I hazard to guess, the more altruistic ones would sacrifice their lives to have the helmet replaced with an ecstacy one). Yet this seems to be the opposite conclusion intended by 'pleasure machine' type thought experiments.

Perhaps it is simply the case that there is a wide gap between "good for" somebody and "good to" somebody. This isn't a totally new idea - Richard introduced me to the vocabulary although I can't remember exactly which philosopher it was that he read it from. But there seems to be some merit to the distinction.

What do you think?

Thursday, March 10, 2005


What is this site?

This is a group blog for Kiwi philosophers and students. Others are most welcome to join the discussion in comments, of course! If you're new to this stuff, the best way to get an idea of what philosophy group blogs are all about is to see them in action. Dave Chalmers has compiled a list of philosophical weblogs, for your browsing convenience.

Info for New Zealanders...

Why should I blog?

If you follow some of the links, you'll no doubt develop your own ideas about what is (and isn't) worthwhile about philosophy blogging. (It's also something I've written a bit about, here.)

One major purpose of this site is to facilitate communication between philosophers. I assume I don't need to convince my target audience of the value of philosophical banter! Individual aims may vary: some might seek feedback on a new idea, others might prefer to explore or explicate old ones, while others yet might want to discuss a 'meta' issue relating to the teaching of philosophy, and so forth.

How does it work?

If you're a New Zealand philosopher or philosophy student, and would like to contribute to this blog, simply email me (r.chappell@gmail.com) and I'll add you to the team. Once you're registered with Blogger.com, you can start posting whenever (and whatever) you like. It's entirely free, and very simple to use.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Russell's Robust Sense of Reality

This is something I have on my mind, mostly because I have to give a presentation on it on Monday, but also because it is very interesting.

Bertrand Russell (An introduction to philosophical mathematics, p.169) writes:
It is argued, e.g. by Meinong, that we can speak about “the golden mountain,” “the round square,” and so on; we can make true propositions of which these are the subjects; hence they must have some kind of logical being, since otherwise the propositions in which they occur would be meaningless. In such theories, it seems to me, there is a failure of that feeling for reality which ought to be preserved even in the most abstract studies. Logic, I should maintain, must no more admit a unicorn than zoology can; for logic is concerned with the real world just as truly as zoology, though with its more abstract and general features.

In this quote it appears that Russell is asserting that there is a strong bond between ontological commitments and formal logic. It seems far more plausible that the function of formal logic is merely a method for evaluating inferences. Any connection between logic and ontology is purely contingent. As Crittenden comments
logic should be neutral between different positions: a system of logic which was available to logicians of a particular philosophical persuasion only would hardly qualify as a logic.
Having said all that I still agree with Russell about his robust sense of reality. Guess I haven’t thought things through or something, but I’m in it for the discussion anyway. (this is my first post so if I've failed at some unspoken rules with blogs then please inform me and i'll attempt to conform in the future)

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Happy slave?

I feel like I should make a post. I'm studying ethics and political philosophy, as well as cognitive psychology at Canterbury this year. I'm finding it all really interesting, although hard to get my head around at times. Anyway, something that I have been a little preoccupied with recently, is the 'Happy slave' objection.

One kind of freedom, put forward by Bernard Williams, is 'primitive freedom'. S is primitively free with regard to some action if she is "unobstructed in doing what she wants by some form of humanly imposed coercion". S's total primitive freedom is the ratio of satisfied desires to unsatisfied desires.

Some would object that this means that a happy slave is more free than the other slaves. Because the happy slave doesnt desire to be a non-slave, he has a higher ratio of satisfied desires. Berlin gives an account of freedom: namely, negative freedom, that avoids this counterexample. According to Berlin's freedom: "I am free to the extent that no person prevents me from doing what I could otherwise do". It makes no reference to the desires of the slave, so the happy slave is equally unfree as the other slaves, although perhaps more lucky.

This has lead me to consider that perhaps what William's primitive freedom was pointing to was closer to welfare than freedom. After all, it is satisfying desires. If primitive unfreedom is to be equated with welfare, however, then we would be committed to saying that the happy slave is more well off than the other slaves, as well as someone that wasn't a slave and wished to be, and, ceteris paribus, is equally well off as the happy non-slave. Does this agree with your intuitions? I'm tempted to say that many people will disagree with that last point. Surely being free is to be factored into your welfare, even if you don't value it. However, perhaps when we say that, we are just telling the happy slave what he ought to value; which strikes me as a little presumptuous. I really intended this post as a bit of a survey. Tell me what you think. How well off is the happy slave?