Monday, March 23, 2009

Why φ? Here's why

Those who are new to debates about practical rationality may find it annoying that we usually use φ and Ψ when we want schematic letters with which to discuss actions, rather than using p or q or f or any of the other schematic letters familiar from other areas of philosophy. φ and Ψ are harder to create on your keyboard and beginners who don't know any Greek often don't even know what they are. (Regarding the keyboard issue, I usually just search 'phi' or 'psi' in Google, then copy and paste.)

There's a good reason why those of us working in practical philosophy use these letters, though. It's fine to talk about believing that p, but when you talk about an agent p-ing, it sounds like he or she is urinating. Consider this passage from Bernard Williams' "Internal and External Reasons", in which I have replaced all the φs with p's:
But we should notice that an unknown element in S, D, will provide a reason for A to p only if p-ing is rationally related to D; that is to say, roughly, a project to p could be the answer to a deliberative question formed in part by D. If D is unknown to A because it is in the unconscious, it may well not satisfy this condition, although of course it may provide the reason why he p's, that is, may explain or help to explain his p-ing. In such cases, the p-ing may be related to D only symbolically.
If philosophers were forced to read passages like this out loud at conferences, juvenile tittering would interrupt everyone's train of thought and no progress on substantial questions about practical rationality could ever be made. (The letter f, it should be mentioned, would cause its own problems.)

Perhaps those in other areas of philosophy would be wise to use Greek letters. I've been told of a lecture on some topic at the intersection of metaphysics and the philosophy of language which collapsed into uncontrollable laughter when a p-ness entered into a complex relation with an a-ness.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Believing that p, when you believe that you're not justified

If somebody believes it's morally wrong to φ, it may still be right for them to φ. People can be mistaken about what it's morally wrong to do. We have a great example in the Huck Finn case, where the title character firmly believes that he is wrong to not send his friend Jim back to slavery, and does the right thing even when he believes it's wrong. There are certainly many more prosaic cases.

If somebody believes it's irrational to φ, I think (contra Michael Smith) that it may still be rational for them to φ. They may accept a bad theory of practical rationality. If Humeans are right about practical rationality, Kantians may falsely believe that they're acting wrongly in a variety of cases.

Now it's looking to me like justification for belief will have to go the same way. If I believe that I am unjustified in believing that p (or even that I am justified in believing not-p), I may still be justified in believing that p. I could merely be in the grips of a bad theory of epistemic justification. Maybe I just talked with a very convincing and charismatic external-world skeptic. That won't make me generally unjustified in my beliefs about the world. (If it does, the skeptic is in a better position than we usually take him to be!)

I think this conclusion would probably be a little more surprising to people, because it sounds like some kind of Moore's paradox variant. And since the mental states in question here are both beliefs (a belief about justification, and a belief that p) we might think that they're supposed to interact with each other in the mind of a rational agent, with one causing the other to be revised. One needs some controversial stuff from moral theory and the theory of practical rationality to get the beliefs about justification and the motivational elements to interact appropriately in the first two cases, and this difficulty is absent in the third case. But even if one wants to accuse me of an error of rationality somewhere in my belief set, it's not at all clear that I'm unjustified in believing that p. Maybe the mistake is somewhere else, like in my acceptance of the normative principle.

I actually want there to be something wrong with believing that p when you believe that you lack epistemic justification for p or believe that you have epistemic justification for not-p, because there's an argument I'd like to build that relies on things going that way. But I don't think it's going to work, for the reasons in the third paragraph. So tell me why I'm wrong!

Saturday, March 14, 2009


I just turned 29. It's been a good year -- awesome job in Singapore, paper accepted at Phil Review, Obama in the White House. The girl situation wasn't usually miserable and was occasionally awesome. The future looks bright.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


I felt inspired to make Parmenides an Obamicon. I was going to do Zeno, but Parmenides made the same claims about whether change was possible, and they're both Eleatics, and I could find better depictions of Parmenides' head.

Practicing without a license

Brian Leiter asks whom we most wish the media would stop referring to as a philosopher -- Ayn Rand, Jacques Derrida, or Leo Strauss. Derrida at least was hired to teach philosophy at the Sorbonne, and Strauss did his dissertation with Ernst Cassirer. Can't say anything like that for Rand.

My thinking on this is that when Derrida or Strauss is thought of as a philosopher, that's an embarrassment to philosophy and a problem for the humanities. But when Ayn Rand is thought of as a philosopher, that's a disaster for philosophy and a problem for the world. So I voted Rand.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

What's So Wrong About A Cat In A Bong?

Everybody seems to be angry at the stoner from Nebraska who put his kitten inside a large bong a few times while he smoked. The cat was in no danger from fire, as far as I know -- it just got high off of the marijuana. The dude's reason is kind of amusing: apparently he "told deputies 6-month-old Shadow was hyper and he was trying to calm her down." She seems to be mostly fine.

For my part, I don't see what the problem is. Assuming that human biology and cat biology are similar in the relevant respects, Shadow probably just had a good if slightly disorienting time in there and liked the way her cat food tasted afterwards. I mean, what are people so upset about here? Is it that marijuana is a "gateway drug" and the kitten will start snorting coke? That she'll drop out of school and have trouble keeping a job? Giving euphoria-inducing drugs to animals seems a fine thing to do.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

PEA Soup

I've just joined awesome ethics blog PEA Soup! It shouldn't change my blogging habits much -- posting here will continue at the same frequency it has over the last month or two. I just expect that once in a while I'll post things over there that I won't be embarrassed about having major figures in the profession see. At least, until somebody blows them up in comments. (I'm guessing that "somebody" will be Jamie Dreier at least twice.)