x-phi + a-phi = phi

July 23, 2007

This is the mathematical equation for reconciling philosophical methods that Dave Chalmers put up at the end of his excellent talk that closed the ‘Experimental Philosophy Meets Conceptual Analysis’ conference here at ANU.

Dave’s talk raised some interesting questions about what exactly experimental philosophy is and what exactly conceptual analysis is. ‘A-phi’ refers to ‘a priori philosophy’, which Dave suggested better captures the traditional projects of analytic philosophy better than ‘conceptual analysis’ does. After all, it does seem as though many ‘experimental philosophers’ are engaged in conceptual analysis of a sort, so using these as dividing lines might be a bit misleading.

A distinction was also drawn between ‘experimental philosophy’ and ’empirical philosophy’; my work on moral disagreement was cited as an example of the latter, since I didn’t actually do any of the experiments myself. The kind of work done by Joshua Knobe and Shaun Nichols, on the other hand, falls squarely into the former category.

Finally, ‘negative’ experimental philosophy was distinguished from ‘positive’ experimental philosophy; the former, Dave claimed, seeks to raise doubt about the philosophical status of intuition by finding disagreement in those intuitions, while the latter attempts to detect interesting and informative patterns in intuitions. I’m a bit skeptical of the stability of this distinction. My work on disagreement initially seems to fall into the former category, but I think it can also be argued that cross-cultural variation in moral beliefs is, in its own way, an ‘interesting and informative pattern’. So it seems that it’s possible to read one paper in both of those ways.

The overall message of the conference was extremely positive; the point made by lots of speakers (including myself) was that experimental, empirical, and a priori philosophy are all part of the same project, and that these methods can usefully complement one another. Thus while aspects of a question may require empirical or experimental philosophy- as in the case of moral disagreement, for example- other aspects of these questions may require more straightforwardly a priori inquiry — such as the question of whether expressivism is a conceptually coherent view.

Slides of Dave Chalmers’ talk should be available on his website soon, although they were not at the time of this writing. Those of you with access to GoBleen will be able to see the slides from my talk, ‘Moral Disagreement: Empirical and Conceptual Issues.’ In the meantime, feel free to use this space to discuss: what is at issue between experimental philosophers and their a priorist counterparts? Can’t we all just get along?


presuppositions and the a priori

July 13, 2007

I’ve written a paper proposing the following constraint on knowability a priori and arguing that it has some wide-ranging implications for the study of the a priori. You can see the paper for more on that. In this post, I’ll be concerned to motivate the constraint and to defend it against some looming objections. Here is the constraint:

(AK) For any p, p is knowable a priori only if, for any presupposition q of p, q is knowable a priori.

Here are several arguments for (AK), or something close enough.[1]

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On Ruth Byrne, The Rational Imagination

July 10, 2007

Recently I have been reading Ruth Byrne’s book The Rational Imagination (2005). The book turned out less relevant to the things I am interested in. To make sure it wasn’t a total waste though, I would like to raise a worry I have with the general argumentative strategy of the book.

The Rational Imagination is really two books in one. The descriptive book summarizes many interesting results of the psychology experiments Byrne and her associates have done on how people’s counterfactual reasoning tends to be influenced. When thinking about how things might be different, people tend to focus on short-term consequences of actions, long-term consequences of inactions, controllable events, and enabling (as opposed to causal) relations. Ch. 3-7 presents interesting empirical results that should be of interest to philosophers interested in modal epistemology. The normative book promises to argue that counterfactual reasoning is rational, but I am not sure she delivers on this promise. I will raise a worry for her argument, and from that, suggest some things she would need to explain in order to spell out a more complete theory of rationality for counterfactual reasoning.

The stated overarching argument of the book is as follows (208):
1. Humans are capable of rational thought.
2. The principles that underlie rational thought guide the sorts of possibilities that people think about.
3. These principles underlie counterfactual imagination.
C. Counterfactual imagination is rational.
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