Two upcoming philosophy events (after Easter)

Just a quick heads-up about two philosophy seminars at QUB.

Wednesday 30th April

Dr Sean Cordell (Philosophy, Open University) 

QUB – 14 University Square, room 01.007 (first floor), at 4.30pm

Sean’s work has focused on virtue ethics, initially from Aristotle’s Ethics, and he’s developed it into thinking about whether the concepts of virtue can be applied to such things as states and institutions. Can a government or a corporation be said to be bad or frivolous or compassionate in the same way that we can say this about a person? Can there be a political philosophy that emerges from virtue theory: does the state receive some sort of justification or legitimacy on the basis of being considered as a kind of moral agent? Some of Sean’s recent work, stemming from these questions, is about the moral evaluation of social roles (parent, magistrate, employee). He’s also worked in applied ethics: the biobanking industry in particular (does it make sense to talk about property rights for genetic material?).

This event is supported by the Royal Institute of Philosophy  and everyone is welcome (you don’t have to go to this university to come along!). For further details, get in touch with Joe Morrison

 

Wednesday 14th May

Dr David Liggins (Philosophy, University of Manchester)

QUB – 14 University Square, room 01.007 (first floor), at 4.30pm

There are lots of things that we’re happy to treat as fictions: unicorns, hobbits, frictionless plains, the rationality of markets. Should we treat ethical talk in the same way? We know what it would take to make talk of unicorns true: there’d have to be some unicorns. What would it take to make ethical talk true: what would have to exist? How about talk about mental states (like beliefs and desires): are these just useful fictions we use to explain and predict one anothers’ behaviour, or are they real? Or talk about numbers, or sets, or functions? More generally, what makes it acceptable to treat some of these things as fictions, but not others?

David’s work addresses these methodological issues in philosophy. His research started out in the philosophy of mathematics discussing the idea that mathematics might be a kind of fiction, and has since considered this kind of strategy more generally.

The Royal Institute of Philosophy is supporting this event. It’s open to all (you just have to be interested!). For further details, contact Joe Morrison

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Seminar: Dr. Kinga Morsanyi (Psychology, QUB), ‘Reasoning Heuristics and How They Develop’

This Thursday, 5 December, Dr. Kinga Morsanyi of the School of Psychology here at QUB will present a paper titled ‘Reasoning Heuristics and How They Develop’. The talk will be in teaching room 1 (first floor) at 22 University Square (UQ22.01.005; map, location ‘S’), from 5pm until between 6 and 6.30. The format is for around half the time to be given to the presentation of the topic, and the remaining half is dedicated to discussion / Q&A.

This seminar, as with all the talks in our seminar series, is free and open to the public.

This is the final seminar in our 2013 series. See you in the new year!

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Seminar: Dr. Alistair Isaac (Edinburgh), ‘Von der Farbe zur Klangfarbe: Musical Challenges for a Multimodal Realism Debate’

Tomorrow, Thursday, 5 December, Dr. Alistair Isaac of the University of Edinburgh will present a paper titled ‘Von der Farbe zur Klangfarbe: Musical Challenges for a Multimodal Realism Debate’. (I’m told the German bit means ‘From the Colour to the Tone’.) The talk will be in teaching room 1 (first floor) at 22 University Square (UQ22.01.005; map, location ‘S’), from 5pm until between 6 and 6.30. The format is for around half the time to be given to the presentation of the topic, and the remaining half is dedicated to discussion / Q&A.

This seminar, as with all the talks in our seminar series, is free and open to the public.

This is the penultimate seminar in our 2013 series. Next week, we’ll have the final seminar on Thursday, 12 December: Dr. Kinga Morsanyi (Psychology, QUB) will present ‘Reasoning Heuristics and How They Develop’.

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Seminar: Dr. Emma Bullock (KCL), ‘Free Choice and Protecting Patient Best Interests’

This Thursday, 28 November, Dr. Emma Bullock of King’s College London will present a paper titled ‘Free Choice and Protecting Patient Best Interests’. The talk will be in teaching room 1 (first floor) at 22 University Square (UQ22.01.005; map, location ‘S’), from 5pm until between 6 and 6.30. The format is for around half the time to be given to the presentation of the topic, and the remaining half is dedicated to discussion / Q&A.

Here is an abstract of Dr. Bullock’s paper:

Whilst medical practitioners are required to respect the doctrine of informed consent, they also have a duty of care when treating their patients. The former is implemented by respecting the free choices of competent patients, while the latter requires the practitioner to act in the patient’s best interests. In cases where these ethical demands come into conflict it is commonly argued that respect for patient free choice ought to be prioritised above the protection of patient best interests.

A consequentialist argument for the prioritisation of informed consent above the duty of care involves the claim that respect for a patient’s free choices is the best way of protecting that patient’s best interests; since the patient has a special expertise over her values and preferences regarding non-medical goods she is best-placed to make a decision that will protect her overall best interests.

In this paper I argue against the consequentialist justification for a blanket prioritisation of informed consent over the duty of care by considering cases in which patients have imperfect access to their overall best interests. I thereby undermine the central claim of the consequentialist justification that the patient is a specialist when it comes to her best interests. Furthermore, I argue that there are cases where the mere presentation of choice under the doctrine of informed consent is detrimental to patient well-being, and so plausibly at odds with the patient’s best interests as she herself conceives of them. I end the paper by proposing that the consequentialist ought to consider a more nuanced approach to resolving the conflict between informed consent and the duty of care and consider the option of permitting patients to waive their right to be fully informed in circumstances where the mere presentation of free informed choice is likely to be detrimental to patient best interests.

This seminar, as with all the talks in our seminar series, is free and open to the public. I hope to see you there!

Other upcoming talks:

5th Dec – Dr. Alistair Isaac (University of Edinburgh) ‘Von der Farbe zur Klangfarbe: Musical Challenges for a Multimodal Realism Debate’
12th Dec – Dr. Kinga Morsanyi (Psychology, QUB) ‘Reasoning Heuristics and How They Develop’

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Seminar series

The Thoughtful Scholar‘s hiatus is over! We’ve been quiet over the summer, but we’re back in business. Watch this space for announcements, ideas, and discussion.

For now, I want to share our schedule of seminars for the autumn semester. We have an exciting series of speakers lined up, including both visiting speakers and our colleagues here at QUB. We’ll have a seminar every Thursday, starting next week, from 5:00 to 6:30, in the Meredith Room on the first floor of 23 University Square. Discussion traditionally continues at the pub afterward. Everyone is welcome to attend.

Here’s the schedule of speakers & titles:

21st Nov – Prof. Alan Weir (University of Glasgow) ‘Is Quine a Naturalist?’
28th Nov – Dr. Emma Bullock (King’s College London) ‘Free Choice and Patient Best Interests’
5th Dec – Dr. Alistair Isaac (University of Edinburgh) ‘Von der Farbe zur Klangfarbe: Musical Challenges for a Multimodal Realism Debate’
12th Dec – Dr. Kinga Morsanyi (Psychology, QUB) ‘Reasoning Heuristics and How They Develop’

I hope to see you there!

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Common Sense and the Liar Paradox

This is a post on the Liar Paradox.  The Liar Paradox arises from sentences such as (l).

(l): (l) is not true.

Let (~l) be the negation of (l), i.e. (~l) is supposed to contradict (l).  The paradox ensues from this kind of reasoning: Assume (l).  Then, (l) is not true.  So, (~l).  Thus, (l) and (~l).  This reduces our original assumption to absurdity.  So, we reject our assumption and conclude (~l).  But, then (l) is not true, from which (l) follows.  And, we’ve derived a contradiction.

I’ve been reviewing a fairly recent (advanced) introduction on truth by Alexis G. Burgess and John P. Burgess.  They suggest that the most common initial reaction to the paradox is to deny that (l) expresses a proposition.  This would appear to block even the initial assumption of (l); (l) would not even be a candidate for assumption.

As Burgess and Burgess suggest, this common sense reply is problematic.  Even if it succeeds in blocking the paradoxical reasoning above, there’s the “revenge of the liar.”  So consider (l*).

(l*): (l*) does not express a true proposition.

Note that this sentence is distinct from (l), which basically amounts to (l’).

(l’): (l’) expresses a not-true proposition.

Because (l) is equivalent to (l’), it seems like one can block the paradox by denying that (l) expresses a proposition.  But, the standard line is that this can’t help with (l*).  Here’s how Burgess and Burgess explain it (in square brackets):

[The would-be vindicator of the intuitive notion of truth who says of (l*) what was said of (l)/(l'), that it does not express a proposition, faces the reply, "So, a forteriori (l*) does not express a true proposition, and since that is just what it says, it is true."  The would-be vindicator may then insist, "No, (l*) does not say that; (l*) does not 'say' anything; (l*) does not express a proposition.  So, a forteriori (l*) does not express a true proposition, and contrary to what you say, (l*) is not true."  But then the would-be vindicator will be in the position of having said something (namely (l*), which is to say, "(l*) does not express a true proposition"), and also having said that it is not true.  The problem, sometimes called that of ineffability, is that the would-be vindicator's theory cannot be enunciated, at least not without saying something that, according to that theory itself, is untrue.]

I’m interested in the step of this reasoning that I’ve set in bold.  I guess I’m not sure why the person pushing the common sense line would want to make that move, i.e. go from ‘(l*) does not express a proposition’ to ‘(l*) does not express a true proposition’.  The later sentence is just (l*) itself.  Surely, if this sentence doesn’t express a proposition, then it isn’t a good candidate for the conclusion of an argument.

Of course, the move in question seems to be innocuous.  It seems to be the conclusion of a valid argument form.  But, of course, on first acquaintance (l*) seems to be a perfectly meaningful sentence that we might well expect to express a proposition.  It seems to be at least a slight departure from common sense to think that sentences that have the right form to express propositions—in the sense that meaningful constituents are properly combined into something that should be a well formed thought—sometimes don’t express propositions.  If this is the common sense position though, then I don’t see how it should be a further affront to common sense to think that there are sequences of sentences that have the right form to express valid arguments but don’t.  That just seems to be a natural consequence of taking up the position that form isn’t always a good guide to propositional content once the concept of truth and its affiliates have been introduced.

Of course, Burgess and Burgess are right that this leads to a kind of ineffability.  But, we should anticipate this.  The common sense line appears to be that, in certain cases, there is literally nothing to say even though the ordinary rules for composing propositions out of concepts would suggest otherwise.  The ineffability, then, isn’t because there’s some thought that we can’t find a way to voice; it’s because there isn’t a thought at all.  I’m not really sure whether this is plausible in the end, but it’s never been entirely obvious to me that it isn’t either.

Posted in Logic, Philosophy of Language | Leave a comment

Event: Professor Julian Savulescu, 2 May

We have a Royal Institute of Philosophy Public Lecture this Thursday.

2nd May                      Professor Julian Savulescu

Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics, Oxford University

‘Unfit for the Future: the Need for Moral Bioenhancement’

[Royal Institute of Philosophy Public Lecture]

Note: Professor Savulescu’s lecture will take place at 4pm on Thursday in 16 University Square, G01.

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Time Travel and Fatalism: Part 2

Now consider how the FAT argument might play out in the context of backwards time travel.  According to Lewis (1976), in order for time travel to genuinely involve travel, there must be a ‘discrepancy between time and time’; that is, in order to travel back in time, the time traveler’s journey must take time.  Suppose Tim travels back to a time before his birth in order to kill his grandfather.  If Tim’s journey back to the time of his grandfather’s youth does not take time, then there is no sense in which Tim travels from the present to a time prior to his birth; rather, he simply exists at intervals that are not temporally contiguous.  In order to deal with the discrepancy between different times required by genuine time travel, and in order to do so in a way that does not require two dimensions of time, Lewis introduces the devices of ‘personal’ and ‘external’ time.  Personal time is the time measured by the time traveler’s wrist watch, while external time is time itself, the time that the time traveler is traveling back through.

So let’s assume that Tim travels back to a time during his grandfather’s youth.  Can he succeed in his murderous plot?  If so, then contradictions arise; but if not, then why not?  Can the laws of logic alone stop him?  Consider the following version of FAT, tailored to this context (where t* is the time of Tim’s birth, and t is a time before Tim’s birth):

FAT-TT

6) It was true at t* that Tim does not kill his grandfather at t.  (Assumption)

7) Necessarily, if it was true at t* that Tim does not kill his grandfather at t, then Tim does not kill his grandfather at t. (From 6 and the necessity of logical consequence)

8 ) Tim never had and never will have a choice about whether 6 is true. (From 6 and the fixity of the past)

9) Tim never had and never will have a choice about whether he kills his grandfather at t. (From 7 and 8 )

10) Therefore Tim is not free to kill his grandfather at t. (From 9)

I submit that neither of our earlier responses are going to work in this context.  The relevant analogue of the eternalist’s response here would be to claim that premise 6 of FAT-TT is a timeless truth made true by Tim’s not killing grandfather at t, and therefore that premise 8 is false.  But is the situation here really analogous to the earlier one?  Compare premise 1 with its counterpart here, premise 6.  The former is a truth that is not grounded in an event existing at t*, but one existing at t, and thus it is perfectly legitimate to say that Susan’s going to Anstruther at t makes 1 true (at all times).  Can the same be said of premise 6?  Is it’s truth grounded in the event of Tim not killing grandfather at t, or is it grounded in an event existing at t*; namely, in the event of his being born at t*?  Given that the latter event is one that Tim never had and never will have a choice about, the answer one offers to this question is crucial for an adjudication of the matter at hand.  Unfortunately, however, given the nature of closed causal loops, it is not at all clear how one should answer.

Lewis makes the following point in his discussion of the causal loops engendered by time travel.  He says that though every event in the causal loop can be causally explained by events elsewhere on the loop, the loop itself may not have any such explanation.  Similarly, we can explain Tim’s not killing grandfather at t in terms of (i.e. as being entailed by) his birth at t*, in which case the anti-fatalist response to FAT-TT is blocked; or we can explain his birth at t* in terms of (i.e. as being entailed by) his (freely) not killing grandfather at t, in which case Tim’s free agency is vindicated.  In the latter case, it would appear that Tim does, in some sense, have a choice about his birth.  But there seems to be no way of deciding which explanation is prior.  This is why Lewis expresses doubt whether we can decide if personally past but externally future events (i.e. Tim’s birth) are straightforwardly past or straightforwardly future: all events in a closed causal loop are equally past and future.  It is natural, here, to appeal to the causal order in attempting to defend Tim’s freedom; the thought being that as long as Tim’s deliberations at t are causally upstream from his birth at t*, then he is able to causally influence events that occur later than t.  But the point is that his deliberations at t are also causally downstream from his birth at t*.  And even by the lights of an eternalist, if an event e is earlier than t, then e is fixed at t, thus justifying premise 8.

As for the presentist’s response, it’s not clear that this kind of time travel is compatible with presentism (see Sider 2005).  Even granting that it is, however, if the truth of 6 is grounded in the birth of Tim (an actual event), then the presentist response is not available, since that response depended upon there being no event corresponding to the past truth about the future.

Posted in Metaphysics | 1 Comment

Time Travel and Fatalism: Part 1

Consider the following argument for fatalism (let t* = a time 1000 years ago, and t =  tomorrow):

FAT

1) It was true at t* that Susan goes to Anstruther at t. (Assumption)

2) Necessarily, if it was true at t* that Susan goes to Anstruther at t, then Susan goes to Anstruther at t. (From 1 and the necessity of logical consequence)

3) Susan never had and never will have a choice about whether 1 is true. (From 1 and the fixity of the past)

4) Susan never had and never will have a choice about whether she goes to Anstruther at t. (From 2 and 3)

5) Therefore Susan is not free to refrain from going to Anstruther at t. (From 4)

The idea behind premise 3 is that the past if fixed, over and done with, and so whatever was true about the past will always be true, regardless of our choices.  So we construe the fixity of the past in terms of an agent’s choices, and it is fairly uncontroversial to affirm the thesis that an agent has no choices about matters 1000 years past.  It is somewhat more controversial to assume, as the argument clearly does, that there is truth about the future.  Rejecting this assumption, however, involves rejecting classical logic for a limited domain of propositions (those about the future), solely in order to avoid fatalism; and this just seems ad hoc.  So I will assume that there is truth about the future.

The inference pattern relied on in moving from premises 2 and 3 to 4 looks something like this (where Np = ‘p and the agent never had and never will have a choice about p’):

Necessarily (if p then q)

Np

Therefore Nq.

I assume that this is a valid inference pattern.  It is difficult to see how there could be a plausible counter-example to it.  Furthermore, an objection to FAT which relied solely upon a questioning of this inference pattern would not be very philosophically satisfying.

So how should we respond to FAT?  Consider how the argument might call for a divergence of responses depending upon one’s temporal ontology.  The standard anti-fatalist metaphysical explanation that is brought to bear against such arguments is that future truth does not necessitate or fix future or present actions; rather, future and present actions make propositions about those actions true.  According to Rea (2006), the anti-fatalist explanation is a valid response to FAT, but only on an eternalist ontology according to which past, present, and future are all equally real.  His argument for this claim is that premise 1 is best interpreted as a tenseless truth that is eternally made true by Susan’s going to Anstruther at t.  Thus, on the basis of this claim, the eternalist can reject premise 3: Susan does have a choice about whether 1 is true.  But, Rea argues, this response is not open to the presentist (i.e. someone who thinks that only present objects and events exist), since, for her, Susan’s going to Anstruther does not exist until it occurs, and so is not available to make premise 1 true.  So, regardless of whether 1 is true at t* or eternally true, since Susan’s going to Anstruther neither exists at t* nor exists eternally, she has no choice about its truth, and the fatalist conclusion follows.

I think that Rea is correct in arguing that the eternalist can resist FAT in this manner, but I disagree that it’s curtains for the presentist.  What is it about the past that makes us think that it is fixed, or that we (now) have no choice about it?  What is it that grounds the intuitive notion of the fixity of the past?  Plausibly, for the presentist, fixity is grounded in the occurrence of concrete events, and there is no concrete event that corresponds to ‘Susan goes to Anstruther in 1000 years’.  There is at most the abstract state of affairs, it’s being the case that Susan goes to Anstruther in 1000 years; and whatever this state of affairs amounts to, it certainly is not something that occurs at t*.  After all, it is not as though when t* is present, it’s being the case that Susan goes to Anstruter in 1000 years happens.  Thus, intuitively, this state of affairs is not fixed, and therefore neither is its corresponding proposition.  What ultimately grounds the truth of ‘Susan goes to Anstruther in 1000 years’ is the concrete event of  Susan’s going to Anstruther at t* + 1000, and this event is not fixed until it occurs.  Granted, there is an issue here of whether the presentist can ground the truth of premise 1, when it’s corresponding event does not yet exist; but there are a range of solutions that the presentist might offer to this ‘grounding’ problem.  As long as these solutions do not beg the question against the fatalist (and I see no reason why they should), then the grounding problem can legitimately be deemed independent of worries about fatalism.

Posted in Metaphysics | 1 Comment

Devolution & The McKay Commission

A VOICE, NOT A VETO SAYS THE MCKAY COMMISSION

The McKay Commission, appointed to consider the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons, reported on Monday. We concluded that decisions taken by UK MPs with a separate and distinct effect for England should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs for England.

To some, this suggests that MPs from Northern Ireland (as well as Scotland and Wales) might have to forego their right to decide on legislation for England that comes before the House of Commons. But this is not the case.

Under our proposals, no MP from Northern Ireland would have their rights reduced. Instead of considering how to limit the rights of MPs from constituencies outside England to vote on English issues, we explored new ways of listening to the collective voice of MPs representing England or England-and-Wales when shaping laws that relate to their territory. In essence, we want all MPs to retain the right of final say, while allowing for the voice of England to be heard.

As an independent 5-person Commission we based our findings on the principle that informs the devolution settlement here, as in Scotland and Wales. This is the principle that the UK Parliament will ‘not normally’ legislate with regard to devolved matters except with the agreement of the devolved legislature. In other words, issues over which the Northern Ireland Assembly has jurisdiction are decided by MLAs, unless they give Westminster explicit consent to legislate on those issues. A recent example is the Assembly’s agreement to reforms of estate agency business in Northern Ireland as part of a UK-wide bill.

We suggest that a similar principle be adopted for England. The devolution arrangements are already marking out some legislation as being of relevance to England only. Yet, this is not sufficiently recognised in existing arrangements. Tuition fees, for example, were applied to England in 2004 with the help of MPs from Scotland voting in support of the Labour government’s plan, even though the measure was opposed by a majority of MPs from England.

We found a growing discontent among the public in England for such scenarios. Independent research shows four in every five people in England believe that Scottish MPs should not vote on laws relating to England. And, over half believe that Scotland gets more than its fair share of public money, compared with one-quarter of English people who think that Northern Ireland gets more than it should from taxpayers. Politically, too, more than half of the English want some form of England-specific procedure for making laws for England.

This sense of English grievance was supported by oral and written evidence to us from a wide range of individuals and organisations across the UK. The stabilising of devolved arrangements in Northern Ireland and strengthening of the devolution settlement in Scotland and Wales has sharpened this sense of unfairness among the public in England. It became clear to us that there was a need for transparent, accountable procedures whereby legislation of particular relevance to England could be identified, and the views from England expressed.

If our recommendations are adopted, MPs from England will have the opportunity to make their own views known on legislation relating to England during the passage of a bill. All MPs would have a final say, with the views of MPs from England known. This preserves the right of Parliament to make the final decision.

MPs from Northern Ireland, then, together with all other MPs, will retain their right to have the final say on issues affecting England, and will be able to inform their voting decisions with knowledge of what MPs from England think about these matters. At the same time, MPs representing English constituencies will be given a stronger voice when concerns directly affecting the interests of England come before Parliament.

Previous suggestions for solving the West Lothian Question have ranged from a stand-alone English Parliament to special procedures in the House of Commons known as ‘English votes for English laws’. These, and other, solutions would have the effect of making MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales redundant. At best, they would become second-class MPs. Our recommendations avoid this consequence by guaranteeing that all MPs retain the final say. MPs from England are given a voice, but not a veto.

 

Professor Yvonne Galligan, Queen’s University Belfast

Member of the McKay Commission

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