Sunday, June 28, 2015

Internalism and the Meditations

Here's a Cartesian idea: there is special epistemic access to facts about our own subjective, internal experiences. Other knowledge we may have, like knowledge of the external world, must be derived from the more basic knowledge, which concerns the internal.

This is clearly something Descartes thinks, but is there an argument to that effect? I'd always thought he did; the Meditations offers something like this:
  1. There are possible skeptical scenarios for beliefs about the external world
  2. There are no possible skeptical scenarios for beliefs about the internal
  3. Being such that there's no possible skeptical scenario for it is the marker of the kind of epistemic fundamentality in question; so
  4. The internal, not the external, is what has the kind of epistemic fundamentality in question
Premise (3) is no doubt dubitable, but I'll decline from dubiting it at present. I want to get clearer about (1) and (2). What's it take to be a skeptical scenario with respect to some belief? It seems like maybe Descartes treats a skeptical scenario with respect to a given belief as a possible case where one is wrong about that belief, but things seem exactly the same. But if that's the working understanding of a skeptical scenario, then it looks like we're just assuming the kind of internalism I'm looking for justification for. Why should we think the key question, for whether a given scenario has skeptical implications, is whether things seem the same? It seems that one would only sign up to that criterion if one were already convinced that seemings are really epistemically important.

Note that a more neutral characterization of skeptical scenarios might have it that a skeptical scenario with respect to p is a possible case where one is wrong about p, even though one has all the same basic evidence. But putting things this way, premises (1) and (2) become much less obvious.

So I'm tempted to think there's not actually any pressure in favour of internalism in Descartes's reflections on skeptical scenarios; reflection on which kind of deception is and isn't possible might just amount to teasing out the internalist commitments one initially finds oneself with.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Factoring Views about Having Reasons

I have been thinking about Mark Schroeder’s very interesting paper, “Having Reasons”. He argues against a ‘factoring account’ of having a reason for action, and he also argues that epistemologists have been misled by assuming a parallel factoring account of evidence.

I have three reactions.

  1. Schroeder is unclear about what exactly the commitments of the factoring account are; I think he may slide between a stronger and a weaker reading of it. This isn’t disastrous for his own project, because he wants to reject both readings, but I think it’s important to keep them separate (in part because of (2) below).
  2. The stronger reading is pretty plausibly false (though maybe not just for the reasons Shroeder says) but the weaker reading is pretty plausibly true (despite his arguments).
  3. Epistemologists have not been misled by assuming (a strong form of) the factoring account.
I’ll try to defend (1) in this post.

What is the factoring account? Schroeder first introduces it via an analogy:
When someone has a ticket to the opera, that is because there is a ticket to the opera, and it is in her possession—she has it. Similarly, if one has a golf partner, this can only be because there is someone who is a golf partner, and one has him. But here, it is not like there are people out there who have the property of being golf partners, and one is in your possession. Rather, being a golf partner is simply a relational property, and the golf partner you have—your golf partner—is simply the one who stands in the golf partner of relation to you. 
A factoring account of having opera tickets is true. There is an opera ticket, and moreover, one has it. A factoring account of having golf partners, however, is to be rejected. What exactly is wrong with this view? Schroeder says it’s a commitment to the implausible claim that “there are people out there who have the property of being golf partners, and one is in your possession.” But of course, strictly speaking, there are people out there who are golf partners, and one of them is mine. I agree with Schroeder that there’s an important contrast between these cases, but I don’t think he’s quite articulated what it is. I think it has to do with grounding. What makes it the case that I have an opera ticket is the existence of this thing the opera ticket, combined with me standing in a suitable relationship to it. But the existence of the golf partner, combined with my relationship to her, doesn’t make it the case that I have a golf partner. On the contrary, it is my having her as a golf partner that makes it the case that she is a golf partner. The relationship, not the object, is relatively fundamental here; the existence of the golf partner—though genuine—is derivative.

So distinguish these claims:

  • Weak Factoring: Any time S has R as a reason, there exists a reason R, and S stands in a suitable having relation to R.
  • Strong Factoring: What it is for S to have R as a reason is for there to exist a reason R, and for S to stand in a suitable having relation to R.
As the names imply, Strong Factoring implies Weak Factoring, but not vice versa. If what I said about golf partners is correct, Weak Factoring does not get at the intuitive contrast between opera tickets and golf partners. The analogue of Weak Factoring is true of golf partners. (Contra the letter of Schroeder's text, any time one has a golf partner, there really is someone who is a a golf partner that one has.) I don’t think Schroeder is at all clear about this; he writes at times as if ‘the Factoring Account’ is just Weak Factoring. (i.e., “[T]he Factoring Account has two major commitments. In any case in which it seems that there is a reasons someone has to do something, whatever is the reason that she has must be just that: (1) a reason for her to do it, and (2) one that she has.” p. 58)

The distinction makes an important difference when it comes to thinking about the views one might have about reasons. For example, here is a possible view one might have about reasons: R=K. (A proposition is among a subject’s reasons if and only if the subject knows that proposition.) This view counts as a Weak Factoring view—any time you have knowledge, there is some knowledge, and moreover, you have it. But it is not a Strong Factoring view; the extinct of the knowledge ontologically depends on your having the knowledge. It is more like golf partners than opera tickets.

“Weak Factoring” is probably a misnomer, really—the view in question isn’t a kind of factoring at all. It’s a mere entailment claim. So when Schroeder’s argument against what he calls ‘The Factoring View’ takes the form of counterexamples to Weak Factoring, he’s really making a much more radical claim than anything we should call the rejection of a factoring treatment of having reasons. He's rejecting the mere entailment from having a reason to there being a reason.

(His counterexamples are cases where a subject acts on a reasonable but mistaken belief—like Bernard Williams’s subject who takes a sip of the liquid in his glass because he falsely believes it’s a martini. I don’t think these are counterexamples, for reasons I won’t go into right now.)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Perceptual Justification and the Logic of 'Because'

Here's an invalid argument form:

  1. If x is F, then that's because x is G.
  2. If x is G, then x is H. Therefore,
  3. If x is F, then that's because x is H.
This instance should make it obvious that this form is invalid, if it's not already obvious:

  1. If Laila got an A, then that's because she received a total score of 80 or higher.
  2. If Laila received a total score of 80 or higher, then she passed the course. Therefore,
  3. If Laila got an A, then that's because she passed the course.
I'm not sure just what inferences are valid in the logic of this sort of 'because', but this one isn't. If there were an appropriate 'because' in premise (2), then transitivity of 'because' would establish the validity of the inference. I'm not sure whether I think 'because' is transitive'. But it's not closed under the material conditional, or even entailment.

So I think that Eli Chudnoff is mistaken in supposing that these two arguments support the idea that perceptual and intuitive justification obtains in virtue of phenomenology:
  1. If your perceptual experience representing that p justifies you in believing that p, then it does so because in having this experience it is for you just like having a perceptual experience that puts you in a position to know that p.
  2. If in having an experience it is for you just like having a perceptual experience that puts you in a position to know that p, then it has presentational phenomenology with respect to p.
  3. So if your perceptual experience representing that p justifies you in believing that p, then it does so because it has presentational phenomenology with respect to p. (Intuition, p. 92)
  1. If your intuition experience representing that p justifies you in believing that p, then it does so because in having that experience it is for you just like having an intuition experience that puts you in a position to know that p.
  2. If in having an experience it is for you just like having an intuition experience that puts you in a position to know that p, then it has presentational phenomenology with respect to p.
  3. So if your intuition experience representing that p justifies you in believing that p, then it does so because it has presentational phenomenology with respect to p. (Intuition, p. 97)
These arguments are invalid. The validity would, I think, be debatable if each premise (2) were strengthened into a 'because' claim. Maybe that is the most charitable interpretation of Eli here?

Friday, March 06, 2015

My Academic Materials Sold without Permission

I am in the habit of giving my students, via UBC's course management system, access to detailed information from my courses—in the courses in which I use slides, I let students download my slides, in the courses where I don't, I let them download the 3–4-page notes I type up for them corresponding to each lecture. I let them download sample problem sets and lists of possible essay questions, detailed notes describing common issues that came up in grading exams or essays, etc. One potential drawback I have seen mentioned to this kind of practice is that it disincentivizes students from coming to class, since there are other ways to get the material. I expect this is a drawback of this habit—although I try to keep the class and these materials tightly integrated to mitigate that somewhat, but I'm generally of the opinion that the pedagogical value of being able to look over the material multiple times at a student's own pace outweighs this disadvantage. Certainly my students always tell me that they greatly appreciate these resources.

Unfortunately, however, there is another disadvantage I've become aware of over the past couple of years. There are for-profit websites that encourage students to take materials like mine and upload them into a database, where they then charge other students a fee for allowing them to access these files. (I'm not totally clear on how the sites work, but I think students are paid in some way—perhaps with site credit?—to upload these materials.) One such cite, 'CourseHero', has published over a hundred of my files on their site over the past few years. This is an illegal practice; these documents are my intellectual property, uploaded and sold for profit without my consent. Every few months I go through and check to see whether it's time to send a new DMCA takedown notice. (I am sending another today.) They do remove the files when I demand them to, but new ones always come up. To protect my copyright, I am required to spend a significant amount of my own time hunting down illegally uploaded material.

Besides the simple fact that is illegal, there are several reasons I am upset by this practice.

(1) It attempts to profit from the work I am doing for my employer and my students. My students at UBC are paying good money for the work I do, and the expertise I bring to bear, in the classroom. Some of that work is literally being stolen and sold.

(2) It removes the material from its appropriate context. I give my students these materials at particular times, and in a particular progression, for particular reasons. If one of my current students buys last year's notes and reads ahead, the material may not be presented in a helpful way at this stage in the semester. Indeed, in some cases, like when I make new conventional choices for logical notation in my formal logic course, last year's material will actually be misleading for this year's students.

(3) It interferes with my ability to assess. While I write new essay questions and problem sets each semester, it is helpful to be able to re-use some questions, or to introduce questions of a certain kind in assessed contexts. If students are able to download answer keys for previous semesters' material, I am less able fairly to assess their comprehension, since they had an unfair advantage. (Of course, this imbalance is particularly problematic when the advantage is offered to those able to pay for this service.)

(4) It violates the privacy of myself and of my students. The material will often discuss particulars of what ideas have been raised in class, including ideas generated by students. It is prepared for a particular audience, and not for public consumption. What students discuss in my class does not thereby become public knowledge. It also represents my own thinking about topics I'm often not publishing about—in some cases, I'm writing out my own relatively undeveloped philosophical thoughts, and in some, I'm playing devil's advocate or merely exploring an idea. In this non-research context, I won't always signal as clearly which is which than I would in something I'm intending for a public audience. It should be up to me whether to make this kind of content available to the broader public.

So, three messages:

Students: It is important to understand that the materials provided to you by your instructors are not yours to do with as you please. At least at UBC, they remain the intellectual property of the instructor, and are protected by copyright law. I have been told that at some institutions, they are the property of the university. I'm not sure. But you should certainly not assume that you are within your legal rights to sell the material your instructor gives you to any third-party. It might even be possible to prosecute students who violate instructors' intellectual property rights in this way. If you're not sure whether you have an instructor's permission to share course material, you can always ask.

Instructors: if you feel as I do that you don't want such materials to be sold by corporate websites, unfortunately it looks like you have to look out for this material yourself. I found a lot of things by searching for my name at the 'CourseHero' website; I found some other things not attached to my name by looking for course numbers. To demand the removal of material, you can send an email based on the following template. (At CourseHero, the address is

*** Sent via Email - DMCA Notice of Copyright Infringement ***
Dear Sir/Madam,
I certify under penalty of perjury, that I am an agent authorized to act on behalf of the owner of the intellectual property rights and that the information contained in this notice is accurate.
I have a good faith belief that the page or material listed below is not authorized by law for use by the individual(s) associated with the identified page listed below or their agents and therefore infringes the copyright owner's rights.
This notice is sent pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the European Union's Directive on the Harmonisation of Certain Aspects of Copyright and Related Rights in the Information Society (2001/29/EC), and/or other laws and regulations relevant in European Union member states or other jurisdictions.
My contact information is as follows:
Name: [______]
Organization name: [______]
Email: [______]
Phone: [______]
Mailing address: [______]
My electronic signature follows:
Infringing page/material that I demand be disabled or removed in consideration of the above:

Rights Holder: [______]

Original Work:
[list of offendingURLs]
CourseHero: Fuck you.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

I have a high opinion of Nous and PPR

While I can see some risk that I could be suffering a moral blindspot here, I feel like, as someone who's recently been speaking out about philosophy journal editorial practices, and also someone who worked closely for a couple of years with Nous and PPR, that I should make a point of making public my opinion that those journals seem, from all the evidence available to me, to be very well-run. I'm unaware of any editorial misconduct there, and I do not suspect that there has been any. I think the discipline would be a better place if more editors were more similar to Ernie Sosa.

I don't expect anybody to take my opinion as significant evidence on this matter, but I wanted to at least put myself on the record.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Maximizing the Value in Life

I like Amanda MacAskill's piece on sleeping in. Amanda argues very sensibly that while we think life is the kind of good where it's better to have more of it, we don't measure the relevant quantity by subtracting the date of birth from the date of death; the value in life comes from experiencing it. So ceteris paribus, if you spend more of your life asleep, you're missing out on some of what's good about life. This seems completely right. (Whether Amanda's advice to sleep less is good depends on the degree to which the quality of waking life would be degraded, which of course will vary between individuals.)

I have wondered for a little while, however, about a further development of a point like this. If it is the experience of life that is valuable, such that more of the experience is better than less, even if the biological lifespan is the same, it seems to me that there's also a case to be made that it's better to have more of the experience, even holding fixed the amount of time in which one is conscious. It's a familiar phenomenon that sometimes, the passage of time feels faster than at other times. If I'm sitting at home playing Dominion, I could spend eight hours and barely notice it. But if I'm taking photographs in a city I've never been to before, those eight hours feel much more full of my life.

I suspect, then, that for reasons much like the ones Amanda articulates in her piece, we have some reason not merely to sleep less, but to engage in those activities that slow perceived time down, and avoid those that speed it up. This suggests, for instance, that it might be a great idea to travel more, or that it might be a terrible idea to have children. Ceteris paribus.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Challenges for Anonymous Review

I'm continuing to think about journals. There are a lot of serious problems, and it's really unclear how to fix them. I want to lay out another problem I haven't seen remarked on before. This one's more about referees and authors than editors. I'll start with a problem that has been remarked on before:

As has recently been observed several times, even with the best editorial practices in the world, it's not very difficult for a referee who isn't committed to anonymous review to google the title of a submission and learn the author. If, like most of us, you don't submit your paper until after it's been around in various forms for a while—you've presented it at workshops, posted drafts online for comments, etc.—the anonymity of the review process is contingent on the whim of the referee. It's possible to take some steps here as an author—you can change the title prior to submission, for example. This will make it harder for a referee to discover your identity, but likely not impossible.

Here's the twist on the problem: the reason that anonymous refereeing is important is to avoid bias—preferential treatment of some submissions (those by established figures, white people, native English speakers, men, people educated at prestigious departments, etc.) over others. So while it's possible for authors to go to extraordinary measures to protect their anonymity, in many cases, it's against their own selfish interests to do so. Suppose for the purpose of argument—and this strikes me as fairly plausible—that I am someone who is more likely to be unfairly benefitted, than unfairly harmed, by a breakdown in anonymous review. I'm at least most of the kinds of people mentioned in that parenthetical. (I've never quite figured out whether I'm a white person or not.) When I submit my paper to a journal, the journal has a rule, and the profession has a norm, that I should anonymise my paper. I remove self-citations or put them into the third person, I omit acknowledgements, etc. But now I have a choice to make: in addition to removing that straightforward information from my submission, should I take my draft down from my website, and change the title? Should I paraphrase key sections that are too similar to the abstract of a talk I gave last year that's still up on a workshop website? If anonymous review were very important to me, I could go to extra effort to preserve it. But if I'm thinking selfishly—and I do think it's reasonable for individuals participating in this system to be making these kinds of decisions selfishly—I'm not going to be very motivated to do so.

It is only those who need the protection from negative bias who are incentivised to go to great lengths to ensure anonymous review. And so now we get to the next layer of the problem: if, as seems likely, the people most incentivised to ensure anonymous review are more likely than others to take the steps to render their submissions ungooglable, then ungooglibility becomes evidence a submission by someone referees are biased against. If a referee decides to google the paper, and finds nothing, the referee can take this to be evidence against the paper's having been written by someone "important".

I can only see two solutions to this problem; both seem very difficult to implement. The first is that authors don't treat these kinds of extraordinary measures as optional—journal policies or disciplinary norms could make clear that authors must not include drafts online, or references to titles, or submit papers with language too similar to language on workshop websites, etc. This seems like a very intrusive requirement, but if the rules could be articulated clearly enough, it might do the job. The other is the obvious one: that referees don't go seeking this information out. This requires sound judgment on the part of referees, and is hard to enforce, but it would also work. The difficulty here, of course, is that it's so hard for editors to get good referees (or any referees), because there's so little incentive to do the job well, ethically, or at all.

I don't know how to make the economics work, but I feel like a lot of things would be much easier if there were some way we could pay referees for their work.