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Ability and Possibility

My paper "Ability and Possibility" has been published in Philosophers' Imprint. Here's the abstract:

According to the classical quantificational analysis of modals, an agent has the ability to perform an act iff (roughly) relevant facts about the agent and her environment are compatible with her performing the act. The analysis faces a number of problems, many of which can be traced to the fact that it takes even accidental performance of an act as proof of the relevant ability. I argue that ability statements are systematically ambiguous: on one reading, accidental performance really is enough; on another, more is required. The stronger notion of ability plays a central role in normative contexts. Both readings, I argue, can be captured within the classical quantificational framework, provided we allow conversational context to impose restrictions not just on the "accessible worlds" (the facts that are held fixed), but also on what counts as a performance of the relevant act among these worlds.

No evidence for singular thought

Teaching for this semester is finally over.

Last week I gave a talk in Umea at a workshop on singular thought. I was pleased to be invited because I don't really understand singular thought. Giving a talk, I hoped, would force me to have a closer look at the literature. But then I was too busy teaching.

People seem to mean different things by 'singular thought'. The target of my talk was the view that one can usefully understand the representational content of beliefs and other intentional states as attributing properties to individuals, without any intervening modes of presentation. This view is often associated with a certain interpretation of attitude reports: whenever we can truly say `S believes (or knows etc.) that A is F', where A is a name, then supposedly the subject S stands in an interesting relation of belief (or knowledge etc.) to a proposition directly involving the bearer of that name.

Tree prover update

I've spent some time this summer upgrading my tree prover. The new version is here. What's new:

  • support for some (normal) modal logics
  • better detection of invalid formulas
  • faster proof search
  • nicer user interface and nicer trees
  • cleaner source

I hope there aren't too many new bugs. Let me know if you find one!

A desire that thwarts decision theory

Suppose we want our decision theory to not impose strong constraints on people's ultimate desires. You may value personal wealth, or you may value being benevolent and wise. You may value being practically rational: you may value maximizing expected utility. Or you may value not maximizing expected utility.

This last possibility causes trouble.

If not maximizing expected utility is your only basic desire, and you have perfect and certain information about your desires, then arguably (although the argument isn't trivial) every choice in every decision situation you can face has equal expected utility; so you are bound to maximize expected utility no matter what. Your desire can't be fulfilled.

Why would you do that?

I'm generally happy with Causal Decision Theory. I think two-boxing is clearly the right answer in Newcomb's problem, and I'm not impressed by any of the alleged counterexamples to Causal Decision Theory that have been put forward. But there's one thing I worry about. It is what exactly the theory should say: how it should be spelled out.

Suppose you face a choice between two acts A and B. Loosely speaking, to evaluate these options, we need to check whether the A-worlds are on average better than the B-worlds, where the "average" is weighted by your credence on the subjunctive supposition that you make the relevant choice. Even more loosely, we want to know how good the world would be if you were to choose A, and how good it would be if you were to choose B. So we need to know what else would be the case if you were to choose, say, A.

Objects of revealed preference

A common assumption in economics is that utilities are reducible to choice dispositions. The story goes something like this. Suppose we know what an agent would choose if she were asked to pick one from a range of goods. If the agent is disposed to choose X, and Y was an available alternative, we say that the agent prefers X over Y. One can show that if the agent's choice dispositions satisfy certain formal constraints, then they are "representable" by a utility function in the sense that whenever the agent prefers X over Y, the function assigns greater value to X than to Y. This utility function is assumed to be the agent's true utility function, telling us how much the agent values the relevant goods.

Lewis on magnetism: Reply to Janssen-Lauret and Macbride

In my 2014 paper "Against Magnetism", I argued that the meta-semantics Lewis defended in "Putnam's Paradox" and pp.45-49 of "New Work" is (a) unattractive, (b) does not fit what Lewis wrote about meta-semantics elsewhere, and (c) was never Lewis's considered view.

In a paper forthcoming in the AJP, Frederique Janssen-Lauret and Fraser Macbride (henceforth, JL&M) disagree with my point (b), and present what they call "decisive evidence" against (c). Here's my response. In short, I'm not convinced.

Refereeing as as Service

There should be a website (or app) that helps with the following kinds of issues.

  • I recently wrote a paper on ability modals in which I sketch some ideas for how a certain linguistic phenomenon might be compositionally derived. I'm really unsure about that part of the paper, because I'm not an expert in the relevant areas of formal semantics. I'd like to get advice from an expert, but none of my friends are, and I don't want to bother people I don't know.
  • I once wrote a paper on decision-theoretic methods in non-consequentialist ethics. But I don't know much about ethics. I'd need someone to tell me how non-consequentialists typically think about decisions under uncertainty, who has already tried to sell decision-theoretic methods for that purpose, and what key papers I need to read.
  • When I submit papers to journals, I often get rejections pointing out problems that are easy to fix. It would have been good if someone had pointed out these problems to me before I submitted the paper.
  • I think many of my drafts and papers are a little hard to understand, but I'm not sure why. I'd like someone to give me feedback on which passages are confusing, where a reader might get lost, etc.

Basically, I'd like to hire (different kinds of) referees to look over my drafts and give me constructive feedback.

Lewis's empiricism

Last week, I gave a talk in Manchester at a (very nice) workshop on "David Lewis and His Place in the History of Analytic Philosophy". My talk was on "Lewis's empiricism". I've now written it up as a paper, since it got too long for a blog post.

The paper is really about hyperintensional epistemology. The question is how we can make sense of the kind of metaphysical enquiry Lewis was engaged in if we accept his models of knowledge and belief, which leave no room for substantive investigations into non-contingent matters.

From Sensor Variables to Phenomenal Facts

I wrote this short piece for a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies on Chalmers's "The Meta-Problem of Consciousness" (2018). Much of my paper rehashes ideas from section 5 of my "Imaginary Foundations" paper, but here I try to present these ideas more simply and directly, without the Bayesian background.

The central claim I try to defend is that the hard problem of consciousness arises from a particular method by which our brain processes sensory input. Agents whose brain uses that method can be expected to be puzzled about phenomenal consciousness, even if they live in a purely physical world. The story is meant to answer the "meta-problem" of what gives rise to our puzzlement about consciousness, but it is also meant to dissolve the first-order problem: once we understand the source of the puzzlement, we should no longer be puzzled.

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