Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tony Brueckner (1953-2014)

My dissertation advisor and friend, Tony Brueckner, recently died after a short illness. He was an outstanding philosopher. More importantly, he was an affable, generous, humble, and kindhearted person. Like so many others, I benefited tremendously from having him as a mentor. I'm grateful for the opportunity to work with such a clear-thinking and careful philosopher and I feel very fortunate to have developed a friendship with such a fun, kind, and gentle person.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Intuitions, Reasons, and Compatibilism

In class yesterday, we discussed the role of intuitions in philosophy. It came up because John Martin Fischer has a chapter in the book we're reading in which he seems to rely on a kind of epistemic principle involving intuitions. We had trouble articulating the principle in class. Perhaps the entry on intuitions in the SEP will be helpful in clearing up some of the questions that arose in my class and will help us spell out the principle that Fischer seems to have in mind.

Here's a principle like one we considered in class (and which is not that far from one mentioned in the SEP entry). I'll call it principle "P"
P = If a theory (generalization, etc.) contravenes the content of an intuition, then that intuition should be treated as (defeasible) evidence against the theory.  
Fischer doesn't explicitly endorse this principle, but he does seem to think that, all else being equal, our theories (beliefs, views, etc.) should be in keeping with our intuitions. That is, he seems to think that if a theory is not in keeping with an intuition, then this is a reason (albeit a defeasible one) for thinking that the theory is false.

The majority of students in my class didn't take issue with this sort of principle, but a number of them were skeptical of the reliability of intuitions in providing reasons to endorse a theory (have a belief, etc.). I was surprised, in fact, by the level of skepticism about principles like P.

A related issue that we discussed involved how we ought to unpack Fischer's argument at the beginning of the chapter (and whether he was intending to really offer an argument).

We might read Fischer as having put forward the following argument:
(1) We have the intuition that we're sometimes free and morally responsible for what we do, and we would have this intuition even if determinism turned out to be true.
(2) We thus have the intuition that compatibilism is true.
(3) Incompatiblism contravenes the content of this intuition (i.e., the intuition that compatibilism is true).
(4) Principle P.
(5) Therefore, the intuition that compatibilism is true provides (defeasible) evidence against incompatibilism.  
Is this an accurate way to unpack Fischer's argument? Even if it's not, what do you make of the argument and what do you think about Principle P?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A "Philosophical Climate Survey"

A survey is being conducted about the climate in philosophy departments (having to do with how people feel about the level of sexism, racism, etc.). You can take it anonymously here.

Here's the blurb about the survey:

One of the most important factors when determining which graduate schools to apply to, and what school to eventually attend, is how that program treats its students. While campus visits and correspondence with graduate students can give prospective students some evidence, anonymous reports from current graduate students may also be valuable. Our goal in distributing this survey is to provide another insight about how graduate programs (especially in philosophy) treat their students. In the interest of all prospective graduate students, the survey will not only ask questions about the atmosphere for women, but also the atmosphere for racial minorities, the disabled, and those in the LGBTIQ community. 

An anonymous survey has its drawbacks. For one, there is no way to ensure that all reports are made by actual students of the department. Additionally, any individual report may be inaccurate, and may not reflect how the department actually is. We feel that these sacrifices in accuracy are worth the increased honesty that anonymity may provide. An anonymous survey allows graduate students in their respective departments to voice their opinions without fear that their correspondence will be made public, or that they will suffer any negative repercussions from their university. Any results eventually published from this survey must be looked at with these concerns in mind. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Marist College Undergrad Philosophy Conference

Marist is in a beautiful part of the country and the conference should be a stimulating one....

The Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Marist College will host the Fourth Mid-Hudson Valley Undergraduate Philosophy Conference April 4-5, 2014. Undergraduates are encouraged to submit papers on any topic in philosophy. The conference accepts at most six papers, and there are no concurrent presentations.

The keynote address will be given by Catherine Wilson. Professor Wilson is the Anniversary Professor of Philosophy at the University of York. She is the author of many articles in ethics and the history of early modern philosophy, and her most recent book is Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Please send papers of no more than 3,000 words by February 15, 2014. We are accepting electronic submissions by attachment in PDF or MS Word format. Please send submissions to James Snyder at 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Consequence Argument and Begging the Question

We've begun reading Four Views on Free Will and are working our way through the first chapter by Bob Kane in which he argues for Libertarianism.

Kane there considers the Consequence Argument:
(1) There is nothing we can now do to change the past.
(2) There is nothing we can now do to change the laws of nature.
(3) There is nothing we now do to change the past and the laws of nature.
(4) If determinism is true, our present actions are necessary consequences of the past and the laws of nature.
(5) Therefore, there is nothing we can now do to change the fact that our present actions occur (i.e., we cannot do otherwise than we actually do).
As he notes, many critics of this argument object to the move from the premises to (5).  The underlying (implicit) principle here is something like:
Transfer of Powerlessness Principle or TP: If there is nothing anyone can do to change X, and if Y is a necessary consequence of X (if it must be that, if X occurs, Y occurs), then there is nothing anyone can do to change Y.  
The objections often come down to the analysis of what it means to say that an agent "can" or "has the power" to do something. As Kane points out, one might opt for a notion of ability or power that is hypothetical or conditional. On this approach, to have an ability simply means something like "if one wanted (or tried) to do X, then she would do X." So, to say that I could have (had the ability, power, etc.) to eat shrimp for dinner last night is just to say that, had I wanted to eat shrimp for dinner, I would have.

As Kane points out, this critic (let's call her the hypothetical compatiblist) will insist that the Consequence Argument is invalid--because the premises could be true while the conclusion is false. The conclusion is false, on this view, because there is a sense in which we can do otherwise than we actually do. It's the hypothetical or conditional sense--had we wanted to do otherwise, we would have. The fact that what we do is determined (by the laws and past) does nothing to undermine our freedom. In other words, determinism doesn't rule free will. So we can admit that we can't change the past, that we can't change the laws, that our present actions are the necessary consequences of the past and laws, all while denying we cannot do otherwise. Of course, this is all just to say that compatbilism is true.   

Kane is a bit quick in discussing replies to this maneuver. He notes that some incompatiblists will respond by charging the hypothetical compatibilist with begging the question--since the hypothetical analysis was rigged from the beginning to make freedom compatible with determinism. Kane rightly explains that the compatiblist can offer a similar retort and charge the incompatibilist with begging the question--since the notion of ability that she has in mind is rigged from the beginning to make freedom incompatible with determinism.

What do you make of this seeming impasse? Is there a way out? What should we make of the hypothetical analysis of ability? Surely we can assess its merits independently of the Consequence Argument. Can you think of any arguments for/against it that seem compelling? What do you think about TP? Is it true? Can you think of any arguments for/against it that seem compelling?    

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Fulbright UK Summer Institute 2014 Program

The US-UK Fulbright Commission is pleased to announce that applications are open for the 2014 UK Summer Institutes. These summer programmes provide the opportunity for US undergraduates (aged over 18), with at least two years of undergraduate study left to complete, to come to the UK on a three, four, five or six week academic and cultural summer programme. Participants will get the opportunity to experience an exciting academic programme at a highly regarded UK University, explore the culture, heritage and history of the UK and develop their academic ability by improving presentation, research and communication skills.

There are nine Summer Programmes available for US students in 2014. The Summer Institute will cover the majority of the participant costs. This includes round-trip airfare from the US to the UK, tuition and fees at the University, accommodation and social programme, subsistence e.g. food and drink.

Participants in these programmes will get the opportunity to:
·       Experience an exciting academic programme at a top ranked UK University.
·       Explore the culture, heritage and history of the UK.
·       Develop their learning skill, improving presentation, research and communication skills.
·       Become an ambassador for studying in the United Kingdom, and for the prestigious internationally renowned UK universities.
·       Develop their knowledge in the academic programme of their choice, be taught by world leaders in their field and receive credit they can transfer to their US University.

The application deadline is February 27 or March 6, 2014. Please see specific website page for particular programme deadline.

If you would like more information, please visit the website below or contact:

Valerie Schreiner, Programme Coordinator—Summer Institutes
The US-UK Fulbright Commission

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Class on Free Will

I'm about to start teaching a course on free will. We'll be reading Four Views on Free Will by Fischer, Kane, Pereboom, and Vargas. I think students in my class will find some of these links interesting and useful:

SEP entry on free will 
IEP entry on free will
SEP entry on moral responsibility

There are a number of great Philosophy Bites episodes worth listening to, including those with Dan DennettPaul Russell, Thomas Pink, and Adina Roskies.  (If you're not familiar with Dr. Roskies, you should check out her website. In addition to some fascinating publications, two Ph.D.s (one in cog sci and one in philosophy), she appears to be quite the badass philosopher. There are pics of her climbing up an icy cliff and preparing to fly a plane.)

If you know of other online resources that might be helpful, please let me know.

Undergrad Symposium at UW

This is a nice opportunity for undergrads at UW-Madison. Here are the details: 

The Annual Undergraduate Symposium is a forum designed to showcase undergraduate students' creativity, achievement and talent across all disciplines through oral presentations, poster sessions, exhibitions, film shorts (new this year), and performances. Participation in the Undergraduate Symposium helps undergraduates reflect on the value of their own and others’ creative work, develop important communication skills, and lets them share their work with people outside their own field. The Undergraduate Symposium is open to all University of Wisconsin – Madison students enrolled during the 2013-2014 academic year, including those who graduated in December.

Please encourage your undergraduate students--who are engaged in research, service learning, fine art and performance--to take advantage of this opportunity to present their work to the campus community and public-at-large. I hope you will also consider encouraging students in your classes to attend the Symposium even if they are not presenting.
This year’s Undergraduate Symposium will be held Thursday, April 10, 2014, in Union South. The schedule includes a performance workshop in the evening where students can perform and discuss their creative process, and a reception at 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

The Undergraduate Symposium Web site is located at:  For more information, please contact Laurie Mayberry, Assistant Vice Provost, at 262-5246 or

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Turing Pardoned

Alan Turing was a brilliant logician who might be best known for being a code breaker during World War Two. He just received a posthumous royal pardon. Turing was convicted of homosexual activity about 60 years ago and was forced to undergo chemical castration. He subsequently committed suicide (when he was merely 41)... Better late than never, I guess.