Tag Archives: epistemology

Philosophers’ Carnival 173

Welcome to the Philosophers’ Carnival #173. This edition contains a selection of some of the best philosophy blog posts to recently hit the web. Not all of these articles are easy reading, but they are all worth tackling nonetheless.

Two posts this month had stage magic as their theme. Tharindra Galahena explores why magic shows are interesting in How does a Rabbit Come out of a Top Hat? : Philosophy in a Magic Show. In Philosophy, Science, and Magic,  Nick Byrd takes a different angle and discusses how learning some things in philosophy (or science) can leave us feeling like we just saw a magic trick as our pre-reflective intuitions are undermined.

This is a feeling I’m familiar with, and still got a hint of when reading some of the posts featured below. Where things appear magical, or as Nick puts it, “they do violence to our assumptions about the world”, philosophers  and philosophy students alike would do well to recall Jonathon Creek‘s approach to solving mysteries – “We mustn’t confuse what’s impossible with what’s implausible.”

I shan’t editorialize any further except to say that if you have anything to say about any of these posts, in agreement or otherwise, please comment – the authors of these blogs will appreciate your interest. I hope you enjoy the carnival.

Posting on The Brains Blog, Brie Gertler presents an interesting discussion of privacy and dispositional beliefs. Implications for issues of privacy and the significance of a belief being occurent are also raised by John Danaher in his  discussion concerning Two Interpretations of the Extended Mind Hypothesis.

Richard Chappell from Philosophy, et cetera wonders if  Mark Schroeder’s Implicature is a satisfactory response to Parfit’s Trivality Objection.

Alexander Pruss explores the puzzle of  grounding overdetermination.

Tristan Haze presents the first of a proposed series of posts on de re modality in De Re Modality and Quantifying In.

Wolfgang Schwarz provides a detailed post on Robert Stalnaker’s account of self-location.

Hilary Putnam continues to generate well reasoned answers to interesting questions. This month we feature his post on Rational Reconstruction.

The authors at PEA Soup were certainly hard at work on their meta-ethics over February. argues that normative necessity is not distinct from metaphysical necessity – or at least that Fine (in Gendler and Hawthorne, Conceivability and Possibility, Oxford, 2002) does not show that it is. Following from this, Finally, Doug Portmore argues that appealing to parsimony is not a good reason to defend metaphysical naturalism against metaphysical pluralism. (For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to agree with Doug on this).

In considering a cross-over between the Problem of Evil and the Ontological argument , Michael Almeida of The Prosblogion asks, Which Worlds are Possible? Some that are quite bad, apparently.

At Practical Ethics, Carissa Véliz argues that we shouldn’t necessarily hold ethicists to higher moral standards, though we should commend them for intellectual honesty even if they are sometimes morally inconsistent.

In Moral Blindness, Cruelty, and Three Faces of Responsibility, Paul Boswell  argues that even if an agent is morally blind, they can still be considered to be cruel.

Following from Peter Railton’s Dewy lecture, Eric Schwitzgebel considers Depressive Thinking Styles and Philosophy, wondering if some of the thinking styles associated with depression might actually be an aid to  working as a philosopher.

Finally, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong  asks, Does Philosophy Matter?  (Spoiler Alert: Yes. Again, I’m inclined to agree)

If you have some philosophy, or philosophy-related posts on your blog, and you would like to see included in subsequent carnivals, please go to the Philosophers’ Carnival homepage and make use of the submission form. Thanks for reading.

Brains (or Hands) in Vats

Tristan Haze over at Sprachlogik wrote this post about a particular argument relating to being a Brain in a Vat (BIV) a while ago. I started to write a comment on it this morning, but it got slightly too long, so here we are.

I have to agree that much ink has been spent on the following kind of argument:

  1. If you’re a brain in a vat then you don’t have hands
  2. You don’t know that you’re not a brain in a vat
  3. Therefore you don’t know that you have hands

Haze argues that the there is good reason to not accept (1). Essentially, he claims, there is a sense in which if you were a BIV, that hand-talk still expresses a proposition. Despite what Putnam said, even if you were a BIV, ‘hands’ still means something.

I don’t really want to get into Putnam today, but as a defender of a kind-of causal theory of reference, I would agree for slightly different reasons. Meaning, for a word like ‘hands’ comes from the causal chain of use and it would not really matter if the chain were partly (or even entirely) in a simulated environment.

What I was interested in, and was happy to see that Haze acknowledged, was that knowing that her have hands says nothing either way about whether or not we are living in a simulation or not.

Since premise (1) isn’t unambiguously true, the modified argument ends up something like this:

  1. If you’re a brain in a vat then you have hands in a different way than if you weren’t a brain in a vat.
  2. You don’t know that you’re not a brain in a vat
  3. Therefore you don’t know that you have ‘real’ hands or simulated hands that are, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from ‘real’ hands.

Is the conclusion worth worrying about? For everyday purposes, probably not, since the only doubt you have about your hands is unrelated to the everyday experience of your hands. Imagine  someone in a Matrix-style simulation, whose simulated body has no hands, while their real body still has them (even if, as in the movie, they don’t actually use them). Would this person be particularly comforted to be told that it’s OK because they ‘really’ have hands? I think not.

My conclusion indicates that I’ve assumed the simulation to be perfect in the sense that (unlike Neo’s experience of the Matrix) there is nothing in what we perceive  or experience that gives us reason to think that the world around us is not what it seems. For those not familiar with BIV and deceiving demon scenarios, this is normal – we would hardly worry about whether or not we were in a simulation if we could tell the difference between it and reality.

What is important to note is this: you can’t perceive your way out of a perfect simulation.  “But I have hands!” you cry, whilst gesturing dramatically. Yes, you perceive and experience your hands, but since the problem is trusting one’s perceptions, this doesn’t tell us much either way.

Can you reason your way out of the vat? I don’t have a definite opinion. But at this point, I suspect not.

A Note on Conspiracy Theories

While this isn’t specifically about the recent incidents in France or Nigeria, some of the comments I’ve read have reminded me of a discussion that I’ve had multiple times over the past ten years. I suppose that this is technically about the epistemology of conspiracy theories, as well as a seemingly self-contradictory or self-defeating feature of certain sets of beliefs. Scepticism is nothing new in philosophy, so I think it’s practitioners might have something to contribute in this case.

With the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I have seen at least a few comments on The Conversation that dispute the official account of events. In particular I have noted a few claims that this was some sort of ‘false flag’ operation perpetrated by CIA (or similar) agents. (I’ve yet to read any similar claims about the activities of Boko Haram for some reason.) Now, I’m not going to get into trying to assess these claims. But I do wonder how one might rationally  justify a belief in these sort of things.

A core part of an individual  accepting an alternative interpretation of these events is that certain sources of information and interpretations of events are seen as more reliable and trustworthy than others. Where the conspiracy is only partial, this is relatively unproblematic; the main-stream media and/or the state will selectively withhold or distort information. This is almost certainly true – even if only slightly. So the extent of, and intention behind, such manipulations form the contested area here.

In the context of over-arching conspiracy theories, where the reach of the conspiracy approaches ubiquity, epistemological  problems become more apparent. An example of this is the belief that the US government had infiltrated conspiracy theory forums in order to spread disinformation and distrust and undermine ‘the truth’. The paper by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, Conspiracy theories: Causes and cures*, was presented to me as evidence of this. This was in part because it reportedly suggested or even advocated such covert ‘cognitive infiltration’, but also because Cass Sunstein was close to the Obama administration. The argument comes down to something like this:

The government is out to manipulate people who believe in conspiracy theories out of knowing the truth, or to at least undermine their confidence in their beliefs. We know this because a source close to the government suggested it might be advantageous to do so.

I think there are some problems with this argument.

  1. For the sake of argument let’s agree that the US government does engage in conspiracies to manipulate our perception of the truth of certain matters and to alter our political, commercial and social behaviour in covert and insidious ways.
  2. If you accept premise #1, it is deeply implausible to suggest that Sunstein and Vermeule’s article made it into circulation on the Web without the approval and knowledge of the government.
  3. If it is the case that the article was published with the approval and knowledge of the government, and #1 is taken as being true, then the article itself has to be seen to be, at least potentially, part of the conspiracy.

If Sunstein and Vermeule’s article is part of the conspiracy to subvert ‘the truth’, then you can’t trust anything in it, inducing any suggestion that there is a conspiracy. This does not mean that  governments do not do such things, but this article does not count as evidence either way.

More generally, if the manipulation of evidence is everywhere, then how do you know that the evidence pointing towards such a manipulation is to be trusted?