Posted by: Josh May | January 4, 2011

UCSB Debating Darwin Conference

The Department of Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Barbara is pleased to announce a Steven Humphrey Fund for Excellence in Philosophy Conference:

Debating Darwin: Philosophical Issues in Evolution and Natural Selection
February 18-20, 2011
UC Santa Barbara

Invited Speakers


Additional details TBA at:


Registration: For those wishing to attend the conference, registration is appreciated. It’s free, and it helps our planing. To register send an email to the conference email address ( with “Registration” in the subject line. If you give us your name and institutional affiliation, we will have a name tag waiting for you.

Posted by: Justin | July 19, 2010

Full rationality

I’ve just finished reading Michael Smith’s The Moral Problem, and I have an issue with his account of the fully rational agent (pp. 155-161). He borrows, and then amends, Bernard Williams’s account. On this account, the fully rational agent must meet the following three conditions:

(i) No false beliefs

(ii) All relevant true beliefs

(iii) Deliberate correctly

Smith takes some time to spell out what he has in mind by (iii). But I want to take issue with (i) and (ii). My question is simple: why think that rationality – even full rationality – requires omniscience, or even omniscience about the relevant matters? Some prima facie evidence against this account would be a case like the following:

Misleading evidence. Phife Dawg is supposed to meet Q-Tip at the studio at 10:00 to record a new album. Q-Tip never misses a recording session, and is always on time. As Phife steps into the elevator up to the studio at 10:05, Jarobi, who never lies, steps out and tells him that Q-Tip is upstairs waiting for him. When Phife gets to the door of the studio, he hears the distinctive beep of Q-Tip’s Skypager, which Q-Tip never lets out of his sight. This is all of the relevant evidence that Phife has, or could be expected to have. Phife then finally forms the belief that Q-Tip is in the studio. But as it turns out, all of this evidence is misleading. Q-Tip is not in the studio; he’s at home asleep.

So Phife has a false belief. Thus, by the account of full rationality – in particular, condition (i) – Phife is not fully rational, because he has a false belief. Though we might agree that Phife is not fully rational for some reason, I think it is implausible to think that he is less than fully rational in virtue of his false belief. In fact, forming this false belief seems to be the most rational belief Phife could form, given his evidence. So (i) is implausible. Rationality does not require one to have only true beliefs.

If Q-Tip is in the studio, then Phife should go in to record.  If Q-Tip is not in the studio, then Phife should go look for him. So the belief Phife forms about Q-Tip’s location is practically relevant. So Phife lacks a relevant true belief – the belief that Q-Tip is not in the studio. Thus, by (ii), Phife is not fully rational. Though we might agree that Phife is not fully rational for some reason, I think it is implausible to think that he is less than fully rational in virtue of his lack of a relevant true belief. In fact, forming the belief that Q-Tip is not in the studio would seem to be irrational, given Phife’s evidence. So (ii) is implausible. Rationality does not require omniscience, even about relevant matters.

These problems might not seem terribly important, but I think that they actually cause a bigger problem for Smith’s analysis of normative reasons. That analysis is the following:

Reason: S has a normative reason to A in circumstances C iff S’s fully rational self would desire that S A in C.

Smith wants to use (i) and (ii) to block reason-ascriptions in cases like Williams’s gin/gasoline case. In this case, S has a glass in front of him which he believes (for good reason) to contain gin. But in fact, it contains gasoline. So, Smith wants to say (I think), S has no normative reason to drink the stuff in the glass. This is supposed to be the result delivered by the analysis, since S’s fully rational self would not desire that S drink the stuff in the glass, since he would know that it contained gasoline instead of gin (by (i) and (ii)). But if I’m right that (i) and (ii) are implausible, then Reason will not obviously deliver the verdict that Smith wants in this case. (Note: I disagree with Smith that S has no normative reason to drink what’s in the glass, but that’s another issue.)

Disclaimer: I haven’t done a literature search, so I don’t know if I’m the first person to bring any of this up (I doubt it).

Posted by: Justin | April 1, 2010

Grad conferences

Two grad conferences:

Rochester Graduate Epistemology Conference

October 22-23, 2010
> Keynote Speaker: Michael Bergmann (Purdue University)
> Commentator: Earl Conee (University of Rochester)
> Special Guest Speaker: Andrew Cullison (State University of New York at
> Fredonia)
> The philosophy department at the University of Rochester is proud to announce
> the Sixth Biennial Rochester Graduate Epistemology Conference, to be held
> October 22-23, 2010. We welcome submissions in the field of analytic
> epistemology, broadly construed. We also welcome hybrid epistemology papers
> which are also (partially) in the fields of ethics, the philosophy of mind,
> philosophy of language, philosophy of religion, or metaphysics.
> REQUIREMENTS: Papers should be no more than 3,000 words (approx. 12 pages),
> excluding notes. Submissions should also include a second sheet with an
> abstract (200 words or less). Papers should be suitable for blind review:
> include detachable cover page with the paper’s title, author’s name, mailing
> address, email, phone number, school affiliation, and word count; please omit
> any self-identifying marks within the body of the paper.
> DEADLINE: Papers must be received by July 31st, 2010.  Papers should be
> emailed as an attachment to conference organizer Kevin McCain at:
> Papers should be in a standard format; ‘.doc’ and ‘.pdf’ are


Virginia Tech Graduate Philosophy Conference


Keynote address by
Morehead Alumni Distinguished Professor of Philosophy
Chair of the Philosophy Department, UNC

Deadline:  September 20, 2010

Submissions for the 7th Annual Virginia Tech Graduate Philosophy Conference
are now being accepted. Papers in any area of moral philosophy are welcome.
Submissions must be maximum 4500 words and suitable for a 25-minute
presentation. Papers must be prepared for blind review and sent as PDF or
DOC attachments with no identification of authors or affiliations. Please
include a separate cover sheet with title, author name(s), 150-200 word
abstract, institutional affiliation, e-mail address, and phone number.
Local transportation and accommodation with VT graduate students is

Posted by: Josh May | March 24, 2010

Burge Conference

A very cool conference that may interest some SoCalers:

The University of California, Santa Barbara Department of Philosophy and the Stephen Humphrey Fund for Excellence in Philosophy present

Themes From Burge

A conference in honor of Tyler Burge. Speakers include Tyler Burge (UCLA), Ned Block (NYU), Fred Dretske (Duke), and Christopher Peackocke (Columbia), and discussants include Karen Bennett (Cornell), Alex Byrne (MIT), Peter Graham (UCR), Bernard Kobes (ASU), Krista Lawlor (Stanford), Joseph Owens (Minnesota), James Pryor (NYU), and Brian Weatherson (Cornell).

May 1, 2010
9 AM to 6 PM

The McCune Conference Center, Humanities and Social Science Building room 6020


(Cross-posted from

I just came across the following passage by J.J.C. Smart in Smart and Williams’ Utilitarianism: For and Against:

What Bentham, Mill and Moore are all agreed on is that the rightness of an action is to be judged solely by consequences, states of affairs brought about by the action. Of course we shall have to be careful here not to construe ‘state of affairs’ so widely that any ethical doctrine becomes utilitarian. For if we did so we would not be saying anything at all in advocating utilitarianism. If, for example, we allowed ‘the state of having kept a promise’, then a deontologist who said we should keep promises simply because they are promises would be a utilitarian. And we do not wish to allow this (p. 13).

This line of thought is horribly confused. A similar confusion is manifested in Amartya Sen’s Inequality Reexamined (incidentally also p. 13), where he says that libertarians such as Robert Nozick are centrally concerned with equality of liberty or of rights. Let me try to clarify this muddle. Deontologism is the view that some actions are right or wrong independent of their consequences. An essential feature of libertarianism (especially of the Nozickian variety) is the view that there is a deontological prohibition on the violation of rights – i.e., the violation of rights is always wrong irrespective of the consequences. Now consider the following views:

  • Deontic Utilitarianism: Agents ought to act in such a way as to maximize the total number of morally good actions, and minimize the total number of morally bad actions.
  • Liberty Utilitarianism: Agents ought to act in such a way as to minimize the number and severity of violations of individual rights/freedoms.

Deontic utilitarianism is not a form of deontologism, and liberty utilitarianism is not a form of libertarianism. (If, as Sen does, we switch to speaking of equalizing rather than maximizing, the situation will not change.) In order to deal with both at once, assume that the deontic utilitarian believes that violations of the right to free speech are morally bad. Now consider the following scenario:

Joe intends to give a speech (on his own property and at his own expense) to which the general public will be invited. In his speech, Joe will rail against Islam, using emotional appeals to persuade his audience that wherever Islam is publicly promoted terror and violence follow. Joe will not promote violence against Muslims in his speech. Sarah knows of Joe’s intentions. She further knows that if Joe gives his speech, it will (very likely) start a political movement which will (very likely) result in a ban on the publication and distribution of (peaceful) Muslim literature. However, she also knows that Joe’s speech is very unlikely to lead to violence in any form. Sarah is able, by coercive force, to prevent Joe from giving his speech. By violating Joe’s free speech rights just once, she can protect the free speech rights of all the Muslims in her country (there are a lot of them) for the foreseeable future. She knows of no other way she can accomplish this. What should she do?

A genuine deontologist (such as myself) would counsel Sarah to refrain from acting: the ends do not justify the means. But a deontic utilitarian or a liberty utilitarian would counsel Sarah to prevent Joe’s speech. It follows that deontic utilitarianism is not a form of deontologism, and liberty utilitarianism is not a form of libertarianism.

Posted by: Justin | February 18, 2010


I’m interested in looking at the plausibility of using counterpossibles – subjunctive conditionals with impossible antecedents – in philosophy for a few different reasons. I think we do, in fact, use them (or at least use what we should think are counterpossibles) pretty often. Suppose you’re an eternalist who thinks that eternalism is a necessary truth. If you want to offer an argument against presentism, you may run a quick modus tollens argument like this:

(1) If presentism were true, then some truths would lack truthmakers.
(2) But no truth can lack a truthmaker.
(3) Therefore, presentism cannot be true.

Now you may think this is a bad argument against presentism, but, of course, that’s not important for my point. Another worry is that the first premise of an argument like this isn’t usually put as a subjunctive conditional. But I don’t really know enough about the issue to know how important that is (hence the post).

Anyway, the point of this is to show that, if you’re an eternalist who thinks that eternalism is a necessary truth, then you should think that (1) is a counterpossible. The standard treatment of counterpossibles (following along with the standard Lewisian treatment for counterfactuals) is that they are vacuously true: “If it were the case that p, then it would have been the case that q” is true just in case the closest p-world is also a q-world (there are counterexamples to this as stated, but it will do for now). But if you want to run the above argument against presentism, then you shouldn’t think that (1) is vacuously true – you should think it makes a substantive claim. So if you want to use arguments like the one above in metaphysics (or any other discipline where many of the theories are taken to be necessary truths), then you should think that counterpossibles aren’t vacuously true.

From the little bit that I’ve read, I’ve also seen people make this point (Brogaard and Salerno cite Nolan). There seems to be a significant difference between (a) and (b):

(a) If Goedel had proved that arithmetic is complete, then Hilbert’s program may have been successful.
(b) If Goedel had proved that arithmetic is complete, then Goedel wouldn’t have proved that arithmetic is complete.

(a) sounds true, while (b) sounds false. But if counterpossibles are vacuously true, then (a) and (b) are both (vacuously) true, since the antecedent is impossible.

I think that there may be interesting applications for counterpossibles in philosophy, even beyond running modus tollens arguments against our opponents, as long as we do not treat them as vacuously true. I know that Brogaard and Salerno have a couple of papers on them, and Nolan has written something as well. I suppose I should also have a look at Lewis’s Counterfactuals. Any other suggestions?

Posted by: Justin | February 18, 2010

UCLA/USC Grad Conference

The UCLA/USC Grad Conference will be next Saturday, 2/26, 9am at USC, Mudd Hall of Philosophy. The keynote speaker is Pamela Hieronymi (UCLA).

Here is the schedule.

Posted by: Justin | December 23, 2009

Princeton-Rutgers Grad Conference

Call for Papers 2010-1

Posted by: Josh May | December 8, 2009

“Just in Case”

Using the phrase “just in case” as synonymous with “if and only if” is rampant in contemporary philosophy. I remember it first coming up explicitly in one of my logic classes as an undergraduate. The professor said that we should translate the English phrase “just in case” as “if and only if” (or its symbolic equivalent, “<–>”). Since we were supposedly talking about ordinary English, the students got to objecting to the professor’s translation rule. We insisted that in English “just in case” is only used as it is in the phrase “She built a storm shelter just in case a terrible storm came through town.”  The professor was dumbfounded.

Well, so was I. Yet for as long as I’ve been studying philosophy, I’ve still been puzzled by it. But I’ve pretty much just put the issue on the backburner. My best guess has been that I’m not crazy, this is a technical turn of phrase used by philosophers (and perhaps other academics), and the professor had just gotten so wrapped up in that usage he lost touch with ordinary English. But I’ve always wondered whether this non-ordinary use is something philosophers really recognize as such. Could it be that young philosophers just assume it’s an ordinary phrase of English that only the highly educated use (and thus they follow suit)? After all, I have never heard it introduced as a special term, despite its ubiquity in philosophy classrooms.

I’ve discussed this issue with other graduate students in philosophy from time to time, but no one seemed to know much about the origin of this odd (I think) use.  I got to thinking about this issue again today and did a bit of Google searching to shed light on it. I found this post by a linguist, Geoffrey K. Pullum:

He seems as puzzled as I am and draws pretty much the same conclusion that I had: it’s an (American) academic invention. But I wonder what others think, especially those within philosophy. Anyone know anything about this?

Posted by: Justin | December 1, 2009


Two graduate conferences to keep in mind:

(i) The Syracuse Graduate Student Conference
April 16 & 17
Keynote Speakers: Ted Sider (NYU) & Ben Bradley (Syracuse)
Paper submission deadline: Jan 1, 2010
Send submissions to:

Papers should be suitable for a 25-30 minute presentation (no more than 4000 words).

Submissions must be prepared for blind review and sent as either a PDF or Word file.

In the text of your email, please include your name, contact information, and short abstract (max 150 words).

We welcome submissions in all areas of philosophy.

(ii) The 18th Annual Harvard-MIT Graduate Student Philosophy Conference

Conference Date: Saturday, April 3rd, 2010
Keynote Speaker: Derek Parfit, All Souls College, Oxford

Commentary provided by Harvard and MIT faculty

Submission Deadline: Sunday, January 10th, 2010

We seek submissions from graduate students in any area of philosophy.  Submissions should be suitable for a 40-minute presentation.  As guidance, a 4000-word paper usually takes about 40 minutes to read.

All submissions must be accompanied by an abstract of 400-500 words (roughly one single-spaced page).  No identifying information should appear in the body of the paper or the abstract.  Instead, please include a cover sheet with the submitter’s name, address, e-mail address, telephone number, name of his or her institutions, and title of the paper.

Please submit papers by e-mail to in one of the following formats: .pdf, .rtf, .doc.  We can only accept one submission per applicant.

If you have any questions, please contact us at

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