Archive for the ‘Metaphilosophy’ Category

The Shadow Problem as a Metaphilosophical Test Case

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

The shadow problem is a cute little puzzle about the metaphysics of shadows.

Consider four objects, L, A, B, and C arranged like this


where L is a lamp providing the only light, A and B are opaque objects, and no light is falling on C.

Consider also some non-controversial propositions concerning shadows, their casters, and shaded objects.

1. An object can cast a shadow only if it is opaque and light is falling on it.
2. Shadows cannot be cast through opaque objects
3. An object is in the shade only if some other object is casting a shadow upon it.

Here’s the problem: Is C in the shade? If it is, then by principle 3 either A or B must be casting a shadow on it. However, principle 1 rules out B as the shadow caster, since no light falls on B and principle 2 rules out A, since A’s shadow can’t be cast through B. We are led to the absurd conclusion, then, that C is not in the shade.

Further reflection may lead us to reject one or more of the three principles. Or increase their number to four or more. (Personally, I’m a shade and shadow eliminativist.)

While the shadow problem is fun to regard as a first-order philosophical problem, I like how it reflects on various higher-order problems, like: what are philosophical subject matters and methods? Or: when, if at all, do philosophers ever arrive at solutions to problems?

One thing I especially like these days about the shadow problem is how it illustrates to students what a philosophical problem is. It’s pretty clear, I think, that this isn’t going to be solved by simply opening the dictionary, or asking the scientists in the department of shadow studies.

Some other meta-philosophical issues I’ve been thinking about in connection with the shadow problem are:

What, if anything, is added by describing anything here as intuitive or as deliverances of intuition?

Would the methods of experimental philosophy do a damn bit of good here? Suppose that there were survey results demonstrating a small yet statistically significant difference in people’s willingness to abandon one of the propositions? Would that thereby make one solution to the problem better than another?

(My presentation of the shadow problem is adapted from the way Peter Suber formulates it [link]. (For other formulations and a brief history of the problem, see pp39-40 of Roy Sorensen’s 1999 J. Phil article “Seeing Intersecting Eclipses”.))

Antipodean Verificationism

Friday, November 9th, 2007

Jennifer Matey gave a very nice talk at William Paterson University last week, “Visual Constancies and the Representational Nature of Visual Experiences”. Much of talk concerned issues contested between direct and representational realists about perception (with some side-notes about disjunctivists). An interesting methodological/metaphilosophical issue came up in the ensuing discussion (interesting to me, perhaps, because I was the one who brought it up). It goes something like this.

From a certain point of view it’s quite hard to see exactly what’s contested between the direct and the representational realist and it’s likewise hard to tell how to adjudicate the dispute. To get in the right frame of mind, imagine trying to explain the debate to a Rortyean Antipodean: a person who speaks a language a lot like English, though it’s shot through with a lot more neuroscientific vocabulary than most English speakers know and is utterly devoid of words like “perception”, “experience”, “awareness”, “consciousness”, and “qualia”. Imagine further that the Antipodean has come across a direct realist (DR) and a representationalist (R) in the process of examining a brain in a vat (Vatty) and its non-envatted neural doppleganger (Normy). Both R and DR agree that Vatty and Normy are in the same neural state when Normy is facing a tree with open eyes in a well-lighted environment. Both R and DR agree that that Normy but not Vatty is having a veridical experience of a tree. But what is it that they are disagreeingabout? And more to the point of this post, what could they say to the Antipodean to convince him to pick a side on this issue?

The Antipodean can see quite clearly that there are relational properties involving trees that Normy’s brain but not Vatty’s instantiates. And the Antipodean can see quite clearly that there are non-relational neural properties that Normy’s and Vatty’s brains have in common. What the Antipodean doesn’t get, is what else there might be to say here. Are DR and R fighting over which parts of the universe to draw a line around and apply the label “physical substrate of visual awareness” to? If so, why bother?

When I get in the Antipodean’s frame of mind I’m tempted to assert the following general methodological principle: if you can’t explain what you’re talking about to an Antipodean, then maybe you’re not talking about anything.

…and what is it that you do do?

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

A metaphilosophy and methodology round-up in four parts:

1. Jonathan Ichikawa, guest-blogging at Schwitzgebel’s The Splintered Mind, asks “What do analytic philosophers analyze?

2. Regular Splintered readers know that Schwitzgebel posts a lot (and well!) on questions like “Do ethicists behave better than the rest of us?” I wonder how best to phrase analogous questions about epistemologists and metaphysicians. How about “Do epistemologists believe better?”? And “Do metaphysicisns have a better grip on reality?”?
3. I love this remark by Denis Des Chenes from a while ago at Leiter Reports:

I must admit that when I read some analytic philosophy (and some history of philosophy too) I ask myself what anyone who wasn’t wholly immersed in the debate would find in it. The standard defense against that sort of jibe … is to say that epistemology or whatever is a specialized discipline that, like physics or mathematics, has good reason to employ its own jargon and that has, as a pursuit, value in its own right; it need not justify its existence to outsiders.

That’s all well and good. But physics and mathematics have striking, stable results and notable applications to back up their claims of value. What does metaphysics have to offer? Physicists, moreover, have done a very good job of popularizing even the more esoteric reaches of their science—think of Stephen Weinberg’s or Brian Greene’s books. Is there any popularization of metaphysics as it is done now, or of epistemology, that compares to them? Would we value such a work if someone troubled to write it?

4. Perhaps not the popularization that Des Chenes asks for, but relevant nonetheless, is Timothy Williamson’s manuscript on philosophical methodology available here: [Link to ms]. Spoiler alert! The following is from the penultimate paragraph:

Philosophy has never been done for an extended period according to standards as high as those that are now already available, if only the profession will take them seriously to heart. None of us knows how far we can get by applying them systematically enough for long enough. We can find out only by trying.

Abstraction in Leather and Wood

Abstraction in Leather and Wood. 2007. Pete Mandik.