Friday, April 20, 2012

Conference Notes Day 1

Today I attended the Practical Reason and Metaethics Conference in Lincoln, Nebraska. I learned that I can identify people surprisingly well after seeing just one photo from a faculty website or book jacket months ago. I also learned that if you want an easy Q&A segment after presenting a paper, avoid having Michael Smith in the audience (who, incidentally, is quite the iPad sketch artist).


Events kicked off with a presentation by Jamie Dreier titled "Quasi-Realism and the Problem of Unexplained Coincidence." The Problem of Unexplained Coincidence (PUC) is about explaining why we have reliable moral beliefs. For some kinds of anti-realists, this presents no problem because our moral beliefs only need to track our own attitudes, or or own conventions, etc. Moral realists supposedly have the most trouble because there's no obvious — or at least no non-controversial — story about how our beliefs track moral properties that aren't so closely tied up with human psychology or human society.

Dreier's talk, however, was focused on how quasi-realists might handle this problem. He did so by presenting an interesting thought experiment. Imagine a society that speaks a special form of English: one that lacks any evaluative terms. They still have feelings and attitudes similar to our own, but they have to describe (or report) their feelings rather than express them in any other linguistic ways. Presumably, these people wouldn't be faced with the PUC. Dreier went on to advance their linguistic toolkit step-by-step in a quasi-realist fashion until their communicative practices looked pretty much like our own. Since the PUC didn't seem to appear at any of these steps, and it wasn't present on the first step, it would follow that the final stage  — which looks like us — would remain free and clear of the PUC. So actual quasi-realists can, arguably, dodge the PUC.

This thought experiment can be attacked at a number of stages, which Dreier admitted and the audience took as an invitation to do so. And even if the argument itself were totally convincing, Dreier worried we would still be short a satisfying explanation of why the argument works. I would love to read a fleshed-out story of the thought experiment itself. Think The Invention of Lying except with the invention of moral predicates!


Jonathan Way presented his paper "Reasons as Premises of Good Reasoning." His talk took the form of explaining a promising understanding of what constitutes a reason for action, pointing out a difficulty, then taking his own shot at overcoming that difficulty. I'm not sure I understood him correctly, but I'll give an example anyway.

A promising understanding:

Suppose it's raining. For this fact to count as a reason for me to take an umbrella with me, it must be good reasoning to combine some set of my psychological states with the belief that it's raining and therefore take an umbrella with me.

A difficulty:

Suppose the only available umbrella belongs to the queen and she'll have my head if I take it. I have stronger reason to leave the umbrella alone. So it would seem like my psych states plus a belief that it's raining would not be good reasoning which concludes with me taking the umbrella. But it would be weird to conclude that the fact of rain is not a reason at all for me to take an umbrella.

A proposed solution:

For the fact that's raining to count as a reason for me to take an umbrella with me, it only has to be defeasibly good reasoning to combine some set of my psychological states with the belief that it's raining and therefore take an umbrella with me. It's a kind of reasoning that can lead to bad results (like taking the queen's umbrella).


Next up, Nomy Arpaly gave a talk that didn't have a title so far as I noticed. The main idea seemed to be that "bad reasoning" can be a matter of something going wrong with beliefs, not necessarily the reasoning itself. Her primary example involved two instrumental beliefs and how they combine with the same desire:

Instrumental belief #1: Putting coins in this Coke machine will produce a Coke.
Instrumental belief #2: Putting coins in this pencil sharpener will produce a Coke.

Desire: a Coke.

A person holding the first belief along with the desire might reason her way to putting a coin in a Coke machine. A person holding the second belief along with the desire might reason her way to putting a coin in a pencil sharpener. Is the first case good reasoning and the second case bad reasoning? Maybe not! Instead, there may just be some problem with the story behind instrumental belief #2 that's messing things up; putting coins in pencil sharpeners doesn't have the right kind of relationship with Coke production.The precise nature of what relationship is needed was, ah, vigorously discussed during the Q&A.


Finally, Michael Bratman took a read-the-paper-aloud approach to "Why be Means-End Coherent?" As much as I struggled with Way and Arpaly's talks on practical reason, I had a much worse time getting into Bratman's paper. His topic may have simply been too abstract for me to grasp. And it might have helped if I had stayed through the Q&A, but I had to duck out early to see my chiropractor. 

Tomorrow's lineup is: Peter Railton, Mark Schroeder, Stephen Finlay/Justin Snedegar, and Connie Rosati.

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