Wednesday, 13 September 2023

Tim Williamson's dialectical dirty nappy

 Words- including words like 'Truth' or 'Meaning' or 'Real'- solve coordination or discoordination problems. During the course of a discussion we may have tactical or utilitarian reasons for pretending words have a fixed meaning for us. This means we can gain brownie points or create a 'hold out' problem by changing or refusing to change our position. I suppose one could call this is 'dialectics' but its just chatting is all. The other guy may appear to concede your point, but maybe he is laughing at you because the game is literally not worth the candle. 

Following Lawvere, it is better to consider 'dialectics' as being strategies whereby 'intensions' change is a specific, non-arbitrary, way such that something like a Godelian 'absolute proof' is approached.

Tim Williamson takes a different view. In a lecture titled 'morally loaded cases' he writes

Dialectical effectiveness in philosophy can pattern in surprising ways.

Surprising, only if you never had a really boring job and whiled the time away by getting into pointless discussions with your colleagues.  

For instance, when apparently morally neutral issues are debated in epistemology and metaphysics, philosophical logic and philosophy of language, morally loaded examples sometimes have greater dialectical power than morally neutral examples based on knowledge from ordinary life or natural science.

In a 'morally loaded' case, there is a thesis or a fact which represents ' a stronger reason' such that it prevails over any antithesis save by the sobering reflection that 'hard cases make bad law'. Also, there's always more than one way to skin a cat.

Suppose there is a kid in your class who is a rich, sociopathic, rapist. He scored highest in the prize essay competition in which he argued that, according to the laws of ordinary Arithmetic, two plus two equals four. Shouldn't we change the laws of arithmetic to deny him the prize? No. We should stab him when nobody is looking.  

One might have expected it to be the other way round, given the contested status of moral knowledge. By ‘morally loaded’ I mean cases explicitly described in moral terms, or at least in ways which make moral matters very salient, as with Holocaust denial.

Which you should definitely do if you are being held captive by ISIS- unless they they think it was niggardly and negligent. Trust the kaffirs to do a half assed job. 

Such cases seem to be so dialectically powerful because they are so highly emotive.

In which case they are emotionally, not dialectically, powerful. You could achieve the same result by breaking down in tears and saying your Mum has just died. All she ever wanted was to see you win- just once!- in a philosophical debate. 


I have in mind full-blown relativism about truth, the idea that when you and I seem deadlocked in disagreement, the bottom line is that some things are true for me but not for you, while other things are true for you but not for me; there is no question of one of us being really or absolutely right and the other really or absolutely wrong.

Why stop there? A relativist would say that you are only relatively you and disagreement is only relatively a disagreement etc. 

Extreme relativists are often unperturbed by the usual counterexamples from common sense or natural science. ‘Anyone who thinks the Earth is flat is simply wrong.’ ‘That’s just your point of view.’

Terms like 'think' and 'point of view' are relative. For some purposes, it is reasonable to say 'we all think the earth is flat'. 

They are more likely to start ducking and weaving when faced with morally loaded cases. In response to ‘Anyone who thinks the Holocaust never happened is simply wrong’, a plain ‘That’s just your point of view’ seems to cast the relativist in the uncomfortable role of defending Holocaust deniers. Expect some convoluted special pleading. The difference in response does not come from a difference in the strength of evidence. Decisive though the evidence for the Holocaust is, it is not more decisive than the evidence for the roundness of the Earth.

The sad truth is that a day may come when it would be truer to say 'Anyone who thinks the Holocaust never happened is at higher risk of being shot.' 


We are sceptical that anybody really is a sceptic just as much as we are certain everybody is more of one than they might let on.

The sceptic rejects claims to knowledge, and even to epistemically justified belief, either globally or over some large domain, such as morality, about which we usually take ourselves to have significant knowledge.

No. We say 'I know x is gay- coz I saw him kissing his husband'. We don't say 'I know being gay is good'. We say 'I think being gay is cool' though, admittedly, a genuinely cool person wouldn't say any such thing.  

What could be more academic in the pejorative sense than the problem of scepticism? What theory could be further from practical consequences? It does not interfere with a game of backgammon, even if neither player knows that the other exists. The sceptic feels comfortably at home disavowing knowledge that he has hands, that he is not dreaming, that he is not a brain in a vat.

But avowing or disavowing shit has nothing to do with knowledge or, indeed, anything even potentially useful.  

He takes the moral high ground, as the open-minded inquirer, quite willing to believe if only someone would show him a good reason to do so. But when sceptical arguments are deployed against scientific studies of climate change, the philosophical sceptic becomes uneasy.

Does he shit himself? There's pills you can take for that. I'm not speaking from personal experience. There is this friend of mine who often shits himself when he feels uneasy or queasy or- well, he just shits himself a lot.  

Again, the difference is not evidential. Those studies are no more resistant to radical sceptical scenarios than is anything else. It is just that philosophical sceptics do not want to find themselves fighting on the same side as climate change sceptics

against whom? Anybody who matters? Is Zelsensky seeking to recruit such fighters?  

when there is a danger of their arguments being taken seriously and applied to a specific case, perhaps with the effect that policy is no longer made on the basis of (supposed) scientific knowledge. For when philosophical sceptics are off-duty, their political and scientific beliefs are very little different from those of their non-sceptical fellow-academics. The slogan ‘Doubt is our product’ goes back to public relations consultants on behalf of the tobacco industry.

That is also slogan of the defence lawyer whom you pay a lot of money for getting you acquitted of a charge of sitting down in Angela Merkel's lap and taking a dump there. I'm not saying that's what happened to me. Anyway, it turned not to be Angela Merkel at all.  

The strategy is not to try to prove that smoking has no harmful effects on health, but merely to create enough doubt in people’s minds about the scientific evidence to make them feel licensed to ignore it and follow their inclination to smoke.

This is foolish. Creating doubt had to do with evading conviction under tort law which however has a  lower evidentiary burden than criminal law. 

That strategy is closely related to the ‘post-truth’ atmosphere of current politics,

No. 'Post truth' was about shouting hysterically because the other side kept doing stupid shit under the pretence that Human Rights or Democracy or something of that sort was being exported to some remote place which didn't want any of that shit.  

which makes scepticism look a rather less benign intellectual force. Create enough confusion and doubt, and people will fall back on believing what they would anyway like to believe.

Why would anyone let you create shit? You have to be entertaining, or good to look at, or have some other power to gain an audience. Philosophers lack any such thing. Also they are as stupid as shit.  

Sceptical arguments in political and commercial advertising are not somehow of a fundamentally different kind from philosophical arguments for scepticism.

Yes they are. Philosophical arguments are shit. Nobody will pay good looking or persuasive people to make them.  

They make standard sceptical moves, appealing to sceptical scenarios and shifting the burden of proof to their antisceptical opponents, but in concrete, localized applications, which obscure the very general form of the underlying arguments.

Nonsense! You need to know the law and to make a set of arguments which won't get you sued. This is 'protocol bound' discourse. It isn't philosophical shit.  

When the United Kingdom participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair,

a barrister 

then Prime Minister, justified the action by appeal to the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.

Blair knew the law. He was claiming that he had met a legal threshold in making a particular decision. 

After it became clear that there had been no WMD there at the time, Blair said in a 2004 speech to his party conference: “I'm like any other human being - fallible. Instinct is not science. I only know what I believe”

Blair was saying 'guys, didn't you too think Saddam was crazy? My instinct was 'bomb the fucker to Kingdom come before he gets a chance to nuke the fuck out of his neighbours.'  

In the last sentence, was he just making the point that knowledge entails belief,

No. The guy was a lawyer. What is or isn't knowledge is protocol bound. Blair was revealing no information which could be used against him in court. He was saying that his instinct was that Saddam was a bad hombre. That was useful to him.  

so if in 2003 he lacked the belief that there were no WMD in Iraq he also lacked the knowledge?

Now, Tim is just being silly. Blair was required to have evidence re. the likelihood of a particular state of the word. There was a justiciable, not a philosophical, matter. 

That entailment has nothing to do with fallibility. The context suggests another interpretation: all he could really know at the time was that he believed that there were WMD in Iraq.

No. All he was required to know was that appropriate protocols had been followed. There would be a document trail for this. He was not required to keep a diary chronicling changes in his knowledge or belief base. 

He could know his own current mental states, but not the states of affairs on the ground in Iraq to which they were supposed to correspond.

His own mental states were irrelevant. The question is whether proper procedures were followed. Suppose he kept falling asleep because he was very old and tired. Then his Secretary would have been given the job of waking him up from time to time. Alternatively, he could have taken a holiday and delegated the responsibility.  

Perhaps scepticism about the external world is not the best basis for deciding foreign policy.

It is irrelevant. A guy with such beliefs might still be the best foreign policy maven we can lay our hands on. Foreign policy is based on making our lives better. It may be that the best thing we could do is not have a fucking foreign policy because as Obama said 'America's foreign policy consists of doing stupid shit'. Elect a guy who says 'Europe? Asia? Africa? Those are just made up words. I once met a dude who claimed to be rushing. Yet he was clearly slow in the fucking head. His name was Putin. You can't tell me a slow witted guy from Monroe County is a guy me, as POTUS, needs to worry about.' 

Of course, Blair was not really a philosophical sceptic, but as a practical politician he was able and willing to take opportunistic advantage of the cultural credibility of implicitly sceptical moves.

No. Blair was taking advantage of the fact that Saddam had fucked up. By contrast, Dr. Assad hadn't which is why he is still around. Gaddafi, too, fucked up image wise. That's why he is gone. If you come across as a rabid dog, though the guy shooting you may be 'opportunistic' and have mercenary motives, he is acquitted by the court of public opinion.  

In brief, local sceptical moves made for bad political or commercial reasons look much more sinister than globalized versions of the same sceptical moves made for bad epistemological reasons.

Why is this fool babbling about what looks 'sinister' to him? He teaches a shit subject. It only exists because of a bad epistemological reason- viz. the notion that there can be knowledge about knowledge which is like the notion that a fart can itself fart. 


The problem here is that what is internal to the internal may be beyond the ken of language which, after all, is about 'external' coordination or discoordination games.  

Here is a still-influential view in epistemology; for short, we may call it ‘internalism’: The key normative status for belief is justification. Whether a belief is justified at a time depends on its coherence with the internal consciously introspectible mental states of the subject at that time, especially seemings, and perhaps other beliefs too.

This is a justiciable matter. It is not philosophical. A contract may require you to act in good faith like a 'bonus paterfamilias' and may have to convince a judge or jury that you acted consistently and on the basis of mental states that it was reasonable and appropriate for you to have. There may be some wriggle room- e.g. a bare belief may be accepted even if it would have been more prudent to verify it- but that is an ideographic matter.  

Seemings are pre-doxastic; they are neither beliefs nor inclinations to believe.

Unless they are exactly that. This is merely an arbitrary stipulation.  

You have a seeming when things seem to you a certain way, either sensorily or intellectually.

No you don't. You may say you had a seeming but this is merely a manner of speaking.  

Seemings can be false: sometimes things seem to you to be some way even though they are not in fact that way.

Seemings can be any fucking thing you like. It seems to me that the world is the fart of a fart except on Taco Tuesdays when it is the other way around.  

Still, when it seems to you that P, you are at least prima facie justified in believing that P.

Who is to say I am not justified in doing or saying anything I may lawfully do or say? Either justification is about justiciability or it can seem to be but the fart of a fart.  

You are all-things-considered justified in believing that P when so believing also coheres with your other relevant mental states, especially your seemings.

This is an arbitrary assertion. Is it internally self-consistent? We can't know because 'seemings' are inaccessible. So all you have here is an arbitrary assertion backed by another arbitrary assertion. The fart of a fart can consistently fart its own justification. But it can also do the opposite.  

Consequently, false beliefs are sometimes justified.

Kavka's toxin?  

For example, a standard brain in a vat has a justified belief that it has hands, because that belief coheres with how things seem to the brain.

Why bother wasting cognitive resources on having a 'justified belief' rather than just a belief? Justification is arbitrary though it may be required in genuine justiciable contexts of some utility.  

The internalist regards that consequence of the view as a benefit, not a cost. A similar consequence of internalism is that an unconscious bias can result in a bigoted false seeming and so, provided that coherence is maintained, in a bigoted but justified false belief (compare Siegel 2017). We may as well use the familiar figure of the consistent Nazi.

Because we have shit for brains.  

I call him (or her) a neo-Nazi to emphasize that such people are alive and active, politically and criminally, in contemporary society.

Putin thinks so. That is why he is attacking Zelensky who, being Jewish, must be a Nazi- right? 

Of course, in practice neo-Nazis no doubt tend to be inconsistent, but the same goes for other people too. The paradox of the preface, sorites paradoxes, and Liar-like paradoxes all show that it is very hard for anyone to maintain consistency amongst their beliefs.

No. It is easy, as Godel pointed out, to avoided what are essentially semantic paradoxes. Intensional paradoxes, in the context of 'Absolute Proofs' are interesting.  Something similar can be said about 'natural proofs'. 

Nevertheless, in principle, someone can have a mass of the most obnoxious neo-Nazi beliefs while still maintaining consistency, and indeed coherence: their beliefs are mutually supporting.

Only arbitrarily. The problem for mathematics is that only a 'divine axiom' gets you an assurance of consistency in the sort of contexts which are philosophically interesting- i.e. those involving open questions.  

In effect, difficulties about consistency are only a delaying tactic. The internalist must eventually face the question: what to say about the consistent neoNazi?

Gentzen was an actual Nazi. Consistency in a Gentzen calculus does not alter the arbitrary nature of conditional tautologies.  

Suppose that it seems to the consistent neo-Nazi that he ought to kill such people, with reference to some totally innocent members of one of the many groups neo-Nazis target, just because they belong to that group.

It was consistent for us to bomb the fuck out of Nazi Germany so as to kill actual Nazis. If morality were capturable as a Hilbert as opposed to Gentzen calculus then America would have acted inconsistently had Hitler not declared war first. He thought the nigger jazz loving Jew-nited States would be a pushover for his blonde storm-troopers. He was wrong. 

Moreover, that intellectual seeming perfectly coheres with all his other seemings and beliefs, thanks to the harmonizing effects of his unconscious biases. As a result, he goes ahead and forms the belief that he ought to kill such people. By internalist standards, the neo-Nazi is justified in believing that he ought to kill such people.

Not if the neo-Nazi has no desire to be killed by those he is trying to kill.  

Of course, the internalist will emphasize, it does not follow that the neo-Nazi in fact ought to kill such people, for justified beliefs may be false. The point is ‘merely’ that, by internalist standards, the neoNazi’s belief is justified, and so possesses the key normative status for belief.

Tim is saying that 'internalists' possess some criterial for discriminating 'normative status'. But if this is arbitrary, it is consistent with anything and if it isn't arbitrary it is only accessible 'at the end of mathematical time'.  Tim then segues into an account of Amia Srinivasan's woke shite about how an Arab woman gets to call any White Male a Racist even if he is no such thing which I've debunked elsewhere.


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