Saturday, March 29, 2008

Kant and Cartesian Skepticism

I've just received a copy of this book by Luigi Caranti: The Scandal of Philosophy: The Kantian Critique of Cartesian Skepticism (University of Toronto Press, 2007). For information, click here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Conference Update

I've just updated the provisional program for the August conference on Pyrrhonism to be held in Buenos Aires. It can be found here.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Moral Skepticism - Part II

The other excellent book dealing (in part) with moral skepticism I wanted to talk about is Richard Joyce's The Evolution of Morality (MIT Press, 2006). Joyce examines whether morality is innate in the sense of whether it ‘can be given adaptive explanation in genetic terms: whether the present-day existence of the trait is to be explained by reference to a genotype having granted our ancestors reproductive advantage’ (2). Joyce arrives at the conclusion that morality is innate, although he recognizes that the empirical evidence available does not allow us to draw a conclusion with any certainty, so that one cannot completely rule out the possibility that moral thinking is a culturally generated capacity. He thus endorses only provisionally, as a plausible and testable hypothesis, the view that morality is an adaptation produced by biological natural selection. What are the metaethical implications of accepting the evolutionary hypothesis? He maintains that this hypothesis shows that our moral beliefs are, not false, but epistemically unjustified, i.e., to accept that our tendency to make moral judgments is the product of biological natural selection leads, not to moral nihilism, but to moral agnosticism: we cannot say whether moral beliefs are true or false. The reason is that it is possible that the formation of beliefs about moral rightness and wrongness may have served to enhance our ancestors’ fitness independently of whether there existed any moral properties or facts.

It is worth noting that Joyce is not himself a moral agnostic but a moral nihilist. I think that a manifestation of his moral nihilism is found in his adoption of moral projectivism as a plausible and testable hypothesis, since this metaethical position denies the existence of moral properties or facts. Now, given his claim that the thesis of morality being the result of natural selection suggests moral projectivism, it appears that the provisional acceptance of that thesis would lead to moral nihilism rather than to moral agnosticism. This is why I perceive a certain vacillation in Joyce as to what metaethical implications may be drawn from the evolutionary hypothesis.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Skepticism at the APA Pacific Division Meeting

Just a quick reminder: at the APA meeting there will be (i) a colloquium on skepticism on Wednesday, (ii) a meeting of the Society for Skeptical Studies on Thursday, and (iii) a special session on Pyrrhonism in Latin America on Saturday. The information for (i) and (iii) is found here and the program for (ii) is found here.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

New Issue of Dois Pontos

The most recent issue of the Brazilian journal Dois Pontos is devoted to skepticism. Its editor is Luiz Alves Eva. Since the table of contents isn't online yet, I'll reproduce it here (I thank Roberto Bolzani for having sent me a copy of this issue):

- Sébastien Charles: 'O solipsismo como forma extrema de ceticismo no Século das Luzes'.

- Benoît Castelnérac: 'O Sócrates de Platão e os limites do intelectualismo na ética'.

- Roberto Bolzani Filho: 'Entre la crítica ao ceticismo e uma filosofia positiva: considerações a partir de "Ceticismo dogmático e dogmatismo sem dogmas" de Plínio J. Smith'.

- Alexandre Machado: 'Nota sobre a dúvida cartesiana'.

- Flavio Williges: 'A função das dúvidas céticas nas Meditações de Descartes'.

- Ana Paula Grillo El-Jaick: 'Sobre Contra os Gramáticos, de Sexto Empírico'.

- Marcos Bulção Nascimento: 'Relatividade ontológica e subdeterminação; Naturalismo e Pirronismo'.

- Katarina Maurer Wolter: 'Um estudo sobre la relação entre filosofia cética e criação ensaística em Michel de Montaigne'.

- Paulo Jonas de Lima Piva: 'O jovem Diderot e o ceticismo dos Pensamentos'.

- Livia Guimaraes: 'Simpatia, moral e conhecimento na filosofia de Hume'.

- Luiz Fernando Barrére Martin: 'Alguns aspectos da compreensão hegeliana do ceticismo antigo a partir da crítica ao ceticismo de Gottlob Ernst Schulze'.

- Mauricio Pagotto Marsola: 'Plotino e o ceticismo'.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Moral Skepticism - Part I

About a week ago, I finished the reviews of a couple of excellent books which deal with moral skepticism. In this post, I'll refer to the first of them: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Moral Skepticisms (Oxford University Press, 2006). The book examines the different types of moral skepticism and assesses the force of the main replies to moral skeptical arguments. Although Sinnott-Armstrong's own position is skeptical, it is not a form of moral nihilism or ontological moral skepticism, which are probably the most common types of moral skepticism adopted in contemporary philosophy. Rather, his is a ‘moderate moral skepticism’: he rejects that our moral beliefs are justified absolutely or without qualification, but accepts that they may be partially justified. The key lies in the notion of ‘contrast class’, which is a set of propositions which are incompatible with each other, so that if one is justified in believing a proposition P out of a contrast class C, it is because one has grounds that rule out all the other propositions of C but not P. A belief may be, at the same time, justified out of one contrast class, but not out of another. Thus, even though moral beliefs cannot be justified out of the contrast class which includes moral nihilism as a member – because this position cannot be refuted without begging the question – they can sometimes be justified out of limited contrast classes which do not include moral nihilism or other extreme positions. The question that naturally arises is which contrast class is really relevant. Sinnott-Armstrong maintains that this question is impossible to answer, so he suspends judgment about which contrast class, if any, is really relevant, even in a particular context. This is why he describes himself as a meta-skeptic about real relevance or as a ‘classy Pyrrhonist’. In sum, moral beliefs can be justified or unjustified, not absolutely, but solely relative to different contrast classes. Given that Sinnott-Armstrong suspends judgment about real relevance, it seems to me that his position is a sort of epistemic relativism about moral beliefs. Indeed, the only epistemic justification available is that which is relative to contrast classes, so that the truth-value of the propositions that express our moral beliefs is entirely relative to them. My objections have to do (i) with whether his position can be legitimately labeled 'Pyrrhonian', and (ii) with the fact that he is an 'insulator', since he thinks that skepticism cannot affect our substantive moral beliefs.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Black Swan

I'm reading a book I was sent a couple of weeks ago: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Random House, 2007). What is a black swan? It's an event with three attributes: (i) it is unpredictable, because nothing in the past points to its occurence, (ii) it carries an extreme impact, and (iii) after its occurence, we offer explanations of it which give us the misleading impression that it was predictable after all. An example is the terrorist attack of September 11. Though Taleb it is not a 'professional' philosopher, he does deal with important philosophical matters, such as the problem of induction. The style is straightforward and witty, and the ideas are provocative and insightful. He defines himself as an Empirical skeptic in the tradition of the ancient medical Empiricists and the ancient Pyrrhonists. His is a moderate skepticism with practical goals. For information about the author and the book, click here and here, respectively.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Epistemic Relativism

One of the issues of the journal of social epistemology Episteme is devoted to epistemic relativism. Among the contributors are Paul Boghossian, Ram Neta, and Michael Williams. I highly recommend it. Click here to see the issue.