Friday, April 25, 2014

Review of Disagreement and Skepticism

The latest issue of Mind (122, Oct. 2013) includes Stephen Wright’s review of Disagreement and Skepticism (Routledge 2013), which I edited. I’d like to say something about the reviewer’s main concern (something I told him before the review was published). He says: “Given the book’s aim to differentiate itself from other collections on disagreement by tightly focusing on the relationship between disagreement and skepticism, one might question the inclusion of the significance of disagreement for a debate that is about anti-realism rather than skepticism.” He then adds: “In the same way that a traditional skeptic would not want to suggest that we lack knowledge of the external world because there are no suitably external facts to be known, a moral skeptic might thus also be reluctant to hold that the reason that we lack moral knowledge is because there are no moral facts.” And at the end of the review, he states: “Including the significance of disagreement for the dispute between moral realists and moral anti-realists, given the volume’s stated theme, thus remains surprising.”

Although I perfectly understand the reviewer’s point, we should remember that the label ‘moral skepticism’ is sometimes used to describe moral anti-realism or moral nihilism. The clearest example is John Leslie Mackie’s ‘moral error theory’, which claims that, though moral judgments are truth-apt, they area all false because there are no objective moral values, properties, or facts (see, e.g., p. 10 of the “Editor’s Introduction”). In his famous 1977 book, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (which I cite in the “Editor’s Introduction” and in my own chapter, and which is also cited in Tersman’s and Adams’s chapters), Mackie calls his view ‘moral skepticism’. Note also that this kind of position is referred to by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong as a variety of moral skepticism both in his book Moral Skepticisms (OUP, 2006) and in his entry on moral skepticism in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He calls this variety of skepticism ‘skepticism about moral reality’. For those involved in the discussion of skepticism in metaethics, calling such a view ‘skepticism’ is not odd at all. That view is considered skeptical because it undermines people’s beliefs about morality by claiming either that all of our positive moral beliefs are false because there are no objective moral properties (Mackie) or that they are all neither true nor false because the moral facts they presuppose do not exist (Richard Joyce). I admit that some might be reluctant to call the position in question ‘skepticism’, but it is a fact that it is called that way in the literature, and I think it makes perfect sense to call that way. (In this regard, let me point out that, as I make clear in the volume, from the perspective of Pyrrhonian skepticism, several views we call ‘skepticism’ are not as a matter of fact skeptical: e.g., contemporary external world skepticism is not really skepticism because it asserts that we lack knowledge of the external world.) I therefore do not think that discussion of the implications of disagreement for the moral realism/anti-realism debate is a surprising inclusion at all.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

HowTheLightGetsIn - The World's Largest Philosophy Festival

I was asked to post information about the HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy festival, which will take place in the Welsh town Hay-on-Wye this summer from May 22 to June 1. The full program can be found here, but below are some highlights.

24th May - The Limits of Logic

Logicians don’t rule the world or get the most done. Could it be that a logically-consistent world view is neither desirable nor achievable? Would abandoning the straightjacket of rationality lead to a more exciting future, or simply to madness? With Simon Blackburn, Iain McGilchrist, and Beatrix Campbell.

27th May - New Gods

Evidence and reason are supposedly the basis of our beliefs. Yet religion continues to flourish, and new gods conquer even the most rational minds. Is unjustified, groundless belief an essential part of human nature? Or can we banish faith forever? American anthropologist Scott Atran, Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn, and human rights advocate Peter Tatchell examine the foundations of thought.

31st May - The Ultimate Proof

We think evidence decides the matter. Yet even suicide bombers think they have evidence to support their cause. Should we see independent evidence as an illusion? Would this lead to a chaotic world without foundations or constraint? Or open us to the richness of reality? Laurie Taylor asks philosopher advisor Nancy Cartwright, Templeton Prize-winning cosmologist George Ellis, and American anthropologist Daniel Everett to consider the evidence.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Tony Brueckner (1953-2014)

As many of you already know, a couple of days ago Tony Brueckner (UCSB) passed away. I don't usually see the point of writing this kind of post because it makes no difference to the deceased. But upon reflection I thought I should say something because Tony was a member of the editorial board of both the International Journal for the Study of Skepticism and the recently launched Brill Studies in Skepticism book series. I never met him in person, but we've been in contact for the past four years because he was the most active member of the IJSS editorial board: he reviewed a couple of papers for us, encouraged some of his former grad students to submit their work to the journal, and above all he himself published two pieces in the journal and co-authored an article that will be published soon. I heard that he was having health problems because he couldn't write a chapter for a volume I'm co-editing with Baron Reed, but I didn't think it was something serious because a few weeks ago he sent me a new paper for consideration in the journal. Let me just add that he was always extremely friendly (it is everyone's opinion that he was an exceptional guy) and that he did groundbreaking work on epistemological skepticism--just take a look at his voluminous Essays on Skepticism (OUP 2010).

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Special Issue on the Regress Problem

The latest issue of Metaphilosophy is devoted to the regress problem. You can find the articles here.