skip to content

Faculty of Philosophy


Serious Metaphysics Group Abstracts


Michaelmas 2022

6/10/22    Neil Dewar (Cambridge)
Title: Probability De Dicto and De Re
Abstract: One may distinguish between what is possible de re and de dicto: that is, between what is possible for some specific object, and what is possible more generally (as it were, what is possible for the world as a whole). In this paper, I consider the analogous distinction for probabilities. I draw attention to a well-developed formal framework from the mathematical literature for formally modelling this distinction, and consider its application to some case studies from the philosophical literature.


13/10/22    Alexander Bird (Cambridge)
Title: Evidentialism, Justification, and Knowledge-First
Abstract: This paper examines the relationship between evidentialism, knowledge-first epistemology (E=K in particular), and justification.  I argue that the combination of evidentialism, E=K, and some plausible principles leads to the scepticism familiar from the Agrippan trilemma.  I develop an Evidentialist Knowledge-First view of justification that avoids scepticism.  I contrast this with an Anti-Evidentialist Knowledge-First view of justification and argue that the latter is preferable to the former.


20/10/22    Sandra Lindblom (Cambridge)
Title: Cause and Effect are One
Abstract: It is widely accepted that a cause is separate from its effect (cause ≠ effect). However, I will show that this theory leads to a paradox. From the writings of Lady Mary Shepherd (1777-1847), I will recreate a new alternative theory of causality which demonstrates that cause and effect are, in fact, one (cause = effect).


27/10/22    Paul Hoyningen-Huene (Leibniz Universität Hannover)
Title: Objectivity, Value-Free Science, and Inductive Risk
Abstract: In this paper I shall defend the idea that there is an abstract and general core meaning of objectivity, and what is seen in the literature as a variety of concepts or conceptions of objectivity are criteria of or means to achieve objectivity. I shall then discuss the ideal of a value-free science and its relation to the objectivity of science; its status can be at best a criterion of objectivity. Given this analysis, we can then turn to the problem of inductive risk. Do the value judgements regarding inductive risk really pose a threat to the objectivity of science? My claim will be that this is not the case because they never lower the thresholds postulated for objectivity. I shall conclude the paper with a discussion of yet hardly discussed influences of values on science which indeed pose a serious threat to the objectivity of some scientific disciplines.


3/11/22    Cecily Whiteley (Cambridge)
Title: Natural Kinds of Sleep Experience
Abstract: A growing philosophical and empirical literature identifies and debates the nature, neural correlates, and biological functions of dreams. Much of this research operates on the assumption that there is a single kind of phenomenon — ‘dreaming’ — being investigated in dream science; a unified state of consciousness obtaining during sleep to which it is appropriate to attribute a single set of neural correlates and biological functions. This paper defends two claims. Firstly, that this assumption plays an active organising role in dream science which often goes unnoticed, shaping experimental design and orthodox interpretations of empirical data. Second, that the widespread acceptance of this unity assumption in consciousness science is unjustified — that is, that the unity of dreaming should be a hypothesis for consciousness science to test, and not an a priori assumption on which empirical research is predicated. I argue that recognition of this calls for a fundamental revision to the way in which sleep experience is studied scientifically. In replacement of the orthodox methodology which proceeds by motivating phenomenological definitions of dreams, an alternative ‘natural kind’ approach drawn from philosophy of science is outlined. This opens up several new possibilities - notably, that folk psychological terms like ‘dreaming’ or ‘sleep experience’ may not constitute psychological natural kinds.


10/11/22    Emily Caddick Bourne (Manchester)
Title: How it can be that a quasi-miracle would not happen, but might, and does
Abstract: In order to resolve a threat to his proposal that time’s direction is to be accounted for in terms of asymmetries of counterfactual dependence, David Lewis expands his principles for the ordering of possible worlds. The expanded version takes account of whether a world contains quasi-miracles: low-probability remarkable events. In partnership with this, Lewis gives an account of why it is cogent to say that a quasi-miracle would not happen, but might. Objections to Lewis’s move have included (amongst others): (a) the concept of remarkableness is too vague or unwieldy; (b) remarkableness is response-dependent, which makes it inappropriate to feature in Lewis’s principles for comparative similarity of worlds; (c) there are actual quasi-miracles, so for world W to contain a quasi-miracle cannot (in itself) make W less similar to the actual world; (d) by focussing only on remarkable events, Lewis fails to provide a unified proposal about the range of cases in which (seemingly) true claims about what might/might not happen threaten to undermine (seemingly) true claims about what would not/would happen. I will suggest a new approach to these issues, which arises from developing the brief suggestion Lewis makes about what remarkableness is. This also leads to a different account of statements that a quasi-miracle ‘would not’ happen. To the extent that they are genuinely modal, these trade in a distinct modality, which is connected only tangentially with closeness to the actual world, and which has a wide variety of English-language expressions (some of which borrow epistemic and deontic language).


17/11/22    Louise Antony (University of Massachusetts)
Title: Against Amelioration, or, Don't Call a Conceptual Engineer Without Talking to Me First
Abstract: Many philosophers are calling for the “re-engineering” of certain important concepts, arguing that current concepts do not and cannot serve important political and ethical purposes. For example, some philosophers have argued that our ordinary concept woman is inadequate for feminist politics because it does not incorporate the idea that gender is essentially hierarchical, and thus that the concept should be somehow altered – "re-engineered" – so that it does.

I argue that this movement is misguided in several ways: 1) there is no account of what a concept is that makes such re-engineering possible; 2) re-engineering, even if it were possible, would be undesirable; and 3) there is no political or ethical goal that requires re-engineering.  Along the way, I'll distinguish the matter of concept acquisition from the matter of concept re-engineering; these are, I suspect, frequently confused.



Lent 2023

19/1/23    Marta Halina (University of Cambridge)
Title: Folk Psychology and Scientific Understanding
Abstract: A common criticism of the use of folk psychology (FP) in the sciences is that FP accounts produce feelings of understanding when in fact they are poor guides to truth. For example, in the context of comparative psychology, Papineau and Heyes (2006) observe that it is "easy, perhaps irresistible" to interpret some experimental results in terms of FP (p. 188). Penn (2011) agrees, observing "there is no doubt, of course, that folk psychological explanations are 'simpler for us' to understand" but such explanations should be avoided in scientific practice (p. 259). Following Carl Hempel, many philosophers of science would agree that subjective feelings of understanding are poor guides to good explanation. According to this view, such feelings are at best epistemically irrelevant and at worst misleading. Combined with the idea that FP is no more than a collection of platitudes about mental states and behaviour, the situation appears deeply problematic: platitudes lead to feelings of understanding, but such feelings are doing little more than tracking our common-sense knowledge, rather than providing insights into the workings of the mind. However, there are alternative ways of characterising both FP and the role of understanding in the sciences. First, FP has been described as a model, rather than a collection of platitudes (Godfrey-Smith 2005). Second, some argue that understanding is necessary for explanation (De Regt 2017). Under this latter view, understanding is not a mere 'aha' feeling but rather concerns the skills and judgments scientists employ when constructing explanations (what De Regt calls "pragmatic understanding"). Moreover, to explain a phenomenon is to fit it into a theoretical framework and models are crucial mediators in this process. Applying these ideas, we can construct an alternative account of FP: it facilitates pragmatic understanding in the construction of explanations in psychology. In this paper, I advance and defend this account of the role of folk psychology in scientific practice.


19/1/23    Will Hornett (University of Cambridge)
Title: Forms of Agency
Abstract: Agency is the power to act; agents are the things with that power. But what is agency really? And how is it distributed throughout the natural world? Rationalists think agency is a rational power restricted to human beings, Animalists believe it is a feature common to animals, and Minimalists think that it is just the power to cause a change. Despite much apparently sharp disagreement, one puzzling aspect of the debate is that many philosophers simply assume that Minimalism is true, and claim that the really interesting problems regard specific forms of animal or rational agency. In this paper, I demur, arguing that animal agency is not one form of a more general power shared with planets and potassium: agency is a distinctively animal phenomenon. I do this by considering the nature of refraining, what this shows about agency's form, and I argue that its form makes it distinctive because it is a power with two fundamentally different ways of manifesting: in causing a change and in refraining from causing one.


2/2/23    David Sosa (University of Texas at Austin)
Title: Getting Closure on the Sorites
Abstract: I offer a new treatment of the Sorites paradox. First I show how an adequate response to the Preface paradox, one that applies as well to the Lottery paradox, entails that rational belief can withstand the sort of inconsistency characteristic of those paradoxes. That enables a new response to the Sorites. While other responses to the Sorites motivate rejection of one of the paradox’s inconsistent theses, I pursue a response on which each element is rather maintained. Key considerations include not only a distinction between rational relations and logical relations (and between rational inference and logical entailment) but also an analogy with practical rationality and rational relations among intentions. The resulting view is carefully distinguished from Epistemicism and distinguished also from an alternative response to the Sorites that relies on an intuitionistic logic.


23/2/23    Julian Nida-Rümelin (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität)
Title: Cooperation and structural rationality
Abstract: I take cooperative agency to be paradigmatic for a conception of rationality that I call „structural“. Starting with a thorough analysis of what cooperation really is, I shall develop an account that offers a new interpretation of game theoretic rationality grounded in being affected by reasons. It integrates both objective reasons for action and expected utility maximisation, meta-ethical realism and coherentism.


2/3/23    Alice Harberd (UCL)
Title: Insight in Art: a balancing act

Art is insightful sometimes: it helps us understand ourselves, our feelings, our place in the world, etc. Here are two claims about insight in art:
1. Artistic insight is aesthetically valuable
2. Artistic insight is genuinely epistemically merited
I am attached to both claims, and will argue you should be too! 
However - there's a theoretical problem associated with each claim. 1 seems to conflict with the orthodox view of aesthetic experience as 'disinterested'. Defending 2 is tricky because epistemic merit in art looks very different from epistemic merit in other domains.
Even worse, I will argue that solving both problems together is difficult - the theoretical moves which help us avoid problem 1 seem to move us closer to the danger zone of problem 2... So there is a tightrope to walk.

I will argue that we can walk the tightrope by appealing to a concept which Daniela Dover calls erotic curiosity.


9/3/23    Anneli Jefferson (Cardiff)

Title: The problem with accounts of blame
Abstract: Moral responsibility theory has long been in the business of giving accounts of the nature of moral responsibility and free will. More recently, accounts of the nature of blame have also been proposed (Sher 2005, Shoemaker and Vargas 2021). These accounts don’t merely aim to provide conditions for when blame is justified, but to explain and define what blame is. I argue that giving an account of the nature of blame or a definition of blame is a misguided project. Unlike concepts like ‘moral responsibility’ or ‘free will’ what is at issue in debates about blame is not whether there is such a thing in the first place; so one key motivation, to vindicate the possibility of blame, falls away. Rather, the issue at stake with blame is a different one: whether there can be any justified blame. Furthermore, we use the term ‘blame’ for a large variety of judgments and activities, and it is doubtful that one theoretical account will be able to capture the phenomenon without becoming so thin as to be uninteresting. I illustrate this with a brief discussion of Shoemaker and Vargas’s (2021) recent costly signalling account of blame, showing that it either does not cover all the forms of blame it aims to cover, or ends up trivializing the conditions it sets on counting something as blame. I argue that we should accept that the term ‘blame’ is disjunctive and covers a wide variety of phenomena. The right question for moral responsibility theorists to ask is when specific forms of blame are justified, not what the best account of blame is. I close by considering the objection that because moral responsibility for an action is often defined in terms of blameworthiness, we do need an account of blame.


Easter 2023

27/4/23    Farbod Akhlaghi (Cambridge)

Title: Grounding and the Naturalism/Non-Naturalism Debate in Meta-Ethics
Abstract: Grounding has taken centre stage in moral philosophy. It is increasingly appealed to in characterising the debate between naturalism and non-naturalism, as well as to explain what the explanatory notion being intimated by phrases such as ‘because’, ‘makes’, and ‘in virtue of’ in normative ethics is. Relatedly, an influential view in metaphysics more generally, and recently in meta-ethics, is that there is only one notion of grounding. In this paper, I argue that if all these claims are true, ethical debate is necessary and sufficient for settling the naturalism/non- naturalism debate. If so, then concerned meta-ethicists should stop doing (much of) moral metaphysics; those who wish to discover the nature of moral facts should do normative ethics instead. Grounding, so understood, is no friend to much moral metaphysics after all.


11/5/23    Adham El Shazly (Cambridge)

Title: Communicating Understanding
Abstract:We often come to know things through testimony. But what about understanding? Several authors have argued that understanding cannot be transmitted via testimony. Although I agree with the conclusion, I don’t find the reasons they offer convincing. First, I offer an alternative argument: understanding requires structuring information and structure cannot be transmitted through propositional testimony. Second, reflecting on education I argue that whereas communicating knowledge requires informational dependence, communicating understanding requires perspectival dependence: a kind of agential integration that synchronizes thinkers’ cognitive and epistemic setup unto similar interpretive, inquisitive, and attentional dispositions.

18/5/23    Nadia ben Hassine (Cambridge)
Title: Finding Better Meanings: The Argument from Many Alternatives
Abstract: Underlying conceptual engineering is the idea that alternative meanings are available for many of our terms. It is suggested that many of our current terms are defective, and replacing their meanings with improved alternatives will allow us to resolve these defects. In reviewing the implications of this argument, I ask to what extent a conceptual engineer endorsing the availability of better alternatives is committed to the idea that identified “better meanings” should replace our current meanings. In answering this question, I draw out the distinction between two strands of conceptual engineering: replacement-focused conceptual engineering, and pluralist conceptual engineering. I show that replacement-focused conceptual engineering requires the establishing of stable evaluative standards, and argue that, due to the difficulty in doing so, the availability of better alternatives more strongly supports pluralist conceptual engineering.
25/5/23    Marcus Ackermann (Cambridge)
Title: A B-theoretical ‘metaphysical indeterminacy’- account of the open future
Abstract: Many authors have thought that the tenseless existence of a single and determinate future (as posited by many eternalists) is incompatible with the open future thesis (i.e. the idea that it is presently unsettled what the future will be like). I agree, and will explain who else ought to. If this is correct, then B-theoretical philosophers adamant on upholding the open future thesis will have to deny either (i) that there exists a single future, or instead (ii) that there exists a determinate future. My aim for this talk, then, is threefold. Firstly, I will argue that attempts at (i) are unpromising, and that the best approach at (ii) turns out to rely on the A-Theory of time. Secondly, I will therefore spell out the changes that have to be made to this A-theoretical approach to fit it into a B-theoretical framework, and provide a formal model and basic semantics. Finally, I will outline what I take to be some key virtues of my account, and consider some objections.
1/6/23    Neil McDonnell (Glasgow)
Title: Causation in the Privileged Context
Abstract: In this paper I present a wide-angled view of the causation literature and highlight some key methodological considerations concerning what qualifies as a successful account of causation. Central to my case is the 'crucial' platitude presented by Menzies (2009) that causation is a natural relation. Operating within that constraint, I will show a problem for causal theorists who take ordinary causal talk seriously and then I will offer an idiosyncratic solution which appeals to the Privileged Context found in the paper's title. This will have some confronting implications, but in the end I will argue that the constraint imposed by the crucial platitude is liberating for philosophers working on the topic of causation.
5/6/23    Finnur Dellsén (University of Iceland) and James Norton (University of Iceland, University of Sydney)
Title:  Understanding Philosophical Progress
Abstract: What is it to make progress in philosophy? While various putative forms of philosophical progress have been explored in some depth, this overarching question is rarely addressed explicitly, perhaps because it has been assumed to be intractable or unlikely to have a single, unified answer. In this paper, we demonstrate that the question is tractable, that it does admit of a single, unified answer, and that this answer is plausible. Our answer is, roughly, that philosophical progress consists in putting people in a position to increase their understanding, where 'understanding' is a matter of accurately representing the network of dependence relations between concepts or phenomena. After identifying four desiderata for an account of philosophical progress, we argue that our account meets the desiderata in a particularly satisfying way. Among other things, it explains the sense in which various other achievements, e.g., philosophical arguments, thought experiments, and distinctions, may contribute to progress. Finally, we show how this account supports a moderate form of optimism about how much progress we have made in philosophy.