The Ockham Society

The Ockham Society provides a forum in which graduate students in philosophy (particularly BPhil, MSt, and PRS students) may present their ideas to their peers at the University of Oxford. Our aim is to provide every Oxford graduate student with the opportunity to present their ideas in a friendly environment at least once during their time in Oxford. It is an ideal opportunity to gain feedback on your essays, and to gain first experiences in academic presenting. Small, experimental and unfinished papers are just as welcome as more advanced ones.

For week 1, the society will meet in the Ryle Room from 2 - 3:30. For weeks 2 - 8, the society will meet in meeting room 7 at the philosophy faculty, on Fridays from 1 - 2:30pm.

If you would like to present a paper to the society please send a title and abstract of 150 words maximum to Charlotte Figueroa (firstname.lastname(at) Oxford DPhil Philosophy students are highly encouraged to present at the DPhil seminar.

Trinity Term 2018 Schedule

Week 1 (chaired by Joshua Pearson)

Thomas Mitchell (Linacre) - The irrationality of self-doubt

It is common for epistemic agents to acknowledge their fallibility. We often make claims like, 'It's this way, though I might be wrong'. Such statements may be formalised as p & ◇~p. It can be proven that propositions of this form are unknowable. This has at least two interesting implications, when combined with the following plausible epistemological assumptions: First, if it is impossible to know a proposition, then it is irrational to believe it. Second, if a proposition is given a non-zero level of credence by an agent, then that agent is certain that that proposition is possible – or formally, Cr(p) ≠ 0 → Cr(◇p)=1.

The first implication is a solution to the Preface Paradox. This involves an apparently ideally rational agent who writes a non-fiction book containing many propositions, each of which they believe, but adds a preface stating that something in the main text is false. The author's reasoning is that, given the fallibility of themselves and their sources, it is overwhelmingly likely that at least one of their propositions is false. This makes the overall content of the book inconsistent. The author, having apparently committed only to reasonable beliefs, now believes a contradiction.

The Paradox can be solved as follows. The author believes the content of the preface only because they believe, for each proposition, that it might be wrong. It is impossible for them to know, of each proposition, that it is true and that it might be false. So, by the first assumption, they should not believe that conjunction. As it is stipulated that they rationally believe each proposition, it follows that they do not rationally believe of any that it might be false. Therefore, they should not write the preface at all.

The second implication is a failure of Bayesianism. If credences are to be treated like probabilities, then Cr(p)=x → Cr(~p)=1-x, for any x in [0,1]. So, an uncertain belief that p implies some non-zero credence that ~p. But if, as we have argued, it is irrational to believe that ◇¬p when one believes that p, then clearly Cr(◇~p)≠1 (assuming one's credences are rational). By our second assumption, this implies that Cr(~p)=0, which contradicts the Bayesian view.

Sebastian Liu (Merton) - A Fitch-like paradox for Weak-KK

The KK principle states that knowing entails knowing that one knows. The once popular principle has fallen out of favor among many contemporary philosophers in light of putative counterexamples.

Recently, some have defended a seemingly more palatable version of KK that I'll call weak-KK, which remains faithful to its predecessor in spirit. In this talk I want to examine the prospects of weak-KK and argue that this principle is subject to a Fitch-like knowability paradox. Crucially, this result depends on the possibility of knowing, while knowing that one does not know that one knows (Kp & K~KKp). To argue for this, I'll provide several informal examples, as well as a formal model, motivated by common epistemic phenomena.

Week 2 (chaired by Lewis Wang)

William Gildea (Keble) - A puzzle about killing

Who has a right not to be killed? It seems that a plausible account of this right should be able to accommodate two claims. 1) The egalitarian intuition: All sentient human beings have a right not to be killed. 2) The hierarchical intuition: If animal non-persons have a right to not to be killed, it is not as strong as that of human persons. These intuitions are in tension. The hierarchical intuition suggests an emphasis on advanced psychological capacities, whilst the egalitarian intuition pushes us towards an account of the right not to be killed with less demanding conditions. It seems extant views have not been able to account for both.

My paper attempts to resolve the puzzle and account for both judgements. Roughly, I argue that to have a right not to be killed, one must be sentient and either possess the capacity for desires about one's experiences, or the capacity to care about one's experiences, or both. The view is gradualist, in that the right admits of various strengths, depending on the extent to which these capacities are possessed. The view has undemanding conditions, allowing us to accommodate the egalitarian intuition. And its gradualist nature helps us explain the hierarchical intuition. However, this gradualism also raises worries about how to explain our commitment to basic human equality.

CM Lim (Corpus Christi) - The communicative constraint on civil disobedience

Civil disobedience is often understood as having a crucial communicative aspect, which constrains the forms it may take. I consider an argument for the communicative constraint, provided by Kimberley Brownlee. Potential disobedients realise that they might be mistaken, and therefore select constrained acts that show that they bear this in mind. The connection between the realisation and constraint is, however, mysterious. I discuss, and reject, two attempts to establish it. Such realisation may not amount to much.

Week 3 (chaired by Farbod Akhlaghi-Ghaffarokh)

Rhys Southan (Exeter) - Why we can't appeal to the universe to explain the value of creating new lives

Many people believe we have some moral reason to create happy lives and that we have some moral reason to avoid creating miserable lives. However, these intuitions are in tension with the plausible view that coming into existence cannot be better or worse for someone than their never coming into existence. One way to preserve the intuition that there is value in creating lives despite the incomparability of never existing and existing is to claim that while creating new lives is not better or worse for the lives created, the creation of these lives might be better or worse "for the universe." In this paper, I will raise three problems for this strategy.

Sarah Chan (Blackfriars) - Teleological potentiality for rational agency as the grounds for moral rights

Dominant theoretical accounts of human rights hold that they accrue to individuals in virtue of their capacity for rationality and autonomy. Contemporary discussions of what it takes for an entity to be above the threshold of respect similarly tend to posit psychological capacities for self-consciousness and reason as key requirements. The prevailing opinion in academic theory, then, is that for one to be a rights-bearer, or to be above the threshold for respect, one must be an agent with the capacities for reason and autonomy. This however, implies that young children, infants and the severely cognitively disabled do not have human rights, and are not above the threshold of respect, which is counter to both intuition and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this presentation, I develop an account grounding the bearing of rights, or being above the threshold of respect in the teleological potentiality to be a rational agent, given that the entity in question possesses moral status. An entity has teleological potential to be an X, if and only if that entity is in some way meant to be an X. An infant has the teleological potential to be an agent not because it is characteristic of a human person that she is an agent, but because a human person should be an agent. That is, potential is determined with reference to a standard rather than to actuality or possibility. I then explore how this account evades the typical reductio pitfalls of potentiality accounts of rights. Finally, I suggest that if this account of potentiality is accepted, it implies that fetuses may also be beings above the threshold of respect and bearers of rights.

Week 4 (chaired by Sebastian Liu)

Weng Kin San (St Hilda's) - Generalising Fitch's result

Fitch showed that if every truth is knowable, then every truth is known. The standard proof of the result in a bimodal logic relies simply on the assumption that the knowledge operator is factive and distributes over conjunctions. Thus, Fitch's result holds not just for knowledge but for any factive operator that distributes over conjunctions. So, the result obtains for any modal operator whose logic extends the modal system KT.

I'll show that Fitch's result holds not only in KT but for an extremely large class of modal systems. This means that Fitch's observation plausibly generalises to various modal operators, including ones that are not indisputably factive, such as belief, evidence, and justification. This generalised result has interesting implications for epistemology as well as many other areas of philosophy. I'll briefly explore some of its epistemological implications—in particular, its implications for the debates on level-bridging principles (like KK) and on epistemic akrasia.

Kieran Marray (St Catherine's) - What Can Epistemology Do For Economics? The Radical Implications of Foundationalism in Economic Modelling

This paper aims to analyse the structure of justification underlying classical economic modelling, and draw out the implications for the discipline. This is shown to be generally foundationalist, proceeding from certain assumptions taken as basic to conclusions by mathematical inference. It is then shown how this is problematic. Often in such modelling the basic assumptions are justified pragmatically, whereas the conclusions are taken to be justified epistemically. This cannot hold in these structures. A close analysis of recent works in climate economics suggests that this provides a problem not just in theory but in practice, given how such models are intended to be used. It follows that either a change is needed in how such models are intended to be used, or how the assumptions they use are made. Orthodox models should seem to be discarded wholesale in favour of ‘generativist’ or experimental approaches, where assumptions are grounded empirically.

Week 5 (chaired by Beatriz Santos)

Simon Wimmer (Warwick) - Knowledge-first belief: Counterfactuals and variables

What is it to believe a proposition? Several recent, interesting additions to the literature answer this question by appeal to knowledge. Here I focus on an issue concerning how such knowledge-first accounts of belief should be formulated. Various such accounts, for instance those suggested in Hyman (2017), Nagel (2017), and Williamson (2000), feature a would-counterfactual and appeal to one proposition variable only. I argue that this combination of features is problematic. §3 argues that, since the suggested accounts feature would-counterfactuals, we can generate two kinds of counterexamples to them. And §4 argues that the only promising response to those counterexamples is to appeal to two proposition variables with different domains, rather than one. So, it’s time to revise the accounts suggested in Hyman, Nagel, and Williamson.

Oliver Hurcrum (Worcester) - Composition as Identity and Temporal Counterpart Theory

Composition as Identity is the thesis that a composite material object ‘just is’ the fusion of its parts. Prima facie, this is a very attractive thesis. It is only by identifying objects with the fusions of their parts that we can avoid concluding that objects coincide with the fusions of their parts.However, Composition as Identity implies mereological essentialism, the view that material objects have their parts essentially. This is a problem because we do not talk as though objects have their parts essentially. The proponent of Composition as Identity appears committed to an error theory, according to which much of our ordinary talk about material objects is false.

The four-dimensionalist avoids this commitment by analysing our ordinary talk either as talk about an object’s temporal parts or as talk about an object’s temporal counterparts. This is sometimes considered to be a good reason to favour four-dimensionalism to three-dimensionalism. I argue that the three-dimensionalist can also endorse Composition as Identity while at the same time maintaining that much of our ordinary talk about material objects is true. They may do so by following the four-dimensionalist and analysing our ordinary talk about objects using their own brand of temporal counterpart theory.

Week 6 (chaired by Alasdair Craig)

Milena Bartholain (Regent's Park) - TBC

Raphaël Millière (Magdalen) - Are there degrees of self-consciousness?

It is widely assumed that ordinary conscious experience involves some form of sense of self or consciousness of oneself. Moreover, this claim is often restricted to a “thin” or “minimal” notion of self-consciousness, or even “the simplest form of self-consciousness” (Blanke & Metzinger, 2009), as opposed to more sophisticated forms of self-consciousness which are not deemed ubiquitous in ordinary experience. This suggests that self-consciousness is a graded phenomenon which comes in degrees. I will argue that there are several issues with this assumption.

First, there is no obvious metric to determine whether one creature is more self-conscious than another creature at a given time, or whether the same creature is more self-conscious at one time than at another time. Secondly, there are several ways in which a creature can be self-conscious. Aside from thinking about oneself, there are good reasons to believe that there are other forms of self-consciousness which may not depend on the possession of a first-person concept, such as the sense of agency, bodily awareness, and spatial self-location.

The distinction between minimal and complex forms of self-consciousness could be motivated in principle by the discovery of systematic relations between these experiential features, such that some are necessary for others. However, there is empirical evidence to the contrary. Subjects are often aware of their body, action or location without thinking about themselves; they can lack a sense of agency without lacking bodily awareness or self-location (e.g., in thought insertion or alien hand syndrome); they can be aware of their location without being aware their body (e.g., in bodiless dreams, asomatic out-of-body experiences or certain drug-induced states); conversely, they can be aware of their body but not of their location (e.g., in vestibular disorders, deafblindness or meditation).

I will conclude that self-consciousness is best understood as a multidimensional construct rather than a graded phenomenon.

Week 7 (chaired by Ruby Shao)

Sean Costello (Blackfriars) - The Difficulty of Aristotle’s ‘Connate Breath’

The σύμφυτον πνεῦμα, or ‘connate breath’, is posited late in Aristotle’s career with the apparent intention of filling a perceived gap in his theory of animal locomotion. However, σύμφυτον πνεῦμα is nowhere given a full account by Aristotle, and it has been, until recently, understudied by scholars. The purpose of this presentation, then, is to reflect on the question of exactly what σύμφυτον πνεῦμα is, especially as presented in De Motu Animalium 10, where it is most-extensively treated. To this end, in Section I, I first lay out what I take to be the relevant descriptions of σύμφυτον πνεῦμα in Aristotle’s corpus, focusing on passages from De Motu Animalium and compatible texts from De Generatione Animalium, in order to distinguish it from the more mundane uses of πνεῦμα to refer to ‘breath’ or ‘wind’. In Section II, I then proceed to investigate the logical space which the bodily σύμφυτον πνεῦμα could inhabit. In so doing, I find that, of the four degrees of bodies in Aristotle’s system – i.e. (1) elemental (simple) bodies; (2) homoeomers; (3) anhomoeomers; and (4) whole organisms – only options (1) and (2) appear viable for σύμφυτον πνεῦμα. Within (1), I proceed to investigate the three sub-positions which seem to me to be available: (a) considering the σύμφυτον πνεῦμα to be a new fifth sublunary element (and sixth overall element, if the heavenly αἰθήρ is included); (b) considering the σύμφυτον πνεῦμα just to be αἰθήρ; or (c) considering the σύμφυτον πνεῦμα to be one of the four ‘regular’ elements. I systematically present what I take to be insuperable arguments against understanding σύμφυτον πνεῦμα in the manner of any of these three sub-positions before turning to option (2), which, despite having some points in its favour, also appears to have insurmountable difficulties. I then conclude, in Section III, that perhaps the notion of σύμφυτον πνεῦμα is not coherent within Aristotle’s system, and suggest that it may not, after all, be required for his theory of animal locomotion.

Dabin Kwon (St Edmund Hall) - In what sense is technology a threat to Dasein? Heidegger’s philosophy of technology

According to Heidegger, technology as a mode of revealing constrains the way in which different entities are revealed to us. However, insofar as we always adopt some mode of revealing in the background, we need to identify what is especially problematic about technology in comparison to other modes of revealing in order to call technology a “threat” to Dasein. It has recently been argued by Wrathall that the most distinctive feature of technology is its totalising power, at the heart of which lies the tranquilising effect on the different modes of thinking. Indeed, the technologisation of society is not produced by the development of advanced gadgets per se, but by the domination of technological mode of thinking, namely "calculative thinking", which drives the development of such gadgets and much more.

In this talk, I wish to present another way in which the tranquilising effect of technology poses a threat to Dasein, which is the inducement of inauthentic existence[Existenz]. Following Haugeland, authenticity can be understood as the transcendental condition for the possibility of agency (Haugeland, Truth and Finitude: Heidegger’s Transcendental Existentialism), and the objectlessness of technological revelation disables us from taking responsibility for our action.

Week 8 (chaired by Alice Evatt)

Alasdair Craig (Lady Margaret Hall) - Experientialism and the problem of cognitive penetration

Experientialist views dominate the epistemology of perception. Experientialists hold that in normal circumstances perceptual experiences (whether veridical or not) justify beliefs with suitably related contents. This thought is fleshed out in various ways by, for example, dogmatists like Huemer and Pryor, entitlement-theorists like Wright, and others. The phenomenon of cognitive penetration, in which a subject's mental states influence the contents of their perceptual experiences, poses a challenge for experientialists. For they seem to be committed to making false predictions about the justificatory power of cognitively penetrated experiences. In this paper I argue that the problem is intractable for internalist varieties of experientialism. In particular, I argue that the attempts of mentalist internalists like Siegel, Markie and McGrath to provide a satisfying experientialist account of cognitive penetration fail. Therefore, I suggest, if we want to be experientialists, we'll need to be externalists about epistemic justification.

Sasha Arridge (St Anne's) - Deriving Basic Equality from Self-Respect

In this essay I present a novel approach to basic equality. I show that basic normative equality between human beings is necessarily entailed by any human coherently holding themselves with self-respect. I start by developing a heuristic for discovering the properties or capacities that are shared equally by the set of all human beings. After laying this out in some detail, I define carefully the notion of self-respect, and consider the implications of a position of self-respect in light of the results of my heuristic. I find that the set of capacities constitutive of a human being possesses normative value independently of the fact that a human being possesses them; from here, I argue that a position of individual self-respect is coherent if and only if we afford equal moral respect to beings with the same set of capacities (i.e. other human beings). To finish, I consider briefly some implications of the heuristic process and the conclusions it entails.

Past Sessions.
Trinity 2013 | Michaelmas 2013 | Hilary 2014 | Trinity 2014 | Michaelmas 2014 | Hilary 2015 | Michaelmas 2015
Hilary 2016 | Trinity 2016 | Michaelmas 2016 | Hilary 2017 | Trinity 2017 | Michaelmas 2017 | Hilary 2018 |