What is 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.

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

Programme for Hilary 2019

We meet Fridays 1 - 2 pm in the Radcliffe Humanities Building, Ryle Room.

Week 1
18 January
Chair: Sebastian Liu
Simon-Pierre Chevarie-Cossette (University College)
Excuses and Alternatives

The principle of alternate possibilities (PAP) claims that one is only responsible for actions which one could have avoided. Much of the philosophical discussion about PAP concerns Frankfurt’s widely discussed counterexamples to it. In these scenarios, an agent seems responsible for an unavoidable action because what makes it unavoidable has no causal effect on it. Fifty years of discussion have led philosophers to refine the counterexamples and to polish their rebuttals. Attempts to rally everyone seem hopeless. Still, we can make progress on the issue by asking what our reason for believing PAP is. I suggest that our reason is that lacking alternatives is a good excuse. But if this is right, lacking eligible alternatives—alternatives it is reasonable to ask one to choose—is a good excuse. However, this last principle is subject to counterexamples similar to Frankfurt’s—modified cases where an agent would (unbeknownst to him) be shot if he refused to commit a petty crime. In these scenarios, the agent uncontroversially lacks eligible alternatives and yet seems blameworthy. This means that the intuitive cost of PAP has been significantly raised. Accepting PAP implies accepting an important form of moral luck because whether we lack eligible alternatives is very often subject to luck.

Week 2
25 January
Chair: Sara Chan
Kacper Kowalczyk (St. Anne’s College)
A limited defence of limited aggregation

Should you save many people from quadriplegia or a few from death? Should you save very many people from losing a finger or many from quadriplegia? Should you save very many people from losing a finger or a few from death? A common pattern of answers is: save the bigger group, save the bigger group, save the smaller group. If you agree, you believe in limited aggregation. Tomlin (2017) and Horton (2018) showed that there are serious problems with limited aggregation, to do with adding and subtracting groups of people. I show how a proponent of limited aggregation can respond.

Week 3
1 February
Chair: Sebastian Liu
Paul de Font-Reaulx (Trinity College)
Evidentialism and Why There Ain't No Such Thing as A Computationally Free Lunch

In much of contemporary epistemology it is assumed that we ought to believe what our evidence supports. One aspect of this suggestion has however been neglected, namely that it ignores the cognitive costs of inferring what our evidence supports. In this paper I argue that when those costs are high but the evidence decisive, this gives rise to deeply counterintuitive consequences. This is brought out most clearly by cases of mathematical evidence. I claim that ignoring the costs of thinking leaves us with an implausible theory of justified belief that jars with scientific practice. To accommodate the costs of thinking I suggest that we introduce a separate notion of reasonable belief, satisfied when one makes the most of one‘s computational resources. Finally I suggest that the explicit introduction of reasonable belief in our conceptual toolbox can dissolve otherwise intractable debates in contemporary epistemology, such as those regarding peer-disagreement.

Week 4
8 February
Chair: Christopher Benzenberg
Kiril Maltsev (St. Catherine’s College)
Vacuum fluctuations in Quantum Field Theory, and Nothingness

From the perspective of Quantum Field Theory, the fact of fluctuations in the vacuum can be seen as an account for Leibniz' famous enquire ''Why is there something rather than nothing?''.

Nothingness is commonly associated with the void, where no thing exists. In classical field theory, the vacuum -- defined as free space devoid of any material being -- indeed is empty: the property of emptiness is persistent in the classical vacuum. In quantum field theory, the vacuum is introduced as the ground state of the (abstract) Fock space, an algebraic construction composed of all possible quantum states of particle configurations: as its ground state, the quantum vacuum is a state with zero particles and least possible energy.

There are two features of this quantum vacuum which, in contrast to the classical vacuum, make it a rich structure of non-trivial behaviour: 1. The non-vanishing zero-point-energy, composed of energy contributions from all possible modes. 2. The everlasting vacuum fluctuations about the average value of zero particles, which consist of nonterminating creation of virtual particle-antiparticle pairs, followed by their annihilation back to the void.

We will explore the origin and physical significance of these, and argue that they suggest the view that nothingness cannot be a persistent state.

Week 5
15 February
Chair: Joshua Pearson
Christopher Benzenberg (St. Cross College)
The Moral Fiction: Solving a Metaethical Dilemma

Today’s metaethics faces a dilemma between moral realism and expressivism. While moral realism provides a simple and uniform semantics for our moral claims and inferences, it comes with high ontological costs. In particular, one has to buy into the existence of queer moral facts. Expressivism, by contrast, maintains a lean ontology. As a result, however, its semantics is messy and excessively complicated—a fact that becomes apparent when we bring to mind the endless efforts to solve the Frege-Geach problem.

This paper first argues that error theory does not solve this dilemma. Traditionally, it has been suggested that error theory is able to maintain the realist’s semantics without posting queer moral facts. Moral claims express propositions, which are, however, systematically false because there are no moral properties to be instantiated. Against this line of thought, this paper argues that our moral claims fail to express (complete) propositions if there are no moral properties. As a result, error theory faces a variation of the Frege-Geach problem.

This paper then proposes a new solution to the metaethical dilemma: moral fictionalism. Like literary claims, moral claims are implicitly prefixed with a fiction-operator. For instance, the claim “Murder is wrong” is paraphrased as “According to the moral code, murder is wrong”. Given the correct interpretation of the fiction-operator, this paraphrase ensures that moral claims express propositions while avoiding the ontological commitment to queer moral facts. Solving the dilemma makes moral fictionalism an attractive metaethical position.

Week 6
22 February
Chair: Beatriz Santos
Aglaia von Götz (Merton College)
A desideratum for a theory of definite descriptions

Even when one knows that two sentences both make the same false existential presupposition, one might evaluate one of them as false, while feeling unable to assign a truth-value to the other. For example, some people feel squeamish, i.e. are unable to evaluate the sentence as true or false, when asked to assign a truth-value to sentence (1) but confidently judge (2) to be false. I will call sentences with existential presupposition failure SWEPF.

(1) The king of France is bald.

(2) The king of France is drinking a cup of tea with us.

In the contemporary literature several ways of explaining this difference in truth-value assignments have been proposed. I think that there is a further desideratum for a theory that explains the presented difference that has not been discussed so far. The desideratum is the following: I take it that between speakers who judge some SWEPF as squeamish, there remains the possibility of disagreement in how to judge a particular SWEPF. This means that there are evaluator-relative SWEPF such that some speakers judge them to be squeamy and others judge them to be false. I take it that for example sentence (3) is such a SWEPF.

(3) The king of France lives in a spaceship.

The discussion of the desideratum is important because not all of the contemporary explanations can account for it. To show this, I will group the contemporary explanations in different approaches and then look how the most elaborated theory of each approach deals with the desideratum.

Week 7
1 March
Chair: Lewis Wang
Sara Chan (Blackfriars Hall)
The Minority Mind: A Theory of Mental Disability and Disorder

Perhaps the most dominant account of disability within philosophy conceives of disability as a defective departure from the normal functioning of a species. Taking her cue from disability-positive testimony among disabled people, however, Elizabeth Barnes has recently argued for a “mere difference view” of physical disability, that is, the view that so-called disabilities may not be intrinsically bad (or good) for well-being. In light of similarly positive testimony about mental otherness in the neurodiversity movement, I will explore whether it is (1) possible and (2) desirable to extend the mere-difference view to mental illness and cognitive impairment. I will focus primarily on Manic-Depressive Disorder and Down Syndrome, because their distinctive features are straightforwardly relevant to two prominent types of theories of well-being: namely a hedonic view and an objective goods view. I approach (1) by considering issues surrounding the reliability of first-person testimony of those of unsound mind, and then by examining whether a coherent story of how mental disorders are more than the defective functioning can be told despite the fact that they often seriously undermine autonomy. I then explore (2) by explicating the implications of accepting Down Syndrome and Manic-Depressive Disorder as mere-difference on other theoretical and practical issues.

Week 8
8 March
Chair: Joshua Pearson
Beatriz Santos (Lincoln College)
Armchair Modality

Hardcore actualist theories of modality account for the nature of metaphysical possibility and necessity without first trying to construct possible worlds out of actual objects. Their core motivation is the idea that modality is primarily a localized matter: a matter of how things stand with individual concrete objects, rather than of how the world in general could have been.

Here I will evaluate the satisfactoriness of Barbara Vetter’s (2015) hardcore actualist theory, which accounts for metaphysical possibility and necessity in terms of potentialities, which are modal properties of individual objects. Her account’s main motivation is its claim to respect the locality of modality while meeting three satisfactoriness constraints: extensional adequacy, formal adequacy, and semantic utility. I will argue that Vetter’s account’s reliance on extrinsic potentialities in meeting the formal adequacy and semantic utility constraints undermines its claim to respect the locality of modality.

First I show that Vetter’s account’s reliance on extrinsic potentialities threatens it with a paradox of ground in the spirit of Kit Fine (2010), which either forces her to abandon classical logic, thereby undermining her logic for potentiality, or to abandon her grounding assumption. As the first option would undermine her account’s satisfactoriness, Vetter must abandon her grounding assumption. I then show that without getting extrinsic potentialities “for free”, Vetter’s account’s reliance on extrinsic potentialities in meeting semantic utility undermines its claim to respect the locality of modality.

Richard Roth (New College)
Abominable Junk

Abominable conditionals are indicative conditionals of the form “If I don't know p, p”. Asserting abominable conditionals sounds bad. Dorst (forthcoming) presents a puzzle about abominable conditionals. The paper presents an analogous puzzle about junk conditionals, roughly conditionals one should stop believing if one learned their antecedent is true. Dorst's solution to the former puzzle based on the KK-principle is criticised on the grounds that it does not solve the analogous latter puzzle. Further, it is argued that abominable conditionals are junk conditionals, and counterexamples to Sorensen's (1998) explanation why junk conditionals are unassertable are given.