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What is the Ockham Society?

The Ockham Society provides a forum in which graduate students and young academics in philosophy may present their work to their peers at the University of Oxford. While the majority of speakers are from Oxford, the society welcomes papers from graduate students and young academics from other universities.
If you would like to present a paper to the society please contact Aron Vallinder or Matthias Brinkmann (firstname.lastname(at)philosophy.ox.ac.uk).

Format

A session of the Ockham Society typically lasts around 90 minutes. In the standard format, a presenter will talk for 45 minutes, with the same amount of discussion time. In the "Ockham Shorts" format, two speakers will each present for 20 minutes, with 20 minutes left for Q&A.

Programme for Trinity 2014

In Trinity 2014, we will meet in the Lecture Room, on Monday, 12-2 pm, except in week 5, when we will be in the Ryle Room.

Week 2
5 May
Lyndon Entwistle (Balliol)
Do Evolutionary Debunking Arguments Prove Too Much?
In a series of influential articles, Sharon Street argues that evolutionary psychology implies that if normative realism is true, then we don’t have normative knowledge; moreover, since (she assumes) we do have normative knowledge, she concludes that realism is false. I argue that if the first part of Street’s argument is successful, then she isn’t entitled to assume that we have normative knowledge, because it’s successful just in case so is an analogous argument showing that evolutionary psychology implies that if normative antirealism is true, then we don’t have normative knowledge. Since she thinks that we have normative knowledge just in case either realism or antirealism is true, it seems that that by Street’s own lights her evolutionary debunking argument proves too much.
Week 3
12 May
Sebastian Greve (Queen's)
On Modelling Conceivability: Abstraction and Extrospection
I discuss David Chalmers’ proposed way of modelling the notion of conceivability and some of his connected remarks about modal knowledge in general and the viability of conceivability arguments in particular. After an initial evaluation of Chalmers’ basic model, I offer a few possible improvements. Subsequently, putting the new model to the test, I apply it to Chalmers’ own well-known conceivability argument concerning the possibility of physically perfect duplicates of human beings which somehow “lack” consciousness (the so-called ‘zombie argument’), trying to demonstrate how the extended model can be instrumental in finding a clear formulation of a new challenge to Chalmers concerning his famous argument. I conclude by reflecting on the broader question of the usefulness of constructing models for our understanding of complex philosophical notions such as ‘conceivability’.
(A recent version of the paper the talk will be based on is available here.)
Week 4
19 May
Katherine Robertson (University)
Can Aharonov’s two-time interpretation of quantum mechanics solve the measurement problem?
An exposition of Aharonov et al.’s two-time interpretation of quantum mechanics is given together with a detailed description of the measurement problem. The two-time interpretation fails to solve the measurement problem as it is not a well-formulated theory that explains the success of the measurement algorithm. As the empirical probabilities were put in by hand to the postulated final state of the universe without an underlying dynamical reason, the measurement algorithm was left unexplained. Further, few would consider the theory well-formulated as measurement is primitive in it. An internal inconsistency between ‘two-time determinism’ and the role of the final state of the universe is resolved but consequently it is found neither necessary nor sufficient to attribute causal power to the backwards-evolving wavefunction, ⟨Ψ|. Thus an ontological reading of ⟨Ψ| (and thereby the TTI) is rejected. However, an epistemological reading of ⟨Ψ| is successful, particularly within the Everettian framework.
Week 5
26 May
Nakul Krishna (Balliol)
The Vegetable Argument: A Case Study in Common-Sense Morality
Note change of place: this week's Ockham Society will be in the Ryle Room.
The following statement has served as an introduction for many thousands of (middle-class) children to ethical argument: ‘Eat your vegetables; there are starving children in Africa.’ Generations of parents have said something along these lines to their children at dinnertime; generations of children have thought the statement an obvious non-sequitur. If the statement is supposed to amount to an argument (which it is not always clear it is), it may be cast in the form of the following syllogism:
P. There are starving children in Africa.
C. Therefore, you ought to eat your vegetables.
Evidently, further premises are needed for the conclusion to follow and the argument to be at least valid. How, if at all, can VA be defended?
Such familiar examples of non-academic moral (quasi-)argumentation can be a fascinating 'site for fieldwork' (in Austin's phrase) in moral philosophy, specifically, in understanding the nuances of what philosophers call 'common-sense morality'. In this paper, I consider ways of making sense of three things: (1) what, precisely, is a parent trying to do in offering this as a consideration at dinnertime? (2) could this ever be, when charitably interpreted, a good argument? (3) why is it almost invariably ineffective as a device of dinnertime persuasion?
Week 6
2 June
Johann Roduit (Zürich/Lincoln)
The Capability Approach and Human Enhancement
Whatever ethical stance one takes in the debate regarding the ethics of human enhancement, one or more reference points are required in order to assess the morality of human enhancement. Some have suggested looking at the bioethical notions of safety, justice, and/or autonomy to find such reference points. Others, arguing that those bioethical notions are limited when it comes to assess the morality of human enhancement have turned to human nature, human authenticity, or human dignity as reference points; therefore introducing some perfectionist assumptions in the debate.
In this paper, I ask which perfectionist assumptions should be used in this debate. After a critique of views that are problematic, I suggest some perfectionist elements that can lend guidance to the practice of human enhancement, based on the work of Martha Nussbaum’s Capability Approach (CA). I submit here that the basic capabilities outlined in her work can be used to define the human aspect of human enhancement and therefore guide human enhancement. More precisely, these basic capabilities can be maximized in order to postulate what would an ideal human look like. After outlining different reasons to use the CA in the debate, I then look at four practical examples of human enhancement, illustrating how the CA can help assess the morality of specific human enhancement.
Week 7
9 June
Ockham Shorts
Florian Dahl (Harris Manchester)
Rescuing Cohen on Occupational Choice
This paper seeks to closely examine G.A. Cohen's proposal for dissolving the alleged tension between Pareto eciency, equality and freedom of occupational choice. I identify two key complexities of Cohen's "ethical solution". Firstly it requires a "Paretian ethos" to supplement the primary "egalitarian ethos". I suggest that we should conceptualize this ethos as the recognition of a duty at the bar of morality to bring about the most ecient equal distribution. Secondly Cohen's luck egalitarian convictions imply that such a duty would be very demanding in some cases, violating the "personal prerogative" Cohen seeks to defend. The ethical solution thus leaves some eciency gains unrealized. At the same time Cohen's luck egalitarian convictions make Stalinist conscription of people into socially useful lines of work look more attractive. I conclude by sketching the way forward for thinking about the acceptability of this solution.
Shr-Jie Jian (Queen's)
Moral Motivation, Goal, and Background Beliefs
According to Michael Smith, to be motivated is to have a goal. To have a goal is to be in a mental state with which the world must fit. And to be in such a mental state is just to desire. This simple argument reveals the intimate conceptual connection between motivation and desire. And it presents a strong case for the Humean Theory of Motivation.
I first examine the objections to Smith's argument from the possibility of ‘besire’ and ‘motivated desire’. Then I propose an alternative argument against the Humean Theory and Smith's argument. I argue that some of the agent's desired goals can only be made sense of against the agent’s relevant background beliefs about what these goals consist in. And these background beliefs function to determine or specify what the desired goal is rather than merely point out the means to the desired goal. So it is not the case that beliefs merely play a subsidiary role in motivation. Finally, I consider some possible objections to my argument.
Week 8
16 June
Said Saillant (MIT)
The Evolutionary Rebuttal of Skepticism
We proceed under the assumption that we can know about the world. The external world skeptic questions this assumption by advancing a hypothesis according to which our perceptual experiences are the result of massive sensory deception. On the skeptical line, our inability to rule out such hypotheses as actual without taking some aspect of the external world for granted undermines our knowledge of the external world. In this paper, I develop and defend a way of ruling out radical skeptical hypotheses without begging the question in this respect. I argue that skeptical hypotheses fail to explain an incontrovertible fact -- the fact that something is an experiencing subject -- but that the real world hypothesis, the body of beliefs about the world we ordinarily take to constitute knowledge, can explain it because it has as part of its content evolutionary theory.
Past Sessions. Michaelmas 2012 | Hilary 2013 | Trinity 2013
Michaelmas 2013 | Hilary 2014
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