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.

We meet Wednesdays 1PM in the Radcliffe Humanities Building, Lecture Room. During Week 1, we will feature four 20min presentations (roughly, 10min talk and 10min Q&A); this session is designed to give speakers quick feedback on ideas and to develop communities of philosophers working on related topics. Presentations Weeks 2-7 are 45min; these may feature distinct talk and Q&A sections, or may run workshop style with Q&A occurring during the talk itself. Sometimes there will be two 45min presentations on related topics.

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

Programme for Michaelmas 2016

We meet Wednesdays 13:00-14:30 in the Radcliffe Humanities Building, Lecture Room.

Week 1
12 October

This week, only from 13:00-14:00

Udit Bery (Magdalen), chaired by Sybilla Pereira
Doing the (probably) right thing: Plutarch's skepticism and moral theory
I lay down what I take to be his moral theory which is is essentially Aristotelian and character but mediated by Peripatetic arguments as well as his avowed Platonism. I look at the two 'modes' in which this is presented, in the Moralia as ad hominem argument against the Stoics and in the Lives. In the Lives, Plutarch's aim is not to lay down doctrine but to provide a framework for moral thinking. In the next section, I turn to Plutarch's scepticism, establish its boundaries by looking at a couple of texts in detail and drawing explicit comparison between the presentation of his views and the arguments current in the Hellenistic academy. Classical pragmatism helps to explain and evaluate Plutarch's views which lead him to his fallibilist position which is fallibilist not only when it comes to the views expressed but the ways in which these views are reached. Finally and briefly, I look at the Stoics for counterarguments to Plutarch's (really Academic) epistemology and defend him against these arguments. In this paper, I aim to show, by looking not at a section of but the entire Plutarchan corpus that Plutarch was a systematic philosophical thinker, not just a source for the history of philosophy. Plutarch's arguments are relevant for contemporary thinking on the fact/value dichotomy, on epistemology and most obviously on moral philosophy itself.
Week 2
19 October
Sam Clarke (St Anne's), chaired by Chris Fowles
Don't Fail the Module

Ever since the publication of Jerry Fodor’s monumental book, The Modularity of Mind, it has been common to distinguish between the cognitive systems of the human mind that are modular and the cognitive systems of the human mind that are not. But, this is not without its controversy. On the one hand, proponents of the so-called Massive Modularity Hypothesis can seem to hold that (more or less) all of our cognitive systems are modular. So, on their view, there would seem to be no genuinely non-modular cognitive systems in the human mind and the Fodorian distinction between modules and non-modules would seem to fall apart. On the other hand, an increasing number of theorists purport to have found reason to deny that any cognitive system can be usefully thought of as modular (at least when it comes to the workings of the human mind). So, for these theorists, human minds are seen to be entirely composed of (one or more) non-modular systems and the putative distinction between modular and non-modular systems, once again, seems to fall apart.

In the present treatment, I want to make a controversial suggestion of my own: I want to suggest that critics of both the above varieties routinely fail to engage with the proposed distinction between modules and non-modules as it is actually used in cognitive theorising (henceforth, the Fodorian distinction). To see this, I begin my discussion by clarifying the distinction itself, considering how proponents make use of it in their theorising. This enables interested parties to begin to appreciate what would and would not constitute a challenge to the Fodorian’s proposed distinction and to recognise that standard objections to it quite clearly fall short of target. But, perhaps more importantly than this, it also enables us to see what a genuine objection to the proposal might look like. Thus, I will go on to introduce and consider two genuine, yet under-explored, concerns with the proposed modular/non-modular distinction under consideration. Despite responding to both of these concerns and, thereby, offering a far-reaching defence of the Fodorian distinction under consideration, my discussion lays down a clear challenge to critics to be pursued in their future work (something for everyone!). With these points made, I conclude the paper by considering how these findings may enable progress on a number of independent debates in the philosophy of psychology and cognitive science.

Week 3
26 October

James Kirkpatrick (University), chaired by Jay Jian
Some problems with referentialism about proper names (hopefully) solved with referentialism
This paper attempts to develop a version of referentialism about proper names that accounts for cases of underdetermination of reference, and maybe also accounts for and solves some other problems for referentialism.
Annina Loets (Trinity), chaired by Jay Jian
Qualifying phrases and arguments by Leibniz's Law

One of the most fundamental principles encoding our understanding of the logic of identity is the Indiscernibility of Identicals, often called Leibniz’s Law. If a and b are identical, then they have all and only the same properties. More formally:
LAW: a=b→∀F(Fa↔Fb)
Philosophers frequently draw on Leibniz’s Law to argue for surprising and controversial non-identities. Particularly prominent in the literature are arguments for the non-identity of a material object and its matter. A clay statue and the clay it is made of, for instance, appear to differ in their modal properties, persistence conditions and aesthetic properties, and would therefore seem to be distinct.

While Leibniz’s Law remains largely uncontested, the discontents of such arguments insist that the Law is often misapplied. Often times we ascribe a property to an object in a qualified manner only. For instance, we may say that someone is corrupt as a judge, but not corrupt as treasurer of their ping pong club, or that some book is useless as a novel, but not useless as a doorstop, yet we don’t wish to insist that there are two things rather than just one (the book and the doorstop), let alone two people rather than just one (the judge and the treasurer). Proponents of such a strategy face the task of spelling out in more detail how such qualifying phrases with ‘as’ should be understood, both semantically and metaphysically, and how an appeal to qualification may help to block specific arguments by Leibniz’s Law.

The aim of this paper is to make progress with this project. I begin by presenting some desiderata for a semantic and metaphysical theory of qualification and I lay out my general approach to the semantics of qualifying phrases. Next, I discuss and reject Zoltán Gendler Szabó’s proposed semantics. I go on to com- pare two remaining attractive options: the saturation approach and the predicate modifier approach, and I argue for the saturation approach. I conclude by considering implications for non-identity arguments by Leibniz’s Law.

Week 4
2 November
Lucy McDonald (St Peter's), chaired by James Matharu
Revenge Pornography

In 2008 US teen Jessica Logan committed suicide in her bedroom after months of bullying at school. An ex-boyfriend had circulated a naked photograph of her to hundreds of students, who collectively branded her a ‘slut’. Their harassment ultimately became unbearable.

Logan was a victim of ‘revenge porn’, the non-consensual sharing of explicit imagery. In this paper I explore this phenomenon. I begin by setting out Rae Langton’s famous theory of pornography as a kind of subordinating speech act. I consider objections to her model, particularly the claim that she does not sufficiently define the authority needed for pornography qua speech act to have subordinating illocutionary force. I supplement her model by arguing that pornography accrues authority through the silence of other sexual educators.

When we analyse revenge pornography in the same way Langton analyses commercial pornography, it does not seem to have the illocutionary force of subordinating, both because its content is often not degrading (‘the content problem’) and because it is not afforded educational authority in the same way as commercial pornography (‘the authority problem’). However, in response to the first problem I suggest that non-consensually released depictions of consensual activity might function like sarcastic speech acts (here I draw on Elizabeth Camp’s theory of sarcasm). In response to the second I argue that if revenge porn subordinates via a process of normalisation, its authority conditions are easy to satisfy. I take the latter idea from Langton’s discussion of norms in her 2015 Locke lectures.

I conclude by contextualising revenge porn as a type of ‘slut-shaming’. I argue that for reasons of hermeneutical justice this area of women’s experiences needs further conceptualisation.

Week 5
9 November
Weng Kin San (St Hilda's), chaired by James Matharu
Rationality Requires Precise Credences
Some formal epistemologists argue that degrees of belief, or credences, do not have to be precise. For example, my credence that a coin of unknown bias will land heads can range over the interval [0,1] rather than take on some precise value like 0.5. I’ll argue otherwise. Rational agents react to evidence and incentives. Yet, every possible decision rule for agents with imprecise credences allows them to ignore evidence and incentives. Since no acceptable imprecise decision rule exists, credences must be precise.
Week 6
16 November
Thomas Mitchell (Worcester), chaired by Charlotte Figueroa
The Problem with Self-Doubt

This is an epistemic argument that gives the counterintuitive conclusion that self doubt is never rational, which goes as follows:

Given all the necessary conditions for knowledge apart from truth, truth is guaranteed (this we can learn from the Gettier Problem). Therefore, if something is known, then its truth must be guaranteed given all other relevant conditions - call these collectively the 'epistemic situation'.

A belief is only rational if there is a live possibility of it being knowledge. By 'live possibility', I simply mean something that is not ruled out given the relevant agent's perspective. This is because knowledge is what happens if belief 'works properly' and if one's perspective rules out a given belief working properly, it is irrational to hold that belief.

Therefore, if something is rationally believed, then it is a live possibility that its truth is guaranteed by the epistemic situation. Now, if an agent believes, 'I believe something falsely' (that is, they have self doubt), then, given any of their beliefs, its truth is not guaranteed by the epistemic situation. The agent holds that it is true that they believe something falsely and therefore, given any belief, it might be false. So, the epistemic situation cannot guarantee its truth. Given that the agent realises this, for any belief, it is not a live possibility that its truth is guaranteed by the epistemic situation.

This means that, for any belief, it is not a live possibility that it is knowledge. So, no other belief can be rationally maintained once 'I believe something falsely' is believed. 'I believe something falsely' cannot be rationally maintained in the absence of other beliefs, for it then implies its own falsity. Therefore, 'I believe something falsely' is always an irrational belief.

This is of some interest, for there are many scenarios in which it seems legitimate to suppose oneself to have gotten something wrong.

Nadja-Mira Yolcu (Trinity), chaired by Charlotte Figueroa
A Reply to Stone's 'Unlucky' Gettier Cases
Stone (2013) has recently proposed that there are ‘unlucky’ Gettier cases and that therefore veritic luck cannot be distinctive of Gettier cases. Instead, he identifies an agent’s justification for a belief being based on a knowledge-nullifying mistake as the distinctive feature of Gettier cases. I formulate (Safety*) after Pritchard (2015): S’s belief that p in the actual world formed via method M is safe iff in nearly-all (if not all) near-by possible worlds all beliefs S forms via M are true. I show that in both of Stone’s examples the agent’s belief is unsafe* and that hence both cases are ‘lucky’ Gettier cases. I furthermore argue that Stone’s proposed distinctive feature of Gettier cases is wrong by introducing Williams’ and Sinhababu’s (2015) Gettier case Backward Clock which does not include a knowledge-nullifying mistake. Pace Williams and Sinhababu, the agent’s belief in Backward Clock is unsafe*.
Week 7
23 November
Vikram Kumar (St Hilda's), chaired by Guus Eelink
Priority and the Infinite in Aristotle Physics III
What is prior to the infinite? In Physics, Aristotle states that the infinite exists as a potential. If in Metaphysics IX.8, Aristotle states that actuality is prior to potentiality, then what could be prior to the infinite? Aristotle says that the infinite functions very much like matter - a substance needs form to actualize it. By itself, matter is only a potential. Through this analogy, I argue that the finite is what is ontologically prior to the infinite in Aristotle's framework.
Chiara Martini (Somerville), chaired by Guus Eelink
Aristotelian Continuity

The relation between the eighth book of Aristotle’s Physics and the previous parts is rather problematic. Indeed, while the first books are centred on the analysis of physical finite phenomena, the last one opens towards cosmology and metaphysics, and the passage from the one level to the other is not as smooth and simple as it should be – so much so that it is sometimes unclear whether the same terms are still used to refer to the same concepts. This is indeed the case with regards to the notion of continuity.

The main result of Ph. VIII is the demonstration of the existence of the first unmoved mover; in the main argument, the notion of continuity plays a fundamental role. In this context, continuity is treated as an essential property of motion as such – the physical manifestation of metaphysical properties such as unity, eternity and necessity. This account of continuity, however, seems not to be completely coherent with the analysis of continuous physical magnitudes carried on in the previous books of the Physics, nor with the definitions of suneches given there. Should we conclude that Aristotle uses two different concepts of continuity? I intend to show that this is not the case.

I am going to argue that the physical property of continuity is primarily conceived in order to fit in the metaphysical context, and to fulfill its crucial function of linking the finite physical phenomena to the cosmological and metaphysical analysis. In the analysis of finite physical phenomena (those which take place in the sublunary world), the same notion as the one employed in the eighth book is used, but relativised: sublunary phenomena are locally continuous, i.e. continuous between the extremities.

Accordingly, I will claim that neither of the two traditionally proposed definitions (which can be found in Ph. V 3 and in Ph. VI 1-2) has to be considered the true Aristotelian definition of continuity: continuity is conceived as a primary notion, not reducible to more fundamental physical elements. However, I will show how Panza’s hypothesis of extracting a definition ad absurdum from Ph. V 3 allows us to give a unitary account of Aristotelian continuity, valid for all the books and for the metaphysical, physical and mathematical level.

Week 8
30 November
Michael Plant (St. Cross), chaired by Brad Kim
The surprising unimportance of saving lives
Saving lives is widely regarded the best way to do good. I argue against this conventional wisdom, claiming that while saving lives is often good, its remarkably less good that we think it is. I’ll offer four arguments for this. First, saving lives is impossible. Second, on total utilitarianism, many deaths aren’t very bad because they effectively cause new people to be created. I call this the replacement problem. I point out in replacement cases the badness of deaths consists almost entirely in the sadness felt by the living, rather than, as we’d normally think, in both the sadness felt by the living and the loss for the deceased. Third, alternatives to total utilitarianism are either implausible or also entail the badness of deaths consists just in the suffering of the living. Fourth, those who believe the earth is overpopulated should think it somewhat good when lives are not saved. The conclusion I draw is we should think less about saving lives and more about helping the living live better lives, and I sketch a couple of possibilities for how to increase happiness for those currently alive.
Korbinian Rüger (Balliol), chaired by Brad Kim
Non-Aggregative Distributive Ethics and the Problem of Iteration
Parfit and others have argued that non-aggregative (or only partially aggregative) accounts of distributive ethics run into problems when facing a choice between series of similar or identical acts rather than between single, isolated acts. What I call the iteration objection holds that adhering to a non-aggregative principle can in these situations lead on to act in a way that gives rise to a distribution that is strictly dominated by other attainable distributions. In this talk I present two versions of the iteration objection and argue that one is only valid for a very limited class of principles and the other can be reduced to a well known problem in decision theory which then can be dealt with independent of distributive concerns.