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Programme seminar series (2022): abstracts

October 12

TITLE: Changing pākehā minds

SPEAKER: Justine Kingsbury (Waikato)

In common parlance, changing your mind is replacing one belief or intention with another, as in “I’ve changed my mind about whether masking helps to restrict the spread of Covid-19”, or “She’s changed her mind – she’s not coming to the picnic after all”.  In cases like these there are reasons, stated or unstated, for the change, and if you want someone to change their mind about something, the usual method is to provide reasons – arguments against something they currently believe and in favour of some competing claim.

In situations where two parties have very different worldviews, reason-giving breaks down because of a lack of shared background assumptions. There are a range of ways of getting people to do what you want when you can’t rationally persuade them – “nudging”, incentivising, coercing, and so on - which are to varying degrees morally questionable.

This talk is about what I think is a different kind of mind-changing and what I hope are less dodgy methods of bringing it about. For those who have what might very broadly be called a western scientific worldview, there are aspects of te ao Māori that are very difficult if not impossible to understand, and this is so even for individuals who are motivated to try to understand. The change of mind that is needed is not so much a change of beliefs as a change of perspective or conceptual scheme. Like beliefs, perspectives and conceptual schemes are not things we can change just by deciding to change them. This paper suggests some approaches to changing our own (and perhaps other people’s) minds.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, October 12; in Burns 4 (Arts Building ground floor)

October 05

TITLE: The Border and the Flesh

SPEAKER: Neil Vallelly (Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow, History Programme, Otago)

It goes without saying that borders separate things, like citizens and immigrants, interior and exterior, self and other. In their influential book Border as Method (2013), Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson argue that “the border is an epistemological device, which is at work whenever a distinction between subject and object is established.” Building on this assertion, this paper examines not only how borders divide subject and object but, more importantly, how they intertwine subject and object. Drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theory of “the flesh,” developed in his famous essay ‘The Chiasm—The Intertwining’ (1964), this paper argues that the border acts as a mechanism of the flesh—or a “hinge, as Merleau-Ponty might call it—in a way that provides the ontological foundations for the border’s power to separate on a political and social level. For Merleau-Ponty, the human body is both subject and object simultaneously, it can see and be seen, touched and be touched, and “the flesh of the world” is where this “reversibility” comes together. Thinking through the border as a mechanism of the flesh can enable us to better understand how the things and experiences the border separates on a political and social level are ontologically intertwined. Understanding this, I argue, can help us re-think politically the ways in which we attempt to challenge and overcome the violence perpetuated by nation-state borders in the twenty-first century.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, October 05; in Burns 4 (Arts Building ground floor)

September 28

TITLE: Epistemic Gatekeeping, Pride or Prejudice?

SPEAKER: Joe Ulatowski (Waikato)

The continuous growth of intellectual ecosystems leads to an environment that is populated by mutually uncomprehending hyperspecialised groups. That there are such groups can be taken to reflect the way that human knowledge has expanded and deepened to such an extent that one person may only ever have a detailed grasp of a very narrow topic. People, for example, no longer specialise in medicine or law but hyperspecialise in endocrinology or patent law. They occupy a specialised cognitive niche with its own epistemic standards and linguistic register. Enter gatekeepers whose sole responsibility is to judge whether new entrants meet disciplinary standards. If the novice fails to meet the niche group’s standards, then gatekeepers are tasked with making sure that they do not gain full entrance to that group. Whilst there is no doubt that these gatekeepers are experts and highly skilled practitioners of their craft, such skill and expertise do not preclude them from acting upon cognitive biases and prejudices. On the contrary, as I argue in this paper, it may be that they may be even more likely to act on biases and prejudices than their non-expert counterparts because of (i) the social and intellectual reinforcement that gatekeepers receive from peers, (ii) the gatekeeper’s inability to assess their own limited capacities, and (iii) the gatekeeper’s ignorance of the limits of hyperspecialisation. The gatekeepers lofty professional position may oblige them to eject interlopers, but some of the decisions that they make may have more to do with misogynistic, transphobic, and racist tendencies than with the merits of the new entrant’s work.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, September 28; in Burns 4 (Arts Building ground floor)

September 21 (was September 14)

TITLE: The ethics of cryptocurrencies

SPEAKERS: Mike King (Bioethics, Otago) and James Maclaurin (Philosophy, Otago)

Some see cryptocurrencies as a desirable democratisation of personal finance, others as a pernicious usurpation of the financial powers of governments. Aotearoa will soon have to decide how to regulate them and how to educate the public about this poorly understood and novel technology. This paper addresses the possibility of making that process both informed and humane. The problem is important and urgent—in Aotearoa, 9.5% of us own cryptocurrencies and a further 11% plan to buy. Māori are disproportionately involved, with 18% currently invested. The problem is also complex because of confusion about what cryptocurrencies are and the great diversity of their potential opportunities and risks. This paper proposes a scholarly, ethical analysis of the use of cryptocurrencies in Aotearoa which will be a valuable resource for regulators, institutions, groups and individuals.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, September 21; in Burns 4 (Arts Building ground floor); hosted by the Centre for Bioethics and the Philosophy Programme

September 7

TITLE: Wittgenstein, Blind Rule-Following and Wright's "Minor Premise Problem"

SPEAKER: Alex Miller (Otago)

In my seminar last October, I suggested that one way of reading Wittgenstein’s notion of blind rule-following (“I follow the rule blindly”) in Philosophical Investigations §219 is as a reiteration of the claim in Philosophical Investigations §201 that “there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation”. I argued that this suggestion might help us neutralize the “logical difficulty” that Saul Kripke (in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language) finds in the idea that grasping a rule might be a sui generis state of mind, as well as the “Inference Problem” outlined by Paul Boghossian in his papers “Epistemic Rules” and “Blind Rule-Following”. In this seminar I will use the same reading of “blind rule-following” to develop a response to the problem (the “Minor Premise Problem”) outlined by Crispin Wright in his 2007 paper “Rule-Following Without Reasons” and 2012 reply to Boghossian.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, September 7; in Burns 4 (Arts Building ground floor)

August 24

TITLE: Maximum Scholarly Value for Minimal Harm: Practical Climate Ethics for Academics

SPEAKER: Elisabeth Ellis (Otago)

Even if every commitment made in Glasgow last year were fulfilled, the world would still fall short of its commitment to keep global mean surface temperatures below the target of 1.5°C above pre-industrial norms. We can not rely exclusively on international efforts like the Paris Agreement, nor can we expect aggregated individual behavior change to be sufficiently rapid and transformative to drive necessary changes in emissions. Urgent climate action is needed at all levels, including the level of civil society. Scholarly associations and their academic members must therefore do their part to achieve the climate stability on which everyone’s flourishing depends. But what constitutes a fair share of climate action for a scholarly association? There has been good work done recently on how scholarly associations can reduce their associated emissions (see especially, Klöwer et al. 2020, in Nature). Groups like offer practical advice for carbon footprint reduction. But the critical questions of why and how much for associations have not been much addressed in the literature. In this paper I argue that scholarly associations should be guided by ambitious, provisional, revisable principles that preserve our options for collectively successful climate action.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, August 24; in Burns 4 (Arts Building ground floor)

August 17

TITLE: Neurophilosophy after Aristotle

SPEAKER: Grant Gillett (Bioethics, Otago)

Current neurophilosophy lacks a post-colonial voice and uses post-industrial metaphors which misrepresent human neurocognition. A return to Aristotle as a founding voice for non-dualistic naturalism ushers in Phronesis, Eudaimonea, Arete, within a conception of human natural function. The first of these, phronesis or knowing how to do things by being in command of a range of techniques, the second is flourishing, and the third a good or well-functioning character. Rats and their discontents caused by aversive contingency regimes suggest this is a broad problem in the animal kingdom.
    Being unheimlich reminds us that an increasingly common human experience is of displacement, marginalisation, homelessness, and not being at home in one’s ‘ways of going on’ (Wittgenstein).
    Dynamic adaptation to a bio-psych-social context restores a person’s way of being or their “mastery of techniques” (Wittgenstein) or well adapted ‘being in the world’.  Logico-mathematical mental structures as a conception of neuro-cognition is give us a partial picture of the human mind-brain.
Flexible culturally inflected being embodies the self-images of the age, is realistic in the light of neuroscience and yields us to a more inclusive view of human thinking and acting, and therefore of ethics.
    Being discursive allows us to imagine and execute life plans on the basis of all these broader neurocognitive ideas (Harre & Gillett).
    The ethical significance of consciousness and intention is that we engage in moral action with wide and growing choices which make a difference to the world. The best metaphysical abstraction falls into those clustered around supervenience or epiphenomenalism depending on the variety of the formulation involved.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, August 17; in Burns 4 (Arts Building ground floor)

August 03

TITLE: ‘Conspiracy Theory’ as a tonkish term: The runabout inference-ticket form truth to falsehood

SPEAKER: Charles Pigden (Otago)

You know what I hate? Philosophical papers which relate some matter of great political pith and moment to some arcane issue that is neither understandable by, nor of any interest to,  anyone but professional philosophers,  their authors often operating under the grotesque delusion that they are thereby doing their duty as public intellectuals.   
This I am sorry to say is just such a paper.  
 I draw on  Prior’s famous paper ‘The Runabout Inference Ticket’ plus some of Dummett’s remarks in Frege: the Philosophy of Language to argue that ‘Conspiracy theory’ and ‘conspiracy theorist’ are Tonkish terms and I use this idea to clarify the debate about conspiracy theories , arguing that since the extensions of ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘conspiracy theorist’ are generated by the application of mutually inconsistent tonkish rules, there is no ‘there’ there for social scientists to investigate. 

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, August 03; in Burns 4 (Arts Building ground floor)

June 1

TITLE: Is Reasoning a Mental Action?

SPEAKER: Zach Swindlehurst (Australian National University)

It is widely taken for granted that reasoning (or inferring) is something that you actively do rather than something that merely happens to you. According to the mental action thesis, reasoning is a form of mental agency and thus a mental action. This paper reconstructs two prominent lines of argument for the mental action thesis and argues that they fail, before suggesting that the sort of agency at work in reasoning is of a more deflationary nature. First, there is the taking argument, according to which reasoning is a mental action because it necessarily requires you to take your premises to support your conclusion and to draw your conclusion because of this fact. Second, there is the rule-following argument, according to which reasoning is a mental action because it is a form of rule-following. But both arguments fail to substantiate an important distinction between mental action, on the one hand, and mere mental activity, on the other. The two arguments show, at most, that reasoning involves mental activity; they do not show that it is a mental action. The upshot is that we have no grounds for thinking that the kind of agency involved in reasoning goes beyond the kind of agency involved in responding to reasons (and responding to reasons as reasons).

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, June 1; in Otago Business School seminar room 1.19

May 18

TITLE: Objective List Theory

SPEAKER: Andrew Moore (Otago)

Derek Parfit presents Objective List Theory (OLT) as the claim that certain things are good or bad for us, whether or not we would want to have the good things, or to avoid the bad things. Guided by core ideas in Parfit’s account, this talk aims to make OLT more determinate, and more sharply contrastive with its subjectivist rivals. It also engages with other influential commentators analysts of OLT, including Arneson, Bradley, Lin, and Fletcher.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, May 18; in Otago Business School seminar room 1.19

May 11

TITLE: Human Essence in Spinoza's Ethics

SPEAKER: Michael LeBuffe (Otago)

I hope to arrive at a better understanding of Spinoza’s accounts of humanity in the Ethics by means of an emphasis on the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles (PII): "Two or more distinct things are distinguished from one another either by a difference in the attributes of substances or else by a difference in their affections" (E1p4). Attention to the PII in the argument of the Ethics suggests, I argue, that Spinoza takes human essence to be a single, real thing.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, May 11; in Otago Business School seminar room 1.19

May 4

TITLE: Revision without revision?

SPEAKER: Zach Weber (Otago)

Paraconsistency in mathematics allows some contradictions. Classical mathematics does not. So there is a natural sense in which paraconsistency is revisionary, challenging or rejecting some aspects of conventionally accepted wisdom. Surprisingly, though, most of the (few) people who have worked in paraconsistent maths have not advocated for revisionism; they suggest various ways it is more conservative after all, and seek instead reassurance that no classical mathematics is lost. In this talk I consider whether paraconsistent maths is best thought of as revisionary, or not, by considering two detailed case studies in logic and computability theory. I argue that, if the paraconsistentist pursues revision without revision, this provides reassurance without reassurance.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, May 4; in Tower Block Lecture Room TG08 (155 Union Street East)

April 27

TITLE: Ways of Knowing: Posing the Question (moved from Weds 30 March)

SPEAKER: Greg Dawes (Otago)

Philosophers commonly regard truth as a necessary condition for knowledge. But this makes it difficult to make sense of the idea that there can be different ways of knowing. On this view, facts are facts, one either knows them or not. The paper examines this argument and outlines a way in which it could be answered. It offers an alternative understanding of what it is to know that allows radically different ways of representing reality to be instances of knowledge.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, April 27; in Richardson 7N10

March 9

TITLE: What Thrasymachus Should have Said

SPEAKER: Charles Pigden (Otago)

ABSTRACT: In the Republic Thrasymachus argues that ‘justice is the advantage of the stronger’, that is that the laws and conventions governing a society support the interests of  the rulers or the ruling class.   Hence acting justly – obeying those laws and customs of one's society in one's dealings with other people – is not necessarily, not usually or maybe not even ever in an agent’s best interests. This is a problem for Plato who wants to prove that it necessarily pays to be just. So his spokesman Socrates leads Thrasymachus into a trap.  Suppose (as surely happens from time to time) the rulers make a mistake and enact laws (or foster customs) that are not in their best interests. In that case justice won’t be to  ‘the advantage of the stronger’ and their subjects’ acting justly won’t be in the rulers’ best interests. Clitophon offers Thrasymachus a lifeline. Perhaps justice is what the stronger think is in their interests. But Thrasymachus won’t have a bar of it. If a ruler makes a law or issues an order that is not in his interests he thereby ceases to be a real ruler. So justice is always  to the advantage of the stronger , since if it isn’t, the stronger cease to be strong. This is both decidedly silly and gets him into a lot of dialectical trouble. I suggest on Thrasymachus’ behalf a Darwinian response which entails that justice is usually or at least often to ‘the advantage of the stronger’. This in turn in entails that it does not necessarily pay to be just, which negates Plato’s desired conclusion. My reconstructed Thrasymachus will be less of a proto-fascist and more of a radical democrat  than Plato’s Thrasymachus appears to have been.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, March 9, via Zoom

March 2

TITLE: Naturalising the Philosophy of Time

SPEAKER: Heather Dyke (Otago)

ABSTRACT: In the debate between the A-theory and the B-theory it is generally agreed on all sides that the B-theory, unlike the A-theory, is at least consistent with what physics tells us about time. The B-theory therefore looks to be the best candidate for a naturalistic metaphysical theory of time. However, the B-theory is prima facie inconsistent with our ordinary experience of time, which tells us that there is a privileged present moment, and that time flows. In this paper I argue that the B-theory can incorporate a naturalistic account of our ordinary temporal experience, and so offers a complete, naturalised metaphysics of time that coheres with both physics and temporal experience.

TIME AND LOCATION: 11am–12.30pm, Wednesday, March 2, via Zoom