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The price of inscrutability

By J.R.G. Williams


In our reasoning we depend on the stability of language, the fact that its signs do not arbitrarily change in meaning from moment to moment.(Campbell, 1994, p.82)\ud Some philosophers offer arguments contending that ordinary names such as “London” are radically indeterminate in reference. The conclusion of such arguments is that there is no fact of the matter whether “London” refers to a city in the south of England, or whether instead it refers to\ud Sydney, Australia. Some philosophers have even suggested that we accept the conclusion of these arguments.\ud Such a position seems crazy to many; but what exactly goes wrong if one adopts such a view? This paper evaluates the theoretical costs incurred by one who endorses extreme inscrutability of reference (the ‘inscrutabilist’). I show that there is one particular implication of extreme\ud inscrutability which pushes the price of inscrutabilism too high. An extension of the classic ‘permutation’ arguments for extreme inscrutability allow us to establish what I dub ‘extreme indexical inscrutability’. This result, I argue, unacceptably undermines the epistemology of inference.\ud The first half of the paper develops the background of permutation arguments for extreme inscrutability\ud of reference and evaluates some initial attempts to make trouble for the inscrutabilist.\ud Sections 1 and 2 describe the setting of the original permutation arguments for extreme inscrutability.\ud Sections 3 and 4 survey four potential objections to extreme inscrutability of reference,\ud including some recently raised in Vann McGee’s excellent (2005a). Sections 5 sketches how the permutation arguments can be generalized to establish extreme indexical inscrutability; and shows how this contradicts a ‘stability principle’—that our words do not arbitrarily\ud change their reference from one moment to the next—which I claim plays a vital role in the epistemology of inference.\ud The second half of the paper develops in detail the case for thinking that language is stable\ud in the relevant sense. In section 6, I use this distinction to call into question the epistemological\ud relevance of validity of argument types; Kaplan’s treatment of indexical validity partially resolves this worry, but there is a residual problem. In section 7, I argue that stability is exactly what is needed to bridge this final gap, and so secure the relevance of validity to good inferential practice. Section 8 responds to objections to this claim.\ud An appendix to the paper provides formal backing for the results cited in this paper, including a generalization of permutation arguments to the kind of rich setting required for a realistic semantics of natural language.1 Extreme indexical inscrutability results can be proved within\ud this setting. The first half of the paper shows that the inscrutabilist is committed to extreme indexical inscrutability, which implies that language not determinately ‘stable’. The second half of the paper argues that good inference requires stability. The price of inscrutabilism, therefore, is to sever the connection between the validity of argument-forms and inferential practice: and this is too high a price to pay

Publisher: Blackwell Publishing Inc
Year: 2008
OAI identifier: oai:eprints.whiterose.ac.uk:3328

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