Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Progressives

Suppose I am baking a loaf of bread. Does this entail that there will, at some time, be a loaf that I baked. I think so. But, I have recently learned that this is a rather unpopular position. I'd like to consider the case for my position and how it fares compared to the standard position.

The standard position implies the fact that I am baking a loaf of bread does not entail that there will, at some time be a loaf of bread that I baked. This is upheld by our intuitions in the following case. Suppose that I am engaged in what seems like bread making activities. I make a dough and let it rise and stick it in the oven. However, soon after putting the dough in the oven, my kitchen explodes. The police come by to take a report on the incident. It seems like I can truly say to the police that I was baking a loaf of bread when the kitchen exploded. In fact that seems like a natural thing to say. However, this supports the standard position: the fact that I am baking a loaf of bread does not entail that there will, at some time, be a loaf that I baked.

I think the case for the standard position is rather strong. But, I don't think it is definitive. Let's give a second case and see if there is any intuition (even a slight one) against the standard position.

Suppose that while I'm giving my statement to the police I say that I was baking a loaf of bread when the kitchen exploded. But, suppose that one of the police officers asks to see the loaf of bread I was baking. I respond by saying that there is no loaf, that my dough was destroyed in the disaster. He responds by saying "I guess you weren't baking a loaf of bread then". What the officer says is annoying. What he says isn't even a funny joke. But, what he says doesn't strike me as obviously false. In fact, it seems that his joke relies on taking our language literally. If this intuition is right, then the standard view is false. That I am baking a loaf of bread does entail that there will, at some time, be a loaf that I baked.

That second case is not obvious. But, I do have a slight intuition in favor of saying that the officer spoke truly. That gives me a small reason to believe that the standard view is false. But, perhaps it isn't enough of a reason to defeat the very plausible case that was made in favor of the standard view.

But, here is a third case. Suppose I am engaged in what seems like bread making activities. I make a dough and let it rise and stick it in the oven. However, soon after putting the dough in the oven, some crazy quantum even occurs that rearranges the material in the oven to form cookies. The police come by to take a report on this very strange incident. I say that I was baking a loaf of bread but that when I opened the oven I discovered cookies instead of a loaf of bread. Now the officer says "I guess you weren't baking a loaf of bread then." Now I have an even stronger intuition to say that the police officer spoke truly.

Now, if we add to these intuitions that the semantics for "Joshua is baking a loaf of bread" will be much simpler if standard view is false, then I think we have a decent case against the standard view. On the non-standard view I am considering, "S is baking a loaf of bread" expresses a truth in English iff S is baking and S's baking activity will result in a loaf of bread. In fact, I am inclined to make success a necessary condition of any progressive verb phrase.

On the other hand, one who endorses the standard view will have to say something like the following: 'S is baking a loaf of bread' expresses a truth in English iff S engaged in an activity that tends toward a loaf of bread being produced. It is very unclear what "tends toward" means here. Moreover, if we try to make a general semantics for progressives, the standard view seems to get into more trouble. It seems very that an activities tending toward a loaf of bread being produced is different from, for example, an activities tending toward a leaf being produced. But, presumably, the semantics for 'X is growing leaves' on the standard position will be something like x is engaged in an activity that tends toward leaves being produced. Finally, the standard view will have to accept that some progressives have success conditions. For example, the fact that S is conquering Poland definately entails that S succeeds in his conquest. So, the standard view will have an even sloppier semantics because the standard view will have to distinguish between those progressives that have success conditions and those that do not.

So, the fact that my non-standard view supports the intuitions in cases 2 and 3 and the fact that my non-standard view allows for a clear and simple semantics whereas the standard view does not, seems to provide a pretty decent case in support of that non-standard view.

9 Comments:

Blogger Alex said...

Hi Joshua,

Nice post. Just a few comments:

First, and for what it's worth, I don't share your intuition about the second and third cases. I think the joke is not that the police officer is taking our language literally. Rather, the joke seems to rely upon the fact that he's taking our language too literally. The police officer's mistake is similar to the mistake one would be making if one thought that the sentence 'I baked a loaf of bread for your sake' is false if there are no sakes. At any rate, I see no reason to prefer your reading over mine.

Second, about your three objections to the standard semantics for progressives in the penultimate paragraph: (i) I take it that 'tends towards a loaf of bread being produced' means something like 'is a process that would produce a loaf of bread ceteris paribus'. Now we may have problems with processes, counterfactuals, or ceteris paribus clauses (either for metaphysical or semantic reasons). But there's nothing "mysterious" here. (ii) If I'm right about what 'tends towards' means, then it's obvious and unproblematic how we distinguish the semantics for 'tends towards a loaf of bread being produced' and 'tends towards leaves being produced'. (iii) You claim that the standard position has to grapple with the fact that some progressives have success conditions. True enough. But according to the semantics you propose, every progressive has success conditions. But it's just as true that there are progressives without success conditions as it is true that there are progressives that do. Both the standard semantics and the new semantics that you propose have trouble distinguishing the two types of progressives, so this is not a count for or against either of them.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Christian said...

Joshua,

For an interesting and well-written treatment of this problem I suggest reading Graeme Forbes "Attitude Problems" Chapter 7. (2006).

Like Alex, I don't share your intuitions in cases two and three.

10:46 PM  
Blogger rock* said...

Hi Alex,

You say: "You claim that the standard position has to grapple with the fact that some progressives have success conditions. True enough. But according to the semantics you propose, every progressive has success conditions. But it's just as true that there are progressives without success conditions as it is true that there are progressives that do. Both the standard semantics and the new semantics that you propose have trouble distinguishing the two types of progressives, so this is not a count for or against either of them."

I think you're misunderstanding Joshua's objection to the standard semantics. Here is how I understand his objection.

Joshua distinguishes between the following two views:

The Standard View (SV): Some progressives do not have success conditions.

Joshua's View (JV): All progressives have success conditions.

He then objects to (SV) as follows:
1. It is obvious that some progressives have success conditions.
2. If (1), then any plausible theory of progressives that entails (SV) also entails that some progressives have success conditions.
3. If any plausible theory of progressives that entails (SV) also entails that some progressives have success conditions, then any plausible theory of progressives that entails (SV) will provide a sloppy semantics for progressives.
4. Therefore, any plausible theory of progressives that entails (SV) will provide a sloppy semantics for progressives.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

I have not yet found anyone who shares my intuitions about the second and third case. My evidence seems to be accumulating for the thesis that my intuitions on this subject are not accurate.

I do think, though, that someone who is taking our language too literally is still taking our language literally. so, I guess even if the officer is taking our language too literally, I would still take the officer's comment as evidence for a non-standard view.

I agree that if we clearly understand ceteris paribus clauses, then we will have a clear view about what "tends toward" means and that this will help us to give a general semantics that will account for both "baking a loaf of bread" and "growing leaves".

I do have one worry. You might think that ceteris paribus clauses capture something that all instances of tending toward have in common. But, you might still think there is a fundamental difference between the way some event tends toward the production of leaves and the way some event tends toward the production of a loaf of bread. If this is right, then the standard semsnatics will be more complicated than the non-standard semantics. And this, I think, is my ultimate worry. My thought is that if a non-standard view gets some intuitions right and has a simpler semantics than the standard view, then perhaps a decent case can be made for the non-standard view.

Finally, I agree that if there are progressives that do not require success, then the non-standard view will be worse off than the standard view. However, it isn't clear to me that some progressives can apply in situations even though the act in progress is never successfully completed. It seems to me like we can always come up with a story like the one involving the police officers to show that the action was not really in progress or show that the action was in fact successfully completed.

But, like I said, I am beginning to worry about my intuitions in these matters.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Hi rock*,

Many thanks for your comment (and nice to meet you at the Eastern!).

I'm not sure how I misunderstood Joshua's argument. I originally had in mind something like (1)-(4) as its essential premises (though my breezy summary of it might have poorly expressed what I had in mind!).

In any case, now that (1)-(4) are on the table, I can raise the same objection: by substituting in '(JV)' for '(SV)' in (your formulation of) Joshua's argument, and adding a few 'nots'.

1*. It is obvious that some progressives do not have success conditions.
2*. If (1), then any plausible theory of progressives that entails (JV) also entails that some progressives do not have success conditions.
3*. If any plausible theory of progressives that entails (JV) also entails that some progressives do not have success conditions, then any plausible theory of progressives that entails (JV) will provide a sloppy semantics for progressives.
4*. Therefore, any plausible theory of progressives that entails (JV) will provide a sloppy semantics for progressives.

(1*) and (2*), like (1) and (2), are unassailable. And I see no reason to believe (3) but not (3*). (SV) might be sloppier than (JV) for other reasons, of course (and even for the other reasons that Joshua mentions, though I'm doubtful). But no reason why (SV) gives a sloppier semantics for progressives with success conditions than (JV) gives for progressives with no success conditions has been offered. How would such an argument go?

Thus: the problem Joshua raises for (SV) can be raised against (JV) by an exactly similar, equally well-motivated argument--which was the point of my previous comment.

Or am I missing something?

8:59 AM  
Blogger rock* said...

Hi Alex,

First, let me clarify why I thought you misunderstood Joshua's objection.

In your first comment, you said: "it's just as true that there are progressives without success conditions as it is true that there are progressives that do. Both the standard semantics and the new semantics that you propose have trouble distinguishing the two types of progressives, so this is not a count for or against either of them."

It was this remark that made me think that you misunderstood Joshua's objection. You seem to be claiming that Joshua's objection to (SV) applies, mutatis mutandis, to (JV) as well. But this seems incorrect to me. As I understand it, Joshua's objection is meant to show that any plausible theory concerning progressives that builds on (SV) must provide a sloppy semantics for progressives (in virtue of distinguishing between progressives that do and progressives that do not have success conditions). A parallel objection can't be raised against (JV) because any theory concerning progressives that builds on (JV) will lack a sloppy semantics (because it will hold that no progressives have success conditions).

Now let me point out a difference between my (1)-(4) and your (1*)-(4*). A proponent of (SV) needn't be worried, solely by virtue of being a proponent of (SV), about endorsing (1). (SV) merely says that some progressives do not have success conditions and a proponent of (SV) who endorses (1) does not thereby endorse the obvious falsity of her view. On the other hand, a proponent of (JV) should be worried about endorsing (1*), since (JV) is the view that all progressives have success conditions and so a proponent of (JV) who endorses (1*) is, in effect, thereby endorsing the claim that her view is obviously false.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Hi rock*,

A very quick (probably too quick!) comment.

The fact that the proponent of (JV) should not endorse (1*) due to her antecedent belief in (JV) does not entail that the proponent of (JV) has no good reason to endorse (1*) given her evidence. Presumably, the force of the argument turns only on whether it's valid and we have good reason to believe its premises given her evidence. If so, then that difference makes no difference to the fact that (1*)-(4*) is as compelling an argument against (JV) as (1)-(4) is against (SV).

Indeed, and I think even the proponent of (JV) should concede this, there is very strong reason to believe (1*) given her evidence. The examples that support (1*) just keep piling up once you look for them.

(Now Joshua counters that, for any putative non-success progressive, "we can always come up with a story like the one involving the police officers to show that the action was not really in progress or show that the action was in fact successfully completed". First complaint: good evidence for some proposition p is not undermined simply by virtue of the fact that you can "come up with a story" where not-p. Second complaint: I think it's fair to say--because Joshua said it!--that it's doubtful at best whether even the story like the one involving the police officers shows what he claims it shows, much less that the general claim holds. So I remain unconvinced that the fact that we can come up with these stories should compel us to disregard or significantly devalue the strong intuitive support for (1*).)

1:25 PM  
Blogger rock* said...

Hi Alex,

You said: "The fact that the proponent of (JV) should not endorse (1*) due to her antecedent belief in (JV) does not entail that the proponent of (JV) has no good reason to endorse (1*) given her evidence. Presumably, the force of the argument turns only on whether it's valid and we have good reason to believe its premises given her evidence. If so, then that difference makes no difference to the fact that (1*)-(4*) is as compelling an argument against (JV) as (1)-(4) is against (SV).

"Indeed, and I think even the proponent of (JV) should concede this, there is very strong reason to believe (1*) given her evidence. The examples that support (1*) just keep piling up once you look for them."

Agreed. I was merely trying to point out an important difference between Joshua's objection to (SV) and the objection you suggest (JV) faces. In particular, (1*) is equivalent to the claim that the negation of (JV) is obvious. On the other hand, (1) is not equivalent to the claim that the negation of (SV) is obvious. There are important differences between the objections.

Here's another way of seeing what I've been trying to get at. In your first comment, you said: "Both the standard semantics and the new semantics that you propose have trouble distinguishing the two types of progressives, so this is not a count for or against either of them."

Now I don't disagree that both (SV) and (JV) have trouble distinguishing the two types of progressives. But their troubles are different. (SV) has trouble because recognizing that there are progressives with success conditions requires its proponents to provide a sloppy semantics for progressives. On the other hand, (JV) has trouble because (JV) is inconsistent with the claim that there are progressives without truth conditions.

In other words:
-(SV)'s trouble distinguishing 2 types of progressives = sloppy semantics.
-(JV)'s trouble distinguishing 2 types of progressives = inconsistent view.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Neal Tognazzini said...

Hey Joshua,

If you haven't already, you might be interested to look at the view of time championed by Peter Geach and, more recently, Mark Hinchliff. According to them, the future is mutable in such a way that at one time it may be true of a soldier bleeding on the battlefield that he will die, but a medic might yet come by and save him, thus making it false that he will die. One of the motivations for this view is the way we talk: "I was going to die, but you came along and saved me!"

Anyway, it seems to me that this sort of view might allow for an in-between position on progressives. According to this position, the fact that I am baking a loaf of bread DOES entail that there will be a loaf of bread in my oven in an hour, but this is perfectly consistent with my kitchen's then exploding (and thus making it no longer true that there will be a loaf of bread in my oven).

10:26 AM  

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