Aaron Sloman University of Birmingham, University of Birmingham

  • Faculty, University of Birmingham
  • Faculty, University of Birmingham
  • DPhil, Oxford University, 1962.

Areas of specialization
  • None specified

Areas of interest

My philosophical views


My philosophical views

The answers shown here are not necessarily the same provided as part of the 2009 PhilPapers Survey. These answers can be updated at any time.

See also:

A priori knowledge: yes or no?Accept: yesKant was basically right. See previous comment about meta-configured epigenesis. One of the important things is that discovery of non-empirical truths (e.g. about arithmetic, topology, geometry, mechanics) can come by making empirical discoveries and then re-assessing them. I.e. they are not innate. I think Kant understood that. Example: a child discovering empirically that counting from left to right produces the same result as counting from right to left. See http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/talks/#toddler Why (and how) did biological evolution produce mathematicians? (PDF)
Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?Lean toward: PlatonismOnly in the sense that all the main alternatives are false. We need a better theory that allows for the existence of virtual machinery and also things like patterns, relationships, etc. of varying complexity (with different kinds of complexity).
Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?Accept another alternativeI think we need to explain the biological function of a sense of aesthetic value and its relationship to other biological functions and the way it can be extended culturally. That will probably produce an answer that is too complex to be either subjective or objective.
Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no?Accept: yesI have explained why, and also why this distinction is different from empirical-apriori and from contingent-necessary, in http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/07.html#701 (Analysis, 1965).
Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?The question is too unclear to answerBiological evolution produced systems that acquire and use information. In general the issue of justification arises for the species and the evolutionary process, not for the individual. Humans are a bit special, but only about a subset of their knowledge.
External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?Accept: non-skeptical realismI could not think about the question if biological evolution had not produced most of me.
Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?OtherThere are (to a first approximation) four concepts of free will, two of them incoherent but widely used (e.g. the romantic and the religious ones, both allegedly incompatible with determinism) and two useful concepts concerned with legal/moral issues (did I act under duress?, etc. -- the legal concept) and did an action come from my motives, desires, beliefs, preferences, etc.(ordinary everyday notion of who was responsible). For more on this see: http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/~axs/misc/four-kinds-freewill.html (Four Concepts of Freewill: Two of them incoherent)
God: theism or atheism?Accept: atheismI distinguish analytical atheism from other forms: i.e. the notion of God (in the main religions) is incoherent. So it isn't merely false that there is a god. See http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/misc/varieties-of-atheism.html
Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism?OtherAs so often binary oppositions fail to do justice to the complexity of the real world, especially products of evolution. E.g. Jackie Chappell and I have argued that evolution produces species that are predisposed to learn in a particular kind of world and that the learning uses evolved layers that are not all operative at birth, but are "staggered" so that new layers learn by experimenting on the combination of old layers and the environment. This accommodates some aspects of rationalism with a heavy dose of empiricism. Pure empiricism works only on evolutionary time scales and organisms can't wait that long. Pure rationalism cannot cope with the variability of the environment. We talk about meta-configured epigenesis.
Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism?OtherI am not familiar with the debates but I have been developing a theory of how to generalise compositional semantics to allow context to play a systematic role in determining truth conditions, reference, etc. That's obviously necessary for indexicals, and words like 'big', 'thin' 'rich', almost as obviously necessary for uses of words like 'efficient', 'healthy', and unobviously necessary for a whole lot more. These concepts tend to exhibit what programming language designers call 'parametric polymorphism' except that sometimes some of the parameters are implicit (often inferrable by Gricean principles). I suspect relativism and contextualism are special cases of this theory, not yet fully written up but sketched here: http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cosy/papers/spatial-prepositions.html (Spatial prepositions as higher order functions: And implications of Grice's theory for evolution of language.)
Laws of nature: Humean or non-Humean?Lean toward: non-HumeanWe are stuck with humean (correlational, bayesian, etc.) forms of knowledge in some cases, but wherever possible we dig for something deeper and often come up with theories with a mathematical structure showing necessary connections between phenomena. that doesn't make the theories necessarily true, but if they are true the connections necessarily hold. Kant was basically right. Poor Hume never got this one. (See Peter Millican's recent Mind article 2009).
Logic: classical or non-classical?Accept bothUse whichever is appropriate to the problem. E.g. classical logic makes a good default but there are problems (e.g. in the semantics of programming languages) where intuitionist logics are useful. Be pragmatic and understand the specific problem you are trying to solve.
Mental content: internalism or externalism?OtherThere's a subset of mental content that depends on things in the environment, including remote environment, (as demonstrated by P.F. Strawson in Individuals, 1959). E.g. my ability to have Julius Caesar in mind depends on a chain of causal connections between him and me. But not all mental content is like that. Virtual machines can develop concepts for monitoring their own internal states, for instance.
Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?Accept: moral anti-realismSee previous comment on prescriptivism.
Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism?The question is too unclear to answer
Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism?OtherFirst of all, physics, or material stuff, is not a well defined notion, since physics has layers and we don't yet know whether there is a well defined 'bottom' layer, or what it is. Secondly there are many levels of (relative) virtual machinery (including interacting, enduring, entities), implemented in "lower" layers, and that includes mental processes, social processes, ecosystems, and a huge variety of new forms of process that now run (and exist and have effects) in computers and computer networks. Evolution produced many more long before that. The concepts required to describe what's going on in the virtual machinery are not all definable in terms of the concepts of physics, so in that sense there are non-physical entities and processes (including causes). However they are all fully implemented in physical systems at the lowest level and could not exist in the absence of those physical systems. There are also numbers, shapes, theorems, proofs, concepts, questions, and other entities with complex relations to both the physical and the virtual entities. A brief introductory tutorial on this stuff is here: Virtual Machines and the Metaphysics of Science Expanded version of presentation at: Metaphysics of Science'09) http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/talks/#mos09 (PDF) Unfortunately most philosophers nowdays are so badly educated they know nothing about this, even though they use virtual machinery every day (e.g. this survey). I guess this is a form of poly-ism. (Ryle might have called it 'Polymorphism'. I think he came close to it.
Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism?Other"Non-cognitivism" is too broad. I think something close to Hare's prescriptivism (as opposed to emotivism, etc.) is along the right lines. It is possible to derive "better" from "is" if you specify better for what.
Moral motivation: internalism or externalism?Lean toward: externalismI suppose prescritivist interpretations of moral judgements are more externalist, since you can decide that you should do something and will that you do it, without being motivated to do it.
Newcomb's problem: one box or two boxes?OtherIf it's a one-off, then there is no clear option. If you are going to play often, and you know that the situations are randomly generated (which you may not be able to tell) then choose the option that maximises expected utility. But I have not thought much about it. I am not all that interested in gambling...
Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?Agnostic/undecided
Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory?OtherNone of the standard philosophical theories is rich and precise enough to be able to account for the complexity and the diversity of the phenomena. If we understand the role of virtual machinery in complex information-processing systems we can see that some of the intermediate information structures involved in perceptual processing are amenable to introspection. The resulting phenomena are what give rise to theories about qualia/sense-data/introspective contents. But philosophical theories tend to ignore most of the interesting details. (Philosophers generally use what W. called "a poor diet of examples".) An incomplete elaboratin of these ideas is here: http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/talks/#talk74 (To be extended.)
Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view?There is no fact of the matterIt's not a matter of fact. It's more a matter of ethics, politics, legal systems, cultural norms. See my paper on new bodies for sick persons, mentioned earlier. Whether a copy minus bad cells counts as a cure depends on how the culture in question treats personal identity. There is no fact of the matter. Likewise the twice-repaired axe. There is no fact of the matter.
Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?Lean toward: egalitarianismBut we have to take account of enormous diversity of individual natures and situations.
Proper names: Fregean or Millian?Lean toward: FregeanAs in most other cases, the facts of reference using proper names are too complex to fit any theory proposed so far. However, something like Frege's notion of Sinn is applicable to *some* uses of *some* proper names (by some individuals). In the case of Mr Pickwick reference by us to that character in the story depends entirely on the network of relations within the story.
Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism?Lean toward: scientific realismPopper's views as enriched by Lakatos seem to be along the right lines. Scientific theories are developed as conjectured explanations of things observed or inferred or of other theories. But they are always partly conjectural, and often need to be developed in ways that alter the content of the theory. Over time it may become clear that of two rival theories one is progressive and the other degenerative. That's the most we can hope for and establishing truth is normally impossible. But science strives for it, and we can make progress.
Teletransporter (new matter): survival or death?Lean toward: survivalI wrote a paper arguing that transportation minus cancer cells, plus killing the cancerous original while still asleep, could be a cure for cancer ( http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/07.html#702 New Bodies for Sick Persons: Personal Identity Without Physical Continuity In Analysis vol 32 NO 2, December 1971, pages 52 --55
Time: A-theory or B-theory?Lean toward: B-theoryB-theory is a first approximation. It has to be modified to fit the world-view of relativity. E.g. there need not be absolute before/after orderings. Of course, if relativity is ever superseded we may have to move to something more sophisticated.
Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don't switch?There is no fact of the matterThere is no fact of the matter, but my view is first that you must seek an alternative if there is time (possibly a suicidal alternative to save other lives), and failing that, try to minimise the deaths. On the other hand if it's one child vs five people on their death beds (or close to death in an ambulance) save the child. There could be other details that help to settle the question in different directions.
Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic?Lean toward: deflationaryThe uses of the adjective "true" are where we should start ("In sober symposium verum" J.L.Austin). The noun "truth" is useful for a host of short-hand ways of speaking, based on ways in which "true" is a short hand. "X is true" and "X" roughly say the same thing, but its often quicker to answer the question Is X .... using just the word "true". We can also quantify over items of information (I learnt three new truths from that book.) "Is what he said true?" can be much shorter than turning what he said into an interrogative. The core issue is explaning how something can have meaning, or representational content, not truth.
Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?OtherThey are conceivable to people who merely consider external behaviour, since external behaviour could be produced by huge lookup tables, etc., and they are conceivable to people who consider a full range of human-like internal information processing functions but don't understand the implications. In that sense someone with poor mathematical understanding might find a largest prime number conceivable, or even a spherical cube (a cube all of whose surface is equidistant from some central point). But what people can or cannot conceive of is given inflated importance by philosophers who don't know enough about limitations of human cognition. The notion a zombie with all the typical human introspective contents and cognitive functions, but lacking consciousness is incoherent and people who claim to imagine one are like people imagining themselves squaring the circle or finding the largest prime. As for what is actually going on in human-like consciousness that requires a far more sophisticated information processign theory than any philosopher has so far produced (as far as as I know). I have begun to sketch some detailed requirements for such a theory here (work in progress): http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/talks/#talk74 Why the "hard" problem of consciousness is easy and the "easy" problem hard. (Seminar presented a 10 days ago, slides (PDF) not yet finished.)