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May 12th, 2014
workshop/symposium
philosophy of mental time II:
the contingency of concern


"The contingency of concern" refers to the fragile depencies of what matters to us on accidences of time and history. What we care about may to a suprising extent depend on historical contingencies and luck. Some of our chief philosophical concerns make no sense outside their largely accidental historical context; and what we value personally and collectively (as a species) depends on various contingencies or even luck as well. Significance and concern are thus contingent.


speakers

Zed Adams
(The New School For Social Research, New York, USA)
The Historical Contingency of Philosophical Problems

Jay Elliott
(Bard College, New York, USA)
Contingency and Immortality

Joel Martinez
(Lewis & Clark College, Portland, USA)
Ethical Naturalism and The Contingency of Human Emotions




abstracts

Zed Adams
The Historical Contingency of Philosophical Problems

In On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche engages in a sustained critique of the "age-old practice among philosophers … [to] think essentially ahistorically." In this paper, I elaborate upon and extend Nietzsche's critique by arguing that there is an essential historicity to many philosophical problems themselves, that in an important sense many such problems are historically contingent through-and-through. I argue for this claim by canvassing four different ways in which one might understand the relationship between philosophical problems and the historical context in which they first arise. These ways go from thinking that philosophical problems are entirely independent of their historical context, to thinking that the very intelligibility of the problems themselves depends upon fundamentally historically-situated considerations. I then examine the emergence of one particular philosophical problem (namely, the debate between realists and anti-realists about secondary qualities) and argue that it falls firmly in the latter category, that the issues raised by it are historically contingent through-and-through.


Jay Elliott
Contingency and Immortality

In his 2012 Tanner Lectures Death and Immortality, Samuel Scheffler makes the surprising claim that many of us – even many staunch atheists – believe wholeheartedly in immortality. The belief in immortality that Scheffler has in mind is not a belief in the personal immortality promised by many religions, according to which an individual person can continue to exist after his or her biological death. Rather, Scheffler argues that many of us confidently believe in a kind of collective immortality: each of us plans our lives on the tacit assumption that the human species will continue to exist well beyond our own lifetimes. According to Scheffler, belief in this form of immortality underlies our attachment to many of the things that we value most deeply, including our personal relationships, cultural traditions, and intellectual pursuits. In "Contingency and Immortality", I build on Scheffler’s argument by drawing out a significant consequence of it that Scheffler himself does not acknowledge: if the value of my projects depends on their fate after my death, then whether my life has been successful or not turns out to depend, to a surprising degree, on luck. I consider whether this vulnerability to contingency should be regarded as an objection to Scheffler's view, and instead argue that it captures a fundamental insight about the fragility of value.


Joel Martinez
Ethical Naturalism and The Contingency of Human Emotions

So called "Neo-Aristotelian Naturalists" increasingly rely on evolutionary biology to understand the nature and development of ethical norms. According to these views, ethical claims are on a par with teleological claims made in the biological sciences. Whether an organism flourishes in the ethical sense is characterized by how well they function as a member of the species to which they belong. These naturalist views are subject to powerful objections that many take to support some version of anti-realism, not least of which is that functioning well as a member of the human species can involve ethically abhorrent behavior. I defend Neo-Aristotelian Naturalism by making explicit an assumption that is rarely noticed by philosophers. Though a somewhat controversial assumption in the biological sciences, many biologists assume that what counts as an adaptation relies heavily on luck. Recent work concerning luck and the evolution of emotions helps us understand how an ethical naturalist who relies on evolutionary biology can be a thoroughgoing naturalist and avoid the most powerful objections to ethical naturalism. In this paper, I first define Neo-Aristotelian Naturalism and I explain the powerful anti-realist objections with which it must contend. I then explain recent work concerning the evolution of human emotions. In particular, I explain how any evolutionary account of human emotions will have to allow for luck to play an important role in understanding why human emotions take the objects they do. This point allows us to appreciate how human concerns (the things we care about) are contingent. But, as Stephen Jay Gould wrote twenty years ago in the context of evolutionary biology "Contingency is rich and fascinating; it embodies an exquisite tension between the power of individuals to modify history and the intelligible limits set by laws of nature." When we apply this same view to the evolution of ethical norms, particularly norms of virtue, we can see how Neo-Aristotelian Naturalism need only argue that our ethical norms have a strong basis in our nature, and not that they reduce to it.