Ideas of J.J.C. Smart, by Theme

[Australian, b.1920, Born in Scotland, and educated in Britain. Professor at Australian National University.]

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1. Philosophy / E. Nature of Metaphysics / 1. Nature of Metaphysics
Metaphysics should avoid talk of past, present or future
     Full Idea: Metaphysics should not be cosmically parochial. It should eschew tensed languages.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (The Tenseless Theory of Time [2008], 1)
     A reaction: This is quite an engaging reason to be an eternalist (or B-theorist) about time. Presumably we can still believe in tensed time, as long as we recognise that metaphysics itself is a timeless subject.
2. Reason / A. Nature of Reason / 6. Coherence
We need comprehensiveness, as well as self-coherence
     Full Idea: Not mere self-coherence, but comprehensiveness belongs to the notion of coherence.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (Explanation - Opening Address [1990], p.07)
Coherence is consilience, simplicity, analogy, and fitting into a web of belief
     Full Idea: I shall make use of the admittedly imprecise notions of consilience, simplicity, analogy and fitting into a web of belief, or in short of 'coherence'.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (Explanation - Opening Address [1990], p.06)
     A reaction: Coherence sounds like a family of tests, rather than a single unified concept. I still like coherence, though.
13. Knowledge Criteria / B. Internal Justification / 3. Evidentialism / a. Evidence
I simply reject evidence, if it is totally contrary to my web of belief
     Full Idea: The simplest way of fitting the putative observed phenomena of telepathy or clairvoyance into my web of belief is to refuse to take them at face value.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (Explanation - Opening Address [1990], p.07-8)
     A reaction: Love it. It is very disconcerting for the sceptical naturalist to be faced with adamant claims that the paranormal has occurred, but my response is exactly the same as Smart's. I reject the reports, no matter how passionately they are asserted.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 1. Explanation / c. Direction of explanation
The height of a flagpole could be fixed by its angle of shadow, but that would be very unusual
     Full Idea: You could imagine a person using the angle from a theodolite to decide a suitable spot to cut the height of the flagpole, …but since such circumstances would be very unusual we naturally say the flagpole subtends the angle because of its height.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (Explanation - Opening Address [1990], p.14)
     A reaction: [compressed; he mentions Van Fraassen 1980:132-3 for a similar point] As a response this seems a bit lame, if the direction is fixed by what is 'usual'. I think the key point is that the direction of explanation is one way or the other, not both.
Universe expansion explains the red shift, but not vice versa
     Full Idea: The theory of the expansion of the universe renders the red shift no longer puzzling, whereas he expansion of the universe is hardly rendered less puzzling by facts about the red shift.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (Explanation - Opening Address [1990], p.15)
     A reaction: The direction of explanation is, I take it, made obvious by the direction of causation, with questions about what is 'puzzling' as mere side-effects.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 2. Types of Explanation / c. Explanations by coherence
Explanation of a fact is fitting it into a system of beliefs
     Full Idea: I want to characterise explanation of some fact as a matter of fitting belief in this fact into a system of beliefs.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (Explanation - Opening Address [1990], p.02)
     A reaction: Sounds good to me. Simple facts slot straight into daily beliefs, and deep obscure facts are explained when we hook them up to things we have already grasped. Quark theory fits into prior physics of forces, properties etc.
Explanations are bad by fitting badly with a web of beliefs, or fitting well into a bad web
     Full Idea: An explanation may be bad if it fits only into a bad web of belief. It can also be bad if it fits into a (possibly good) web of belief in a bad sort of way.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (Explanation - Opening Address [1990], p.09)
     A reaction: Nice. If you think someone has an absurd web of beliefs, then it counts against some belief (for you) if it fits beautifully into the other person's belief system. Judgement of coherence comes in at different levels.
Deducing from laws is one possible way to achieve a coherent explanation
     Full Idea: The Hempelian deductive-nomological model of explanation clearly fits in well with the notion of explanation in terms of coherence. One way of fitting a belief into a system is to show that it is deducible from other beliefs.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (Explanation - Opening Address [1990], p.13)
     A reaction: Smart goes on to reject the law-based deductive approach, for familiar reasons, but at least it has something in common with the Smart view of explanation, which is the one I like.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 2. Types of Explanation / d. Consilience
An explanation is better if it also explains phenomena from a different field
     Full Idea: One explanation will be a better explanation that another if it also explains a set of phenomena from a different field ('consilience').
     From: J.J.C. Smart (Explanation - Opening Address [1990], p.07)
     A reaction: This would count as 'unexpected accommodation', rather than prediction. It is a nice addition to Lipton's comparison of mere accommodation versus prediction as criteria. It sounds like a strong criterion for a persuasive explanation.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 2. Types of Explanation / g. Causal explanations
If scientific explanation is causal, that rules out mathematical explanation
     Full Idea: I class mathematical explanation with scientific explanation. This would be resisted by those who, unlike me, regard the notion of causation as essential to scientific explanation.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (Explanation - Opening Address [1990], p.02-3)
     A reaction: I aim to champion mathematical explanation, in terms of axioms etc., so I am realising that my instinctive attraction to exclusively causal explanation won't do. What explanation needs is a direction of dependence.
14. Science / D. Explanation / 2. Types of Explanation / j. Explanations by reduction
Scientific explanation tends to reduce things to the unfamiliar (not the familiar)
     Full Idea: The history of science suggests that most often explanation is reduction to the unfamiliar.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (Explanation - Opening Address [1990], p.11)
     A reaction: Boyle was keen to reduce things to the familiar, but that was early days for science, and some nasty shocks were coming our way. What would Boyle make of quantum non-locality?
27. Natural Reality / B. Modern Physics / 1. Relativity / a. Special relativity
Special relativity won't determine a preferred frame, but we can pick one externally
     Full Idea: Though special relativity does not determine a preferred frame of reference, it does not rule out the possibility of a frame being determined from outside the theory. Perhaps we should prefer a frame where background radiation is equal in all directions.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (The Tenseless Theory of Time [2008], 3)
     A reaction: Of course this is a mere philosopher offering the escape clause, and not some Nobel-winning physicist, but I start from the assumption that this idea is plausible, and I am unmoved by the contempt for presentism among relativity geeks.
27. Natural Reality / B. Modern Physics / 1. Relativity / b. General relativity
Unlike Newton, Einstein's general theory explains the perihelion of Mercury
     Full Idea: Newtonian celestial mechanics does not explain the advance of the perihelion of Mercury, while Einstein's general theory of relativity does.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (Explanation - Opening Address [1990], p.03)
     A reaction: A perfect example of why explanation is the central concept in science, and probably in all epistemological activity. The desire to know is the desire for an explanation. Once the explanation is obvious, we know.
27. Natural Reality / C. Space-Time / 2. Time / b. Tensed (A) time
The past, present, future and tenses of A-theory are too weird, and should be analysed indexically
     Full Idea: The main objections to the A-theory are due to the metaphysical mysteriousness of the A-theory ideas of past, present and future, and also tenses, and to the greater plausibility of analyzing them as indexicals.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (The Tenseless Theory of Time [2008], 3)
     A reaction: When it comes to time, every theory that has ever been though of is deeply weird, so the basic objection doesn't bother me. Analysing as indexicals just seems to be a technical way of denying reality to the present.
If time flows, then 'how fast does it flow?' is a tricky question
     Full Idea: If it is said that time flows, then it seems that the question 'how fast does it flow?' is a devastating one for the A-theorist.
     From: J.J.C. Smart (The Tenseless Theory of Time [2008], 5)
     A reaction: This is one of the basic landmarks in any debate on time. Time can't be understood by analogy with anything else (such as a river) it seems.