Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Orange on the Seder Plate

... and celebrating the death of children?

"Does it matter if the story of the escape from Egypt is historically true?" Rabbi Suzanne Singer asked us, her congregants, on Saturday, at the Passover Seder dinner at Temple Beth El in Riverside.

We're a liberal Reform Judaism congregation. Everyone except me seemed to be shaking their heads, no, it doesn't matter. I was nodding, however. Yes, it does matter.

Rabbi Singer walked over to me with the microphone, "Okay, Eric, why does it matter?"

I say "we" are a Reform Judaism congregation, but let me be clear: I am not Jewish. My wife Pauline is. My teenage son Davy is. Davy even teaches at the religious school. My nine-year-old daughter Kate, adopted from China at age one, recently described herself as "half Jewish". We're members. We volunteer, attend some of the services. Sometimes I try to chant the chants, sometimes I don't. I always feel a little... ambiguous.

I hadn't been expecting to speak. I came out with some version of the following thought. If the story of Passover is literally true, then there's a miracle-working God. And it would matter if there were such a God. I don't think I would like the moral character of that God, a God who kills so many innocent Egyptians. I'm glad it's not literally true. It matters.

I find it interesting, I added, that we ("we"?) have this celebratory holiday about the death of children, contrary to the values of most of us now. It's interesting how we struggle to deal with that change in values while keeping the traditions of the holiday.

Passover, as you probably know, celebrates a story from Exodus. The Jews are slaves in Egypt. Moses and Aaron approach the Pharaoh and demand the release of their people. The Pharaoh refuses and God sends disaster after disaster upon the Egyptians. In the tenth and final plague, God sweeps through Egypt killing the firstborn son in every house, except the houses marked with the lamb's blood of the Jewish "Passover" sacrifice. In the traditional Haggadahs (i.e. scripts of how the ceremony is to be conducted), God's destruction of the Egyptians seems to be enthusiastically relished, the general tone being one of overflowing celebration for all the good things God (or G-d) has bestowed upon us: He didn't need to plague and torment our enemies and kill their firstborns, but he did, hooray!

(One does remove a bit of wine from one's glass for each of the ten plagues, which has been explained to me as reducing one's joy to recognize the Egyptians' suffering; but not all traditional haggadahs offer that explanation and the overall tone is cheery about the plagues.)

Temple Beth El uses a Reconstructionist Haggadah which is more reflective about the Egyptians' suffering and emphasizes the plight of the enslaved and oppressed everywhere throughout world history. The holiday is no longer understood as it once was. But still, we sing the happy songs.

Others in Temple Beth El spoke up in response to my comment: values change, ancient war sadly and necessarily involved the death of children too, we're really celebrating the struggle for freedom.... The rabbi asked if this answered my question, or if I had anything more to say. Davy whispered, "Dad, you don't have anything more to say." I took his cue and shut my trap.

The caterers arrived late. I was pleased to see that they put oranges upon the Seder plates this year. (It seems to be on and off in our congregation.) The traditional Seder plate has no orange: two bitter herbs (for the bitterness of slavery), charoset (sweet fruit and nuts as mortar for the storehouses of Egypt), parsley (dipped into salt water representing the tears of slavery), a roasted lamb bone (for the Passover sacrifice), and a hard boiled egg.

The first time I saw an orange on the Seder plate, I was told this story about it: A woman was studying to become a rabbi. An orthodox rabbi told her that a woman belongs on the bima (pulpit) like an orange belongs on the Seder plate! When she became a rabbi, she put an orange on the plate.

A wonderful story! The orange on the Seder plate is wild, defiant, overturning the rules, the beginning of a new tradition to celebrate gender equality.

Does it matter if it's true?

The true story is more complicated. Dartmouth Jewish Studies professor Susannah Heschel was speaking to a Jewish group at Oberlin College. The students had written a story in which a young girl asks a rabbi what room there is for lesbians in Judaism, and the rabbi rises in anger, shouting, "There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate!" Heschel, inspired by the story, but not wanting to put anything as unkosher as leavened bread on the Seder plate, put an orange on her family's Seder plate the next year.

In the second story, the orange is not a wild act of defiance but already a compromise. The shouting rabbi is not an actual person but only an imagined, simplified foe.

It matters that it's not true. From the two stories of the orange, we learn what I regard as the central lesson of Reform Judiasm, that myths are cultural inventions built to suit the values of their day, idealizations and simplifications, that they change as our values change, but also that there's only so much change that is possible in a tradition-governed institution, which is necessarily a compromise between past and present. An orange can be considered, but not a crust of bread.

My daughter and I -- active in the temple but not quite Jewish, we too are oranges on the Seder plate, a new sort of thing in a congregation, without a marked place, welcomed this year, unsure how much we belong or want to belong, at risk of rolling off.

In the car on the way home, my son scolded me: "How could you have said that, Dad? There are people in the congregation who take the Torah literally, very seriously. You should have seen how they were looking at you, with so much anger. If you'd said more, they would practically have been ready to lynch you."

Due to the seating arrangement, I had been facing away from most of the congregation, while Davy had been facing toward most of the congregation. I didn't see those faces. Was Davy telling me the truth on the way home that night? Or was he creating a simplified myth of me?

Today I celebrate the orange, that unstable mix of truth and myth, tradition and change.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Possible Cognitive and Cultural Effects of Video Lifelogging

Last week science fiction writer Ted Chiang came to Riverside to talk about the possible cognitive effects of video lifelogging. He also explores these issues in his 2013 story The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling. It was an interesting talk! Chiang focused, as he also does in the story, on the transformative effects video lifelogging might have on our memories, including the possible decline of our ability to remember life events unaided if we can instead just easily call up results from a lifelog.

Lifelogging is a movement aimed at recording and monitoring the details of your everyday life. Video lifelogging, which is just starting to become feasible, involves video-recording every moment of your waking day.

Good search technology will be crucial. Imagine subvocalizing "the name of that book Emmeline[1] recommended at dinner last week" or "that time Taimur cracked a raw egg on his head", then having the relevant audiovisual results show up on your palm or your Google glass. The eventual effects on our minds, Chiang suggests, would be comparable to the transformative effects of literacy. In his talk, Chiang emphasized the decline of unaided memory and the ability to hold ourselves to higher standards of truthfulness about past deeds (what did you really say in that argument last week?).

Just as early Chinese calligraphers could not have predicted quantitative textual analysis or the internet, I think we can assume that if video lifelogging is integrated deeply into our daily lives, it will change us in ways we can't fully anticipate. I'd like to suggest two possible effects that Chiang didn't mention.

First: It is much easier to record audio and video than other sensory modalities. The recording and recreation of taste, smell, touch, and somatic sensation are much more speculative and remote. Most people already tend to privilege sight and hearing, but lifelogging could amplify that dominance -- perhaps so much that the other senses almost seem like a forgettable, buzzing distraction. Your memories of sex, for example, might focus much more on the audiovisual parts of the experience, if those are what you can easily revisit and recall (esp. with decreases in unaided memory, as Chiang suggests would be likely) -- and that in turn might lead you to focus more on those senses than on other senses in your future encounters, which in turn might substantially alter the cultural structures and expectations around sex. Similarly, perhaps, for the pleasures of eating.

Second: Chiang had explicitly set aside privacy issues, and I will also do so (maybe Cory Doctorow will address these when he comes next fall), but intentional sharing raises interesting possibilities, especially if it's possible in real-time. Suppose we can't all afford to go to the concert -- but if we pool our funds, you can go, and we can all watch your lifelog in real-time (perhaps in immersive virtual reality), which will then be saved in our lifelogs. If our cognition and culture have shifted more toward the audiovisual, then it might seem closer to actually being there than it would seem to people now, and if our autobiographical memories have become dominated by lifelog results, then later it might feel more like a real memory of having been there than an analogous experience would seem to people now. Pushed to the extreme, an emphasis on shared real-time and remembered experiences might begin to blur the boundaries of the experienced self, including reducing how much we care about whether it was our own bodies that did something or someone else's.

Just for starters.

[image source]

Friday, April 15, 2016

New Essay in Draft: Phenomenal Consciousness, Defined and Defended as Innocently as I Can Manage

Commentary on Keith Frankish (forthcoming), "Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness".

I don't see Keith's paper publicly available, but you can get a general sense of his view from his 2012 paper Quining Diet Qualia; and in any case I've written the essay to be comprehensible without prior knowledge of Frankish's work.

Phenomenal consciousness can be conceptualized innocently enough that its existence should be accepted even by philosophers who wish to avoid dubious epistemic and metaphysical commitments such as dualism, infallibilism, privacy, inexplicability, or intrinsic simplicity. Definition by example allows us this innocence. Positive examples include sensory experiences, imagery experiences, vivid emotions, and dreams. Negative examples include growth hormone release, dispositional knowledge, standing intentions, and sensory reactivity to masked visual displays. Phenomenal consciousness is the most folk psychologically obvious thing or feature that the positive examples possess and that the negative examples lack, and which preserves our ability to wonder, at least temporarily, about antecedently unclear issues such as consciousness without attention and consciousness in simpler animals. As long as this concept is not empty, or broken, or a hodgepodge, we can be phenomenal realists without committing to dubious philosophical positions.

This paper further develops ideas from my similarly titled blog post on Feb 18. Many thanks for the helpful comments on that post!

Full paper here. As always, questions, comments, and objections are welcome, either as comments on this post or by email.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Paraphenomenal Experience: Conscious Experience Uncorrelated with Cognition and Behavior

My student Alan T. Moore defends his dissertation today. (Good thing we proved he exists!) One striking idea from his dissertation is that much of our consciousness might be, in his terminology, paraphenomenal. A conscious experience is paraphenomenal to the extent it is uncorrelated with cognitive and behavioral processes. (That's my own tweaking of his formulation, not quite how Alan phrases it himself.)

Complete paraphenomenality is a possibility so bizarre and skeptical that I'm unaware of any philosopher who has seriously contemplated it. (It seems likely, though, that someone has, so I welcome references!) Complete paraphenomenality would mean having a stream of experience that was entirely uncorrelated with any functional, cognitive, or sensory input and entirely uncorrelated with any functional, cognitive, or behavioral output (including introspective self-report). Imagine laying the stream of William James's conscious experience atop the behavior and cognitive life of Moctezuma II, or atop a stone -- simply no relationship between the non-phenomenal aspects of one's cognitive life and one's outward behavior (or lack of it) and the stream of lived experience. Or imagine taking the philosophical zombie scenario and instead of denying the zombies any experience, randomly scramble which body has which set of experiences, while holding all the physical and behavioral stuff constant in each body.

Paraphenomenal is not the same as epiphenomenal. Epiphenomenalism about consciousness is the view that conscious experience has no causal influence, the view that consciousness is a causal dead-end. But most epiphenomenalists believe, indeed emphasize, that conscious experience still correlates with causally efficacious brain processes. On paraphenomenalism, in contrast, there aren't even correlations.

Complete paraphenomenalism is about as implausible a philosophical view as one is likely to find. However, partial paraphenomenalism has some plausibility as an interpretation of recent empirical evidence, from Moore and others. Partial paraphenomenalism is the view that the correlations between conscious experiences and cognitive processes are weaker and more limited than one might otherwise expect -- that, for example, presence or absence of the conscious experience of visual imagery is largely irrelevant to performance on the types of cognitive tasks that are ordinarily thought to be aided by imagery. If so, this would be one way to explain empirical results suggesting that self-reported visual imagery abilities are largely uncorrelated with performance on "imagery" tasks like mental rotation and mental folding. (See my discussion here and in Ch. 3 of my 2011 book.)

Especially strikingly to me are the vast differences in the experiences that people report in Russell T. Hurlburt's Descriptive Experience Sampling (e.g., here, here, here, here). Hurlburt "beeps" people at random moments throughout their day. When the beep sounds, their task is to recall their last moment of experience immediately before the beep. Hurlburt then later interviews them about details of the targeted experience. Some of Hurlburt's participants report conscious sensory experiences in almost all of their samples, while others almost never report sensory experiences. Some of Hurlburt's participants report inner speech in almost all of their samples, while others almost never report inner speech. Similarly for emotional feelings, imageless or "unsymbolized" thinking, and visual imagery -- some participants report these things in almost every sample, others never or almost never. Huge, huge differences in the general reported arc of experience! When functional cognitive capacities vary that much between people, it's immediately obvious (e.g., blind people vs. sighted people). But no such radical differences are evident among most of Hurlburt's participants. Participants often even surprise themselves. For example, it's not uncommon for people to initially say, before starting the sampling process, that they experience a stream of constant inner speech, but then report few or no instances of it when actually sampled.

In his dissertation, Moore finds very large differences in people's reported experiences while reading (some of the preliminary data were reported here), but those reported experiential differences don't seem to predict performance in plausibly related cognitive tasks like recall of visual details from the story (for people reporting high visual imagery), rhyme disambiguation (for people reporting hearing the text in inner speech), or recall of details of the visual layout of the text (for people reporting visually experiencing the words on the page in front of them).

When faced with radical differences in experiential report that are largely uncorrelated with the expected outward behavior or cognitive skills, we seem to have three interpretative choices:

1. We could decide that the assumed functional relationship shouldn't have been expected in the first place. For example, in the imagery literature, some researchers decided that it was a mistake to have expected mental rotation ability to correlate with conscious visual imagery. Conscious visual imagery plays an important causal functional role in cognition, just not that role.

2. We could challenge the accuracy of the subjective reports. This has tended to be my approach in the past. Maybe people who deny having visual sensory experience of the scene before them in Hurlburt's and Moore's data really do have sensory experience but either forget that experience or fail to understand exactly what is being asked.

3. We could adopt partial paraphenomenalism about the experience. Maybe people really are radically different in their streams of experience while reading, or while going about their daily life, but those differences have little systematic relationship to the remainder of their cognition or behavior (apart from their ability to generate reports). I wouldn't initially have been much attracted to this idea, but I now think it's an important option to keep explicitly on the table. Alan Moore's dissertation builds an interesting case!

[image source]

Friday, April 08, 2016

Awesome New SF Story about the Problem of Consciousness and Scientific Rationalization

by University of Michigan philosopher and science fiction writer David John Baker, in leading SF podcast Escape Pod:

The Hunter Captain.


This is exactly the kind of interaction between philosophy and speculative fiction that I would like to see more of. The philosophical issues drive the story, giving the story depth and interest; at the same time, the vivid character and narrative in the story bring the philosophical issue to life.

[See also: Philosophical SF: Recommendations from 41 Philosophers]

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Some Pragmatic Considerations Against Intellectualism about Belief

Consider cases in which a person sincerely endorses some proposition ("women are just as smart as men", "family is more important than work", "the working poor deserve as much respect as the financially well off"), but often behaves in ways that fail to fit with that sincerely endorsed proposition (typically treats individual women as dumb, consistently prioritizes work time over family, sees nothing wrong in his or others' disrespectful behavior toward the working poor). Call such cases "dissonant cases" of belief. Intellectualism is the view that in dissonant cases the person genuinely believes the sincerely endorsed proposition, even if she fails to live accordingly. Broad-based views, in contrast, treat belief as a matter of how you steer your way through the world generally.

Dissonant cases of belief are, I think, "antecedently unclear cases" of the sort I discussed in this post on pragmatic metaphysics. The philosophical concept of belief is sufficiently vague or open-textured that we can choose whether to embrace an account of belief that counts dissonant cases as cases of belief, as intellectualism would do, or whether instead to embrace an account that counts them as cases of failure to believe or as in-between cases that aren't quite classifiable either as believing or as failing to believe.

I offer the following pragmatic grounds for rejecting intellectualism in favor of a broad-based view. My argument has a trunk and three branches.


The trunk argument.

Belief is one of the most central and important concepts in all of philosophy. It is central to philosophy of mind: Belief is the most commonly discussed of the "propositional attitudes". It is central to philosophy of action, where it's standard to regard actions as arising from the interaction of beliefs, desires, and intentions. It is central to epistemology, much of which concerns the conditions under which beliefs are justified or count as knowledge. A concept this important to philosophical thinking should be reserved for the most important thing in the vicinity that can plausibly answer to it. The most important thing in the vicinity is not our patterns of intellectual endorsement. It is our overall patterns of action and reaction. What we say matters, but what we do in general, how we live our lives through the world -- that matters even more.

Consider a case of implicit classism. Daniel, for example, sincerely says that the working poor deserve equal respect, but in fact for the most part he treats them disrespectfully and doesn't find it jarring when others do so. If we, as philosophers, choose describe Daniel as believing what he intellectually endorses, then we implicitly convey the idea that Daniel's patterns of intellectual endorsement are what matter most to philosophy: Daniel has the attitude that stands at the center of so much of epistemology, philosophy of action, and philosophy of mind. If we instead describe Daniel as a mixed-up, in-betweenish, or even failing to believe what he intellectually endorses, we do not implicitly convey that intellectualist idea.

Branch 1.

Too intellectualist a view invites us to adopt noxiously comfortable opinions about ourselves. Suppose our implicit classist Daniel asks himself, "Do I believe that the working poor deserve equal respect?" He notices that he is inclined sincerely to judge that they deserve equal respect. Embracing intellectualism about belief, he concludes that he does believe they deserve equal respect. He can say to himself, then, that he has the attitude that philosophers care about most – belief. Maybe he lacks something else. He lacks "alief" maybe, or the right habits, or something. But based on how philosophers usually talk, you'd think that's kind of secondary. Daniel can comfortably assume that he has the most important thing straightened out. But of course he doesn't.

Intellectualist philosophers can deny that Daniel does have the most important thing straightened out. They can say that how Daniel treats people matters more than what he intellectually endorses. But if so, their choice of language mismatches their priorities. If they want to say that the central issue of concern in philosophy is, or should be, how you act in general, then the most effective way to encourage others to join them in that thought is to build the importance of one's general patterns of action right into the foundational terms of the discipline.

Branch 2.

Too intellectualist a view hides our splintering dispositions. Here's another, maybe deeper, reason Daniel might find himself too comfortable: He might not even think to look at his overall patterns of behavior in evaluating what his attitude is toward the working poor. In Branch 1, I assumed that Daniel knew that his spontaneous reactions were out of line, and he only devalued those spontaneous reactions, not thinking of them as central to the question of whether he believed. But how would he come to know that his spontaneous reactions are out of line? If he's a somewhat reflective, self-critical person, he might just happen to notice that fact about himself. But an intellectualist view of the attitudes doesn’t encourage him to notice that about himself. It encourages Daniel, instead, to determine what his belief is by introspection of or reflection upon what he is disposed to sincerely say or accept.

In contrast, a broad-based view of belief encourages Daniel to cast his eye more widely in thinking about what he believes. In doing so, he might learn something important. The broad-based approach brings our non-intellectual side forward into view while the intellectualist approach tends to hide that non-intellectual side. Or at least it does so to the extent we are talking specifically about belief -- which is of course a large part of what philosophers do in fact actually talk about in philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, and epistemology.

Another way in which intellectualism hides our splintering dispositions is this: Suppose Suleyma has the same intellectual inclinations as Daniel but unlike Daniel her whole dispositional structure is egalitarian. She really does, and quite thoroughly, have as much respect for the custodian as for the wealthy business-owner. An intellectualist approach treats Daniel and Suleyma as the same in any domain where what matters is what one believes. They both count as believers, so now let's talk about how belief couples with desire to beget intentions, let's talk about whether their beliefs are justified, let's talk about what set of worlds makes their beliefs true -- for all these purposes, they are modeled in the same way. The difference between them is obscured, unless additional effort is made to bring it to light.

You might think Daniel's and Suleyma's differences don't matter too much. They're worth hiding or eliding away or disregarding unless for some reason those differences become important. If that's your view, then an intellectualist approach to belief is for you. If on the other hand, you think their differences are crucially important in a way that ought to disallow treating them as equivalent in matters of belief, then an intellectualist view is not for you. Of course, the differences matter for some purposes and not so much for other purposes. The question is whether on balance it's better to put those differences in the foreground or to tuck them away as a nuance.

Branch 3.

Too intellectualist a view risks downgrading our responsibility. It's a common idea in philosophy that we are responsible for our beliefs. We don't choose our beliefs in any straightforward way, but if our beliefs don't align with the best evidence available to us we are epistemically blameworthy for that failure of alignment. In contrast, our habits, spontaneous reactions, that sort of thing -- those are not in our control, at least not directly, and we are less blameworthy for them. My true self, my "real" attitude, the being I most fundamentally am, the locus of my freedom and responsibility -- that's constituted by the aspects of myself that I consciously endorse upon reflection. You can see how the intellectualist view of belief fits nicely with this.

I think that view is almost exactly backwards. Our intellectual endorsements, when they don't align with our lived behavior, count for little. They still count for something, but what matters more is how we spontaneously live our way through the world, how we actually treat the people we are with, the actual practical choices we make. That is the "real" us. And if Daniel says, however sincerely, that he is an egalitarian, but he doesn't live that way, I don't want to call him a straight-up egalitarian. I don't want to excuse him by saying that his inegalitarian reactions are mere uncontrollable habit and not the real him. It's easy to talk. It's hard to change your life. I don't want to let you off the hook for it in that way, and I don't want to let myself off the hook. I don't want to say that I really believe and I am somehow kind of alienated from all my unlovely habits and reactions. It's more appropriately condemnatory to say that my attitude, my belief state, is actually pretty mixed up.

It's hard to live up to all the wonderful values and aspirations we intellectually endorse. I am stunned by the breadth and diversity of our failures. What we sincerely say we believe about ourselves and the people around us and how we actually spontaneously react to people and what we actually choose and do -- so often they are so far out of line with each other! So I think we've got to have quite a lot of forgiveness and sympathy for our failures. My empirical, normative, pragmatic conjecture is this: In an appropriate context of forgiveness and sympathy, the best way to frankly confront our regular failure to live up to our verbally espoused attitudes is to avoid placing intellectual endorsements too close to the center of philosophy.

[image source]

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Introspective Attention as Perception with a Twist

Tomorrow I'm off to the Pacific APA in San Francisco. Thursday 4-6 I'm commenting on Wayne Wu's "Introspection as Attention and Action". This post is adapted from those comments.

(Also Wed 6 pm I'm presenting my paper "A Pragmatic Approach to the Metaphysics of Belief" and Sat 6-9 I'm critic in an author-meets-critics on Jay Garfield's Engaging Buddhism. Feel free to stop by!)


What does introspective attention to one's perceptual experiences amount to? As I look at my desk, I can attend to or think about my ongoing sensory experiences, reaching judgments about their quality or character. For example, I'm visually experiencing a brownish, slightly complicated oblong shape in my visual periphery (which I know to be my hat). I'm having auditory experience of my coffee-maker spitting and bubbling as it brews the pot. What exactly am I doing, in the process of reaching these judgments?

One thing that I'm not doing, according to Wayne Wu, is launching a new process, distinct from the perceptual processes of seeing the hat and hearing the coffee-maker, which turns an "attentional spotlight" upon those perceptual processes. Introspective attention, Wu argues -- and I agree -- is a matter of applying phenomenal concepts in the course of ordinary perceiving, with the goal of arriving at a judgment about your perceptual experience -- doing so in a way that isn't radically different from the way in which, according to your goals, you can aim to categorize the things you perceive along any of several different dimensions.

I hope the following is a Wu-friendly way of developing the idea. Suppose you're looking at a coffee mug. You can do so with any of a variety of perceptual goals in mind. You can look at it with the aim of noticing details about its color -- its precise shade and how consistent or variable its color is across its face. You can look at it with the aim of noticing details of its shape. You can look at it with the aim of thinking about how it could effectively be used as a weapon. You can look at it with a critical aesthetic eye. Each of these aims is a way of attending differently to the mug, resulting in judgments that employ different conceptual categories.

You can also look at the mug with an introspective aim, or rather with one of several introspective aims. You can look at the mug with the aim of reaching conclusions about what your visual experience is as you look at the mug rather than with the aim of reaching conclusions about the physical mug itself. You might be interested in noticing your experience of the mug's color, possibly distinct from mug's real color. According to Wu, this is not a process radically different from ordinary acts of perception. Introspection your visual experience of the color or shape of the mug is not a two-stage process that consists of first perceiving the mug and then second of introspecting the experiences that arise in the course of that perceptual act.

The approach Wu and I favor is especially attractive in thinking about what the early introspective psychologists E.B. Titchener and E.G. Boring called "R-error" or "stimulus error". Imagine that you're lying on your stomach and an experimenter is gently poking the bare skin of your back with either one or two toothpicks. You might have one of two different tasks. An objective task would be to guess whether you are being poked by only one toothpick or instead by both toothpicks at once. You answer with either "one" or "two". It's easy to tell that you're being poked by two if the toothpicks are several centimeters apart, but once they are brought close enough together, the task becomes difficult. Two toothpicks placed within a centimeter of each other on your back are likely to feel like only a single toothpick. The objective task would be to guess how many toothpicks you are being poked with in reality.

An introspective task might be very similar but with a crucial difference: You are asked to report whether you have tactile experience of two separate regions of pressure or only one region. Again you might answer "one" or "two". This is of course not the same as the objective task. You're reporting not on facts about the toothpicks but rather on facts about your experience of the toothpicks. The objective task and the introspective task have different truth conditions. For example if two toothpicks are pressed to your back only 6 millimeters apart and you say "one" you've given the wrong answer if your task is objective but quite possibly the right answer if your task is introspective.

[Edwin G. Boring in 1961]

Here's the thing that Titchener and Boring noticed, which they repeatedly warn against in their discussions of introspective methodology: People very easily slide back and forth between the introspective task and the objective task. It's not entirely natural to keep them distinct in your mind over the course of a long series of stimuli. You might be assigned the introspective task, for example, and start saying "one", "one", "two", "one", "two", "two", "two" -- at first your intentions are clearly introspective, but then by the thirtieth trial you have slipped into the more familiar objective way of responding and you're just guessing how many toothpicks there actually are, rather than reporting introspectively. If you've slipped from the introspective to the objective mode of reporting, you've committed what Titchener and Boring call stimulus error.

For Wu's and my view, the crucial point is this: It's very easy to shift unintentionally between the two ways of deploying your perceptual faculties. In fact I'm inclined to think -- I don't know if Wu would agree with me about this -- that for substantial stretches of the experiment your intentions might be vague enough that there's no determinate fact about the content of your utterances. Is your "one" really a report about your experience or a report about the world outside? It might be kind of muddy, kind of in-between. You're just rolling along not very thoughtful of the distinction. What distinguishes the introspective judgment from the perceptual judgment in this case is a kind of minor thing about your background intentions in making your report.

Introspection of perceptual experience is perception with a twist, with an aim slightly different from the usual aim of reporting on the outside world. That's the idea. It's not a distinct cognitive process that begins after the perceptual act ends, ontologically distinct from the perceptual act and taking the perceptual act as its target.

When you know that your experience might be misleading, the difference can matter to your reporting. For example, if you know that you're pretty bad at detecting two toothpicks when they're close together and you have reason to think that lots of the trials will have toothpicks close together, and if your focus is on objective reporting, you might say: "Well, 50-50% -- might be one, might be two for all I know". For introspective reporting, in contrast, you might say something like "Sure feels like one, though I know you might well actually be touching me with two".

In visual experience, noticing blurriness is similar. Take off your glasses or cross your eyes. You know enough about the world to know that your coffee mug hasn't become objectively vague-edged and blurry. So you attribute the blurriness to your experience. This is a matter of seeing the world and reaching judgments about your experience in the process. You reach an experiential judgment rather than or in addition to an objective judgment just because of certain background facts about your cognition. Imagine someone so naive and benighted as to think that maybe actual real-world coffee mugs do in fact become vague bordered and blurry edged when she takes off her glasses. It seems conceivable that we could so bizarrely structure someone's environment that she actually came to adulthood thinking this. That person might then not know whether to apply blurriness to the outward object or to her experience of the object. It's a similar perceptual act of looking at the mug, but given different background concepts and assumptions in one case she reaches an introspective attribution while in the other case she reaches an objective attribution.

[image source]



  • "Introspection, What?" (2012), in D. Smithies and D. Stoljar, eds., Introspection and Consciousness (Oxford). My own positive account of the nature of introspection.
  • "Introspection". My Stanford Encyclopedia review article on theories of introspection.
  • "The Problem of Known Illusion and the Resemblance of Experience to Reality" (2014), Philosophy of Science 81, 954-960. Puzzlement and possible metaphysical juice, arising from reflections on the weird relation between objective and introspective reporting.
  • Wednesday, March 23, 2016

    My Workday as a Philosophy Professor

    [cross-posted from The Philosophers' Cocoon, "Real Philosophy Jobs Part 3"]

    How hard does the typical tenured professor work, and on what? Good information is hard to come by. I will describe my own workload and typical workday, as one data point.

    I am a full professor of philosophy, with a six-digit salary and tenure at UC Riverside, whose philosophy PhD program is ranked 28th in the US by the Philosophical Gourmet. Our normal teaching load is four 10-week courses (plus final exams) spread over three “quarters” (hence 1-2-1), plus independent supervision of graduate students.

    Unlike most of my colleagues, I try to work regular workdays – about 8:00 to 5:30 Monday to Friday, with evenings and weekends reserved for home life (below, I’ll add some caveats to that). I also try to have relatively normal holidays: the official US holidays, a couple weeks for family vacation during the summer, about a week over winter break, and a smattering of other days off.

    My typical day:


    Email is a major part of the job. After arriving at the office around 8:00, I’ll usually spend my first hour reading and answering email. I’ll also check and answer email through the rest of the day. The distinction between “answering email” and “doing tasks that were precipitated by receiving an email” is vague, but I’d estimate that I spend about two hours a day reading and answering emails. Last week I received 359 email messages, almost none of which were junk mail from corporations. (I use a separate email account for that.) Approximately one half were group emails that I could skim or ignore. The other half I had to actually read. About half of those, I replied to. I of course also send emails that are not simply replies. Last week, I sent 107 email messages. That’s an average of 36 substantive incoming and 21 outgoing messages per weekday. If I spend one minute per message, that’s already an hour a day right there. Of course some messages require less time, others substantially more.

    Here’s a Monday morning sample, which includes Friday evening through 10:00 a.m. Monday: a few emails discussing dinner plans after a talk at the APA; two submitted blog comments which I approved (including one where I followed a link to an interesting article that I’d already read); an email from a potential coauthor about an op-ed piece we’re considering writing together; A-V information about an upcoming talk; three emails in a four-way philosophical discussion about Asian philosophy and oneness; an undergraduate request for me to write a letter of recommendation, which I replied to with substantial advice; a reminder about some written interview questions that I got last week and haven’t yet managed to answer; a question from another philosopher about my data collection methods from a recent paper; an email trying to coordinate a meeting with a colleague at the coming APA; two requests to referee articles for journals (one accepted, one declined); three emails of thanks for reference letters I wrote last week; an email confirming that my request for $10,000 to organize a mini-conference has been approved, precipitating a message to my collaborator about next steps; a link to a recently published article citing one of my articles, interesting enough that I read the abstract, downloaded, and quickly skimmed for possible later reading; two emails from my wife with info about getting my son organized for applying to colleges next year; a couple emails about arranging the hotels for my trip to Hong Kong in May; an email from a speaker I’ve invited to talk at UCR next year who is unsure whether he’ll be able to fit it into his schedule; and two emails concerning getting the overhead lights in my office fixed. That gives you the flavor, I think!

    Classroom teaching:

    Most of my undergraduate classes are already prepped from previous years. I’ll spend about 60-90 minutes refreshing myself on the material and reviewing and tweaking my overheads. (If it’s material I haven’t taught before, it takes several hours.) Then I’ll spend 50 minutes on a lecture stage in front of hundreds of students (for a lower-division class), 80 minutes in lecture-and-informal discussion with about 30 students (for an upper-division class), or three hours in focused discussion with about 8 students (for a grad seminar).

    Teaching the giant lecture classes is stressful, but also a thrill when it goes well. When I switched from the ordinary “Introduction to Philosophy” material to material that more students cared about, with real emotional resonance – lynching, the Holocaust, sex and death, the role of cognition and emotion in moral development, starvation amid wealth – I found my passion for the lower division teaching. One time, the two hundred students were so still in the lecture hall that the motion sensors decided the classroom was empty and the lights turned themselves off. Whoa. When I can bring that intensity to students on topics like these, that feels meaningful and worthwhile.

    In upper-division courses and grad seminars, I rely on more from the students. Classes become a mix of semi-structured mini-lectures, freewheeling tangents, and informal debate among students. UCR students are strong enough that their discussions are reliably interesting as long as I can do two things: (a.) draw out the best in students’ sometimes half-baked ideas, and (b.) succeed in expanding the conversation away from just the most assertive talkers.


    On days when I’m not teaching, probably about half of my time is research. On teaching days, research is sometimes squeezed out altogether. Research is mostly reading and writing, but I also (unusually for a philosopher) also do some experimental work and data analysis.

    Reading. I don’t read many books cover to cover. I read a mix of happenstance material and targeted material. The happenstance will be recent articles from journal tables of contents, articles or books or book chapters that people have mentioned or emailed to me as possibly of interest (including their own work), work that cites my own, and other work that catches my eye for whatever reason. The targeted material will be current or classic or historical work that is relevant to an article or blog post that I am currently writing or thinking about. For example, for my recent paper on rationalization with Jon Ellis, I read through bunches of relevant psychological literature, some fun classic work from the history of psychology, a whole bunch of Habermas (which I ended up only barely citing but seemed worth knowing anyway), relevant work by philosophers on rationalization and on self-knowledge, and various tangentially related material.

    Writing: Blog. I have an active blog, The Splintered Mind, where I try to post at least once a week, usually about 500-1000 words with a fresh idea about something I’ve been working on recently. Typically this takes me a few hours, plus maybe another hour replying to comments on the blog or on social media sites where I’ve linked to the blog. I find it good discipline to get my ideas out there in some sort of comprehensible shape on a regular basis, and to get some feedback about them. I usually try not to spend more than five hours blogging per week.

    Writing: Articles. I am always bursting with writing ideas – far more stuff than I can actually write up. (The blog is a good vent for ideas that won’t make it into articles.) A first draft will normally take me about an hour a page. Most of my non-empirical articles go through one to five top-to-bottom rewrites from beginning to end, plus multiple smaller-scale revisions and rereadings. For me, a typical full-length published article reflects about 100-200 hours of writing and revising. I try to write always for two audiences simultaneously: the fast skimming reader who just wants the big picture and the careful nitpicking reader who is looking to critique me on details. I care about prose style. I care about trying to draw the reader in, about revealing the importance of the issues, about being fun and accessible rather than dry and technical, to the extent that’s compatible with rigorously covering the issues. I love the craft of writing.

    Writing: Other. I’ve also recently started writing science fiction and op-eds. Because why not? These can, of course, take a lot of time, and it’s a challenge to acquire the relevant skills. (I rather enjoy the challenge.) It helps that I’ve recently been getting grant money for teaching release, so that I don’t have to compromise my other research to do these things.

    One of the things I love about this job, especially now that I’m tenured, is the enormous freedom I have to read and write whatever I feel like reading and writing, at whatever pace and schedule I feel like doing so. Especially during the summer, my office is a playground for my mind. Of course, it’s not always like that – when I commit to particular writing projects with deadlines and/or co-authors, I have to prioritize them on a schedule I might not prefer, and there are the frequent scheduled demands of teaching and meetings that can feel like they get in the way of my passionate desire to think and read and write, and of course there’s always the stack of email which if I ignore for even one day becomes quite daunting by the next.

    Other Stuff:

    Meetings. During the term, I probably average about 1-2 hours in meetings per day. This includes university committee meetings, faculty meetings, departmental talks and receptions, graduate student oral exams, open-door office hours, and one-on-one meetings in person or by phone or Skype with students, collaborators, and colleagues.

    Grading. Grading undergraduate exams and essays is a pretty tough slog, and probably my least favorite part of the job – though those occasional “A” papers are like lights in the mist. When I’m teaching upper-division without TAs, this will be several hours a week several weeks of the term. Evaluating graduate student essays and dissertations is not as grueling, but is still quite a bit of work – in combination amounting to hundreds of comments over hundreds of pages.

    Miscellaneous Tasks. These typically come via email – things I can’t just respond to with a quick email in reply. They include: writing letters of recommendation; writing referee reports on articles submitted to journals; organizing events; organizing travel and financial matters (including applying for and managing grants); dealing with students with special issues; keeping up to some extent with what’s going on in the philosophical corners of social media and the popular press; evaluating research proposals as part of a committee or review board or as an outside evaluator; planning new courses or course material; evaluating graduate admissions applications if I’m on the admissions committee or job applications if I’m on a hiring committee; evaluating the promotion and merit files of my colleagues; completing well-intentioned administrative forms; and other such – I’m sure I’ve forgotten some.

    Although I don’t conceptualize this “other stuff” as research, most of it does expose me, in one way or another, to work going on in the field.

    I’ll take about 15 minutes for lunch (walk to the student cafeteria then walk back, often eating en route) and maybe another 30 minutes over the day for non-philosophy stuff like internet news, humor items, non-philosophy social media, and family-related things.

    When I’m Not in the Office:

    Morning walks. I walk an hour every morning – often my favorite part of the day. I’ll let my mind drift. Maybe a third of the time I’m drifting off into philosophical thoughts, things I’d like to write or revise, blog post ideas, project plans, etc. Sometimes I’ll listen to a podcast or a text-to-speech article (philosophy, science fiction, or otherwise), or I’ll look a bit at social media. When I’ve slept well and in a good mood, I’m just bursting with enthusiasm and fun ideas – sometimes ideas that seem a bit too silly in my more sober moods later.

    Evenings and weekends. Evenings and weekends, I prioritize family. I’ll check social media a bit, sometimes reading or commenting on philosophical things, but always in a light way – never in a concentrated-this-feels-like-work way. I won’t check email, except maybe to scan headers if I think there might be something urgent. I always read before going to sleep – about half an hour, often something related to philosophy but which doesn’t feel workish, such as a popular book of history or psychology or some speculative science fiction.

    Travel. I have a deal with my family: four out-of-town trips per year, one of which is overseas. The overseas trip will usually be about two weeks, and I’ll try to string together a bunch of talks at different places, in quick succession. The other three will normally be 2-4 nights, and I’ll try to string together two or three talks in nearby places if it can be arranged.

    So How Much Do I Work and on What?

    If we figure that the travel approximately cancels out the arbitrary days I take off, that leaves me with about 49 weeks per year, at about (9:30 minus 0:45) x 5 = 43.75 hours per week, plus some hard-to-count off-the-clock stuff like light reading at night and philosophical thinking during my morning walks. Maybe about 40% my work time is reading and writing with research ends in mind, about 25% of it teaching related, and 35% everything else.

    But all this task-and-hour-counting omits something essential: the extent to which my work has shaped my sense of who I am and what I value. I could not simply cut it away. As my children will attest, I am a philosopher even in my light-hearted play with them. I have become what my work has made me.

    Thursday, March 17, 2016

    "Crash Spaces" for Ancestral Ways of Meaning-Making

    R. Scott Bakker's story "Crash Space", which I solicited for a special issue of Midwest Studies in Philosophy last year, is stuck in my head.

    Without giving away too much of Bakker's story, here's the guiding thought: A world in which you have almost complete voluntary control over your emotions is a world in which your emotions won't effectively do their job in regulating your behavior. It's crucial to the operation of an emotion like guilt or ecstatically forgetful bliss that it be at least partly outside your direct control. Otherwise, why not just turn off the guilt and amp up bliss and go wild?

    In fact, once you even start to dampen down your moral emotions or long-term thinking, that might create a situation in which you'll then dampen those emotions farther -- since there will be less guilt, shame, etc., to prevent you from continuing to downregulate. It's easy to see how a vicious cycle could start and be hard to escape. If you could, in a moment of recklessness, say to yourself "let's crank up the carpe diem and forget tomorrow!" and then (through emotion-regulating technology) actually do that, then it might be hard to find your way back to moderation. A bit of normal short-term thinking might lead you to temporarily dampen your concern for the future, but once concern for the future is dampened your new short-term-thinking self might naturally be inclined to say, "what the heck, let's dampen it even more!"

    In a postscript to his story, Bakker defines a crash space as "a problem solving domain where our tools seem to fit the description, but cannot seem to get the job done" (p. 203). Bakker argues, plausibly, that the cognitive and emotional structures that give meaning to our lives and constrain us ethically can be expected to work only in a limited range of environments -- roughly, environments similar in their basic structure to those in our evolutionary and cultural history. Break far enough away, and our ancestrally familiar approaches will cease to function effectively.

    For a very different set of cases in the same vein, consider utility monster and fission-fusion monster cases that might well become possible if we can someday create human-like consciousness in computers or robots. (Utility monsters are capable of vastly superhuman amounts of pleasure. Fission-fusion monsters are individuals who can merge and subdivide at will.) The human notion of individual rights, for example, only makes sense in a context in which targets of moral concern are individuals who remain discrete from each other for long periods of time -- who don't merge and divide and blend into each other. Break this assumption, and much of our ordinary moral thinking seems to break along with it. (See also Briggs and Nolan 2015.) What becomes of "one person, one vote", for example, when people can divide into a million individuals the day before the election and then merge back together again -- or not -- the day after, or when you have a huge entity with many semi-independent subparts?

    Part of the potential philosophical power of science fiction, I think, is in imagining possible crash spaces for our ancestral, historical, or socially familiar ways of finding personal and moral meaning in the world. Pushing imaginatively against existing boundaries, we can begin to see possible risks in the future. But discovering our crash spaces is also of intrinsic philosophical interest, potentially revealing previously unnoticed implicit background assumptions behind our ordinary patterns of evaluation.

    Some other interesting science fiction on the hazards of external self-control of emotions include Larry Niven's pleasure-center-simulating tasps and ecstasy plugs (turn on and forget even to eat!), and Greg Egan's exoselves in Permutation City and Diaspora (shell programs that regulate one's personality and preferences).

    One flip side of Bakker's "Crash Space" is Egan's short story "Reasons to Be Cheerful", about the challenge of choosing a new set of desires and preferences from scratch, in a self-conscious, hyper-rational way.

    [image source]

    Monday, March 14, 2016

    Changes in the Race and Gender of U.S. Philosophy Faculty, 1988-2004

    Historical data on the percentage of women and minorities in philosophy in the U.S. are hard to find. It's clear that the numbers have increased since the 1970s, but it's possible that some of the trends have flattened since the 1990s. Without good historical data, it's hard to evaluate this possible flattening.

    So I put in a request to the National Center for Education Statistics, and they generated estimates of the percentage of women and the percentage of non-Hispanic white people in philosophy vs. other disciplines based on governmental surveys conducted from 1988, 1993, 1999, and 2004. These data concern only full-time faculty in 4-year institutions.

    With their permission, I've made these NCES estimates available here (XLSX format).

    The 1988 and 1993 are aggregate data for philosophy, religion, and theology (which appear not to have been coded separately in the NCES survey raw data). However, I believe that these aggregated data can serve as reasonable estimates for philosophy in those two years, as I'll explain in point (4) below.

    Gender data:

    1988: philosophy*: 91% male (vs. 75% for all fields).

    1993: philosophy*: 88% male (vs. 70% for all fields).

    1999: philosophy: 80% male (vs. 67% for all fields).

    2004: philosophy: 86% male (vs. 64% for all fields).

    Race/ethnicity data:

    1988: philosophy*: 93% white non-Hispanic (vs. 89% for all fields).

    1993: philosophy*: 95% white non-Hispanic (vs. 86% for all fields).

    1999: philosophy: 91% white non-Hispanic (vs. 84% for all fields).

    2004: philosophy: 89% white non-Hispanic (vs. 80% for all fields).


    (1.) Unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with the demographics of philosophy in the U.S., philosophy was very white and very male throughout the period -- more so than academia as a whole. The trends have been toward increasing diversity, but only slowly.

    (2.) The fluctuations suggest statistical error of at least a few percent. On the second page of the worksheet, you can also see the calculated standard errors from the NCES, generally about 1-4%. The dip from 88% to 80% back up to 86% in particular seems unlikely to reflect real demographic change. Turnover in full-time positions is slow; the field doesn't change that fast.

    (3.) For comparison, the U.S. Survey of Earned Doctorates from the 1990s shows 73% of U.S. philosophy PhDs going to men and 91% going to non-Hispanic whites (the latter number excludes temporary residents and decline-to-state). So PhD recipients during the period had a bit more gender and ethnic diversity than faculty as a whole, consistent with a slow trend toward diversification.

    (4.) As mentioned, the 1988 and 1993 numbers are actually numbers from "philosophy, religion, and theology". I nonetheless believe that these are also decent estimates for philosophy alone. My reasoning is this: (a.) In the chart linked to above, we can see that philosophy and religion are treated separately and together in 1999 and 2004. The aggregate estimate is always somewhat closer to philosophy than to religion, suggesting that there are somewhat fewer faculty in religion -- which also fits with recent data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates (e.g., in 2009 423 doctorates were awarded in philosophy and 323 in religion). (b.) The race and gender percentages for religion and philosophy in 1999 and 2004 aren't hugely different, though religion tends to be a little closer to parity than philosophy in both respects (which also fits with recent SED data, which finds religion to be almost as race and gender-skewed as philosophy). For example, averaging 1999 and 2004, philosophy has 83.2% men to religion's 81.0%, and 90.0% white non-Hispanic to religion's 84.6%. So, combined with point a, the percentages for philosophy alone are likely to be similar to the percentages for philosophy and religion together, perhaps philosophy alone a bit more white and male. Of course, because of the nature of this estimate, as well as the fluctuations noted in (2) above, we should keep in mind that these are rough estimates, probably good only plus or minus a few percentage points.

    Tuesday, March 08, 2016

    New Paper in Draft: Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical Thought

    ... coauthored with Jonathan Ellis.


    Rationalization, in our intended sense of the term, occurs when a person favors a particular conclusion as a result of some factor (such as self-interest) that is of little justificatory epistemic relevance, if that factor then biases the person’s subsequent search for, and assessment of, potential justifications for the conclusion. Empirical evidence suggests that rationalization is common in ordinary people’s moral and philosophical thought. We argue that it is likely that the moral and philosophical thought of philosophers and moral psychologists is also pervaded by rationalization. Moreover, although rationalization has some benefits, overall it would be epistemically better if the moral and philosophical reasoning of both ordinary people and professional academics were not as heavily influenced by rationalization as it likely is. We discuss the significance of our arguments for cognitive management and epistemic responsibility.

    Full paper here.

    Thoughts and comments welcome, as always -- either in the comments field of this post or by email to me or Jon.

    Saturday, March 05, 2016

    Like the Oscars, #PhilosophySoWhite

    ... a new piece in the L.A. Times by Myisha Cherry and me.

    Academic philosophy in the United States has a diversity problem.

    No other discipline of comparable size in the humanities is as gender-skewed as philosophy. Women still receive only about 28% of philosophy PhDs in the United States, and are still only about 20% of full professors of philosophy — numbers that have hardly budged since the 1990s. And among U.S. citizens and permanent residents receiving philosophy PhDs in this country, 86% are non-Hispanic white. The only comparably-sized disciplines that are more white are the ones that explicitly focus on the European tradition, such as English literature.

    Black people are especially difficult to find in academic philosophy. Black people or African Americans constitute 13% of the U.S. population, 7% of PhD recipients across all fields, 2% of PhD recipients in philosophy, and less than 0.5% of authors in the most prominent philosophy journals.

    One of the main causes of homogeneity in philosophy, we believe, is subjectivity and bias in the evaluation of philosophical quality.

    continued here

    Some thoughts occasioned by the discussion I've seen of this piece since it went live last night:

    (1.) Shelley Tremain pointed out that we don't mention the underrepresentation of disabled people in philosophy (some stats and discussion in her piece here). As Tremain has emphasized, discussions of diversity tend to focus on race and gender to the exclusion of other dimensions of diversity, and I think we fell too much into that standard mode of thinking. I would conjecture that the same "seeming smart" phenomenon disadvantages people with visible disabilities that are stereotypically culturally associated with low power and low academic skill, and that this might explain the underrepresentation of such people in the profession, regardless of actual skill levels.

    (2.) I think one way to begin to address the issue (in addition to direct action to increase diversity) is to shift the culture of philosophy a bit more toward valuing plain-spoken philosophy, with minimal apparatus, which discusses issues that non-philosophers find interesting. I think this might have at least two positive effects: First it would make philosophy more attractive to people from a wide range of perspectives; and second it would improve our ability to evaluate quality, reducing the role of dazzling incomprehensible showmanship in the discipline. (This isn't to deny a role for highly technical philosophy, such as technical formal logic and detailed examination of the texts of historical figures. I would just advocate some shift in emphasis.)

    (3.) Myisha and I didn't have a chance to discuss how these things play out in other disciplines. I am not expert in other disciplines (except psychology to some extent), but I do have some data-supported conjectures. The entire story will be complex and multi-factorial. Some things to note: Mathematics, the physical sciences, and engineering are approximately as gender-skewed as philosophy. They are somewhat less race-skewed. (I don't know of class and disability data for these disciplines.) I suspect that this skew arises from a somewhat different confluence of factors (including associations of math and gender going back into childhood), though I think there's probably also substantial overlap since "seeming smart" is, I suspect, very important throughout academia, and the math-gender relationship also penetrates philosophy to some extent (especially philosophy of math and physics).

    (4.) Another interesting disciplinary comparison is literature. Literature, I think, shares with philosophy a very high level of subjectivity and cultural variability in quality assessment. It is much less gender-skewed. The race skew story is complicated by the fact that many literature programs focus explicitly on the European tradition (e.g., English, French). Again, I don't know of disability data and economic-privilege data. I see at least two important differences between literature and philosophy: One is that cultural associations with beauty and artistic creativity are not as white-male-centric as are cultural associations with intelligence (think of the stereotypes of the beautiful woman and the creative black jazz musician) and assessments of beauty and creativity may play a proportionately larger role in literature than in philosophy. The other is that literature as a set of academic disciplines in our culture has made more effort to explicitly diversify its canon than has philosophy, and diversifying the canon might tend to lead toward the diversification of the professors teaching that canon, via a few different mechanisms.

    (5.) Our brief discussion of this study didn't make the final cutdown for the op-ed, but we think it's important and supports our hypothesis. On Rate My Professors, undergraduate students are more likely to use the word "brilliant" to describe philosophy instructors -- especially male philosophy instructors -- than instructors in any of the other nine fields examined. These data fit both the gender skew in perceptions of "seeming smart" and our conjecture that seeming smart is a skill even more central to philosophy than other academic disciplines.

    (6.) Four interesting, related papers on seeming smart in philosophy:
    * Liam Kofi Bright "Against Candidate Quality";
    * Katrina Hutchison "Sages and Cranks: The Difficulty of Identifying First-Rate Philosophers;
    * Jennifer Saul "Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Women in Philosophy";
    * Dan Sperber "The Guru Effect".

    Thursday, March 03, 2016

    From God to Skepticism

    Maybe God created the world. But what kind of god?

    It seems reasonable to have doubts about God's moral character. Some religions claim that if God exists, he/she/it is morally perfect. Other religions, especially polytheistic religions, make no such claims. Even the Old Testament, if read at face value, does not appear to portray a morally perfect God.

    And of course there's the "problem of evil": The fact that the world is -- or appears to be -- full of needless suffering and wickedness that one might hope a morally good God would work to prevent. God could, it seems, have given Hitler a heart attack. God could, it seems, prevent people from dying young of painful diseases. One possible explanation for God's failure to prevent evil and suffering is that evil and suffering really don't bother God so much. Maybe God even enjoys watching us suffer. That would be one reason to create a world -- as a kind of LiveLeak voyeurism on human misery.

    Similarly, it seems reasonable to have doubts about the extent of God's power. Maybe God really wanted to stop the Holocaust, but just couldn't get there in time, or was constrained by non-interference regulations enforced by the Council of Worldbuilders, or was so busy stopping other bad things that this one slipped through the net. Maybe God would have liked to create human teeth sufficiently robust that they did not decay, but had to compromise given the resources at hand.

    Here's one way gods might work: by creating simulated worlds inside their computers, populated by conscious AIs who experience those simulated worlds as real. (Imagine the computer game "The Sims", but with conscious people inside.) I've argued that any manager of such a world would literally be a god to the beings inside that world. But of course those sorts of gods might be highly limited in their abilities. Maybe we too are in a Sim. (Personally, this strikes me as a more plausible version of theism than orthodox Catholic theology.) There's no guarantee that if some god launched our world, that god is all-powerful.

    So maybe God (if there is a god) is all-powerful and morally perfect, and maybe not. I think it's reasonable to have an open mind about that question. But now radically skeptical doubts seem to arise.

    An imperfect god might, for example, create millions of brief universes, one after the next, as trial runs -- beta versions, or quick practice sketches. An imperfect God might require multiple attempts to get things right. If so, then maybe we're in one of the betas or sketches, without much past or future, rather than in the final product.

    An imperfect god, once it/she/he has the knack of things, might just create favorite moments, or interesting moments, in multiple copies -- might create you, or your city, or your planet with a fake past, then suddenly introduce a change of laws, or a disaster, or a highly unlikely stroke of good fortune, just to see what happens. Why not? If you're going to create a world, you might as well play around with it.

    An imperfect god might create a universe as a project that runs for a while, but which will be shut down the moment God gets bored or receives a passing grade from the other gods or fails to pay the utility bill.

    It was crucial to Descartes' famous (and famously unsuccessful) argument against skepticism that he establish that God is perfect and, specifically, not a deceiver. Descartes was right to emphasize this for his anti-skeptical aims. If you admit that God might have created the world but then don't put substantial constraints on God's behavior, then you are imagining a being with the power and motive to create worlds who really kind of might do anything -- and who (if we use human psychology as our best-guess model) seems reasonably likely to do something other than create a boring, stable, predictable, one-shot universe of the sort we normally think we inhabit.



  • Reinstalling Eden (with R. Scott Bakker; Nature 503: 562, Nov. 28, 2013)
  • Our Possible Imminent Divinity (Jan. 2, 2014)
  • What Kelp Remembers (Weird Tales, Apr. 14, 2014)
  • Out of the Jar (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2015)
  • 1% Skepticism (Nous, forthcoming)

  • [image source]

    Thursday, February 25, 2016

    Genuine Philosophical Dialogues

    There's a possible format for written philosophy that, despite great potential, is almost non-existent. I'll call it genuine philosophical dialogue.

    Here's how I imagine it.

    It's a dialogue between two (maybe three or four) philosophers who respect each other as equals and who are fully committed to the process. Not, for example, Socrates and some passersby. Not a sage answering questions from his students. Not Berkeley's Philonous or Hume's Philo speaking for the author against manufactured opponents.

    The philosophers enter the dialogue with a substantial disagreement. The philosophers aim to actually learn from each other -- exposing themselves the possibility of changing their minds or at least figuring out what common ground they share, aiming to find the root sources of their disagreement.

    There are many conversational turns. Not just essay, objection, reply. At least 25 conversational turns. Time enough to go somewhere, shift, make progress, get past the well-rehearsed objection and response, interrupt each other for clarifications, then push back against the attempted clarifications, then push back against the pushback, then return to the main thread....

    Both philosophers' positions are genuinely their own -- something they are invested in and expert about -- real, sophisticated philosophical positions, worth taking seriously. Not a novice's first impressions. Not a straw man. Not a cartoon.

    The participants aim to present their real reasons for thinking what they do -- not the lawyerly or debate-team approach of reaching for any argument that might seem convincing. The participants expose to critique not only their positions but their best understanding of their own underlying reasoning and motivations.

    Each philosopher takes responsibility for revising the whole dialogue, including the words of the other. This is one advantage of written format over live dialogue. If A and B agree that some thread was a false start, they can cut it away. If B sees a striking presupposition in what A says, B can point that out and then either trim it away in favor of more agreeable shared language if both agree that the presupposition is inessential, or bring the presupposition more explicitly forward if it looks like the disagreement might partly turn upon it. If A thinks B's point could be more clearly made in a different way, A could revise B's words and see if B agrees. The aim of these mutual revisions would be twofold: (1) for each to aid the other in presenting each position in its best light; (2) to avoid wasting the reader's time with distractions and confusions.


    Russ Hurlburt and I, in our 2007 book, aimed to have a dialogue of this type, as we did also in some subsequent exchanges (though Hurlburt's academic affiliation is psychology, not philosophy). I am unaware of other examples of philosophical dialogues that meet all of the above criteria, though surely such dialogues must exist. Examples welcomed!

    Genuine philosophical dialogues of this sort would, I think, tend to decrease misunderstanding, strawmanning, distraction into side issues that aren't the heart of the matter, boxing each other into unrepresentative and unflattering "isms", talking past each other, the general use (intentional or not) of unhelpful rhetorical moves, and excessive reliance on idiosyncratic jargon.

    What if Kant and Hume had tried to build one of these dialogues together? It's almost unimaginable that they would try (even bracketing their language differences), but fascinating to contemplate what might have arisen, could they have pulled it off. Or consider 21st-century philosophers who prominently disagree -- it could be fascinating to see what common ground they would find, and where they would finally locate the heart of their disagreement after an extended exchange of this sort.

    [image source]

    Thursday, February 18, 2016

    Phenomenal Consciousness, Conceptualized as Innocently as I Can Manage

    I've been reading Keith Frankish recently. For example, this. Frankish appears to deny the reality of phenomenal consciousness, a.k.a. "qualia" or "what-it's-like-ness".

    "Phenomenal consciousness" does sound like a bit of a suspicious concept. The terminology is technical and recent, for one thing. That invites the idea that phenomenal consciousness is a new concept invented by philosophers, and culturally specific. And that in turn invites the idea that in talking about it, we're talking about some odd sort of theoretical concoction, not a foundationally important aspect of human life.

    Furthermore, philosophers wax oddly mysterious when they talk about it. Sometimes they say that it can't be defined, only gestured at or expressed via synonyms. Ned Block, borrowing a phrase about jazz from Louis Armstrong, tells us ("only half in jest"): "If you got to ask, you ain't never gonna get to know" (1978/1983, p. 241).

    Despite all this air of mystery, I think the idea of phenomenal consciousness is simple and obvious, once you stop to think about it -- and probably would be so across cultures (though I'll admit that's speculative).

    You have sensory experiences. Of course you do. Maybe you have the experience of seeing a computer screen. Maybe you have the experience of hearing someone making noise down the hall. Maybe you have the experience of the taste of coffee lingering in your mouth. Consider some vivid and obvious ones.

    You have imagery experiences too. Imagine your house, as viewed from the street, if you can. Or think of the melody of Beethoven's Fifth ("da da da DA, da da da DA"). Or say this very sentence silently to yourself in inner speech.

    You've had emotional experience also, I'm sure -- panics of fear, thrills of joy, the quiet pleasure of mellow contentment.

    This isn't necessarily an exhaustive list of types of experience, but I think this is enough to give you the idea. There's something that sensory experiences, imagery experiences, and emotional experiences have in common. They're experiences. Dream experiences have this too (even though in some sense you're not "conscious"). At the same time, there are other things going on inside of you that you don't in the same way experience -- immune system response, for example, or the processes by which your fingernails grow. There are also other facts about your mind which you don't normally experience, such as your propensity to say "blue" when asked your favorite color (and let's assume that you aren't being asked right now), or your general, not-currently-relevant preference for vanilla over chocolate. Sensory, imagery, and emotional experiences have something obvious in common, which makes them different from all these other things. The term "phenomenally conscious" refers to that obvious feature they have in common. When you try to describe these experiences to someone else, there are facts about what those experiences are, facts that you are trying to get right -- facts that you might feel like you are struggling to put into words.

    Neologism is helpful here not, I think, because the concept is new or strange but rather because folk usage is messy. "Experience" can mean that you've acquired some skills or undergone some events in the past, as in the phrase "I have some teaching experience". The words "consciousness" and "awareness" invite trouble if we hear too much of an epistemic dimension in them: To say that one is conscious of something or aware of something seems to imply that you know something about it, but we might not want to build any suggestions of transitive knowledge into our concept of consciousness. Personally, I like the phrases "conscious experience" and "stream of experience". I think those phrases convey the idea well enough. But for extra clarity, among those philosophers who like to make fine distinctions, the phrase "phenomenal consciousness" also serves.

    Frankish suggests, in his 2012 article linked above (I'm not sure he's still committed to this), that demonstrative definitions of phenomenal consciousness by means of example -- that is, definitions of the sort I've just tried -- must fail because philosophers have different accounts of the underlying nature of such things (for example, some philosophers think we are directly aware of properties of our experiences, while others think that at least in sensory experience we are instead directly aware only of the properties of outward objects); but as Frankish acknowledges, disagreement about the fundamental nature of things is compatible with referring to them in common -- as for example ancient people and modern astronomers were both able to refer to "stars". Pushing farther, Frankish endorses Gareth Evans's view that identification of spatio-temporal particulars requires being able to track them in egocentric space; but that's quite a dubious commitment to take on board, especially in this context.

    Frankish suggests -- and also Jay Garfield, in his recent book on Buddhist philosophy -- that the modern philosophical concept of phenomenal consciousness imports dubious notions, such as ineffability or infallible knowability or immateriality, which make it fail as a concept. But I don't see how a bare demonstrative account of the sort I've given, in terms of positive and negative examples, involves any such dubious philosophical commitments. Of course, one could define "qualia" or "phenomenal properties" in a way that commits to such matters, and sometimes philosophers do so, but my own aim is to avoid such commitments, keeping open as much as possible, while still pointing at the obvious thing that all conscious experiences have in common that makes us want to classify them together as "conscious experiences".

    There are, I think, two main issues that I do not keep open. One is that there is some obvious common feature of most or all of the intended positive examples have (the various sensory experiences, imagery experiences, and emotional experiences) and which the negative examples lack, which we can take to be the target of the phrase "phenomenal consciousness". The other is that there are facts about what these experiences are, which in our introspective reports we are trying to get at. These assumptions are not entirely philosophically innocent; but I hope they are plausible enough. I can't make do with fewer.

    There is one further thing that I will commit to here, of some philosophical significance. It's kind of the flip side of openness. If I have succeeded in conceiving of phenomenal consciousness with a high degree of metaphysical innocence, then there ought to be nothing built into the notion of phenomenal consciousness that rules out various wild metaphysical views such as idealism (the view that only mental things exist, and not anything material) or even radical solipsism (the view that the only thing that exists in the universe is my own mind). And indeed, I do think that there's nothing incoherent in the supposition that there might only be phenomenal consciousness and nothing else. Some philosophers -- maybe Frankish and Garfield among them? -- would like to rule out idealism from square one, would like to say that the very idea of mentality already presupposes the idea of something beyond the mental, so that idealism, and maybe also less radical views like dualism, are conceptually incoherent. If my minimalist conception of phenomenal consciousness is correct, however, there is no such easy path to the rejection of those metaphysical positions.

    [image source]

    Friday, February 12, 2016

    New Essay in Draft: Women in Philosophy: Quantitative Analyses of Specialization, Prevalence, Visibility, and Generational Change

    co-authored with Carolyn Dicey Jennings.

    This article brings together lots of data that Carolyn and I have been gathering and posting about over the past several years, here and on New APPS. Considered jointly, these data tell a very interesting story about the continuing gender disparity in the discipline.

    Here's the abstract:

    We present several quantitative analyses of the prevalence and visibility of women in moral, political, and social philosophy, compared to other areas of philosophy, and how the situation has changed over time. Measures include faculty lists from the Philosophical Gourmet Report, PhD job placement data from the Academic Placement Data and Analysis project, the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, conference programs of the American Philosophical Association, authorship in elite philosophy journals, citation in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and extended discussion in abstracts from the Philosopher’s Index. Our data strongly support three conclusions: (1) Gender disparity remains large in mainstream Anglophone philosophy; (2) ethics, construed broadly to include social and political philosophy, is closer to gender parity than are other fields in philosophy; and (3) women’s involvement in philosophy has increased since the 1970s. However, by most measures, women’s involvement and visibility in mainstream Anglophone philosophy has increased only slowly; and by some measures there has been virtually no gain since the 1990s. We find mixed evidence on the question of whether gender disparity is even more pronounced at the highest level of visibility or prestige than at more moderate levels of visibility or prestige.

    Full paper here.

    As always, comments, corrections, and objections welcome, either on this post or to my email address.

    Thursday, February 11, 2016

    Pragmatic Metaphysics

    I'm working again on the nature of belief. Increasingly, I find myself drawn to be explicit about my pragmatist approach to the metaphysics of attitudes.

    Sometimes the world divides into neat types -- neat enough that you can more or less just point your science at it and straightforwardly sort the As from the Bs. Sometimes instead the world is fuzzy-bordered, full of intermediate cases and cases where plausible criteria conflict. When the world is the latter way, we face antecedently unclear cases. Antecedently unclear cases are, or can be, decision points. Do you want to classify this thing as an A or a B? Would there be some advantage in thinking of the category of "A" so that it sweeps in that case? Or is it better to think of "A" in a way that excludes that case or leaves it intermediate? Such decisions can reflect, often do at least implicitly reflect, our interests and values. Such decisions can also shape, often do at least implicitly shape, future outcomes and values, influencing both how we think about that particular type of case and how we think about As in general.

    Pragmatic metaphysics is metaphysics done with these thoughts explicitly in mind. For instance: There are lots of ways of thinking about what a person is. Usually, the cases are antecedently clear: You are a person, I am a person, this coffee mug is not a person. But some interesting cases are intermediate or break in different directions depending on what criteria are emphasized: a fetus, a human without much cortex, a hypothetical conscious robot, a hypothetical enhanced chimpanzee. There is no settled fact about what exactly the boundaries of personhood are. We can choose to think of personhood in a way that includes or excludes such cases or leaves them intermediate -- and in doing so we both express and buttress certain values, for example, about what sorts of being deserve the highest level of moral consideration.

    The human mind is a complex and fuzzy-bordered thing, right at the center of our values. Because it is complex and fuzzy-bordered, there will be lots of antecedently unclear cases. Because it is central to our values, how we classify such cases matters. Does being happy require feeling happy? Is compassion that doesn't privilege its object as irreplaceably special still love? Our classification decisions here aren't compelled by the phenomena. Instead, we can decide. What range of phenomena deserve such important labels as "happiness" and "love"? We might think of metaphysical battles over the definitions of those terms as political battles between philosophers with different visions and priorities, for control of our common disciplinary language.

    At the center of my interest in belief are a set of antecedently unclear cases in which one intellectually assents to a proposition (e.g., "death is not bad", "women are just as intelligent as men") but fails to act and react generally as though that proposition is true (e.g., quakes with fear on the battlefield, treats most women as stupid). The pragmatic metaphysical question is: How should we classify such cases? What values are expressed in saying, about such cases, that we really do or really do not believe what we say we believe? What vision of the world manifests in these different ways of speaking, what projects are supported, what phenomena rendered more and less visible?


    Related post:

    Against Intellectualism About Belief (July 31, 2015)