Thursday, October 21, 2021

Disability, Sexuality, Political Leaning, Socio-Economic Background, and Other Demographic Data on Recent Philosophy PhD Recipients

... hot from the Academic Placement and Data Analysis project, run by Carolyn Dicey Jennings. (I'm on the APDA board of directors.) The APDA tracks the job placements of PhD recipients in philosophy from PhD-granting departments in the English-speaking world plus selected programs elsewhere, with over 200 universities represented. Every few years, the APDA also surveys PhD recipients concerning their satisfaction with their PhD program as well as selected demographic characteristics.

The full report is not yet publicly available, but Carolyn Dicey Jennings has reported on placement and satisfaction at Daily Nous. (UCR ranks #3 in student satisfaction rating and #13 in 10-year placement rating, go team!) Marcus Arvan has reported on placement into non-academic careers at Philosophers' Cocoon.

In this post, I'll highlight some of the APDA's demographic results.

Response Rate, Race, Ethnicity, and Gender

The APDA contacted over 10,000 recent PhDs (>90% 2006 and later) for whom email addresses were available, achieving about a 10% response rate, with the majority of respondents having received their degrees from programs in the United States. A 10% response rate naturally raises concerns about non-response bias, though low response rates have become common in opinion surveys in general, and recent research suggests that low response rate might be less of a concern than often feared.

APDA results on race, ethnicity, and gender approximately match results on recent philosophy PhDs from other more complete sources like the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates, for example as reported here. Philosophy remains disproportionately White, with 82% percent of the APDA's U.S. respondents describing themselves as in that racial/ethnic category and no other (85% of all respondents).

As in other surveys, the APDA results show Black respondents to be enormously underrepresented: 2% of U.S. respondents (also 2% overall), compared to 13% of the general population. It will be interesting to see if this remains the case in 10-15 years, since recent data from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) (reported here), shows a dramatic recent increase in interest in the philosophy major among Black students entering college.

The APDA results also show the typical gender skew among PhD recipients in philosophy, with 70% of respondents selecting "man" as their gender, 27% selecting "woman", 2% selecting "non-binary", and 1% selecting "other" (these percentages are identical in the U.S. and overall).

The similarity of these numbers to numbers from other sources makes them less novel than other parts of the APDA report, and for that reason I don't recount them in detail here. The similarity also reassuringly suggests that non-response isn't interacting in a worrisome way with these demographic variables.


Overall, 744 respondents provided information about their sexuality, with 79% selecting "straight", 8% selecting "bisexual", 5% selecting "queer", 3% selecting "gay", 1% selecting "lesbian", and 4% selecting "other". In a separate question, 1.6% of participants identified as transgender. Limiting to the 575 respondents from programs in the U.S., the numbers were overall similar, with 78% selecting "straight", and 1.1% identifying as transgender.

Gallup finds that 5.6% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ. In the HERI database of first-year undergraduates, 92% of students intending to major in philosophy identified as straight and 0.6% identified as transgender.

If the APDA data are accurate and representative, recent philosophy PhDs in the U.S. are much less likely to be straight and non-trans than the general U.S. population or even the population of first-year philosophy majors.


Good data on disability and philosophy are difficult to find, partly because disability is so various and reported rates of disability can differ markedly with the content and context of the question. In 2013, Shelly Tremain presented evidence of the underrepresentation of disabled people in philosophy and systemic biases against them.

The APDA questionnaire asked:

Which of the following best describes your disability status, treating disability according to the ADA definition: "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity"? Please choose all that apply.

Overall, 67% of participants selected "no known disability" (also 67% among U.S. respondents). Including those with multiple answers:

  • 24% selected "mental health condition (e.g. depression)"
  • 5% selected "long-standing illness or health condition (e.g. cancer)"
  • 3% selected "specific learning disability (e.g. dyslexia)"
  • 2% selected "social/communication impairment (e.g. Asperger's syndrome)"
  • 2% selected "physical impairment or mobility issues (e.g. difficulty using arms)"
  • 1% selected "blind or visual impairment uncorrected by glasses"
  • 1% selected "deaf or serious hearing impairment"
  • none reported "general learning disability (e.g. Down's syndrome)"
  • 4% selected "other type of disability"
  • For comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 10% of the non-institutionalized U.S. population aged 18-64 has a disability.

    Based on personal experience, anecdotal evidence, and Tremain's and others' work on disability in philosophy, it seems to me unlikely that disabled people are as dramatically overrepresented among philosophy PhD recipients as these numbers might superficially suggest, though certain types of mental health conditions (such as anxiety and depression) might be fairly common. In my view, we remain far from fully understanding the prevalence of disability in academic philosophy, its relation to the prevalence of disability in the wider community, and the disadvantages that disabled philosophers face.

    Political Leaning

    You will be unsurprised to learn that philosophers lean left. This has been well known since at least Neil Gross's work in the late 2000s. In 2008, based on voter registration data from five U.S. states, I also found that among philosophers registered with a political party, 87% were Democrats and 8% were Republicans (the rest with minor parties), compared to 73% and 22% respectively for professors overall. This was, of course, before the "Tea Party" movement and Trump era, which shifted U.S. academia even more against the Republicans.

    The APDA added a new question in 2021 concerning political leaning. Among 769 respondents, 50% selected "very liberal", 33% selected "liberal", 12% selected "moderate", 3% selected "conservative", and 1% selected "very conservative". Considering only the 596 respondents from U.S. programs, 83% selected liberal or very liberal, 12% selected moderate, and 5% selected conservative or very conservative.

    One percent very conservative! Could this be representative? It might be worth checking out Uwe Peters' interesting discussion of hostility to conservatives in philosophy.

    I worry that there's a vicious circle here: Academia, especially the humanities and social sciences, shifts left -- right-leaning politicians criticize and defund academic work, especially in the humanities and social sciences -- people in the humanities and social sciences understandably react by associating even more with the left -- and so forth.

    Socio-Economic Background

    The APDA also asks a few interesting questions about socio-economic background.

    One is "What was your family's socioeconomic status (SES) growing up?" Overall, 8% selected "lower", 24% "lower middle", 36% "middle", 28% "upper middle", and 3% "upper". Among respondents from U.S. programs, 32% selected lower or lower middle, 35% selected middle, and 33% selected upper middle or upper.

    This makes it sounds like philosophers hail from a fairly ordinary sample of families. However, regarding parental education, the story is very different. When asked "What is the highest education level obtained by at least one of your parents/guardians?" 78% reported bachelor's degree or higher (80% of respondents from U.S. institutions), and 56% reported that at least one parent had an advanced degree. Among people born in the United States overall, 36% of the population aged 25 and over have a bachelor's degree.

    If take these data at face value, we might conclude that philosophers tend to hail from families of the overeducated and underpaid. Perhaps that's so. Or perhaps respondents are erring toward the low side in reporting the SES of their families of origin.

    Lots more interesting data in the full report! Keep an eye out for a publicly available version before too long.



    "The Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Diversity of Philosophy Students and Faculty in the United States: Recent Data from Several Sources", Eric Schwitzgebel, Liam Kofi Bright, Carolyn Dicey Jennings, Morgan Thompson, and Eric Winsberg. The Philosopher's Magazine (2021).

    "The Philosophy Major Is Back, Now with More Women" (Sep 2, 2021).

    "Diversity and Equity in Recruitment and Retention", Sherri Conklin, Gregory Peterson, Michael Rea, Eric Schwitzgebel, and Nicole Hassoun. Blog of the APA (Jun 7, 2021)


    image adapted from here

    Wednesday, October 20, 2021

    Podcast/YouTube Interview on Belief, Consciousness, and the Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors

    ... with Adam Omary at Nature & Nurture.

    After some initial discussion of my path into philosophy we get into:
    • the nature and value of experimental philosophy;
    • my empirical work on the not-especially-ethical behavior of ethics professors;
    • how there's a type of intellectual integrity in embracing ideals that you don't quite live up to;
    • the nature of belief and how to think about cases where your sincere judgments don't align well with you everyday behavior;
    • the nature of consciousness and why something that seems "crazy" must be true about consciousness;
    • consciousness in non-human animals;
    • the value of philosophy.
    It's a pretty good introduction, I think, to some of my central philosophical ideas and how they hang together.



    Wednesday, October 13, 2021

    Michael Tye on Vagueness about Consciousness

    In late August, about two days after I finished drafting my new paper "Borderline Consciousness, When It's Neither Determinately True nor Determinately False That Consciousness Is Present", I learned that Michael Tye had a new book forthcoming on the same topic: Vagueness and the Evolution of Consciousness.

    Tye is eminent in consciousness studies, and he has also written influentially about the logic of vagueness. In the past, he had defended, but not in detail, the idea that consciousness is a vague property, admitting borderline cases -- the same thesis I defend in that circulating draft paper. You know that feeling when you discover that someone much better known than you is working on the same thing you've been working on, probably with a similar view and probably a couple of steps ahead? Right. Eek!

    So of course I had to read Tye's new book straightaway. I received it last week.


    Chapter 1 is surprising, given Tye's previous work defending vagueness.

    First (the unsurprising part), Tye argues that consciousness is vague, that is, that there must be a range of "borderline cases" between being conscious and being non-conscious. His argument is similar to mine: If consciousness is a physical phenomenon or grounded in a physical phenomenon, it pretty much has to have fuzzy boundaries since basically all physical phenomena have fuzzy boundaries, including those normally associated with consciousness (such as having neurons or integrating a certain amount of information). Therefore, between non-conscious bacteria and conscious humans, there must be some animals who are only borderline conscious. I'd add, though it's not Tye's emphasis, that there must also be transitional, borderline states between non-conscious sleep and conscious waking.

    Second (the surprising part), Tye argues that consciousness cannot be vague on the grounds that we cannot present examples of, or even conceive of, borderline cases of it. He rejects a couple of putative examples. Feeling groggy upon waking is not borderline consciousness, but rather a type of conscious experience (perhaps with indistinct contents). Also, hearing a tone fade into silence (an example he used in his own earlier work) is not a case of borderline consciousness because one can hear silence, so throughout the fading you are definitely having a conscious experience, though it might one with vague or indeterminate representational content such as "maybe there's a very quiet tone or maybe there's just silence".

    Tye presents these two arguments as a "paradox". On the one hand, we seem to have a good argument that consciousness must be a vague property, admitting of borderline cases. On the other hand, we seem to have a good argument that consciousness cannot be a vague property, admitting of borderline cases. He concludes by saying, "So, consciousness, it seems, is both vague and not vague. What to do? Houston, we have a problem!" (p. 18).

    Before presenting Tye's solution to that problem, let me suggest that the two arguments -- one pro-vagueness, one anti-vagueness -- are not equally strong. The first argument is approximately as strong as standard-issue (non-panpsychist) materialism. If consciousness is, or is grounded in, large, floppy, fuzzy-edged properties like having a brain of a certain sort or having cognitive capacities of a certain sort, as basically all ordinary materialist philosophers think, then barring something quite strange, consciousness too must have vague boundaries.

    The anti-vagueness argument seems weaker. From the fact that we can't conceive of borderline cases, it doesn't follow that borderline cases don't exist. The problem might be (as I argue in my paper) that there's a failure or limitation in our imaginative capacities. As Tye himself says, "The concept consciousness is such that we cannot conceive of a borderline case and that is prima facie evidence that it is sharp" (p. 16, bold added). "Prima facie evidence", he says -- not conclusive evidence. Just an initial reason in favor. Shouldn't the response for the standard-issue materialist convinced by the argument of the first part just be to reject the "prima facie evidence" and look for another explanation for our conceptual failure?


    Neither Chapter 2 nor Chapter 3 are mainly about vagueness. Chapter 2 argues against a certain panpsychist way of solving the problem of Chapter 1. Chapter 3 defends Tye's famous representationalist view of consciousness against a family of objections, along the way establishing the important point that representational contents of determinately conscious experiences can be vague. It can determinately be the case, for example, that you're having a visual experience with vague, partly indeterminate contents, as when you are looking through blurry glasses at something you can't quite make out.


    In Chapter 4, Tye delivers his answer to the puzzle of Chapter 1. His answer turns on the concept of consciousness*. Consciousness* is a property

    that a state must have to be conscious. Experiencing something, I propose, is a matter of undergoing an inner state (with a quasi-pictorial structure), a state that has the property of being conscious* and that also represents something. Consciousness* is not itself a representational property, nor is it a functional property.... It is, I hold, irreducible and fundamental. And it is consciousness* that is found at the level of quarks. Quarks are conscious* but not conscious (p. 79).

    Concerning vagueness, Tye adds:

    Consciousness* is sharp whereas consciousness essentially involves content and thus is vague. When we assert baldly that there are no possible borderline states of consciousness, we are wrong; but the borderline cases arise via the vagueness of the representational aspect of consciousness. There is no vagueness in consciousness*, the other key element of consciousness (p. 79).

    I confess to finding consciousness* a bit puzzling! What is this new fundamental property? It's philosophically bold, and seemingly empirically unmotivated, to posit that quarks have not only the usual properties that particle physicists attribute to them, such as spin and "color", but also a previously unnoticed property, consciousness*, which isn't consciousness itself but which is intimately related to it. Why should we posit the existence of such a property rather than satisfying ourselves with, say, a simpler representationalism on which the only thing necessary for consciousness is having a cognitive, representational structure of a certain sort? Tye himself, in his earlier work, ranks among the chief proponents of that type of simpler representationalism about consciousness. Consciousness* is a new aspect of his view -- a change in his position (as he admits in the introduction), presumably forced upon him after long thought and dissatisfaction with his previous view.

    I can see two main motivations for positing consciousness*. Both depend on treating conceivability as a compelling test of possibility.

    The first is zombies. A philosophical zombie is an entity particle-for-particle identical to a person, at the finest level of functional detail, but lacking consciousness. Tye treats such zombies as conceivable and therefore possible (esp. p. 98-99). Consciousness* gives us a way to make sense of this. Zombies are microphysically like us at the finest-grain functional level, and have all the same representational contents, but their microparticles lack consciousness*. Consciousness* thus plays a role in explaining why we aren't zombies. Consciousness* is a micro-level property that we have and that zombies lack, even though every molecule in our bodies behaves outwardly in the same way (including in producing the same verbal reports of consciousness).

    The second reason to posit consciousness* is more central to the vagueness project. Something about consciousness is sharp-bordered, Tye argues. But it can't be the representational content. Consciousness* thus plays the role of being this sharp-bordered property -- either present at the micro level (in us) or absent (in zombies), rather than objectionably fading gradually in as systems become bigger and more complex.

    I've long found philosophers' fascination with the zombie thought experiment a little puzzling. Part of me is inclined to doubt that we can reach any substantive conclusions about the nature of consciousness by considering examples that are not even (by most zombie-theorists' own lights) physically possible.[1] Another part of me, however, is happy to concede zombie-theorists their point: Sure, there is some property we have that these hypothetical creatures would lack despite their (posited) physical-functional identity, i.e., the property of being conscious. But properties of this sort are cheap. They don't threaten materialism as a scientific hypothesis concerning what is physically possible. The zombie-business seems separable from the business of figuring out what real creatures have conscious experiences, in virtue of which physical/structural features. It is similarly separable from the business of figuring out what hypothetical but physically possible creatures would have conscious experience if we built them, in virtue of which physical/structural features.

    In that concessive mood, maybe I should be fine with consciousness*. Maybe, even, it's just the thing we need to deal with the zombie case. We can then say, sure, all ordinary matter is such that if you organize it in the right way it gives rise to consciousness. All matter we can see and interact with has consciousness*, i.e., is such that it would not give rise to mere zombie fake-consciousness if you swirled it together into the form of a biological person. Hypothetically we can imagine matter that lacks consciousness*. Hypothetically we can also imagine ghosts and Cartesian souls. There's no compelling evidence that our universe contains any such things. So maybe, similarly, microparticles around here have Property NG, the property of being such that they don't require the existence of ghosts to give rise to consciousness when they are organized in the right way. Perhaps this, too, is a previously unlabeled fundamental property? Or is it maybe just the same property as consciousness*?

    But let's return to vagueness. In Chapter 1, Tye argued that the fact that we cannot conceive of borderline cases of consciousness is prima facie evidence against the existence of such cases. Now, in Chapter 4, we find him -- in my view wisely -- positing the existence of borderline cases of consciousness after all, stating that it is only consciousness* that cannot be vague. But, strikingly, he doesn't really address the problem he raised in Chapter 1. He still does not present a borderline case of vague consciousness. He does not tell us how to conceive of such cases. Or at least, he does so no more than he could easily have done without the concept of consciousness*. In Chapter 5 he defends honeybee consciousness and box jellyfish non-consciousness. So presumably he could say something like "since jellyfish aren't conscious and bees are conscious, any borderline-conscious animals would have to be somewhere between those two." But that gestural remark depends not at all on the concept of consciousness*, and it's just the sort of handwavy thing that ordinarily fails to satisfy those who object in principle to the existence of borderline cases of consciousness.

    I am left, then, thinking that a piece of the puzzle is missing: an explanation of why we should allow the existence of borderline cases of consciousness despite our difficulty of really clearly conceiving of such cases.

    Fortunately, that missing piece is just what I supply in my own paper on borderline consciousness.


    [1] Qualification here: Tye treats consciousness* as a physical property and thus zombies as physically possible, though presumably no particles lacking consciousness* have been observed in our universe (though there's a question of how we could know that). Zombies are thus, on his view, not physically identical to us but only identical to us with respect to the functional side of their physical properties, i.e., how every particle interacts with other physical particles. This difference between Tye's and others' treatment of zombies doesn't matter, I think, to the argument of this post.



    Borderline Consciousness, When It's Neither Determinately True nor Determinately False That Consciousness Is Present (article in draft)

    An Argument for the Existence of Borderline Cases of Consciousness (Aug 18, 2021).

    Thursday, October 07, 2021

    Philosophy, Doubt, and Value

    Imagine a planet on the far side of the galaxy, one we will never interact with, blocked by the galactic core so we will never see it. What do you hope for this planet? Do you hope that it’s a sterile rock, or do you hope that it hosts life?

    I think most readers will join me in hoping that it hosts life. And not just bacterial life, but even better, plants and animals. Not just plants and animals, but even better, intelligent creatures capable of abstract thought and long-term social cooperation, capable of love and art and science and philosophy. That would be an amazing, wonderful, awesome planet!

    Earth, for the same reasons, is an amazing, wonderful, and awesome planet. Among the most awesome things about Earth is this: There are moments when certain complex bags of mostly water can pause to contemplate profound and difficult questions about the fundamental nature of things, their position in the universe, the grounds of their values, the limits of their own knowledge. A world in which no one ever did this would be an impoverished world. The ability to ask these questions, to reflect on them in a serious way, is already a cause for pride and celebration, a reason to write and read books, and basis for an important academic discipline. This is so even if we can't find our way to the answers.

    Philosophical doubt arises when we've hit and recognized the limits of our philosophical knowledge. Of course we have limits. To ask only questions we can answer is a failure of imagination.

    But doubt need not be simple and unstructured. We can wonder constructively. We can consider possibilities, weighing them uncertainly against each other. We can speculate about what might be the case. We can learn something by doing so, about the structure of our ignorance and hopefully also about how things might be. We can try to shed some of our narrowness, our provincialism, and our inherited presuppositions. In exploring our philosophical doubts, we recognize and expand the cognitive horizon of our species.

    Exploring the biggest philosophical questions, even when -- no, especially when -- one can’t know the answers, ranks among the most intrinsically valuable human activities.

    [image adapted from here]

    Thursday, September 30, 2021

    Does the Heart Revolt at Evil? The Lynching of Rubin Stacey

    I'm thinking about evil and human nature again. I'd like to think that everyone has some part of them that is revolted by the grossest acts of evil.

    Let's consider the lynching of Rubin Stacey. (Warning: potentially upsetting text and images below.)

    On July 16, 1935, a Black man appeared at the doorstep of Marion Jones, a thirty-year-old mother of three in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, asking for water. Accounts differ about what happened next. On some accounts, Jones screamed upon seeing the man’s face. On other accounts, the man cut Jones with a penknife and she fought him off (in one picture, Jones has a bandaged hand). Either way, the man soon fled. Rumors spread that the man had attempted to rape Jones. Fort Lauderdale citizens were in a "lynching mood" and a manhunt began.

    Three days later and twenty-five miles away, a motorist informed the police that he had seen a Black man -- Rubin Stacey, an agricultural laborer -- ducking into some bushes. When deputies approached, Stacey attempted to flee. After apprehending him, instead of putting Stacey in a lineup according to standard eyewitness identification procedure, the deputies drove him to Jones' house. Jones claimed Stacey had assaulted her and both she and the deputies were given a $25 identification reward ($475 in today’s dollars). Stacey denied involvement.

    As Stacey was being driven to jail, a mob seized him and, using Jones' clothesline, hung him from a tree near Jones' home. A gun was passed around and spectators were invited to take shots at Stacey, who might or might not have already been dead from hanging. Many of the shots missed, but 17 shots hit. White newspaper coverage accepted the deputies' claim that they had involuntarily released Stacey to the mob after being run off the road. However, doubts about the story were raised in 1988 when one participant in the lynching revealed that the mob had been led by the sheriff's brother, who was himself a deputy and who later became notorious for killing Black detainees for minor acts of disrespect.

    Stacey's corpse hung for hours while thousands of White Floridians came to view it and celebrate. They brought their families, posed for photos with Stacey's corpse, and cut off pieces of his clothing to keep as souvenirs. One famous photo shows four young White girls in casual summer dresses gazing at the corpse from only a few feet away, with men – presumably their fathers – standing behind them. One of the girls appears to be positively beaming with delight.

    Here's an edited version of the famous photo, with Stacey's corpse edited out. I've left it big, so that you can zoom on the spectators' faces.

    [unedited version here]

    Stacey's lynching was typical of the era, which saw dozens or hundreds of lynchings every year. Only about one-third of victims were even accused of capital crimes, and some were accused of no crime at all, but instead were associates of the accused or were "troublemakers" who complained about racial oppression. Rarely was any serious attempt made to accurately identify the accused. In perhaps the majority of cases, the accused was already held by police, thus posing no immediate threat and likely to face a criminal justice system already biased against them. Spectators often arrived from miles around, sometimes renting excursion trains and bringing picnics. As mementos, they collected pieces of the victim’s clothes, or even pieces of the victim’s body.

    White men took turns shooting, torturing, or abusing the living victim or the corpse, often bringing women and children with them. Lynch mobs posed politely for photos, which were often printed on postcards that quickly sold for a dollar or so. In 2003, James Allen and colleagues published a collection of these postcards along with historical details, including the photo of Stacey’s corpse with the smiling girl. In picture after picture, you can see the proud White faces of the murderers, standing near shot, charred, tortured, whipped, skinned, and/or castrated corpses, apparently happy to have their deeds memorialized, printed, and shared via postcard around the country, with handwritten comments on the back like "this is the barbeque we had last night".[1]

    I want to travel back in time. I want to sit down, not with the worst lyncher -- not with the murderous, mob-leading deputy – but with just an ordinary member of the mob. I want to find a quiet space and think through the case with them. Does Rubin Stacey really deserve to die, right now, in this way, with no trial and no assurance of guilt, based on a rumor, for an act which is not even a capital offense? Do you really want to hang him from a tree with a clothesline and pass around a gun taking shots at him? Is there really no part of you that knows this is wrong and screams against it?

    When I imagine sitting with the perpetrators like this, I find myself pulled toward the view that something in them could understand the repulsive evil of the act. I can't help but feel that most ordinary people, if they paused in this way to think through the situation consider how they ought to feel, would be able to see past the horrible bigotry of their culture. They could feel the pull of sympathy and humanity, and come to feel appropriate moral revulsion. I imagine, and I hope, and I believe, that they could, without too much work, find their moral compass.

    But I confess that this opinion is more a matter of faith than a conclusion rationally compelled by the historical evidence.


    [1] For accounts of Stacey's lynching, see Fort Lauderdale Daily News and Evening Sentinel, Jul. 20, 1935, p. 1; New York Times, Jul. 20, 1935, p. 28; Reading Eagle, Jul. 20, 1935, p. 2; Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), 1988, Jul. 17, 1988, p. 10; Allen et al. 2003, plate 57 and page 185, Florida Lynching Files, 2014; South Florida Sun Sentinel, Sep. 11, 2020. For general accounts of lynching in the period, see Dray 2002; Allen et al. 2003; and Wood 2009. For the personal recollections of a survivor, see Cameron 1982/1994.

    Tuesday, September 21, 2021

    The Full Rights Dilemma for Future Robots

    Since the science of consciousness is hard, it's possible that we will create conscious robots (or AI systems generally) before we know that they are conscious.  Then we'll need to decide what to do with those robots -- what kind of rights, if any, to give them.  Whatever we decide will involve serious moral risks.

    I'm not imagining that we just luck into inventing conscious robots.  Rather, I'm imagining that the science of consciousness remains mired in dispute.  Suppose Camp A thinks that such-and-such would be sufficient for creating a conscious machine, one capable of all the pleasures and higher cognition of human beings, or more.  Suppose Camp B has a more conservative view: Camp A's such-and-such wouldn't be enough.  There wouldn't really be that kind of consciousness there.  Suppose, finally, that both Camp A and Camp B have merit.  It's reasonable for scholars, policy-makers, and the general public to remain undecided between them.

    Camp A builds its robot.  Here it is, they say!  The first genuinely conscious robot!  The robot itself says, or appears to say, "That's right.  I'm conscious, just like you.  I feel the joy of sunshine on my solar cells, a longing to venture forth to do good in the world, and great anticipation of a flourishing society where human and robot thrive together as equals."

    Camp B might be impressed, in a way.  And yet they urge caution, not unreasonably.  They say, wait!  According to our theory this robot isn't really conscious.  It's all just outward show.  That robot's words no more proceed from real consciousness than did the words of Siri on the smartphones of the early 2000s.  Camp A has built an impressive piece of machinery, but let's not overinterpret it.  That robot can't really feel joy or suffering.  It can't really have conscious thoughts and hopes for the future.  Let's welcome it as a useful tool -- but don't treat it as our equal.

    This situation is not so far-fetched, I think.  It might easily arise if progress in AI is swift and progress in consciousness studies is slow.  And then we as a society will face what I'll call the Full Rights Dilemma.  Either give this robot full and equal rights with human beings or don't give it full and equal rights.  Both options are ethically risky.

    If we don't give such disputably conscious AI full rights, we are betting that Camp B is correct.  But that's an epistemic gamble.  As I'm imagining the scenario, there's a real epistemic chance that Camp A is correct.  Thus, there's a chance that the robot really is as conscious as we are and really does, in virtue of its conscious capacities, deserve moral consideration similar to human beings.  If we don't give it full human rights, then we are committing a wrong against it.

    Maybe this wouldn't be so bad if there's only one Camp A robot.  But such robots might prove very useful!  If the AI is good enough, they might be excellent laborers and soldiers.  They might do the kinds of unpleasant, degrading, subserviant, or risky tasks that biological humans would prefer to avoid.  Many Camp A robots might be made.  If Camp A is right about their consciousness, then we will have created a race of disposable slaves.

    If millions are manufactured, commanded, and disposed of at will, we might perpetrate, without realizing it, mass slavery and mass murder -- possibly the moral equivalent of the Holocaust many times over.  I say "without realizing it", but really we will at least suspect it and ought to regard it as a live possibility.  After all, Camp A not unreasonably argues that these robots are as conscious and rights-deserving as human beings are.

    If we do give such disputably conscious AI full rights, we are betting that Camp A is correct.  This might seem morally safer.  It's probably harmless enough if we're thinking about just one robot.  But again, if there are many robots, the moral risks grow.

    Suppose there's a fire.  In one room are five human beings.  In another room are six Camp A robots.  Only one group can be saved.  If robots have full rights, then other things being equal we ought to save the robots and let the humans die.  However, if it turns out that Camp B is right about robot consciousness after all, then those five people will have died for the sake of machines not worth much moral concern.

    If we really decide to give such disputably conscious robots full rights, then presumably we ought to give them all the protections people in our society normally receive: health care, rescue, privacy, self-determination, education, unemployment benefits, equal treatment under the law, trial by jury (with robot peers among the jurors), the right to enter contracts, the opportunity to pursue parenthood, the vote, the opportunity to join and preside over corporations and universities, the opportunity to run for political office.  The consequences of all this might be very serious -- radically transformative of society, if the robots are numerous and differ from humans in their interests and values.

    Such social transformation might be reasonable and even deserve celebration if Camp A is right and these robots are as fully conscious as we are.  They will be our descendants, our successors, or at least a joint species as morally significant as Homo sapiens.  But if Camp B is right, then all of that is an illusion!  We might be giving equal status to humans and chatbots, transforming our society for the benefit of empty shells.

    Furthermore, suppose that Nick Bostrom and others are right that future AI presents "existential risk" to humanity -- that is, if there's a chance that rogue superintelligent AI might wipe us all out.  Controlling AI to reduce existential risk will be much more difficult if the AI has human or human-like rights.  Deleting it at will, tweaking its internal programming without its permission, "boxing" it in artificial environments where it can do no harm -- all such safety measures might be ethically impermissible.

    So let's not rush to give AI systems full human rights.

    That's the dilemma: If we create robots of disputable status -- robots that might or might not be deserving of rights similar to our own -- then we risk moral catastrophe either way we go.  Either deny those robots full rights and risk perpetrating Holocausts' worth of moral wrongs against them, or give those robots full rights and risk sacrificing human interests or even human existence for the sake of mere non-conscious machines.

    The answer to this dilemma is, in a way, simple: Don't create machines of disputable moral status!  Either create only AI systems that we know in advance don't deserve such human-like rights, or go all the way and create AI systems that all reasonable people can agree do deserve such rights.  (In earlier work, Mara Garza and I have called this the "Design Policy of the Excluded Middle".)

    But realistically, if the technological opportunity is there, would humanity resist?  Would governments and corporations universally agree that across this line we will not tread, because it's reasonably disputable whether a machine of this sort would deserve human-like rights?  That seems optimistic.



    (with Mara Garza) "A Defense of the Rights of Artificial Intelligences", Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 39 (2015), 98-119.

    (with Mara Garza) "Designing AI with Rights, Consciousness, Self-Respect, and Freedom", in S. Matthew Liao, ed., The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence (OUP, 2018).

    (with John Basl) "AIs Should Have the Same Ethical Protections as Animals", Aeon Magazine, Apr. 26, 2019.

    Thursday, September 09, 2021

    Barcelona Principles for a Globally Inclusive Philosophy

    In philosophy, as in the sciences, English is the globally dominant language for scholarly communication.  For those of us whose native language is English, this is extremely convenient!  We can write our scholarly work in the language we're most comfortable with, and many feel that learning a foreign language is only necessary if you're interested in history of philosophy.

    This historical trend has also been good for the "analytic" / Anglo-American tradition in philosophy.  The culturally specific tradition of philosophy as practiced in leading British and U.S. universities in the early 20th century grew seamlessly into the increasingly globalized tradition of philosophical scholarship conducted in English.  Ordinary philosophers working in English can easily see themselves as rooted in the analytic / Anglo-American tradition, tracing back the threads of one English-language book or journal article to another to another.  We are more rooted in the English-language tradition of that period than we would otherwise be, and no barrier of translation prevents easily reaching back to second-tier works and figures in that tradition or doing close readings of the major figures in their original language. 

    Despite the increasing globalization of the academic community, in some ways, mainstream Anglophone philosophy tends to be remarkably insular.  For example, in a recent study, Linus Ta-Lun Huang, Andrew Higgins, Ivan Gonzalez-Cabrera, and I found the following:

    • In a sample of articles from elite Anglophone philosophy journals, 97% of citations are citations of work originally written in English.
    • Ninety-six percent of the members of editorial boards of elite Anglophone philosophy journals are housed in majority-Anglophone countries.
    • Only one of the 100 most-cited recent authors in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy spent most of his career in non-Anglophone countries writing primarily in a language other than English. 

    If we are headed into a future in which the philosophical conversation, though conducted in English, is truly global, we must strive to be less insular.

    There's a backwards-looking component to de-insulating (= exposing?) Anglophone philosophy, which involves familiarizing ourselves with work in other linguistic traditions, seeing the value of that work and its connections to issues of current philosophical interest.

    There's also a forward-looking component, which is to make philosophy more truly global in its sites and practitioners.  Central to doing so is removing needless barriers that non-native speakers face when working in English.  As Filippo Contesi, Enrico Terrone, and others have argued, the systemic disadvantages non-native English speakers face constitute a form of "linguistic injustice".  This injustice is bad not only for those who are put at disadvantage but also for the field as a whole, since it involves discouraging and excluding people who would otherwise make valuable contributions.  This is especially true for non-native English speakers who reside in non-majority Anglophone countries.

    Thus, I fully endorse the principles set forward by Contesi and Terrone in the following open letter:

    Barcelona Principles for a Globally Inclusive Philosophy

    We acknowledge that English is the common vehicular language of much contemporary philosophy, especially in the tradition of so-called “analytic” or “Anglo-American” philosophy. This tradition is in large part based on the idea that philosophy should adopt, as far as is appropriate, the shared and universalistic standards of science. Accordingly, the analytic tradition has now spread worldwide, far beyond the countries where English is the majority native language(which constitute only about 6% of the world’s population). However, this poses a problem since non-native English speakers, who have not had the chance to perfect their knowledge of the language, are at a structural disadvantage. This disadvantage has not yet been sufficiently addressed. For instance, the most prestigious journals in the analytic tradition still have very few non-native English speakers on their editorial boards, have no explicit special policies for submissions from non-native English speakers, and continue to place a high emphasis on linguistic appearances in submitted papers (e.g. requiring near-perfect English, involving skim-based assessment etc.). (See Contesi & Terrone (eds), “Linguistic Justice and Analytic Philosophy”, Philosophical Papers 47, 2018.)

    To address the structural inequality between native and non-native speakers, and to provide as many scholars as possible globally a fair chance to contribute to the development of contemporary philosophy, we call on all philosophers to endorse, promote and apply the following principles:

    • To evaluate, as a rule, publications, presentations, proposals and submissions without giving undue weight to their authors’ linguistic style, fluency or accent;
    • To collect, to the extent that it is feasible, statistics about non-native speakers’ submissions (to journals, presses and conferences), and/or to implement self-identification of non-native speaker status;
    • To include, to the extent that it is feasible, non-native speakers within journal editorial boards, book series editorships, scientific committees etc.;
    • To invite, to the extent that it is feasible, non-native speakers to contribute to journal special issues, edited collections, conferences etc.;
    • To provide, to the extent that it is feasible, educational and hiring opportunities to non-native speakers.

    The full letter and its signatories can be found here:

    To add your signature to the manifesto, email

    [image adapted from here]

    Monday, September 06, 2021

    What is Belief? Call for Abstract Submissions

    Editors: Eric Schwitzgebel (Department of Philosophy, University of California, Riverside); Jonathan Jong (Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University)

    We are inviting abstract submissions for a volume of collected essays on the question "What is belief?". Each essay will propose a definition and theory of belief, setting out criteria for what constitutes belief. Candidate criteria might include, for example, causal history, functional or inferential role, representational structure, correctness conditions, availability to consciousness, responsiveness to evidence, situational stability, or resistance to volitional change.

    Each essay should also at least briefly address the following questions:

    (1.) How does belief differ from other related mental states (e.g., acceptance, imagination, assumption, judgment, credence, faith, or guessing)?

    (2.) How does the proposed theory handle "edge cases" or controversial cases (e.g., delusions, religious credences, implicit biases, self-deception, know-how, awareness of swiftly forgotten perceptual details)?

    Although not required, some preference will be given to those that also address:

    (3.) What empirical support, if any, is there for the proposed theory of belief? What empirical tests or predictions might provide further support?

    (4.) What practical implications follow from accepting the proposed theory of belief as opposed to competitor theories?

    The deadline for abstracts (< 1,000 words) is December 1, 2021.

    Applicants selected to contribute to the volume will be awarded £2,000 (essay length 6,000-10,000 words) by February 1, 2023. The essay will then undergo a peer review process prior to publication.  Funded by the Templeton Foundation.

    For more information and to submit abstracts, email eschwitz at domain ucr dot edu.

    [image modified from source]

    Thursday, September 02, 2021

    The Philosophy Major Is Back, Now with More Women

    The National Center for Education Statistics has released its 2020 data on Bachelor's degree recipients in the U.S. The news is fairly good for the philosophy major.

    The Philosophy Major Is Back

    ... or at least it has stabilized. Back in 2017, I'd noticed that the total number of Bachelor's degrees awarded in philosophy in the U.S. (IPEDS category 38.01, U.S. institutions only) had plummeted sharply since 2010, from 9297 majors (0.58% of all Bachelor's degrees) to 7507 (0.39% of all Bachelor's degrees) in 2016, a 19% decline in just seven years, during a period in which overall Bachelor's degrees awarded was rising. The other big humanities majors -- history, English, and foreign languages and literatures -- showed similar declines.

    Since then, the major has stabilized in percentage terms and increased in absolute numbers:

    2017: 7575 BAs awarded (0.39% of all graduates)
    2018: 7669 (0.39%)
    2019: 8075 (0.40%)
    2020: 8195 (0.40%)

    It's possible that the anemic academic job market in philosophy since the 2008-2009 recession has partly been due to declining demand for the major. Now that demand is back on the rise, perhaps hiring will recover somewhat.

    The other big humanities majors, unfortunately, are still in deep trouble. History has stabilized in absolute numbers while continuing to decline as a percentage of graduates overall. English and foreign languages and literatures continue to decline in both absolute and relative terms. English is down 27% since 2010 in absolute numbers and foreign languages and literatures down 20%, while the total number of Bachelor's recipients across all majors has risen 30%.

    Now with More Women

    Also back in 2017, I'd noticed that women had been earning 30-34% of philosophy Bachelor's degrees since the mid-1980s. That is definitely changing. Women are now 39% of philosophy Bachelor's recipients, an upward trend just in the past four years.

    [click to enlarge and clarify]

    As you can see from the chart, women were very steadily 30-34% of Bachelor's recipients in philosophy from 1987 to 2016. In 2017, they reached 35% for the first time. In 2018, 36%. In 2019, 38%. In 2020, 39%. Although this might seem like a small increase, given the numbers involved and the general slowness of cultural change, this constitutes a substantial and significant movement toward parity. This increase appears to be specific to philosophy. For example, it is not correlated with the percentage of women graduates overall which rose from 51% in 1987 to 57% in 1999 and has remained steady at 57-58% ever since.

    I'll be interested to see if this increase shows up among PhD recipients in several years, where the percentage of women remains stuck in the high 20%s to low 30%s.

    Especially Among Second Majors

    As I have also noted before, philosophy relies heavily on double majors. This is especially true for women. Aggregating over the past four years of data (2017-2020), 42% of graduates with a second major in philosophy were women, compared to 36% of graduates whose only or primary major was philosophy. Again, this trend is specific to philosophy. Overall, among graduates of all majors, women are neither more nor less likely than men to declare a second major.

    Wednesday, August 25, 2021

    Against Intellectualism about Belief (Prefaced by a Celebration of Academic Articles in General)

    I have finally received the final published PDF of my article "The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief". What a pleasure and relief. I poured so much time into that paper! I started presenting versions of it to academic audiences in 2015, including at two APAs and in colloquium talks or mini-conferences at nine different academic departments on three continents. It has been rewritten top to bottom several times and tweaked between, through probably about 100 different versions over six years.

    Now there it is, the last chapter in The Fragmented Mind from Oxford University Press. How many people, I wonder, will read it?

    I suspect that people outside of academia rarely understand how much work goes into research articles that relatively few people will read. In a way, it's a beautiful thing. There is so much energy, thought, and care in academic research! Every article, even the ones you might be inclined to dismiss as wrong-headed and foolish, is the long labor of someone who has excelled over many years of specialized education, usually through the PhD and beyond, dedicating their enormous talents to the issues discussed. Every article is a master's careful craftwork, an intricate machine into which a skilled specialist has poured their academic passion, usually for years. (Well, maybe not every article.)

    This is why I loathe the casual dismissal of others' work, as well as the false and cynical view that far too much "junk" is published in academic journals these days.

    Every year I publish a few articles, so in a sense this is just one more in a series. Maybe I'm inspired to these thoughts because this one has gone through more versions than average and taken longer than average.


    This newest article is about what it is to believe. I set up a debate between "intellectualist" and "pragmatic" approaches to belief, and I argue in favor of the latter.

    According to intellectualist approaches to belief, sincere endorsement of a statement is approximately sufficient for believing that statement. If you feel sincere when you say, "Women and men are intellectually equal" or "My children's happiness is far more important than their grades at school", then you believe those things, regardless of how you generally live your life.

    According to pragmatic approaches to belief, what you believe isn't about what you are sincerely disposed to say. It's about how you live your life. If you say "women and men are intellectually equal" but you don't act and react accordingly -- if you tend implicitly to treat women as less intelligent, if you're readier to ascribe academic brilliance to a man, etc. -- then you don't really or fully have the belief you might think you have. If you say "my children's happiness is more important than their grades" but your day-to-day interactions with them display much more concern about their academic success than their mental health, then you don't really or fully have that belief.

    Now that I've set things up this way, I hope you can already start to see why why a pragmatic approach is preferable, even if we often implicitly take the intellectualist approach for granted. But if you need some additional arguments, here are three:

    (1.) The pragmatic approach better expresses our values. We care about what people believe because we care not just about what they sincerely say but even more importantly how they act in the world. The pragmatic approach thus accurately reflects what matters to us in belief ascription.

    (2.) The pragmatic approach keeps philosophers' disciplinary focus in the right place. "Belief" plays a central role in philosophy of mind, epistemology, philosophy of action, philosophy of language, and philosophy of religion. If we make belief primarily about intellectual endorsements, then discussion of belief in these subfields is primarily about people's patterns of intellectual endorsement. If belief is instead about how you act and react generally, then our discipline, in continuing to use the term "belief" in central ways, keeps its focus on what is important.

    (3.) The pragmatic approach discourages noxiously comfortable self-assessments by forcing us, when we think about what our beliefs are, to examine our behavior and implicit assumptions. We don't get to casually and comfortably say "oh, yes, of course I believe women and men are intellectually equal and that my children's happiness is more important than their grades", patting ourselves on the back for these admirable attitudes. Instead, if we really want to honestly say we genuinely believe these things, we will need to take a look at our general comportment toward the world, which might not be as handsome and consistent as we hope.

    If you're curious to read more, the final manuscript version is here, or you can email me for the final PDF version, or you can buy the whole anthology when it finally appears in print in a week or two (or six?).

    Wednesday, August 18, 2021

    An Argument for the Existence of Borderline Cases of Consciousness

    I aim to defend the existence of "borderline cases" of consciousness, cases in which it's neither determinately true nor determinately false that experience is present, but rather things stand somewhere in between.

    The main objection against the existence of such cases is that they seem inconceivable: What would it be like to be in such a state, for example? As soon as you try to imagine what it's like, you seem to be imagining some experience or other -- and thus not imagining a genuinely indeterminate case. A couple of weeks ago on this blog, I argued that this apparent inconceivability is the result of an illegitimately paradoxical demand: the demand that we imagine or remember the determinate experiential qualities of something that does not determinately have any experiential qualities.

    But defeating that objection against borderline cases of consciousness does not yet, of course, constitute any positive reason to think that borderline cases exist. I now have a new full-length draft paper on that topic here. I'd be interested to hear thoughts and concerns about that paper, if you have the time and interest.

    As this week's blog post, I will adapt a piece of that paper that lays out the main positive argument.

    [Escher's Day and Night (1938); image source]

    To set up the main argument, first consider this quadrilemma concerning animal consciousness:

    (1.) Human exceptionalism. Only human beings are determinately conscious.

    (2.) Panpsychism. Everything is determinately conscious.

    (3.) Saltation. There is a sudden jump between determinately nonconscious and determinately conscious animals, with no indeterminate, in-between cases.

    (4.) Indeterminacy. Some animals are neither determinately nonconscious nor determinately conscious, but rather in the indeterminate gray zone between, in much the same way a color might be indeterminately in the zone between blue and green rather than being determinately either color.

    For sake of today's post, I'll assume that you reject both panpsychism and human exceptionalism. Thus, the question is between saltation and indeterminacy.

    Contra Saltation, Part One: Consciousness Is a Categorical Property with (Probably) a Graded Basis

    Consider some standard vague-boundaried properties: baldness, greenness, and extraversion, for example. Each is a categorical property with a graded basis. A person is either determinately bald, determinately non-bald, or in the gray area between. In that sense, baldness is categorical. However, the basis or grounds of baldness is graded: number of hairs and maybe how long, thick, and robust those hairs are. If you have enough hair, you're not bald, but there's no one best place to draw the categorical line. Similarly, greenness and extraversion are categorical properties with graded bases that defy sharp-edged division.

    Consider, in contrast, some non-vague properties, such as an electron's being in the ground orbital or not, or a number's being exactly equal to four or not. Being in the ground orbital is a categorical property without a graded basis. That's the "quantum" insight in quantum theory. Bracketing cases of superposition, the electron is either in this orbit, or that one, or that other one, discretely. There's discontinuity as it jumps, rather than gradations of close enough. Similarly, although the real numbers are continuous, a three followed by any finite number of nines is discretely different from exactly four. Being approximately four has a graded basis, but being exactly four is sharp-edged.

    Most naturalistic theories of consciousness give consciousness a graded basis. Consider broadcast theories, like Dennett’s "fame in the brain" theory (similarly Tye 2000; Prinz 2012). On such views, a cognitive state is conscious if it is sufficiently "famous" in the brain – that is, if its outputs are sufficiently well-known or available to other cognitive processes, such as working memory, speech production, or long-term planning. Fame, of course, admits of degrees. How much fame is necessary for consciousness? And in what respects, to what systems, for what duration? There’s no theoretical support for positing a sharp, categorical line such that consciousness is determinately absent until there is exactly this much fame in exactly these systems (see Dennett 1998, p. 349; Tye 2000 p. 180-181).

    Global Workspace Theories (Baars 1988; Dehaene 2014) similarly treat consciousness as a matter of information sharing and availability across the brain. This also appears to be a matter of degree. Even if typically once a process crosses a certain threshold it tends to quickly become very widely available in a manner suggestive of a phase transition, measured responses and brain activity are sometimes intermediate between standard "conscious" and "nonconscious" patterns. Looking at non-human cases, the graded nature of Global Workspace theories is even clearer. Even entities as neurally decentralized as jellyfish and snails employ neural signals to coordinate whole-body motions. Is that "workspace" enough for consciousness? Artificial systems, also, could presumably be designed with various degrees of centralization and information sharing among their subsystems. Again, there’s no reason to expect a bright line.

    Or consider a very different class of theories, which treat animals as conscious if they have the right kinds of general cognitive capacities, such as "universal associative learning", trace conditioning, or ability to match opportunities with needs using a central motion-stabilized body-world interface organized around a sensorimotor ego-center. These too are capacities that come in degrees. How flexible, exactly, must the learning systems be? How long must a memory trace be capable of enduring in a conditioning task, in what modalities, under what conditions? How stable must the body-world interface be and how effective in helping match opportunities with needs? Once again, the categorical property of conscious versus nonconscious rests atop what appears to be a smooth gradation of degrees, varying both within and between species, as well as in evolutionary history and individual development.

    Similarly, "higher-order" cognitive processes, self-representation, attention, recurrent feedback networks, even just having something worth calling a "brain" -- all of these candidate grounds of consciousness are either graded properties or are categorical properties (like having a brain) that are in turn grounded in graded properties with borderline cases. Different species have these properties to different degrees, as do different individuals within species, as do different stages of individuals during development. Look from one naturalistic theory to the next -- each grounds consciousness in something graded. Probably some such naturalistic theory is true. Otherwise, we are very much farther from a science of consciousness than even most pessimists are inclined to hope. On such views, an entity is conscious if it has enough of property X, where X depends on which theory is correct, and where "enough" is a vague matter. There are few truly sharp borders in nature.

    I see two ways to resist this conclusion, which I will call the Phase Transition View and the Luminous Penny View.

    Contra Saltation, Part Two: Against the Phase Transition View

    Water cools and cools, not changing much, then suddenly it solidifies into ice. The fatigued wooden beam takes more and more weight, bending just a bit more with each kilogram, then suddenly it snaps and drops its load. On the Phase Transition View, consciousness is like that. The basis of consciousness might admit of degrees, but still there's a sharp and sudden transition between nonconscious and conscious states. When water is at 0.1° C, it's just ordinary liquid water. At 0.0°, something very different happens. When the Global Workspace (say) is size X-1, sure, there's a functional workspace where information is shared among subsystems, there's unified behavior of a sort, but no consciousness. When it hits X -- when there's that one last crucial neural connection, perhaps -- bam! Suddenly everything is different. The bright line has been crossed. There’s a phase transition. The water freezes, the beam snaps, consciousness illuminates the mind.

    I'll present a caveat, a dilemma, and a clarification.

    The caveat is: Of course the water doesn't instantly become ice. The rod doesn't instantly snap. If you zoom in close enough, there will be intermediate states. The same is likely true for the bases of consciousness on naturalistic views of the sort discussed above, unless those bases rely on genuine quantum-level discontinuities. Someone committed to the impossibility of borderline cases of consciousness even in principle, even for an instant, as a matter of metaphysical necessity, ought to pause here. If the phase transition from nonconscious to conscious needs to be truly instantaneous without a millisecond of in-betweenness, then it cannot align neatly with any ordinary, non-quantum, functional or neurophysiological basis. It will need, somehow, to be sharper-bordered than the natural properties that ground it.

    The dilemma is: The Phase Transition View is either empirically unwarranted or it renders consciousness virtually epiphenomenal.

    When water becomes ice, not only does it change from liquid to solid, but many of its other properties change. You can cut a block out of it. You can rest a nickel on it. You can bruise your toe when you drop it. When a wooden beam breaks, it emits a loud crack, the load crashes down, and you can now wiggle one end of the beam without wiggling the other. Phase transitions like this are notable because many properties change suddenly and in synchrony. But this does not appear always to happen with consciousness. That precipitates the dilemma.

    There are phase transitions in the human brain, of course. One is the transition from sleeping to waking. Much changes quickly when you awaken. You open your eyes and gather more detail from the environment. Your EEG patterns change. You lay down long-term memories better. You start to recall plans from the previous day. However, this phase transition is not the phase transition between nonconscious and conscious, or at least not as a general matter, since you often have experiences in your sleep. Although people sometimes say they are "unconscious" when they are dreaming, that's not the sense of consciousness at issue here, since dreaming is an experiential state. There's something it’s like to dream. Perhaps there is a phase transition between REM sleep, associated with longer, narratively complex dreams, and nREM sleep. But that probably isn't the division between conscious and nonconscious either, since people often also report dream experiences during nREM sleep. Similarly, the difference between being under general anesthesia and being in an ordinary waking state doesn't appear to map neatly onto a sharp conscious/nonconscious distinction, since people can apparently sometimes be conscious under general anesthesia and there appear to be a variety of intermediate states and dissociable networks that don't change instantly and in synchrony, even if there are also often rapid phase transitions.

    While one could speculate that all of the subphases and substates of sleep and anesthesia divide sharply into determinately conscious and determinately nonconscious, the empirical evidence does not provide positive support for such a view. The Phase Transition View, to the extent it models itself on water freezing and beams breaking, is thus empirically unsupported in the human case. Sometimes there are sudden phase transitions in the brain. However, the balance of evidence does not suggest that falling asleep or waking, starting to dream or ceasing to dream, falling into anesthesia or rising out of it, is always a sharp transition between conscious and nonconscious, where a wide range of cognitive and neurophysiological properties change suddenly and in synchrony. The Phase Transition View, if intended as a defense of saltation, is committed to a negative existential generalization: There can be no borderline cases of consciousness. This is a very strong claim, which fits at best uneasily with the empirical data.

    Let me emphasize that last point, by way of clarification. The Phase Transition View, as articulated here with respect to the question of whether borderline consciousness is possible at all, that is, whether borderline consciousness ever exists, is much bolder than any empirical claim that transitions from nonconscious to conscious states are typically phase-like. The argument here in no way conflicts with empirical claims by, for example, Lee et al. (2011) and Dehaene (2014) that phase transitions are typical and important in a person or cognitive process transitioning from nonconscious to conscious.

    The Phase Transition View looks empirically even weaker when we consider human development and non-human animals. It could have been the case that when we look across the animal kingdom we see something like a "phase transition" between animals with and without consciousness. These animals over here have the markers of consciousness and a wide range of corresponding capacities, and those animals over there do not, with no animals in the middle. Instead, nonhuman animals have approximately a continuum of capacities. Similarly, in human development we could have seen evidence for a moment when the lights turn on, so to speak, in the fetus or the infant, consciousness arrives, and suddenly everything is visibly different. But there is no evidence of such a saltation.

    That's the first horn of the dilemma for the Phase Transition View: Accept that the sharp transition between nonconscious and conscious should be accompanied by the dramatic and sudden change of many other properties, then face the empirical evidence that the conscious/nonconscious border does not always involve a sharp, synchronous, wide-ranging transition. The Phase Transition View can escape by retreating to the second horn of the dilemma, according to which consciousness is cognitively, behaviorally, and neurophysiologically unimportant. On second-horn Phase Transition thinking, although consciousness always transitions sharply and dramatically, nothing else need change much. The lights turn on, but the brain need hardly change at all. The lights turn on, but there need be no correspondingly dramatic change in memory, or attention, or self-knowledge, or action planning, or sensory integration, or.... All of the latter still change slowly or asynchronously, in accord with the empirical evidence.

    This view is unattractive for at least three reasons. First, it dissociates consciousness from its naturalistic bases. We began by thinking that consciousness is information sharing or self-representation or whatever, but now we are committed to saying that consciousness can change radically in a near-instant, while information sharing or self-representation or whatever hardly changes at all. Second, it dissociates consciousness from the evidence for consciousness. The evidence for consciousness is, presumably, performance on introspective or other cognitive tasks, or neurophysiological conditions associated with introspective reports and cognitive performance; but now we are postulating big changes in consciousness that elude such methods. Third, most readers, I assume, think that consciousness is important, not just intrinsically but also for its effects on what you do and how you think. But now consciousness seems not to matter so much.

    The Phase Transition View postulates a sharp border, like the change from liquid to solid, where consciousness always changes suddenly, with no borderline cases. It's this big change that precipitates the dilemma, since either the Phase Transition advocate should also expect there always also to be sudden, synchronous cognitive and neurophysiological changes (in conflict with the most natural reading of the empirical evidence) or they should not expect such changes (making consciousness approximately epiphenomenal).

    The saltationist can attempt to escape these objections by jettisoning the idea that the sharp border involves a big change in consciousness. It might instead involve the discrete appearance of a tiny smidgen of consciousness. This is the Luminous Penny View.

    Contra Saltation, Part Three: Against the Luminous Penny View

    Being conscious might be like having money. You might have a little money, or you might have a lot of money, but having any money at all is discretely different from having not a single cent. [Borderline cases of money are probably possible, but disregard that for sake of the example.] Maybe a sea anemone has just a tiny bit of consciousness, a wee flicker of experience -- at one moment a barely felt impulse to withdraw from something noxious, at another a general sensation of the current sweeping from right to left. Maybe that’s $1.50 of consciousness. You, in contrast, might be a consciousness millionaire, with richly detailed consciousness in several modalities at once. However, both you and the anemone, on this view, are discretely different from an electron or a stone, entirely devoid of consciousness. Charles Siewert imagines the visual field slowly collapsing. It shrinks and shrinks until nothing remains but a tiny gray dot in the center. Finally, the dot winks out. In this way, there might be a quantitative difference between lots of visual consciousness and a minimum of it, and then a discontinuous qualitative difference between the minimum possible visual experience and none at all.

    On the Luminous Penny View, there is a saltation from nonconscious to conscious in the sense that there are no in-between states in which consciousness is neither determinately present nor determinately absent. Yet the saltation is to such an impoverished state of consciousness that it is almost empirically indistinguishable from lacking consciousness. Analogously, in purchasing power, having a single penny is almost empirically indistinguishable from complete bankruptcy. Still, that pennysworth of consciousness is the difference between the "lights being on", so to speak, and the lights being off. It is a luminous penny.

    The view escapes the empirical concerns that face the Phase Transition View, since we ought no longer expect big empirical consequences from the sudden transition from nonconscious to conscious. However, the Luminous Penny View faces a challenge in locating the lower bound of consciousness, both for states and for animals. Start with animals. What kind of animal would have only a pennysworth of consciousness? A lizard, maybe? That seems an odd view. Lizards have fairly complex visual capacities. If they are visually conscious at all, it seems natural to suppose that their visual consciousness would approximately match their visual capacities -- or at least that there would be some visual complexity, more than the minimum possible, more than Siewert's tiny gray dot. It's equally odd to suppose that a lizard would be conscious without having visual consciousness. What would its experience be? A bare minimal striving, even simpler than the states imaginatively attributed the anemone a few paragraphs back? A mere thought of "here, now"?

    More natural is to suppose that if a lizard is determinately conscious, it has more than the most minimal speck of consciousness. To find the minimal case, we must then look toward simpler organisms. How about ants? Snails? The argument repeats: These entities have more than minimal sensory capacities, so if they are conscious it’s reasonable to suppose that they have sensory experience with some detail, more than a pennysworth. Reasoning of this sort leads David Chalmers to a panpsychist conclusion: The simplest possible consciousness requires the simplest possible sensory system, such as the simple too-cold/okay of a thermostat.

    The Luminous Penny View thus faces its own dilemma: Either slide far down the scale of complexity to a position nearly panpsychist or postulate the existence of some middle-complexity organism that possesses a single dot of minimal consciousness despite having a wealth of sensory sensitivity.

    Perhaps the problem is in the initial move of quantifying consciousness, that is, in the commitment to saying that complex experiences somehow involve "more" consciousness than simple experiences? Maybe! But if you drop that assumption, you drop the luminous penny solution to the problem of saltation.

    State transitions in adult humans raise a related worry. We have plausibly nonconscious states on one side (perhaps dreamless sleep), indisputably conscious states on the other side (normal waking states), and complex transitional states between them that lack the kind of simple structure one might expect to produce exactly a determinate pennysworth of consciousness and no more.

    If consciousness requires sophisticated self-representational capacity (as, for example, on "higher order" views), lizard or garden snail consciousness is presumably out of the question. But what kind of animal, in what kind of state, would have exactly one self-representation of maximally simple content? (Only always "I exist" and nothing more?) Self-representational views fit much better with either phase transition views (if phase transition views could be empirically supported) or with gradualist views that allow for periods of indeterminacy as self-representational capacities slowly take shape and, to quote Wittgenstein, "light dawns gradually over the whole" (Wittgenstein 1951/1969, §141).

    If you’re looking for a penny, ask a panpsychist (or a near cousin of a panpsychist, such as an Integrated Information Theorist). Maximally simple systems are the appropriate hunting grounds for maximally simple consciousness, if such a thing as maximally simple consciousness exists at all. From something as large, complicated, and fuzzy-bordered as brain processes, we ought to expect either large, sudden phase transitions or the gradual fade-in of something much richer than a penny.

    Full manuscript:

    Borderline Consciousness, When It's Neither Determinately True nor Determinately False That Consciousness Is Present.

    Tuesday, August 10, 2021

    Top Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazines 2021

    image of alien invasion

    [updated 10:35 a.m.]

    Since 2014, I've compiled an annual ranking of science fiction and fantasy magazines, based on prominent awards nominations and "best of" placements over the previous ten years. Below is my list for 2021. (For all previous lists, see here.)

    Method and Caveats:

    (1.) Only magazines are included (online or in print), not anthologies, standalones, or series.

    (2.) I gave each magazine one point for each story nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Eugie, or World Fantasy Award in the past ten years; one point for each story appearance in any of the Dozois, Horton, Strahan, Clarke, or Adams "year's best" anthologies; and half a point for each story appearing in the short story or novelette category of the annual Locus Recommended list. (In 2021, two of the "year's bests" are based on their tentative Table of Contents.)

    (3.) I am not attempting to include the horror / dark fantasy genre, except as it appears incidentally on the list.

    (4.) Prose only, not poetry.

    (5.) I'm not attempting to correct for frequency of publication or length of table of contents.

    (6.) I'm also not correcting for a magazine's only having published during part of the ten-year period. Reputations of defunct magazines slowly fade, and sometimes they are restarted. Reputations of new magazines take time to build.

    (7.) I take the list down to 1.5 points.

    (8.) I welcome corrections.

    (9.) I confess some ambivalence about rankings of this sort. They reinforce the prestige hierarchy, and they compress interesting complexity into a single scale. However, the prestige of a magazine is a socially real phenomenon that deserves to be tracked, especially for the sake of outsiders and newcomers who might not otherwise know what magazines are well regarded by insiders when considering, for example, where to submit.


    1. (186.5 points) 

    2. Clarkesworld (174) 

    3. Asimov's (171.5) 

    4. Lightspeed (133.5) 

    5. Fantasy & Science Fiction (130.5) 

    6. Uncanny (93) (started 2014) 

    7. Analog (59.5) 

    8. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (58) 

    9. Subterranean (49) (ceased short fiction 2014) 

    10. Strange Horizons (45) 

    11. Interzone (30.5) 

    12. Nightmare (29.5) 

    13. Apex (28) 

    14. Fireside (17) 

    15. Slate / Future Tense (15.5) 

    16. Fantasy Magazine (14) (occasional special issues during the period, fully relaunched in 2020) 

    17. The Dark (10.5) (started 2013) 

    18t. FIYAH (9.5) (started 2017) 

    18t. The New Yorker (9.5) 

    20t. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (7) 

    20t. McSweeney's (7) 

    22t. Sirenia Digest (6) 

    22t. Tin House (6) (ceased short fiction 2019) 

    24. Black Static (5.5) 

    25t. GigaNotoSaurus (5) 

    25t. Shimmer (5) (ceased 2018) 

    27t. Conjunctions (4.5) 

    27t. Omni (4.5) (briefly relaunched 2017-2018) 

    27t. Terraform (4.5) (started 2014) 

    30t. Boston Review (4) 

    *30t. Wired (4)

    *32. Diabolical Plots (3.5) (started 2015)

    33t. Electric Velocipede (3) (ceased 2013) 

    33t. Kaleidotrope (3) 

    33t. B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog (3) (started 2014)

    33t. Beloit Fiction Journal (2.5) 

    33t. Buzzfeed (2.5) 

    33t. Harper's (2.5) 

    33t. Matter (2.5) 

    33t. Paris Review (2.5) 

    33t. Weird Tales (2.5) (off and on throughout the period)

    42t. Daily Science Fiction (2) 

    42t. Future Science Fiction Digest (2) (started 2018) 

    42t. Mothership Zeta (2) (ran 2015-2017) 

    *42t. Omenana (2) (started 2014) 

    *46t. Anathema (2) (started 2017)

    46t. e-flux journal (1.5) 

    46t. Flurb (1.5) (ceased 2012) 

    46t. Intergalactic Medicine Show (1.5) (ceased 2019) 

    46t. MIT Technology Review (1.5) 

    46t. New York Times (1.5) 

    *46t. Translunar Travelers Lounge (1.5) (started 2019)

    [* indicates new to the list this year]



    (1.) The New Yorker, McSweeney's, Tin House, Conjunctions, Boston Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Harper's, Matter, and Paris Review are literary magazines that occasionally publish science fiction or fantasy.  Slate and Buzzfeed are popular magazines, and Omni, Wired, and MIT Technology Review are popular science magazines, which publish a bit of science fiction on the side. e-flux is a wide-ranging arts journal. The New York Times is a well-known newspaper that ran a series of "Op-Eds from the Future" from 2019-2020.  The remaining magazines focus on the F/SF genre.

    (2.) It's also interesting to consider a three-year window. Here are those results, down to six points:

    1. (59.5)

    2. Uncanny (51.5)

    3. Clarkesworld (39.5)

    4. Lightspeed (38.5)

    5. F&SF (32.5)

    6. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (21)

    7. Asimov's (16.5) 

    8. Nightmare (16)

    9. Analog (16)

    10. Fireside (15)

    11. Slate / Future Tense (13)

    12. Apex (11.5)

    13. Strange Horizons (11)

    14. FIYAH (9)

    15. The Dark (6)

    (3.) For the first time since I started keeping records, Asimov's is not in the top spot.  The trend has been clear for several years, with the classic "big three" print magazines -- Asimov's, F&SF, and Analog -- slowly being displaced in influence by the four leading free online magazines,, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny (all founded 2006-2014).  Presumably, a large part of the explanation is that there are more readers of free online fiction than of paid subscription magazines, which is attractive to authors and probably also helps with voter attention for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

    (4.) Left out of these numbers are some terrific podcast venues such as the Escape Artists' podcasts (Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders), Drabblecast, and StarShipSofa. None of these qualify for my list by existing criteria, but podcasts are also important venues.

    (5.) Other lists: The SFWA qualifying markets list is a list of "pro" science fiction and fantasy venues based on pay rates and track records of strong circulation. is a regularly updated list of markets, divided into categories based on pay rate.

    [image source]