Thursday, January 17, 2019

I Asked 400 Undergrads to Perform 90 Minutes of Kindness for No Reward. Here's What Happened

Followers of this blog will recall my post from October 30, where I solicited ideas about a "Kindness Assignment" for my lower-division philosophy class "Evil". The assignment was to perform ninety minutes of kindness for one or more people, with no formal accountability or reward. I canceled one day of class to free up time for students to perform their act of kindness. I described the Kindness Assignment as "required", but I told them I would not be checking on or grading them in any way.

Here's the full text of the Kindness Assignment.

During the final exam, I gave students a single detached page, front and back, on which they could write about their experiences with the Kindness Assignment. The page was prominently marked as "optional". I said I would not grade their responses and would only view the responses after final grades were submitted, so that their reports would have no influence of any sort on their grades.

On the page, students could say what they did (if anything), what they learned (if anything), how they felt about the fact that there was no reward or accountability, how they felt about having spent 90 minutes that way, and how their thoughts about the assignment connected to course themes. I also asked students whether they thought I should give the Kindness Assignment again, and if so, what if anything they would recommend changing. Here's the full text of the response sheet.

Three hundred and ninety-eight students took the final exam. Of these, 150 (38%) wrote something on the Kindness Assignment response sheet. It was a long and difficult exam, and since responding was optional and not for credit, some students who completed the Kindness Assignment may not have submitted a response. I assume that many or most of the non-submitters did not complete the assignment. Reviewing the responses, I estimate that 20% of the students who submitted a response said that they did not perform the assignment. Thus, approximately 120 students performed the Kindness Assignment and chose to tell me about their experience.

Understandably, in the context of an exam, only a minority of students took the time to answer all eight questions on the two-page response sheet. Some just gave a brief summary of what they did. Others praised or criticized the assignment without detailing what they did.

Responses to "What, if anything, did you do for the Kindness Assignment?"

Among the approximately 20% who said they didn't complete the Kindness Assignment, a substantial minority said they had planned to do so but forgot or were prevented. Others said that with no reward or accountability, they didn't feel motivated to do it.

Among those who reported completing the assignment, about 25% chose to spend the time helping a friend or family member with chores, about 25% chose to spend the time in a unusually meaningful or thoughtful personal interaction with a family member, about 25% helped strangers with chores or gifts (esp. homeless people or the elderly, sometimes through an organization), and the rest did a variety of other things.

One student bought five extra-large pizzas and shared them with people on Skid Row, which he described as "a really humbling experience.... Seeing people who were down on their luck cry/smile over some warm food really impacted me. Not sure how to succinctly phrase this, but it showed me a good and kind side of humanity that I often have trouble seeing."

Among students who interacted meaningfully with family:

  • One decided to dedicate the whole weekend to her family and "learned that I needed to re-evaluate my priorities.... I was working and making money... and in a way I was becoming greedy." She concluded "It's sad that it took an assignment... for me to realize this."
  • Another took her niece, who she usually ignores, out for ice cream, and said she came to appreciate that "little kids... are the nicest types of human beings."
  • Another student had a long, personal phone call with his stepfather, from whom he normally felt emotionally estranged, and said he finally realized that his stepfather wasn't really a bad person.
  • Still another "decided on actually listening to my parents about their issues & problems. Each of them had a curious look and asked where all of this had come from. I told them all about the course.... I could even see my dad tearing up while talking. I bet it's from not just having a heart to heart talk in who knows how long but also with his own son for I think the first time."
  • One student, saying he was inspired by Peter Singer's work on charitable giving gave $5000 (!) to an acquaintance in financial need.

    Responses to "What, if anything, did you learn from doing the Kindness Assignment?

    Answers to this question varied considerably. Maybe 20% of respondents said they learned nothing. Maybe half of respondents said something about learning how kindness can be pleasurable both for the giver and receiver. Some who had especially moving experiences said that they learned something important about people close to them, or about their own values, or about the kindness of humanity.

    Several students said that they learned, from the fact that they didn't complete the assignment, that they weren't much motivated to be kind without the benefit of some further reward.

    Responses to "How do you feel about the fact that there is no formal accountability or reward for completing this assignment?"

    For this question I coded responses as pro, con, or mixed/ambiguous. Thirty-four out of 78 (44%) of respondents were pro. They offered a variety of justifications, including (a.) having no tangible reward ensures that the kindness is authentic rather than forced; (b.) it allows students who are introverted or otherwise not disposed to do the assignment the opportunity to decline to participate without penalty; and (c.) it led them to think about whether they or other people would really be willing to go out of their way to be kind for ninety minutes without any tangible benefit.

    Ten out of 78 (13%) were con. When they offered a reason, it was generally that people wouldn't be sufficiently motivated without reward.

    The remainder, also 34/78 (44%), were ambiguous or mixed. Most of these said they "didn't mind" not receiving reward or that it "didn't matter" to them that there was no reward.

    Responses to "How do you feel about having spent ninety minutes in this way?"

    The majority of respondents reported feeling good about having done the assignment: 53/70 (76%). Only a few felt negative about it: 6/70 (9%). One student, for example, who offered to clean a friend's dorm room ended up feeling taken advantage of, especially after other friends started asking for their rooms to be cleaned too. The remainder were mixed or ambiguous 11/70 (16%).

    Unfortunately, the student who gave the $5000 expressed mixed emotions at having given so much, saying that "I can feel my soul feel happy about this" but "looking at my bank account, I am not happy. In fact, close to very sad/depressed." He recommended that in the future I suggest that students not give money.

    This student happened to be among the several students in the course I had come to know personally. I emailed him, asking if he's doing okay, and inviting him to discuss his experience further if he wants. After a brief exchange, he consented to my sharing his experience with others, so that others might learn from it.

    Singer argues that we should give away all of the money that we would otherwise spend on luxuries. My impression is that few students who read Singer on this topic are convinced by his arguments (I have opinion survey data to support this claim), and that among the few who do decide to give, almost all give well within their means, without regret.

    However, once in a rare while, people probably are inspired to radical sacrificial actions by reading the ethics texts that we philosophy professors assign. I tend to forget that this can be a consequence of teaching ethical views like Singer's. Arguably, as a teacher I have partial responsibility for such consequences, perhaps especially for students who are still in their teens.

    Responses to "Should the professor give a version of the Kindness Assignment in the future?"

    The large majority who responded -- 54 out of 63 (86%) -- answered yes, some with big exclamation marks and high enthusiasm. Only four (6%) answered no and 5 (8%) were mixed or ambiguous.

    Recommendations for changes to the assignment.

    Many students said the assignment was excellent as-is, but a substantial minority recommended one change or another. The most common recommendations were to offer credit for it (10 students), to clarify better what sorts of kind actions I had in mind (7 students), and to shorten the length of the act of kindness (6 students).

    Next time, I probably will better clarify the kind of actions I have in mind -- and I will suggest that students not give money.

    [image source]

    Friday, January 11, 2019

    Zhuangzi Might Prefer the Passive Knife to the Skillful Cook

    ... contra the currently dominant "skill" interpretations of the Zhuangzi.

    Among the most famous and striking passages by the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi is the following:

    A butcher was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. Wherever his hand touched, wherever his shoulder leaned, wherever his foot stepped, wherever his knee pushed -- with a zip! with a whoosh! -- he handled his chopper with aplomb, and never skipped a beat. He moved in time to the Dance of the Mulberry Forest, and harmonized with the Head of the Line Symphony. Lord Wenhui said, "Ah, excellent, that technique can reach such heights!"

    The butcher sheathed his chopper and responded, "What your servant values is the Way, which goes beyond technique. When I first began cutting up oxen, I did not see anything but oxen. Three years later, I couldn't see the whole ox. And now, I encounter them with spirit and don't look with my eyes. Sensible knowledge stops and spiritual desires proceed. I rely on the Heavenly patterns, strike in the big gaps, am guided by the large fissures, and follow what is inherently so. I never touch a ligament or tendon, much less do any heavy wrenching! A good butcher changes his chopper every year because he chips it. An average butcher changes it every month because he breaks it. There are spaces between those joints, and the edge of the blade has no thickness. If you use what has no thickness to go where there is space -- oh! there's plenty of extra room to play about in. That's why after nineteen years the blade of my chopper is still as through fresh from the grindstone.

    "Still, when I get to a hard place, I see the difficulty and take breathless care. My gaze settles! My movements slow! I move the chopper slightly, and in a twinkling it's come apart, crumbling to the ground like a clod of earth! I stand holding my chopper and glance all around, dwelling on my accomplishment. Then I clean my chopper and put it away."

    Lord Wenhui said, "Excellent! I have heard the words of a butcher and learned how to care for life!"

    (Kjellberg trans., Ch. 3).


    Based partly on this passage from the (generally regarded as authentic) Inner Chapters and several related passages from the (more textually dubious) Outer Chapters, it is more or less orthodox to treat the celebration of skillful artisanal or athletic activity as central to Zhuangzi's worldview (e.g. Graham 1991; Hansen 1992; Ivanhoe 1993; Slingerland 2007; Fraser 2014).

    However, if we take the Inner Chapters as our guide to the core "Zhuangzi" outlook, a puzzle arises. Nowhere else in the Inner Chapters is artisanal or athletic skill of this sort singled out for praise. Indeed, skill is frequently criticized, or associated with negative outcomes. Zhuangzi celebrates the useless yak in contrast to a weasel or a dog who is skilled at catching rats (the weasel ends up dead in a trap [Ziporyn trans., p. 8] and the dog bound by a leash [p. 51]). His "desk slumping" friend Huizi's logical skill brings him nothing but trouble. Skilled musical practitioners end up quarreling (p. 15), and people who test their skills in contests start bright but end up in dark conniving (p. 28); "skill [is] mere salesmanship" (p. 48); the divine creator or teacher "supports heaven and earth, and carves out all forms, but without being skillful" (p. 49).

    If skillful activity, guided by the spirit rather than the eyes, is central to Zhuangzi's values, why doesn't he say so anywhere else in the chapters that form the authentic core of the book? Why doesn't he celebrate the skillful weasel rather than the unskilled yak and the various other seemingly unskilled characters in his stories, such as Horsehead Humpback (p. 35-36)?

    The answer, I think, is that Zhuangzi doesn't particularly value skillful artisanal or athletic activity. Celebrating the skill of the butcher in one place and deriding skill in others is an example of Zhuangzian self-contradiction. I have argued (here and here) that Zhuangzi intentionally contradicts himself within and between passages, in his project of undercutting doctrinaire adherence to any set of motivating values.

    So how should we interpret the passage of the butcher? How does the butcher's activity teach the king "how to care for life"?

    The first thing to notice is that the long-lived thing is not the butcher. It's the knife. After nineteen years, the knife is as sharp as if fresh off the whetstone. In contrast, the butcher is in danger! As Zhuangzi says in Chapter 4 and elsewhere, it is dangerous to display your talents before a king. If you please the king, he might bind you into servitude; if you displease him, he might kill you.

    What's good about the knife, or at least what leads to its healthy longevity, is that it simply follows along through empty spaces, rather than hacking and slicing. It lets the butcher's hand lead it, not fighting, not resisting, but also not helping things along. The knife itself has no skills. Due to the butcher's skill, the knife itself needs to do almost no cutting at all.

    Going along with things, doing nothing, lounging in the shade, standing useless and quiet, like a yak or an ancient gnarled tree -- that's closer to Zhuangzi's core vision than acting with impressive skill, like an accomplished artisan or athlete.


    For a fuller treatment of these issues see my forthcoming essay, "The Unskilled Zhuangzi: Big and Useless and Not So Good at Catching Rats".

    [image source]

    Tuesday, January 01, 2019

    Writings of 2018

    Every year on New Year's Day, I post a retrospect of the past year's writings. Here are the retrospects of 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

    This past year, I worked quite a bit on consciousness and Chinese philosophy, also some on AI ethics, moral psychology, belief, and the sociology of philosophy. May 2019 be similarly fruitful!

    Book forthcoming:

    Full-length non-fiction essays appearing in print in 2018:
    Full-length non-fiction essays finished and forthcoming:
    Shorter non-fiction:
    Editing work:
      In print in 2018: The Oneness Hypothesis (with P.J. Ivanhoe, O. Flanagan, R. Harrison, and H. Sarkissian), Columbia University Press.
      Under contract: Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories, (with Helen De Cruz and Johan De Smedt). Bloomsbury Press.
    Non-fiction essays in draft and circulating:
    Science fiction stories:
      I didn't publish any new stories this year, though I have a few in draft that I plan to submit in 2019.
    Some favorite blog posts:
    Selected interviews:

    Thursday, December 27, 2018

    Some Structural Disadvantages of Interdisciplinary Research, and What to Do About Them

    My own academic department has treated me well over the years, accepting my interdiscipinary forays into psychology and science fiction. But most academic researchers who do interdisciplinary work face structural disadvantages. I speak from my experience in philosophy, but the problems are deeply rooted in the academic system.

    I will focus on two disadvantages: The "But It Isn't X" Complaint (from colleagues from your home discipline) and Prejudice / Turf Defense (from colleagues from disciplines other than your home discipline).


    The "But It Isn't X" Complaint

    If you apply for a job in a department in discipline X, the hiring department will care almost exclusively about your work in X. When you stand for promotion or most other sorts of disciplinary recognition, you will be evaluated almost exclusively for your work within the discipline. If you ask for your work outside the discipline to be counted equally, you will be told that it isn't really X and therefore doesn't count for much toward hiring, promotion, or recognition in discipline X.

    The "But It Isn't X" Complaint is entirely understandable. Shouldn't hiring and promotion into a philosophy department, for example, and recognition in philosophy, depend on the candidate's contributions to philosophy? And even if in principle the evaluators want work outside of their discipline to count equally, they will feel unable to properly evaluate it. In the disciplinary evaluations on which most of academia is built, within-discipline contributions count most.

    The almost inevitable consequence is that researchers who devote substantial time to interdisciplinary work will be severely disadvantaged in hiring, promotion, and disciplinary recognition.

    What to Do on Behalf of Your Interdisciplinary Colleagues

    If a department wants to recognize interdisciplinary colleagues appropriately in hiring, promotion, and other types of evaluation, they need to ask not "how much has this person contributed to our discipline?" but rather (1.) "how much has this person contributed to academia as a whole?" and (2.) "has this person contributed enough to our discipline to still count as member of this discipline?" Suppose someone straddles two disciplines 50/50, and over some period of time they publish three excellent papers in their home discipline and three excellent papers in another discipline. Evaluate them not according to the three home-discipline papers, with the three others as "frosting", but treat all six papers on a par. Of course, if the majority of papers are in another discipline, at some point it would be reasonable to consider a change of department. But until that time, all contributions should be valued and evaluated by the home department.

    If there is to be room in academia, as I think there should be, for people who bridge two disciplines, those people need to be valued for their contributions to both disciplines. If people in their home discipline cannot expertly evaluate that person's interdisciplinary work -- quite understandable! -- they should consult with others from the appropriate discipline, or even better with others who are interdisciplinary between the same two disciplines.

    What to Do If You Are the Interdisciplinary Researcher

    Assuming your colleagues and evaluators are not implementing the strategy above, as most will not, I advise three strategies:

    (1.) Do as much in your home discipline as your colleagues do. Publish the six papers in your home discipline and three outside your discipline. This isn't easy to implement, of course! But one of the advantages of interdisciplinary research is that your expertise outside of your home discipline can be a font of fresh ideas. If your c.v. contains as much good work in X as your colleagues', it doesn't matter so much if they think of your other work as of secondary importance.

    (2.) Take advantage of higher-level administrators' appreciation of interdisciplinarity. In my experience, the majority of higher-level administrators (deans, etc.) value interdisciplinarity. Their evaluations rarely matter enough to compensate for the structural disadvantages I mentioned above, but often their evaluations matter somewhat. There are sometimes grant opportunities, teaching release opportunities, or other recognition for interdisciplinary work; keep your eyes open for these. Also, if your disciplinary colleagues are supportive, you can remind them that there are aspects of your research profile that will be attractive to administrators because of your interdisciplinarity. This can lead your colleagues' to be more assertive in making your case than they would otherwise be, anticipating approval from the higher-ups.

    (3.) Relabel your work as a contribution to your discipline. This is the boldest move, and it will have mixed success at best. For example, when I first started doing work in psychology I thought of it just as work in psychology that had consequences for philosophy. After all, if you run an empirical experiment that looks like a psychology experiment, or contribute an article to a psychology journal, isn't that doing psychology?

    However, starting around 2003, Joshua Knobe, Shaun Nichols, Steve Stich, Jonathan Weinberg, and others started calling their empirical research on non-philosophers' philosophical opinions "experimental philosophy" rather than psychology, and they successfully campaigned to publish some of it in straight-up philosophy journals. They partly succeeded in changing the borders of the discipline of philosophy to include work that would previously have been called psychology. They haven't convinced everyone, of course. Not all philosophers think of "experimental philosophy" as really philosophy. But the situation is better than it was. Arguably, "behavioral economics" is a similar story, even more successful.

    Similarly, I have been starting to make the case that writing fiction can also be a way of doing philosophy -- witness Rousseau, Sartre, Nietzsche, Plato, Murdoch, Voltaire, etc.!


    Prejudice / Turf Defense

    Interdisciplinary prejudice and turf defense are slightly different but related phenomena.

    Interdisciplinary prejudice is the understandable default assumption that someone outside of your discipline isn't going to be nearly as good at work in your discipline as someone whose formal affiliation and training is in your discipline. Turf defense is an emotional reaction to the threatening idea that someone outside of your discipline might be as good as you and your colleagues, or better, at work in your own discipline [ETA:] or that others might falsely perceive them that way.

    Usually, interdisciplinary prejudice is justified, and perhaps not deserving of a pejorative label. If a non-philosopher submits something to a philosophy journal, odds are good that it won't be an excellent work of philosophy. If a philosopher tries to run a psychology experiment, odds are good that their methods and analyses won't be as solid as a psychologist's. For similar reasons, turf defense isn't wholly unjustified: You don't want others to mistakenly think that the non-X researcher's probably-inferior work is as good as a disciplinary expert's work, so it makes sense in a way to guard against incursions. The turf defense reaction is also, I think, partly driven by feelings that the outsider is being disrespectful: If an outsider thinks they can come in and beat us at our own game, that seems to suggest that they lack respect for our years of hard work and disciplinary training.

    However, sometimes people really can do excellent work in more than one discipline. It takes years of effort to acquire the knowledge and skills; but people do sometimes put in the requisite time and effort. An Associate Professor of X with a strong interdisciplinary focus might have as much knowledge of and experience in Y as an Assistant Professor in Y. (It would be almost superhuman, though, for an Associate Professor in X to have as much knowledge and experience in Y as an Associate Professor in Y, unless the situation is very unusual.) However, even when the outsider does have the requisite knowledge and skills, it is, I fear, a sociological fact that substantial prejudice and turf defense remain.

    What to Do on Behalf of Interdisciplinary Colleagues

    (1.) Be aware of your possible interdisciplinary prejudice and turf defense and the fact that they are not always justified. Try to evaluate work in your home discipline by someone outside of your home discipline in approximately the same way you would evaluate other contributions to your discipline.

    (2.) Implement anonymous review when possible. If the work passes muster, it shouldn't matter if it's from a Stanford professor in your discipline or someone from a less prestigious university with a different disciplinary affiliation or from a construction worker in Tallahassee.

    (3.) Where anonymous review isn't possible, downplay departmental affiliations on the first page of articles and applications -- for the same reasons.

    What to Do If You Are the Interdisciplinary Researcher

    (1.) Collaborate with someone from the other discipline. There appears to be much less prejudice and turf defense when at least one member of the research team is from the target discipline. Furthermore, the collaborator will bring an inside-the-discipline perspective that it is very difficult to achieve from outside a discipline, even if one has substantial expertise.

    (2.) Watch for shibboleths. By shibboleths I mean superficial signs of being an insider rather than an outsider. It helps reduce prejudice and turf defense the more you can write and speak indistinguishably from members of the target discipline. (Collaborators can help with this.) If you sound like an outsider, even if your content is good, that will tend to amplify negative reactions to your work.

    (3.) Cite thoroughly and carefully early in your project. Show, from the very beginning, thorough and serious engagement with the existing work in the target discipline. This shows respect for that work, reducing the turf defense reaction, and it shows that you have substantial expertise, reducing the prejudice reaction.


    Barring radical changes, structural disadvantages will continue to impair people who do interdisciplinary work. However, I do also believe that there is one major compensatory advantage, over the long run of a research career. Often, the freshest and most fruitful academic ideas come from researchers with expertise in more than one area, who can use their expertise in Y to shine new interesting light on X. Your colleagues won't always appreciate this right away. But in the long run, you will have different things to say than those whose expertise is exclusively within a single discipline. You will have a distinctive perspective and contribution.

    [image source]

    Saturday, December 22, 2018

    New Experimental Philosophy Blog, and A New Study of Philosophers That Is Looking for Participants

    Two quick announcements:

    1. There's a new experimental philosophy blog! Check it out. (I've just cross-posted a month-old x-phi post from the Splintered Mind. In the future I'll cross-post x-phi material simultaneously on both.)

    2. There's a new study about philosophers' opinions on philosophical questions. Try it out here!

    Thursday, December 20, 2018

    Philosophy as a Second Major: Data by Race and Gender

    Last year, I observed that Philosophy relies on double majors more than most other academic disciplines do. Drawing on IPEDS data from the National Center for Education Statistics, for Bachelor's degrees completed in 2016, I found that although only 0.30% of students choose Philosophy as a first major, among those who completed a second major, 1.7% choose Philosophy. I also found that 20% of graduating Philosophy majors had Philosophy as their second major. If we conjecture that double majors with Philosophy as one of their majors are just as likely to list Philosophy first as second (which might not be true, but can't be assessed from the IPEDS data), then 40% of Philosophy majors are double-majoring with something else. [See here for methodological details and more data.]

    This year, I thought it would be interesting to break down the results by race and gender. My thought was that maybe women or members of historically underrepresented racial groups might be proportionately more likely than White men to take Philosophy as a second major. White men are disproportionately represented in Philosophy, for whatever (much disputed!) reason. Perhaps women and members of underrepresented racial groups would be more likely to take Philosophy as a second major if they could also major in something else?

    To reduce hindsight bias, I encourage you to pause now and reflect on what your guess would be.

    Drum roll please....

    Results by Gender

    NCES uses the gender categories "men" and "women". I examined all U.S. data from the 2009-2010 academic year through the 2016-2017 academic year.

    Combining all majors and all years, women were about as likely as men to complete a second major: 5.4% of women did so, compared to 5.1% of men (441,066/8,214,707 vs. 318,372/6,167,753 [p < .001 of course, given the huge numbers]). (All statistical tests in this post are two-tailed two-proportion z tests.) Viewing the data another way, women constituted 57% of all graduates and 58% of all graduates who completed two majors.

    Philosophy constituted 0.39% of all first majors across the time period, and 1.9% of all second majors. (These 2009-2017 numbers are higher than the 2016 numbers above because the Philosophy major plummeted sharply during the period.) Women were about a third as likely to complete Philosophy as a first major than men: 0.21% of women did so, compared to 0.62% of men (17,244/8,214,707 vs. 38,241/6,167,753 [p < .001]). Despite 57% of graduates being women, women were only 31% of graduates whose first major was Philosophy.

    As I had suspected might be the case, women were a larger proportion of Philosophy graduates whose second major was Philosophy: 35%, instead of 31%. Though the effect size isn't large, it is statistically significant (4,956/14,064 vs. 17,244/55,485 [p < .001]). Put another (perhaps more discouraging) way, 0.65% of women chose Philosophy as a second major, compared to 2.9% of men.

    Results by Race

    NCES uses the racial categories American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, White, Two or More Races, Race/Ethnicity Unknown, and Nonresident Alien, with these classifications running from the 2010-2011 to the 2016-2017 academic year.

    In contrast with gender, race was substantially related to completing a second major, combining all majors.

    Percentage of graduates who completed a second major, by race, all majors:

    American Indian or Alaska Native: 3.6%
    Asian: 5.7%
    Black or African American: 2.4%
    Hispanic or Latino: 4.8%
    Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander: 2.8%
    White: 5.7%
    Two or More Races: 5.3%

    To confirm that this wasn't a result of students of different racial identities enrolling in different school types, I checked to see if the results held up for different Carnegie classifications of school types (e.g., Doctorate Universities: Highest Research Activity, Baccalaureate Colleges: Arts & Science Focus), and the same general pattern holds. However, this question merits further exploration.

    To see how this looks for Philosophy specifically, it's clearest to compare the breakdown of 1st majors in Philosophy by race with the breakdown of 2nd majors.

    First majors in Philosophy, by race:

    American Indian or Alaska Native: 0.5%
    Asian: 6.1%
    Black or African American: 5.1%
    Hispanic or Latino: 10.8%
    Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander: 0.2%
    White: 65.4%
    Two or More Races: 3.1%

    Second majors in Philosophy, by race:

    American Indian or Alaska Native: 0.3%
    Asian: 5.7%
    Black or African American: 3.2%
    Hispanic or Latino: 8.5%
    Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander: 0.1%
    White: 69.5%
    Two or More Races: 3.8%

    Here it is as a bar chart:

    [click to clarify and enlarge]

    The result is the opposite of what we see with women, and the opposite of what I had predicted: With the exception of "two or more races", students in racial groups other than White were a smaller proportion of graduates with a second major in Philosophy. This was true even of Asian graduates who, combining all majors, were just as likely as White graduates to complete a second major. (All differences in proportion between 1st and 2nd major by race were statistically significant at p < .05.)


    Overall across all majors, women weren't much more likely to complete second majors than were men, but they were more likely to do so in Philosophy. Conversely, students from most racial groups other than White were in general substantially less likely to complete second majors than were White students, and the disproportion was even greater among Philosophy majors.

    I'm not sure what might explain these patterns or what to do with them. Suggestions welcome!

    Friday, December 14, 2018

    Three Arguments for Alien Consciousness

    Someday we might meet spacefaring aliens who engage us in (what seems to be) conversation. Some philosophers -- for example Susan Schneider and (if I may generalize his claims about superficially isomorphic robots to superficially isomorphic aliens) Ned Block -- have argued that such aliens might not really have conscious experiences. In contrast, I hold what I believe to be the majority view that aliens who outwardly behaved similarly to us would very likely have conscious experiences. In the phrase that Thomas Nagel made famous, there would be "something it is like" to be an alien.

    I offer three arguments in defense of this general conclusion. I stipulate that the aliens I'm considering have arisen through a long evolutionary process, that they are capable of sophisticated cooperative technological behavior, and that they interact with us in ways that it is natural for non-philosophers to interpret as having comprehensible linguistic content.

    (I set aside some more specific criticisms of Schneider's argument.)

    The Linguistic Argument.

    An alien descends from its spaceship. Upon meeting the local population, it raises an appendage and begins touching things. It touches its leg and says "bzzbl". It touches its elbow and says "tikpt". It touches a tree and says "illillin". And so forth. Furthermore, it does so in reliable and repeatable ways, so that this behavior is naturally interpreted as linguistic labeling. When a human touches a tree and says "illillin" the alien says "hi". When a human touches a tree and says "bzzbl", the alien says "pu". The pattern of hi/pu responses is naturally interpreted as affirmation and negation. From this starting point, humans seem to learn the alien language and the alien seems to learn the local human language. Learning proceeds smoothly, except for a few understandable hiccups, so that after several months, the aliens and the local humans are cooperating in complex activities with apparently complex linguistic understanding. For example, the alien emits sounds like this: "After I enjoy eating the oak tree down the road by David's house, I plan to take a half-hour nap at the bottom of Blackberry Pond. Could we meet to talk about Martian volcanology after I've finished my nap?" All proceeds as expected. The alien eats the tree, takes the nap, and afterwards engages in what appears to be a dicussion of Martian volcanology. If this was not approximately how things went, the alien would not be the right kind of outwardly similar entity that I have in mind.

    To be outwardly similar -- and also just for good architectural reasons in a risky world -- the alien will also presumably be able to discuss its interior states and perceptual states. When it is running low on nutrition and needs to eat, it will say something like "I'm getting hungry". When it can't visually detect a distant object that a human interlocutor is pointing out, it will say something like, "Sorry, I can't see that. Oh, wait, now I can!" When it fears for the safety of its mate who has just wandered onto the highway, it will say something like, "I'm worried that she might be struck by a car" or "I hope she gets across the road okay!" Now suppose a human interlocutor says something like, "Do you really have conscious experiences? I mean, is there something it's like for you to experience red and to feel pain? Do you have imagination and understanding and emotional feelings?" If the alien is generally similar to us in its linguistic behavior, and if the question is phrased clearly enough, it will say yes. I think this is plausible given the rest of the set up, but we can also stipulate if necessary that if such an alien said no it wouldn't be a superficial isomorph outwardly similar to us in the intended respect.

    Although I'm not sure how Schneider and Block would react to this particular case, my interlocutor is someone who thinks it still remains a live possibility that the alien really has no conscious experiences underneath it all, because it has the wrong type of internal structure. (Maybe it's made of silicon inside, or hydraulics, or maybe it engages in fast serial cognitive processing rather than parallel processing.) The thought behind the linguistic argument (which I leave undeveloped for now) is that it would be unnatural, awkward, inelegant, and scientifically dubious to interpret the alien's speech as failing to refer both to trees and to genuine conscious mental states that it possesses.

    The Grounds of Consciousness Argument.

    What theoretical reasons do we have for thinking that creatures other than us have conscious experiences? I'm inclined to think we rely on two main grounds: (a.) sophisticated outward behavior similar to outward behavior that we associate with consciousness in our own case, and (b.) structural similarity between the target creature and us, with respect to the types of structures we associate with consciousness in our own case. By stipulation, (a) favors the alien. So the question is whether divergence in (b) alone would be good enough grounds to seriously doubt the existence of conscious experience despite seemingly-introspective reports about consciousness.

    If the structural situation is bad enough, that can ground plausible denial. A remote-controlled puppet with a speaker in its mouth might exhibit sophisticated outward behavior, but we would not want to attribute consciousness to the puppet. (We might want to attribute consciousness to the puppet-manipulator system or at least to the manipulator.) Similarly, we might reasonably doubt the consciousness of an entity programmed specifically to act as though it is conscious, even if that entity passes the Turing test or similar, because there is possibly something suspicious about having such a programming history: Maybe the best explanation of the entity's seeming-consciousness is not that it is conscious but only that it has been programmed to act as though it is. (I'm not saying I agree with that position, only that it is a reasonable position.)

    To avoid these doubts about the structural story, I have stipulated that the aliens have a long evolutionary history. The question then becomes whether a naturally-evolved cognitive structure underlying such sophisticated and apparently linguistic behavior might not be sufficient for consciousness, if it is different enough from our own -- such as maybe a fast serial cognitive process rather than the massively parallel (but slowish) structure of neurons, or relying on a material substrate different than carbon. My intended sense of "might" here is not the thin metaphysical sense of "might" in which we might allow for philosophical zombies, but rather scientific plausibility.

    A good approach to this question, I think, is to consider what it is about neurons aligned in massively parallel structures that explains why such neurons give rise to consciousness in our case. There must be something functionally awesome about neurons; it's not likely to be mysterious carbon-magic, independent of what neurons can do for us cognitively. So what could be that functionally awesome thing? The most plausible answers are the kinds of answers we see in broadly functionalist approaches to consciousness -- things like the ability to integrate information so as to respond in various sophisticated ways to the environment, including retaining information over time, monitoring one's own cognitive condition, complex long-term strategic planning, being capable of creative solutions to novel predicaments, etc. If serial processing or silicon processing can do all of the right kind of cognitive work, it's hard for me to see good theoretical reason to think that something necessary may be missing due merely to, say, the different number of protons in silicon or the implementational details of transfer relations between different cognitive subprocesses. It's a possible skepticism, but it's a skepticism without warranted grounds for doubt.

    The Copernican Cosmological Argument.

    According to the Copernican Principle in scientific cosmology, we are unlikely to be in a privileged position in the universe, such as its exact center. It's more reasonable, according to the principle, to think that we are in mediocre, mid-rent location among all of the locations that possibly support observers capable of reflection about cosmological principles. (However, the Anthropic Principle allows that we shouldn't be surprised to be in a location that supports cosmological observers, even if such locations are uncommon. For purposes of this post I am assuming that being an "observer" requires cognitive sophistication but does not require phenomenal consciousness if the two are separable. We can argue about that in the comments, if you like!)

    The Copernican Principle can, I think, plausibly be applied to consciousness as follows. Stipulate, as seems plausible, that complex coordinated functional responsiveness to one's environment, comparable to the sophistication of human responsiveness, can evolve in myriad different ways that diverge in their internal structural basis (e.g., carbon vs non-carbon, or if carbon is essential because of its lovely capacity to form long organic molecules, highly divergent carbon-based systems). If only one or a few of these myriad ways gave rise to actual conscious experience, then we would be especially lucky to be among the minority of complex evolved seemingly-linguistic entities who are privileged with genuine conscious experience. There would be systems all across the universe who equally build cities, travel into space, write novels about their interactions with each other, and monitor and report their internal states in ways approximately as sophisticated as ours -- and among them, only a fraction would happen to possess conscious experience, while the other unfortunates are merely blank inside.

    It is much more plausible, on Copernican grounds, to think that we are not in this way especially privileged entities, lucky to be among the minority of evolved intelligences who happen also to have conscious experiences.

    [image source]

    Wednesday, December 05, 2018

    New Book Forthcoming: Jerks, Zombie Robots, and Other Philosophical Misadventures

    (title provisional)

    with MIT Press, slated for their Fall catalog.


    I've made the manuscript available here. There will be at least one more chance to revise it, probably in early 2019, and I welcome comments and corrections, either on individual chapters or on the entirety. If you give me helpful comments, I will of course add your name to the acknowledgements at the end of the book.


    I enjoy writing short philosophical reflections for broad audiences. Evidently, I enjoy this a lot: Since 2006, I’ve written over a thousand such pieces, mostly published on my blog The Splintered Mind, but also in the Los Angeles Times, Aeon Magazine, and elsewhere. This book contains fifty-eight of my favorites, revised and updated.

    The topics range widely, as I’ve tried to capture in the title of the book. I discuss moral psychology (“jerks”), speculative philosophy of consciousness (“zombie robots”), the risks of controlling your emotions technologically, the ethics of the game of dreidel, multiverse theory, the apparent foolishness of Immanuel Kant, and much else. There is no unifying topic.

    Maybe, however, there is a unifying theme. The human intellect has a ragged edge, where it begins to turn against itself, casting doubt on itself or finding itself lost among seemingly improbable conclusions. We can reach this ragged edge quickly. Sometimes, all it takes to remind us of our limits is an eight-hundred-word blog post. Playing at this ragged edge, where I no longer know quite what to think or how to think about it, is my idea of fun.

    Given the human propensity for rationalization and self-deception, when I disapprove of others, how do I know that I’m not the one who is being a jerk? Given that all our intuitive, philosophical, and scientific knowledge of the mind has been built on a narrow range of cases, how much confidence can we have in our conclusions about strange new possibilities that are likely to open up in the near future of Artificial Intelligence? Speculative cosmology at once poses the (literally) biggest questions that we can ask about the universe while opening up possibilities that undermine our confidence in our ability to answer those same questions. The history of philosophy is humbling when we see how badly wrong previous thinkers have been, despite their intellectual skills and confidence. Not all of my posts fit this theme. It’s also fun to use the once-forbidden word “fuck” over and over again in a chapter about profanity. And I wanted to share some reminiscences about how my father saw the world – especially since in some ways I prefer his optimistic and proactive vision to my own less hopeful skepticism. Other of my blog posts I just liked or wanted to share for other reasons. A few are short fictions.

    It would be an unusual reader who liked every chapter. I hope you’ll skip anything you find boring. The chapters are all free-standing. Please don’t just start reading on page one and then try to slog along through everything sequentially out of some misplaced sense of duty! Trust your sense of fun (Chapter 47). Read only the chapters that appeal to you, in any order you like.

    Riverside, California, Earth (I hope)
    October 25, 2018

    Full manuscript here.

    Sunday, December 02, 2018

    I Have a Little Dreidel, I Made It Out of... Plastic?

    Tonight is the first night of Hannukah. My daughter her friends and I will of course play dreidel.

    (I defend my enthusiasm for the game in this article I published last year in the LA Times: "Dreidel: A seemingly foolish game that contains the moral world in miniature".)

    We will sing the Dreidel Song.

    I have a little dreidel,
    I made it out of clay.
    And when it's dry and ready,
    Oh dreidel I will play!

    Here's the problem, though. Never ever have I seen a clay dreidel, much less made one by hand. So the song is a lie!

    Some of our dreidels, none made of clay.

    I propose the following alternative lyrics:

    I have a little dreidel,
    They made it out of plastic.
    And when I spin a gimmel,
    It's gonna be fantastic!


    I have a little dreidel,
    They made it out of wood.
    And when I spin a gimmel,
    It's gonna feel so good!


    I have a little dreidel,
    They made it out of steel.
    And when I spin a gimmel,
    Oh how good I'll feel!


    Not sure what to do with the aluminum dreidel, though....

    Friday, November 30, 2018

    Has the Sharp Decline in Philosophy Majors Hit Bottom? (Plus Other Interesting NCES Data)

    I've received good news on a grant, with Morgan Thompson and Eric Winsberg, for some data-crunching about Philosophy majors in the U.S. To celebrate, here's more data!

    Has the Sharp Decline in Philosophy Majors Hit Bottom?

    Last year, drawing on the publicly available IPEDS database, I reported an alarmingly sharp decline in the number of recipients of Bachelor's degrees in Philosophy in the U.S. since 2010 -- from 9,297 in 2010, or 0.58% of all graduates, to 7,507 in 2016, or 0.39% of all graduates. I found similar declines in History, English, and other language majors.

    In the most recent year's data (2016-2017), I'm encouraged to see no further decline either in the total number of Philosophy majors or in the percentage of graduates who choose the Philosophy major. To give you a sense of how striking this is, look at 2013-2017:

    Bachelor's Degrees in Philosophy in the U.S., by year:

    2013: 9,439 (0.53% of all graduates)
    2014: 8,837 (0.47%)
    2015: 8,198 (0.43%)
    2016: 7,507 (0.39%)
    2017: 7,579 (0.39%)

    [for methodological details see here]

    After declining by about 600 majors per year from 2013 through 2016, 2017 shows a slight uptick. The 95% confidence interval around the 2017 number is 0.38% to 0.40%, so this flattening is not merely a chance deviation from the 0.05%/year downward trend since 2013.

    English and History, However, Continue to Decline

    In contrast with Philosophy, English and History are continuing to decline (though note that English and History still have many more majors overall).

    Bachelor's Degrees in English:

    2013: 56,021 (3.0% of all graduates)
    2014: 54,222 (2.8%)
    2015: 49,540 (2.5%)
    2016: 46,259 (2.3%)
    2017: 44,686 (2.2%)

    Bachelor's Degrees in History:

    2013: 37,583 (2.0% of all graduates)
    2014: 34,193 (1.8%)
    2015: 31,048 (1.6%)
    2016: 28,229 (1.4%)
    2017: 26,724 (1.3%)

    Despite a 9% growth in total number of graduates across all majors, in the five years from 2013 to 2017, the number of graduates declined by 20% in English and by 29% in History, and is continuing to fall fast. (Maybe, if you squint at the data with an optimistic eye, the rate of decline is slowing.)

    In Contrast, the Number of PhDs Hasn't Declined Much

    In contrast, the number of Philosophy, English, and History PhDs awarded has declined only slightly in that same five year period: from 475 to 438 in Philosophy, 1377 to 1347 in English, and 1003 to 945 in History. Consequently, the ratio of BAs to PhDs has declined considerably between 2013 and 2017. In English the ratio fell from 41 BAs per PhD in 2013 to 33 BAs per PhD in 2017. In History the ratio fell from 37 to 29, and in Philosophy it fell from 20 to 17.

    Here's a chart going back to 2010:

    [click to clarify and enlarge]


    Majors can rise and decline substantially in popularity over the years. Continuing decline isn't inevitable. I'm rooting for a turnaround.

    I might be wrong, but I think and hope that the recently increasing visibility of philosophers in prominent public venues such as the New York Times has helped improve the educated public's perception of the relevance and interest of philosophy. Let's show the world the value of the humanities!

    Wednesday, November 21, 2018

    Narrative but Not Philosophical Argument Motivates Giving to Charity

    by Eric Schwitzgebel and Christopher McVey

    ... or at least this is so for one narrative we've tried and one type of philosophical argument.


    From 2009 to 2015, Eric published a series of studies that consistently found, using a wide variety of measures, that ethics professors do not behave any morally better than comparison groups of other professors (summarized here). One simple explanation (favored, for example, by Jon Haidt in his discussion of Eric's work) is that philosophical moral reflection has little to no influence on people's moral behavior. However, Eric and his frequent collaborator Joshua Rust have been hesitant to draw that conclusion without more empirical evidence (see here and here for possible alternative explanations).

    Meanwhile, Eric's PhD student Chris was growing interested in the power of narratives to change behavior. So we decided to collaborate on a project to compare the influence of narrative and argument on charitable giving.


    For our argument, we chose an argument constructed by philosopher Peter Singer with the aim of convincing ordinary readers to donate to charity. The argument was originally written for a paper in draft by Luke Buckland, Matthew Lindauer, David Rodriguez-Arias, and Carissa Veliz. (Thanks to them and to Peter Singer for sharing this argument with us.) We supplemented Singer's argument with some additional clarificatory text. It's a typical Singer-style argument, emphasizing that people have a duty to prevent death and suffering due to extreme poverty by donating money that they would otherwise spend on luxuries, and that our physical distance from those who are suffering does not excuse us from the obligation to help.

    For our narrative, we chose a true story, about the same word-length as the argument, about a family rescued from slavery by a charitable donation, which we adapted from the website of a charitable organization.

    Participants were 918 MTurk workers in the United States. We divided them into four conditions: (1.) narrative only, (2.) argument only, (3.) narrative + argument, and (4.) control (who received a similar-length text from a middle-school physics textbook). Participants were then asked to rate, on a 7-point scale, how much they agreed or disagreed with statements about the ethics of donation and their own motivation to donate (e.g., "It is morally good to give money to charities that help those in extreme poverty", "Currently I feel motivated to give money to a charity that helps people in extreme poverty"). In Experiment 1, we then asked them a hypothetical question about how much they would give to a charity if we offered them a bonus of $10. In Experiment 2, we replaced the hypothetical-donation language with a lottery choice. We'll report only on Experiment 2 here, but the results of Experiment 1 were very similar.

    Here is the exact language for the lottery choice:

    Upon completion of this study, 10% of participants in this study will receive an additional $10. You have the option to donate some portion of this $10 to one of six well-known charities that have been shown to effectively fight suffering due to extreme poverty. If you are one of the recipients of the additional $10, the portion you decide to keep will appear as a bonus credited to your Mechanical Turk worker account, and the portion you decide to donate will be given to the charity you pick from the list below. If you are one of the recipients of the additional $10, how much of your additional $10 would you like to donate?

    Participants then ticked a number on a scale from $0 to $10 in dollar intervals, indicating how much they would donate if they won the $10. (A big thanks to The Life You Can Save, especially Jon Behar, for funding this study!)

    Finally, we asked questions designed to measure "narrative transportation" (i.e., how immersive and moving they found the narrative, or argument, or physics text), adapted from Green and Brock 2000.

    We thought we'd share some preliminary results. We emphasize that these results are only preliminary. Later, we'll want to double-check our numbers, confirm that we got the exclusions exactly right, etc. (We have a preregistration at Open Science Foundation, but we haven't made it public yet.)


    Mean amount donated, by condition:

    (Apologies for blurry image. Click to enhance. Error bars are 95% confidence intervals.)

    Statistically, the conditions are different (ANOVA [913,3], F=4.99, p = .002). In planned, pre-registered one-tailed t-tests, we found that the narrative and narrative+argument conditions generated more donation than the control condition (p = .02, .001) but the argument condition did not (p = .48). Similarly in a multiple regression analysis we found that being in one of the narrative conditions (narrative only or narrative+argument) predicted donation amount but being in one of the argumentative conditions was not statistically significantly predictive. In other words, exposure to a Singer-style philosophical argument had no statistically detectable effect on charitable giving, but exposure to a narrative about a family rescued from slavery did have a detectable effect. This was also true in Experiment 1, concerning hypothetical donation.

    The results were even clearer for the measure of ethical opinion and motivation to donate, which was scored on a scale from 5 to 35, based on 5 questions:

    It's not a huge effect size -- about 2 points on the scale -- but it's easier to see how the results for argument and control are similar to each other and different from the results for narrative and narrative+argument, which are also similar to each other (ANOVA [913,3], F=10.8, p < .001; one-tailed t vs. control condition: argument p = .71, narrative p < .001, nar+arg p < .001). Similarly to the lottery donation results, a regression analysis of reported motivation and moral opinion finds being in a narrative condition predictive and being in an argument condition non-predictive.

    As expected, we also found that participants reported more narrative transportation in the narrative and narrative+argument conditions than in the other conditions (ANOVA, p < .001) and that narrative transport, amount given, and motivation to give were mutually correlated (transport-amount given, r = .24; transport-motivation, r = .40, motivation-amount given, r = .50; all p's < .001).


    We regard this as preliminary evidence that exposure to at least one type of narrative influences charitable giving, motivation, and opinion, while exposure to one common type of philosophical argument has little if any influence.

    In our teaching, we also seem to find that Singer-style arguments have little effect on moral opinion or motivation to donate. In another series of studies (collaborative with Peter Singer and Brad Cokelet), which we hope to be able to report on soon, professors and TAs at UC Riverside taught lower-division philosophy students philosophical arguments for charitable donation and for vegetarianism. In subsequent questionnaires, students' self-reported attitudes toward charity don't appear to have been much influenced by the arguments, but their self-reported attitudes toward vegetarianism do appear to have been influenced.

    This is not to deny that some people are influenced to donate by Singer's arguments. Eric believes that he has been, for example. But the effect might be weak or uncommon or not effectively produced by brief exposures.

    In follow-up research, we plan to see if we find similar results with different types of arguments and narratives, and we hope to zero in on what underlying factors are at work behind these effects.

    Friday, November 16, 2018

    Possible Backfire Effects of an Excellent Diversity Statement?

    Applicants for faculty positions in the University of California must now include "Diversity Statements" alongside more traditional elements of their applications. Other universities have instituted similar requirements. Applicants might wonder how much detail and energy to put into a diversity statement. The question is trickier than it might seem, and there is, I think, some risk that an excellent diversity statement will backfire.

    One of the most acrimonious and politicized issues in faculty hiring in the U.S. right now is the extent to which universities ought to prioritize increasing the demographic diversity of their faculty. On one side are faculty and administrators who think that applicants' race, gender, or other demographic features ought not to be considered at all in hiring; on the other side are faculty and administrators who regard demographic diversification as a very high priority in faculty hiring; and of course there is a range of nuances and intermediate positions. You can see the politics of this issue, as it manifests in philosophy blogs, for example here and here.

    Because of these background politics, diversity statements that are too passionate or detailed might risk alienating some people on a hiring committee. In the current environment, such statements are not politically neutral.


    At U.C. Riverside, where I work, it's clear that pursuit of demographic diversity is a high priority in the administration. Many faculty have the impression that if a proposed hire will contribute substantially to the "diversity mission" of the university, that hire is much likelier to be approved. Every search committee must have an "Affirmative Action Compliance Officer" responsible for monitoring affirmative action efforts and tracking justifications for the rejection of all rejected applicants. Also, all faculty on hiring committees must complete a thirty-minute online diversity training and attend a ninety-minute in-person workshop on "Promoting Faculty Diversity".

    I attended my first diversity workshop a couple of months ago. It struck me that most of the attendees -- even those who thought that promoting diversity was a good idea -- felt resentful that they were required to engage in two hours of diversity training before being permitted to serve on a hiring committee. We're busy with all of our teaching and research, of course! The training is experienced as a needless, time-consuming interruption. We all already know, or at least think we know, pretty much what we need to know about these issues.

    Diversity statements were a central topic of the workshop I attended. Examples of good and bad diversity statements were offered for our consideration. We were advised to treat the diversity statement as among the most important parts of the application. Indeed, it was suggested that we might do a preliminary screening of applications based on the diversity statement alone, removing from consideration any candidates whose diversity statements weren't excellent, before even looking at research or teaching. This particular suggestion was met with considerable hostility and incredulity among the faculty sitting near me in the back corner of the room, most of whom seemed to be bristling with rebellious anger, like the "bad" kids forced to attend some supposedly-educational high school detention hour.

    What makes for a good diversity statement? I'm inclined to think that an excellent diversity statement would show concrete, detailed, and extensive evidence of one's commitment to and ability to contribute to the university's mission of promoting student and faculty diversity. Ideally, this would show in your research, and in your teaching, and in your committee service and other administrative roles, and in your broader life experience. (UC Davis offers some guidelines here; and here's some advice from Inside Higher Ed.)

    I returned to my office and pulled up my own Diversity Statement (which I keep handy to trot out for various purposes when necessary). Having attended the workshop, my statement now struck me as too brief and lacking detail. It could be much better! I revised it, adding several different kinds of specific evidence of my commitment to enhancing the diversity of the university through my teaching and adding another ten or so specific pieces of evidence of my commitment to enhancing the diversity of both UCR and the profession as a whole through my research, committee service, and public philosophy. (If you follow my blog, you'll know that I have done considerable work on diversity issues.) What a wonderful Diversity Statement I had by the end, if I may say so myself, full of good, concrete evidence that I'm deeply committed to diversifying the profession!

    And then I thought: How would Daniel Kaufman or Brian Leiter react a diversity statement like this? A lot of philosophers (maybe not Kaufman and Leiter in particular) might react negatively. For tenure-track job applicants especially, philosophers like Kaufman and Leiter, who believe that demographic diversity has recently been overemphasized, might understandably be hesitant to welcome colleagues who are passionately committed to the importance of demographic diversity. They might, on good grounds, fear that such a colleague would prioritize philosophy of race or Asian philosophy over some of the areas they might prefer to hire in, or that the colleague might be especially drawn to job candidates who are disabled, or women, or from other historically underrepresented groups, etc. The applicant's academic politics might be, in their view, all wrong. Such philosophers might prefer to see a bland, pro forma diversity statement that implicitly conveys the message that increasing demographic diversity is not high among the applicant's priorities.

    Now I wouldn't suggest playing down your enthusiasm about diversity issues if you genuinely feel that enthusiasm. But I do think it probably makes sense to be aware that there might unfortunately be hiring contexts in which it's possible to do this part of the application too well.



    Tanya Golash-Boza, in her advice at Inside Higher Ed, suggests that hiring committee members who feel that the "diversity agenda" has gone too far will tend to skip diversity statements, and so applicants needn't worry about their reactions. Hmmm... maybe?



    See also Helen De Cruz's recent thoughts on the possible backfire effects of being portrayed as compassionate or as a dedicated teacher, in applications to research-oriented academic jobs.

    [image source]

    Friday, November 09, 2018

    The Phi Value of Integrated Information Theory Might Not Be Stable Across Small Changes in Neural Connectivity

    In learning and in forgetting, the amount of connectivity between your neurons changes. Throughout your life, neurons die and grow. Through all of this, the total amount of conscious experience you have, at least in your alert, attentive moments, seems to stay roughly the same. You don't lose a few neural connections and with it 80% of your consciousness. The richness of our stream of experience is stable across small variations in the connectivity of our neurons -- or so, at least, it is plausible to think.

    One of the best known theories of consciousness, Integrated Information Theory, purports to model how much consciousness a neural system has by means of a value, Φ (phi), that is a mathematically complicated measure of how much "integrated information" a system possesses. The higher the Φ, the richer the conscious experience, the lower the Φ, the thinner the experience. Integrated Information Theory is subject to some worrying objections (and here's an objection by me, which I invite you also to regard as worrying). Today I want to highlight a different concern than these: the apparent failure of Φ to be robust to small changes in connectivity.

    The Φ of any particular informational network is difficult to calculate, but the IIT website provides a useful tool. You can play around with networked systems of about 4, 5, or 6 nodes (above 6, the computation time to calculate Φ becomes excessive). Prefab systems are available to download, with Φ values from less than 1 to over 15. It's fun!

    But there are two things you might notice, once you play around with the tool for a while:

    First, it's somewhat hard to create systems with Φ values much above 1. Slap 5 nodes together and connect them any which way, and you're likely to get a Φ value between 0 and 1.

    Second, if you tweak the connections of the relatively high-Φ systems, even just a little, or if you change a logical operator from one operation to another (e.g., XOR to AND), you're likely to cut the Φ value by at least half. In other words, the Φ value of these systems is not robust across small changes.

    To explore the second point more systematically, I downloaded the "IIT 3.0 Paper Fig. 17 Specialized majority" network which, when all 5 nodes are lit, has a Φ value of 10.7. (A node's being "lit" means it has a starting value of "on" rather than "off".) I then tweaked the network in every way that it was possible to tweak it by changing exactly one feature. (Due to the symmetry of the network, this was less laborious than it sounds.) Turning off any one node reduces Φ to 2.2. Deleting any one node reduces Φ to 1. Deleting one connection, altering its direction (if unidirectional), or changing it from unidirectional to bidirectional or vice versa, always reduces system's Φ to a value ranging from 2.6 to 4.8. Changing the logic function of one node has effects that are sometimes minor and sometimes large: Changing any one node from MAJ to NOR reduces Φ all the way down to 0.4, while changing any one node to MIN increases Φ to 13.0. Overall, most ways of introducing one minimal perturbation into the system reduce Φ by at least half, and some reduce it by over 90%.

    To confirm that the "Specialized majority" network was not unusual in this respect, I attempted a similar systematic one-feature tweaking of "CA Paper Fig 3d, Rule 90, 5 nodes". The 5-node Rule 90 network, with all nodes in the default unlit configuration, has a Φ of 15.2. The results of perturbation are similar to the results for the "Specialized majority" network. Light any one node of the rule 90 network and Φ falls to 1.8. Delete any one arrow and Φ also falls to 1.8. Change any one arrow from bidirectional to unidirectional and Φ falls to 4.8. Change the logic of one node and Φ ranges anywhere from a low of 1.8 (RAND, PAR, and >2) to a high of 19.2 (OR).

    These two examples, plus what I've seen in my unsystematic tweaking of other prefab networks, plus my observations about the difficulty of casually constructing a five-node system with Φ much over 1, suggest that, in five-node systems at least, having a high Φ value requires highly specific structures that are unstable to minor perturbations. Small tweaks can easily reduce Φ by half or more.

    It would be bad for Integrated Information Theory, as a theory of consciousness, if this high degree of instability in systems with high Φ values scales up to large systems, like the brain. The loss of a few neural connections shouldn't make a human being's Φ value crash down by half or more. Our brains are more robust than that. And yet I'm not sure that we should be confident that the mathematics of Φ has the requisite stability in large, high-Φ systems. In the small networks we can measure, at least, it is highly unstable.

    ETA November 10:

    Several people have suggested to me that Phi will be more stable to small perturbations as the size of the network increases. I could see how that might be the case (which is why I phrased the concluding paragraph as a worry rather than as an positive claim). Now if Phi, like entropy, were dependent in some straightforward way on the small contributions of many elements, that would be likely to be so. But the mathematics of Phi relies heavily on discontinuities and threshold concepts. I exploit this fact in my earlier critique of the Exclusion Postulate, in which I show that a very small change in the environment of a system, without any change interior to the system, could cause that system to instantly fall from arbitrarily high Phi to zero.

    If anyone knows of a rigorous, rather than handwavy attempt to show that Phi in large systems is stable over minor perturbations, I would be grateful if you pointed it out!

    Tuesday, October 30, 2018

    Requiring My Students to Spend Two Hours Giving Someone Unusual Kindness, with No Formal Accountability or Reward

    [Revised on Oct 31, from "Loving Attention" to "Kindness", plus several other changes concerning consent and non-sexuality, in light of feedback from several people.]

    I'm trying an experiment in my giant (400 person) lower-division course Evil, the main topic of which is moral psychology. I'm requiring them to spend two hours giving someone unusual kindness. However, I will not check whether they have completed this requirement. In fact, I will insist that they they not tell me or their TAs whether they have completed the assignment or not until after the final course grades have been sent to the registrar.

    I'm wondering how this will go, and if any of my readers have experience with anything similar (either as professor or as student).

    Below is the full text of the assignment, in draft.

    Reactions and suggestions welcome!


    Philosophy 5: Evil
    Kindness Assignment
    Fall Quarter, 2018

    There will be no lecture on November 30, and no reading is assigned for that day. Instead, you should complete the Kindness Assignment.

    The assignment

    Spend two solid hours on one day between Thursday, November 29, and class time on Monday, December 3, doing some act or acts of kindness for one person who would not otherwise receive that kindness from you during that time.

    That’s it.

    Recipient examples: The recipient of your Kindness could, for example, be a parent or sibling who you are normally too distracted to give extended help or attention. Or it could be a friend who is going through a hard time, or a stranger in need, or someone from your religious community or your dorm who could use some kindness.

    Activity examples: The Kindness could involve helping them with something in a collaborative way, the two of you together; or actively and lovingly listening to them as they talk about their troubles; or taking some unusual special time with them doing something that they enjoy, making sure that their needs and desires take priority over yours. It doesn’t count as fulfilling the assignment if it’s something you might normally do anyway. It must be special and unusual.

    Consent and nonsexuality

    The recipient of this loving attention must explicitly consent in advance, understanding that this is an assignment for this class. They should not be surprised after two hours to learn that your motives in acting kindly to them were not what they seemed to be.

    Also, your kindness must be entirely nonsexual. Spending two hours wooing someone to whom you are sexually attracted does not count as fulfilling this assignment. To avoid this possibility, I ask that the recipient not be someone you are sexually attracted to.

    Err on the side of caution here. If there’s any chance that the recipient would interpret what you are doing as exploitative, flirtatious, misleading, or creepy, do something else!


    Your Kindness Assignment will not be graded. I am asking you to do it on your honor.

    The Kindness Assignment is required, but neither your TAs nor I will check to see if you have fulfilled this requirement before assigning your course grade.

    I hope you will take this assignment seriously. I, Professor Schwitzgebel, will also complete the assignment.

    Do not tell me or your T.A. anything about what you have done for this assignment. You will not be asked about it in section. I want you to do it privately, for no external reward.

    There will be a page on the final exam in which you will be invited, but not required, to describe what you did for this assignment and what, if anything, you learned from it. I will read all 400 students’ answers to this question, and I will invite your TAs also to do so. However, we will not read your answers until after the final grades have been submitted for the course.

    To consider

    1. How do you feel about the fact that there is no formal accountability or reward for completing this assignment?
    2. How do you feel about spending two hours in this way?
    3. How do your answers to 1 and 2 fit with your understanding of the moral psychological views of Mengzi, Xunzi, Doris, and Staub?
    4. Later in the course we will be discussing the question of whether the world has a “moral order” in the sense that morally good people tend to prosper and morally bad people tend to suffer. When we come to that part of the course, please also think about how your answers to 1 and 2 fit with this issue.

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    Tuesday, October 23, 2018

    New Essay in Draft: Is There Something It's Like to Be a Garden Snail?


    The question "are garden snails phenomenally conscious?" or equivalently "is there something it’s like to be a garden snail?" admits of three possible answers: yes, no, and denial that the question admits of a yes-or-no answer. All three answers have some antecedent plausibility, prior to the application of theories of consciousness. All three answers retain their plausibility also after the application of theories of consciousness. This is because theories of consciousness, when applied to such a different species, are inevitably question-begging and rely partly on dubious extrapolation from the introspections and verbal reports of a single species.

    Full draft here.

    As always, comments warmly welcomed, either as comments on this post or by email to my usual address.

    Monday, October 22, 2018

    In Defense of Weekends, Evenings, Holidays, and Sleep

    I haven't checked my email since Friday afternoon, and there are now 165 unread messages in my inbox. (Only a few are likely to be spam. I have excellent filters and use a separate email address for all commercial transactions.) I am inspired to confess this after having read a recent article on academic overwork and its propensity to kill marriages.

    According to the article,

    Marital hardships are easily traced to academe’s toxic work culture -- one in which your research must be everything, you are praised for working 17 hours a day in a lab, and you are reprimanded and told you’re not dedicated enough for visiting your long-distance partner or (gasp!) taking a vacation.


    Some students experience their professors as demanding these kinds of sacrifices from them. I hope my students do not experience me as demanding this! Nor do I demand it of myself. I prioritize and protect my weekends, evenings, holidays, and sleep. And yet I maintain a productive academic career. This is possible! Indeed, I believe that it is good, for two reasons:

    (1.) Other parts of life are important. Maybe if you're David Hume or a cancer researcher on the edge of a breakthrough, the world really needs every drop of labor possible from you. But for the rest of us: Your kids, your spouse, your friends, and your neighbors need your more. Your rebuttal to Schnerdfoot's objection to Imakara et al. (2009) can wait. And you need you more. Live a good, rich life! Don't burn yourself out for this.

    (2.) Productivity gains under conditions of exhaustion are minimal. Some evidence suggests that there is little productivity gain above about forty hours a week; and working sixty hours a week might even decrease total output compared to working forty. I suspect this varies considerably by profession and type of labor, but speaking from personal experience, when I am exhausted, my philosophical work suffers. I can't read or write as quickly, creatively, and actively. My teaching energy declines and I'm more of a dud with my students. And I find myself spacing out or spending too much time on distractions like Facebook or my phone. I do my best work, focused and energetic, when I'm sleeping well and when I've been recharging and relaxing sufficiently on weekends and evenings.

    Now there are some unfortunate situations in academic labor, where one simply cannot trim down to a reasonably-sized workweek -- for example, if you're adjuncting at multiple campuses or being tyrannized by a demanding supervisor. But setting such regrettable cases aside, I don't think that most graduate students or tenure-track professors, in philosophy at least, need to regularly work more than 40-50 hours per week, except perhaps in exceptional crunch times, if they can work those 40-50 hours energetically and productively.

    (I am open to being corrected about the generalization above, across some ranges of situations. And in calling some situations "regrettable" I don't mean that they are merely regrettable in the sense that we should tolerate them with a sigh rather than activity fighting against the institutional practices that create those situations.)

    For example, I try to abide by the following policies:

    (1.) No academic work in the evening. (I do let myself check Facebook and read popular articles related to academia, and also to do other light reading related to my work, e.g., popular books by authors like Oliver Sacks or Steven Pinker.)

    (2.) No academic work on weekends. (Similar exceptions to those in the evening. Also, sometimes I travel on weekends.)

    (3.) One hour of exercise every morning. (Sometimes, if I have academic thoughts while exercising, e.g., about blog posts or papers, I will note them down in my phone to pursue later.)

    (4.) At least an eight-hour sleep opportunity. (I have some insomnia issues I'm working on, so I don't typically succeed in sleeping a full eight hours, but even relaxing eyes-closed in bed has some value.)

    (5.) A two-week holiday in the summer, and assorted vacation days throughout the year. (I don't take every federal holiday, but I more than make up for that with days off that aren't federal holidays.)

    (6.) Only four work-related out-of-town trips per year. (I've been pushing a bit higher sometimes with exceptional cases, though, and my trips are often multi-stop.)

    (7.) Regular Monday-Friday work hours. (Right now, it's about 9:00-6:15, which is a 46.25-hour week.)

    In grad school, I was miserable until I figured out better policies for myself. I felt like I needed to work as many hours as humanly possible, with the result that any time I wasn't working I was feeling guilty. My days were a blurred mix of working and half-working/half-not-working-and-feeling-guilty-about-it, with lots of hazy wasted time and unproductive eyes-glazed reading. Much better, for me, are bright lines between work and home, plus clear policies.

    These policies haven't interfered too much with my productivity. I have a light teaching load (1-2-1 on the quarter system, with teaching buy-outs sometimes), enabling more research publications than most philosophers have. With that caveat, in the last two years, I've published eight research articles (some co-authored), a co-edited anthology, two science fiction stories, and 17 minor or popular pieces. I am currently teaching a 400-student class on Evil (with 5 TAs), plus an honors section, plus a graduate seminar; and I am chairing five PhD dissertation students and an undergraduate honors thesis, and I'm hosting a visiting post-doc. Plus, I have my blog and a variety of (minor to moderate-sized) administrative duties. I have a book manuscript due in November and of course several other writing projects in progress.

    Maybe my work would be better if I spent more time on it? I'm not sure. But even if so, I suspect that the world will manage just fine.

    So if I don't quite get through my inbox today, please forgive me! Also, there might be some typos.

    [image source]

    ETA Oct. 26:

    While this post has generally had good reception, a number of people have expressed the view that in their academic jobs, they are forced to work over fifty hours per week either (a.) to keep their jobs, or (b.) to keep their jobs while also having time to do research work that they value, or (c.) to keep their jobs while also managing complex and demanding lives outside of work. (The background assumption here is that there is at least some productivity gain for working over fifty hours, which I'm sure is true for some people in some situations.) I don't deny this, and it is certainly not my intention to scold people in this position.