Thursday, August 15, 2019

Why I Write Weird Stuff, Like "Kant Meets Cyberpunk"

My paper "Kant Meets Cyberpunk" has finally appeared (published version, manuscript version). Yay!

I imagine someone asking, Eric, why do you write such weird stuff?

In "Kant Meets Cyberpunk", I entertain the possibility that we are artificial intelligences living inside a computer simulation. But unlike computer simulations as they are typically conceived, the computer that implements our reality is a non-physical thing, an immaterial spirit named Angel. Angel can implement any Turing-equivalent machine by sadly humming while shifting back and forth along an imagined musical score.

If that were the nature of our reality, transcendental idealism would be true. Spatiality would be a property not of things as they are in themselves, but rather the form of our empirical perceptions of things; and beneath the familiar world of empirical appearances would be a more fundamental reality that is unknowable to us. (This isn't full-blown Kantian transcendental idealism, but it knocks on Kant's door.)

Now, I suspect that you'll agree that this view is weird. I hope that is also fun, in a nerdy sort of way. Philosophers should celebrate weirdness and fun!

The weird and fun are intrinsically valuable. They are part of the richness and delightfulness of the world. But philosophical weirdness is especially useful, I think. Philosophical weirdness pushes against the boundaries of what we normally take for granted about the fundamental values and structures of the world.

The weird undercuts our expectations. And if it's also fun, it does it in a joyful, interesting way. This is true both in philosophy and in ordinary life. "She wore that to work? How weird and fun!"... and suddenly a new possibility is open. You could wear something weird too.

Philosophy has a wide range of possible functions. Different people might reasonably want different things from it. You might want the secure, sensible answer to an important question, for example. Or you might want to know what ideas were culturally influential in the past. Or you might want an ethical system that confirms your prejudices so that you can bludgeon your foes with formidable argumentation.

What I want most from philosophy, I find, is a sense of wonder. I want to challenge what I previously thought I knew. I want to feel awed by the strangeness, complexity, and incomprehensibility of the world. I want a philosophy that opens up new possibilities for me and induces interesting doubt, rather than one that primarily seeks to close possibilities by settling definitively on the right answer.

Right answers are great in a way, too, of course, and I wouldn't toss one away if I find it has landed in my hands. But I suspect we discover right answers much less in philosophy than we think we do, and thinking one has found the right answer typically incites a different mood than wonder -- a mood that is already abundant and doesn't need to be especially encouraged.

We are almost certainly not artificial intelligences living inside of a Turing-machine-equivalent angel sadly humming. But I think if we can insert that weird, fun idea into our possibility space, however tiny and remote the possibility, that opens up something philosophically valuable. The range of ways our (or at least someone's) world could be is wider and weirder than we might have previously assumed, and that's wonderful.

[image source]



On Trusting Your Sense of Fun (Jan 23, 2013)

Skepticism, Godzilla, and the Artificial Computerized Many-Branching You (Nov 15, 2013)

Common Sense, Science Fiction, and Weird, Uncharitable History of Philosophy (Apr 21, 2017)

How to Build an Immaterial Computer (Sep 25, 2017)

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Top Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazines 2019

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 past ten years.

Below is my list for 2019. (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.

(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 to 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. Asimov's (206.5 points)
2. Clarkesworld (163.5)
3. (162)
4. Fantasy & Science Fiction (142.5)
5. Lightspeed (116)
6. Subterranean (73) (ceased 2014)
7. Analog (56.5)
8. Uncanny (54) (started 2014)
9. Strange Horizons (49.5)
10. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (48)
11. Interzone (43)
12. Apex (28.5)
13. Fantasy Magazine (24.5) (merged into Lightspeed 2012, occasional special issues thereafter)
14. Nightmare (18.5) (started 2012)
15. Fireside (10) (started 2012)
16t. Postscripts (9) (ceased short fiction in 2014)
16t. The New Yorker (9)
18. Slate / Future Tense (7.5)
19t. Black Static (7)
19t. Realms of Fantasy (7) (ceased 2011)
21t. McSweeney's (6)
21t. Shimmer (6) (ceased 2018)
23t. Electric Velocipede (5.5) (ceased 2013)
23t. Sirenia Digest (5.5)
23t. The Dark (5.5) (started 2013)
26t. Conjunctions (5)
26t. GigaNotoSaurus (5)
26t. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (5)
29t. Fiyah (4.5) (started 2017)
29t. Intergalactic Medicine Show (4.5) (ceased 2019)
29t. Omni (4.5) (classic science/SF magazine, restarted 2017)
29t. Terraform (4.5) (started 2014)
29t. Tin House (4.5)
34. Boston Review (4)
35t. Cosmos (3)
35t. Helix SF (3) (ceased 2008)
35t. Jim Baen's Universe (3) (ceased 2010)
38t. Buzzfeed (2.5)
38t. Harper's (2.5)
38t. Kaleidotrope (2.5)
38t. Lone Star Stories (2.5) (ceased 2009)
38t. Matter (2.5) (started 2011)
38t. Paris Review (2.5)
38t. Weird Tales (2.5) (ceased 2014)
45t. Abyss & Apex (2)
45t. Augur (2) (started 2018)
45t. B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog (2)
45t. Beloit Fiction Journal (2)
45t. Mothership Zeta (2) (started 2015)
50t. Black Gate (1.5)
50t. Daily Science Fiction (1.5)
50t. e-flux journal (1.5)
50t. Flurb (1.5) (ceased 2012)


(1.) The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney's, Conjunctions, Harper's, Beloit Fiction Journal, Boston Review, and Paris Review are literary magazines that occasionally publish science fiction or fantasy. Cosmos, Slate, and Buzzfeed are popular magazines that publish a bit of science fiction on the side. e-flux is a wide-ranging arts journal. 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. (67.5)
2. Clarkesworld (63.5)
3. Lightspeed (51.5)
4. Uncanny (48)
5. Asimov's (47)
6. F&SF (36.5)
7. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (29.5)
8. Analog (17.5)
9. Apex (14)
10. Strange Horizons (14)
11. Nightmare (12)
12. Fireside (10.5)
13. Interzone (8.5)
14. Slate / Future Tense (8)

The classic "big three" print SF magazines are Asimov's, F&SF, and Analog. The three-year list makes clearer how these paid-subscription magazines have been increasingly challenged in importance by a trio of free online magazines, all founded 2006-2010:, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed -- plus relative newcomer Uncanny, founded in 2014.

These three-year results also confirm, I think, my decision to use a ten-year window. For example, my impression from chatting with people in the field is that Asimov's is still arguably the most prestigious venue in the mind of the median SF insider, though increasingly challenged by Clarkesworld and -- just what the ten-year results say.

(3.) Looking back on my original 2014 list, I'm struck by these differences:

(a.) More magazines are represented in 2019. Twenty-nine magazines appear on the 2014 list; fifty-four appear now. Now, that's not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, since my methodology changed in 2015 to include the Locus list and go down to 1.5 points. However, the more comparable 2015 list still only contains forty magazines. Although several magazines have closed since 2014, overall there are now more opportunities to publish in venues that are regularly read by Locus editors and Best-of editors and awards nominators. I credit the rise of online magazines, which are less expensive to publish.

(b.) The falloff between the top-ranked and the mid-ranked magazines is less steep in 2019 than it was in 2014. For example, in 2014, the top ranked magazine (Asimov's) earned 8 times as many points as the tenth ranked magazine (Lightspeed). In 2019, the 1st:10th ratio was only 4 to 1. I'm inclined to credit, again, the rise of free online magazines. The rise of such magazines means that publication outside of the bigger circulation print magazines doesn't doom your story to obscurity. This makes it easier for authors to choose other magazines that they personally like for whatever reason. Another factor might be better communication among authors, allowing authors to find magazines that are a good fit for their stories.

(c.) The relative decline of Asimov's and F&SF. Both are still terrific magazines, of course! But in 2014 they were far ahead of all other contenders: 197 and 146 points respectively, while no other magazine had even a third as many points. F&SF is now 4th. Asimov's is still 1st, but based on the past three years' data, it looks quite possible that Clarkesworld or will soon claim the #1 spot.

(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.) Check out Nelson Kingfisher's analysis of acceptance rates and response times for most of the magazines above.

(6.) 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; or check out the reboot of Amazing Stories, which I hope will soon qualify for my list!]

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Bleg: Syllabi for Courses on Philosophy and Science Fiction

If you teach a class on philosophy and science fiction, I would love to see your syllabus!

Here's why. Rich Horton and I are working on an anthology of previously published science fiction stories. Working title: Best Philosophical Science Fiction in the History of All Earth. We want to live up to the ambitious title! We want to collect the most philosophically interesting science fiction stories ever written, in any time period, from any culture.

One starting point is this list I compiled of about 500 recommendations of philosophically interesting speculative fiction. Syllabae from courses on philosophy and science fiction would be another terrific starting point. Furthermore, since we're hoping that the anthology will used in courses on philosophy and science fiction, we'd like a sense what stories people are already successfully using in their teaching.

Between Rich's skill and experience as a science fiction editor and mine as a philosopher deeply engaged in science fiction, I think we have a chance to put together a really terrific anthology that comes somewhat close to living up to the ambition of our title. But we could use your help. Spread the word and send syllabae to eschwitz at domain!

We would also value recommendations and suggestions as comments to this post.

[Image: Le Guin's Omelas. Of course we'll include this story!]

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Industrial-Grade Realism about Beliefs That P

I favor a dispositional approach to belief according to which believing something resembles having a personality trait. You believe, or you have a personality trait, to the extent you have a dispositional profile that approximates a certain ideal. To be extraverted, for example, is to be disposed, in general, to enjoy parties, to like meeting new people, to be talkative in social contexts, etc. Similarly, to believe that women and men are equally academically intelligent is to be disposed, in general, to affirm that it is so, to expect academically intelligent remarks from women no less than men, to be as ready to hire a woman as a man for a job requiring academic intelligence, etc. To believe that there is beer in the fridge is to be disposed, in general, to act and react beer-in-the-fridge-ishly (going to the fridge if one wants a beer, etc.).

(Historically, dispositional approaches are rooted in the behaviorist tradition, but my own dispositionalism focuses not just on behavioral dispositions but also phenomenal dispositions [e.g., not reacting with a feeling of surprise] and cognitive dispositions [e.g., engaging in a pattern of conscious reasoning that only makes sense on the background assumption that P is true].)

My view is a kind of soft instrumentalism: The belief that P is not some thing in the head. Rather, when we attribute a belief, we are using a shorthand that approximately captures, in Daniel Dennett's phrase, a "real pattern" in a complex landscape of potential actions and reactions. Believing that P no more requires a real stored representation with the content "P" than being an extravert requires a switch flipped to "E" in your personality-settings box.

There's an alternative view that I will label industrial-grade realism (again adapting a phrase from Dennett). According to industrial-grade realism, believing that P normally requires that a representation with the content "P" be stored somewhere in the functional architecture of the mind, ready to be activated and deployed when one does belief-that-P-ish things like, in our examples, criticizing a colleague's apparent sexism or strolling over to the fridge for a beer. Industrial-grade realism seems to undergird Jake Quilty-Dunn and Eric Mandelbaum's recent critique of my dispositionalist account, and was perhaps most prominently advocated by Jerry Fodor (e.g., in his 1987 book).

To my ear, the following four theses seem to be implicit in the industrial-grade realism of Fodor, Quilty-Dunn, and Mandelbaum. If not, I'd be interested to see textual evidence that they reject them.

Presence. In normal (non-"tacit") cases, belief that P requires that a representation with the content P be present somewhere in the mind.

Discreteness. In normal (non-"marginal") cases, a representation P will be either discretely present in or discretely absent from a cognitive system or subsystem.

Kinematics. Rational actions arise from the causal interaction of beliefs that P and desires that Q, in virtue of their specific contents P and Q.

Specificity. Rational action arises from the activation or retrieval of some specific sets of beliefs and desires P1…n and Q1…n and not from possibly closely logically related beliefs and desires P'1…m and Q'1…m.

[Beliefs that P, hard at work]

These four theses combined constitute a commitment to a very specific type of cognitive architecture. This architecture seems to me to be rather in keeping with the old-fashioned cognitive science and computer science of the 1970s and 1980s -- so it's easy to see why Fodor would have been attracted to it. It fits less easily, however, with deep learning, statistical approaches to memory of visual ensembles, and other recent approaches according to which cognition proceeds by means of processes that are highly complex, not especially language-like, and don't employ representational structures that map neatly onto the types of belief contents that we normally attribute to people (like "there is beer in the fridge").

Let me pose, then, this trilemma for industrial-grade realists:

(1.) Commit to the four theses and the seemingly old-fashioned cognitive architecture. Downside: This would be a risky empirical bet against some powerful recent trends.

(2.) Allow the possibility that the underlying representations are very different in structure and content than "women and men are intellectually equal" and "there's beer in the fridge". Downside: It is no longer clear what the causal story is supposed to be, about which realism is true. Heading to the fridge for beer because one believes there is beer in the fridge is now no longer explained by accessing a representation with the content "there is beer in the fridge". Furthermore, closely related views might also require major revision. Having specific propositional contents that can be verbally expressed and shared among people is part of the picture behind, for example, Fodor's anti-holism (see also my critique of Elizabeth Camp). Specifically P and not-P contents also seems central to Mandelbaum's contradictory-belief account of implicit bias.

(3.) Thread the needle: Go for something weaker and less architecturally commissive than the four theses, yet strong enough to be a substantive empirical commitment to the real causal power of representations of P when we believe that P. Downsides: As far as I can tell, both of the above.

The dispositional approach to attitudes is superficial in a certain respect: It doesn't commit to any underlying architectural implementation. As long you have the appropriate dispositional patterns of action and reaction, you believe, whatever unintuitive haywire architecture lies beneath. This superficiality is a virtue, not a vice. In cognitive science it leave questions open which should remain open about the underlying architecture, and it keeps the focus on what we philosophers and ordinary belief-ascribers do and should care about in thinking about belief: how we act in and react to the world.

[image source]

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Disadvantages of a Lingua Franca in Philosophy

A common language for academic discourse has an obvious advantage: Everyone can communicate, without need of translators, both orally and in writing. That's pretty awesome! We can approach the ideal of a unified global scholarly community to which anyone with the right training can contribute.

The downsides are maybe less visible to those of us who are native speakers of English, the current lingua franca of academia. The significance of these downsides varies by discipline and is probably larger for the arts and humanities, including philosophy, than for the sciences.

(For evidence that Anglophone philosophers, at least, treat English as the lingua franca of philosophy by almost never citing work written in other languages, see my recent article with Huang, Higgins, and Gonzalez-Cabrera.)

Here are three disadvantages of treating English as the common language of philosophical scholarship.

1. The current situation puts disproportionate burdens on non-native speakers. This is obvious on reflection, but easy for native speakers to forget. In their introduction to a special journal issue on "Linguistic Injustice and Analytic Philosophy", Filippo Contesi and Enrico Terrone highlight some of the burdens. Non-native speakers must spend enormous time learning English or be shut out of global academic discussion. Unless they are highly fluent, they will read more slowly and fail to understand some nuances or idioms. Unless they are highly fluent or exert great effort, their prose might seem awkward or clunky to native speakers. They might also face implicit or explicit prejudice in face-to-face discussion, if they have a heavy accent or a less confident speaking style. I invite my readers who are native English-speaking philosophers to imagine how difficult it would be to write all of their philosophy articles in German and always speak in German at talks and conferences. How much less you would probably publish -- and how much harder it would be to escape the periphery of the field!

In a multi-linguistic regime, everyone would bear linguistic burdens. Native English speakers would sometimes need to read works in other languages to stay at the cutting edge of their field. I had personal experience of this while researching 19th and early 20th century psychology for my book on introspection, which required me to read untranslated works in French, German, Spanish, and (I tried!) Czech.

One advantage of English as a lingua franca is that at least some people are relieved of linguistic burdens, even if the distribution of the remaining burdens isn't entirely fair. To this I respond: The burden of reading in another language, especially with new machine-translation tools, is much less than the burden of writing in that language. Yes, machine translation is far from perfect. The proper reading of machine-translated scholarly articles requires substantial familiarity with the original language, looking side-by-side at the original and the machine translation. But the skills required for reading machine translations are vastly less than the skills required for fluent writing -- perhaps especially writing in the arts and humanities. So although in a multi-lingual regime everyone would bear some language-learning costs, the total costs might be less overall. (There would also be an important role for Schliesser-style translator-advocates.)

2. In philosophy, and probably generally across the arts and humanities, the nuances of ordinary language matter. In the sciences, the substance of articles tends to depend on equations, experimental results, and technical vocabulary that is regularized across the discipline. Philosophy, in contrast, seems often to require an ear for linguistic nuance and often relies on concepts that are language-specific. Consequently, there is a risk that an Anglophone-dominated academic community will agree to, or assume, philosophical views that they would not have agreed to or assumed had a different language been dominant.

Much of my academic work, for example, concerns belief. What is it to believe a proposition? Can someone truly be said to believe something (such as that women and men are equally intelligent) if they sincerely say it but don't act and react generally as though it is true? Can we know a proposition that we don't quite believe? It is unclear to me to what extent my work, and other philosophers' work on belief, relies on English-language-specific intuitions. Friends of mine who speak other languages sometimes tell me that the English concept of belief, and perhaps especially the English-language-philosopher's concept of belief, doesn't map neatly and intuitively onto any of the terms in their languages that are ordinarily used to translate "believe", such as glauben (in German) and creer (in Spanish).

Similarly, a seminal paper by Edouard Machery and others in 2004 has launched a minor subfield exploring the question of whether English-language philosophers' judgments about the referents of proper names -- judgments that are central to philosophy of language as it is often practiced -- are cross-culturally robust.

Drawing on my knowledge of classical Chinese philosophy, some of the concepts those philosophers found natural don't have straightforward translations into English, and reflect ways of seeing or conceptualizing the world that are worth considering. De (德), for example, which is often translated "virtue" or "power", might combine something like moral virtue and social power into a single concept, rooted in the Confucian and Daoist tradition according to which if one has (Confucian or Daoist) moral virtue, a kind of power and social influence is apt to follow. An English-language philosopher, of course, could invent such a concept, even with no knowledge of Chinese -- but the classical Chinese word de (德) interestingly invites and facilitates that way of thinking.

Philosophy should, I think, prize having a wide diversity of terms, concepts, and intuitions about linguistic use, which can be compared and selected among. If English is too dominant, we risk being excessively predisposed to concepts and patterns of thought that are comfortable in English. This might be true, though presumably to a lesser extent, even for philosophers whose native language is not English, if they conduct most of their philosophical work in English.

3. Robust, partially separate traditions can nurture diversity of thought. Academic philosophy is subject to trends. In the 1990s, Twin Earth thought experiments were hot. In the past five years or so, implicit bias has become hot. There's nothing wrong with this. (Some of my own recent work concerns implicit bias.) But one of the risks of a linguistic monoculture is that scholars tend to read the same things, get caught up in the same trends, and have the same range of thoughts as a result. There's value in having different philosophical cultures whose participants focus on different sets of canonical works, focus on different ranges of questions, and regard different background concepts and ideas as the default -- and who then engage respectfully as equals with scholars from different cultures. We lose an important source of cognitive diversity if training in "philosophy of mind", for example, involves the same range of canonical texts for scholars across the world.

Here again, the situation in the arts and humanities might differ from the situation in the sciences. In the arts and humanities, including in philosophy, diversity of perspective is intrinsically important. Indeed, I would suggest, the value of the arts of humanities is to a substantial extent constituted by the ability of those disciplines to reveal a wide range of possible thoughts and values.

In Big Bang cosmology and plate tectonics, perhaps, we just want to get at the scientific truth. Although philosophy and the other arts and humanities can and do aim at uncovering truths, they also do something else equally important. They invite readers to challenge their own values and perspectives. They do this not necessarily to replace those values and perspectives with better alternatives, but because part of understanding the human condition is understanding how different things can look when you step outside of your familiar frameworks. A linguistic monoculture with English at the center deprives academic philosophy, especially native English speakers, of the philosophical and cognitive benefits of vividly engaging alternative literatures and conceptual frameworks from different linguistic traditions.

[image modified from here]

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Lower-Ranked PhD-Programs in Philosophy Admit Students from a Wide Range of U.S. Undergraduate Institutions

A few weeks ago, I published an analysis of the undergraduate institution of origin of students in elite U.S. philosophy PhD programs (top-ten ranked in the Philosophy Gourmet Report). Compiling available information from departmental websites, I found that 60% of the non-foreign students in those programs hailed from elite undergraduate institutions (top 25 research universities or top 15 liberal arts colleges in US News, plus a handful of other schools with elite reputations specifically in philosophy). Only 11% hailed from nationally unranked schools. Students with foreign degrees similarly tended to have elite pedigrees, including an amazing 24% from Oxford alone.

Several readers suggested that I look at lower-ranked PhD programs in philosophy, to see if they draw from a more diverse range of undergraduate institutions. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it turns out that they do.


I looked at U.S. philosophy PhD programs ranked 30-50 in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. Of these universities, information on graduate students' undergraduate institution of origin was easily available online for eight programs: U.C. Riverside (where I am faculty), Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Miami, Maryland, U.C. Davis, Texas A&M, and U.C. Santa Barbara. For each student with available information I noted: undergraduate institution of origin, undergraduate major, most recent prior graduate institution if any, and most recent graduate major if any.

I used the same classification of "elite" programs as in my previous post: the top 25 U.S. News ranked "national universities", the top 15 ranked "national liberal arts colleges", plus for reasons specific to philosophy, NYU, Rutgers, Michigan, Pitt, and Reed. (See previous post for discussion.)

I found information for the most recent institution for 214 students. Of these, I had undergraduate institution for 196 students. For the remaining students, information was either available only for prior graduate institution or it did not specify undergraduate vs graduate.

[a UC Riverside graduate student, after having taken my recent seminar on the rights of aliens, robots, and monsters]

Foreign vs. U.S. Undergraduate Degrees

Among the 196 students with undergraduate institution specified, 163 (84%) hailed from U.S. institutions -- 177/214 (83%) if we consider most recent institution when undergrad institution is unavailable. This compares with 70% of students at elite PhD programs, a statistically significant difference (z = 3.7, p < .001). About a third of students in elite U.S. PhD programs did their undergraduate work outside of the U.S., compared with about a sixth of students in lower-ranked programs.

Percentage from Elite Undergraduate Programs

Among students with U.S. undergraduate degrees, 26% (42/164) hailed from "elite" undergraduate programs. As mentioned above, 60% of my sample of student elite PhD programs hailed from elite undergraduate institutions -- obviously a huge difference (z = 6.5, p < .001).

According to data I've compiled from the National Center for Educational Statistics, 15% of graduating philosophy majors nationwide hail from the programs I have classified as elite. (Although elite schools are a small percentage of schools overall, some, such as UCLA and Penn, graduate huge numbers of philosophy majors.) Thus, students who hail from elite undergraduate institutions appear to be somewhat disproportionately represented among PhD students at lower-ranked PhD programs -- though not of course by nearly as much as at elite PhD programs.

Students at elite philosophy PhD programs will mostly encounter peers from places like Berkeley, Harvard, Oxford, and Williams. Students at lower-ranked PhD programs will encounter peers with a much wider range of undergraduate experiences. I'm inclined to think that students' perceptions of the sociology of the discipline might differ as a result.

To be clear, all students in this analysis are classified based on their undergraduate institution, even if they had subsequent graduate work.

Percentage from Undergraduate Programs That Are Not Nationally Ranked

Only a minority of U.S. colleges and universities are nationally ranked by U.S. News. For example, of the 23 universities in the California State University system, which awards about 100,000 undergraduate degrees every year, only four are nationally ranked. In my sample, 21% (34/164) of students hailed from unranked undergraduate institutions -- compared to only 11% among students in elite PhD programs (z = 2.5, p = .01).

It is possible that nationally ranked universities and liberal arts colleges, despite being a minority of universities and colleges overall, award the majority of philosophy bachelor's degrees nationwide. (Consider that the 45 elite schools alone award 15%.) I don't have more specific data, so I don't know how far from representative 21% is.

Of the 34 students from nationally unranked schools, 13 (38%) had prior graduate work before enrolling in their current PhD program (compared to 9/20 in the sample from elite PhD programs). Thus for some but not a majority of these students, graduate study, such as in a terminal M.A. program, served as a stepping stone into a PhD program.

Percentage with Philosophy Majors

Among students in elite PhD programs, the overwhelming majority had completed philosophy majors: 87% had majored in philosophy as undergraduates, and 96% had a philosophy major at either the undergraduate or the graduate level. The percentages were only slightly lower in the lower-ranked PhD programs. Of 153 with undergraduate major information, 125 (82%) had a philosophy major or related major like logic. Of 166 with either graduate or undergraduate major listed, 150 (90%) majored in philosophy at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Half of the exceptions (8 out of 16) were at Carnegie Mellon, mostly math or computer science majors transitioning into CMU's famously tech-friendly philosophy PhD program.

Prior Graduate Work

Of students whose most recent institution was in the U.S., a slender majority, 54% (90/168), had some prior graduate work before enrolling in their current PhD program. Among U.S. students enrolled in elite philosophy PhD programs, only 27% had prior graduate work (z = 5.2, p < .001). (ETA: Foreign students are a different matter.)

About half of the students with prior graduate work did that work at well-regarded terminal MA programs. Terminal MA programs with at least 3 students in my sample included Wisconsin-Milwaukee (10), San Francisco State (9), Georgia State (7), Northern Illinois (5), Brandeis (4), Tufts (4), Virginia Tech (4), and Texas Tech (3).

The Surprising Absence of Oxford and Cambridge

In my sample of students in elite philosophy PhD programs, 24 (9%) reported Oxford as their most recent prior institution -- a strikingly large percentage, given that Oxford is only one university of thousands in the world. In contrast, among the lower ranked programs I am analyzing today, not a single student had Oxford listed as their most recent prior institution (though one student did have Oxford listed among institutions they had earlier attended).

Similarly, my sample of students at elite U.S. PhD programs contains 8 students from Cambridge. However, no students from Cambridge appear in my sample from lower-ranked PhD programs.

These numbers include both native U.K. students and students from U.S. undergraduate institutions who later did graduate study in Oxford or Cambridge (15 students in the elite-PhD-program sample).

I'm unsure why, but once one has studied at Oxford or Cambridge, whether as a U.K. student or as a foreign student, the step down in prestige to a lower-ranked U.S. PhD program appears to be unlikely.


Based on my earlier post, students from lower-ranked or unranked U.S. undergraduate institutions might feel pessimistic about their chances of admission to a top-ranked PhD program in philosophy. However, lower-ranked PhD programs appear to admit students from a much more representative swath of U.S. colleges and universities. About half of these students do some other graduate-level work first, and about half jump straight in.

[image source]


Appendix: Undergraduate institutions of origin, full list:

Elite (34): Harvard, Chicago, Yale (2), Columbia (2), Stanford, Dartmouth, Rice (2), UCLA (3), Berkeley (5), Georgetown, Virginia (2), Amherst College, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Middlebury, Bowdoin, Pomona College, Haverford (3), Washington & Lee, Smith College, Michigan, NYU (4), Rutgers (2), Pitt (3).

Nationally ranked universities (61): Tufts, UNC Chapel Hill, UCSB, Brandeis, University of Florida, UC Davis (4), William & Mary, UCSD (2), Ohio State (3), Maryland (2), Texas A&M, U Mass Amherst, UC Santa Cruz (2), Minnesota, Virginia Tech (2), Baylor, American University, U of Iowa, U of Delaware, Loyola-Chicago, Saint Louis U, Temple, U of Arizona, Arizona State (2), Auburn, U of Utah, U of South Florida, Illinois-Chicago, New School, U of Central Florida, Houston, Rowan, Ball State, Wyoming, Texas Tech (2), U Mass Boston (2), Colorado-Denver, Cal State Fresno, New Mexico State, U of Akron, U of New Orleans (2), San Francisco State, Indiana U of Pennsylvania, Northern Arizona, Portland State (2), Texas-El Paso, U of North Texas.

Nationally ranked liberal arts colleges (27): Colgate (2), US Military Academy, Macalaster College, Mount Holyoke (2), Whitman (2), Rhodes College, Dickinson, St Olaf, College of Wooster, Wheaton College (2), New College of Florida, Augustana, Saint Anselm, Lake Forest, Hanover College, Westminster College, Saint Vincent, William Jewell, Gordon College, Guilford, Bard, Carthage College, Fort Lewis College.

Unranked (34): American Military U, Appalachian State, Austin Peay State, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (2), Cal State Dominguez Hills, Cal State Stanislaus, Calvin College, College of Charleston, Converse College, Drury (2), Evergreen State, Flagler, Gonzaga (2), Green Mountain College, Humboldt State, John Carroll U, Loyola-New Orleans, Marywood, Millikin U, Salisbury, San Jose State, Stetson, SUNY Geneseo, Taylor, U of Michigan-Flint, U of North Carolina-Wilmington, U of Portland, U of Redlands, Valparaiso, Western Washington (2).

Foreign (33): American University of Beirut, Barcelona, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, Hull, King's College, Korea Military Academy, Korea University, Leiden University, Lingnan, London School of Economics, Monash, National Chung Cheng University, National Taiwan U, National U of Columbia, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ottawa, Peking U, Renmin University (2), Sapienza U of Rome, Seoul National University (2), Toronto, U Bocconi, U of Canterbury, U of Latvia, U of Tehran, Uganda Martyrs University, UNAM (2), University College Dublin, Yale NUS, York (Canada).

Note: In cases of ambiguity, I interpreted the origin university to be the best-ranked university among the possibilities, e.g., I interpreted "Michigan" as U of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Ethics Classes Can Influence Student Behavior: Students Purchase Less Meat after Discussing Arguments for Vegetarianism

by Eric Schwitzgebel, Bradford Cokelet, and Peter Singer

[poster presentation for the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, 2019 meeting]

All data and analyses are tentative, pending final checks and peer review.


Work by Haidt (2012) and Schwitzgebel & Rust (2016) suggests that philosophical ethical argumentation might have little influence on real-world moral behavior.

However, to our knowledge there are no existing ecologically valid studies of the influence of university-level philosophy classes on non-laboratory, non-self-reported moral behavior.


1143 undergraduates in four large lower-division classes at U.C. Riverside.


Half of students were required to read a philosophy article defending vegetarianism (Rachels 2004), followed by a group discussion section and an optional advocacy video.

The other half received similar materials and discussion on charitable giving.

Opinion Measure

Later that week, students received an anonymous questionnaire asking their opinion about four moral issues.

The target question was “Eating the meat of factory farmed animals is unethical” with response options from “strongly agree” (+3) to “strongly disagree” (-3).

Behavioral Measure

We examined campus dining card purchase data for 5,981 campus food purchases from 476 students for whom data were available.

Only purchases of at least $4.99 were included.

Purchases were coded as either vegetarian or non-vegetarian.

Results: Opinion

In the meat ethics group, 43% of respondents agreed (+1 to +3) that eating the meat of factory farmed animals is unethical, compared to 29% in the charitable giving control group (z = 5.0, p < .001; mean +0.12 vs -0.46, t(1029) = 5.6, p < .001).

Responses to other ethical questions, including one about charitable giving, did not differ between the groups.

Results: Purchase Behavior

In the control group, 52% of purchases included meat, both before and after the discussion section.

In the meat ethics group, meat purchases declined from 52% to 45% (z = 3.3, p = .001).

Participant-by-participant among students with purchases both before and after the discussion:

  • The control group averaged 53% meat purchases both before and after.
  • The meat ethics group averaged 56% meat purchases before and 45% after (paired t(162) = 4.3, p < .001).
  • Monday, July 01, 2019

    Elite Philosophy PhD Programs Mostly Admit Students from Other Elite Schools (or Sorry, Cal State Undergrads, No Berkeley Grad School for You!)

    Do elite PhD programs in the U.S. admit mostly students from elite undergraduate backgrounds? Let's look at the numbers. (Spoiler alert: yes.)

    Let's call a U.S.-based PhD program in philosophy "elite" if it is among the top ten ranked programs in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. Let's call a U.S. college or university elite if it is among the top 25 "national research universities" or the top 15 "national liberal arts colleges" in US News & World Report. For purposes of philosophy PhD admissions specifically, let's add five more schools to this elite list: NYU, Rutgers, Michigan, and Pitt due to the the top-five PGR ranking of their philosophy PhD programs, and Reed College, which has a well-deserved reputation as an elite liberal arts college, especially among philosophers, despite its notoriously low US News ranking. This yields 13 elite PhD programs in philosophy in the U.S. (due to a five-way tie for 9th) and 46 elite U.S. colleges and universities that they might draw from (due to a two-way tie for 25th among national research universities). Of course all such rankings are imperfect.

    To assess the undergraduate background of students in the top ten programs, I examined student information on departments' websites. Undergraduate institution was readily available for philosophy PhD students on the websites of 8 of the 13 elite PhD programs: NYU, Rutgers, Michigan, Pitt, Yale, USC, Columbia, and Berkeley. The biggest systematic shortcoming in the data was that Columbia provided information for only about half of their listed graduate students. In all, the departmental websites listed 332 current or recently completed PhD students. The most recent previous educational institution was available for 281 students (85%) and undergraduate institution was unambiguously available for 252 students (76%).[1]

    Foreign Students

    The primary analysis concerns U.S. students. Therefore, I excluded from analysis 83 students whose most recent degree was from a non-U.S. university who did not unambiguously receive an undergraduate degree from a U.S. university.[2] This constituted 30% of the 281 students for whom most recent previous educational institution was available.

    If this estimate is accurate, elite philosophy PhD programs have a larger proportion of foreign students than do nonelite philosophy PhD programs: The National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates shows only 14% of recipients of philosophy PhDs in 2017 to have been temporary visa holders.

    Elite universities are highly represented among the 100 students whose most recent previous university was non-U.S.: 24 (!) were from Oxford, 10 from Toronto, 8 from Cambridge, 5 from McGill, and 4 from St Andrews. Half of the students hailed from just these five universities. Many (but not all) of the rest hailed from universities that count among the most elite in their respective countries, such as Peking (Beijing), Pisa, and UNAM.[3]

    Graduate Study Before the PhD

    The primary analysis concerns U.S. undergraduate institution. However, it is also interesting to examine graduate study before the PhD. Of 176 the students whose most recent institution was in the U.S. (excluding five with unclear information), 48 (27%) had Master's degrees, law degrees, or similar graduate work. Thus, contrary to some rumors, most U.S. students in elite PhD programs are admitted straight from undergraduate study. (ETA: In contrast, the majority of non-U.S. students had prior graduate training.)

    Most students with previous graduate degrees attended an elite university or a leading terminal Master's program: Nineteen of the 48 hailed from one of the five terminal M.A. programs described as "very strong" in the PGR (Tufts, Brandeis, Georgia State, Northern Illinois, and Milwaukee) and another fourteen hailed from elite national universities (Harvard, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale). Just six universities accounted for more than half of U.S. students' prior graduate degrees: Harvard, Milwaukee, Northern Illinois, Stanford, Tufts, and Yale.[4]

    The Majority of U.S. Students in Elite PhD Programs Received Their Bachelor's Degrees from Other Elite Schools

    Using the definitions of "elite" above, and treating the available data as representative, the majority of U.S. students in elite philosophy PhD programs received their undergraduate degrees from other elite schools.

    Of the 183 students with listed U.S. undergraduate degrees, 106 (60%) hailed from elite schools. Five universities contributed at least eight students to the list, that is, at least one student per examined PhD program: Berkeley (10), Chicago (10), NYU (10), Harvard (8), and Stanford (8). These five schools alone are responsible for 25% of listed students. Several other elite schools contributed at least four students each: Rutgers (6), Princeton (5), Yale (5), Dartmouth (4), Reed (4), and Williams (4).[5] Each of the top ten ranked national universities contributed at least one student.

    Only a Small Percentage of Students Are from Unranked Schools

    I count 20 students total (11%) from schools that are not nationally ranked in US News. (These schools are all regionally ranked.) Represented are: Cal Baptist, Calvin College (3), Cedarville, College of Charleston, Columbia College, CUNY Brooklyn, James Madison, Loyola Marymount, Middle Tennessee, Missouri-Kansas City, Providence College, Simon's Rock, Spring Arbor, St Thomas, SUNY Geneseo, Trinity University (2), and Western Washington. Nine of these students received M.A. degrees elsewhere before moving on to the PhD, and another spent time at Oxford. This list contains only ten students from nationally unranked schools who appear to have made the leap straight into an elite PhD program without training elsewhere.

    Bear in mind that most U.S. universities are not nationally ranked. For example, of the 23 universities in the California State University system, which awards about 100,000 undergraduate degrees every year, only four are nationally ranked. Not a single student with an undergraduate degree from Cal State appears on the list. (There are three students, however, from the well regarded terminal M.A. programs at CSULA and San Francisco State.)

    Even nationally ranked but nonelite colleges and universities are only sparsely represented. Although you might think that national universities ranked 51-100 would graduate a large number of philosophy majors ready for graduate study, only 13 students from this group of universities appear on the list (excluding Rutgers and Pitt) -- not many more students from these 48 universities combined than from Berkeley, Chicago, or NYU alone. In my twenty-two years at UC Riverside (ranked 85 among national universities), I have never seen a student admitted to a top-ten ranked philosophy PhD program.[6]

    But Maybe Elite Schools Generate More Philosophy Majors?

    Looking at data from the National Center for Education Statistics, I find 829 schools that have awarded at least one Bachelor's degree in philosophy (IPEDS category 38.01) in the seven years from 2011-2017. However, elite schools and schools with very strong philosophy faculties do tend to graduate many more philosophy majors on average than do other universities. For example, the two schools that graduated the most philosophy majors in that period are both top 25 research universities: Penn (915) and UCLA (888).[7]

    In 2011-2017, the 46 schools I have classified as elite awarded 9,174 philosophy BAs, while the remaining 783 schools awarded 51,078 philosophy BAs. If we consider this to be approximately the pool of students from which my list of students at elite PhD programs is drawn, then approximately 1.2% of philosophy graduates from elite schools appear on my list, while 0.15% of graduates from nonelite schools do so. A rough estimate, taking into account missing data, students who enter PhD programs without an undergraduate major in philosophy, and students who are admitted but who choose a lower ranked program or drop out early, maybe about 2.5% of philosophy majors from elite schools gain admission to top-ten ranked PhD programs in philosophy and maybe about 0.3% of philosophy graduates from nonelite schools do.

    What Percentage Had Philosophy Majors?

    One hundred ninety-three students had undergraduate major information listed. Of these, 167 (87%) majored in philosophy or a cognate discipline like History and Philosophy of Science -- sometimes with a double major. Of the 26 without an undergraduate major in philosophy, 18 (69%) had previous graduate work in philosophy. Thus, 96% of students had either an undergraduate degree or previous graduate work in philosophy.

    What Explains the Phenomenon?

    I don't conclude that admissions committees are being unfair, much less explicitly elitist. Maybe students from Berkeley and Chicago really are much better. Or maybe students from elite universities are more skilled specifically at the task of producing writing samples and personal statements that will delight admissions committees. (My advice for students seeking admittance to PhD programs in philosophy, which I have begun to update, is intended in part to help mitigate that particular advantage.) Or maybe the epistemic task of discerning the genuinely most promising applicants is so difficult that committees need to play the odds and the odds almost always say that the Berkeley student is more likely to succeed than the Cal State student. Or maybe so much turns on the credibility of the letter writers that students whose letter writers aren't well known can't really be fully evaluated. Or, or, or, or.

    But regardless how innocent the explanation, it's a shame. I am sure there are many potentially excellent philosophers from nonelite schools who are missing terrific educational and career opportunities because students from elite schools have such a large competitive advantage.


    Note 1: In a few ambigous cases, I assumed that a student's last listed university was their most recent. For example, "he comes by way of Wesleyan and Princeton" was coded as ambiguous regarding which college awarded the undergraduate degree, with Princeton as the most recent previous institution.

    Note 2: 100 students' most recent degree was from a non-U.S. university. Of these, 17 unambiguously had a U.S. undergraduate degree. Strikingly, 12 of these 17 attended Oxford.

    Note 3: The full list of foreign universities is: Amsterdam (2), ANU, Auckland, Barcelona, Birkbeck (2), British Colombia, Buenos Aires, Cambridge (8), Cape Town, Carleton Univ., China (unspecified), Edinburgh (3), Frankfurt, Freie Univ. Berlin, Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem (2), Humboldt Univ. Berlin, King's College (3), Ludwig Maximilian (2), McGill (5), Melbourne, Oxford (24), Peking, Pisa, Queens, Queensland (2), Ruhr Univ. Bochum, Seoul, Sheffield, Simon Fraser, St Andrews (4), Sydney, Tel Aviv, Toronto (10), Tubingen, Univ. of Hong Kong, Univ. of Paris, University College London (2), UNAM, Univ. Catolica Peru, Univ. de los Andes, University College Dublin, Wits South Africa, Wuhan, and Yale-NUS. [Corrected Jul 8, 2019]

    Note 4: The full list is: Arizona State, Brandeis (3), Brown, Cal State LA, Fordham, Georgia State, Harvard (3), Houston, Johns Hopkins, Milwaukee (5), Missouri St Louis, Northern Illinois (6), NYU, Princeton (2), San Francisco State, Stanford (3), Texas Tech, Tufts (4), U Conn, UC Davis, UNC Chapel Hill, Union Theological Seminary, USC, Western Michigan, and Yale (4).

    Note 5: The full list of elite programs is: Amherst College (2), Berkeley (10) Brown (3), Carleton College (3), Chicago (10), Claremont McKenna, Columbia (3), Cornell, Dartmouth (4), Emory, Grinnell (2), Harvard (8), Haverford (2), Johns Hopkins (2), MIT, Northwestern (2), NYU (10), Penn (3), Pitt, Pomona, Princeton (5), Reed (4), Rutgers (6), Stanford (8), USC, Virginia, Washington U. St Louis, Wellesley, Williams (4), and Yale (5).

    Note 6: The full list of nationally ranked but nonelite schools is: Alabama, Arizona State (2), Auburn, Biola (2), Boston College, Brandeis (2), Cinncinnati, Franklin & Marshall, Furman, Houston, Illinois College, Indiana (2), Kenyon, Lafayette, Lewis & Clark, Marquette, Maryland-Baltimore County, Minnesota (2), Missouri-Columbia, North Carolina State, Northeastern (2), Oberlin (2), Pepperdine, Purdue, Sewanee, St Johns, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Stony Brook (2), UC Davis, UC San Diego (2), University of Missouri-St Louis, UNC Chapel Hill (5), UNC-Asheville, Union College, University at Buffalo-SUNY, Vermont, Wake Forest, Washington-Seattle, West Point, West Virginia, Westmont, Wheaton, Whitman, and William & Mary.

    Note 7: For the curious, the remaining top ten are UC Santa Barbara (693), Boston College (654), UC Berkeley (644), Washington-Seattle (485), Wisconsin-Madison (478), UC Santa Cruz (468), Colorado-Boulder (428), and University of Arizona (426). (Washington-Bothell is excluded due to what I interpret as a classification error by NCES.)


    Related: Sorry, Cal State Students, No Princeton Grad School for You! (Oct 27, 2011). (This post contains a similar analysis from 2011, with similar results and lots of interesting discussion in the comments section.)

    [image source]

    Thursday, June 20, 2019

    Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

    In 2007, I ran a series of posts on applying to PhD programs in philosophy. Over the years, many graduate students have told me they found it useful. After twelve years, it's high time for an update!

    Part One: Should You Apply, and Where?

    Warning: This might be depressing!

    It's Extremely Competitive

    At U.C. Riverside (currently ranked 32 in the U.S. in the Philosophical Gourmet Report), we typically receive between a hundred and two hundred applications for a target entering class of six students. Our "yield" rate is usually under 50%, so we typically admit about 15-20 students for those six slots.

    Last year, we had 96 applicants, of whom we admitted eleven. Of those eleven, seven accepted, so there was no need for us to make a second round of admissions offers. Although last year was probably atypically low in applicant number and atypically high in yield, a faculty member here who often serves on admissions tells me that there has been a long term trend toward fewer applicants but a higher percentage of applicants who are an excellent "fit" for our program.[1] (More on "fit" in Part V.)

    Most applicants have excellent grades both in upper-division undergraduate philosophy courses and overall, and about 50%-75% of admitted applicants also have some graduate level work. Looking at data on eight of our eleven admittees this year (excluding one international applicant whose transcripts aren't comparable and two who quickly declined UCR for higher ranked programs), all but one had GPAs over 3.85 at their most recent institution, with a median GPA of 3.92/4.00. While it's not impossible to be admitted to a mid-ranked PhD program without stellar grades, it is rare. If you are applying as an undergraduate or M.A. student, you want straight As, or very close, in your upper-division philosophy classes. (Graduate students seeking to switch institutions are a more complicated case. In Part II, I'll talk in more detail about grades and transcripts.)

    For comparison, the median GPA of admittees to Harvard Law School and Harvard Medical School are currently 3.86 and 3.92 respectively.

    Higher-ranked PhD programs presumably receive substantially more applicants and presumably have substantially higher yield rates, meaning they can be even more selective than U.C. Riverside. It seems a safe bet that it is considerably more difficult to gain admission to Harvard's Philosophy PhD program than Harvard Law or Medical. Consider my own case: Back in 1991 (when it was probably easier to be admitted than it is now), I was rejected from Harvard despite having virtually straight As from Stanford, almost perfect GRE scores, and strong recommendation letters from world-renowned philosophers.

    Undergraduate institutional prestige is also a substantial factor in admissions, as I have discussed elsewhere and will discuss in more detail in Part II. It is extremely difficult to gain admittance to the most elite philosophy PhD programs if you aren't from an elite university or liberal arts college. On the other hand, mid-ranked PhD programs like UCR admit students from a wide range of undergraduate institutions.

    The top 1-2 philosophy majors at U.C. Riverside every year have GPAs around 3.9. Those who apply to graduate schools typically land in schools ranked in the 25-50 range. In my twenty-two years at UCR, I have never seen a student admitted to a top-ten PhD program in philosophy. Maybe next year!

    So... be realistic.

    Prospects After Admission

    Although I haven't seen systematic data on this, my impression is that most philosophy PhD programs have completion rates of around 50%; that most of the people who do finish take longer than advertised, often 7-9 years (though Stanford and Princeton have reputations for being quick); and that most of the people who drop out do so during the dissertation phase, after already having completed several years of study.

    Those students who do complete their degrees don't always find tenure-track teaching jobs -- and those who do find tenure-track jobs often have to apply for several years, be willing to move anywhere in the country, and settle for schools they've never heard of. (If you're in a large metropolitan area and willing to teach at the community college level, and if you're patient about piecing together temporary "freeway flier" jobs for a few years, you may be able to stay local after graduation.) Students completing their degrees at top ten universities have a better chance of finding a job at a school they've heard of before, but are often not taken seriously as applicants at lower prestige schools.

    Most philosophy PhD programs now make their job placement data available online. Search for "placement", "philosophy", and the name of the school, and the department's placement record should be among the top hits. Here are the data for U.C. Riverside (which has recently performed unusually well for a department of its rank). Data from most of the PhD programs have also been compiled at the APDA database, and Jonathan Weisberg has done some interesting analyses. Bear in mind that placement lists don't include students who didn't finish their degrees, and departments don't consistently update former students' placement information when they change jobs. Also, one way to get a rough idea of completion rates is to compare the size of the typical entering class at a school with the average number of PhDs listed per year on their placement lists.

    My sense is that a typical outcome for a student who completes a PhD at a mid-ranked program like UCR is to bounce around for 2-3 years with temporary jobs (postdocs and/or adjunct professor gigs), often having to move several times, then eventually to land in a tenure-track job at a non-prestigious four-year school or a community college. Sometimes people get jobs right away, of course; but a substantial minority, dispiritingly, never find a permanent teaching position. Those who don't find permanent teaching positions usually either end up in the business world somehow or apply to law school (where they generally do very well).

    I advise students not to consider graduate school in philosophy unless (1.) they'd be happy teaching philosophy at a low prestige college and are willing to move almost anywhere in the country, and (2.) even if they never finished the degree they would have found the process of studying philosophy at the graduate level intrinsically worthwhile.

    My sense is that the last criterion is key to completing the degree. Students who are extrinsically motivated in their education are unlikely to complete a dissertation in philosophy. There are no real deadlines, no structure imposed by your advisor. You simply have to sit down and think and read and write about the same topic, usually without a whole lot of outside help or direction, for a few years. At the same time, you're in a very anxiety-producing situation: Your whole career depends on how good your dissertation is, and the power your dissertation chair has over you -- in the form of approving or not approving your dissertation chapters and in writing a good or a weak letter for you at the end of the process -- is enormous. This is not a situation in which people who are not powerfully intrinsically motivated to do philosophy are likely to succeed.

    On the bright side: It's delightful to be able to spend your time surrounded by others as nerdy about philosophy as you are -- peer-to-peer interactions are one of the most rewarding aspects of graduate school -- and you have great liberty to explore almost any topic you want in seminars, independent studies, reading groups, and later your dissertation. Also, unlike law school or medical school, almost all ranked philosophy Ph.D. programs will give you some combination of fellowship and teaching support so that if you live frugally you might not need to borrow (too much?) money or hold down jobs outside of philosophy (except possibly in the summer) in order to get through school.

    Choosing Where to Apply

    If all this hasn't soured you on the prospects of graduate school in philosophy, then you're just the sort of maniac who might succeed! The Philosophical Gourmet Report is the natural starting place for thinking about where to apply, along with with advice from your professors. Any ranking of PhD programs will be controversial, but my sense is that the Gourmet Report does a good job (a much better job, for example, than the NRC) at capturing perceptions of relative prestige in mainstream Anglophone academic philosophy.

    Once you have a sense of about where you might expect to land in prestige level based on the features of your application, you might select 4-8 schools at that level, two more prestigious schools as longshots, and 2-3 fallback schools. Look at faculty profiles (on each department's web page) and at the Gourmet's specialty rankings to see what schools have strengths in the areas or points of view that appeal to you. If you find that geography is a major factor for you, you might consider whether you'll be ready to be geographically flexible in your job search later; if not, bear in mind that community college teaching is the most likely outcome.

    ETA June 22: Several people have suggested that it might be desirable to apply to more than the 8-13 schools implied by these remarks, due to the chanciness of the process.

    Generally speaking, career prospects are better from ranked (i.e. top 50) than from unranked PhD programs, but in some cases an unranked PhD program could be a good choice, if you fit with one of their areas of strength and if that particular school has an established track record of placing students in good jobs.

    If there are features of your application that are unusual -- for example, terrible GRE scores but great everything else, or a quirky set of interests that might or might not map onto faculty strengths, or mediocre grades in your first year of school followed by straight As later, or transcripts that are hard to evaluate because they aren't on the standard U.S. 4-point grading system, you might want to apply to even more schools. Indeed, for everyone, the process is chancy, so there are advantages to rolling the dice multiple times. But the costs in both time and money can be significant.

    Speaking of money: Many schools allow you to waive the fee for the PhD application if you can establish that the fee is a financial hardship. They will only do this for a minority of students, but if you might be among that minority, look for the box to tick, or if you can't find such a box, inquire. Unlike with undergraduate applications at some colleges, there is little chance that admission of financial need will harm your chances of admission.

    Should You Apply to an M.A. Program First?

    If you're determined to get into a PhD program in philosophy and you don't have the application for it straight out of undergraduate, a terminal M.A. program in philosophy can be a springboard to a PhD program. There is a lot of variation in the quality of terminal M.A. programs, the graduation rates of their students, and their success in placing students into PhD programs, but the strong ones do have substantial success. Unfortunately -- unlike PhD programs -- for M.A. programs you often have to pay your way. That can mean a lot of debt to carry into a career that is only moderately lucrative, and success is by no means assured. However, other schools support most or all of their terminal M.A. students. See Geoff Pynn's helpful list of philosophy M.A. funding at U.S. and Canadian institutions (available in a Dropbox from his website).[2]

    PhD programs will generally award the M.A. to their students along the way, if they don't already have an M.A. This is very different from programs with a terminal M.A. PhD programs will not usually also admit students just for an M.A.

    Usually, if you can get into at least a mid-ranked PhD program straight out of undergraduate, it's advisable to do so. One reason is this: If you did well enough as an undergraduate to gain admission into a mid-ranked PhD degree program, you did great! You might do equally well or better in an M.A. program -- but you might not. It's a life transition; you'll probably be moving to a new city; you'll have new peers and new advisors, who might not harmonize as well with you; stuff happens. Grab the opportunity while it's hot. The other reason is, of course, the time and (unless you have full support) the money. (That said, students will sometimes decline admission to PhD programs to go to an elite M.A. program like Tufts, and some of those students do then succeed in making the leap to an elite PhD program, so it's a possible path, if you really have your sights set on Princeton or NYU.)

    Unfortunately, the most competitive terminal M.A. programs are probably not much easier to gain admittance to than are the bottom half of ranked PhD programs.

    Application deadlines for some of the most competitive terminal M.A. programs are in the same time range as those for PhD programs (early winter, for admission the following fall), while others have spring deadlines, so that you can wait to apply until after having heard back from PhD programs.

    Although technically most community colleges only require their professors to have an M.A., most people who find permanent community college teaching positions nowadays either have a Ph.D. in hand or nearly finished.

    Should You Apply to Your Own Department?

    Undergraduates at schools with PhD programs will be tempted to apply to their own programs. Presumably, they're having a positive experience and enjoying the good opinion of their professors, if they're considering graduate school in philosophy. They will receive good advice against this from their letter writers.

    Every department has a character. Certain philosophers and issues will be taken as core, others not much discussed. How seriously is Davidson taken? Wittgenstein? Heidegger? Modal realism? Contemporary English philosophy of perception? Different approaches will be valued -- keeping up with the journals or emphasizing the classics, valuing the empirical or the a priori, applied ethics or metaethics, etc. Of course, faculty will have diverse opinions on these issues, but that doesn't prevent the shock and surprise -- or simply the breath of fresh air -- that students feel going to a department where things are viewed very differently on the whole!

    Students who spend their whole careers in a single department thus risk a stunted and provincial view of philosophy. It's also difficult for them to gain an accurate sense of how their advisors are perceived by the field as a whole. They will learn less from taking classes from the same professors again than they would from a new crop of professors. They may also find it's very different being a star undergraduate than an average graduate student; the tone of their relations with their mentors will change.

    When I have served on admissions committees I have argued that we should have a higher bar for our own students than for others. Still, it can be difficult to reject a student when your colleague down the hall insists that she deserves admission!

    Should You Despair?

    Okay, you're at Cal State Whatever or Southern Iowa Christian, and you would love to be an Ivy League professor of philosophy someday. Is there simply no hope? I would hate to counsel despair. At every step, there are a small number of people who do the unlikely: Get into a top-ranked PhD program from a non-elite school, get an elite starting job from a mid-ranked PhD program (go, Sam!), move from a non-elite university to an elite one later in their career.

    Great students from non-elite schools do sometimes make an impression on a "top ten" admissions committee. Maybe our best UCR students have been a bit unlucky. There's lots of chance in the process. Is your glowing letter from someone that someone on the admissions committee happens to really respect? (It's a small world!) Does your writing sample really resonate with someone?

    It can also help to be pro-active. For example, can you drive across town, or apply to an exchange program, or take some time off, to take or audit courses at an elite university? Can you attend talks, colloquia, conferences around town and out of town, and possibly make some connections or at least give your letter writers fodder for backing up their claims never to have seen so energetic and dedicated a student?

    But most importantly: Polish, polish, polish that writing sample! (And do so under the guidance of at least one professor.) If a committee member reads a polished, professional sample that they feel they have learned something from, in prose that compares favorably with the typical journal article (not through being flowery or technical but through being elegant and precise), that's an applicant they'll want to admit, more so than the Harvard student with the 3.95 GPA who has a so-so sample. Very few undergraduates can write such samples -- which is why, of course, they're so precious.

    All that said, bear in mind that for anyone an Ivy-League career is a longshot. I would not advise pursuing a career in philosophy if you wouldn't be happy teaching at a non-elite school.


    I welcome comments from faculty who would like to add to my advice or who think I am off-base in some way. I also welcome questions from applicants -- but please read the other relevant parts of the series first to be sure it's not addressed elsewhere.

    Also -- lots of interesting comments have started accumulating below, articulating different perspectives or discussing details particular to specific schools or regions. Thanks, folks, and keep them coming!

    Full series from 2007.

    Part Two forthcoming.


    Note 1: Faculty at other US PhD programs, I'd be curious to hear whether or not you've seen a similar trend among applicants to your departments.

    Note 2: This was revised at 8:56 p.m. June 20, after helpful input from Margaret Atherton, Eddy Nahmias, John Schwenkler, and Brandon Warmke.

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    Friday, June 14, 2019

    Will Philosophy Ever Come to an End?

    A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with the prominent Chinese science fiction writer Xia Jia, who is visiting UC Riverside for a year. She asked me whether I thought that if we were to create, or become, post- or transhuman superintellects, would all important philosophical questions be answered?

    You might think so. If fundamental philosophical questions about knowledge, value, meaning, and mentality aren't entirely hopeless -- if we can make some imperfect progress on them, even with our frail human intellects, so badly designed for abstract philosophical theorizing -- then presumably entities who are vastly intellectually superior to us in the right dimensions could make more, maybe vastly more, philosophical progress. Maybe they could resolve deep philosophical questions as easily as we humans can solve two-digit multiplication problems.

    Or here's another thought: If all the facts of the universe are ultimately facts about microphysics and larger-level patterns among entities constituted microphysically, then the main block to philosophical understanding might be only the limits of our observational methods and our computational power. Although no superintelligence in the universe could realistically calculate every motion of every particle over all of time, maybe all of the "big picture" general issues at the core of philosophy would prove tractable with much better observational and calculational tools.

    And yet...

    I want to say no. Philosophy never could be fully "solved", even by a superintelligence. (It might end, of course, in some other way than being fully solved, but that's not the kind of end Xia or I had in mind.)

    First reason: Any intelligent system will be unable to fully predict itself. It will thus always remain partly unknown to itself. This lack of self-knowledge will remain an ineradicable seed for new philosophy.

    To predict its own behavior a system will require a subsystem or subprocess dedicated to the task of prediction. That subsystem or subprocess could potentially model all of the entity's other subsystems and subprocesses to an arbitrarily high degree of detail. But the subsystem could not model itself in perfect detail without creating a perfect model of its modeling procedures. But then, to fully predict itself, it would need a perfect model of its perfect model of its modeling procedures, and so on, off into a vicious infinite regress.

    Furthermore, some calculations are sufficiently complicated that the only way to predict their outcome is to actually do them. For any complex cognitive task, there will (plausibly) be a minimum amount of time required to physically construct and run the process by which it is done. If there is no limit to the complexity of some problems, there will also (plausibly) be no limit to the minimum amount of time even an ideal process would require to perform the cognitive task, even if the cognitive task is completable in principle. Therefore, given any finite amount of time to construct the prediction there will always be some outcomes that a superintelligence will be unable to foresee.

    Now even if you grant that no superintelligent system could fully predict itself, it doesn't straightaway follow that philosophical questions will remain. Maybe the only sorts of questions that escape the superintelligence's predictive powers are details insufficiently grand to qualify as philosophical -- like the 10^10^100th digit of pi?

    No, realistically, the actual self-predictive power of any practical superintelligence will always fall far, far short of that. As long as it has some challenging tasks and interests, it won't be able to predict exactly how it will cope with them until it actually copes with them. It won't know the outcome of its mega-intelligent processes until it runs them. So it will always remain partly a mystery to itself. It will be left to wonder uncertainly about what to value and prioritize in light of its ignorance about its own future values and priorities. I'd call that philosophy enough.

    Second reason: No amount of superintelligence can, I suspect, entirely answer the question of fundamental values. I don't intend this in any especially mysterious way. I'm not appealing to spooky values that somehow escape all empirical inquiry. But it does seem to me that a general-capacity superintelligence ought always be able to question what it cares about most. A superintelligence might calculate with high certainty that the best thing to do next, all things considered, would be A. But it could reopen the question of the value weightings that it brings to that calculation.

    Again, we face a kind of regress. Given values A, B, and C, weighted thus-and-so relative to each other, A might be clearly the best choice. But why value A more than C? Well, the intelligence could do further inquiry into the value of A -- but that inquiry too will be based on a set of values that it is at least momentarily holding fixed. It could challenge those values using still other values....

    The alternative seems to be the view that there's only one possible overall value system that a superintelligence could arrive at, and that once it has arrived there it need never reflect on its values again. This strikes me as implausible, when I think about the diversity of things that people value and about how expanding capacities and experience increase that diversity rather than shrink it. As new situations, opportunities, and vistas open up for any being, no matter how intelligent, it will have new occasions to reflect on changes to its value system. Maybe it invents whole new forms of math, or art, or pleasure -- novel enough that big questions arise about how to weigh the pursuit of these new endeavors against other pursuits it values, and unpredictable enough in long term outcome that some creativity will be needed to manage the uncertain comparison.

    No superintelligence could ever become so intelligent as to put all philosophical questions permanently to rest.


    Related: Possible Psychology of a Matrioshka Brain (Oct 9, 2014)

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    Friday, June 07, 2019

    Why Academic Philosophy Ought to Be One of the Most Demographically Diverse Disciplines, Instead of One of the Least

    Academic philosophy in the U.S. remains largely male. In 2017 (the most recent data available), only 27% of PhDs in Philosophy were granted to women, according to the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates. This percentage hasn't budged for decades: In the 1990s, 27% of Philosophy PhDs were women. In the 2000s, also 27%. (See here.) Among major field and subfield categories with at least 200 PhDs awarded in 2017, only major fields Engineering and Mathematics had a smaller proportion of women (25%) and some subfields within Engineering, Mathematics, and the Physical Sciences. (Physical Sciences overall had 33% women PhD recipients.) In the humanities, arts, and social sciences, only Economics (34%) and Religious Studies (35%) awarded less than 40% of their PhDs to women.

    Philosophy in the U.S. remains largely non-Hispanic white: 86% in the NSF SED data from 2017. Among the 92 major fields and subfields awarding doctorates to at least 200 U.S. citizens or permanent residents who reported their ethnicity, only Ecology was more white (89%). In 2017, only 20/340 (6%) of Philosophy PhD recipients reported being Hispanic or Latino, 11 reported being Asian (3%), 4 reported being Black or African American (1%), 0 (0%) reported being American Indian or Alaska Native, and 8 (2%) reported being mixed race or other. The percentage of Hispanic and Asian Philosophy PhD recipients has very slowly increased over time, but the percentage of Black and Native American Philosophy PhD recipients has remained essentially flat at 1%-2% and 0%-1% respectively since the beginning of the recorded data in the 1970s (see here).

    Although systematic demographic data on disability, LBGTQ status, economic disadvantage, and other types of demographic diversity are not as readily available, academic philosophy in the U.S. might not be especially diverse in these respects either. (See, for example, this recent testimonial by a transgender graduate student.)

    It is sometimes suggested that even in a fully egalitarian society, equally welcoming of people from all backgrounds, we should not expect an exactly proportional representation of women and of the races in academic philosophy. Some academic fields might be naturally more attractive to men and white folks, others to women and black folks, and with equal opportunity, people in these different demographic categories might sort themselves disproportionately. Little boys disproportionately like monster trucks and little girls disproportionately like cute ponies, even if their parents (supposedly) don't force such preferences upon them. A career in academic philosophy might be like that. Philosophy might be the monster truck of academic disciplines.

    While such reasoning might or might not apply to Ecology and Mechanical Engineering, such claims cannot, I think, be true of academic philosophy as properly practiced. Academic philosophy should in fact skew the opposite direction, with unusual demographic backgrounds disproportionately over-represented.

    Academic philosophy is not about one thing. It's about everything. It concerns the entire universe and the whole human condition. One gender or one ethnicity may care especially much about monster trucks or black holes, but one gender or one ethnicity should not similarly tend to care more than another about the human condition in general. We all do, or should, care about philosophy. You may have no theory of black holes, but for sure you have philosophical views, at least implicitly -- background ethical positions, background assumptions about the general nature of things, a background sense of the sources of knowledge, opinions about death and the possibility or not of an afterlife, aesthetic opinions, political values. Academic philosophy is, or should be, just the most general academic treatment of issues such as these. It is unlikely that in an egalitarian society, women and non-whites would be less interested in exploring fundamental questions about the world and the human condition than are white men, or less inclined to pursue them given the opportunity.

    Maybe something about the highly abstract nature of academic philosophy, or its combativeness, or its roots in the European tradition tends to draw white men and repel others? I am not sure that's right, but even if so, these are accidental features of the field, which we ought to consider reforming. Philosophy can work as well by science fictional narrative [1] or engaged dialogue as by highly abstract argumentation. It needn't, and I think shouldn't, be as combative as it often is. And the ignorance and disrespect U.S. philosophers often display toward non-European traditions is a flaw we should repair, rather than a feature to be taken for granted.

    There is one structural feature of academic philosophy that I do think ought to influence its demographic proportions: Its celebration of the presentation of novel views and arguments, minority positions, and challenges to what people ordinarily take for granted. Philosophy is, and should be, to a substantial extent, about considering new ideas, rethinking convention, exploring radical and strange-seeming possibilities. For these reasons, outsiders to the cultural mainstream and people who have lived with the disadvantages of existing cultural structures and worldviews, ought to be especially valued and welcomed in the discipline -- overrepresented rather than underrepresented.


    Note 1: If you think that science fiction is mostly white male, you need to update to the 21st century, friend. For example, check out last year's Nebula Award nominees.

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