Thursday, May 24, 2018

An Argument Against Every General Theory of Consciousness

As a philosophical expert on theories of consciousness, I try to keep abreast of the most promising recent theories. I also sometimes receive unsolicited emails from scholars who have developed a theory that they believe deserves attention. It's fun to see the latest cleverness, and it's my job to do so, but I always know in advance that I won't be convinced.

I'd like to hope that it's not just that I'm a dogmatic skeptic about general theories of consciousness. In "The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind", I argue that our epistemic tools for evaluating general theories of consciousness are, for the foreseeable future, too flimsy for the task, since all evaluations of such theories must be grounded in some combination of dubious (typically question-begging) scientific theory, dubious commonsense judgment (shaped by our limited social and evolutionary history), and broad criteria of general theoretical virtue like simplicity or elegance (typically indecisive among theories that are live competitors).

Today, let me try another angle. Ultimately, it's a version of my question-beggingness complaint, but more specific.

Premise 1: There is no currently available decisive argument against panpsychism, the view that everything is conscious, even very simple things, like solitary hydrogen ions in deep space. Panpsychism is, of course, bizarrely contrary to common sense, but (as I also argue in The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind) all well-developed general theories of consciousness will have some features that are bizarrely contrary to common sense, so although violation of common sense is a cost that creates an explanatory burden, it is not an insurmountable theory-defeater. Among prominent researchers who defend panpsychism or at least treat seriously a view in the neighborhood of panpsychism are Giulio Tononi, David Chalmers, Galen Strawson, and Philip Goff.

There are at least three reasons to take panpsychism seriously. (1.) If, as some have argued, consciousness is a fundamental feature of the world, or a property not reducible to other properties, it would be unsurprising if such a feature were approximately as widespread as other fundamental features such as mass and charge. (2.) Considering the complexity of our experience (e.g., our visual experience) and the plausibly similar complexity of the experience of other organisms with sophisticated sensory systems, one might find oneself on a slippery slope toward thinking that the least complex experience would be possessed by very simple entities indeed (see Chalmers 1996, p 293-7, for a nice exposition of this argument). (3.) Despite my qualms about Integrated Information Theory, there's an attractive theoretical elegance to the idea that consciousness arises from the integration of information, and thus that very simple systems that integrate just a tiny bit of information will correspondingly have just a tiny bit of consciousness.

Premise 2: There is no currently available decisive argument against theories of consciousness that require sophisticated self-representation of the sort that is likely to be absent from entities that lack theories of mind. On extreme versions of this view, even dogs and infants might not have conscious experience. (Again, highly contrary to common sense, but!) Among prominent researchers who have taken such a view seriously are Daniel Dennett and Peter Carruthers (though recently Carruthers has suggested that there might be no fact of the matter about the phenomenal consciousness, or not, of non-human animals).

There are at least three reasons to take seriously such a restrictive view of consciousness: (1.) If one wants to exit the slippery slope to panpsychism, one possibly attractive place to do so is at the gap between creatures who are capable of explicitly representing their own mental states and those that cannot do so. (2.) Consciousness, as was noted by Franz Brentano (and recently emphasized by David Rosenthal, Uriah Kriegel, and others), might plausibly always involve some sort of self-awareness of the fact that one is conscious -- apparently a moderately sophisticated self-representational capacity of some sort. (3.) There's a theoretical elegance to self-representational theories of consciousness. If consciousness doesn't just always arise when information is integrated in a system, an attractive explanation of what else is needed is some sort of sophisticated ability of a system to represent its own representational states.

Now you might understandably think that either panpsychism or a human-only views of consciousness is so extreme that we can be epistemically justified in confidently rejecting one or the other. If so, we can run the argument with weaker versions of Premise 1 and/or Premise 2:

Premise 1a (weaker): There is no currently available decisive argument against theories of consciousness that treat consciousness as very widespread, including perhaps in organisms with fairly small and simple brains, or in some near-future AI systems.

Premise 2a (weaker): There is no currently available decisive argument against theories of consciousness that treat consciousness as narrowly restricted to a class of fairly sophisticated entities, perhaps only mammals and birds and similar organisms capable of complex, flexible learning, and no AI systems in the foreseeable future.

Premise 3: All general theories of consciousness commit to the falsity of either Premise 1, Premise 2, or both (alternatively Premise 1a, Premise 2a, or both). If they do not so commit, then they aren't general theories of consciousness, though they may of course be perfectly fine narrow theories of consciousness, e.g., theories of consciousness as it happens to arise in human beings. (I've got a parallel argument against general theories of consciousness even as they apply just to human beings, based on considerations from Schwitzgebel 2011, ch. 6, but not today.)

Therefore, all general theories of consciousness commit to the falsity of some view against which there is no currently available decisive argument. They thereby commit beyond the evidence. They must either assume, or accept on only indecisive evidence, either the falsity of panpsychism, or the falsity of sophisticated self-representational views of consciousness, or both. In other words, they inevitably beg the question against, or at best indecisively argue against, some views we cannot yet justifiably reject.

Still, go ahead and build your theory of consciousness. You might even succeed in building the true theory of consciousness, if it isn't yet out there! Science and philosophy needs bold theoretical adventurers. But if a skeptic on the sidelines remains unconvinced, thinking that you have not convincingly dispatched some possible alternative approaches, the skeptic will probably be right.

ETA: In order to constitute an argument against a candidate theory, as opposed to merely an objection to such theories, perhaps I need to put some weight on the positive arguments in favor of views of consciousness that conflict with the theory being defended. Thanks to David Chalmers and Francois Kammerer on Facebook for pushing me on this point.

[image source]

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"What Is It Like" Interview Now Freely Available

... here.

It's a fairly long read (about 8000 words), but I gave a lot of thought to Cliff's questions, and I hope the result is both interesting and revealing.

Read it, and learn about:

* my unconventional parents, including how we celebrated Christmas and my part-time work as a chambermaid;

* the peculiar story of how I once found my lost wallet;

* sneaking into György Gergely's cognitive development class at Berkeley, and how I think "Stanford school" philosophy of science should inform philosophy of mind;

* what four-year-olds and philosophers have in common;

* why blogging is the ideal form for philosophy;

* and much more!

Also please consider supporting Cliff Sosis's "What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher?" interviews by funding him on PayPal or Patreon.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Is C-3PO Alive?

by Will Swanson and Eric Schwitzgebel

Droids—especially R2-D2, C-3PO, and BB-8—propel the plot of the Star Wars movies. A chance encounter between R2-D2 and Luke Skywalker in “Episode IV: A New Hope” starts Luke on his fateful path to joining the rebel forces, becoming a Jedi, and meeting his father. More recently, BB-8 plays a similar role for Rey in “Episode VII: The Force Awakens”. But the droids are more than convenient plot devices. They are full-blooded characters, with their own quirks, goals, preferences, and vulnerabilities. The droids face the same existential threats as anyone else; and most of us still squirm in our theater seats on their behalf when danger looms.

Our response to the Star Wars droids relies on the tacit assumption that they are living lives -- lives that can be improved or worsened, sustained or lost. This raises the question: Is C-3PO alive? Or more precisely, if we someday built a robot like C-3PO, would it be alive?

In a way, it seems obvious that, yes, C-3PO is alive. Vaporizing him would be murder! One could have a funeral over his remains, reminiscing about all the good things he did in his lifetime.

But of course, the experts on life are biologists. And if you look at standard biology textbook descriptions of the characteristics of life (e.g., here), it looks like robots wouldn’t qualify. They don’t grow or reproduce, or share common descent with other living organisms. They don’t contain organic molecules like nucleic acid. They don’t have biological cells. They don’t seem to have arisen from a Darwinian evolutionary process. Few people (and probably fewer professional biologists) would say that a Roomba vacuum cleaner is alive, except in some kind of metaphorical sense; and in these respects, C-3PO is similar, despite being more complicated – just as we are similar to but more complicated than microscopic worms. The science covering C-3PO is not biology, but robotics.

Despite what looks like bad news for C-3PO from biology textbook definitions of life, on closer consideration we should reject the biology-textbook-list approach to robot cases. Our attitude toward these lists should probably be closer to the capacious attitude typical of astrobiologists (e.g., Benner 2010). If we’re considering what “life” is, really, in the broad, philosophical way that we do when considering the possibility of alien life, the standard lists start to look very Earth-bound and chauvinistic.

  • Common descent. Unless we wish to exclude the possibility of life originating independently on other planets, we should not treat common descent as a necessary condition for life.
  • Organic molecules. If we allow for life to arise independently on other planets, we should also be wary of expecting the resultant life to closely resemble biological life on Earth. We should not require the presence of organic molecules like nucleic acids.
  • Reproduction. While it is true that biological living things tend to reproduce when given the opportunity, reproduction is far from necessary for life. Consider the mule, the sterile worker ant, and the deliberately childless human. Nor should we require that life forms originate from reproductive processes. If life began without reproduction once, it can begin again, perhaps many times over!
  • Participation in Darwinian processes. Explanations invoking evolution by natural selection have revealed many of nature’s secrets. Nevertheless, evolution is not a locally defined property of living individuals. It refers to the processes that shape individuals over generations. It’s unclear why belonging to a group that has undergone Darwinian selection in the past should matter to whether an individual, considered now, is alive.
  • Growth. Depending on the sense of growth in question, robots may or may not grow. If growth means nothing more than change over time in accordance an internal protocol, then at least some robots, learning ones, are able to grow. If growth means simply getting radically bigger (or developing from a small seed or embryo into a large adult), then requiring growth risks excluding or marginalizing many organisms that are uncontroversially alive, such as bacteria that reproduce by fission.
  • Other list members -- self-maintenance (if a robot can charge its own battery...), having heterogeneous organized parts, and responding to stimuli -- pose no challenge to the idea that robots are alive.

    What about metabolism? Perhaps this is an essential feature of life. Do robots do this?

    Tweaking a suggestion from Peter Godfrey-Smith (2013), a first pass on a definition for metabolism is the cooperation of diverse parts within an organism (implicitly, a thing that meets other criteria for life) to use energy and other resources to maintain the structure of the organism. If “maintaining structure” amounts to maintaining operational readiness, then this definition provides no reason to deny metabolism to robots, especially robots that do things like auto-update, repel virus programs, and draw from external energy resources as needed. If “maintaining structure” refers specifically to the upkeep required to keep a physical body from degrading, then most simple robots would be excluded, but C-3PO would still qualify, if he can polish his head and order a replacement arm.

    Even so, this second approach might define metabolism too narrowly. Defining metabolism in terms of maintenance in a narrow sense, after all, cannot accommodate the other ends to which organisms put energy in coordinated, non-accidental ways. Consider growth and development. The caterpillar’s metamorphosis hardly counts as maintenance of structure in any straightforward sense, yet we should count the energy transformations needed to effect that change as part of the caterpillar’s metabolism. More strikingly, living things often use energy to undermine their structure: think of cells undergoing programmed cell death or humans committing suicide.

    We can accommodate these cases by broadening the definition of metabolism to encompass any coordinated use of energy within a living thing to achieve the ends of that living thing. On this broader definition, there is no reason to deny metabolism to robots.

    With all of this in mind, we think it’s not unreasonable to stick with our gut intuition that C-3PO is alive. What is essential to being a living thing is not so much one’s biological history or composition by organic molecules, but rather the use of internal or environmental resources to accomplish the functional aims of the system.

    How sophisticated does a system need to be to qualify as living, by these standards? Should we maybe say that even a Roomba is alive, after all? In a series of entertaining experiments, Kate Darling has shown that ordinary people are often quite reluctant to smash up cute robots. Despite Darling’s own expressed view that such robots aren’t alive, maybe part of what is holding people back is some of the same thing that holds some of us back from wanting to crush spiders -- a kind of emotional reverence for forms of life.

    A darling robot:

    Philosophers have grown used to functionalism about mind -- that is, they seem generally willing to accept or at least take seriously the possibility that consciousness might be realized in non-biological substrates. Nevertheless, functionalism about life is less readily accepted. Perhaps philosophical reflection about the possibility of robotic life can help us recognize that our concern over the lives and deaths of our favorite robot characters may be perfectly justified.

    [C-3PO image source] [Pleo image source]

    Wednesday, May 09, 2018

    What Is It Like Interview

    Cliff Sosis has interviewed me for his wonderful What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher series. For the first week, it is only available to Silver level patrons on Patreon. Next week, he'll release it more broadly.

    Please consider supporting Cliff's work. Cliff's interviews knit together questions about philosophy with questions about childhood, family, hobbies, passions, formative experiences -- giving the reader a fuller sense of the whole person than one generally sees. Check out his interviews with Josh Knobe, Kwame Appiah, David Chalmers, Sally Haslanger, Peter Singer, and Kate Manne, for example.


    In this interview Eric Schwitzgebel, professor of philosophy at University of California Riverside, and I discuss his father’s collaboration with Timothy Leary, his uncle who invented ankle monitors, pretending to be a mannequin for his father’s class, Christmas with an electric blue Buddha, his mother’s anti-theist views, being a chambermaid and skiing, writing plays, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Jay Gould, Stanford and Kuhn, Feyerabend and Zhuangzi, disliking analytic philosophy, moving from Deleuze and Derrida to Hume and Dretske, living in a hippy co-op, wearing a dress as a political statement, memorizing Sylvia Plath, Dretske and Dupré, the Gourmet Report, working with Elisabeth Lloyd and John Searle, the allegations against Searle, the grad culture at Berkeley, love and death, the Bay Area Philosophy of Science reading group, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Stanford School philosophy of science, Bayes or Bust?, sneaking into György Gergely’s class, Alison Gopnik’s generosity, meeting his wife via a classified ad, the job market in 97, landing a job at U.C. Riverside where he is to this day, how the department has changed and he has changed as a teacher, his class on Evil, his work on the moral behavior of ethics professors, The Splintered Mind and philosophy on the internet, his theory of jerks, Brian Weatherson, experimental philosophy, our philosophical blind spots, his writing routine and process, work-life balance, My Dinner with Andre, election night 2008 versus election night 2016, and his last meal…

    Friday, May 04, 2018

    The Rise and Fall of Philosophical Jargon

    In 2010, I defined a discussion arc, in philosophy, as a curve displaying the relative frequency at which a term or phrase appears among the abstracts of philosophical articles. Since then, I've done a few analyses using discussion arcs, mostly searching for philosophers' names (here, here, here, here, here).

    Today I thought it would be fun to look at philosophical jargon -- its rise and fall, how much it varies over time, and as a measure of what is hot. Maybe you'll find it fun too!

    I rely on abstract searches in The Philosophers Index. NGram is nifty, but it doesn't do well with trends specifically in academic philosophy (see here). JStor is interesting too, but it's a limited range of journals, especially for articles less than six years old.

    First, I constructed a representative universe of articles (limiting the search to journal articles only): In this case, I searched for "the" in the abstracts, in five year intervals from 1940-present, except merging 1940-1949 for smoothness and a large enough sample. Then I searched for target terms in abstracts in the same five-year intervals. I constructed the curves by dividing the number of occurrences of the target term by the number of articles in the representative universe in each period.

    Some topics and terms are perennial, rising and falling a little, but not in any dramatic way. Others increase or decrease fairly steadily without a clear peak (allowing for some noisiness especially in the early data). For example, here are the are the arcs for happiness, Kant*, and skepticism or scepticism (all three fairly steady), evolution* and democra* (both rising), and induction (falling):

    (The asterisk is a truncation symbol; the y-axis is percentage of all abstracts containing the word.)

    [apologies for blurry image; click to enlarge and clarify]

    (You thought happiness was more important to philosophers than Kant? Wrong!)

    One way to measure how trendy or steady a topic is, is the ratio of percentage of discussion in its peak period, compared to its average discussion. Exactly equal discussion over the whole period would yield a ratio of 1:1. Fairly steady discussion with some noise would be 1 to 1.5. Topics that rise and fall more substantially would be proportionally higher. Call this the Max/Average Ratio. For the six topics above, the Max/Average Ratios are:

  • Kant*: 1.3
  • happiness: 1.4
  • skepticism or scepticism: 1.4
  • evolution*: 1.5
  • democra*: 2.0
  • induction: 3.0
  • Evolution*, though it approximately triples over the period, has a Max/Average Ratio not too far from one. Democra* rises from a substantially lower level of discussion than does evolution* and has a higher Max/Average Ratio. Induction crashes down to about a sixth of its initial level of discussion (0.174% in the first four periods to 0.028% in the final two) -- hence its moderately large ratio.

    Now let's consider some jargon terms that more clearly reflect hot topics.

    Since the scale is logarithmic, periods of zero incidence are not charted. Also remember that logarithmic scales visually compress peaks relative to linear scales. For example, though the decline of "language of thought" is not so visually striking, usage was in fact about seven times as much at peak as it is now.

    "Grue" was introduced by Nelson Goodman to describe a puzzle about how we know the future in his "New Riddle of Induction" in 1955. As you can see from the chart, discussion peaked 10-15 years later, in the late 1960s. "The original position" was introduced by John Rawls in his 1971 A Theory of Justice, describing part of an idealized decision-making process, and discussion of it peaked in the late 1980s, about 15 years later. "Supervenience" has a murkier origin, but was popularized in philosophy by R.M. Hare in 1952, to talk about how one set of properties might covary with another (for example the moral and the physical). Discussion peaked about 40 years later in the early 1990s. Hilary Putnam introduced "Twin Earth" (a planet with XYZ instead of water) in a thought experiment in 1975, and discussion peaked 15-20 years later in the early 1990s. "Radical interpretation" was introduced by Donald Davidson in the early 1970s, peaking 15 years later in the late 1980s. Finally, the "language of thought" was introduced by Jerry Fodor in his 1975 book of the same title, peaking 15-20 years later in the early 1990s.

    With the exception of supervenience -- maybe partly because the concept took some time to transition from ethics to the metaphysics of mind -- the pattern is remarkably consistent, with peaks about 15-20 years after a famous introduction event. This pacing reminds me of my earlier research suggesting that individual philosophers tend to receive peak discussion around ages 55-70, despite producing their most influential work on average about 20 years earlier (NB: the two data sets are only partly comparable, but I'm pretty sure the generalization is roughly true anyway). This is the pace of philosophy.

    For these terms and phrases, the Max/Average Ratios are a bit higher than for the rising and falling topics sampled above:

  • superven*: 2.7
  • "radical interpretation": 3.4
  • "Twin Earth: 3.9
  • "the original position": 4.2
  • "language of thought": 4.6
  • grue: 5.3
  • The Max/Average Ratio, of course, doesn't really capture rising and falling; and the ratio will be inflated for more recently introduced terms, assuming virtually zero incidence before introduction.

    For a better measure of peakiness, we can examine the ratio of the maximum discussion to the average discussion in the first two and final two time periods. To avoid infinite peakiness and overstating the peakiness of rare terms, I'll assume a floor level of discussion of .01% in any period. Call this Peakiness with a capital P. Five of the six topics in the first group have a Peakiness between 1.3 and 2.0, and evolution* has 2.9.

    In contrast:

  • superven*: 3.8
  • "Twin Earth": 4.7
  • "radical interpretation": 6.3
  • "the original position": 8.4
  • "language of thought": 8.8
  • grue: 50.6
  • Grue was hot! Although its peak discussion was about the same as superven*, it has crashed far worse -- or at least it has, so far. If we had a longer time period to play with, we could try to make the analyses more temporally stable by sampling a window of 50 years before and after peak, thus giving superven* more of a fair chance to finish its crash, as it were.

    Okay, how about newer jargon? Let's try a few. I guess first I should say that jargon is wonderful and valuable, and I actually love the grue and Twin Earth thought experiments. Also some jargon becomes a permanent part of the discipline -- such as "dualism" and "secondary qualities". Maybe grue and Twin Earth will also prove in the long run to be permanent valuable contributions to the philosopher's toolbox, just in a lower-key way than back when they were hot topics. I don't really mean "jargon" as a term of abuse.

    In 1974, Robert Kirk introduced "zombies" in the philosophical sense (entities physically indistinguishable from people but with no conscious experience), but usage didn't really take off until they got discussion in several articles in Journal of Consciousness Studies in 1995 and in David Chalmers' influential The Conscious Mind in 1996. Contrary to popular rumor, the zombie doesn't appear to be dead quite yet. "Epistemic injustice" was introduced by Miranda Fricker in the late 1990s and early 2000s. "Virtue epistemology" was introduced by Ernest Sosa in the early 1990s. Fictionalism has a longer and more complicated history in logic and philosophy of math.

    The "explanatory gap" between physical or functional explanations and subjective conscious experience was introduced by Joseph Levine in 1983, but doesn't hit the abstracts until some papers of his in the early 1990s. "Experimental philosophy" in its earlier uses refers to the early modern scientific work of Newton, Boyle, and others. It's recent usage to refer to experimental work on folk intuitions about philosophical scenarios hits the abstracts all at once with five papers in 2007. Consistently with my twenty-year hypothesis, of these, "explanatory gap" is the only one that shows signs of being past its peak (despite hopes expressed by some of my Facebook friends). Maybe fictionalis* is running longer.

    Okay, I can't resist trying a few more discussion arcs, just to see how they play out.

    "Possible worlds" goes back at least to Leibniz, but its first appearance in the abstracts was by Saul Kripke in a 1959 article. It peaks at 2.0% in the late 1960s, but has enduring popularity (currently 0.4%). "Sense data" as the objects of perception was introduced in the early 20th century by G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and has lots of discussion in the beginning of this dataset (1.7%), crashing down to levels appropriate to a historical relic (0.02%). "Qualia" has a couple occurrences early in the abstracts and traces back to C.S. Peirce in the 19th century, then hits the abstracts again with an article by Sydney Shoemaker in 1975, peaking in the late 1990s.

    Supererogation (morally good acts beyond what is morally required) entered modern discussion in the late 1950s and early 1960s (first hitting the abstracts with Joel Feinberg in 1961), then peaked in the late 1980s -- but it looks like it might be staging a comeback? Wittgenstein introduced the idea of the "language game" in his posthumous Philosophical Investigations (1953), with discussion peaking in the late 1970s. Thomas Nagel introduced "moral luck" in a classic 1979 article, and although it peaked in the late 2000s, it hasn't yet declined much from that peak.

    Possible worlds has the highest Peakiness of the lot -- though nothing like grue -- at 8.4. "Language game" is next at 5.1. The rest aren't very Peaky, ranging from 2.1 to 2.9.

    I've spent more hours this week doing this than I probably should have, given all my other commitments -- but there's something almost meditative about data-gathering, and the arcs yield a perspective I appreciate on the historical brevity of philosophical trends.

    Tuesday, May 01, 2018

    Please Rate My Blog Posts for Inclusion in My Next Book

    I'm working away on selecting and revising blog posts and op-eds for my next book. Readers' feedback has been very helpful in narrowing down to just the most memorable and interesting posts! My final poll, 22 selected posts on philosophical method and the sociology of philosophy is live today.

    As with all the other polls, this poll contains links to the original posts so so you can refresh your memory if you want. But there's no need to rate all of the listed posts! Even if you just remember one or two that you like, it would be useful for me to know that.

    Below are all seven polls.

    Polls 3, 5, and 6 have low response rates. It would be terrific if you could click through and rate a few posts that you like or remember, from one or more of those polls.


  • 1. moral psychology
  • 2. technology
  • 3. belief, desire, and self-knowledge
  • 4. culture and humor
  • 5. cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds
  • 6. consciousness
  • 7. philosophical method and the sociology of philosophy
  • (new as of today)

    Thursday, April 26, 2018

    Three Ways Your Ethics Class Might Backfire

    ... if your aim is to encourage students to actually act better. (Of course, this might not be among your aims.)

    (This post was inspired by Janet Stemwedel's Facebook/Twitter post about students cheating in her ethics class, and subsequent discussion.)

    1. Creating the appearance that every pro has an equally good con. Annette Baier is among those who have emphasized this risk. A typical philosophical teaching style is to present both sides of every major topic discussed, in a more-or-less even-handed way. We tell students that they are welcome to defend either the pro or the con, and we encourage contrarian students who challenge the reasoning and conclusions of the assigned authors. This even-handed debate-like format might lead some students to think that, in ethical reasoning, there are no right or wrong answers to be found, just interminable back and forth. Probably this attitude will have little effect on students' practical choices outside of the classroom; but if it does have an effect, it might be to weaken their sense that ethical principles that they might otherwise have acted on are as sound and indisputable as they would previously have thought.

    2. Improving one's skill at moral rationalization. Suppose you want to do X -- steal a library book, for example. Of course, you wouldn't do that. It's wrong! But wait. Remember that ethics class you took? Maybe you can construct a utilitarian defense of stealing the book. No one would miss it that much, and you'd benefit greatly from keeping it. The institution has much more money than you do, and can easily replace it. Stealing the book would maximize human happiness! (Especially yours.) Such reasoning is rationalization, in the pejorative sense of that term, if your reasoning is basically just a biased search for reasons in support of the self-serving conclusion you'd like to reach. If you're tempted to do something morally wrong, skill at philosophical reasoning, and knowledge of a diverse range of possibly relevant moral principles, might enable you to better construct superficially attractive arguments that free you to feel okay doing the bad thing that you might otherwise have unreflectively avoided.

    3. Giving the sense that unethical behavior is pervasive. I've argued that people mostly aim for moral mediocrity. They aim, that is, not to be morally good by absolute standards but rather to be about as morally good as their peers, not especially better, not especially worse. If so, then changes in your perception of what is typical behavior among your peers can cause you to calibrate your own behavior up or down. If most people litter, or cheat, or selfishly screw over their co-workers, then it doesn't seem so bad if you do too, at least a little. (Conversely, if you learn that almost everyone around you is honorable and true, that can inspire you not to want to be the one schmuck.) Some ethics classes, perhaps especially business ethics classes, focus on case studies of grossly unethical behavior. This company did this bad thing, this other company did this other bad thing, still another company did this other horrible thing.... Without a complementary range of inspirational examples of morally laudable behavior by other companies, students might get the sense that the world is even fuller of malfeasance than they had previously thought, leading them to calibrate their sense of mediocrity down. If so many other people do so many bad things, then it hardly matters (perhaps even it's only fair) if I fudge a bit on my expense report.

    Do ethics classes actually have any of these backfire effects? I think we really have no idea. The issue remains almost entirely unstudied in any rigorous, empirical way.

    [image source]

    Wednesday, April 25, 2018

    Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book: Consciousness

    As I've mentioned several times, my next book will consist of selected revised blog posts and op-eds. I've narrowed it down to about 150 posts, in seven broad categories. I'd really appreciate your help in narrowing it down more!


  • moral psychology
  • technology
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge
  • culture and humor
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds
  • consciousness (live as of today)
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week or so I'm posting a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. I've found the polls helpful in thinking about what has resonated with readers or been memorable for them. Many thanks to those of you who have responded!

    Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want. But there's no need to rate all of the listed posts! Even if you just remember one or two that you like, it would be useful for me to know that.

    Today's poll, 19 selected posts on consciousness.

    (image from

    Saturday, April 21, 2018

    Birthday Cake and a Chapel

    Last weekend, at my 50th birthday party, one guest asked, "Now that you're fifty, what wisdom do you have to share?" I answered, "Eat more birthday cake!"

    He seemed disappointed with my reply. I'm a philosopher; don't I have something better to say than "eat more cake"? Well, partly my reply was more serious than he may have realized; and partly I wanted to dodge the expectation that I have any special wisdom to share because of my age or profession. Still, I could have given a better answer.

    So earlier this week, I drafted a post on love, meaningful work, joy, and kindness. Some kind of attempt at wisdom. Then I thought, too, of course one also needs health and security. Well, it's an ordinary list; I wouldn't pretend otherwise. Maybe my best attempt at wisdom reveals my lack of any special wisdom. Better to just stick with "eat more birthday cake"? I couldn't quite click the orange "publish" button.

    Thursday, a horrible thing happened to someone I love. I won't share the details, for the person's privacy. But that evening I found myself in a side room of the Samuelson Chapel at California Lutheran University. The chapel made me think of my father, who had been a long-time psychology professor at CLU. (I've posted a reminiscence of him here.)

    In the 1980s, CLU was planning to build a new chapel at the heart of campus, and my father was on the committee overseeing the architectural plans. As I recall, he came home one evening and said that the architect had submitted plans for a boring, rectangular chapel. Most of the committee had been ready to approve the plans, but he had objected.

    "Why build a boring, blocky chapel?" he said. "Why not build something glorious and beautiful? It will be more expensive, yes. But I think if we can show people something gorgeous and ambitious, we will find the money. Alumni will be happier to contribute, the campus will be inspired it, and it will be a landmark for decades to come." Of course, I'm not sure of his exact words, but something like that.

    So on my father's advice the committee sent the plans back to be entirely rethought.

    Samuelson Chapel today:

    Not ostentatious, not grandiose, but neither just a boring box. A bit of modest beauty on campus.

    As I sat alone in a side room of Samuelson Chapel on that horrible evening, I heard muffled music through the wall -- someone rehearsing on the chapel piano. The pianist was un-self-conscious in his pauses and explorations, experimenting, not knowing he had an audience. I sensed him appreciating his music's expansive sound in the high-ceilinged, empty sanctuary. I could hear the skill in his fingers, and his gentle, emotional touch.

    In my draft post on wisdom, I'd emphasized setting aside time to relish small pleasures -- small pleasures like second helpings of birthday cake. But more cake isn't really the heart of it.

    In Samuelson Chapel, on a horrible night, I marveled at the beauty of the music through the wall. How many events, mostly invisible to us, have converged to allow that moment? The pianist, I'm sure, knew nothing of my father and his role in making the chapel what it is. There is something stunning, awesome, almost incomprehensible about our societies and relations and dependencies, about the layers and layers of work and passion by which we construct possibilities for future action, about our intricate biologies unreflectively maintained, about the evolutionary history that lays the ground of all of this, about the deepness of time.

    As I drove home the next morning, I found myself still stunned with awe. I can drive 75 miles an hour in a soft seat on a ten-lane freeway through Pasadena -- a freeway roaring with thousands of other cars, somehow none of us crashing, and all of it so taken for granted that we can focus mostly on sounds from our radios. One tiny part of the groundwork is the man who fixed the wheel of the tractor of the farmer who grew the wheat that became part of the bread of the sandwich of a construction worker who, sixty years ago, helped lay the first cement for this particular smooth patch of freeway. Hi, fella!

    The second helping of birthday cake, last weekend, which I jokingly offered to my guest as my best wisdom -- it was made from a box mix by my eleven-year-old daughter and hand-decorated by her. How many streams of chance and planning must intermix to give our guests that mouthful of sweetness? Why not take a second helping, after all?

    I think maybe this is what we owe back to the universe, in exchange for our existence -- some moments of awe-filled wonder at how it all has come together to shape us.

    Wednesday, April 18, 2018

    Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book: Cosmology, Skepticism, and Weird Minds

    As I've mentioned several times, my next book will consist of selected revised blog posts and op-eds. I've narrowed it down to about 150 posts, in seven broad categories. I'd really appreciate your help in narrowing it down more!


  • moral psychology
  • technology
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge
  • culture and humor
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds (live as of today)
  • consciousness
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week or so I'm posting a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. I've found the polls helpful in thinking about what has resonated with readers or been memorable for them. Many thanks to those of you who have responded!

    Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want. But there's no need to rate all of the listed posts! Even if you just remember one or two that you like, it would be useful for me to know that.

    Today's poll, 23 selected posts on cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds.

    [image source]

    Friday, April 13, 2018

    Why the Epistemology of Conscious Perception Needs a Theory of Consciousness

    On a certain type of classical "foundationalist" view in epistemology, knowledge of your sensory experience grounds knowledge of the outside world: Your knowledge that you're seeing a tree, for example, is based on or derived from your knowledge that you're having sensory experiences of greens and browns in a certain configuration in a certain part of your visual field. In earlier work, I've argued that this can't be right because our knowledge of external things (like trees) is much more certain and secure than our knowledge of our sensory experiences.

    Today I want to suggest that foundationalist or anti-foundationalist claims are difficult to evaluate without at least an implicit background theory of consciousness. Consider for example these three simple models of the relation between sensory experience, knowledge of sensory experience, and knowledge of external objects. The arrows below are intended to be simultaneously causal and epistemic, with the items on the left both causing and epistemically grounding the items on the right. (I've added small arrows to reflect that there are always also other causal processes that contribute to each phase.)

    [apologies for blurry type: click to enlarge and clarify]

    Model A is a type of classical foundationalist picture. In Model B, knowledge of external objects arises early in cognitive processing and informs our sensory experiences. In Model C, sensory experience and knowledge of external objects arise in parallel.

    Of course these models are far too simple! Possibly, the process looks more like this:

    How do we know which of the three models is closest to correct? This is, I think, very difficult to assess without a general theory of consciousness. We know that there's sensory experience, and we know that there's knowledge of sensory experience, and we know that there's knowledge of external objects, and that all of these things happen at around the same time in our minds; but what exactly is the causal relation among them? Which happens first, which second, which third, and to what extent do they rely on each other? These fine-grained questions about temporal ordering and causal influence are, I think, difficult to discern from introspection and thought experiments.

    Even if we allow that knowledge of external things informs our sense experience of those things, that can easily be incorporated in a version of the classical foundationalist model A, by allowing that the process is iterative: At time 1, input causes experience which causes knowledge of experience which causes knowledge of external things; then again at time 2; then again at time 3.... The outputs of earlier iterations could then be among the small-arrow inputs of later iterations, explaining whatever influence knowledge of outward things has on sensory experiences within a foundationalist picture.

    On some theories, consciousness arises relatively early in sensory processing -- for example, in theories where sensory experiences are conscious by virtue of their information's being available for processing by downstream cognitive systems (even if that availability isn't much taken advantage of). On other theories, sensory consciousness arises much later in cognition, only after substantial downstream processing (as in some versions of Global Workspace theory and Higher-Order theories). Although the relationship needn't be strict, it's easy to see how views according to which consciousness arises relatively early fit more naturally with foundationalist models than views according to which consciousness arises much later.

    The following magnificent work of art depicts me viewing a tree:

    [as always, click to enlarge and clarify]

    Light from the sun reflects off the tree, into my eye, back to primary visual cortex, then forward into associative cortex where it mixes with associative processes and other sensory processes. In my thought bubble you see my conscious experience of the tree. The question is, where in this process does this experience arise?

    Here are three possibilities:

    Until we know which of these approaches is closest to the truth, it's hard to see how we could be in a good position to settle questions about foundationalism or anti-foundationalism in the epistemology of conscious perception.

    (Yes, I know I've ignored embodied cognition in this post. Of course, throwing that into the mix makes matters even more complicated!)

    Tuesday, April 10, 2018

    Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book: Culture and Humor

    As I've mentioned, my next book will consist of selected revised blog posts and op-eds. I've narrowed it down to about 150 posts, in seven broad categories. I'd really appreciate your help in narrowing it down more.

  • moral psychology
  • technology
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge
  • culture and humor (live as of today)
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds
  • consciousness
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week or so I'll post a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. So far, I have found the polls helpful in thinking about what has resonated with readers or been memorable for them. Many thanks to those of you who have responded!

    Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want. But there's need to rate all of the listed posts! Even if you just remember one or two that you like, it would be useful for me to know that.

    Today's poll, 25 selected posts on culture, including some attempts at humor.

    [image source]

    Thursday, April 05, 2018

    The Experience of Reading: Empirical Evidence

    What do you experience while reading? Do you experience inner speech, as though you or the author are saying the words aloud? Do you experience visual imagery? Do you experience the black marks on the white page? All of these at once? Different ones at different times, depending on how you're engaging with the text?

    Although educators, cognitive psychologists, and literary critics often make claims about readers' typical experience, few researchers have bothered to ask readers, in any systematic way, these basic questions about their experience. [Note 1] So Alan Tonnies Moore and I decided to try doing that. Alan's work on this topic became his 2016 dissertation, and we have now have a paper forthcoming in Consciousness and Cognition (final submitted manuscript available here).

    In each of three experiments, we presented readers with several hundred words of text. In two of these experiments, a beep interrupted participants' reading. Immediately after the beep, readers were to report what was in their experience in the final split second before the beep. We collected both general free-response descriptions of their experience and yes/no/maybe reports about whether they were experiencing visual imagery, inner speech, and visual experience of the words on the page (all phrases defined beforehand). In all three experiments, we also collected readers' retrospective assessments of how frequently they experienced visual imagery, inner speech, and the words on the page while reading the passage we had presented.

    At the end of each experiment, participants answered several questions about the text they had just finished reading. Some questions we thought might relate to visual imagery (such as memory for visual detail), other questions we thought might relate to inner speech (such as memory for rhyme), and still other questions we thought might relate to visual experience of words on the page (such as memory of the font). We were curious whether performance on those questions would correlate with reported experience. Do visual imagers, for example, remember more visual detail?

    Here are the main things we found:

    (1.) People differ immensely in what types of experiences they report while reading. Some people report visual imagery all the time; others report it rarely or never; and still others (the majority) report visual imagery fairly often but not all of the time. Similarly for inner speech and words on the page.

    To see this, here are a couple of histograms [click to enlarge and clarify].

    Readers' retrospective reports in Experiment 2 (Experiments 1 and 3 are similar):

    Readers' yes/no/maybe reports immediately after the beep, also in Experiment 2:

    (2.) Inner speech is less commonly reported than many researchers suppose. This has also been emphasized in Russ Hurlburt's related work on the topic. Although some researchers claim or implicitly assume that inner speech is normally present while reading, we found it in a little more than half of the samples (see the histograms above). Visual imagery was more commonly reported than inner speech.

    (3.) Reported experience varies with passage type, but not by a lot. In Experiment 2, we presented readers with richly visually descriptive prose passages, rhyming poetry, and dramatic dialogue, thinking that readers might experience these types of passages differently. Differences were in the predicted directions, but weren't large. For example, visual imagery was reported in 78% of the beeped moments during richly descriptive prose passages vs 66% of the poetry passages and 69% of the dramatic dialogue (chi-square = 14.4, p = .006). Inner speech was reported in 65% of the beeped moments during dramatic dialogue passages vs 59% of the poetry passages and 53% of the descriptive prose (chi-square = 19.1, p = .001).

    (4.) There was little or no relationship between reported experience and seemingly related comprehension or skill tasks. For example, people who reported seeing the words of text on the page were not detectably more likely to remember the font used. People who reported visual imagery were not detectably more likely to remember the color of objects described in passages. People who reported inner speech were not more likely to disambiguate difficult-to-pronounce words by reference to the rhyme scheme. Although all of this is possibly disappointing, it fits with some of my previous work on the poor relationship between self-reported experience and performance at behavioral tasks.

    Alan and I believe that sampling studies will soon become an important tool in empirical aesthetics, and we hope that this study helps to lay some of the groundwork for that.

    Full version of our paper available here.


    Note 1: One important exception to this generalization is Russ Hurlburt in his 2016 book with Marco Caracciolo and in his paper with several collaborators forthcoming in Journal of Consciousness Studies.)


    Related Posts:

    What Do You Think About While Watching The Nutcracker? (Dec 17, 2007)

    The Experience of Reading (Nov 25, 2009).

    The Experience of Reading: Imagery, Inner Speech, and Seeing the Words on the Page (Aug 28, 2013).

    Waves of Mind Wandering During Live Performances (Jan 15, 2014)

    Thursday, March 29, 2018

    Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book: Belief, Desire, and Self-Knowledge

    As I've mentioned, MIT Press will be publishing a book of my selected blog posts and op-eds. I've narrowed it down to a mere (!) 150 posts, in seven broad categories, and I'd love your input in helping me narrow it down more.

  • moral psychology
  • technology
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge (live as of today)
  • culture and humor
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds
  • consciousness
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week I'll post a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. No need to rate all of the listed posts! Just rate any posts or op-eds you remember. Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want.

    It would be a great help if you could answer some of these polls -- if only just to click "a favorite" next to a few you remember fondly. I will take this input seriously in selecting what to include in the book.

    Today's poll, 11 selected posts on belief, desire, and self-knowledge.

    Although I've written more on self-knowledge and belief than any other topic, this is my shortest list among the seven categories -- maybe because so much of my work on this is already in longer papers? Or maybe because my positions on these issues were already well worked out before I started blogging, so I had less of an impulse to toss out new ideas about them? Hm.....

    [image source]

    Monday, March 26, 2018

    Tell Us How to Fix the Lack of Diversity in Philosophy Journals

    [cross-posted at the Blog of the APA]

    by Eric Schwitzgebel and Nicole Hassoun

    Philosophy departments in the U.S. and Britain are famously homogenous. You already know that. What you might not know is that mainstream Anglophone philosophy journals are even more homogenous. We at the Demographics in Philosophy Project aim to fix that. Come join us at the Pacific Division meeting to tell us how.

    First, some data:

    Women comprise about 20-25% of philosophy faculty in the U.S. and Britain (Beebe and Saul 2011; Paxton, Figdor, and Tiberius 2012; White et al. 2014) and about 27-33% of philosophy PhDs and new tenure-track hires (Schwitzgebel and Jennings 2017). However, among elite Anglophone philosophy journals (as measured by reputational polls), women are only about 12-16% of authors of research articles (Schwitzgebel and Jennings 2017; Wilhelm, Conklin, and Hassoun 2017.

    Black philosophers are even more scarce, comprising about 13% of the general U.S. population, but only about 2% U.S. of philosophy faculty and only about 0.5% of U.S. authors in elite philosophy journals (Bright 2016).

    In the most elite general Anglophone philosophy journals, there is almost no serious discussion of authors from other linguistic traditions, even in translation. In the only published study we are aware of on this topic, we examined 3556 citations from a sample of 93 articles from twelve elite journals (Schwitzgebel, Huang, Higgins, and Gonzalez-Cabrera forthcoming). Approximately 97% of citations were of sources originally written in English, 1% were of sources originally written in German, and less than 1% were of sources originally written in French, ancient Greek, Italian, or Latin. We found not a single citation of any source from any other linguistic tradition.

    We are not aware of any formal studies of the rates at which disabled authors or authors from lower Socio-Economic-Status family backgrounds publish in elite Anglophone philosophy journals, compared to non-disabled authors and authors from middle- to upper-SES family backgrounds, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they may also be substantially underrepresented relative to the general population and perhaps also relative to the population of philosophy professors as a whole. Other under-studied dimensions of diversity include (but are not limited to) sexual identity, political viewpoint, religion, topic of research focus, prestige of home institution or institution of graduate study, and other aspects of race or ethnicity.

    Why it is a problem:

    You might not think such homogeneity is a problem. We do think it is a problem.

    It is a problem for epistemic reasons. Philosophy, as a discipline, profits from hearing voices from a variety of different backgrounds, with a variety of different cultural perspectives and life experiences. If only a restricted range of voices enters the philosophical dialogue, we philosophers, as a community, risk drawing conclusions that would not survive the scrutiny of a broader range of people. We also risk disproportionate focus in our collective philosophical attention: over-emphasizing issues that especially matter to those with the dominant voices and under-emphasizing issues that matter more to those who are not participating as visibly.

    It is also a problem for reasons of social justice. Plausibly, individual and systemic patterns of prejudice or bias disproportionately favor philosophers who already belong to socially privileged groups. Unfair exclusionary practices, whether implicit or explicit, harm people’s lives by unjustly closing off career opportunities, advancement, and salary. If so, this is an injustice that deserves addressing.

    Since publication in elite journals is central to hiring, tenure, and promotion, it is unlikely that we will see much greater diversification among faculty until we repair the situation in the journals. Furthermore, it might be easier to change publication practices than it is to fix pipeline problems directly – and improving the diversity of authorship in elite journals might then naturally lead to more diversity in hiring, tenure, and promotion.

    Tell us how to fix it:

    We have some preliminary ideas about how to improve the situation. But we want to hear from you. We are interested in concrete suggestions for specific practices that can be implemented by journal editors to improve diversity without compromising their other goals. We are especially interested in hearing about practices that have been successfully implemented to good effect.

    Give us your suggestions. Raise objections and concerns. Comment this post. Email us. And, if you’re in the area at the time, please come to our session on this topic at the Pacific APA meeting in San Diego on March 29 (9a-12p). The session will start with a brief presentation on diversity in philosophy journals, but it will mostly consist of open discussion with a panel of editors from nineteen well-regarded philosophy journals, who will bring their experience to the question as well as, we suspect, in some cases, their strenuous disagreement.

    After the session, we hope to partner with journals to collect more data on what works to improve diversity and to develop a toolbox of helpful practices.

    Suggestions, objections, and contributions welcome at More data on women in philosophy are available here.

    Follow us on Twitter @PhilosophyData and Facebook

    Session details:

    APA Committee Session: Diversity in Philosophy Journals

    Pacific APA, San Diego

    March 29, 2018, 9:00a-12:00p

    Sponsored by the Committee on Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies, the Committee on Inclusiveness in the Profession, the Committee on the Status and Future of the Profession, the Committee on the Status of Black Philosophers, the Committee on the Status of Women, the Committee on Hispanics, the Committee on LGBTQ People in the Profession, and MAP (Minorities And Philosophy).

    • Eric Schwitzgebel (University of California at Riverside)

    • Liam Kofi Bright (Carnegie Mellon University)
    • Sherri Lynn Conklin (University of California at Santa Barbara)
    • Sally Haslanger (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
    • Nicole Hassoun (SUNY Binghamton and Cornell University)
    • Manyul Im (University of Bridgeport)
    • Meena Krishnamurthy (University of Michigan at Ann Arbor)
    • Anita Silvers (San Francisco State University)

    • Bruce Barry (Vanderbilt University and editor in chief of Business Ethics Quarterly)
    • Christian Barry (Australian National University and co-editor of Journal of Political Philosophy)
    • David Boonin (University of Colorado at Boulder and editor of Public Affairs Quarterly)
    • Otavio Bueno (University of Miami and editor in chief of Synthese)
    • Stewart M. Cohen (University of Arizona and editor in chief of Philosophical Studies)
    • Graeme Forbes (University of Colorado at Boulder and editor in chief of Linguistics and Philosophy)
    • Peter J. Graham (University of California at Riverside and associate editor of Journal of the American Philosophical Association)
    • Stephen Hetherington (University of New South Wales and editor in chief of Australasian Journal of Philosophy)
    • Rebecca Kukla (Georgetown University and editor in chief of Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal)
    • Franklin Perkins (University of Hawai’i and editor in chief of Philosophy East and West)
    • Henry Richardson (Georgetown University and editor in chief of Ethics)
    • Achille Varzi (Columbia University and editor in chief of Journal of Philosophy)
    • Andrea Woody (University of Washington and editor in chief of Philosophy of Science)
    • Jack Zupko (University of Alberta and editor in chief of Journal of the History of Philosophy)
    • and representatives to be determined from Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Ergo, Hypatia, Philosophical Quarterly, and Philosophy and Public Affairs

    Thanks to Sherri Lynn Conklin for continuing help with this project.

    Friday, March 23, 2018

    Is Life Meaningful, or Is the World a Pointless Cesspool of Suffering and Death? New Scientific Evidence

    The poll results are in. With 1273 respondents to the SurveyMonkey version of my new Meaning Of Life Outcome Measure, we now have scientific evidence that life is meaningful!

    86% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement "There is value in living, either value that we can find if we search for it, or value that we ourselves can create" and only 6% disagreed or strongly disagreed. In contrast, only 31% of respondents agreed that "The world is a pointless cesspool of suffering and death" (49% disagreed). Interestingly, 24% of respondents agreed with both claims.

    Other results:

    Every moment, every breath, every success and every failure is a treasure to be cherished: 45% agree, 31% disagree.

    All the uses of this world are weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing: 24% agree, 57% disagree.

    Everything is just atoms bumping in the void, so nothing you do really matters: 46% agree, 37% disagree.

    It is better to have strived and struggled than never to have been: 68% agree, 15% disagree.

    On average, respondents reported being "moderately confident" of their answers, on a four-point scale from "not at all confident" to "highly confident" (mean 1.9 on 0-3 scale).

    Total Meaningfulness Score:

    To calculate a total Meaningfulness Score, each answer was assigned a score from -2 to +2. Respondents scored -2 for strongly agreeing with a negatively-valenced statement or strongly disagreeing with a positively-valenced statement, and they scored +2 for strongly agreeing with a positive statement or strongly disagreeing with a negative one. Across six questions, this gave a possible Meaningfulness Score of -12 to +12.

    Respondents were grouped into three categories:
    Life is meaningless (-12 to -2): 16%
    Meh (-1 to +1): 22%
    Life is meaningful (+2 to +12): 62%

    The average Meaningfulness Score was 2.7. This suggests that life is only slightly meaningful.

    Factor Analysis:

    After reverse-scoring the negatively-valenced items, an unrotated two-factor maximum likelihood exploratory factor analysis reveals a first factor (Life is Meaningful) explaining 32% of the variance, on which which all six questions loaded positively (.14 to .33), and a second factor (Acquiescence) explaining 10% of the variance, onto which the three positively-valenced questions loaded positively (.17, .26, and .46) and the negatively-valenced loaded negatively (-.14, -.28, -.28; since the latter are reverse-scored, this indicates agreement with the negatively-valenced statements). In a three-factor solution, the third variable explains only 6% of the variance, so a two-factor solution is preferred.

    Cronbach's alpha is .705, just above the standard acceptable threshold of .70, suggesting sufficient inter-item correlation for a useful psychometric scale that is aimed at a single underlying construct.

    In related news, God prefers spheres.

    Thursday, March 22, 2018

    The Meaning of Life Quiz as a Learning Outcomes Measure

    Somehow universities survived for centuries without any rigorous attempt to measure "learning outcomes". Fortunately, those days are over! Faculty must now prove to administrators that our students have learned something by taking our classes. And that means rigorous quantitative assessments of learning outcomes, with internal and external validity, test-retest reliability, and other desirable psychometric properties.

    The aim of philosophy is to discover the meaning of life. To properly assess whether students have in fact discovered the meaning of life by taking our classes, I propose a new Meaning Of Life Outcome Measure (MOLOM).

    [Update Mar 23: Poll results are in!] Please answer the following philosophical questions:

    1. Every moment, every breath, every success and every failure is a treasure to be cherished.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    2. The world is a pointless cesspool of suffering and death.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    3. There is value in living, either value that we can find if we search for it, or value that we ourselves can create.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    4. All the uses of this world are weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    5. Everything is just atoms bumping in the void, so nothing you do really matters.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    6. It is better to have strived and struggled than never to have been.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    7. How confident are you of your answers to the questions above?
    (not at all confident - slightly confident - moderately confident - highly confident)

    8. What is the meaning of life? (Or if life is meaningless, explain why.)
    (fill in the blank)

    Alternatively, take the SurveyMonkey version of the MOLOM.

    Your Meaningfulness Score:

    Score -2 to +2 points for strongly disagree to strongly agree on questions 1, 3, and 6.
    Score +2 to -2 points for strongly disagree to strongly agree on questions 2, 4, and 5.

    Interpreting your Meaningfulness Score (revised March 23):

    -12 to -2: Life is meaningless.
    -1 to +1: Meh.
    +2 to +12: Life is meaningful.

    Recommended Usage as an Outcome Measure:

    Administer the test at the beginning of philosophy instruction, then re-administer the test at the end of philosophy instruction.

    If a student's Meaningfulness Score rises, this shows that the student has discovered that life has meaning (or at least is not as meaningless as they had previously thought). If a student's Meaningfulness Score declines, this shows that the student has shed their foolish illusions (or at least that they have made progress toward shedding their illusions).

    If the student's confidence score rises, this shows that the student has solidified their understanding of the issues. If the student's confidence score declines, this shows that the student has begun to challenge their earlier presuppositions.

    If the answer in the text box changes, this shows that the student has come to a new understanding of these fundamental issues.

    Also examine the standard deviation of the scores (after first reverse scoring questions 2, 4, and 5). Compare the SD at the beginning of instruction with the SD at the end of instruction. If a student's standard deviation increases, conclude that the student has learned to see nuanced distinctions between these various claims. If a student's standard deviation decreases, conclude that the student has matured toward a more coherent worldview.

    The Meaning Of Life Outcome Measure is not yet fully validated, but I am optimistic that the MOLOM will prove to be the rigorously quantitative learning outcomes assessment tool that we need in philosophy.

    Tuesday, March 20, 2018

    Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book: Technology Posts

    As I mentioned last week, MIT Press will be publishing a book of my selected blog posts and op-eds. I've narrowed it down to a mere (!) 150 posts, in seven broad categories, and I'd love your input in helping me narrow it down more.

  • moral psychology (poll went live March 16)
  • technology (live as of today)
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge
  • culture and humor
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds
  • consciousness
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week I'll post a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. No need to rate all twenty! Just rate any posts or op-eds you remember. Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want.

    It would be a great help if you could answer some of these polls -- if only just to click "a favorite" next to a few you remember fondly. I will take this input seriously in selecting what to include in the book.

    Today's poll, 17 selected posts on philosophy of technology.

    Take the poll, and share widely!

    [image source]

    Friday, March 16, 2018

    Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book :-)

    As you might know, MIT Press will be publishing a book of my selected blog posts and op-eds. Of the 1100 posts and op-eds I've written since 2006, I've narrowed it down to about 150. I'd love your input in whittling it down some more.

    I can't ask you to rate all 150 pieces at one time -- too exhausting! So I'm splitting my posts into seven broad categories:

  • moral psychology (poll now live)
  • technology
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge
  • culture and humor
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds
  • consciousness
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week I'll post a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. No need to rate all twenty! Just rate any posts or op-eds you remember. Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want.

    It would be a great help if you could answer some of these polls -- if only just to click "a favorite" next to a few you remember fondly. I will take this input seriously in selecting what to include in the book.

    Here's the first poll, 23 selected posts on moral psychology.

    Take the poll, and share widely!

    [image source]

    Wednesday, March 14, 2018

    A New Measure of Life Satisfaction: The Riverside Life Satisfaction Scale

    Seth Margolis, Daniel Ozer, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and I have designed a new measure of overall life satisfaction. We believe that this measure improves on the most widely used multi-item measure of life satisfaction, Diener et al.'s Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985).

    Diener's SLWS consists of the following five questions, each answered on a 1-7 scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree":

    SWLS items:

  • In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
  • The conditions of my life are excellent.
  • I am satisfied with my life.
  • So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
  • If I could live my life over I would change almost nothing.
  • One often-noted feature of the SWLS is that the first four items are direct measures of current life satisfaction, whereas the fifth item concerns regret about the past. Accordingly, the fifth item generally has lower factor loadings onto the scale than the first four items, which are a more tightly clustered group that people tend to answer similarly. A more unified construct might cut the fifth item.

    However, we like the fifth item. Instead of cutting it, we think a good measure of life satisfaction should have more items like it, creating a broader target. To see why, consider a hypothetical respondent who answers the first four SWLS questions with "strongly agree" but who also feels intense envy of others' lives, is full of regrets, and wants to change their life path. Such a respondent, we think, should not be regarded as having maximum life satisfaction. Envy, regret, and desire to change are all either indirect signs of, or direct constituents of, dissatisfaction. A good measure of life satisfaction should include questions about them.

    It is this issue -- how should we conceptualize (and thus measure) life satisfaction -- that's my own central concern in this project. Readers familiar with my general approach to attitudes will be unsurprised to hear that I favor a broad, dispositional approach to overall life satisfaction. A person truly satisfied with their life is not just someone who is disposed to sincerely say "I'm satisfied" but someone who is also disposed to act and react generally in ways concordant with being satisfied, i.e., not desperately seeking to change their circumstances, not seething with envy at others' situations, etc.

    Also, in constructing a new measure, we wanted to have some reverse-scored, negatively-valenced items to mitigate acquiescence bias (that is, a tendency to say "yes" to most questions).

    Thus, we created a scale with three SWLS-like items and three reverse-scored, negatively-valenced items targeting envy, regret, and desire to change. The items are presented in random order and answered (like the SWLS) on a 1-7 scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree".

    RLSS items:

  • I like how my life is going.
  • If I could live my life over, I would change many things.
  • I am content with my life.
  • Those around me seem to be living better lives than my own.
  • I am satisfied with where I am in life right now.
  • I want to change the path my life is on.
  • To test this new measure, we ran three studies (all described in our final manuscript version). In Study 1, we selected the final six items above from a larger pool. Across the three studies, we examined inter-item correlations and factor loadings among our six selected items, and we correlated our new measure with the SWLS, the Big 5 personality traits, several demographic variables, measures of positive and negative emotions or affect, the Psychological Well-Being Scale, the Schwartz Values Survey, and a measure of socially desirable responding.

    The details are available in our paper, but a few highlights are:

    (1.) Despite our use of the three negatively-valenced indirect items targeting a broader underlying phenomenon, the SWLS and RLSS showed high and almost identical levels of internal consistency, suggesting that our addition of these items didn't harm the coherence and unity of the measure.

    (2.) The RLSS correlated highly with the SWLS (r = .88, .89), suggesting that most existing research relying on the SWLS would generate similar results had the RLSS been used instead. Thus, despite (we think) improvements, it is not targeting a radically different phenomenon.

    (3.) Finally, the RLSS consistently correlated slightly better than did the SWLS with measures of self-reported emotions, the Psychological Well Being Scale, and the Big 5 personality trait of Negative Emotionality. Thus, arguably, the RLSS is slightly more centrally located than the SWLS in this network of related psychological phenomena.

    [Thanks to Dan Haybron's Templeton grant for funding!]

    Thursday, March 08, 2018

    Engaging with Evil Art: Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors

    Last term, some grad students and I read Berys Gaut's book Art, Emotion, and Ethics. Gaut argues that although some morally noxious works of art have aesthetic merit, they never have aesthetic merit in virtue of their moral defects. If an ethically flawed work is aesthetically good, it is good despite that flaw, not because of the flaw.

    I find myself inclined to disagree. Sometimes art is more thought-provoking, or more challenging or horrifying, because of its moral defects -- thought-provoking, challenging, or horrifying in ways that make the work more engaging, giving the work a kind of aesthetic interest in virtue of its moral terribleness.

    Before I offer examples, two caveats:

    (1.) In praising the aesthetic merits that morally noxious artworks sometimes have in virtue of that very noxiousness, I don't commit to the view that being thought-provokingly morally awful outweighs other considerations. Some of these works should be overall condemned. Even just appreciating them aesthetically might be overall inappropriate, despite their merits. And the world might be better off had the works never been produced.

    (2.) I am (like Gaut) assuming pluralism about aesthetic value. Aesthetic value does not reduce entirely to beauty, for example. Being thought-provoking, challenging, or frightening can be (though it isn't always) as aesthetic merit in a work -- can be part of what makes a work aesthetically valuable.

    Two examples I've given some thought to are both films: Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors.

    Riefenstahl and Allen are of course both morally flawed people themselves: Riefenstahl a Nazi propagandist, Allen plausibly accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with minors, including in his own family. The moral noxiousness of their work might flow in part from their own personal ethical flaws -- but I don't want to rely on such biographical facts in evaluating the works. I discuss their work with considerable trepidation, because of the electricity of discussions of Nazism and of sexual abuse. Let me be clear that I will not be saying that their work is good despite its moral awfulness, as though we could simply bracket moral issues in aesthetic discussions. Instead, my view is that it is the moral awfulness itself that makes these otherwise not-so-great films interestingly distressing to contemplate.

    [image source]

    Consider Triumph of the Will. The film is fascinating, in part, because it is both (sometimes) beautiful and a work of Nazi propaganda. There's a horrifying tension between the beauty of the cinematography and the ugliness of the worldview it celebrates. It would not be nearly as horrifyingly fascinating if it didn't star Hitler -- my god, there he is, arguably the most evil man on Earth, being fawned over! -- if it were, say, a piece of Allied propaganda rather than Nazi propaganda.

    Furthermore, the fact that it is Nazi propaganda is not independent of the aesthetics of the film: It's not simply a beautiful film that happens (by sad chance) to be Nazi propaganda. The fascistic perspective is itself visible in some of its scenes -- for example, in the striking shots of masses of seemingly-identical troops standing in huge, almost inhuman formations, in the unity and uniformness of the crowds' mood and action, in the extreme deference to Hitler, in Hitler's superficially tempting sham-ethical perspective as he praises people who sacrifice and submit everything for the good of Germany and the new Reich.

    Triumph of the Will is fascinating not despite, but because of its moral horribleness. Proper viewing of it requires keeping that horribleness always in view at the same time one feels pulled into the beauty of a shot or feels sympathetically how an ordinary German of the period might be emotionally moved by Hitler's calls for self-sacrifice.

    Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is also, I think, fundamentally morally noxious, but in a different way. The film is clearly intended as a refutation of the idea of "immanent justice" of the sort one sees in Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky: the idea that crimes bring their own punishments naturally in their train. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, for example, the title character murders King Duncan, and this leads to other crimes, and torments of guilt, and fear, and ultimately a terrible death. In Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov commits a robbery, and it too leads to another crime (murder), and subsequent horrible guilt and fear; he never benefits, and he ends up driven to confess. Allen's plausible starting point is that the world doesn't reliably work this way. Often people commit horrible crimes, and get away with it, and don't feel too bad about it, and are better off in the end for having done so. As I've stated it so far, this isn't yet a claim about what one should do. It's just how the world happens to be, as portrayed in the film.

    The central ethical question of Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is how to approach life in light of the failure of immanent justice, that is, given that the wicked often flourish. Hypothetically, the message of the film could have been that you should act ethically anyway, even if you'll be worse off as a result, even if Shakespeare and the Bible and Dostoyevsky and children's tales are wrong, and crime does pay. That is presumably what Mengzi would say. But that is not, I think, the perspective conveyed in the film.

    In the perspective of the film, the lead character Judah, who murders his mistress so that she will not reveal their sexual affair to Judah's wife, proves to be the wisest character in the end. Wiser than the rabbi Ben, who thinks that you must have faith in God and trust in the moral order of the world, and wiser than Allen's own character Cliff who thinks that it would be unbearable to have an unconfessed murder on one's conscience. By the end of the film, Judah appears glad that he committed the murder in order to save his relationship with his wife. The implicit message of the film is that if morality conflicts with self-interest, sometimes the wisest course is to act unethically -- even to the point of murder to hide a sexual affair. As Judah's brother Jack says, "you only go around once." Don't let anyone else, or the demands of morality, ruin it for you.

    If this interpretation of the film is correct, then the film is morally noxious -- indeed, proudly so. (In its self-conscious rejection of morality, the film differs from Triumph of the Will.) This morally noxious message is central to the film's aesthetic interest: It is what makes it horrifying and dark, and a challenge to think through, and a lively criticism of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. If it didn't celebrate Judah's evil choice in a way that most of us would find morally odious, it would be a forgettable film.

    Contra Gaut, artworks that unapologetically celebrate evil, whether in full moral knowledge that they are doing so (Crimes and Misdemeanors) or without full moral knowledge (Triumph of the Will), can be aesthetically interesting exactly because of their moral noxiousness. They can be horrifyingly aesthetically fascinating, like a disaster that we loathe and condemn at the same time we can't look away -- but we needn't wish such disasters on the world or comfortably enjoy viewing them with a mouth full of popcorn.

    [revised 11:43 a.m.]

    March 9 ETA: I've been getting interesting pushback about my interpretation of Crimes and Misdemeanors (e.g., Taylor and Howard here. Let me say that the basis of my interpretation is primarily that, as I see it, Judah (the murderer) comes out looking wiser than any of the other characters. If the film were to be neutral between Judah's perspective and more moral perspectives, it would need, I think, a character who clearly recognizes the world's lack of moral order and yet chooses morality nonetheless. There is no such character.

    [Note: Somehow two different versions of this post went up. Slightly older version here.]