Wednesday, September 28, 2022

The Value of Self-Contradiction in Zhuangzi

The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (4th c. BCE) often contradicted himself, or at least made statements whose superficial readings stood in tension with each other.  This self-contradiction, I contend, is not sloppy, nor does it necessarily reflect different authorship of different parts of the text or different stages in the development of Zhuangzi's thought.  Rather, his self-contradiction is purposive and crucial to the power of the text, serving two distinctively Zhuangzian functions.

For example, in multiple passages, Zhuangzi seems to state or assume that it's better to "live out your years" than to die young (1:14-15; 3:1-3, 3:5-6, 4:17; 6:3-4).  However, in multiple other passages, Zhuangzi seems to state or assume that dying young is no worse, or at least no more to be regretted if one is wise, than living a long life (2:38-40; 6: 9-11; 6:25-28; 6:40-47).  In one other passage, Zhuangzi seems to embrace still a third option: We don't know whether or not death is better than life (2:41-42).  (See my 2018 paper "Death, Self, and Oneness in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi" for a detailed discussion of these passages.)

Similarly, Zhuangzi doesn't appear to have a consistent view concerning skepticism.  In multiple passages, Zhuangzi seems to embrace seemingly extremely radical forms of skepticism according to which we know nothing or at least very little, including dream skepticism (2:41-42; 2:48-49), skepticism about resolving disagreements (2:43-44), and skepticism about whether words and labels and ever be accurately and meaningfully used (ch 2 throughout, esp. 2:29-32).  He appears to admire a sagely character who declines to say he knows anything (2:38) and another who considers no one wrong and sometimes thinks he's a horse or an ox (7:1).  Most of this is in Book 2.  However, in the remainder of the Inner Chapters (generally regarded as the authentic core of the book), Zhuangzi appears to endorse and criticize philosophical views, with little seeming residue of the radical skepticisms of Book 2.  In some places, he appears to explicitly state that philosophical knowledge is attainable (5:9-11, 6:1-6).  (For more on Zhuangzi's contradictions concerning skepticism, see my 1996 paper "Zhuangzi's Attitude Toward Language and His Skepticism".)

In a text this short (52 pages in Ziporyn's English translation), this is a striking amount of contradiction.  It's not like I've been trolling through Kant's gigantic corpus to find scattered passages that don't quite fit together.  The self-contradiction is frequent, blatant, unmissable once you start looking for it -- seemingly intentional.

Of course, we could deny that Zhuangzi is really so self-contradictory.  We could attribute the passages to different authors, or to different periods in his thinking.  Or we could argue that the passages fit together in some subtle way, so that, properly interpreted, they don't really contradict each other.  "Charitable" readings of historical philosophers typically try to find a coherent, sensible view beneath what might seem on a casual read to be contradictions or implausibilities in the text.  Most interpreters of Zhuangzi are charitable in this way, looking to find a reasonable Zhuangzian view beneath the surface of the text -- Zhuangzi's single, coherent opinion about death, skepticism, the use of uselessness, the limits of language and logic, the value of morality, etc.

I reject this conventional interpretive approach.  The most charitable way to read Zhuangzi involves rejecting the principle of charity as it is conventionally applied.  Zhuangzi need not have a single, coherent worldview.  It is uncharitable -- in a broader sense of interpretive charity -- to think that Zhuangzi did have a single, coherent worldview that he could have stated in a plain, self-consistent manner but did not.  That renders him either inept (if he wanted to be clear and self-consistent but failed) or intentionally misleading (if he sought to disguise his real view under a mass of contradictions).

I propose, instead, that Zhuangzi's self-contradictions serve two broadly Zhuangzian purposes.

First, self-contradiction allows Zhuangzi to express alternative points of view that he might regard as each having some merit, without having to decide where the truth lies.  Although we tend to think of great philosophers as having settled opinions on all the topics they address, the normal human condition might more commonly be not to have settled philosophical opinions on many matters, but rather to feel the pull of alternative positions.  Zhuangzi might be a normal human in this respect.

Indeed, it would be Zhuangzian for him not to have a settled opinion on many philosophical issues (perhaps even including the issue of how much one should have settled philosophical opinions).  One theme that shines through the text is that deep philosophical understanding of the world might be beyond the comprehension of most ordinary people, and Zhuangzi might regard himself as an ordinary person in this respect.  Another theme, central to Chapter 2, is that words and doctrines often fail us, since they require us to draw sharp and stable lines across a reality that might not be so neatly divided, a reality that regularly defies human categories.  For good Zhuangzian philosophical reasons, Zhuangzi might be uneasy about going all-in on particular philosophical doctrines, preferring to present more than one side of an issue without definitely settling the question.

Second, self-contradiction is anti-authoritarian and anti-dogmatic in a way that fits nicely with the general spirit of Zhuangzi.  Zhuangzi employs many tools to undercut his own philosophical authority, including making claims and then calling those claims into doubt, putting much of the text in quotation from various dubious sources (seeming sages with funny names, ex-criminals, people who are devalued and at the margins of society, a mock "Confucius" who sometimes admits he has messed things up), and telling absurd parables that the reader will not take literally.  Self-contradiction is another tool in this arsenal -- a means of jostling sympathetic readers out of whatever default tendency they might have to treat Zhuangzi's words as authoritative.  Readers inclined to agree with one of Zhuangzi's positions are likely to find another conflicting passage later, knocking them out of their confidence that they understand Zhuangzi's view and agree with it.

Also through self-contradiction, Zhuangzi parodies the confidence and self-seriousness of other philosophers.  He engages in logical puzzle-making or moral pontificating that superficially reads like what a more self-serious philosopher might say; but then his humor, absurdity, and self-contradiction helps make it clear that this confident self-seriousness is a humorous pose.  After a sympathetic reading of Zhuangzi, it's harder to go back to reading the Mohist logicians, or the Daodejing, or the Confucian moralists, with quite the same reverence.

Zhuangzi is in this way an exceptional philosopher -- one untroubled by, and maybe even seeking, self-contradiction, as an acknowledgement of the complexity of the world and the incompleteness of his own understanding, and in rebellion against the idea of philosophy as the construction of coherent systems of philosophical truth.  Other historical philosophers who embrace self-contradiction for similar reasons might include Montaigne, Nietzsche, and/or the later Wittgenstein -- though none as baldly and pervasively as China's original self-undermining sage.

[image modified from a Dall-E output for "ancient Chinese sage Zhuangzi speaking"]



"The Humor of Zhuangzi, the Self-Seriousness of Laozi" (Apr 8, 2013).

"Against Charity in the History of Philosophy" (Jan 8, 2017).

"Zhuangzi Might Prefer the Passive Knife to the Skillful Cook" (Jan 11, 2019)

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Does the Heart Revolt at Evil? The Case of Racial Atrocities

Below is a short piece I just published at The Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture, on the ancient debate between Mengzi and Xunzi about whether human nature is good and the light that 20th century racial atrocities might cast on the question.  It's short and simple enough that blog readers might think of it as a long blog post.


One of the most ancient disputes in Confucian philosophy concerns the relationship between morality and human nature (xìng 性). Mengzi held that human nature is good (shàn 善). Xunzi held that human nature is bad (è 惡). What exactly Mengzi and Xunzi meant by the mottos xìng shàn and xìng è, respectively, is a matter of scholarly dispute. However, I think this is near the core: If human nature is good then some part of us is bound to be revolted by acts of great evil, if we reflect on those acts carefully. This natural revulsion is a universal part of the human condition. It requires no special cultural learning, nor can it ordinarily be eliminated through cultural learning. If human nature is good, as Mengzi holds, people have an innate moral compass. Everyone has the “sprouts” of morality – not full-grown moral goodness, but the beginnings of moral goodness, which moral education can nourish into mature moral excellence.

In contrast, if human nature is bad, as Xunzi holds, we have no such innate compass, no natural aversion to evil. Morality is an artificial construction, a cultural invention. Morality was created by our ancestors to solve a certain set of social problems. We no more have an innate guide to solving those problems than we have an innate guide to the correct manner by which to fire pottery. What’s morally good does not correlate with what we naturally desire, and there are no culturally universal moral inclinations to be discovered, independent of what we learn from cultural experience and the teaching of our elders.

One crucial point of disagreement between these approaches – not particularly highlighted by Mengzi or Xunzi, but following from their disagreement as I have just characterized it – concerns the ability of people to rise above their cultural circumstances. Consider people raised in the racist U.S. South in the early 20th century. Consider people raised in anti-Semitic Germany in the mid-20th century. If Mengzi is right, then those ordinary people, despite the bigotry of their upbringing, ought nonetheless to have an innate inclination to be revolted by at least the most heartless and terrible acts committed against Blacks and Jews. As Mengzi famously suggests, anyone who suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well would feel alarm and compassion (Mengzi 2A6). Even the callous King Xuan, upon seeing the suffering of an ox, was moved to pity that ox (Mengzi 1A7). Mengzi urges King Xuan to “measure” (度) his heart and extend his compassion for the ox to the people suffering under his reign. If a Mengzian perspective is correct, then we might expect that post-Reconstruction racists in the U.S. South and ardent German Nazis under Hitler should likewise be able to measure their hearts and find a compassionate part of themselves revolted by the wrongness of gross racial injustice. On the other hand, if Xunzi is right, we might expect that people surrounded by moral authorities who support extreme forms of cruel bigotry would have no separate, internal, culture-independent urging of their heart that might guide them to a better moral vision.

I am, perhaps, oversimplifying a bit. As is generally the case with great philosophers like Mengzi and Xunzi, there are nuances in their views and resources to accommodate diverse possibilities. Nonetheless, I would suggest that it sits more easily with the Mengzian view to suppose that everyone, regardless of cultural background, would find the cruelest bigoted behavior at least a little morally revolting; and it sits more easily with the Xunzian view to suppose that people raised in a sufficiently bigoted culture might find their consciences entirely untroubled by acts that the rest of the world would see as plainly evil. In this way, we can think of the dispute between Mengzi and Xunzi partly as an empirical dispute. How much variation is there in our moral psychology? Is it always the case that ordinary people are revolted by gross evil – at least a little bit, at least in some corner of their hearts, discoverable with the right kind of reflection or introspection? Or alternatively, when that evil is grounded in, for example, a deep, toxic bigotry in their culture, will ordinary people participate gladly, with no discoverable qualms and no innate sense of moral right and wrong that might lead them to a better vision?

Consider two specific historical acts that I hope everyone can agree are profoundly evil.

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

Three days later and twenty-five miles away, a motorist informed the police that he had seen a Black man – Rubin Stacey, an agricultural laborer – ducking into some bushes. When deputies approached, Stacey attempted to flee. After apprehending him, instead of putting Stacey in a lineup according to standard eyewitness identification procedure, the deputies drove him to Jones’ house. Jones claimed Stacey had assaulted her and both she and the deputies were given a $25 identification reward ($475 in today’s U.S. dollars). Stacey denied involvement, and nothing was ever reported that connected him with the alleged crime apart from the dubious identification procedure. As Stacey was being driven to jail, a mob seized him and, using Jones’ clothesline, hung him from a tree near Jones’ home. A gun was passed around and spectators were invited to take shots at Stacey, who might or might not have already been dead from hanging. Many of the shots missed, but 17 shots hit. White newspaper coverage accepted the deputies’ claim that they had involuntarily released Stacey to the mob after being run off the road. However, doubts about the story were raised in 1988 when one participant in the lynching revealed that the mob had been led by the sheriff’s brother, who was himself a deputy and who later became notorious for killing Black detainees for minor acts of disrespect.

Stacey’s corpse hung for hours while thousands of White Floridians came to view it and celebrate. They brought their families, posed for photos with Stacey’s corpse, and cut off pieces of his clothing to keep as souvenirs. One famous photo shows four young White girls in casual summer dresses gazing at the corpse from only a few feet away, with men – presumably their fathers – standing behind them. One of the girls appears to be positively beaming with delight.[1] 

[See here for the full photo.]

Stacey’s lynching was typical of the era, which saw dozens or hundreds of lynchings every year. Only about one-third of victims were even accused of capital crimes, and some were accused of no crime at all, but instead were associates of the accused or were “troublemakers” who complained about racial oppression. Rarely was any serious attempt made to accurately identify the accused. In perhaps the majority of cases, the accused was already held by police, thus posing no immediate threat and likely to face a criminal justice system already biased against them. Spectators often arrived from miles around, sometimes renting excursion trains and bringing picnics. As mementos, they collected pieces of the victim’s clothes, or even pieces of the victim’s body. White men took turns shooting, torturing, or abusing the living victim or the corpse, often bringing women and children with them. Lynch mobs posed politely for photos, which were often printed on postcards that quickly sold for a dollar or so. In 2003, James Allen and colleagues published a collection of these postcards along with historical details, including the photo of Stacey’s corpse with the smiling girl.[2] In picture after picture, you can see the proud faces of the murderers, standing near shot, charred, tortured, whipped, skinned, and/or castrated corpses, apparently happy to have their deeds memorialized, printed, and shared via postcard around the country, with handwritten comments on the back like “this is the barbeque we had last night”.


In July 1942, the German men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were ordered to kill about 1500 Jews in the small village of Józefów, Poland. Jewish men capable of work were to be trucked off to slave camps, but all of the women, children, elderly, and disabled were to be killed – on the spot, if they could not walk, or after a brief march side by side with their killer into the forest, if they were capable of walking. This reserve police battalion might have seemed an unpromising group for such a murderous task: They were draftees into a reserve force, not volunteers. They had no special training or dedication to the cause. Only a minority belonged to the Nazi party. They had families and careers at home, from which the draft had plucked them. Nor were they impressionable youngsters: Their average age was over 36 years old. These men were essentially a sample of ordinary men from around Hamburg, excluding the most dedicated Nazis and military men, who would have volunteered rather than have been drafted.

These men were given little ideological training and little preparation for their task. They were simply driven to the village and told what to do. The commander of the battalion called the men together to announce their mission, saying that it was not especially to his liking and that men who wished not to be involved could choose other duties instead. Of the approximately 500 men, a dozen or so did in fact choose to refrain from the genocide, and they were in no way punished. The remaining men proceeded, apparently voluntarily, to shoot the elderly in their beds and to grab babies from the arms of their presumably screaming mothers, shooting those babies on the spot. Most of the victims walked side by side with their killers, one at a time, into the forest. The men then demanded that the victims lay down, or they forced them down, and shot them in the back of the head. When the victim was dead, they returned to the village to repeat the act. Ordinary men – electricians, merchants, desk-workers, and drivers from Hamburg – were politely asked to kill a village full of Jews, and 98% did so, with no serious protest.

Over the next several months, these men killed repeatedly, occasionally exterminating whole villages, more frequently hunting small groups of Jews in hiding, as well as doing regular policing of the occupied region. They made Jewish men dig their own graves, then lie down in those graves to be shot, then they had the next set of men lie atop the corpses of the previous set. They demanded that Jews squat for hours in the sun, not permitted to sit or to stand, shooting those who broke these arbitrary rules. They mocked the Jews’ beards and religious clothing as they marched them through the streets to their deaths. Sometimes, as with the lynchers, they took proud and happy photos of their exploits, which they then shared afterward and displayed in common rooms.

Of the 500 men, only one man consistently refused to kill. This man, a lieutenant named Buchmann, far from being punished for his refusal, was transferred back to Hamburg and promoted. The men had opportunities to transfer, if they found their genocidal task too unpleasant. For example, at one point there was a call for volunteers to transfer to a communications unit elsewhere in Poland – not difficult work, and not near the front lines. Only two of the five hundred men apparently applied. Some of the men found the genocidal activities gruesome, while others seemed to relish the killing, but overall the men seemed to enjoy their mostly easy duty in the beautiful countryside of Poland, where they bonded with their comrades.[3]


I love Mengzi. I want Mengzi to be right, and I believe that he is right. But cases like these trouble me.

Mengzi of course knew evil. He lived in a violent time, the Period of the Warring States, and he advised violent kings. In Mengzi 1B11, we learn that King Xuan – the king who pitied the ox – invaded the neighboring state of Yan. The people of Yan welcomed King Xuan’s troops with baskets of food, thinking that Xuan would be a better ruler than their previous king. King Xuan returned this kindness by killing the old, binding the young, and destroying the ancestral temples. After this episode, Mengzi left King Xuan’s court.

If Mengzi is right, or if my interpretation of him is right, then had King Xuan reflected on the natural inclinations of his heart as they manifested in his pity for the ox, he would have seen the wrong of killing the old people of Yan who welcomed his troops, and he would have felt a moral impulse not to have them killed – an impulse he could have listened to, and which it would have pleased his heart to follow. If King Xuan saw an old man of Yan about to be killed after having offered food to his troops, or if he learned news of such a case, and if he really stopped to reflect on the matter, “measuring his heart”, he would have been revolted. He would have known it was wrong to kill the man.

We cannot of course know much about King Xuan’s heart at this historical distance. But unfortunately the lynchers of Rubin Stacey and the men of Police Battalion 101 did not seem to be troubled by their atrocious deeds.

Is it simply that they did not reflect? That seems hard to imagine. The lynchers potentially had hours to reflect on their way to the lynching celebrations, and they knew that the Northern U.S. press condemned lynching on moral grounds. The men in Police Battalion 101 had months to reflect, including during furloughs back home. For many of these men, this was probably the first time in their lives that they killed a human being. For all but the most shallow and callous among them, it’s hard to imagine that wouldn’t be an occasion for moral reflection. A man rips a baby from a woman’s arms and kills it in front of her. That night, won’t he think about the deed? Won’t he worry that maybe it was a wrong and terrible thing to do? Did the perpetrators reflect, then, but always only badly, rationalizing their evil actions rather than properly weighing their hearts? Was the prompting of the heart there, but always drowned out by noise?

Xunzi has an easier time with these cases than Mengzi. On a Xunzian view, the lynchers and the men of Police Battalion 101 might be entirely untroubled. Maybe they would feel some visceral bodily disgust at the gore, like the disgust of a medical student first witnessing a surgery, but we ought not expect them to feel moral disgust. With no innate moral compass and only cultural learning of morality, people from such toxically bigoted cultures as the U.S. South in the 1930s and Germany in the 1940s should on a Xunzian view be expected to conform to the morality of their local culture, a morality that says that Blacks should be lynched if suspected of crimes and Jews are the poison virus destroying Germany. Ordinary non-sages have no reliable resource by which to learn otherwise, at least not unless they have the opportunity to seriously engage with liberal, humanitarian values or philosophical ethics from a radically different point of view.

I want to travel back in time. I want to sit down, not with the worst lyncher – not with the murderous, mob-leading deputy – but with just an ordinary member of the mob. I want to find a quiet space with one of the middling men of Police Battalion 101, and I want to think through the case with them. Does Rubin Stacey really deserve to die, right now, in this way, with no trial and no assurance of guilt, based on a rumor, for an act which is not even a capital offense? Do you really want to hang him from a tree with a clothesline and pass around a gun taking shots at him? This ten-year-old Jewish girl that you’re walking beside in the forest, who cannot have done anything wrong – do you really feel okay shooting her in the back of the head? Is there really no part of you that knows this is wrong and screams against it?

When I imagine sitting with the perpetrators like this, I find myself pulled toward the Mengzian view. I can’t help but feel that most ordinary people, if they paused in this way to think through the situation and measure their hearts, would see past the horrible bigotry of their culture, feel the pull of sympathy and humanity, and be morally revolted by such deeds. I imagine, and I hope, and I believe, that they could find their moral compass. But I confess that this opinion is more a matter of faith than a conclusion rationally compelled by the historical evidence.


[1] For accounts of Stacey’s lynching, see Fort Lauderdale Daily News and Evening Sentinel 1935; New York Times 1935; Reading Eagle 1935; Brooks 1988; Allen et al. 2003, plate 57 and page 185; Florida Lynchings Files 2014; Bryan 2020.

[2] For general overviews of the history of lynching, see Dray 2002; Allen et al. 2003; Wood 2009; and for the personal recollections of a survivor, Cameron 1982/1994.

[3] For in-depth portrayals of the activities of Police Battalion 101, see Browning 1992 and Goldhagen 1996.


Allen, James, Hilton Als, John Lewis, and Leon F. Litwack (2003). Without Sanctuary. Twin Palms Publishers. 

Brooks, Brian (1988). The day they lynched Reuben Stacey. Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale) (Jul. 17), p. 10.

Browning, Christopher (1992). Ordinary men. HarperCollins. 

Bryan, Susannah (2020). A lynch mob killed a Black man in Fort Lauderdale in 1935. His name was Rubin Stacy. South Florida Sun Sentinel (Sep. 11). [accessed Sep. 17, 2021].

Cameron, James (1982/1994). A time of terror. Baltimore: Black Classics Press. 

Dray, Philip (2002). At the hands of persons unknown. New York: Random House. 

Florida Lynchings Files (2014). The lynching of Reuban Stacey. [accessed Sep. 17, 2021]. 

Fort Lauderdale Daily News and Evening Sentinel (1935). Coroner’s inquest clears sheriff’s office of blame in lynching of negro here. Fort Lauderdale Daily News and Evening Sentinel (Jul. 20), p. 1.

Goldhagen, Daniel J. (1996). Hitler’s willing executioners. New York: Random House. 

New York Times (1935). Negro is lynched by mob in Florida. New York Times (Jul. 20), p. 28. 

Reading Eagle (1935). Negro hanged by mob in sight of home of woman he slashed with knife. Reading Eagle (Jul. 20), p. 2. 

Wood, Amy Louise (2009). Lynching and spectacle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Monday, September 12, 2022

The Overlapping Dispositional Profiles of Different Types of Belief

Last spring at a workshop in Princeton, Neil Van Leeuwen presented some of his work on the differences between "beliefs" and "credences".  Beliefs, in Van Leeuwen's sense, are cognitive states that play the kinds of causal and epistemic roles that Anglophone philosophers normally associate with belief.  A belief like "there's beer in the fridge" arises in response to evidence (e.g., looking in the fridge and seeing beer) and is liable to disappear given counterevidence (e.g., your housemate tells you they finished the beer).  It governs practical action in a straightforward way (you'll go to the fridge if you want a beer, and you'll fail if your beer belief happens to be false).  And having or lacking the belief is not particularly distinctive of group membership (no one will kick you out of the beer-lovers club for realizing your fridge is beerless).

Credences work differently, on Van Leeuwen's view.  (Don't confuse "credence" in Van Leeuwen's sense with the more common use of "credence" in philosophy to mean something like degree of confidence.)  Typically, credences have religious or political or group-affiliative content.  They're the kind of thing that come readily to mind for most people when you ask them about their "beliefs": You believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that Black Lives Matter, and that Thousand Oaks High School is the best.  Unlike ordinary beliefs, your group identity isn't independent of whether you affirm these propositions: You're not a Christian if you don't hold that Jesus rose from the dead; you're not a good political liberal if you don't affirm that Black Lives Matter; you don't have proper school spirit if you don't agree that (in some hard to specify sense) your high school is "the best".

Also unlike ordinary beliefs, on Van Leeuwen's view, credences are not straightforwardly connected to evidence: You don't have these credences primarily because they are well supported by the evidence, nor are you likely to revise them in the face of counterevidence.  It's not always clear what counterevidence would even look like.  Nor is the connection to action as straightforward as for ordinary beliefs.  If you're wrong about Jesus, or Black Lives, or your high school, you can go about your ordinary life just fine.  No ordinary action plan depends on the truth of these propositions.

I think Van Leeuwen somewhat overdraws the distinction.  Credences can have some responsiveness to evidence, and their truth or falsity can matter to our actions.  And ordinary beliefs can also get tangled up in one's group identity (e.g., scientific beliefs about climate change or the age of the Earth).  Still, Van Leeuwen is onto something.  Different types of belief probably can have somewhat different functional roles.

In the question period after Van Leeuwen's presentation, Thomas Kelly posed an interesting challenge: If credence and belief really are different types of attitude, why does it seem like there's rational tension between them?  Normally, when attitude types differ, there's no pressure to align them: It's perfectly rational to believe that P and desire or imagine that not-P.  You can believe that it's raining and desire or imagine that it is not raining.  But with belief and credence as defined by Van Leeuwen, that doesn't seem to be so.  There's something at least odd, and arguably just straightforwardly irrational, in saying "I have religious credence that Jesus rose from the dead, but I don't believe that Jesus rose from the dead."  What explains this fact, if credence and belief really are distinct attitudes?

I confess I don't recall Van Leeuwen's reply.  But the discussion did trigger some thoughts of my own, grounded in my dispositionalist metaphysics of belief.

According to dispositionalism about belief, to believe some proposition, such that there is beer in the fridge, is nothing more or less than to have a certain dispositional profile.  It is to be disposed, ceteris paribus (all else equal or normal or right) to say, if asked, "yes, there's beer in the fridge" and to go to the fridge if one wants a beer.  It is be disposed, also, to think to oneself in silent inner speech, if the occasion arises, "there's beer in the fridge", and to feel surprise should one go to the fridge and find no beer.  It is to be disposed to draw related conclusions, such as that there is beer in the house and that there is something in the fridge.  And so on.  It is, in general, to have the behavioral, experiential, and cognitive dispositional profile that is characteristic of someone who believes the proposition in question.

To believe some proposition P, according to dispositionalism, is not to have some interior object, the belief or representation that P, stored discretely in some location in one's mind.  Dispositionalism is not strictly inconsistent with the existence of discrete interior representations, since in principle the dispositional architecture could be underwritten by such discrete interior representations.  But there no need to posit such representations, and not positing them helps you escape various thorny puzzles.

Two interesting features of dispositional profiles are:

(1.) They can overlap.

(2.) There can be more central and less central dispositions.

Intuitively, it is easiest to see this with personality traits.  Ordinary people -- or rather I should say ordinary people of the rather extraordinary sort who will read this far into an article or blog post on the metaphysics of belief -- don't appear to find dispositionalism intuitive for beliefs.  But they do for personality traits.  So it's generally a useful exercise in thinking about the structure of dispositionalism to start with personality cases and then analogize.

Think about the traits of being bold, courageous, and risk-tolerant.  These aren't exactly the same thing.  Someone who wagers big on a poker hand would be somewhat more aptly described as bold or risk-tolerant than courageous.  Someone who quietly risks their career to help out a junior colleague who is being mistreated would be somewhat more aptly described as courageous than bold or risk-tolerant.  But it's not exactly like the career-risker is not also risk-tolerant or even bold, and there's a kind of courage in the poker player.  To be bold, courageous, or risk-tolerant is to be disposed to act and react certain ways in certain situations, to have a certain general posture toward the world; and these postures have considerable overlap -- for example, none of the three will easily be daunted by the prospect of small losses.  More central to boldness is swift, decisive action -- but this is also somewhat characteristic of the courageous and risk-tolerant.  More central to courage is tolerating risk when morality demands risky action -- but this will also typically be true of the bold and risk-tolerant.  One can be risk tolerant without being especially bold or courageous, but flat out timidity and cowardice seem to be inconsistent with high risk tolerance.

The thought is not that there are three ontologically completely distinct personality traits that tend to correlate with each other.  Rather it's that the personality traits are not completely ontologically distinct.  Each comprises a similar, overlapping suite of dispositions such that in virtue of completely fulfilling one you also partly fulfill the others.  Compare also: being extraverted, sociable, and assertive, or being grumpy, irascible, and irritable.

Back to belief.  What Van Leeuwen calls beliefs and what he calls credences are both constituted, if we accept dispositionalism, by clusters of dispositions.  These clusters are somewhat different in emphasis -- like boldness and courage are different in emphasis -- but they overlap.  Central to ordinary belief is the cognitive disposition to structure mundane plans around the truth of the proposition (such as planning a trip to the fridge in a way that relies on the truth of the belief that there is beer in the fridge).  This is less central to credence in Van Leeuwen's sense.  Central to credence in Van Leeuwen's sense is affirmation in social contexts.  But affirmation in social contexts is also characteristic of ordinary belief, if not quite as central.

Imagine two overlapping networks of dispositions.  Anyone who possesses all of the dispositions in one network automatically possesses some of the dispositions in the other network.  Of course you needn't have all the dispositions to have the belief in question (compare: the extravert needn't be extraverted in every respect all the time to count as an extravert).  Typically, having enough of the dispositions in one set will also mean having enough of the dispositions in the other.

The figure below might serve as a representation.  The red dots are the dispositions constitutive of one attitude (belief, desire, personality trait, etc.), the blue dots are the dispositions constitutive of another attitude, and the size of the dots signifies their centrality to the dispositional structure constitutive of the attitude.  (The dots make dispositions look more discrete than they are, but let's not worry about that for this illustration.)

As the illustration suggests, you might be able to draw a figure around most of the largest dots for Attitude A while excluding many of the dots from Attitude B.  That would represent having most of the dispositions constitutive of Attitude B while lacking many of those constitutive of Attitude B.  The more overlap the attitudes have, the more careful the carving will have to be to generate that result.  

On this model it's not just that there's rational pressure not to have an ordinary belief that P alongside a credence that not-P.  It's actually ontologically impossible to be a full-on typical believer that P without also to a substantial extent having a matching credence and vice versa.  There might be some cases where "credence" captures things better than "belief" or the other way around (just like "courageous" might be a better fit than "bold"); but you won't find any cases where the person has 100% of the dispositions constitutive of the credence and also 100% of the dispositions constitutive of the opposite belief.  That would be like being a perfectly stereotypical example of a courageous person who is also a perfectly stereotypical example of a risk-avoidant person.

That's not to say that there's nothing to Van Leeuwen's distinction.  Ordinary belief and religious or political credence do differ.  But it's not that there are two discretely separate attitude representations stored in the mind that can freely agree or conflict with each other.  Rather, belief and credence are closely related, overlapping, but not identical patterns in our dispositional structure.

Similar remarks apply to other related attitudes, including:

  • knowing intellectually how to steer your car and having procedural knowledge of how to steer your car;
  • caring about justice, valuing justice, wanting justice, and thinking justice is good;
  • worrying there might be a war, fearing that there will be a war, and hoping that there won't be a war.



A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief (Nous, 36 [2002] 249-275).

Desiring, Valuing, and Believing Good: Almost the Same Thing (Aug 30, 2012).

Do You Have Infinitely Many Beliefs about the Number of Planets? (Oct 17, 2012).

A Dispositional Approach to Attitudes: Thinking Outside of the Belief Box (in N. Nottelmann, ed., New Essays on Belief; Palgrave, 2013).

It's Not Just One Thing, to Believe There's a Gas Station on the Corner (Feb 28, 2018).

Love Is Love, and Slogans Need a Context of Examples (Mar 13, 2021).

Thursday, September 01, 2022

The Collusion Toward Moral Mediocrity

Most vegetarians are familiar with "do-gooder derogation".  People often react to ethical vegetarianism with hostility.  But why?  Why don't people admire vegetarians instead of reacting negatively?  Vegetarianism is good for the planet and reduces incentives for corporations to raise animals in inhumane conditions.  It's at least morally good, if not morally required.  But admiration is far from the typical reaction vegetarians receive in our culture.

"Effective altruists" also sometimes complain of similar negative reactions when people hear of their donating toward mosquito nets in malaria-prone countries or their pledging to give away a certain percentage of their income annually.  (Admittedly, there might also be more specific reasons people react negatively to that phrase or to the movement.)

Negative reactions might partly arise from suspicions of an ulterior motive -- a sense that the person might be doing good simply to impress others and gain social credit.  But I doubt this is the main explanation.

First, we do lots of things to impress others and gain credit.  Dressing sharp, publishing excellent pieces of writing, winning sports competitions, hosting parties....  But these attempts don't provoke the same derogation.  Why would doing good for the world be a particularly bad way to impress others and gain credit?  Performing actions with good consequences seems a more praiseworthy path to earning social credit than dressing sharp.

Second, it's not very plausible that people choose vegetarianism and mosquito-net purchasing primarily to impress others.  The amount of effort required to sustain a vegetarian diet is far out of proportion to the amount of moral admiration one is likely to accrue for doing so.

[Dall-E rendition of "a cartoon of a man eating tofu with angry people yelling at him"]

What's going on instead, I suggest, resembles students' reactions to those who "break the curve" in class.  If the whole class does poorly, well, the teacher still has to give some As and might just think the test was difficult.  But if one or two people excel while the rest flail, the flailers look bad.  People dislike the smartypants who raises the teacher's expectations for everyone.

Now I don't think people consciously say to themselves, "Hey, don't be a vegetarian, don't donate 15% of your income to famine relief, don't donate a kidney, you're breaking the moral curve!"  It's not as conscious as that.  But still, when someone you regard as a peer sacrifices for an ethical cause, it creates an ethical threat.  If you're not making the same sacrifice, you'd better justify yourself or you'll look bad -- partly to others but also partly in your own moral self-conception.  You could react to the threat by changing your behavior. of course -- making the sacrifice yourself.  But derogation is far easier: Criticize the other's moral action, or their motives.  Convince yourself and others that it's not as good as it seems.  Then your moral self-image can survive intact without requiring further sacrifice.

As I've argued elsewhere, most people appear to aim for moral mediocrity.  They aim not to be good or bad by absolute standards, but rather to be approximately as morally good as their peers.  They aim to be neither among the best nor among the worst.  They don't want to make the sacrifices required to stand out morally above others, but they would also prefer not to be the worst jerk in the room.

Now if you're aiming for mediocrity rather than goodness by absolute standards, you don't want your peers to get morally better, if that moral improvement involves any sacrifice.  For then you'll have to engage in that same sacrifice to attain the same level of peer-relative mediocrity as before.  You'll have to pay the cost or fall behind.  It's like a mediocre student who doesn't care about the learning objectives and only wants that peer-relative B-minus on the class curve.  If her peers suddenly start working harder, that mediocre student will now also need to work harder just to keep that B-minus.  Hence the derogation of the bookworms.

When it comes to morality, we participate, so to speak, in a collusion of mediocrity.  We feel fine cranking up our A/C, driving our SUVs, eating our steaks, and flying across the country, even though we know it's contributing to possibly catastrophic climate change, because our friends and co-workers are all doing the same.  We feel fine eating the meat of animals suffering in factory farms, we feel fine neglecting the welfare of the impoverished both among us and far away, we feel fine cheating or slacking in various ways at work -- as long as we look around and see "everyone else" doing the same.  If some of our peers start imposing higher moral standards on themselves, that threatens the collusion.  We might now start to look and feel bad for flying across country, eating factory farmed meat, or slacking in that particular way.

If my collusion theory of do-gooder derogation is correct, two specific empirical predictions follow.

First, we should tend only to derogate peers -- not people in other cultures, not people socially very different from us, and not people we already regard as moral heroes.  It's the change in peer behavior that is particularly threatening.

Second, people should tend only to derogate actions where there's an obvious parallel action involving self-sacrifice that they might also be expected to do.  If you're terrified of airplanes anyway and it would cost you nothing to sacrifice flying, you won't tend to derogate a friend who decides to abandon her jet-set lifestyle for ethical reasons.  Nor, since the situation is unusual, would most of us tend to derogate people who sacrifice their career to care for a family member dying of cancer.  Only if we ourselves are in a parallel situation but acting otherwise would another person making that sacrifice constitute a threat to our moral self-conception.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Washout Argument Against Longtermism

Longtermism is the view that what we choose to do now should be substantially influenced by its expected consequences for the trillions of people who might possibly exist in the longterm future. Maybe there's only a small chance that trillions of people will exist in the future, and only a minuscule chance that their lives will go appreciably better or worse as a result of what you or I do now. But however small that chance is, if we multiply it by a large enough number of possible future people -- trillions? trillions of trillions? -- the effects are worth taking very seriously.

Longtermism is a hot topic in the effective altruism movement, and William MacAskill's What We Owe the Future, released last week, has made a splash in the popular media, including The New Yorker, NPR, The Atlantic, and Boston Review. I finished the book Sunday. Earlier this year, I argued against longtermism on several grounds. Today, I'll expand on one of those arguments, which (partly following Greaves and MacAskill 2021) I'll call the Washout Argument.

The Washout Argument comes in two versions, infinite and finite.

The Washout Argument: Infinite Version

Note: If you find this a bit silly, that's part of the point.

As I've argued in other posts -- as well as in a forthcoming book chapter with philosopher of physics Jacob Barandes -- everything you do causes almost everything. Put more carefully, if we accept currently standard, vanilla physics and cosmology, and extrapolate it forward, then almost every action you take will cause almost every type of non-unique future event of finite probability. A ripple of causation extends outward from you, simply by virtue of the particles that reflect off you as you move, which then influence other particles, which influence still more particles, and so on and so on until the heat death of the universe.

But the heat death of the universe is only the beginning! Standard cosmological models don't generally envision a limit to future time.  So post heat death, we should expect the universe to just keep enduring and enduring. In this state, there will be occasional events in which particles enter unlikely configurations, by chance. For example, from time to time six particles will by chance converge on the same spot, or six hundred will, or -- very, very rarely (but we have infinitude to play with) six hundred trillion. Under various plausible assumptions, any finitely probable configuration of a finite number of particles should occur eventually, and indeed infinitely often.

This relates to the famous Boltzmann brain problem, because some of those chance configurations will be molecule-for-molecule identical with human brains.  These unfortunate brains might be having quite ordinary thoughts, with no conception that they are mere chance configurations amid post-heat-death chaos.

Now remember, the causal ripples from the particles you perturbed yesterday by raising your right hand are still echoing through this post-heat-death universe.

Suppose that, by freak chance, a human brain in a state of great suffering appears at spatiotemporal location X that has been influenced by a ripple of causation arising from your having raised your hand. That brain wouldn't have appeared in that location had you not raised your hand. Chancy events are sensitive in that way. Thus, one extremely longterm consequence of your action was that Boltzmann brain's suffering. Of course, there are also things of great value that arise which wouldn't have arisen if you hadn't raised your hand -- indeed, whole amazing worlds that wouldn't otherwise have come into being. What awesome power you have!

[For a more careful treatment see Schwitzgebel and Barandes forthcoming.]

Consequently, from a longterm perspective, everything you do has a longterm expected value of positive infinity minus negative infinity -- a value that is normally undefined. Even if you employed some fancy mathematics to subtract these infinitudes from each other, finding that, say, the good would overall outweigh the bad, there would still be a washout, since almost certainly nothing you do now would have a bearing on the balance of those two infinitudes. (Note, by the way, that my argument here is not simply that adding a finite value to an infinite value is of no consequence, though that is arguably also true.)  Whatever the expected effects of your actions are in the short term, they will eventually be washed out by infinitely many good and bad consequences in the long term.

Should you then go murder people for fun, since ultimately it makes no difference to the longterm expected balance of good to bad in the world? Of course not. I consider this argument a reductio ad absurdum of the idea that we should evaluate actions by their longterm consequences, regardless of when those consequences occur, with no temporal discounting. We should care more about the now than about the far distant future, contra at least the simplest formulations of longtermism.

You might object: Maybe my physics is wrong. Sure, maybe it is! But as long as you allow that there's even a tiny chance that this cosmological story is correct, you end up with infinite positive and negative expected values.  Even if it's 99.9% likely that your actions only have finite effects, to get an expected value in the standard way, you'll need to add in a term accounting for 0.1% chance of infinite effects, which will render the final value infinite or undefined.

The Washout Argument: Two Finite Versions

Okay, what if we forget about infinitude and just truncate our calculations at heat death? There will be only finitely many people affected by your actions (bracketing some worries about multiverse theory), so we'll avoid the problems above.

Here the issue is knowing what will have a positive versus negative longterm effect. I recommend radical skepticism.  Call this Skeptical Washout.

Longtermists generally think that the extinction of our species would be bad for the longterm future. There are trillions of people who might have led happy lives who won't do so if we wipe ourselves out in the next few centuries!

But is this so clear?

Here's one argument against it: We humans love our technology. It's our technology that creates the big existential risks of human extinction. Maybe the best thing for the longterm future is for us to extinguish ourselves as expeditiously as possible, so as to clear the world for another species to replace us -- one that, maybe, loves athletics and the arts but not technology quite so much. Some clever descendants of dolphins, for example? Such a species might have a much better chance than we do of actually surviving a billion years. The sooner we die off, maybe, the better, before we wipe out too many more of the lovely multicellular species on our planet that have the potential to eventually replace and improve on us.

Here's another argument: Longtermists like MacAskill and Toby Ord typically think that these next few centuries are an unusually crucial time for our species -- a period of unusual existential risk, after which, if we safely get through, the odds of extinction fall precipitously. (This assumption is necessary for their longtermist views to work, since if every century carries an independent risk of extinction of, say, 10%, the chance is vanishingly small that our species will survive for millions of years.) What's the best way to tide us through these next few especially dangerous centuries? Well, one possibility is a catastrophic nuclear war that kills 99% of the population. The remaining 1% might learn the lesson of existential risk so well that they will be far more careful with future technology than we are now. If we avoid nuclear war now, we might soon develop even more dangerous technologies that would increase the risk of total extinction, such as engineered pandemics, rogue superintelligent AI, out-of-control nanotech replicators, or even more destructive warheads. So perhaps it's best from the longterm perspective to let us nearly destroy ourselves as soon as possible, setting our technology back and teaching us a hard lesson, rather than blithely letting technology advance far enough that a catastrophe is more likely to be 100% fatal.

Look, I'm not saying these arguments are correct. But in my judgment they're not especially less plausible than the other sorts of futurist forecasting that longtermists engage in, such as the assumption that we will somehow see ourselves safely past catastrophic risk if we survive the next few centuries.

The lesson I draw is not that we should try to destroy or nearly destroy ourselves as soon as possible! Rather, my thought is this: We really have no idea what the best course is for the very long term future, millions of years from now. It might be things that we find intuitively good, like world peace and pandemic preparedness, or it might be intuitively horrible things, like human extinction or nuclear war.

If we could be justified in thinking that it's 60% likely that peace in 2023 is better than nuclear war in 2023 in terms of its impact on the state of the world over the entire course of the history of the planet, then the longtermist logic could still work (bracketing the infinite version of the Washout Argument). But I don't think we can be justified even in that relatively modest commitment. Regarding what actions now will have a positive expected impact on the billion-year future, I think we have to respond with a shoulder shrug. We cannot use billion-year expectations to guide our decisions.

Even if you don't want to quite shrug your shoulders, there's another way the finite Washout Argument can work.  Call this Negligible Probability Washout.

Let's say you're considering some particular action. You think that action has a small chance of creating an average benefit of -- to put a toy number on it -- one unit to each future person who exists. Posit that there are a trillion future people. Now consider, how small is that small chance? If it's less than one in a trillion, then on a standard consequentialist calculus, it would be better to create a sure one unit benefit for one person who exists now.

What are reasonable odds to put on the chance that some action you do will materially benefit a trillion people in the future? To put this in perspective, consider the odds that your one vote will decide the outcome of your country's election. There are various ways to calculate this, but the answer should probably be tiny, one in a hundred thousand at most (if you're in a swing state in a close U.S. election), maybe one in a million, one in ten million or more. That's a very near event, whose structure we understand. It's reasonable to vote on those grounds, by the utilitarian calculus. If I think that my vote has a one in ten million chance of making my country ten billion dollars better off, then -- if I'm right -- my vote is a public good worth an expected $1000 (ten billion times one in ten million).

My vote is a small splash in a very large pond, though a splash worth making.  But the billion-year future of Earth is a much, much larger pond.  It seems reasonable to conjecture that the odds that some action you do now will materially improve the lives of trillions of people in the future should be many orders of magnitude lower than one in a million -- low enough to be negligible, even if (contra the first part of this argument) you can accurately predict the direction. 

On the Other Hand, the Next Few Centuries

... are (moderately) predictable! Nuclear war would be terrible for us and our immediate descendants. We should care about protecting ourselves from pandemics, and dangerous AI systems, and environmental catastrophes, and all those other things that the longtermists care about. I don't in fact disagree with most of the longtermists' priorities and practical plans. But the justification should be the long term future in the more ordinary sense of "long term" -- fifteen years, fifty years, two hundred years, not ten million years. Concern about the next few generations is reason enough to be cautious with the world.

[Thanks to David Udell for discussion.]

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The Philosophy Major Continues to Recover and Diversify in the U.S.

The National Center for Education Statistics has released their data on bachelor's degree completions in the U.S. through the 2019-2020 academic year, and it's mostly good news for the philosophy major.

Back in 2017, I noticed that the number of students completing philosophy degrees in the U.S. had plummeted sharply between 2010 and 2016, from 9297 in 2009-2010 to 7507 in 2015-2016, a decline of 19% in just six years. The other large humanities majors (history, English, and foreign languages and literatures) saw similar declines in the period.

A couple of years ago, the trend had started to modestly reverse itself -- and furthermore the philosophy major appeared to be attracting a higher percentage of women and non-White students than previously. The newest data show those trends continuing.

Methodology: The numbers below are all from the NCES IPEDS database, U.S. only, using CIP classification 38.01 for philosophy majors, including both first and second majors, using the NCES gender and race/ethnicity categories. Each year ends at spring term (thus "2010" refers to the 2009-2010 academic year).

Trend since 2010, total number of philosophy bachelor's degrees awarded in the U.S.:

2010: 9274
2011: 9298
2012: 9369
2013: 9427
2014: 8823
2015: 8186
2016: 7491
2017: 7575
2018: 7669
2019: 8075
2020: 8195

As you can see, numbers are up about 9% since their nadir in 2016, though still well below their peak in 2011. (The numbers are slightly different from those in my earlier post, presumably to small post-hoc adjustments in the IPEDS dataset.)

One consequence of the decline, I suspect, was on the job market for philosophy professors, which has been weak since the early 2010s. This has been hard especially on newly graduated PhD students in the field. With the major declining so sharply in the period, it's understandable that administrators wouldn't prioritize the hiring of new philosophy professors. If numbers continue to rise, the job market might correspondingly recover.

Total degrees awarded across all majors has also continued to rise, and thus in percentage terms, philosophy remains well below its peak of almost 0.5% in the late 2000s and early 2010s -- only 0.31% of students, a tiny percentage. Philosophy won't be overtaking psychology or biology in popularity any time soon. Philosophy majors, you are special!

Back in 2017, I also noticed that, going back to the 1980s, the percentage of philosophy majors who were women had remained entirely within the narrow band of 30-34%, despite an increase in women in the undergraduate population overall. However, in the most recent four years, this percentage rose to 39.4%. [ETA 1:48 p.m.: Since 2001, the overall percentage of women among bachelor's recipients across all majors has stayed fairly constant at around 57%.] That might not seem like a big change, but given the consistency of the earlier numbers, it's actually quite remarkable to me. Here's a zoomed-in graph to give you a sense of it:

[click to enlarge and clarify]

The philosophy major is also increasingly racially or ethnically diverse. The percentage of non-Hispanic White students has been falling steadily since NCES began collecting data in 1995, from 81% then to 58% now. Overall, across all majors, 61% percent of bachelor's degree recipients are non-Hispanic White, so the philosophy major is actually now slightly less non-Hispanic White than average. (All the race/ethnicity figures below exclude "nonresident aliens" and "race/ethnicity unknown".)

The particular patterns differ by race/ethnic group.

Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders constitute a tiny percentage: about 0.2% of degree recipients both in philosophy and overall since the category was introduced in 2011.

American Indian or Alaskan Native is also a tiny percentage, but unfortunately that percentage has been steadily declining since the mid-2000s, and the group is especially underrepresented in philosophy. According to the U.S. Census, about 0.9% of the U.S. population in that age group identifies as non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaskan Native.

[click to enlarge and clarify]

The following chart displays trends for the other four racial categories used by the NCES. In 2011, "two or more races" was introduced as a category. Also before 2011, the Asian category included "Pacific Islander".

As you can see from the chart, the percentage of Hispanic students graduating with philosophy degrees has surged, from 4.3% in 1995 to 14.4% in 2020. This is approximately representative of a similar surge among Hispanic students across all majors, from 4.8% in 1995 to 15.7% in 2020. Multiracial students have also surged, though it's unclear how much of that surge has to do with changing methodology versus the composition of the student population.

The percentage of philosophy majors identifying as Asian or Black has also increased during the period, but only slowly: From 5.4% and 3.3% respectively in 1995 to 6.8% and 5.6% in 2020. For comparison, across all majors, the numbers rose from 5.4% to 8.1% Asian and 7.6% to 10.2% Black. So, in 2020, Asian and especially Black students are disproportionately underrepresented in the philosophy major. Interestingly, some data from the Higher Education Research Institute suggests that there has been a very recent surge of interest in the philosophy major among Black students just entering college. We'll see if that plays out among Bachelor's degree recipients in a few years.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Top Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazines 2022

Since 2014, I've compiled an annual ranking of science fiction and fantasy magazines, based on prominent awards nominations and "best of" placements over the previous ten years. Below is my list for 2022. (For all previous lists, see here.)

[A DALL-E output for "science fiction and fantasy magazine"]

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, Sturgeon, 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.

(2a.) Methodological notes for 2022: Starting this year, I swapped the Sturgeon for the Eugie award for all award years 2013-2022. Also, with the death of Dozois in 2018, the [temporary?] cessation of the Strahan anthology, and the delay of the Horton and Clarke anthologies, the 2022 year includes only one new anthology source: Adams 2021. Given the ten-year-window, anthologies still comprise about half the weight of the rankings overall.

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

(4.) Prose only, not poetry.

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

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

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

(8.) I welcome corrections.

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


1. (198 points) 

2. Clarkesworld (185.5) 

3. Asimov's (160.5) 

4. Lightspeed (129) 

5. Fantasy & Science Fiction (127.5) 

6. Uncanny (113) (started 2014) 

7. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (59.5) 

8. Analog (55) 

9. Strange Horizons (46)

10. Subterranean (35) (ceased short fiction 2014) 

11. Nightmare (31.5) 

12. Apex (30) 

13. Interzone (30.5) 

14. Fireside (18.5) 

15. Slate / Future Tense (17.5) 

16. FIYAH (13.5) (started 2017) 

17. The Dark (11.5) 

18. Fantasy Magazine (10) (occasional special issues during the period, fully relaunched in 2020) 

19. The New Yorker (9.5) 

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

20t. McSweeney's (7) 

22. Sirenia Digest (6) 

23t. Omni (5.5) (classic magazine, briefly relaunched 2017-2018) 

23t. Tin House (5.5) (ceased short fiction 2019) 

25t. Black Static (5) 

25t. Conjunctions (5) 

25t. Diabolical Plots (5) (started 2015)

25t. Shimmer (5) (ceased 2018) 

29. Terraform (4.5) (started 2014) 

30t. Boston Review (4) 

30t. GigaNotoSaurus (4) 

32. Paris Review (3.5) 

33t. Daily Science Fiction (3) 

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

33t. Future Science Fiction Digest (3) (started 2018) 

*33t. Galaxy's Edge (3)

33t. Kaleidotrope (3) 

33t. Omenana (3) (started 2014) 

33t. Wired (3)

40t. Anathema (2.5) (started 2017)

40t. B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog (2.5) (started 2014)

40t. Beloit Fiction Journal (2.5) 

40t. Buzzfeed (2.5) 

40t. Matter (2.5) 

40t. Weird Tales (2.5) (classic magazine, off and on throughout the period)

46t. Harper's (2) 

46t. Mothership Zeta (2) (ran 2015-2017) 

*48t khōréō (1.5) (started 2021)

48t. MIT Technology Review (1.5) 

48t. New York Times (1.5) 

48t. Translunar Travelers Lounge (1.5) (started 2019)

[* indicates new to the list this year]



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

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

1. Uncanny (59) 
2. (56.5) 
3. Clarkesworld (37.5)
4. F&SF (36)
5. Lightspeed (29)
6. Asimov's (25.5)
7t. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (14) 
7t. Nightmare (14)
9. Analog (11) 
10. Strange Horizons (10.5) 
11. Slate / Future Tense (9) 
12. FIYAH (8.5) 
13. Apex (8) 
14. Fireside (7)

(3.) For the past several years it has been clear that the classic "big three" print magazines -- Asimov's, F&SF, and Analog -- are slowly being displaced in influence by the four leading free online magazines,, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny (all founded 2006-2014).  Contrast this year's ranking with the ranking from 2014, which had Asimov's and F&SF on top by a wide margin.  Presumably, a large part of the explanation is that there are more readers of free online fiction than of paid subscription magazines, which is attractive to authors and probably also helps with voter attention for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

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

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

Monday, August 01, 2022

The Nature of Belief From a Philosophical Perspective, With Theoretical and Methodological Implications for Psychology and Cognitive Science

Every so often, I give a brief overview of my perspective on belief to audiences of psychologists. After the 2021 Creditions conference, I was asked to write up my thoughts and publish them in a special issue of Frontiers in Psychology (ed. Rüdiger J. Seitz).

Since it's short enough to fit in a (longish) blog post, I thought I'd post it here. Those who are already familiar with my work on belief won't find much new, but it might be a helpful overview for others. Plus, I direct a few gentle (?) jabs at Eric Mandelbaum, my favorite opponent on this topic.

[output from Dall-E for "belief philosophy psychology in style of Van Gogh"]


In recent academic philosophy, representationalism is probably the dominant model of belief. I favor a competing model, dispositionalism. I will briefly describe these views and their contrasting implications, including some theoretical and methodological implications relevant to research psychologists and cognitive scientists.

Representationalism Vs. Dispositionalism, Definitions

According to representationalism, to believe some proposition P (for example, that there's beer in the fridge or that men and women are intellectually equal) is to have a representation with the content P stored in your mind, available to be deployed in relevant reasoning. It's somewhat unclear how literally the “storage” idea is to be taken, but leading representationalists, such as Fodor and Mandelbaum (Fodor, 1987; Mandelbaum, 2014; Quilty-Dunn and Mandelbaum, 2018; Bendaña and Mandelbaum, 2021), appear to take the storage idea rather literally. One might compare to the concept of the “long-term memory store” in theories of memory. The stored representation counts as available to be deployed in relevant reasoning if it can be accessed when relevant. If asked whether men and women differ in intelligence, you'll retrieve the representation that men and women are intellectually equal, engage in some simple theoretical reasoning, and answer “no” (if you want to be honest, etc.). If you feel like drinking a cold beer, you'll retrieve the representation that beer is in the fridge, engage in some simple practical reasoning, and walk toward the kitchen to get the beer.

According to dispositionalism, to believe that P is to be disposed to act and react in ways that are characteristic of believers-that-P. Maybe there's a representation really stored in there; maybe not. If you are disposed to go to the fridge when you want a beer, if you are disposed to say “yes” when asked whether there's beer in the fridge, if you display surprise upon opening the fridge and finding no beer, etc., then you count as believing that there's beer in the fridge, regardless what underlying cognitive architecture enables this. Dispositionalism has its roots in philosophical behaviorism and Ryle (1949). However, I and other recent dispositionalists eschew behaviorism, allowing that some of the relevant dispositions can be “phenomenal” (i.e., pertaining to conscious experience), such as the disposition to feel (and not just exhibit) surprise upon opening the fridge and seeing no beer, and other dispositions can be cognitive (i.e., pertaining to inference or other cognitive transitions), such as the disposition to draw the conclusion that there is beer in the house (Schwitzgebel, 2002, 2021).

Representationalism commits to a particular type of cognitive architecture—the storage of representational contents matching the contents of the believed propositions—and it is to a substantial extent neutral about the extent to which the stored contents are behavior-guiding. Dispositionalism commits to belief as behavior-guiding, while remaining neutral on the underlying architecture. The difference matters to psychological theory and method as I will now explain.

In-Between Believing

On representationalism, it's natural to think of belief as a yes/no matter. P is either stored or it's not. You either believe it or you don't. Representations can't normally be “half-stored.” What would that even mean? If the representation isn't retrieved when relevant, it's a “performance” failure; the underlying “competence” is still there, as long as it could in principle be retrieved in some circumstances. This leads some representationalists, especially Mandelbaum, to unintuitive views about what we believe. For example, if someone tells you “dogs are made of paper,” Mandelbaum holds that you will believe that proposition—even after you reject it as obviously false—because the representation gets stored and starts influencing your cognition. Of course you also simultaneously believe that dogs are not made of paper.

On dispositionalism, believing is more like having a personality trait: You match the dispositional profile to some degree, just like you might match the dispositional profile characteristic of extraversion to some degree. Sometimes, the match might be nearly perfect. I might have all the dispositions characteristic of the belief that there's beer in my fridge. Other times, the match might be far from perfect. Cases of highly imperfect match can be described as in-between cases of belief.

Consider the belief that men and women are intellectually equal. Someone—call him the “implicit sexist”—might be disposed to act and react in some ways that are characteristic of that belief. He might say “men and women are intellectually equal” with a feeling of confidence and sincerity, ready to defend that view passionately in a debate. Other dispositions might tilt the other way. He might feel surprised if a woman makes an intelligent comment at a meeting, and it might take more evidence to convince him that a woman is smart than that a man is smart.

Or consider gradual forgetting. In college, I knew the last name of my roommate's best friend. I could easily recall it. Over time, as memory faded, I would have been able to recognize it, picking it out from nearby alternatives, but recall would have been weaker. As memory continued to fade, I would have recognized it less and less reliably until eventually it was utterly forgotten. During the intermediate phase, I would in some respects act and react like someone would believed his name was (let's say) Guericke, in other respects not. There was no precise moment at which the belief dropped from my mind, instead a long period of gradual, fading in-betweenness.

Dispositionalist views naturally invite us see belief as permitting in-between cases, as personality traits do. Representationalist views have more difficulty accommodating this idea.

Contradictory Belief

Conversely, representationalist views naturally allow for contradictory belief, as discussed in the “dogs are made of paper” example, while dispositionalist views appear to disallow the possibility of having contradictory beliefs. There seems to be no problem in principle in storing both the representation “P” and the representation “not-P.” But one cannot simultaneously have the dispositional structure characteristic of believing that men and women are intellectually equal and the dispositional structure characteristic of believing that women are intellectually inferior. That would be like having the dispositional structure of an extravert and simultaneously the dispositional structure of an introvert—structurally impossible.

Given an implicit sexism case, then, representationalism tends to favor the idea that the sexist believes both that women and men are intellectually equal and that women are intellectually inferior. The two contradictory beliefs are both stored and accessible (perhaps in different cognitive subsystems, retrieved under different conditions). Dispositionalism tends to favor treating such cases as in-between cases of belief. Similarly for other inconsistent or conflicting attitudes: the Sunday theist/weekday atheist; the self-deceived lover who sincerely denies that their partner is cheating but sometimes acts as if they know; the person who would say the road runs north-south if queried in one way but who would say it runs east-west if queried in another way.

Let me briefly defend the dispositionalist stance on this issue. We have no need for contradictory belief. It helps none to say of the implicit sexist that he believes both “men and women are intellectually equal” and “women are intellectually inferior.” To make such a claim comprehensible, we need to present the details: In these respects he acts and reacts like an egalitarian, in these other respects he acts and reacts like a sexist. But now we've just given the dispositional characterization. If necessary—if there are good enough architectural grounds for it—we might still say that he has contradictory representations. But representation is not belief.

Explanatory Depth Vs. Explanatory Superficiality

Quilty-Dunn and Mandelbaum (2018) argue that representationalism has an explanatory depth that coheres well with the aims of cognitive science. If the belief that P is a relation to a stored representational content “P,” we can explain how beliefs cause behavior (retrieving the stored representation does the causal work), we can explain why there's usually such a nice parallel between what we can say and what we can believe (speech and belief involve accessing the same pool of representations), and so forth. The dispositionalist approach, in contrast, is superficial: It points to the dispositional patterns but it does not attempt to explain the causal mechanisms beneath those patterns.

While explanatory depth is a virtue when available, it is not a virtue in this particular case. To think that belief that P always, or typically, involves having an internal representational content “P” is a best empirically unsupported. (Contrast with the empirically well supported claim that the visual system represents motion in regions of the visual field.) At worst, it is a simplistic cartoon sketch of the mind. It's as if someone insisted that having the personality trait of extraversion required having an internal switch flipped to “E,” because otherwise we'd be stuck without an internal causal explanation of extraverted patterns of behavior. Of course there are internal structures that help explain people's extraverted behavior, and of course there are internal structures that help explain people's implicitly sexist behavior and their beer-fetching behavior. But we need not define belief in terms of a simplistic representationalist understanding of those internal structures.

Still, a partial compromise is possible. It might be the case that internal representations of P are present whenever one believes that P. The dispositionalist need not deny this—any more than a personality theorist need not deny that extraversion might involve an heretofore-undiscovered E switch. The dispositionalist just doesn't define belief in terms of such structures, permitting a skeptical neutrality about them.

Intellectualism Vs. Pragmatism

I will now introduce a second philosophical distinction. According to intellectualism about belief, sincere assent or assertion is sufficient or nearly sufficient for belief. According to pragmatism about belief, to really, fully believe you need not just to be ready to say P; you need also to act accordingly.

The intellectualism/pragmatism distinction cross-cuts the representationalism/dispositionalism distinction. However, I submit that the most attractive form of dispositionalism is also pragmatist. To really, fully believe that women are intellectually equal requires more than simply readiness to say they are. It requires not being surprised when a women makes an intelligent remark. It requires treating the women you encounter as if they are just as smart as men in the same circumstances. Alternatively, to really believe that your children's happiness is more important than their academic success it's insufficient to be disposed to say that is the case; you must also to live that way.

The Problem With Questionnaires

I conclude with two methodological implications.

First, if pragmatist dispositionalism is correct, then you might not know what you believe. Do you really believe that men and women are intellectually equal? Do you really believe that your children's happiness is more important than their academic success? You'll say yes and yes. But how do you really live your life? You might be more in-betweenish than you think.

When psychologists want to explore broad, life involving beliefs and values, they often employ questionnaires. Questionnaires are easy! But if pragmatist dispositionalism is correct, questionnaires risk being misleading when asking about beliefs or other attitudes with an important lived component that can diverge from verbal endorsement. Questionnaires get at what you say, not at how you generally act.

A brief example: The Short Schwartz's Values Survey (Lindeman and Verkasalo, 2005) asks participants how important it is to them to achieve “power (social power, authority, wealth)” and various other goods. If intellectualism is the right way to think about values, this is an excellent methodology. However, if pragmatism is better, it's reasonable to doubt how well people know this about themselves.

Developing Beliefs

Developmental psychologists often debate the age children reach various cognitive milestones, such as knowing that objects continue to exist even when they aren't being perceived and knowing that people can have false beliefs. If representationalism is correct, then it's natural to suppose that there is in fact some particular age at which each individual child finally comes to store the relevant representational content. However, if dispositionalism is correct, gradualism is probably more attractive: Such broad beliefs are slowly constructed, involving many relevant dispositions, which might accrete unevenly and unstably over months or years.

In my experience, developmental psychologists often endorse gradualism when explicitly asked. Yet their critiques of each other seem sometimes implicitly to assume the contrary. “Boosters” (who claim that knowledge in some domain tends to come early) reject as too demanding methodologies that appear to reveal later knowledge. “Scoffers” (who claim that knowledge in some domain tends to come late) reject as too easy methodologies that appear to reveal earlier knowledge. Each trusts only the methods that reveal knowledge at the “right” age. But while of course some methodologies might be flawed, the gradualist dispositionalist ought to positively expect that across a variety of equally good methods for discovering whether the child knows P, some should reveal much earlier knowledge than others, though none are flawed—because knowing that P is not a yes-or-no, not an on-or-off thing. There need be no one right age or set of methods. (For more on this issue, see Schwitzgebel, 1999; McGeer and Schwitzgebel 2006.)



"Gradual Belief Change in Children", Human Development, 42 (1999), 283-296.

"In-Between Believing", Philosophical Quarterly, 51 (1999), 76-82.

"A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief", Nous, 36 (2002), 249-275.

"Acting Contrary to Our Professed Beliefs, or the Gulf Between Occurrent Judgment and Dispositional Belief", Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 91 (2010), 531-553.

"Do You Have Infinitely Many Beliefs about the Number of Planets?", Oct 17, 2012.

"It's Not Just One Thing, To Believe There's a Gas Station on the Corner", Feb 28, 2018.

"Superficialism about Belief", Jul 16, 2020.

"The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief" in Cristina Borgoni, Dirk Kindermann, and Andrea Onofri, eds., The Fragmented Mind (Oxford, 2021).

This is just a sample of my work on belief. I've been hacking away on these points since my dissertation 25 years ago!