Friday, November 09, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ETA November 10:

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

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions and suggestions welcome!

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Philosophy 5: Evil
Kindness Assignment
Fall Quarter, 2018

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

The assignment

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

That’s it.

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

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

Consent and nonsexuality

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

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

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

Grading

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

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

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

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

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

To consider

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

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

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

Abstract:

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

Full draft here.

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

Monday, October 22, 2018

In Defense of Weekends, Evenings, Holidays, and Sleep

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

According to the article,

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

Etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ETA Oct. 26:

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

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Teaching Hitler, and My Neighbor's Attitude About the Holocaust

Teaching Hitler

About once a year, I teach a giant lower division class called "Evil", focused on the moral psychology of evil. (This year, I have 420 students enrolled.) We do a segment on the Holocaust, in which I assign Elie Wiesel, Hannah Arendt, Daniel Goldhagen, Ervin Staub, Schindler's List, and selections from Mein Kampf.

I don't think we can properly understand the psychology of the Holocaust without understanding why ordinary Germans of the period found Hitler attractive. Hitler's attraction to ordinary Germans is incomprehensible if we see him through the usual lens of his presentation in U.S. culture. I ask my students to read Mein Kampf so that we can see Hitler in his own words, and to try to understand the vision of the world that he presented to his followers. I hope and assume, as I emphasize in lecture, that none of my hundreds of students finds Mein Kampf too attractive. (Students who find the reading too repulsive to bear are permitted to choose an alternative reading.)

One fascinating aspect of Mein Kampf is that Hitler makes an ethical case for the extermination of the Jews and the Poles. He argues that races of people differ genetically, and that we ought to expect some races to be genetically superior to others. The "Aryan" race -- basically, White people especially from northwestern Europe, but the ancient Greeks and Romans too -- he argues, can be seen to be superior to other races because of their cultural and military achievements (the Parthenon, Beethoven, the Roman Empire, the conquest of the Americas, etc.).

This "Aryan" superiority partly consists in their willingness to subordinate their interests to the greater good of the state. In Mein Kampf and, even more vividly in his speeches, Hitler appears to be at his most frighteningly "inspiring" when he praises ordinary Germans' willingness to become heroes, ready to sacrifice everything for the greater good of their nation. (If you'll forgive the comparison, I am reminded of John F. Kennedy's remark, which many people in the U.S. have found inspiring, "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.").

Hitler embraces a broadly Malthusian or Spencerian vision of populations of humans destined to fight each other: Each nation or race will breed too many people to share the planet. The natural and desirable consequence of this inevitable fight, Hitler argues, is that the stronger races will defeat the weaker races. They will thus bequeath better genes or "blood" to subsequent generations than would happen if weaker races were permitted to reproduce at the same rate as stronger races.

From all of this, it follows, on Hitler's thinking, that it is the moral duty of "Aryans" to exterminate the Jews and other inferior races and also to invade nearby lands (esp. Poland), killing or displacing the inferior people there, so that healthy, fertile Germans will have room to expand and grow the population. Short-term bloodshed and suffering will ensure the flourishing of future races of superior human beings! Every good German must stand ready to sacrifice for this great goal! One can see how such thinking might have been attractive to a certain sort of racist.

Hitler was quite clear about all of this in Mein Kampf, of which about ten million copies were distributed in Germany. He even gives political advice for how to most effectively implement genocide. I do not think that Germans of the era can plausibly say that they were unaware of his violent eugenic plans.

And My Neighbor's Attitude About the Holocaust

I do not think many people today would endorse such violent eugenic thinking -- but neither do I think that Hitler's reasoning is so alien that we cannot still hear echoes of it.

Last week, I flew to St. Louis to give a series of talks. On the first leg of my flight, I ended up sitting next to a woman and man who lived in the neighborhood just south of mine in Riverside, California, near where my daughter attends school. After finding out that I was a philosophy professor at U.C. Riverside, they asked me what I thought of politics in the U.S. today. I said something about the value of listening across the political divide and respecting facts.

The woman sitting next to me then launched into political conversation with me, and it became clear that she identified with the political right. Despite her earlier approval of the value of listening, she seemed more interested in speaking than in hearing my perspective. At one point I mentioned that I teach a class called Evil and that we were about to start the segment on the Holocaust.

My seatmate said, "I do think there was a reason that Hitler chose to exterminate the Jews. Of all the people he could have chosen, he went after the Jews." She added something about Jews being rich lawyers and bankers. "It was all predicted two thousand years ago," she added.

I was stunned for a moment, and then she changed the topic and our conversation moved on. In retrospect, I imagine many things I could have said in response; but I said none of them.

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Two Problems with Extending Theories of Consciousness to the Case of the Garden Snail

In an earlier post, I argued that the question “is there something it’s like to be a garden snail?” or equivalently “are garden snails conscious?” admits of three possible answers – yes, no, and *gong* (that is, neither yes nor no) – and that each of these answers has some antecedent plausibility. That is, prior to detailed theoretical argument, all three answers should be regarded as viable possibilities (even if we have a favorite). To settle the question, then, we need a good theoretical argument that would reasonably convince people who are antecedently attracted to a different view.

It is difficult to see how such an argument could go, for two related reasons: (1.) lack of sufficient theoretical common ground and (2.) the species-specificity of introspective and verbal evidence.

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Lack of sufficient theoretical common ground.

Existing theories of consciousness, by leading researchers, range over practically the whole space of possibilities from panpsychism on one end, according to which consciousness is ubiquitous, to very restrictive meta-representational views on the other end that deny consciousness even to dogs.

The most common (which is not to say the best) arguments against these extreme views illustrate the common ground problem. The most common argument against panpsychism -- the reason most people reject it, I suspect -- is just that it seems absurd to suppose that consciousness is literally everywhere, even in, say, protons or simple logic gates. We know, we think, prior to our theory-building, that the range of conscious entities does not include protons or simple logic gates! Some of us -- including those who become panpsychists -- might hold that commitment only lightly, ready to abandon it if presented attractive theoretical arguments to the contrary. However, many of us strongly prefer more moderate views. We feel, not unreasonably, more confident that there is nothing it is like to be a proton than we could ever be that a clever philosophical argument to the contrary was in fact sound. Thus, we construct and accept our moderate views of consciousness partly from the starting background assumption that consciousness isn’t that abundant. If a theory looks like it implies that protons are conscious, we reject the theory rather than accepting the implication; and no doubt we can find some dubious-enough step in the panpsychist argument if we are motivated to do so.

Similarly, the most common argument against extremely sparse views that deny consciousness to dogs and babies is that it seems absurd to suppose that dogs and babies are not conscious. We know, we think, prior to our theory-building, that the range of conscious entities includes dogs and babies. Thus, we construct and accept our moderate views of consciousness partly on the starting background assumption that consciousness isn’t that sparse.

In order to develop a general theory of consciousness, one needs to make some initial assumptions about the approximate prevalence of consciousness. Some theories, from the start, will be plainly liberal in their implications about the abundance of consciousness. Others will be plainly conservative. Such theories will rightly be unattractive to people whose initial assumptions are very different; and if those initial assumptions are sufficiently strongly held, theoretical arguments with the type of at-best-moderate force that we normally see in the philosophy and psychology of consciousness will be insufficiently strong to reasonably dislodge those initial assumptions.

For example, Integrated Information Theory is a lovely theory of consciousness. Well, maybe it has a few problems, but it is renowned, and it has a certain elegance. It is also very nearly panpsychist, holding that consciousness is present wherever information is integrated, even in tiny little systems with simple connectivity, like simple logic gates. For a reader who enters the debates about consciousness attracted to the idea that consciousness might be sparsely distributed in the universe, it’s hard to imagine any sort of foreseeably attainable evidence that ought rightly to lead them to reject that sparse view in favor of a view so close to panpsychism. They might love IIT, but they could reasonably regard it as a theory of something other than conscious experience – a valuable mathematical measure of information integration, for example.

Or consider a moderate view, articulated by Zohar Bronfman, Simona Ginsburg, and Eva Jablonka. Bronfman and colleagues generate a list of features of consciousness previously identified by consciousness theorists, including “flexible value systems and goals”, “sensory binding leading to the formation of a compound stimulus”, a “representation of [the entity’s] body as distinct from the external world, yet embedded in it”, and several other features (p. 2). It’s an intriguing idea. Determining the universal features of consciousness and then looking for a measureable functional relationship that reliably accompanies that set of features -- theoretically, I can see how that is a very attractive move. But why those features? Perhaps they are universal to the human case (though even that is not clear), but it’s doubtful that someone antecedently attracted to a more liberal theory is likely to agree that flexible value systems are necessary for low-grade consciousness. If you like snails... well, why not think they have integration enough, learning enough, flexibility enough? Bronfman and colleagues’ criteria are more stipulated than argued for.

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The species-specificity of verbal and introspective evidence.

The study of consciousness appears to rely, partly, but in an important way, on researchers’ or participants’ introspections, judgments about their experiences, or verbal reports, which need somehow to be related to physical or functional processes. We know about dream experiences, or inner speech, or visual imagery, or the presence or absence of an experience of unattended phenomena in our perceptual fields, partly because of what people judge or say about their experiences. Despite disagreements about ontology and method, this appears to be broadly accepted among theorists of consciousness.

Behavior and physiology are directly observable (or close enough), but the presence or absence of consciousness must normally be inferred -- or at least this is so once we move beyond the most familiar cases of intuitive consensus. However, the evidential base grounding such inferences is limited. The farther we move away from the familiar human case, the shakier our ground. We have to extrapolate in a risky way, far beyond the scope of our direct introspective and verbal evidence. Perhaps an argument for extrapolation to nearby species (apes? all mammals? all vertebrates?) can be made on grounds of evolutionary continuity and morphological similarity. Extrapolating beyond the familiar cases to, for example, garden snails will inevitably be conjectural and uncertain. The uncertainties involved provide basis for ample reasonable doubt among theorists who are antecedently attracted to very different views.

Let’s optimistically suppose that we learn that, in humans, consciousness involves X, Y, and Z physiological or functional features. Now, in snails we see X’, Y’, and Z’, or maybe W and Z”. Are X’, Y’, and Z’, or W and Z”, close enough? Maybe consciousness in humans requires recurrent neural loops of a certain sort (Humphrey 2011; Lamme 2018). Well, snail brains have some recurrent processing too. But of course it doesn’t look either entirely like the recurrent processing that we see in the human case when we are conscious, nor entirely like the recurrent processing that we see in the human case when we’re not conscious. Or maybe consciousness involves availability to, or presence in, working memory or a “global workspace” (Baars 1988; Dehaene and Changeux 2011; Prinz 2012). Well, information travels broadly through snail brains, enabling coordinated action. Is that global workspace enough? It’s like our workspace in some ways, unlike it in others. In the human case, we might be able to -- if things go very well! -- rely on introspective reports to help ground a theory about how broadly information must be shared within our cognitive system for that information to be consciously experienced, but it is by no means clear how we should then generalize such findings to the case of the garden snail.

So we can imagine that the snail is conscious, extrapolating from the human case on grounds of properties we share with the snail; or we can imagine that the snail is not conscious, extrapolating from the human case on grounds of properties we don’t share with the snail. Both ways of doing it seem defensible, and we can construct attractive, non-empirically-falsified theories that deliver either conclusion. We can also think, again with some plausibility, that the presence of some relevant properties and the lack of other relevant properties makes it a case where the human concept of consciousness fails to determinately apply.

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Thursday, October 04, 2018

Diversity and Philosophy Journals

Nicole Hassoun, Sherri Conklin, and I have been working on a list of "best practices" or (less ambitiously) "practices to consider" for philosophy journals that wish to increase the demographic diversity of their authors.  Toward this end, we organized a session at the APA on diversity in philosophy journals, as well as inviting a series of reflections on these issues the Blog of the APA.

Below is our list of recommendations, along with a brief introduction.

The other blog posts in the series are:


[the below was originally posted at The Blog of the APA]

Diversity and Philosophy Journals: Practices for Improving Diversity in Philosophy Journal Publishing

by Sherri Conklin, Nicole Hassoun, and Eric Schwitzgebel

The Demographics in Philosophy project aims to increase diversity in the discipline. To this end, we have initiated a broadly consultative process to arrive at a list of potentially diversity-enhancing practices.

So far, we have:

  • Collected and analyzed data on under-representation in 56 philosophy journals from 1880-2010.
  • Conducted a survey of 50 philosophy journals to evaluate current practices and results.
  • Held an open meeting at the Pacific Division APA with the editors of 20 leading philosophy journals to discuss possible improvements.
  • Circulated this list widely to those with expertise on diversity issues, including the editors of 100 journals, and recruited the editors of five journals to discuss their experiences at greater length on the Blog of the APA.

We are seeking feedback from the larger philosophical community on these ideas here.

Our main recommendations are just these:

  1. Set specific, achievable targets to make progress in increasing diversity in your journal.
  2. Implement promising practices to increase diversity in your journal and meet these targets.
  3. Collect data and evaluate progress at regular intervals and revise practices accordingly.

While we do not aim to defend any particular way of setting these targets here, and different journals may set more or less ambitious targets, we hope that all journals will set targets and take positive steps that will eventually yield proportional representation. This may require ensuring that members of under-represented groups can publish at least in proportion to their presence as faculty in the discipline or in proportion to their presence as researchers with a particular AOS. Targets even higher than proportional representation might be desirable to restore balance after a period of inequity or due to the special value of perspectives of members from some under-represented groups on some issues.

Some of our concrete ideas for improvement will no doubt be controversial, but editors seeking to increase diversity in the profession can implement the practices most compatible with their journal’s aims and needs, and we believe the evidence supports many of the suggestions we provide for positive change.

Ultimately, we believe that bringing about positive change just requires a bit of effort. We think that, if we really want to improve diversity in the profession, we can. We invite you to collaborate with us in doing so.

Editorial Practices to Consider to Improve the Diversity of Philosophy Journals 

1. Diversify representatives – editors, editorial board members, referees, trustees, staff, etc. – to include more people from under-represented groups and on important but neglected topics of interest to a diverse range of philosophers, utilizing a diverse range of methods.

  • Commit to inclusion with influence. However, also be cautious about creating disproportionate burdens on members of under-represented groups, especially if those burdens do not come with public recognition. 

2. Set specific, achievable targets to make progress in increasing diversity in your journal. 

  • For under-represented groups, long-term targets might include publishing and promoting their work at least in proportion to their presence in the part of the discipline that your journal covers. 

3. Implement promising practices to meet these targets and increase diversity in your journal, such as: 

  • Solicit submissions of promising work by members of under-represented groups. (PhilPeople might be a useful resource.)
  • Reserve more space for articles by members of under-represented groups to help meet specific targets.
  • Publish more papers of interest to under-represented groups in philosophy and on important but neglected topics of interest to a diverse range of philosophers.
  • When inviting authors always bear in mind the importance of increasing diversity in the field (potentially via special issues).
  • Ensure fair practice in weighing the value of anonymity and non-anonymous editorial discretion, bearing in mind that evidence is mixed regarding the effectiveness of anonymous review in increasing diversity. Take special care to ensure that any non-anonymous parts of the review process do not omit or unfairly disadvantage authors from under-represented groups.
  • Attend to your regional context as well as the overall global context (e.g. the importance of including adequate geographical and indigenous representation in your journal). 

4. Implement diversity-supporting referee practices, such as:

  • Encourage referees and authors to avoid using language that is insensitive to cultural differences or that inappropriately excludes or offends any group of people based on their ability/disability, age, ethnicity and race, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, nationality, etc.
  • Encourage referees and authors to check that papers cite and discuss a fair representation of relevant work by members of under-represented groups.
  • Encourage referees to consider accepting papers on topics of interest to under-represented groups in philosophy and on important but neglected topics of interest to a diverse range of philosophers.
  • Encourage referees to not reject promising papers on grounds of writing quality, if the concerns are merely stylistic, can be repaired to an adequate level, and the philosophical content is good. This helps ensure fair consideration of work by philosophers who are not native speakers of English. 
  • Encourage timely and developmental reviews, since members of vulnerable groups are especially disadvantaged by long delays before publication. 

5. Implement promising practices to increase accessibility in journals, such as: 

  • Create structurally-tagged content.
  • Utilize text-to-speech capability for print-impaired users in the absence of an audio book. 
  • Include a navigable table of contents within your publications, and provide a defined reading order (including, for example, appropriate links between the main flow of the text and any sidebar or box out text) to help those reading through audio to navigate their way through the article.  
  • Include Alt-text descriptions to explain illustrations for readers with reduced access to graphic information. 
  • Give readers control over the font (size, style, and color), background color, and line spacing for online publications, and/or make them available in html. 
  • Consider trying to make your journal more accessible for those in developing countries by making your journal open access in those regions.
  • Employ W3C web accessibility standards where feasible, and check for web accessibility. 

6. Collect data on diversity relevant publishing practices, e.g. submission and publication rates for members of under-represented groups, referee and editorial board composition, etc. and track progress in increasing diversity in your journal.

7. Evaluate progress at regular intervals and revise practices accordingly. 

  • Work with researchers to isolate and implement evidence-based practices that increase diversity in academic philosophy journals. 

 8. Officially adopt these diversity-promoting practices and widely publicize your journal’s targets and commitment to promoting diversity. 

  • • Inform all representatives and bind future representatives to uphold these standards. 
  • • Publicly and explicitly adopt diversity-promoting practices, helping to create a culture of concern that enhances the journal’s reputation for welcoming diversity, attracting more diverse submissions.
Promoting diversity, if done well, ought to improve the quality of work in your journal, expanding the pool of contributors and the range of submitted work relevant to your journal’s mission.

Created by the Demographics in Philosophy Project: https://www.facebook.com/PhilosophyData/

In addition to enhancing diversity in philosophy journal publishing, we would like to begin emphasizing things we can do to enhance diversity in the discipline more widely. We encourage feedback on this piece as well as ideas about how to implement inclusive practices for hiring and tenuring in philosophy departments and inclusive advising for PhD students. Please also help us in encouraging journals and departments to improve their practices!

[image source]

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Philosophical Skepticism Is, or Should Be, about Credence Rather Than Knowledge

Philosophical skepticism is usually regarded as primarily a thesis about knowledge -- the thesis that we don't know some of the things that people ordinarily take themselves to know (such as that they are awake rather than dreaming or that the future will resemble the past). I prefer to think about skepticism without considering the question of "knowledge" at all.

Let me explain.

I know some things about which I don't have perfect confidence. I know, for example, that my car is parked in Lot 1. Of course it is! I just parked it there ninety minutes ago, in the same part of the parking lot where I've parked for over a year. I have no reason to think anything unusual is going on. Now of course it might have been stolen or towed, for some inexplicable reason, in the past ninety minutes, or I might be having some strange failure of memory. I wouldn't lay 100,000:1 odds on it -- my retirement funds gone if I'm wrong, $10 more in my pocket if I'm right. My confidence or credence isn't 1.00000. Of course there's a small chance it's not where I think it is. Acknowledging all of this, it's still I think reasonable for me to say that I know where my car is parked.

Now we could argue about this; and philosophers will. If I'm not completely certain that my car is in Lot 1, if I can entertain some reasonable doubts about it, if I'm not willing to just entirely take it for granted, then maybe it's best to say I don't really know my car is there. There is something admittedly odd about saying, "Yes, I know my car is there, but of course it might have recently been towed." Admittedly, explicitly allowing that possibility stands in tension, somehow, with simultaneously asserting the knowledge.

In a not-entirely-dissimilar way, I know that I am not currently dreaming. I am almost entirely certain that I am not dreaming, and I believe I have excellent grounds for that high level of confidence. And yet I think it's reasonable to allow myself a smidgen of doubt on the question. Maybe dreams can be (though I don't think so) this detailed and realistic; and if so, maybe this is one such super-realistic dream.

Now let's imagine two sorts of debates that we could have about these questions:

Debate 1: same credences but disagreement about knowledge. Philosopher A and Philosopher B both have 99.9% credence that their car is in Lot 1 and 99.99% credence that they are awake. Their degrees of confidence in these propositions are identical. But they disagree about whether it is correct to say, in light of their reasonable smidgens of doubt, that they know. [ETA 10:11 a.m.: Assume these philosophers also regard their own degrees of credence as reasonable. HT Dan Kervick.]

Debate 2: different credences but agreement about knowledge. Philosopher C and Philosopher D differ in their credences: Philosopher C thinks it is 100% certain (alternatively, 99.99999% certain) that she is awake, and Philosopher D has only a 95% credence; but both agree that they know that they are awake. Alternatively, Philosopher E is 99.99% confident that her car is in Lot 1 and Philosopher F is 99% confident; but they agree that, given their small amounts of reasonable doubt, they don't strictly speaking know.

I suggest that in the most useful and interesting sense of "skeptical", Philosophers A and B are similarly skeptical or unskeptical, despite the fact that they would say something different about knowledge. They have the same degrees of confidence and doubt; they would make (if rational) the same wagers; their disagreement seems to be mostly about a word or the proper application of a concept.

Conversely, Philosophers C and E are much less skeptical than Philosophers D and F, despite their agreement about the presence or absence of knowledge. They would behave and wager differently (for instance, Philosopher D might attempt a test to see whether he is dreaming). They will argue, too, about the types of evidence available or the quality of that evidence.

The extent of one's philosophical skepticism has more to do with how much doubt one thinks is reasonable than with whether, given a fixed credence or degree of doubt, one thinks it's right to say that one genuinely knows.

How much doubt is reasonable about whether you're awake? In considering this issue, there's no need to use the word "knowledge" at all! Should you just have 100% credence, taking it as an absolute certainty foundational to your cognition? Should you allow a tiny sliver of doubt, but only a tiny sliver? Or should you be in some state of serious indecision, giving the alternatives approximately equal weight? Similarly for the possibility that you're a brain in a vat, or that the sun will rise tomorrow. Philosophers in the first group are radically anti-skeptical (Moore, Wittgenstein, Descartes by the end of the Meditations); philosophers in the second group are radically skeptical (Sextus, Zhuangzi in Inner Chapter 2, Hume by the end of Book 1 of the Treatise); philosophers in the middle group admit a smidgen of skeptical doubt. Within that middle group, one might think the amount of reasonable doubt is trivially small (e.g., 0.00000000001%, or one might think that the amount of reasonable doubt is small but not trivially small, e.g., 0.001%). Debate about which of these four attitudes is the most reasonable (for various possible forms of skeptical doubt) is closer to the heart of the issue of skepticism than are debates about the application of the word "knowledge" among those who agree about the appropriate degree of credence.

[Note: In saying this, I do not mean to commit to the view that we can or should always have precise numerical credences in the propositions we consider.]

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Related: 1% Skepticism (Nous 2017).

Should I Try to Fly, on the Off-Chance This Might Be a Dream Body? (Dec 18, 2013).

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Are Garden Snails Conscious? Yes, No, or *Gong*

If you grew up in a temperate climate, you probably spent some time bothering brown garden snails (Cornu aspersum, formerly known as Helix aspersa). I certainly did. Now, as a grown-up (supposedly) expert (supposedly) on the science and philosophy of consciousness, I've decided to seriously consider a question that didn't trouble me very much when I was seven: Are garden snails conscious?

Being an "experimental philosopher", I naturally started with a Facebook poll of my friends, who obligingly fulfilled my expectations by answering, variously, "yes" (here's why), "no" (here's why not), and "OMG that is the stupidest question". I'll call this last response "*gong*" after The Gong Show, an amateur talent contest in which performers whose acts were sufficiently horrid would be interrupted by a gong and ushered off the stage.

It turns out that garden snails are even cooler than I thought, now that I'm studying them more closely. Let me fill you in.

Garden Snail Cognition and Behavior

(Most of this material is drawn from Ronald Chase's 2002 book Behavior & Its Neural Control in Gastropod Molluscs.)

The central nervous system of the brown garden snail contains about 40,000 neurons. That's quite a few more neurons than the famously mapped 302 neurons of the Caenorhabditis elegans roundworm, but it's modest compared to the quarter million neurons of an ant or fruitfly. The snail's brain is organized into several clumps of ganglia, mostly in a ring around its esophagus. Gastropod neurons generally resemble vertebrate neurons, with a few notable exceptions. One exception is that gastropod neurons usually don't have a bipolar structure with axons on one side of the cell body and dendrites on the other side. Instead, input and output typically occurs on both sides without a clear differentiation between axon and dendrite. Another difference is that although gastropods' small-molecule neural transmitters are the same as in vertebrates (e.g., acetylcholine, serotonin), their larger-molecule neuropeptides are mostly different.

Snails navigate primarily by chemoreception, or the sense of smell, and mechanoreception, or the sense of touch. They will move toward attractive odors, such as food or mates, and they will withdraw from noxious odors and tactile disturbance. Although garden snails have eyes on the tips of their posterior tentacles, their eyes seem to be sensitive only to light versus dark and the direction of light sources, rather than to the shapes of objects. The internal structure of snail tentacles shows much more specialization for chemoreception, with the higher-up posterior tentacles perhaps better for catching odors on the wind and the lower anterior tentacles better for odors closer to the ground. Garden snails can also sense the direction of gravity, righting themselves and moving toward higher ground to avoid puddles.

Snails can learn. Gastropods fed on a single type of plant will prefer to move toward that same plant type when offered the choice in a Y-shaped maze. They can also learn to avoid foods associated with noxious stimuli, in some cases even after only a single trial. Some species of gastropod will modify their degree of attraction to sunlight if sunlight is associated with tumbling inversion. In warm ocean Aplysia californica gastropods, the complex role of the central nervous system in governing reflex withdrawals has been extensively studied. Aplysia californica reflex withdrawals are centrally mediated, and can be inhibited, amplified, and coordinated, maintaining a singleness of action across the body and regulating withdrawal according to circumstances, with both habituation and sensitization possible. Garden snail nervous systems appear to be similarly complex, generating unified action that varies with circumstance.

Garden snails can coordinate their behavior in response to information from more than one modality at once. For example, as mentioned, when they detect that they are surrounded by water, they can seek higher ground. They will cease eating when satiated, withhold from mating while eating despite sexual arousal, and exhibit less withdrawal reflex while mating. Before egg laying, garden snails use their feet to excavate a shallow cavity in soft soil, then insert their head into the cavity for several hours while they ovulate.

Garden snail mating is famously complex. Cornu aspersum is a simultaneous hermaphrodite, playing both the male and female role simultaneously. Courtship and copulation requires several hours. Courtship begins with the snails touching heads and posterior antennae for tens of seconds, then withdrawing and circling to find each other again, often consuming each other's slime trails, or alternatively breaking courtship. They repeat this process several times. During mating, snails will sometimes bite each other, then withdraw and reconnect. Later in courtship, one snail will shoot a "love dart" consisting of calcium and mucus at the other, succeeding in penetrating the skin about one third of the time; tens of minutes later, the other snail will reciprocate. Courtship continues regardless of whether the darts successfully land. Sex culminates when the partners manage to simultaneously insert their penises into each other, which may require dozens of attempts.

Impressive accomplishments for creatures with brains of only 40,000 neurons! Of course, snail behavior is limited compared to the larger and more flexible behavioral repertoire of mammals and birds.

Garden Snail Consciousness: Three Possibilities

So, knowing all this... are garden snails conscious? Is there something it's like to be a garden snail? Do snails have, for example, sensory experiences?

Suppose you touch the tip of your finger to the tip of a snail's posterior tentacle, and the tentacle retracts. Does the snail have tactile experience of something touching its tentacle, a visual experience of a darkening as your finger approaches and occludes the eye, an olfactory or chematosensory experience of the smell or taste or chemical properties of your finger, a proprioceptive experience of the position of its now-withdrawn tentacle?

(1.) Yes. It seems like we can imagine that the answer is yes, the snail does have sensory experiences. Any specific experience we try to imagine from the snail's point of view, we will probably imagine too humanocentrically. Withdrawing a tentacle might not feel much like withdrawing an arm; and with 40,000 neurons total, presumably there won't be a wealth of detail in any sensory modality. Optical experience in particular might be so informationally poor that calling it "visual" is already misleading, inviting too much analogy with human vision. Nonetheless, I think we can conceive in a general way how it might be the case that garden snails have sensory experiences of some sort or other.

(2.) No. We can also imagine, I think, that the answer is no, snails entirely lack sensory experiences of any sort -- and thus, presumably, any consciousness at all, on the assumption that if snails are conscious they have at least sensory consciousness. If you have trouble conceiving of this possibility, consider dreamless sleep, toy robots, and the enteric nervous system. (The enteric nervous system is a collection of about half a billion neurons lining your gut, governing motor function and enzyme secretion.) In all three of these cases, most people think, there is no genuine stream of conscious experience, despite some organized behavior and environmental reactivity. It seems that we can coherently imagine snail behavior to be like that: no more conscious than turning over unconsciously in sleep, or than a toy robot, or than the neurons lining your intestines.

We can make sense of both of these possibilities, I think. Neither seems obviously false or obviously refuted by the empirical evidence. One possibility might strike you as intuitively much more likely than the other, but as I've learned from chatting with friends and acquaintances (and from my Facebook poll), people's intuitions vary -- and it's not clear, anyway, how much we ought to trust our intuitions in such matters. You might have a favorite scientific or philosophical theory from which it follows that garden snails are or are not conscious; but there is little consensus on general theories of consciousness and leading candidate theories yield divergent answers. (More on this, I hope, in a follow-up post.)

(3.) *Gong*. To these two possibilities, we can add a third, the one I am calling *gong*. Not all questions deserve a yes or a no. There might be a false presupposition in the question (maybe "consciousness" is an incoherent concept?), or the case might be vague or indeterminate such that neither "yes" nor "no" quite serves as an adequate answer. (Compare vague or indeterminate cases between "green" and "not green" or between "extraverted" and "not extraverted".)

Indeterminacy is perhaps especially tempting. Not everything in the world fits neatly into determinate, dichotomous yes-or-no categories. Consciousness might be one of those things that doesn't dichotomize well. And snails might be right there at the fuzzy border.

Although an indeterminate view has some merits, it is more difficult to sustain than you might think at first pass. To see why, it helps to clearly distinguish between being a little conscious and being in an indeterminate state between conscious and not-conscious. If one is a little conscious, one is conscious. Maybe snails just have the tiniest smear of consciousness -- that would still be consciousness! You might have only a little money. Your entire net worth is a nickel. Still, it is discretely and determinately the case that if you have a nickel, you have some money. If snail consciousness is a nickel to human millionaire consciousness, then snails are conscious.

To say that the dichotomous yes-or-no does not apply to snail consciousness is to say something very different than that snails have just a little smidgen of consciousness. It's to say... well, what exactly? As far as I'm aware (correct me if I'm wrong!), there's no well developed theory of kind-of-yes-kind-of-no consciousness. We can make sense of a vague kind-of-yes-kind-of-no for "green" and "extravert"; we know more or less what's involved in being a gray-area case of a color or personality trait. We can imagine gray-area cases with money too: Your last nickel is on the table over there, and here comes the creditor to collect it. Maybe that's a gray-area case of having money. But it's much more difficult to know how to think about gray-area cases of being somewhere between a little bit conscious and not at all conscious. So while in the abstract I feel the attraction of the idea that consciousness is not a dichotomous property and garden snails might occupy the blurry in-between region, the view requires entering a theoretical space that has not yet been well explored.

The Possibilities Remain Open

There is, I think, some antecedent plausibility to all three possibilities, yes, no, and *gong*. To really decide among them, to really figure out the answer to our question about snail consciousness, we need an epistemically well-grounded general theory of consciousness, which we can apply to the case.

Unfortunately, we have no such theory. The live possibilities appear to cover the entire spectrum from the panpsychism or near-panpsychism of Galen Strawson and of Integrated Information Theory to very restrictive views, like those of Daniel Dennett and Peter Carruthers, on which consciousness requires some fairly sophisticated self-representational capacities of the sort that well beyond the capacity of snails.

Actually, I think there's something wonderful about not knowing. There's something marvelous about the fact that I can go into my backyard, lift a snail, and gaze at it, unsure. Snail, you are a puzzle of the universe, right here in my garden, eating the daisies!

[image by Bryony Pierce]

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

One-Point-Five Cheers for a Hugo Award for a TV Show about Ethicists’ Moral Expertise

[cross-posted at Kittywumpus]

When The Good Place episode “The Trolley Problem” won one of science fiction’s most prestigious awards, the Hugo, in the category of best dramatic presentation, short form, I celebrated. I celebrated not because I loved the episode (in fact, I had so far only seen a couple of The Good Place’s earlier episodes) but because, as a philosophy professor aiming to build bridges between academic philosophy and popular science fiction, the awarding of a Hugo to a show starring a professor of philosophy discussing a famous philosophical problem seemed to confirm that science fiction fans see some of the same synergies I see between science fiction and philosophy.

I do think the synergies are there and that the fans see and value them – as also revealed by the enduring popularity of The Matrix, and by West World, and Her, and Black Mirror, among others – but “The Trolley Problem”, considered as a free-standing episode, fumbles the job. (Below, I will suggest a twist by which The Good Place could redeem itself in later episodes.)

Yeah, I’m going to be fussy when maybe I should just cheer and praise. And I’m going to take the episode more philosophically seriously than maybe I should, treating it as not just light humor. But taking good science fiction philosophically seriously is important to me – and that means engaging critically. So here we go.

The Philosophical Trolley Problem

The trolley problem – the classic academic philosophy version of the trolley problem – concerns a pair of scenarios.

In one scenario, the Switch case, you are standing beside a railroad track watching a runaway railcar (or “trolley”) headed toward five people it will surely kill if you do nothing. You are standing by a switch, however, and you can flip the switch to divert the trolley onto a side track, saving the five people. Unfortunately, there is one person on the side track who will be killed if you divert the trolley. Question: Should you flip the switch?

In another scenario, the Push case, you are standing on a footbridge when you see the runaway railcar headed toward the five people. In this case, there is no switch. You do, however, happen to be standing beside a hiker with a heavy backpack, who you could push off the bridge into the path of the trolley, which will then grind to a halt on his body, killing him and saving the five. (You are too light to stop the trolley with your own body.) He is leaning over the railing, heedless of you, so you could just push him over. Question: Should you push the hiker?

The interesting thing about these problems is that most people say it’s okay to flip the switch in Switch but not okay to push the hiker in Push, despite the fact that in both cases you appear to be killing one person to save five. Is there really a meaningful difference between the cases? If so, what is it? Or are our ordinary intuitions about one or the other case wrong?

It’s a lovely puzzle, much, much debated in academic philosophy, often with intricate variations on the cases. (Here’s one of my papers about it.)

The Problem with “The Trolley Problem”

“The Trolley Problem” episode nicely sets up some basic trolley scenarios, adding also a medical case of killing one to save five (an involuntary organ donor). The philosophy professor character, Chidi, is teaching the material to the other characters.

Spoilers coming.

The episode stumbles by trying to do two conflicting things.

First, it seizes the trope of the philosophy professor who can’t put his theories into practice. The demon Michael sets up a simulated trolley, headed toward five victims, with Chidi at the helm. Chidi is called on to make a fast decision. He hesitates, agonizing, and crashes into the five. Micheal reruns the scenario with several variations, and it’s clear that Chidi, faced with a practical decision requiring swift action, can’t actually figure out what’s best. (However, Chidi is clear that he wouldn’t cut up a healthy patient in an involuntary organ donor case.)

Second, incompatibly, the episode wants to affirm Chidi’s moral expertise. Michael, the demon who enjoys torturing humans, can’t seem to take Chidi’s philosophy lessons seriously, despite Chidi’s great knowledge of ethics. Michael tries to win Chidi’s favor by giving him a previously unseen notebook of Kant’s, but Chidi, with integrity that I suppose the viewer is expected to find admirable, casts the notebook aside, seeing it as a bribe. What Chidi really wants is for Michael to recognize his moral expertise. At the climax of the episode, Michael seems to do just this, saying:

Oh, Chidi, I am so sorry. I didn’t understand human ethics, and you do. And it made me feel insecure, and I lashed out. And I really need your help because I feel so lost and vulnerable.

It’s unclear from within the episode whether we are supposed to regard Michael as sincere. Maybe not. Regardless, the viewer is invited to think that it’s what Michael should say, what his attitude should be – and Chidi accepts the apology.

But this resolution hardly fits with Chidi’s failure in actual ethical decision making in the moment (a vice he also reveals in other episodes). Chidi has abstract, theoretical knowledge about ethical quandaries such as the trolley problem, and he is in some ways the most morally admirable of the lead characters, but his failure in vividly simulated trolley cases casts his practical ethical expertise into doubt. Nothing in the episode satisfactorily resolves that practical challenge to Chidi’s expertise, pro or con.

Ethical Expertise?

Now, as it happens, I am the world’s leading expert on the ethical behavior of professional ethicists. (Yes, really. Admittedly, the competition is limited.)

The one thing that shows most clearly from my and others’ work on this topic, and which is anyway pretty evident if you spend much time around professional ethicists, is that ethicists, on average, behave more or less similarly to other people of similar social background – not especially better, not especially worse. From the fact that Chidi is a professor of ethics, nothing in particular follows about his moral behavior. Often, indeed, expertise in philosophical ethics appears to become expertise in constructing post-hoc intellectual rationales for what you were inclined to do anyway.

I hope you will agree with me about the following, concerning the philosophy of philosophy: Real ethical understanding is not a matter of what words you speak in classroom moments. It’s a matter of what you choose and what you do habitually, regardless of whether you can tell your friends a handsome story about it, grounded in your knowledge of Kant. It’s not clear that Chidi does have especially good ethical understanding in this practical sense. Moreover, to the extent Chidi does have some such practical ethical understanding, as a somewhat morally admirable person, it is not in virtue of his knowledge of Kant.

Michael should not be so deferential to Chidi’s expertise, and especially he should not be deferential on the basis of Chidi’s training as a philosopher. If, over the seasons, the characters improve morally, it is, or should be, because they learn from the practical situations they find themselves in, not because of Chidi’s theoretical lessons.

How to Partly Redeem “The Trolley Problem”

Thus, the episode, as a stand-alone work, is flawed both in plot (the resolution at climax failing to answer the problem posed by Chidi’s earlier practical indecisiveness) and in philosophy (being too deferential to the expertise of theoretical ethicists, in contrast with the episode’s implicit criticism of the practical, on-the-trolley value of Chidi’s theoretical ethics).

When the whole multi-season arc of The Good Place finally resolves, here’s what I hope happens, which in my judgment would partly redeem “The Trolley Problem”: Michael turns out, all along, to have been the most ethically insightful character, becoming Chidi’s teacher rather than the other way around.

[image source]

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Update, October 21, 2018:

Wisecrack has a terrific treatment of the philosophy of The Good Place, revealing that the show has a more nuanced view of the role of ethics lessons than one might infer from treating "The Trolley Problem" as a stand-alone work. Bonus feature: I am depicted wearing a "Captain Obvious" hat.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Inflate and Explode

Here's a way to deny the existence of things of Type X. Assume that things of Type X must have Property A, and then argue that nothing has Property A.

If that assumption is wrong -- if things of Type X needn't necessarily have Property A -- then you've given what I'll pejoratively call an inflate-and-explode argument. This is what I think is going on in eliminativism and "illusionism" about (phenomenal) consciousness. The eliminativist or illusionist wrongly treats one or another dubious property as essential to "consciousness" (or "qualia" or "what-it's-like-ness" or...), argues perhaps rightly that nothing in fact has that dubious property, and then falsely concludes that consciousness does not exist or is an illusion.

I am motivated to write this post in part due to influential recent work by Keith Frankish and Jay Garfield, who I think make this mistake.

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Some earlier examples of the inflate-and-explode strategy include:

Paul Feyerabend (1965) denies that mental processes of any sort exist. He does so on the grounds that "mental processes", understood in the ordinary sense, are necessarily nonmaterial, and only material things exist.

Patricia Churchland (1983) argues that the concept of consciousness may "fall apart" or be rendered obsolete (or at least require "transmutation") because the idea of consciousness is deeply, perhaps inseparably, connected with false empirical views about the transparency of our mental lives and the centrality of linguistic expression.

Daniel Dennett (1991) argues that "qualia" do not exist, on the grounds that qualia are supposed by their nature to be ineffable and irreducible to scientifically discoverable mental mechanisms.

Unfortunately, philosophical enthusiasts for the importance of conscious experience tend to set themselves up for the inflate-and-explode move, making Feyerabend's, Churchland's, and Dennett's critisms understandable.

The problem on the enthusiasts' side, as I see it, is that they tend to want to do two things simultaneously:

(1.) They want to use the word "consciousness" or "phenomenology" or "qualia" or whatever to refer to that undeniable stream of experience that we all have.

(2.) In characterizing that stream, or for the sake of some other philosophical project, they typically make some dubious assertions about its nature. They might claim that we know it infallibly well, or that it forms the basis of our understanding of the outside world, or that's irreducible to merely functional for physical processes, or....

Now if the additional claims that the enthusiasts made in (2) were correct, the double purpose would be approximately harmless. However, I'm inclined to think that these types of claims are generally not correct, or at least are quite legitimately disputable. Thus, the enthusiasts unfortunately invite inflate-and-explode. They invite critics to think that those dubious claims are essential to the existence of consciousness in the intended sense, such that if those dubious claims prove false, that's sufficient to show that consciousness doesn't exist.

The reason I think that Feyerabend, Churchland, and Dennett are inflating the target, rather than just correctly interpreting the target, is that I believe the enthusiasts would much more readily abandon the dubious claims, if required to do so by force of argument, than they would deny the existence of consciousness. Those claims aren't really ineliminably, foundationally important to their concept of consciousness. It's not like the relation between magical powers and witches on some medieval European conceptions of witches, such that if magical powers were shown not to exist, the right conclusion would be that witches don't exist. Even if we must jettison thoughts of infallibility or immateriality, consciousness in our communally shared sense of the term still exists. The core conception of phenomenal consciousness in philosophy of mind is, I think or suspect or at least hope, the conception of the stream of experience that it is almost impossible to deny the existence of -- not that stream-of-experience-plus-such-and-such-a-dubious-property.

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Frankish's and Garfield's more recent illusionist arguments, as I see them, employ the same mistaken inflate-and-explode strategy. Keith Frankish (2016) argues that phenomenal consciousness is an "illusion" because there are no phenomenal properties that are "private", ineffable, or irreducible to physical or functional processes. Jay Garfield (2015) denies the existence of phenomenal consciousness on the broadly Buddhist grounds that there is no "subject" of experience of the sort required and that we don't have the kind of infallibility about experience that friends of phenomenal consciousness assume.

Now it is true that many recent philosophers think that consciousness involves privacy, ineffability, irreducibility, infallibility, or a subject of experience of the sort not countenanced by (some) Buddhists; and maybe they are wrong to think so. On these matters, Frankish's and Garfield's (and Feyerabend's and Churchland's and Dennett's) criticisms have substantial merit. But it does not follow that consciousness is a mere illusion or does not exist. We can, and I think normally do, conceptualize consciousness more innocently. We need not commit to such dubious theses; our shared conception can survive without them.

To avoid commitment to dubious theses, we can and do define consciousness primarily by example. We gesture, so to speak, toward our sense experiences, our imagery experiences, our vividly felt emotions, our inner speech. We notice that there is something extremely obvious that all of these examples vividly share. Consciousness is that obviously shared thing. Maybe it's reducible; maybe not. Maybe there's a "subject" in a Cartesian sense; maybe not. Why commit on such matters, right out of the gate? Keep it theoretically innocent! Consciousness, in this innocent sense, is almost undeniably real. (I say "almost" because the clever philosopher can find a way to deny anything.)

Now admittedly, this sort of theoretically innocent definition by example is not quite as simple as I've just portrayed it. For a more careful attempt see Schwitzgebel 2016.

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I've tried this argument on both Frankish and Garfield, in critical commentaries (contra Frankish; contra Garfield). They remain unconvinced. (Well, this is philosophy!) Let me summarize their replies and share my reaction.

Frankish says that he agrees that consciousness, defined innocently by example as I have done, does indeed exist. He graciously allows that I have executed the important task of identifying a "neutral explanandum" for theories of consciousness that both realists and illusionists can accept (p. 227). However, Frankish also asserts that my definition is "not substantive" "in the substantive sense created by the phenomenality language game" (ibid.), and thus he feels licensed to continue to embrace illusionism about phenomenal consciousness.

I remain unsure why my definition by example is insufficiently substantive. Surely some definitions by example are substantive, or substantive enough. For instance, I might define "furniture" by reference to a diversity of positive and negative examples. That seems to pick out a substantive target of things that exist, and done well, it's good enough to let us start counting pieces of furniture (maybe with some disputable cases), evaluating the quality and function of different types of furniture, etc. Why wouldn't example-by-definition of consciousness work similarly? What is missing?

Garfield responds differently, doubling down, as I see it, on the inflation move:

I argue that if by 'qualitative states' we mean states that are the objects of immediate awareness, the foundation of our empirical knowledge, inner states that we introspect, with qualitative properties that are properties of those states and not of the objects we perceive, there are no such states (Garfield 2018).

Whoa! I don't think I meant all that! My whole aim in definition by example is to avoid such commitments.

Maybe Garfield takes himself to be denying the existence only of properties that most 21st century Anglophone philosophers don't actually endorse? No, I don't think so. It is clear from context that in denying the existence of qualitative properties, Garfield takes himself to be in conflict with the mainstream view in philosophy of mind, the view of people like me who accept the existence of phenomenal consciousness. But I don't see why Nagel, Block, Searle, Chalmers, Strawson, Carruthers, Kriegel, Siegel, Siewert, Thompson, etc. need to be committed to the dubious package of views Garfield lists in the blockquote above, simply by virtue of accepting the existence of consciousness. Of course they may also make other, further claims about consciousness, besides merely asserting that it exists, and those further claims might commit some of them to the dubious theses that Garfield wisely rejects.

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[image source]

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Rebecca Kukla on Diversifying Philosophy

I'm on a mission to help diversify philosophy journals. The journals that are seen as elite in philosophy (but not only them) tend to draw on a somewhat narrow range of authors, addressing a somewhat narrow range of topics, using a somewhat narrow range of tools. It's not as bad as it could be, and not as bad (I think) as it once was, but there is a long way to go.

Philosophy is the broadest of all disciplines, with at least a bird's-eye view of everything important. For all X, there's a philosophy of X. I like to think that my discipline could become the broadest-minded too, welcoming of all methods and viewpoints and cultural backgrounds.

Alarmingly, elite Anglophone philosophy journals are even more demographically narrow than the famously demographically narrow philosophy departments of the large Anglophone countries. For example, only about 13% of authors in elite Anglophone journals are women, and less than 1% are Black, and only 3% of citations are to books or articles originally written in a language other than English.

At the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association last spring, Nicole Hassoun, Sherri Conklin, and I organized a session on Diversity in Philosophy Journals, in which over 20 journal editors participated, as well as seven experts on the demographics of philosophy, and a large, engaged audience. Following up on that session, we recruited five of those journal editors to write guest posts for the Blog of the APA, concerning their experiences with trying to improve the diversity of their journals.

After a brief introductory piece last week by Nicole Hassoun, Subrena Smith, and me, the first editor's post is finally up, and it's terrific! Rebecca Kukla describes the editorial policies she has used to substantially expand the diversity of contributors and viewpoints in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal. As always, Kukla is vivid, practical, and bold.

I hope that you will read her post now!

Still to come over the next four weeks: Stephen Hetherington from the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Lucy O'Brien from Mind, Purushottama Bilimoria from Sophia, and Sven Ove Hansson from Theoria.

[image from the Blog of the APA]

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Four-Implicature Theory of Fortune Cookies

(your guide to properly understanding the dire messages from Panda Express)

Fortune cookies explicitly state the good and silently pass over the bad. In this way, they are like letters of recommendation. The wise reader understands the Gricean implicatures.

Gricean implicature involves implying one thing by saying something else, typically exploiting the hearer's or reader's knowledge of the context and of the norms of cooperative communication. Probably the most famous example, from Grice's classic "Logic and Conversation" (1967), is this:

A is writing a testimonial about a pupil who is a candidate for a philosophy job, and his letter reads as follows: 'Dear Sir, Mr. X's command of English is excellent, and his attendance at tutorials has been regular. Yours, etc.'

Although A does not explicitly say that Mr. X is an unimpressive student, the letter implicates it. For if Mr. X were an impressive student, the letter writer, as a cooperative conversation partner, would surely have said that. The reader knows that A knows that letters of recommendation should praise the quality of students who deserve academic praise. A thereby intentionally communicates to the reader that in his view Mr. X does not deserve academic praise. The best that can be said about X concerns his attendance and command of English.

With this in mind, consider these two principles governing the proper interpretation of fortune cookies:

(1.) Fortune cookies, like letters of recommendation, (a.) say only good things, and (b.) say the best that they can about those things.

(2.) All fortune cookies address the following four topics: health, success, social relationships, and happiness.

When a fortune cookie silently omits any of the four topics listed in Principle 2, it implicates that the news on that topic is bad. Furthermore, when a fortune cookie says something limited about health, success, social relationships, or happiness, it implicates that nothing better can be said. This is the Four-Implicature Theory of Fortune Cookies.

Consider, for example, my most recent fortune: "You have the ability to overcome obstacles on the way to success."

What a disastrous fortune! Although it may seem good to the naive reader -- like saying of a philosophy student that he speaks good English and attends regularly -- properly understood, the implicatures are catastrophic. Since only success is mentioned, we must infer that it is passing silently over bad news concerning my health, happiness, and social relationships. Worse, the cookie tells me only that I have the ability to overcome obstacles, not that I will overcome those obstacles. By Principle 1a, the fortune would have said that I will overcome those obstacles if in fact I will. It follows that I will not in fact overcome. Disaster on all four fronts!

[a dire fortune from Panda Express]

Let's try another fortune: "You are kind-hearted and hospitable, cheerful and well-liked." This fortune concerns both social relationships and happiness, two of the four topics that all cookies address. We can therefore infer that the recipient will suffer ill-health and poverty. Concerning happiness, the news is good: The recipient is cheerful! However, the implicature concerning social relationships is mixed: If the best that can be said is that the recipient is kind, hospitable, and well-liked, and not that she finds love, or that people admire her, or that she has other such social goods, the implicature is that she is a bit of a doormat. To the wise reader of cookies, the message is clear: Other people appreciate how cheerful the recipient remains as they take unfair advantage of her kind-hearted hospitality.

I leave the fortunes below as an exercise for the reader.

ETA Aug 24:

OMG, today's fortune is even worse!

[printable fortune cookie sheet from Red Castle]

Thursday, August 16, 2018

To Reduce the Risk of Moral Catastrophes, Should Society Hire Lots of Philosophers?

In June, I wrote a post arguing that future generations might find our generation especially morally loathsome, even if we don't ourselves feel like we are morally that bad. (By "we" I mean typical highly educated, middle-class people in Western democracies.) We might be committing morally grievous wrongs -- atrocities on par with the wrong that we now see in race-based slavery or the Holocaust or bloody wars of conquest -- without (most of us) recognizing how morally terrible we're being.

In Facebook discussion, Kian MW pointed me to a fascinating article by Evan G. Williams, which makes a similar point and adds the further thought, bound to be attractive to many philosophers, that the proper response to such a concern is to hire lots of philosophers.

Okay, hiring lots of philosophers isn't the only remedy Williams suggests, and he doesn't phrase his recommendation in quite that way. What he says with that we need to dedicate substantial societal resources to (1) identifying our moral wrongdoing and to (2) creating social structures to implement major changes in light of those moral discoveries. Identifying our moral wrongdoing will require progress, Williams says, both in moral theory and in related applied fields. (For example, progress in animal ethics requires progress both in moral theory and in relevant parts of biology.) Williams' call for dedicating substantial resources toward making progress in moral theory seems like a call for society to hire many more philosophers, though I suppose there are a variety of ways that he could disavow that implication if he cared to do so.

The annual U.S. military budget is about $700 billion. Suppose that President Trump and his allies in Congress, inspired by Williams' article, decided to divert 2% of U.S military spending toward identifying our society's moral wrongdoing, with half of that 2% going to ethicists and the other half to other relevant disciplines. Assuming that the annual cost of employing a philosopher is $150,000 (about half salary, about half benefits and indirect costs), the resulting $7 billion could hire about 50,000 ethicists.

[With 50,000 more ethicists, these empty chairs could be filled!]

Two percent of the military budget seems like a small expenditure to substantially reduce the risk that we unwittingly perpetrate the moral equivalent of institutionalized slavery or the Holocaust, don't you think? A B2 bomber costs about $1-$2 billion. The U.S. government might want to consider a few bomber-for-philosopher swaps.

I write this partly in jest of course, but also partly seriously. If society invested more in moral philosophy -- and it needn't be a whole lot more, compared to the size of military budgets -- and if society took the results of that investment seriously, giving its philosophers prestige, attention, and policy influence, we might be morally far better off as a people.

We might. But I also think about the ancient Athenians, the ancient Chinese, and the early 20th-century Germans. Despite the flourishing of philosophy in these times and places, the cultures did not appear to avoid moral catastrophe: The ancient Athenians were slave-owners who engaged in military conquest and genocide (perhaps even more than their neighbors, if we're grading on a curve), the flourishing of philosophy in ancient China coincided with the moral catastrophe of the period of the Warring States, and the Germans perpetrated the Holocaust and helped initiate World War II (with some of the greatest philosophers, including Heidegger and Frege, on the nationalistic, anti-Semitic, political right).

Now maybe these societies would have produced even worse moral catastrophes if philosophers had not also been flourishing in them, but I see no particular reason to think so. If there's a correlation between the flourishing of philosophy and the perpetration of social evil, the relationship appears to be, if anything, positive. This observation fits with my general concerns about the not-very-moral behavior of professional ethicists and philosophers' apparent skill at post-hoc rationalization.

I'm not sure how skeptical to be. I hesitate to suggest that a massive infusion of social capital into philosophical ethics couldn't have a large positive impact on the moral choices we as a society make. It might be truly awesome and transformative, if done in the right way. But what would be the right way?

[photo credit: Bryan Van Norden]