Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Mystery of the Chiming Bell

We've all had this experience: The clock tower starts chiming. At first, you're paying no attention, but about three or four chimes in, you suddenly notice. In memory, you can count back those first few chimes.

Here's the question: Did you have auditory experience of those chimes before you started thinking about them? Were they part of your stream of conscious experience, part of your phenomenology, part of "what it was like to be you", during those first few inattentive seconds? Or, until you started attending to the matter, were the chimes no part at all of your conscious experience, not even a secondary and peripheral part? Were they, that is, only part of an at-the-time nonconscious but after-the-fact recoverable "sensory store"?

Similarly: Suppose you suddenly notice, for the first time, that you have a mild headache. Was the pain a small, background part of your stream of experience before you first noticed it? Or did you not really experience the pain until you actually directed attention to the state of your head? Is having an enduring pain a matter of constantly experiencing painfulness, in the background or foreground depending on your state of attention; or is it more a matter of having occasional spurts of felt pain, arising from an enduring nonconscious disposition for such spurts to shoot annoyingly and against your will into consciousness?

Philosophers, psychologists, and ordinary folks seem to have different opinions about these questions. One group may be wrong and the other right; or everyone may be right about their own experiences, wrong to the extent they generalize to others. Is there a good way to determine where the truth lies? I'm inclined to think not -- at least not in the short term. Introspection can only reveal consciousness as attended at the moment, not whatever experience there is, or is not, without attention. Immediate memory is corrupted both by our typical quick forgetting of things outside attention and the potential confusion of actual experiences with the recovery, from the sensory store, of previously unexperienced traces (if such a thing is possible; and we can't assume it's not possible without begging the question). Third-person methods like brain imaging require, to be interpretable as revealing facts about consciousness, a prior commitment to the very issue at hand and thus are inescapably circular.

You may or you may not think you experienced that chiming bell before you attended to it. I can't see, though, how you could have any secure ground for that opinion.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Friends of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is to date the most visible and successful experiment in "open-access" -- that is, free -- academic philosophy. (This isn't to say there aren't also other excellent open-access resources like Philosophers' Imprint and various archiving projects.) Fans of open access who loathe the finacial abuse of academic libraries at the hands of companies like Springer might consider paying the modest fee to support the Stanford Encyclopedia: $5 per year for students, $10 or $25 for others. Who'd've thought you could buy friendship so cheaply?

The SEP is trying to entice people to join by offering their "friends" access to handsome PDFs of SEP entries. Maybe that kind of thing appeals to you, but for me it's just a matter of supporting a cause I care about.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Avowing Dream Skepticism in a Dream

Last night I dreamt I was giving a talk -- a talk I am due to give next week in Australia. The talk wasn't going so well, and I suggested to the audience that maybe, just maybe, I was actually dreaming giving the talk. My evidence was that I remembered having planned to polish things up in the remaining few days before the talk but now I couldn't remember those days having occurred.

Alex Byrne, in the back of the room, looked highly skeptical and a bit dyspeptic. Dave Chalmers looked mildly amused. Dan Dennett stood up and said, "I very much doubt that you are dreaming, but I agree that your talk is nightmarishly bad."

Of course, it turns out that I was right and they were wrong. So there!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Are Ethicists Any More Responsive to Undergraduate Emails Than Are Other Professors?

As regular readers know, Joshua Rust and I are interested in the moral behavior of ethics professors -- namely, do they behave any better? Pending the invention of the moralometer, though, it's a bit tricky to measure actual ethicists' actual moral behavior. Josh and I are forced to be a little creative. Here's one of our ideas: Assuming it's morally better, generally speaking, to respond to undergraduate emails than to ignore them, we can look at the rate at which ethicists respond to undergraduate emails, compared to other professors.

Thus inspired, Josh and I sent phony emails to several hundred professors -- emails designed to look like they came from an undergraduate. (Yes, we got human subjects ethics approval first; and yes we're aware that in spamming philosophers we are perhaps coming uncomfortably close to being a test case for our own thesis.) One of our emails asked about the professors' office hours; another expressed interest in declaring a major and asked for the name of the undergraduate advisor. Research question: Would ethicists be more likely than the other groups to respond to the emails?

No, it turns out. Here are the response rates:

Group: 1stemail , 2ndemail
Ethicists: 59.0% , 53.6%
Non-ethicist philosophers: 58.0% , 49.8%
Non-philosophers: 54.6% , 54.1%
This variation is well within chance (chi-squared, p = .51, .60).

Interesting enough, perhaps, as confirmation of our general finding (so far) that ethicists behave no better than non-ethicists. But this study had an additional twist: Many of these same professors also completed a survey we sent them -- a survey asking them, among other things, to rate the morality of "not consistently responding to student emails" on a nine point scale from "very morally bad" through "neutral" to "very morally good". We also asked: "About what percentage of student emails do you respond to?" followed by a blank for them to enter a percentage. Thus, we could compare normative attitude, self-described behavior, and actual behavior. (We hasten to add, here, that all identifying information was removed for analysis: We are not interested in the responses of particular individuals but only of groups.)

Our survey respondents said they nearly always responded to undergraduate emails. More than half estimated that they responded to 100% of undergraduate emails. More than 90% estimated that they responded to 90% or more of undergraduate emails. On the face of it, these appear to be gross overestimates -- I'm tempted even to say, in the aggregrate, borderline delusional (though I don't doubt that there are a few very conscientious email responders out there). When I reported these numbers recently in a talk to undergraduates, they laughed out loud. Ethicists reported neither more nor less responsiveness than did the other groups.

Those who reported responding to 100% of undergraduate emails were indeed somewhat more likely to respond to both emails: 47.2% versus 29.0% for those who claimed less than 100% responsiveness (chi square, p = .003).

Oddly, however, we found no relationship whatsoever between professors' expressed attitudes about the morality of consistently responding to undergraduate emails and their actual behavior. 83.0% of professors said it was morally bad not consistently to respond to undergraduate emails, but these professors were no more likely to respond to our emails than were the 17.0% who said it was morally okay not to respond. In fact, 65.5% of those who said it was okay not to respond consistently to undergraduate emails responded to our second email, compared to only 55.3% of those who said it was bad not to respond. (This was within the range of chance variation given the smallish numbers involved in this particular set of conditions, but the 95% confidence interval for the difference in response rates tops out at a 3.2% advantage for those who think it is morally bad not to respond -- so at best they're responding at practically the same rate.)

On none of these measures did ethicists appear to respond or behave any differently, or any more or less self-consistently, than the non-ethicist philosophers or the comparison group of non-philosophers.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Alternatives to the Burning Armchair

(by guest blogger Tamler Sommers)

There has been some discussion lately about whether the burning armchair is too combative and aggressive to serve as an appropriate symbol for the experimental philosophy movement. My first thought when I came across the controversy was that people need to lighten up a little. But then I realized that a slow burning is possibly the worst way to go and I began to see the critics’ point. So, inspired by Obama’s Cairo speech, I’d like to offer some alternative symbols for the X-Phi movement in hopes of reconciling the two feuding factions.

1. A beautiful day in Compton, CA, sounds of children playing in the background. An armchair sits on a corner enjoying the sunshine. Out of nowhere, the sound of screeching tires fills the air. A Chevy Suburban tears down the block. As it passes, we see Josh Knobe hanging out the window of the Suburban with an AK 47 yelling “caught you slippin’, caught you slippin’!” and filling the armchair up with holes.

2. An armchair sits in a deep black pit with only a bucket beside it. Thomas Nadelhoffer appears at the top of the pit with a small bisson frise. He calls down to the armchair:
“It rubs the Scotchguard on its upholstery…it does this whenever it’s told.”
“It rubs the Scotchguard on its upholstery or else it gets the hose again.”
“Now it places the Scotchguard in the basket….”

3. An armchair is taken prisoner by an unknown captor and placed in a small hotel room for fifteen years with no contact to the outside world other than a television and a small serving of dumplings that are pushed under the door every evening. The armchair has no idea why it is there.

4. A fleet of AH-64A Apache helicopters approach the shore of a small village of armchairs. In the cockpit, Shaun Nichols hits a button and Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries” blare from the helicopter speakers. Bullets from automatic weapons rain down on the helpless armchairs. “Run Lazy-boy! Run!” shouts Eddy Nahmias from one of the Apache open doors.

Other suggestions welcome.

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Human Pseudopod: Michotte on Bodily Phenomenology

Albert Michotte was famous for his work on the perception of causality, especially on the conditions under which one ball is visually interpreted as launching another. Less well known are his remarks on the experience of embodiment, which I just came across and can't resist sharing.

[W]here the body is motionless... there is an almost complete adaptation of the receptor organs, and the result is that the body simply disappears from the phenomenal world. This is indeed what seems to happen to a very high degree in the practice of certain oriental sects, where those who are expert are able, by remaining motionless, to achieve an extreme state of apparent "spiritualisation". Movement appears to be essential to the phenomenal existence of the body, and it is probable that we are aware of our bodily states only in so far as they are terminal phases of movements. In our ordinary waking life, of course, our bodies are motionless only to a relative extent; there is nearly always movement, if only as a result of respiration.

Whether it is temporarily motionless or whether it is moving, the body appears as a somewhat shapeless mass or volume. there is very little by way of internal organisation or connexion between the parts. There is no clear marking off of the head, trunk, and limbs by precise lines of demarcation.... Instead of any precise line of demarcation we find a number of regions with extensive connexions between them gradually merging into one another.

We can with some justification look on the body as a sort of kinaesthethic amoeba, a perpetually changing mass with loose connexions between the parts, and with the limbs constituting the pseudopodia.... The "volume" of which it consists is not limited by a clearly defined surface, and there is no "contour".... The limit of the body is more like the limit of the visual field -- an imprecise frontier which has no line of demarcation, and indeed which cannot without absurdity be imagined to have one (1946/1964, p. 203-204).
Close your eyes, refrain as much as possible from touching anything. Do your pseudopodia grow and shrink as you move or refrain from moving them?

Friday, June 05, 2009

The Moral Behavior of Ethicists: Peer Opinion

(with Josh Rust) is now forthcoming in Mind.

Thanks to all the folks at the 2007 Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association who stopped by to express their views on the behavior of ethicists!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Wundt on Self-Observation and Inner Perception

Wilhelm Wundt was a founding father of laboratory psychology and a grand visionary of psychology as a discipline -- of how it fit among the sciences, of the structure of its object (the mind), of its methods, most centrally introspection -- and also an author so vastly prolific that most of his work remains untranslated despite his importance. Among those untranslated works is his essay "Selbstbeobachtung und innere Wahrnehmung" [Self-Observation and Inner Perception"] (1888), with which I've been struggling. The essay is key to Wundt's view of "introspection" -- the usual English translation of the German Selbstbeobachtung -- since here he contrasts it with the seemingly related process of "inner perception". And unfortunately, the secondary sources are all over the map on this. I can find no good treatments.

To understand Wundt's distinction, it helps to know two bits of historical context. One is August Comte's influential criticism of the introspective method of psychology:

But as for observing in the same way intellectual phenomena at the time of their actual presence, that is a manifest impossibility. The thinker cannot divide himself into two, of whom one reasons whilst the other observes him reason. The organ observed and the organ observing being, in this case, identical, how could observation take place? The pretended method is then radically null and void (1830, using James's translation of 1890/1981, p. 188).
The other is Franz Brentano's (1874/1973) distinction between "inner observation" [innere Beobachtung] and "inner perception" [innere Wahrnehmung]. Brentano asserts that inner observation involves attending to conscious psychological processes as they transpire. This, he says with Comte, is impossible, or at least fails as a psychological method, because the act of attending to the process inevitably destroys or at least objectionably alters the target process. In "inner perception", in contrast, psychological processes are noticed while one's attention is dedicated to something else. They are noticed only "incidentally" [nebenbei], and thus undisturbed.

Wundt agrees with Brentano and Comte that observation necessarily involves attention and so normally interferes with the process to be observed, if that process is an inner, psychological one. Contra Brentano however, Wundt does not envision scientific knowledge of mental processes arising without attention of some sort, including planful and controlled variation -- attentive planned exploration, if not of the process as it occurs, then at least to a reproduction of that process as a "memory image" [Erinnerungsbild]. No science by sideways glances for Wundt. The psychological method of "inner perception" is, for Wundt, the method of holding and attentively manipulating a memory image of a psychological process. This method, he thinks, has two crucial shortcomings: First, one can only work with what one remembers of the process in question -- the manipulation of a memory-image cannot discover new elements. And second, new elements may be unintentionally introduced through association -- one might confuse one's memory of a process with one's memory of another associated process or object.

Therefore, Wundt suggests, the science of psychology must depend upon the attentive observation of mental processes as they occur. He argues that those who think attention necessarily distorts the target mental process are too pessimistic. A subclass of mental processes is relatively undisturbed by attentive observation -- specifically the basic mental processes, especially of perception. The experience of seeing red is more or less the same, Wundt suggests, whether or not one is aware of the psychological fact that one is experiencing redness. Wundt also thinks the basic processes of memory, emotion, and volition are largely undisturbed by introspective attention. These alone, he thinks, can be studied by introspective psychology. More complicated processes, in contrast, must be studied non-introspectively -- through the obsevation of language, history, culture, and human and animal development, for example.

Wundt's students tended to disregard his admonition to restrict introspective observation to such basic processes. E.B. Titchener, for example, held that practiced introspectors could observe even their "higher" cognitive processes without disturbing them. Arguably, the eventual fall of introspective psychology in favor of behaviorism (focusing only on outward stimuli and behavioral response, nothing "inner" at all) was hastened by the ambitious attempts of Wundt's students to extend introspective method to such higher cognitive processes, about which methodological and substantive disputes proved intractable.

Monday, June 01, 2009

On Debunking IV: Non-Selective Debunking

(by guest blogger Tamler Sommers)

So far I have considered whether evolutionary explanations undermine love and whether they can be used to debunk non-consequentialist moral intuitions while leaving the consequentialist one intact. In this post, I want to bring these thoughts together to examine a debunking strategy in metaethics I’ve defended in the past: the attempt explain away objective moral values in general.

Here’s a rough outline of the strategy. The explanandum, the thing to be explained, is our moral intuitions—intuitions like “burning cats is wrong!” Moral skeptics and moral realists offer competing explanations for the explanandum, and the debate hangs on which of the explanations is more plausible. The objectivist claims that this intuition is picking up on real moral properties, out there in the world—the wrongness of burning a cat. But the skeptic points out that our biological/cultural evolutionary processes account for these intuitions, and so we would have them whether or not they referred to anything real. So with a clean slice from Occam’s razor we can banish objective moral values from our ontology.

As I said, this has always sounded plausible to me. But consider this strategy when applied to love for one’s children. The explanandum is my deep feelings of attachment for my daughter Eliza. Kin selection theory shows that I would have these feelings whether or not I really loved her. So with a clean slice from Occam’s razor we can banish love from our ontology.

Now the strategy seems completely misguided! Why? Because as Manuel and other commentators point out, my love for Eliza is constituted, at least in part, by the feelings of attachment.

The skeptic will object that unlike love, moral values are not supposed to be constituted by feelings or intuitions that arise from an evolutionary process. Love is subjective. Morality is objective. Fair enough. But what about colors? We don’t say that it’s false that snow is white because evolution designed us to view snow in this fashion.

At this point, the skeptic can respond in two quite different (and perhaps incompatible) ways. The first is to say that there is universal agreement about the whiteness of snow. But there is no universal agreement about morality. And that is why we should reject moral realism.

The second is to say that morality has essential features that are incompatible with these naturalistic explanations, features like its categorical nature or “bindingness.” Since these features cannot fit within a naturalistic ontology, even if there were universal agreement under normal conditions about certain moral judgments—perhaps due to our common evolutionary history—it would still not vindicate moral realism. (These two replies, of course, parallel Mackie’s arguments from relativity and queerness.)

I’ll talk about both responses in more detail in my next post. But for now, let me conclude with an observation about the latter reply. Ashley, in my first post, thought that real love was essentially incompatible with an evolutionary/neuroscientific account of its origin. As some commentators pointed out, one option available to Ashley upon learning of this account is to revise her concept of love accordingly. She could say: love doesn’t quite have the status and history that I thought it had, but it’s still real love, I still love my son. Would anyone begrudge her this revision? Would anyone accuse her of “changing the subject” about love and putting something bogus in its place? Similarly, even if we thought morality had certain features that we now realize are inconsistent with a naturalistic account of its sources, why couldn’t we just revise our concept of morality accordingly? If we allow that Ashley truly loves her son, why can’t we say it’s truly wrong to burn that poor cat?