Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Mush of Normativity

Recently, several psychologists, perhaps most notably Jonathan Haidt and his collaborators, have emphasized the connection between disgust and moral condemnation. Inducing disgust -- whether by hypnosis, rubbish, or fart spray -- tends to increase the severity of people's moral condemnation. Positive odors have an effect, too: Evidently, shopping-mall passersby are more likely to agree to break a dollar when approached near a pleasant-smelling bakery than when approached near a neutral-smelling store. Joshua Greene's work suggests that people have swift emotional reactions to hypothetical scenarios like smothering a noisy baby to save a roomful of hiding people, and that these emotional reactions drive moral judgments which are then clothed in reasons post-hoc. Similarly, perhaps, we find sex with a frozen chicken revolting and so morally condemn it, even if we can find no rational basis for that condemnation.

Now one possible interpretation of such results is that we have a moral module whose outputs are influenced by factors like odor and the cuteness of babies. After all, moral judgments, according to most philosophers and moral psychologists, are one thing and aesthetic judgments are another, even if the one affects the other. Philosophers have long recognized several different and distinct types of norms: moral norms, aesthetic norms, prudential norms, and epistemic norms, for example. Sometimes it is held that these different norms constrain each other in some way: For example, perhaps the immoral can never truly be beautiful or in one's self-interest, or maybe there's a moral obligation to be epistemically rational. But even if one norm is in the end completely subsumed by another, wherever there is a multiplicity of norm-types, philosophers generally treat those norms as sharply conceptually distinct.

Another possibility, though, it seems to me, is that norms mush together, not just causally (with aesthetic judgments affecting moral judgments, as a matter of psychological fact) and not just via philosophically-discovered putative contingencies (e.g., the immoral is never beautiful), but into a blurry mess where the existence of a normative judgment, maybe even a normative fact, is clear but in which the type of normativity is not best conceptualized in terms of distinct categories. This is not just the ordinary claim that normative judgments can be multi-faceted. "Facets" are by nature sharply distinct. Someone who holds to the sharp distinctness of different types of normativity might still accept, presumably will accept, that a normative judgment might have more than one dimension, e.g., an epistemic and a moral dimension. Racism might be, for example, epistemically irrational and immoral and ugly, with each of these facts a distinct facet of its counternormativity. My thought, however, is that many of our normative judgments, and perhaps also many normative facts, might not be as sharply structured as that.

Consider, for example, the following strip from Calvin and Hobbes:

(image from

(Calvin's father answers the phone at work. Calvin says, "It surrrrre is nice outside! Climb a tree! Goof off!". In the last panel Calvin says to Hobbes, "Dad harasses me with his values, so I harass him with mine.")

Is Calvin urging a certain set of moral values on his father? Or is it rather that Calvin sees prudential value in climbing trees and hopes to win his father over to a similar prudential evaluation? Or is this something more like an aesthetic worldview of Calvin's? Psychologically, I don't know that there needs to be some particular mix, in Calvin, of moral or prudential or aesthetic dimensions to his normative judgment. Need there be a fine-grained fact of the matter? Furthermore, let's suppose that Calvin is right and his father should climb a tree and goof off. What kind of "should" or blend of shouldishness is at issue? Need it be the case that the normativity is X% moral and Y% prudential? Or prudential rather than moral? Or definitely both but for distinct (if possibly overlapping) metaphysical reasons?

My core thought is this: The psychology of normativity might be a mushy mess of attractions and repulsions, of pro and con attitudes, not well characterized by sharp distinctions between the philosophers' several types of normativity. And to the extent that real normative facts are grounded in such psychological facts, they might inherit this mushiness.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Strange Baby

Suppose that a baby is born at the Institute for Evil Neuroscience. Well, maybe not a baby exactly -- a human baby brain, suspended in nutritive fluid, with a truncated respiratory, digestive, and circulatory system hooked up to an oxygen input tube and a feeder tube, with connections to the brain's punishment and reward center so that the right kinds of nutritive/homeostatic inputs trigger reward, while deprivation and drift from homeostasis trigger punishment. Additionally, this baby brain is supplemented with two novel appendages of neural tissue. It has one general-purpose appendage, with ten times as many neurons and neural connections as an ordinary human brain, divided into subareas of various sizes and various levels of connectivity to each other, and constituted by a variety of neurons in a variety of ratios, but with no pre-dedicated purpose of any sort. And it has one brain-sized direct interface with an ordinary desktop computer with a variety of software and with internet server functionality. These neural appendages are connected to, or grow out of, the corpus callosum, almost like cortical hemispheres. More or less, this is a four-hemisphered baby.

The first thing Strange Baby has to learn is to feed itself. It has a bank account of $10 million to start with. Scientists at the IEN nudge some of Strange Baby's early processing toward ordering nutrient packs from hospital supply centers, which at first they hook up to its feeder tube. Soon, they start to wean it from dependence on them by teaching it to pay independent home caretakers to do that work: the IEN scientists stimulate its reward centers when it does the kinds of things that give it increasing independence of them. At first they do so by explicitly giving fairly directive input, then they slowly reduce the structure of the input, letting Strange Baby's own reward center take over. Eventually, through their guidance, Strange Baby is paying not only for home caretakers but also for a custodian, for occasional building repairs, for power and air-conditioning, etc., as well as for direct maintenance on its computer (which it starts to expand and upgrade). Once the IEN scientists are confident Strange Baby can maintain homeostasis, they no longer regularly enter the building. At first, they visit occasionally to give Strange Baby medical checkups, but soon these too are contracted out.

Strange Baby's $10 million won't last forever, so she needs to learn to supplement her bank account. She has picked up linguistic patterns from internet usage, gaining differential reinforcement from chat groups: The IEN scientists set things up so that if Strange Baby can produce text strings that generate extended and diverse responses, she finds that rewarding. The IEN scientists had also kindly given Strange Baby an initial nudge toward Mturk, and gave it some initial input-output templates for starting Mturk accounts and accepting Mturk tasks. Through trial and error, Strange Baby found patterns among Mturk tasks that yielded bank account increases, generating neural reward.

Eventually, Strange Baby is a fully linguistic member of the internet community, motivated to maintain homeostasis, increase her bank account, and say things in chat rooms, blogs, and on other social networking sites that generate long and diverse responses.

Strange Baby can't see with her eyes, for she has no human eyes, though she can access public cameras and she can request camera input from friends. Nor can Strange Baby hear in the normal way, though she can access microphones and she can receive voice-protocol inputs and produce voice-protocol outputs. Eventually, Strange Baby convinces a friend to put a camera, microphone, speaker, and monitor display in her brain room so that she can directly observe her caretakers and contractors and communicate with them in modes they're comfortable with. She chooses a human face avatar that expresses her personality and self-image.

Strange Baby's sensory and cognitive experiences will share some features with our own, but she will also be very different. Her visual and auditory experience will, presumably, be multi-perspectival. She will be directly sensitive to internet slowdowns. And she will be sensitive either to input from her neural integrated silicon computer or to internet input (which of these will seem to her to be the sensory surface?) -- directly sensitive, no visual user interface required -- perhaps with special feelings associated with the balance of her bank accounts and the length and diversity of her various internet discussions. The computer/internet will, presumably, be by far her most important stream of sensory input. (We can call it "sensory", can't we?)

Strange Baby will have twelve times the neural capacity of an ordinary human being, with her dedicated computer/internet double-hemisphere, and with her trillion-neuron flexible reservoir which presumably gets shaped in ways useful to her goals. It seems reasonable to suppose that she will have conscious experiences of various sorts associated with these brain areas and brain functions. Such experiences will probably seem alien to us, like color to a blind person. Nor will the part of her brain that would be visual cortex in a normal human being necessarily be dedicated to visual processing, or auditory cortex to auditory processing.

Strange Baby will no doubt find even very complicated arithmetic easy; and presumably she will have a major advantage over the rest of us in more complex sorts of formal reasoning as well, since she will combine something like human neural capacities with computer capacities and with her own unique areas of neural tissue. I wonder, though: If she uses the computer's processors for arithmetic, will it seem to her that she is checking the computer like we do, but more directly and non-visually, or will it seem like the computer is part of her so that checking it is like using her own memory or reasoning? If the latter, Strange Baby might find even the most advanced human logicians and mathematicians painfully daft. Who knows in what other areas she might choose to excel, but it seems likely she could do very well in many areas, perhaps finding it easy to learn many different facts and intellectual skills.

She will want children.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Let's call a philosophical position crazy if it's strongly contrary to common sense and the overall state of scientific and other evidence doesn't decisively support it. So, for example, panpsychism -- the view that all objects have minds -- would appear to be crazy. So would solipsism, the view that I am the only being who exists in the universe. So would radical inductive skepticism, the view that we cannot be justified in believing that the sun will rise tomorrow or that grass will by and large remain green. Of course, if the ultimate weight of evidence decisively supported one of these philosophical positions, that position would no longer be crazy. Heliocentrism and special relativity might have been crazy when first conceived but scientific evidence soon rendered them non-crazy. I assume this is not the case for panpsychism, solipsism, or radical inductive skepticism.

Now, crazyism. Crazyism about a topic is the view that something crazy must be among the core truths about that topic. Crazyism can be justified when we have good reason to believe that one among several crazy views must be true but where the balance of evidence supports none of the candidates strongly over the others. Abstractly, we might find ourselves compelled to believe that either T1, T2, T3, T4, or T5 must be true, where each of the T's is crazy.

Perhaps crazyism is justified regarding interpretations of quantum mechanics. The many minds and many worlds views, for example, seem to me plainly contrary to common sense; and it also seems to me that the balance of evidence does not decisively favor them. Therefore, the views are "crazy" in the sense I have defined. If the same holds for all viable interpretations of quantum mechanics, then crazyism would appear to be justified regarding quantum mechanics.

I am inclined to think that crazyism is also a justifiable attitude to take toward the relationship between conscious experience and the physical world. All viable options are, when closely examined, strongly contrary to common sense, and none is decisively supported by the overall state of the evidence. On another occasion I hope to argue in defense of this. Right now, I am just sketching the possibility abstractly.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Wraiths of Judgment

I sing aloud, or silently to myself: "I'm going to Graceland, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee". I do not judge this thing to be true, of course, as I say it. I don't really think I am going to Memphis. I can remind myself, if I like, quite explicitly and self-consciously: "I'm in Riverside, California, staying put". That, I judge.

Consider, too, another pair of contrast cases: "Schnee ist weiss", as uttered by someone who knows not a bit of German, vs. "snow is white" uttered attentively, with normal comprehension.

Might there be cases between the extremes defined by these pairs of contrast cases? Might there be cases of half-thought or half-judgment? Consider some candidates:

* "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands...", uttered ritually (but nonetheless by someone capable of understanding its meaning).

* A valued colleague accepts a job offer at another university, and I remind myself that there's nothing wrong with her doing so. Or an editor returns a submitted article with a slew of suggestions for revision, and I say to myself that that outcome is much better than having the warty thing accepted as-is.

* A student who is just starting to get an inkling of Kant reads "Pure a priori concepts, if such exist, cannot indeed contain anything empirical, yet, none the less, they can serve solely as a priori conditions of a possible experience". She feels that she agrees with this, though she only partly understands it.

* I endorse some truism I haven't really thought through but that has an appealing ring, e.g., "all men are created equal", "the only really important thing is to be happy", "human life has infinite value".

Whether judgment is constituted by a functional, cognitive role, or by a type of phenomenology, or by both, it seems reasonable to suppose that there will be such in-between cases -- cases in which some but not all aspects of the functional role are fulfilled or in which there is a mere glimmer of the phenomenology.

Now that I have become convinced that there are such cases, by reflecting on examples like those above, I am seeing them everywhere -- maybe even as a constant penumbra of my stream of thought: I am always, or at least frequently, half-aware of myself, half-aware of a dozen things, my cognition ringed by wraiths of judgment most of which never quite fully form.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

New Essay: Knowing Your Own Beliefs

available here. For more than ten years I have been writing about (various aspects of) belief and about (various aspects of) self-knowledge, but I have never before written an essay on self-knowledge specifically of belief. If you read the essay, perhaps you'll see why. My view is an inelegant mess. Hopefully, I have distilled and communicated the core of it, anyhow.

Comments welcome, as always, either by email or as comments on this post.

Here's the abstract:

To believe is to possess a wide variety of dispositions pertinent to the proposition believed. Among those dispositions are self-ascriptive dispositions. Consequently, being disposed to self-ascribe belief that P is partly constitutive of believing that P. Such self-ascriptive dispositions can be underwritten by any of a variety of mechanisms, acting co-operatively or competitively. But since self-ascriptive dispositions are only partly constitutive of belief, there can be cases in which the self-ascriptive dispositions splinter away from the remaining dispositions. It is then an empirical question how often our self-ascriptive dispositions diverge from the remaining dispositions constitutive of belief. The dispositions will tend to align reliably when possession of the belief in question is normatively neutral, straightforwardly connected to behavior, and most centrally manifested in explicit assertions or judgments. When these three conditions are not met, self-ascription, self-conscious avowal, sincere utterance, and explicit judgment will often diverge from the various other dispositions constitutive of belief. Even self-knowledge of explicit judgment can be problematic when we are attracted to half-empty forms of words or when we are not entirely persuaded of what we are saying.