Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Base Rate of Kant

People sometimes say that increasing specialization within philosophy means that there could never be another figure like Locke or Hume or Kant -- a figure with giant impact across a broad range of philosophical subdisciplines. The massive growth of the research university has created armies of specialists in each subfield whose copious volumes one must master to become a major player in the subfield; and no one person could master the work of a broad range of subfields.

Let's consider the merits of this theory.

First: Is there any need for a theory to explain the recent lack of Kants? Well, what's the base rate of Kant? We could calculate rate per century or we could calculate rate per professional philosopher.

Consider by century: It seems plausible that no philosopher of at least the past 60 years has achieved the kind of huge, broad impact of Locke, Hume, or Kant. Lewis, Quine, Rawls, and Foucault had huge impacts in clusters of areas but not across as broad a range of areas. Others like McDowell and Rorty have had substantial impact in a broad range of areas but not impact of near-Kantian magnitude. Going back another several decades we get perhaps some near misses, including Wittgenstein, Russell, Heidegger, and Nietzsche, who worked ambitiously in a wide range of areas but whose impact across that range was uneven. Going back two centuries brings in Hegel, Mill, Marx, and Comte about whom historical judgment seems to be highly spatiotemporally variable. In contrast, Locke, Hume, and Kant span a bit over a century between them. But still, three within about hundred years followed by a 200 year break with some near misses isn't really anomalous if we're comparing a peak against an ordinary run.

(I don't mention Descartes despite his huge importance because he didn't have the same kind of impact in ethics/political as did the other three. Also, here is evidence that my judgments about importance aren't too idiosyncratic.)

If we consider the rate of Kants per thousand working professional philosophers, it does seem to be vastly higher in the early modern era than recently. But field-changing ideas can only occur so fast -- probably not much more than once per generation per subfield, since few philosophers are going to be ready to retool every ten years for the newest thing. Probably Kant rate per generation, in cultures with lively enough philosophical communities, is a better way to conceptualize the denominator of the expected base rate.

Thus, I don't think that the recent lack of Kants is a fact so anomalous that it cries out for explanation. There's only so much space at the top for heroes and field definers. Inevitably, Kants will be rare.

But maybe it's still true that the size of the community in each subfield makes it impossible for any one philosopher in the foreseeable future to have a huge impact across the subfields? Maybe a new Kant simply couldn't arise in a discipline as populous as 21st century philosophy? I see two reasons for skepticism about that theory.

(1.) People with huge impact are sometimes young. This was true historically (e.g., Hume was 26 when he finished the Treatise) and it seems to be still true (e.g., Lewis did much of his most influential work when he was in his 20s and 30s). If Lewis (or Kripke, or Chalmers, or...) could master enough of one subfield in 10 years to have a huge impact by age 30, then by age 60 -- and philosophers are by no means washed out by age 60 -- they ought to be able to master, well enough to potentially have a huge impact, several disparate subfields. Nor does it seem that there should be substantial barriers to this in practice. Although sociologically it would be difficult to leap from math to philosophy to physics to have huge impacts in all three fields -- so maybe there will never be another Descartes -- philosophy is not so sociologically divided. Setting aside language-driven divides, the sharpest sociological divide seems to be between "value theory" fields (ethics/aesthetics/political) and "LEMMings" fields (language/epistemology/metaphysics/mind plus logic). But even that divide is quite permeable. There are plenty of philosophers with interests and ambitions on both sides of the divide, and no one finds it odd.

(2.) Across academia as a whole, field-transforming contributions are sometimes achieved by adopting a novel angle or method and then applying it fruitfully both to traditional problems and to new previously unthought-of problems. In philosophy, this means having a new (implicit or explicit) metaphilosophy. Although none of the metaphilosophical revolutions of the past hundred years have generated a Kant, I think we can imagine how they might have, had things played out somewhat differently. Had there been a single dominant figure in the linguistic turn who managed to compellingly apply early linguistic-turnish thoughts to both metaphysics and epistemology and to ethics and political philosophy, that person might have had approximately Kant-sized influence. I see no reason to think such a scenario implausibly unlikely. Similarly, there could have been, I think, a Kant-sized ordinary language philosopher or logical positivist. More recently -- in my opinion! -- philosophy has received a charge of new ideas from the methods and results of empirical psychology, now that psychology has matured past Freudian and behaviorist strictures. People like Jesse Prinz and Shaun Nichols have been able to master enough of the literature in disparate areas of philosophy to have impact in those areas partly through applying methods and ideas from psychology. So I see no reason a great philosopher couldn't arise with a fresh angle, a new approach, applied compellingly to a broad range of the biggest issues, with a consequent Kant-like impact. We won't see it coming in advance -- but that's just us, stuck in our paradigms. Although it is impossible to have encyclopedic mastery of the ever-increasing existing literature across a wide range of subfields of philosophy, such encyclopedic mastery has never been a prerequisite of field-changing genius.


* This isn't to say that I'm particularly fond of Kant! I'm just making a sociological point, and he seems the best example. (See here and here for rough criticism.)

* One way in which it might be harder now to have a broad impact across subfields with a new approach is that once that approach catches on in one subfield, there will be a larger pool of people than there used to be who might quickly adopt it to other subfields, attenuating the aspiring Great Philosopher's direct impact on those subfields.

* Our perspective on the past is probably distorted by the Winnowing of Greats. Appropriately winnowed, maybe David Lewis (or whoever) will some day stand out like Kant. (And yes, I know that much of this post in is conflict with much of that earlier post. I take an appropriately Whitmanian attitude.)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Broad-Ranging Interview on My Work

by Richard Marshall, here at 3:AM Magazine. Rereading the interview now, I find myself pretty happy with it, other than that I probably should have given somewhat briefer answers to the first few questions.

This interview does a nice job of motivating and tying together, in an accessible way, the various themes of my work, which might otherwise seem to be unconnected (history of psychology, Chinese philosophy, the moral behavior of ethicists, science fiction, the untrustworthiness of philosophical intuition...).

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Kant Meets Cyberpunk

In 1992, my first year of graduate school, I read William Gibson's cyberpunk classic Neuromancer and, by chance, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason at the same time. It seemed to me that the two were intimately connected, but various older grad students in my Kant class pooh-poohed my ideas about this and I lacked the intellectual confidence to pursue it farther.

But the thought has stayed with me. In Neuromancer, like in Tron, there's an artificial environment that one can travel in virtually. One "enters" it by jacking into a neural interface. Also like Tron, but unlike The Matrix, the artificial environment of Neuromancer substantially differs in its basic structural features from the real-world environment. Derived from early computer graphics programs, Neuromancer's cyberspace matrix is composed of lines of light arranged into geometrical figures in simple colors; space is experienced in discrete units and movement is in rectangular clicks. As I seem to remember having imagined it, and as we might as well imagine it for present purposes (though now looking through the text, this not accurate), everything is laid out rectilinearly and the only colors are simple primaries.

So now imagine that you were born jacked into such a matrix. You might think that objects were necessarily laid out in straight lines at right angles and possessed of only primary colors, and that space came in discrete units. But this would be a feature, not of things as they are "in themselves", but rather of how your mind processes the structured input it is given. We might even imagine (and maybe it's true) that a human mind that developed in such a matrix couldn't even conceive of curves, oblique angles, tertiary colors, or continuous space. For such a mind, objects as presented in the cyberspace matrix would be the only empirically available reality, and what we non-cyberspace-embedded folks consider to be the real world would be an incomprehensible "noumenal realm" behind those appearances. Conversely, we might imagine -- though it's impossible to depict vividly in a novel -- this matrix-grown strange baby to have new sensory modalities and new basic ways of cognizing the world that are unfamiliar to us, especially if its brain is artificially enhanced (a fourth "spatial" dimension for matrix-informational layout would be a conservative start).

The analogy to Kant is imperfect. Kantian purists will, I suppose, cringe at the comparison. Time, causation, three-dimensionality, and many other properties are shared by the Neuromancer matrix and the reality outside of the matrix. And the features of the matrix available to the embedded mind might not be given "a priori" in a strict Kantian sense (whatever Kant's sense is). I'm sure there are other important disanalogies too. But as a way of getting a toehold on the Kantian picture, I still rather like the comparison. We are born into naturally given matrixes that necessarily structure our experiential encounter with the world, and out of which we cannot break, even in imagination. All this that I see and hear is just user interface.

Such thoughts are doubly apt, perhaps, if we are actually already living in a giant computer simulation.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Consciousness Online

Consciousness Online is an online consciousness conference now in its fourth year, organized by Richard Brown. It will be happening February 17 to March 2. The program has a terrific line-up of speakers. Check it out!

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind: Short, Folksy Version

Crazyism in the metaphysics of mind, as I define it, is the view that something bizarre and undeserving of credence -- something "crazy" -- must be among the core truths about the metaphysics of mind.

On December 3, I presented a short, folksy version of this idea as a TEDx talk for the first of hopefully many TEDxUCR events. (Thanks, TEDxUCR organizers!) If you want more than a blog post but less than a 40-page manuscript (plus references), you might be interested to see the (poor quality but audible) TEDx video or prepared text.

Monday, January 09, 2012

For All X, There's Philosophy of X...

... one only needs to plunge to the foundation. The issues at the foundation are always the same: What there really is, how we know about it, what separates the good from the bad.

If one delves deeply enough, with sufficient generality and abstraction, the foundational issues about X will reveal their kinship with foundational issues in other areas. Discussion of them can thus be illuminated by knowledge of how similar issues are treated in other areas -- the philosopher's special expertise.

Consider the philosophy of hair, for example. At the foundation: What is a haircut, really? How much does it depend on the intent of the hairdresser? What makes a haircut good or bad? For example, must it please its bearer? Is it relative to fashion, and if so how locally? How, if at all, can we settle disputes about the quality of a haircut? A true philosopher of hair will have informed opinions about such matters. The answers to these questions might differ from the answers to similar questions about, say, painting as an art or about the morality of charitable giving, but a family resemblance should be evident, along with the possibility of cross-fertilization.

Consider also: The philosophy of Coke cans, the philosophy of starlight, the philosophy of football, the philosophy of birds, the philosophy of siblinghood.

To the person with the right turn of mind, perhaps, all thought becomes philosophy.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Is Solipsism Simple?

Solipsism is the view that nothing exists but one's own stream of conscious experience. In The Problems of Philosophy (1912), Bertrand Russell says that although it's logically possible that solipsism is true, solipsism should be rejected as less simple than the hypothesis that an external world exists. But is realism about the external world really simpler than solipsism?

On the face of it, you might think solipsism is simpler. After all, it involves radically fewer entities. That's the great Ockhamesque beauty of it. Solipsism may be crazy, but at least it's simple!

Russell employs two arguments against the simplicity of solipsism. First:

If [a] cat exists whether I see it or not, we can understand from our own experience how it gets hungry between one meal and the next; but if it does not exist when I am not seeing it, it seems odd that appetite should grow during non-existence as fast as during existence (p. 23).
When human beings speak -- that is, when we hear certain noises which we associate with ideas, and simultaneously see certain motions of lips and expressions of face -- it is very difficult to suppose that what we hear is not the expression of thought, as we know it would be if we emitted the same sounds (p. 23-24).
Thus, he concludes, "every principle of simplicity urges us to adopt the natural view, that there really are objects other than ourselves" (p. 24).

Now, I'm inclined to think that Russell's argument here is very inadequate. But let me quickly say that I've found it surprisingly difficult to uncover what I'd consider to be better arguments against solipsism in the philosophical literature. Plus, Russell is famous! So let's take him seriously.

To see the core problem with Russell's argument, consider dreams. In dreams, cats can grow quite quickly hungry between appearances, despite their nonexistence in the interval. And the voices and faces seen in dreams reveal the real existence of no other independent mind. It seems no great violation of simplicity to suppose that, in a dream, the appearances of the cat and the voices and faces are concocted on the spot by me. No need to posit a giant, really existing universe, light-years upon light-years wide! And the solipsist, it seems, can just treat waking experiences the same way. Simple!

Russell is of course aware of dream skepticism, addressing it thus:
But dreams are more or less suggested by what we call waking life, and are capable of being more or less accounted for on scientific principles if we assume there really is a physical world (p. 24).
I think one might just as easily turn this argument on its head. If we assume solipsism rather than realism, we can invoke principles explaining why cats and people seem to behave as they do: They are imperfect projections of me upon my imagined world, based on what I know from introspection about myself. That theory is of course sketchy and incomplete, but so is the current scientific account of the content of dreams!

Now it might seem that postulating an external world behind appearances can at least explain correlations that must remain unexplained in solipsism. For example, if there is a real penny that I'm both looking at and manually rotating, the real existence of arm and coin explains why such-and-such changes in visual experience co-occur with such-and-such changes in tactile and proprioceptive experience.

I see two obvious replies for the solipsist:

First, why can't it simply be a law of my experience that such-and-such tactile and proprioceptive experiences will tend to co-occur with such-and-such visual experiences? Surely there's a theoretically discoverable structure to such co-occurrences -- a structure not so different, perhaps, and probably simpler, than that employed in the realist's account of tactile and visual perception and motor control and its relation to external objects. After all, realists' psychological theories, if they're really going to explain the relation among the experiences, require complicated overlapping and competing brain mechanisms for determining, among other things, visual shape and orientation from optical input.

And second, if simplicity really favors the theory with fewer unexplained coincidences, won't solipsism win hands down, even if it leaves a few things unexplained that the realist can explain? The small world of the solipsist will have vastly fewer such coincidences in total, and vastly fewer free parameters, than the enormously large, fine-textured, and richly populated world of the realist.