Saturday, September 29, 2012

What Experimental Philosophy Might Be

What is "experimental philosophy"? There is, I think, some tension in how philosophers use the term -- tension between a narrow and a wide conception.

Most of the work canonically identified as "experimental philosophy" surveys ordinary people's judgments (or "intuitions") about philosophical concepts, and it does so by soliciting people's responses to questions about hypothetical scenarios. (See, e.g., Knobe's chairman study regarding intentional action, Swain et al.'s study of order effects on knowledge judgments, and Machery et al.'s study of cultural variation in the perceived reference of proper names.) Thus, philosophers sometimes think of "experimental philosophy" as the enterprise of running these sorts of studies. Joshua Alexander, for example, in his 2012 book portrays experimental philosophy as the study of people's philosophical intuitions, as does Timothy Williamson, in his forthcoming critique of the "Experimental Philosophy revolution".

Conceived narrowly in this way, experimental philosophy is a coherent and (mostly) recent movement, with a distinctive methodology and an interrelated network of results. It is possible to discuss and critique it as a unified body.

However, there also seems to be a broader conception of experimental philosophy -- a conception that has never, I think, been adequately articulated, a conception that Josh Knobe and Shaun Nichols, for example, gesture toward in their "Experimental Philosophy Manifesto", before they shift their focus to experimental philosophy in the narrow sense. In this broad sense, philosophers who do empirical work aimed at addressing traditionally philosophical questions are also experimental philosophers, even if they don't survey people about their intuitions. In practice, the narrow/broad distinction hasn't meant too much because almost all of the empirical work of almost all of the people who are canonically recognized as "experimental philosophers" fits within both the narrow and the broad conceptualizations.

My own work, however, tends to fit only within the broad conception, not the narrow (with a couple of recent exceptions). So the difference has personal importance to me, affecting both my and others' conceptualization of my role in the "x-phi" community.

How to articulate the broad conception? Experimental work done by people in philosophy departments seems an odd category, since similar work can be done by people in different departments. Experimental work that addresses traditionally philosophical issues, however, seems far too broad, sweeping in too much research that we would not ordinary conceptualize as philosophical, including physics experiments on the structure of space and time, biological research on the origins of our social roles, and psychological work on the origins of our concepts, since these issues are at the root of philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, and philosophy of psychology; and sometimes what the most theoretically ambitious physicists, biologists, and psychologists say is not so different from what philosophers of those disciplines say; if by adding experimentation to that, we get experimental philosophers, then most experimental philosophers are employed by science departments.

Here's a thought that is perhaps more satisfactory: Experimental philosophy in the broad sense is empirical research that is thoroughly contextualized within an intimate knowledge of the philosophical literature on which it bears, and which is presented, primarily, as advancing that philosophical literature. (For present purposes, we can define "philosophical literature" sociologically as what is published in philosophy journals and in books classified as philosophy books by academic presses.) This will omit the typical developmental psychologist working on conceptual categories, but probably allow as marginal cases of "experimental philosophers" the most philosophically informed developmental psychologists (such as Alison Gopnik and Susan Carey). It will allow in, as central, work by Shaun Nichols that is not typical intuition-polling x-phi (such as his work on disgust norms and on quantitative history of philosophy). Maybe some of Elisabeth Lloyd's empirical work on the female orgasm will also qualify.

And of course (my main, not-so-secret intention in developing this account) so also will all of my own empirical work. Included, for example, will be my work on the moral behavior of ethics professors, which does tend to be recognized as "experimental philosophy" by the x-phi crowd, despite not fitting the narrow conception; and also my empirical research on consciousness (e.g., here, and chapters 1 and 6 here), which is less often mentioned as x-phi.

But more than that, I think this conception explicitly encourages the thought that a broad range of traditionally philosophical issues can be illuminated by empirical studies, even though they have not yet commonly been approached with the tools of empirical science. For example, empirical research might help illuminate the question of whether philosophical study, over the centuries, tends to progress toward the truth. We might be able to take an experimental approach to the question of whether the external world exists. Questions in the history of philosophy might be approachable by means of the systematic study of citation patterns in philosophical venues. And so forth.

Experimental philosophers, break free! There is so much more to do than just surveying intuitions!

(No accident maybe, that I was a student of Gopnik and Lloyd?)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

New Essay: A Dispositional Approach to Attitudes, or Thinking Outside of the Belief Box

I have long advocated a dispositional approach to belief (e.g., here). But I have been cagey about trying to extend that account to other attitudes such as desiring and loving. In this new essay, I finally set aside those hesitations and go all-in for dispositionalism.

Abstract: To have an attitude is, for the most part, just to live a certain way. It is, for the most part, just to be disposed to behave in certain ways, to be disposed to undergo certain conscious experiences, and to be disposed to exhibit certain folk-psychologically recognizable cognitive patterns. To have an attitude is, essentially, to be describable by means of a folk-psychologically recognizable superficial syndrome, regardless of one's deep cognitive or biological structure. To have an attitude is not, for example, essentially a matter of having a representation stored in a metaphorical functional box. It is more like having a personality trait. It is to have a certain temporary or habitual posture of mind.  
As always, comments welcome, either by email or as comments on this post.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Video: If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious

My oral presentation to the Neuphi group at Tufts,


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Against Architectural Accounts of the Attitudes: Two Thought Experiments

Most recent Anglophone philosophers appear to favor what I will call architectural accounts of the attitudes. On such accounts, what is essential to possessing an attitude is that one be in some particular type of physical or biological state or that one possess some particular piece of cognitive architecture. On such an account, to have an attitude such as belief or desire might, for example, be to possess an internal representation of a certain sort, perhaps poised to play a particular cognitive role; or it might be a matter of being in a brain state of a certain sort. On my view, in contrast, such architectural facts should be regarded as matters of implementation only, not essence. What matters to having an attitude is instead, I suggest, that one live a certain way -- that across a wide range of actual and counterfactual circumstances, one is disposed to act and react, both inwardly and outwardly, in patterns that we would folk-psychologically tend to regard as characteristic of someone who possesses that attitude.

Call whatever architectural condition is essential to having Attitude A, on one of the architecturally-based views, Architectural Condition C. Unless Architectural Condition C just is the condition of being disposed to act and react, inwardly and outwardly, in the pattern characteristic of Attitude A, then presumably it is conceivable that Architectural Condition C could be possessed by a person who lacks the such a suite of dispositions, or such a suite of dispositions could be possessed by a person who lacks Architectural Condition C. What should we say about such cases? Let’s consider two.

One: Andi, let’s suppose, is in Architectural Condition C for the belief that giraffes are born six feet tall. Colorfully, we might imagine that a 22nd century brain scanner finds in her Belief Box a slip of paper containing the sentence, in the Language of Thought, “giraffes are born six feet tall”. Or maybe the giraffe neuron is linked to the six-feet-tall neuron is linked to the birth-size neuron. Despite this architectural fact, however, Andi is not at all inclined to act and react in the usual way. She is not at all disposed, for example, to say that baby giraffes are six feet tall. If asked explicitly, she would say giraffes are probably born no more than three feet tall. If shown a picture of a giraffe as tall as an ordinary man she would assume it’s not a newborn. If a zookeeper were to tell Andi that giraffes are born six feet tall, Andi would be surprised and would say, “Really? I had thought they were born much smaller than that!” And so forth, robustly, across a wide range of actual and counterfactual circumstances. None of these facts about Andi are due to the presence of weird factors like guns to her head or manipulation of evil neuroscientists or a bizarre network of other attitudes like thinking that “three” means six. (See also my post on Mad Belief.)

Two: Tomorrow, aliens from Beta Hydri arrive. The BetaHydrians show all signs of valuing molybdenum over gold. They will trade ounce for ounce, with no apparent hesitation. When they list metal prices in their currency, they list the price of molybdenum higher than the price of gold. They learn English, and then they say things like “in BetaHydrian culture, molybdenum is more valuable than gold.” And so forth. Suppose, too, that BetaHydrians have conscious experiences. There is a kind of swelling they feel in their shoulders when they obtain things for which they have been striving. They translate this feeling into English as “the pleasure of success”. They experience this swelling feeling when they successfully trade away their gold for molybdenum. Like us, they have eyes sensitive to the visible spectrum, and like us they have visual imagery. They entertain visual imagery of returning to Beta Hydri loaded with molybdenum and of the accolades they will receive. Pleasurable feelings accompany such imagery. They plan ways to obtain molybdenum, at the cost of gold if that’s what it takes. They judge other BetaHydrians’ molybdenum-for-gold trades as wisely done. Etc. Ordinary people around Earth find it eminently natural to say that BetaHydrians value molybdenum over gold. But we know nothing yet about BetaHydrian biology or cognitive architecture, except that whatever it is can support this pattern of action, thought, and feeling. Whatever Architectural Condition C is, if we can coherently conceive its coming apart from the dispositional patterns above, the patterns characteristic of valuing molybdenum over gold, then suppose Architectural Condition C is not met. If we may conceive the physically impossible, we might even imagine that the BetaHydrians robustly, intrinsically, durably, and non-accidentally exhibit these behavioral and cognitive and phenomenological patterns, across a wide range of possible worlds, despite being made entirely of undifferentiated balsa wood. (See also my post on Betelgeusian Beeheads.)

If we are at liberty to choose an approach to the attitudes that is practically useful and that gets right what we care about in ascribing attitudes, we should choose an approach that says that BetaHydrians value molybdenum over gold and that Andi does not believe that giraffes are born six feet tall. The lived patterns are what matters, not, except derivatively, the underlying architecture.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Speaking at Harvard and Tufts

If you're in the Boston area, you're welcome to come to my talk at Harvard tomorrow (Thursday) and/or at Tufts on Friday.

Thursday Sep 13, 4 pm: "The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind", Harvard University, Emerson Hall Room 305.

Friday Sep 14, 4 pm: "If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious", Tufts University (Neuphi group), 1 Braker Hall.

I'll also be attending Harvard's workshop on belief on Saturday, which looks very interesting!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Forgetting as an Unwitting Confession of Your Values

I woke this morning to find my Facebook feed full of reminders to "never forget" the September 11 terrorist attacks. I am reminded of the Jewish community's insistence that we keep vivid the memory of the Holocaust. It says something about a person's values, I think, what that person thinks worth striving to vividly remember -- a grudge, a harm, a treasured moment, a loved one now gone, an error or lesson.

What we remember says, perhaps, more about us than we would want. Forgetfulness is an unwitting confession of our values. The Nazi Adolf Eichmann, in Hannah Arendt's famous portrayal of him, had little memory of his decisions about shipping thousands of Jews off to their deaths, but he did remember in detail his small social triumphs with superiors in the Nazi hierarchy. He vividly remembered the notable occasion, for example, when he was permitted to lounge around by a fireplace with Reinhard Heyrich, watching the Nazi leader smoke and drink (Arendt 1963, p. 114). Eichmann's failures and successes of memory are more eloquent and accurate testimony of his values than any of his outward avowals.

I remember obscure little arguments in philosophy papers if they are relevant to an essay I am working on, but I can't seem to keep track of the parents of my children's friends. Some of us remember insults and others forget them; some remember the exotic foods they ate on vacation, others the buildings they saw, others the wildlife, and still others hardly anything specific at all.

From the leavings of memory and forgetfulness we could create a nearly complete map, I think, of a person's values. What you don't even see -- the subtle sadness in a colleague's face? -- and what you might briefly see but don't react to or retain, is in some sense not part of the world shaped for you by your interests and values. Others with different values will remember a very different series of events.

Michelangelo is widely quoted as having said that to make David he simply removed from the stone everything that was not David. Remove from your life everything you forget; what is left is you.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Has Civilization Made Moral Progress? Sketch of an Empirical Test

From a certain perspective, current liberal Western civilization seems to be a moral pinnacle. We have rejected slavery. We have substantially de-legitimized aggressive warfare. We have made huge progress in advancing the welfare of children. We have made huge progress toward gender and racial equality. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker says he is prepared to call our recent ancestors "morally retarded" (p. 658). Imagine how we would react if a Westerner today were seriously to endorse a set of views that would not have been radical in 1800: denying women the vote (or maybe even advocating a return to monarchy), viewing slavery and twelve-hour days of child labor in coal mines as legitimate business enterprises, advocating military conquest for the sake of glory, etc. "Morally retarded" might seem a fair assessment!

From another perspective, though, it appears almost inevitable that the average person in any culture will see his or her own culture's values as morally superior. Suppose that the average person in Culture 1 endorses values A, B, C, and D, the average person in Culture 2 endorses values A, B, -C, and E, and the average person in Culture 3 endorses values A, -B, D, and F. The average person from Culture 1 will think, "Well the average person in my culture has A, B, C, and D right! The people in culture 2 have C wrong and really should pay attention to D rather than E, while the people in Culture 3 have B wrong and should attend to C rather than F. So my culture's values are superior." If Culture 1 is temporally more recent than Cultures 2 and 3, then our average person from Culture 1 can laud the change in values as "progress".

The problem is, of course, that it might not be progress at all, but rather only a preference for local values. Call this the Local Pinnacle Illusion. Someone from the past might suffer the same illusion looking forward at us, condemning (say) our liberal Western neglect of proper class and gender role distinctions, our relative irreligiosity, and our relative tolerance of homosexuality, masturbation, divorce, and moneylending -- calling the changes "decadence" rather than progress.

The question then is whether there's a good way to tell whether those of us with a Pinkeresque preference for contemporary liberal values are merely victims of the Local Pinnacle Illusion, or whether we really have made huge moral progress in the last few centuries or millennia. I've been thinking about whether there might be a way to explore this empirically, using the history of philosophy.

Here's my thought: The temporal picture of progress and the temporal picture of a random walk look very different. If, say, rational reflection over the very long haul tends to guide us ever closer to right moral principles, as Pinker thinks, then issue-by-issue we ought to see opinion changes over the very long haul that look like progressive trends of moral philosophical discovery. If, in contrast, all that's going on is the Local Pinnacle Illusion, trends should be relatively short-lived, due to local cultural pressures, and not consistently directional over the very long haul.

Suppose we chose twelve issues that have been broadly discussed since ancient times and that in at least some eras -- not necessarily our own -- are regarded as morally important issues. If we could chart philosophers' opinions on these issues quantitatively (e.g., from strong support for democracy to strong support for monarchy with moderate views in the middle, from strong support for gender-neutral role expectations to strong support for gender-specific role expectations, etc.), using -1 and +1 to mark the average position in the historically most extreme eras for each pole of each issue, then on a random-walk picture, we ought to see something like this pattern among those issues:

I have assumed here a random starting spread from -1 to 1 and a random fluctuation from -0.3 to +0.3 in each successive period; then I renormalized the maximum value of each run to 1 and the minimum to -1. The result is basically a noisy walk, with extreme values as likely in the middle as at the ends.

On the other hand, if there's moral progress through philosophical reflection, the chart ought to look more like this:
For this chart, I assumed a progress factor, negative or positive, of one-third of the spread of the random fluctuation (i.e., adding or subtracting 0.1 to each step, in addition to the -0.3 to +0.3 random fluctuation). For the "toward 0" positions, I assumed positive incremental pressure when the previous period value was (absolutely) negative and negative incremental pressure when the previous period was positive. As with the previous graph, at the end I normalized the maximum and minimum values to +1 and -1.

As you can see, many more moral issues show consistent trend directions over time and the most extreme positions tend to be held at the beginning and the end of the analysis period. The latter pattern follows from the fact that even if the initial historical position at time zero is by some objective standard moderate, as long as it is not spot on the target number, the trend over time should be roughly unidirectional toward the target number; and then the normalizing will make that initial position look extreme.

Two caveats and a final note:

Caveat 1: It will of course be difficult to code this objectively, and it's quite possible that the final outcome will vary depending on hard-to-justify coding decisions.

Caveat 2: My guess is that if we were to chart moral and political positions from the 1600s to the present we would see a chart somewhat like the second (progressive) chart, whereas if we were to chart equal time intervals back to the ancient West, we would see a more random-looking chart like the first. So which time period should be examined? A case for choosing the shorter period might be that it is only after the printing press and widespread communication of philosophical ideas that we should expect to see rationally-driven moral progress. However a consideration against choosing the shorter period is this: There might be cultural factors, such as industrialization and capitalization, that have created consistent unidirectional pressures on moral and political norms, independently of the rational case for adopting those norms; and for that reason the broader the temporal span the better.

Final note: We might be able to construct similar charts to evaluate whether there has been progress in metaphysics.

(By the way, see here for another post of mine on Pinker's intellectualist liberalism.)