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!

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