Thursday, August 15, 2019

Why I Write Weird Stuff, Like "Kant Meets Cyberpunk"

My paper "Kant Meets Cyberpunk" has finally appeared (published version, manuscript version). Yay!

I imagine someone asking, Eric, why do you write such weird stuff?

In "Kant Meets Cyberpunk", I entertain the possibility that we are artificial intelligences living inside a computer simulation. But unlike computer simulations as they are typically conceived, the computer that implements our reality is a non-physical thing, an immaterial spirit named Angel. Angel can implement any Turing-equivalent machine by sadly humming while shifting back and forth along an imagined musical score.

If that were the nature of our reality, transcendental idealism would be true. Spatiality would be a property not of things as they are in themselves, but rather the form of our empirical perceptions of things; and beneath the familiar world of empirical appearances would be a more fundamental reality that is unknowable to us. (This isn't full-blown Kantian transcendental idealism, but it knocks on Kant's door.)

Now, I suspect that you'll agree that this view is weird. I hope that is also fun, in a nerdy sort of way. Philosophers should celebrate weirdness and fun!

The weird and fun are intrinsically valuable. They are part of the richness and delightfulness of the world. But philosophical weirdness is especially useful, I think. Philosophical weirdness pushes against the boundaries of what we normally take for granted about the fundamental values and structures of the world.

The weird undercuts our expectations. And if it's also fun, it does it in a joyful, interesting way. This is true both in philosophy and in ordinary life. "She wore that to work? How weird and fun!"... and suddenly a new possibility is open. You could wear something weird too.

Philosophy has a wide range of possible functions. Different people might reasonably want different things from it. You might want the secure, sensible answer to an important question, for example. Or you might want to know what ideas were culturally influential in the past. Or you might want an ethical system that confirms your prejudices so that you can bludgeon your foes with formidable argumentation.

What I want most from philosophy, I find, is a sense of wonder. I want to challenge what I previously thought I knew. I want to feel awed by the strangeness, complexity, and incomprehensibility of the world. I want a philosophy that opens up new possibilities for me and induces interesting doubt, rather than one that primarily seeks to close possibilities by settling definitively on the right answer.

Right answers are great in a way, too, of course, and I wouldn't toss one away if I find it has landed in my hands. But I suspect we discover right answers much less in philosophy than we think we do, and thinking one has found the right answer typically incites a different mood than wonder -- a mood that is already abundant and doesn't need to be especially encouraged.

We are almost certainly not artificial intelligences living inside of a Turing-machine-equivalent angel sadly humming. But I think if we can insert that weird, fun idea into our possibility space, however tiny and remote the possibility, that opens up something philosophically valuable. The range of ways our (or at least someone's) world could be is wider and weirder than we might have previously assumed, and that's wonderful.

[image source]



On Trusting Your Sense of Fun (Jan 23, 2013)

Skepticism, Godzilla, and the Artificial Computerized Many-Branching You (Nov 15, 2013)

Common Sense, Science Fiction, and Weird, Uncharitable History of Philosophy (Apr 21, 2017)

How to Build an Immaterial Computer (Sep 25, 2017)

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Top Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazines 2019

Since 2014, I've compiled an annual ranking of science fiction and fantasy magazines, based on prominent awards nominations and "best of" placements over the past ten years.

Below is my list for 2019. (For all previous lists, see here.)

Method and Caveats:

(1.) Only magazines are included (online or in print), not anthologies, standalones, or series.

(2.) I gave each magazine one point for each story nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Eugie, or World Fantasy Award in the past ten years; one point for each story appearance in any of the Dozois, Horton, Strahan, Clarke, or Adams "Year's Best" anthologies; and half a point for each story appearing in the short story or novelette category of the annual Locus Recommended list.

(3.) I am not attempting to include the horror / dark fantasy genre, except as it appears incidentally on the list.

(4.) Prose only, not poetry.

(5.) I'm not attempting to correct for frequency of publication or length of table of contents.

(6.) I'm also not correcting for a magazine's only having published during part of the ten-year period. Reputations of defunct magazines slowly fade, and sometimes they are restarted. Reputations of new magazines take time to build.

(7.) I take the list down to 1.5 points.

(8.) I welcome corrections.

(9.) I confess to some ambivalence about rankings of this sort. They reinforce the prestige hierarchy, and they compress interesting complexity into a single scale. However, the prestige of a magazine is a socially real phenomenon that deserves to be tracked, especially for the sake of outsiders and newcomers who might not otherwise know what magazines are well regarded by insiders when considering, for example, where to submit.


1. Asimov's (206.5 points)
2. Clarkesworld (163.5)
3. (162)
4. Fantasy & Science Fiction (142.5)
5. Lightspeed (116)
6. Subterranean (73) (ceased 2014)
7. Analog (56.5)
8. Uncanny (54) (started 2014)
9. Strange Horizons (49.5)
10. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (48)
11. Interzone (43)
12. Apex (28.5)
13. Fantasy Magazine (24.5) (merged into Lightspeed 2012, occasional special issues thereafter)
14. Nightmare (18.5) (started 2012)
15. Fireside (10) (started 2012)
16t. Postscripts (9) (ceased short fiction in 2014)
16t. The New Yorker (9)
18. Slate / Future Tense (7.5)
19t. Black Static (7)
19t. Realms of Fantasy (7) (ceased 2011)
21t. McSweeney's (6)
21t. Shimmer (6) (ceased 2018)
23t. Electric Velocipede (5.5) (ceased 2013)
23t. Sirenia Digest (5.5)
23t. The Dark (5.5) (started 2013)
26t. Conjunctions (5)
26t. GigaNotoSaurus (5)
26t. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (5)
29t. Fiyah (4.5) (started 2017)
29t. Intergalactic Medicine Show (4.5) (ceased 2019)
29t. Omni (4.5) (classic science/SF magazine, restarted 2017)
29t. Terraform (4.5) (started 2014)
29t. Tin House (4.5)
34. Boston Review (4)
35t. Cosmos (3)
35t. Helix SF (3) (ceased 2008)
35t. Jim Baen's Universe (3) (ceased 2010)
38t. Buzzfeed (2.5)
38t. Harper's (2.5)
38t. Kaleidotrope (2.5)
38t. Lone Star Stories (2.5) (ceased 2009)
38t. Matter (2.5) (started 2011)
38t. Paris Review (2.5)
38t. Weird Tales (2.5) (ceased 2014)
45t. Abyss & Apex (2)
45t. Augur (2) (started 2018)
45t. B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog (2)
45t. Beloit Fiction Journal (2)
45t. Mothership Zeta (2) (started 2015)
50t. Black Gate (1.5)
50t. Daily Science Fiction (1.5)
50t. e-flux journal (1.5)
50t. Flurb (1.5) (ceased 2012)


(1.) The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney's, Conjunctions, Harper's, Beloit Fiction Journal, Boston Review, and Paris Review are literary magazines that occasionally publish science fiction or fantasy. Cosmos, Slate, and Buzzfeed are popular magazines that publish a bit of science fiction on the side. e-flux is a wide-ranging arts journal. The remaining magazines focus on the F/SF genre.

(2.) It's also interesting to consider a three-year window. Here are those results, down to six points:

1. (67.5)
2. Clarkesworld (63.5)
3. Lightspeed (51.5)
4. Uncanny (48)
5. Asimov's (47)
6. F&SF (36.5)
7. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (29.5)
8. Analog (17.5)
9. Apex (14)
10. Strange Horizons (14)
11. Nightmare (12)
12. Fireside (10.5)
13. Interzone (8.5)
14. Slate / Future Tense (8)

The classic "big three" print SF magazines are Asimov's, F&SF, and Analog. The three-year list makes clearer how these paid-subscription magazines have been increasingly challenged in importance by a trio of free online magazines, all founded 2006-2010:, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed -- plus relative newcomer Uncanny, founded in 2014.

These three-year results also confirm, I think, my decision to use a ten-year window. For example, my impression from chatting with people in the field is that Asimov's is still arguably the most prestigious venue in the mind of the median SF insider, though increasingly challenged by Clarkesworld and -- just what the ten-year results say.

(3.) Looking back on my original 2014 list, I'm struck by these differences:

(a.) More magazines are represented in 2019. Twenty-nine magazines appear on the 2014 list; fifty-four appear now. Now, that's not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, since my methodology changed in 2015 to include the Locus list and go down to 1.5 points. However, the more comparable 2015 list still only contains forty magazines. Although several magazines have closed since 2014, overall there are now more opportunities to publish in venues that are regularly read by Locus editors and Best-of editors and awards nominators. I credit the rise of online magazines, which are less expensive to publish.

(b.) The falloff between the top-ranked and the mid-ranked magazines is less steep in 2019 than it was in 2014. For example, in 2014, the top ranked magazine (Asimov's) earned 8 times as many points as the tenth ranked magazine (Lightspeed). In 2019, the 1st:10th ratio was only 4 to 1. I'm inclined to credit, again, the rise of free online magazines. The rise of such magazines means that publication outside of the bigger circulation print magazines doesn't doom your story to obscurity. This makes it easier for authors to choose other magazines that they personally like for whatever reason. Another factor might be better communication among authors, allowing authors to find magazines that are a good fit for their stories.

(c.) The relative decline of Asimov's and F&SF. Both are still terrific magazines, of course! But in 2014 they were far ahead of all other contenders: 197 and 146 points respectively, while no other magazine had even a third as many points. F&SF is now 4th. Asimov's is still 1st, but based on the past three years' data, it looks quite possible that Clarkesworld or will soon claim the #1 spot.

(4.) Left out of these numbers are some terrific podcast venues such as the Escape Artists' podcasts (Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders), Drabblecast, and StarShipSofa. None of these qualify for my list by existing criteria, but podcasts are also important venues.

(5.) Check out Nelson Kingfisher's analysis of acceptance rates and response times for most of the magazines above.

(6.) Other lists: The SFWA qualifying markets list is a list of "pro" science fiction and fantasy venues based on pay rates and track records of strong circulation. is a regularly updated list of markets, divided into categories based on pay rate.

[image source; or check out the reboot of Amazing Stories, which I hope will soon qualify for my list!]

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Bleg: Syllabi for Courses on Philosophy and Science Fiction

If you teach a class on philosophy and science fiction, I would love to see your syllabus!

Here's why. Rich Horton and I are working on an anthology of previously published science fiction stories. Working title: Best Philosophical Science Fiction in the History of All Earth. We want to live up to the ambitious title! We want to collect the most philosophically interesting science fiction stories ever written, in any time period, from any culture.

One starting point is this list I compiled of about 500 recommendations of philosophically interesting speculative fiction. Syllabae from courses on philosophy and science fiction would be another terrific starting point. Furthermore, since we're hoping that the anthology will used in courses on philosophy and science fiction, we'd like a sense what stories people are already successfully using in their teaching.

Between Rich's skill and experience as a science fiction editor and mine as a philosopher deeply engaged in science fiction, I think we have a chance to put together a really terrific anthology that comes somewhat close to living up to the ambition of our title. But we could use your help. Spread the word and send syllabae to eschwitz at domain!

We would also value recommendations and suggestions as comments to this post.

[Image: Le Guin's Omelas. Of course we'll include this story!]

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Industrial-Grade Realism about Beliefs That P

I favor a dispositional approach to belief according to which believing something resembles having a personality trait. You believe, or you have a personality trait, to the extent you have a dispositional profile that approximates a certain ideal. To be extraverted, for example, is to be disposed, in general, to enjoy parties, to like meeting new people, to be talkative in social contexts, etc. Similarly, to believe that women and men are equally academically intelligent is to be disposed, in general, to affirm that it is so, to expect academically intelligent remarks from women no less than men, to be as ready to hire a woman as a man for a job requiring academic intelligence, etc. To believe that there is beer in the fridge is to be disposed, in general, to act and react beer-in-the-fridge-ishly (going to the fridge if one wants a beer, etc.).

(Historically, dispositional approaches are rooted in the behaviorist tradition, but my own dispositionalism focuses not just on behavioral dispositions but also phenomenal dispositions [e.g., not reacting with a feeling of surprise] and cognitive dispositions [e.g., engaging in a pattern of conscious reasoning that only makes sense on the background assumption that P is true].)

My view is a kind of soft instrumentalism: The belief that P is not some thing in the head. Rather, when we attribute a belief, we are using a shorthand that approximately captures, in Daniel Dennett's phrase, a "real pattern" in a complex landscape of potential actions and reactions. Believing that P no more requires a real stored representation with the content "P" than being an extravert requires a switch flipped to "E" in your personality-settings box.

There's an alternative view that I will label industrial-grade realism (again adapting a phrase from Dennett). According to industrial-grade realism, believing that P normally requires that a representation with the content "P" be stored somewhere in the functional architecture of the mind, ready to be activated and deployed when one does belief-that-P-ish things like, in our examples, criticizing a colleague's apparent sexism or strolling over to the fridge for a beer. Industrial-grade realism seems to undergird Jake Quilty-Dunn and Eric Mandelbaum's recent critique of my dispositionalist account, and was perhaps most prominently advocated by Jerry Fodor (e.g., in his 1987 book).

To my ear, the following four theses seem to be implicit in the industrial-grade realism of Fodor, Quilty-Dunn, and Mandelbaum. If not, I'd be interested to see textual evidence that they reject them.

Presence. In normal (non-"tacit") cases, belief that P requires that a representation with the content P be present somewhere in the mind.

Discreteness. In normal (non-"marginal") cases, a representation P will be either discretely present in or discretely absent from a cognitive system or subsystem.

Kinematics. Rational actions arise from the causal interaction of beliefs that P and desires that Q, in virtue of their specific contents P and Q.

Specificity. Rational action arises from the activation or retrieval of some specific sets of beliefs and desires P1…n and Q1…n and not from possibly closely logically related beliefs and desires P'1…m and Q'1…m.

[Beliefs that P, hard at work]

These four theses combined constitute a commitment to a very specific type of cognitive architecture. This architecture seems to me to be rather in keeping with the old-fashioned cognitive science and computer science of the 1970s and 1980s -- so it's easy to see why Fodor would have been attracted to it. It fits less easily, however, with deep learning, statistical approaches to memory of visual ensembles, and other recent approaches according to which cognition proceeds by means of processes that are highly complex, not especially language-like, and don't employ representational structures that map neatly onto the types of belief contents that we normally attribute to people (like "there is beer in the fridge").

Let me pose, then, this trilemma for industrial-grade realists:

(1.) Commit to the four theses and the seemingly old-fashioned cognitive architecture. Downside: This would be a risky empirical bet against some powerful recent trends.

(2.) Allow the possibility that the underlying representations are very different in structure and content than "women and men are intellectually equal" and "there's beer in the fridge". Downside: It is no longer clear what the causal story is supposed to be, about which realism is true. Heading to the fridge for beer because one believes there is beer in the fridge is now no longer explained by accessing a representation with the content "there is beer in the fridge". Furthermore, closely related views might also require major revision. Having specific propositional contents that can be verbally expressed and shared among people is part of the picture behind, for example, Fodor's anti-holism (see also my critique of Elizabeth Camp). Specifically P and not-P contents also seems central to Mandelbaum's contradictory-belief account of implicit bias.

(3.) Thread the needle: Go for something weaker and less architecturally commissive than the four theses, yet strong enough to be a substantive empirical commitment to the real causal power of representations of P when we believe that P. Downsides: As far as I can tell, both of the above.

The dispositional approach to attitudes is superficial in a certain respect: It doesn't commit to any underlying architectural implementation. As long you have the appropriate dispositional patterns of action and reaction, you believe, whatever unintuitive haywire architecture lies beneath. This superficiality is a virtue, not a vice. In cognitive science it leave questions open which should remain open about the underlying architecture, and it keeps the focus on what we philosophers and ordinary belief-ascribers do and should care about in thinking about belief: how we act in and react to the world.

[image source]