Monday, January 20, 2020

Confucius (Kongzi) on Loving Learning

The one virtue that Confucius (Kongzi) claims for himself is that he loves learning (hao xue, 好學). For example,

The Master said, "In any village of ten households there are surely those who are as dutiful or trustworthy as I am, but there is no one who matches my love for learning" (5.28, Slingerland trans.).

It is also clear that he thinks a love of learning is rare and precious:

Duke Ai asked, "Who among your disciples might be said to love learning?"

Confucius answered, "There was one named Yan Hui who loved learning. He never misdirected his anger and never made the same mistake twice. Unfortunately, his allotted lifespan was short, and he has passed away. Now that he is gone, there are none who really love learning -- at least, I have yet to hear of one (6.3).

The Master said, "Be sincerely trustworthy and love learning, and hold fast to the good Way until death...." (8.13).

Last week after class, one of my students who had enthusiastically read the Confucius ahead of schedule told me that he too loved learning. Don't lots of university students -- at least the ones who aspire to someday be professors? Is the love of learning really as rare as Confucius says?

The answer, of course, is that when Kongzi talks about "loving learning" he means something more unusual than enjoying reading scholarly works. What exactly does he mean? And, especially, is there a way of understanding this phrase that solves the textual puzzle of understanding the value and rarity of loving learning?

The phrase hao xue 好學 appears eight times in the Analects. Perhaps the most revealing use is this:

The Master said, "The gentleman is not motivated by the desire for a full belly or a comfortable abode. He is simply scrupulous in behavior and careful in speech, drawing near to those who possess the Way in order to be set straight by them. Surely this and nothing else is what it means to love learning (1.14; cf. 17.8).

This reminds me of two other passages:

[After a story in which someone wrongly accuses Confucius of failing to understand ritual] Confucius said, "How fortunate I am! If I happen to make a mistake, others are sure to inform me." (7.31).

The Master said, "When walking with two other people, I will always find a teacher among them. I focus on those who are good and seek to emulate them, and focus on those who are bad in order to be reminded of what needs to be changed in myself" (7.22).

Although xue 學 seems sometimes merely to be book learning or the learning of skills or crafts (11.3, 13.4, 17.9), here's my guess about what is required for the genuine love of learning in Confucius's sense: You must love to be shown, or to discover, your moral faults in order that you might correct them.

That, I think, is rare indeed.

I, for one, would much rather have my faults ignored! Only with a painful and explicit act of will can I appreciate it when someone points out my moral deficiencies. I don't love being morally criticized, though I can acknowledge that it is probably good for me. Like most, I delight emotionally in appearing to myself and others to be good, but my heart sinks when I'm given the corrective feedback necessary for actually becoming morally better.

I imagine Confucius and his favorite disciple Yan Hui feeling quite differently. Kongzi is not, I think, being sarcastic (as he might appear on first read), when he says that he is fortunate in having others always ready to point out his mistakes. I imagine Confucius and Yan Hui genuinely delighting in corrective moral feedback, so they can improve and never make the same mistake twice! This love of moral criticism is what was, perhaps, the rare and special thing they possessed which made them so inspiring and which constituted the root of their difference from the rest of us.

Suppose you could cultivate this type of love of learning in yourself. Wow! Wouldn't moral improvement almost inevitably follow? Maybe, even, after 105 years of such learning, you could be free of major faults.*

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[*] To get this time estimate, I have added the 55 years of learning that Kongzi attributes to himself in 2.4 with the fifty more years of learning that in 7.17 he says he would need to be free of major faults.

[image source]

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

How to Be an Awesome First-Year Graduate Student (or a Very Advanced Undergrad)

Today my son David leaves for Oxford, where he'll spend Hilary and Trinity terms as an exchange student in psychology. He is in his third year as a Cognitive Science major at Vassar College, soaring toward grad school in cognitive science or psychology. He is already beginning to think like a graduate student. Here's some advice I offer him and others around the transition from undergraduate to graduate study:

(1.) Do fewer things better. I lead with this advice because it was a lesson I had to learn and relearn and that I still struggle with. In your classes, three A pluses are better than five As. It's better to have two professors who say you are the most impressive student they've seen in several years than to have four professors who say you are one of the three best students this year. It's better to have one project that approaches publishable quality than three projects that earn an ordinary A. Whether it's admission to top PhD programs, winning a grant, or winning a job, academia is generally about standing out for unusual excellence in one or two endeavors. Similarly for publishing research articles: No one is interested to hear what the world's 100th-best expert on X has to say about X. Find a topic narrow enough, and command it so thoroughly, that you can be among the world's five top experts on X. The earlier in your career you are, the narrower the X has to be for such expertise to be achievable. But even as an advanced undergrad or early grad student, it's not impossible to find interesting but very narrow X's. Find that X, then kill it.

(2.) Trust your sense of fun. (See my longer discussion of this here and in my recent book.) Some academic topics you'll find fun. They will call to you. You'll want to chase after them. Others will bore you. Now sometimes you have to do boring stuff, true. But if you devote yourself mostly to what's boring, you'll lose your passion, you'll procrastinate, and your eyes will glaze over while you're reading so that you only retain a small portion of it. There may be no short-term external reward for chasing down the fun stuff, but do it anyway. This is what keeps your candle lit. It's where you'll do your best learning. Eventually, what you learn by chasing fun will ignite an exciting project or give you a fresh angle on what would otherwise have been a bland project.

(3.) Ask for favors from those above you in the hierarchy. This can seem unintuitive, and it can feel difficult if you are charmingly shy and modest. Professors want to help excellent students, and they see it as part of their duty to do so. But it's easy for professors to be passive about it, especially given the number of demands on their time. So it pays to ask. Would they be willing to write you a letter of support? Would they be willing to read a draft? Would they be willing to meet with you? To introduce you to so-and-so? To let you chair or comment at some event? To let you pilot an empirical research project with some of their lab resources? Be ready for no (or for no reply). No one will be offended if you ask gently and politely. Ultimately, if you are assertive in this way, you will get much more support and assistance than if you wait for professors to reach out to you.

(4.) Think beyond the requirements. Don't only read what you are required to read. Don't only write on and research what you are required to write on and research. Actively go beyond the requirements. If you're taking a seminar and topic X is interesting, go seek out more things on topic X, read them, and then chat with the professor about them. If you come across fun issue Y (see 2, above), chase it down and read up on it. You might be surprised how rare it is for students, before they start researching for their dissertation (or maybe master's thesis), to independently pursue issues beyond what is assigned. This can be part of doing fewer things better (1 above). If, for example, you are taking only three classes, instead of five, you have the time to go beyond the assignments. If you then chat in an informed way with the professor (ask it as a favor: 3 above) about the six articles you just discovered and read about this particular sub-issue that provoked your interest (2 above), you will stand out as an unusually passionate and active student. And this research then might become the seed of future work.

(5.) A hoop is just a hoop. The exception to point 1 above is for hoops you don't care about, especially if they are with professors you don't plan to work with long term. Don't let the more annoying requirements bog you down. The important thing is clearing time to be excellent in the things you care about most.

(6.) Draw bright lines between work time and relaxation time. With a standard 8-to-5 job, you clock out and you're done. Then you can go home and hang out with friends and family, play games, go for a hike, whatever, and you needn't feel guilty about it. In academia, there are no such built-in bright lines between work time and relaxation time. One common result is that people in academia often have this nagging feeling, when they are relaxing, that they probably should be working instead, or that they should get back to working soon. And then when they're working, some part of them feels resentful that they haven't really had enough relaxation time, so they slip in relaxation time through various forms of procrastination and inefficiency. The result is a constant dissatisfied state of half-working, half-not-working. This is no good. Much better is to figure out how much you can realistically work or intend to work, then carve out the time. During the time for working, focus. Don't let yourself procrastinate and get distracted. And then when it's time to stop, stop. Although sometimes people regrettably end up in situations where they can't avoid overwork, unless you are in such a situation, remember that you deserve breaks and will profit from them. You will better enjoy and better profit from those breaks, however, if you first earn them.

Good luck in Oxford, David. I hope it's terrific!

[image source]

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Why Is It So Difficult to Imagine In-Between Cases of Conscious Experience?

I'm reading Peter Carruthers's newest book, Human and Animal Minds. I was struck by this passage:

In general, [phenomenal consciousness / conscious experience] is definitely present or definitely absent. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what it would be like for a mental state to be partially present in one's awareness. Items and events in the world, of course, can be objects of merely partial awareness. Someone who witnesses a mugging... might say "It all happened so fast I was only partly aware of what was going on." But this is about how much of the event one is conscious of.... The experience in question is nevertheless determinately present.... Similarly, if one is struggling to make out a shape in the dark as one walks home, still it seems, nevertheless, to be determinately -- unequivocally -- like something to have a visual experience of indeterminate shape.... I conclude that we can't make sense of degrees of phenomenal consciousness (2019, p. 20-23, bold added).

In my draft paper, Is There Something It's Like to Be a Garden Snail?, I also discuss this issue, expressing ambivalence between the perspective Carruthers articulates here and what I call the "bird's eye" view, according to which it's very plausible that phenomenal consciousness, like almost everything else in this world, admits of in-between, gray-area cases.

My main hesitation about allowing in-between cases of phenomenal consciousness (what-it's-like-ness, conscious experience; see my definition here, if you want to get technical), is that I can't really imagine what it would be like to be in a kind-of-yes / kind-of-no conscious state. As Carruthers emphasizes, imagining even a tiny little smear of indeterminate, momentary consciousness is already imagining a case in which a small amount of consciousness is discretely present.

But this way of articulating the problem maybe already helps me see past the puzzle. Or at least, that's my conjecture today!

For analogy, consider this following argument by George Berkeley, the famous idealist philosopher who thought that no finite object could exist except as an idea in someone's mind (and thus that material objects don't exist). In this dialogue, Philonous is generally understood to represent Berkeley's view:

Philonous: How say you, Hylas, can you see a thing which is at the same time unseen?

Hylas: No, that were a contradiction.

P: Is it not as great a contradiction to talk of conceiving a thing which is unconceived?

H: It is.

P: The tree or house, therefore, which you think of is conceived by you?

H: How should it be otherwise?

P: And what is conceived is surely in the mind?

H: Without question, that which is conceived is in the mind.

P: How then came you to say you conceived a house or tree existing independent and out of all minds whatsoever?

H: That was I own an oversight....

P: You acknowledge then that you cannot possibly conceive how any one corporeal sensible thing should exist otherwise than in a mind?

H: I do.

(Berkeley 1713/1965, p. 140-141).

Therefore, see, there are no mind-independent, material things! Whoa.

Few philosophers are convinced by Berkeley's argument, and there are several ways of thinking about how it might fail. One way of thinking about its failure is to analogize it to the following dialogue:

A: Can you visually imagine something that exists but has no shape?

B: No, I cannot visually imagine such a thing. Everything I visually imagine has at least some vague, hazy shape.

A: Therefore, everything that exists must have a shape.

The problem with A's argument is that he is assuming a certain kind of psychological test for the reality of a phenomenon -- in this case, visual imagination. Because of how the test operates, everything that passes the test has property A -- in this case, a shape. But the test isn't a good one: There are things that might fail the test (fail to be visually imaginable) and yet nonetheless exist (souls, numbers, democracy, dispositions, time?) or which might be visually imaginable but with shape as only a property of the image rather than of the thing itself (if, for example, you visually imagine a ballot box when you think about democracy).

In Berkeley's argument, the test for existence appears to be being conceived by me (or Hylas), and the contingent property that all things that pass the test have is being conceived by someone. However, we non-idealists can all agree that being conceived of by someone is only a contingent fact about things like trees, and thus we see straightaway that the test must be flawed. From Hylas's failure to conceive of something he is not conceiving of, it does not follow that everything that exists must be conceived of by someone.

[ETA: See update at the end of the post]

Okay, so that was a long preface to my main idea. Here's the idea.

In the process of imagining a type of conscious experience, we construct a new conscious experience: the experience of imagining that experience. This act of imagination, in order to be experienced by us as a successful imagination, must involve, as a part, a conscious experience which is analogous to the experience that we are targeting. Call this the occurrent analog. For example, if we are trying to imagine what it's like to see red, we form, as the occurrent analog, a visual image that of redness. If we are trying to imagine what it would be like to see an object hazily in the dark, the occurrent analog a visual image of a hazy object.

We will not feel that we have succeeded in the imaginative task unless we succeed in creating a conscious experience that is (in our judgment) an appropriate occurrent analog of the target conscious experience. This will require that the occurrent analog be determinately a conscious experience, for example, a determinately conscious imagery experience of redness.

We will then notice that always, when we try to imagine a conscious experience, either we fail in the imaginative exercise, or we imagine a determinately conscious experience. From this general fact about testing, we might reach -- illegitimately -- the general conclusion that conscious experience is always either determinately present or absent. We think there can be no in-between cases, because we cannot imagine such in-between cases successfully enough. But this is no more a sound conclusion than is Berkeley's conclusion that all finite objects must be conceived by someone or than my toy conclusion that everything that exists must have a shape. The lack of successfully imagined in-between cases of consciousness is a feature of the imaginative test rather than a feature of reality.

[image source]

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Update, Jan. 10

Margaret Atherton and Samuel Rickless have suggested that I have misinterpreted Berkeley's argument in an uncharitable way. The central point of the post does not depend on whether the bad argument I attributed to Berkeley is in fact Berkeley's argument -- it's merely meant as a model of a bad argument, where the fallacy is clear, which can be applied to the case of imagining experiences that are in-between conscious and nonconscious.

Rickless's interpretation, from his book on Berkeley, is that this passage fits with what he calls Berkeley's Master Argument:

This, then, is Berkeley’s Master Argument (where X is an arbitrary mind and T is an arbitrary sensible object):
(1) X conceives that T exists unconceived. [Assumption for reductio]
(2) If X conceives that T is F, then X conceives T. [Conception Schema]
So, (3) X conceives T. [From 1, 2]
(4) If X conceives T, then T is an idea. [Idea Schema]
So, (5) T is an idea. [From 3, 4]
(6) If T is an idea, then it is impossible that T exists unconceived. [Nature of Ideas]
So, (7) It is impossible that T exists unconceived. [From 5, 6]
(8) If it is impossible that p, then it is impossible to conceive that p. [Impossibility entails Inconceivability]
So,(9) It is impossible to conceive that T exists unconceived. [From 7, 8]
So, (10) X does not conceive that T exists unconceived. [From 9]
So, (11) X does and does not conceive that T exists unconceived. [From 1, 10]

The crucial dubious premise here is that anything that is conceived is an idea (the Idea Schema). Possibly, this still instantiates the general pattern of reasoning that I criticize in this post: the inference from the fact that all X that I conceive of or imagine (in a certain way) have property A to the conclusion at all X have property A (where in this case X is an object and A is the property of being an idea).

Friday, January 03, 2020

New Anthology: Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories

I have been working for several years to build bridges between science fiction and philosophy. Science fiction can, I think, be a way of doing philosophy -- a way of doing philosophy that draws more on imagination, the emotions, and intuitive social cognition than does the typical expository philosophy essay. I've argued that we should see philosophers' paragraph-long thought experiments as intermediate cases in a spectrum from purely abstract propositions on the one end to full-length fictions on the other, and that we ought to utilize the full spectrum in our philosophical thinking.

After almost three years of pitching anthology ideas to presses, finding a taker in Bloomsbury, recruiting authors, then waiting for and editing their submissions, on December 30, Helen De Cruz, Johan De Smedt and I submitted the manuscript of an anthology of mostly new philosophical science fiction stories. We expect the volume to appear in late 2020.

We are delighted by our contributor list! Half are pro or neo-pro science fiction writers and half are professional philosophers with track records of published fiction. All of the stories have philosophical themes and are followed by authors' notes of about 500-1000 words that further explore the themes. And the stories are terrific! I think there might be a Nebula or Hugo nominee or two in here. We've also written a (hopefully) fun introductory dialogue in which fictional versions of Helen, Johan, and I argue about the merits, or not, of science fiction as philosophy.

Below is the full Table of Contents. All the stories are new except for one classic story by Ted Chiang and the Schoenberg story, which won an APA award in a contest run by Helen, Mark Silcox, Meghan Sullivan, and me.

Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories

Bloomsbury Press, forthcoming

Helen De Cruz, Johan De Smedt, and Eric Schwitzgebel — Introductory Dispute Concerning Science Fiction, Philosophy, and the Nutritional Content of Maraschino Cherries


Part I: Expanding the Human

- Eric Schwitzgebel — Introduction to Part I

- Ken Liu — Excerpt from Theuth, an Oral History of Work in the Age of Machine-Assisted Cognition

- Lisa Schoenberg — Adjoiners

- David John Baker — The Intended

- Sofia Samatar — The New Book of the Dead


Part II: What We Owe to Ourselves and Others

- Johan De Smedt — Introduction to Part II

- Aliette de Bodard — Out of the Dragon's Womb

- Wendy Nikel — Whale Fall

- Mark Silcox — Monsters and Soldiers


Part III: Gods and Families

- Helen De Cruz — Introduction to Part III

- Hud Hudson — I, Player in a Demon Tale

- Frances Howard-Snyder — The Eye of the Needle

- Christopher Mark Rose — God on a Bad Night

- Ted Chiang — Hell Is the Absence of God


We can't release the stories in advance -- fiction is different in that way than philosophy. But if you like philosophy and you like science fiction, I predict that you're going to really dig this anthology when it comes out. Stay tuned!

[The image isn't our cover art -- just something fun from Creative Commons]

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Writings of 2019

Every New Year's Day, I post a retrospect of the past year's writings. Here are the retrospects of 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

2019 was another good writing year. May such years keep coming!

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The biggest news is that my third book came out:

If you like this blog, I think you'll like this book, since it is composed of 58 of my favorite blog posts and op-eds (among over a thousand I've published since 2006), revised and updated.


Full-length non-fiction essays appearing in print in 2019:


Full-length non-fiction essays finished and forthcoming:


Non-fiction essays in draft and circulating:

Shorter non-fiction:


Editing work:

    Manuscript delivered: Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories, (with Helen De Cruz and Johan De Smedt). Bloomsbury Press.

Science fiction stories:


Some favorite blog posts: