Friday, March 15, 2019

Should You Defer to Ethical Experts?

Ernest Sosa gave a lovely and fascinating talk yesterday at UC Riverside on the importance of "firsthand intuitive insight" in philosophy. It has me thinking about the extent to which we ought, or ought not, defer to ethical experts when we are otherwise inclined to disagree with their conclusions.

To illustrate the idea of firsthand intuitive insight, Sosa gives two examples. One concerns mathematics. Consider a student who learns that the Pythagorean theorem is true without learning its proof. This student knows that a^2 + b^2 = c^2 but doesn't have any insight into why it's true. Contrast this student with one who masters the proof and consequently does understand why it's true. The second student, but not the first, has firsthand intuitive insight. Sosa's other example is in ethics. One child bullies another. Her mother, seeing the act and seeing the grief in the face of the other child, tells the bullying child that she should apologize. The child might defer to her mother's ethical judgment, sincerely concluding she really should apologize, but without understanding why what she has done is bad enough to require apology. Alternatively, she might come to genuinely notice the other child's grief and more fully understand how her bullying was inappropriate, and thus gain firsthand intuitive insight into the need for apology. (I worry that firsthand intuitive insight is a bit of a slippery concept, but I don't think I can do more with it here.)

Sosa argues that a central aim of much of philosophy is firsthand intuitive insight of this sort. In the sciences and in history, it's often enough just to know that some fact is true (that helium has two protons, that the Qin Dynasty fell in 206 BCE). On such matters, we happily defer to experts. In philosophy, we're less likely to accept a truth without having our own personal, firsthand intuitive insight. Expert metaphysicians might almost universally agree that barstool-shaped-aggregates but not barstools themselves supervene on collections of particles arranged barstoolwise. Expert ethicists might almost universally agree that a straightforward pleasure-maximizing utilitarian ethics would require radical revision of ordinary moral judgments. But we're not inclined to just take them at their word. We want to understand for ourselves how it is so.

This seems right. And yet, there's a bit of a puzzle in it, if we think that it's important that our ethical opinions be correct. (Yes, I'm assuming that ethics is a domain in which there are correct and incorrect opinions.) What should we do when the majority of philosophical experts think P, but your own (apparent) firsthand intuitive insight suggests not-P? If you care about correctness above all, maybe you should defer to the experts, despite your lack of understanding. But Sosa appears to think, as I suspect many of us do, that often the right course instead is to stand steadfast, continuing to judge according to your own best independent reasoning.

Borrowing an example from Sarah McGrath's work on moral deference, consider the case of vegetarianism. Based on some of my work, I think that probably the majority of professional ethicists in the United States believe that it is normally morally wrong to eat the meat of factory-farmed animals. This might also be true in German-speaking countries. Impressionistically, most of the philosophers I know who have given the issue serious and detailed consideration come to endorse vegetarianism, including two of the most prominent ethicists currently alive, Peter Singer and Christine Korsgaard. Now suppose that you haven't given the matter nearly as much thought as they have, but you have given it some thought. You're inclined still to think that eating meat is okay, and you can maybe mount one or two plausible-seeming defenses of your view. Should you defer to their ethical expertise?

Sosa compares philosophical reasoning with archery. You not only want to hit the target (the truth), you want to do so by the exercise of your own skill (your own intuitive insight), rather than by having an expert guide your hand (deference to experts). I agree that ideally this is so. It's nice when you have have both truth and intuitive insight! But when the aim of hitting the target conflicts with the aim of doing so by your own intuitive insight, your preference should depend on the stakes. If it's an archery contest, you don't want the coach's help: The most important thing is the test of your own skill. But if you're a subsistence hunter who needs dinner, then you probably ought to take any help you can get, if the target looks like it's about to escape. And isn't ethics (outside the classroom, at least) more like subsistence hunting than like an archery contest? What should matter most is whether you actually come to the right moral conclusion about eating meat (or whatever) not whether you get there by your own insight. Excessive emphasis on the individual's need for intuitive insight, at the cost of truth or correctness, risks turning ethics into a kind of sport.

So maybe, then, you should defer to the majority of ethical experts, and conclude that it is normally wrong to eat factory-farmed meat, even if that conclusion doesn't accord with your own best attempts at insight?

While I'm tempted to say this, I simultaneously feel pulled in Sosa's direction -- and perhaps I should defer to his expertise as one of the world's leading epistemologists! There's something I like about non-deference in philosophy, and our prizing of people's standing fast in their own best judgments, even in the teeth of disagreement by better-informed experts. So here are four brief defenses of non-deference. I fear none of them is quite sufficient. But maybe in combination they will take us somewhere?

(1.) The "experts" might not be experts. This is McGrath's defense of non-deference in ethics. Despite their seeming expertise, great ethicists have often been horribly wrong in the past. See Aristotle on slavery, Kant on bastards, masturbation, homosexuality, wives, and servants, the consensus of philosophers in favor of World War I, and ethicists' seeming inability to reason better even about trolley problems than non-ethicists.

(2.) Firsthand intuitive insight might be highly intrinsically valuable. I'm a big believer in the intrinsic value of knowledge (including self-knowledge). One of the most amazing and important things about life on Earth is that sometimes we bags of mostly water can stop and reflect on some of the biggest, most puzzling questions that there are. An important component of the intrinsic value of philosophical reflection is the real understanding that comes with firsthand intuitive insight, or seeming insight, or partial insight -- our ability to reach our own philosophical judgments instead of simply deferring to experts. This might be valuable enough to merit some substantial loss of ethical correctness to preserve it.

(3.) The philosophical community might profit from diversity of moral opinion, even if individuals with unusual views are likely to be incorrect. The philosophical community as a whole might, over time, be more likely to converge upon correct ethical views if it fosters diversity of opinion. If we all defer to whoever seems to be most expert, we might reach consensus too fast on a wrong, or at least a narrow and partial, ethical view. Compare Kuhn and Longino on the value of diversity in scientific opinion: Intellectual communities need stubborn defenders of unlikely views, even if those stubborn folks are probably wrong -- since sometimes they have an important piece of the truth that others are missing.

(4.) Proper moral motivation might require acting from one's own insight rather than from moral deference. The bully who apologizes out of deference gives, I think, a less perfect apology than the bully who has firsthand intuitive insight into the need to apologize. Maybe in some cases, being motivated by one's own intuitive insight is so morally important that it's better to do the ethically wrong thing on the basis of your imperfect but non-deferential insight than to do the ethically right thing deferentially.

As I said, none of these defenses of non-deference seems quite enough on its own. Even if the experts might be wrong (Point 1), from a bird's-eye perspective it seems like our best guess should be that they're not. And the considerations in Points 2-4 seem plausibly to be only secondary from the perspective of the person who wants really to have ethically correct views by which to guide her behavior.

[image source]

Friday, March 08, 2019

Thoughts, Judgments, and Beliefs -- What's the Difference?

Today I'm going to pitch a taxonomy. My secret agenda is to undermine overly intellectualist views about belief and self-knowledge.

An episode of some sort occurs in your mind. Let's say it's in inner speech: "I should get started on that blog post" or "It fine for her to choose Irvine over Riverside". On the face of it, it's an assertion: It's not a question or a string of nonsense or a "hmmmmm...". An episode of inner speech in the form of an assertion is, I will say, one type of assertoric thought. (Assertoric thought needn't require inner speech if visual imagery or emotional reactions or imageless thoughts can do the same type of work; but let's set that issue aside for today.) Inner speech of this sort can cross your mind without your judging or believing the content. If I sing to myself "She's buying a stairway to Heaven", normally I don't at that same moment believe that anyone is actually buying a stairway to Heaven. At other times, it seems that I do genuinely believe what I am saying to myself, with the inner speech somehow the vehicle of that belief: "Uh oh, we're out of coffee!" The question is: What is present in the latter case that is absent in the former?

One possibility is a feeling of assent. On this view, when "out of coffee!" comes to my mind, accompanying that inner speech is another type of experience, not in inner speech -- an experience of yes-this-is-true, or a feeling of confidence or correctness. In contrast, when I'm singing along with Led Zeppelin, there's no such accompanying yes-this-is-true experience.

Another possibility, the one I prefer, is that the important difference is less in the phenomenology, that is, in some experiential difference between the two cases, than it is in type of cognitive traction the thought has. Does the thought spin idly, so to speak, or does it penetrate into other aspects of your cognitive life? I'd like to suggest that if the thought has one type of cognitive traction, it's a judgment. And if the judgment has a certain type of further traction, you believe. If the thought has little to no traction, it's a mere idle thought (or as I call it elsewhere, a "wraith" of judgment).

It seems to me phenomenologically plausible that at least sometimes we feel confidence when we speak silently to ourselves, and sometimes we feel doubt or skepticism or like we're just singing some words. The same episode of inner speech "She's buying a stairway" can be experienced very differently, and this difference can have something to do with whether we really judge it to be so. But for two reasons, I think it's a mistake to rely on these phenomenological differences in distinguishing between judgments and merely idle assertoric thoughts.

First, even if there is sometimes a phenomenology of confidence or this-is-really-so-ness and sometimes a feeling of doubt or I'm-merely-singing, it is by no means clear that such epistemic phenomenology accompanies all of our inner speech or even most of it. For example, in Russell Hurlburt's experience sampling studies, we don't see a lot of reports of this type of epistemic phenomenology. Thinking back as best I can on my own stream of experience (some systematically sampled, but mostly not), it strikes me that such phenomenology would generally be subtle in most cases -- the kind of thing it would be easy for a theorist to miss or alternatively to invent given the difficulty of knowing such structural features of experience. Such phenomenological criteria are, at best, a dubious theoretical foundation for such an important distinction.

Second, and maybe more importantly, what we should care about in making a distinction of this sort is not the existence, or not, of a feeling of confidence or some accompanying phenomenology of this-is-so. What matters more is the role the thought plays in one's cognitive life. That role is what the distinction between judgment and idle thinking ought to track.

Consider the two examples I began with: "I should get started on that blog post" and "It's fine for her to choose Irvine over Riverside". I say these to myself, perhaps with some feeling of that-is-so. But then, maybe I don't start on the blog post. I check Facebook instead, though there's no real need for me to do so. Nor do I feel particularly bad about that, or torn. The thought occurred, seemed in some sense right, but didn't penetrate further into my cognition or decision making. Meanwhile, maybe, I remain miffed that she rejected Riverside for Irvine (I'm imagining here a graduate student or faculty member choosing to decline our offer of admission or hiring). Probably I shouldn't be miffed. It is fine! People ought to choose what they think is best for them. And yet... most of my cognition about the matter remains wrongly and irrationally hurt and resentful. I'm trying to convince myself, but I haven't fully succeeded.

What we do and should care about in distinguishing judgment from idle thought is the extent to which I have succeeded. If, at least for that moment, my planning and thinking really is informed by my seeming-assessment that it's time to get started and that it's fine for her to choose Irvine, then that is what I have judged. But if, as is sometimes the case, the thoughts don't really penetrate into the remainder of my cognitive life, don’t guide other aspects of my reasoning and my posture toward the world, then it's probably best to regard them as mere idle thoughts, rather than genuine judgments, even if in some superficial way I feel sincere and this-is-so-ish when I say them to myself. (On the metaphor of attitudes as postures toward the world, see my discussion here.)

That is how I would like to draw the distinction between judgment and idle thought.

How about belief? Here I want to make a similar move, but at an expanded temporal scale. We might sincerely judge something to be so in the sense that our related thoughts, and our general posture toward the world, are for a moment aligned toward the truth of that thing. I really do, now that I think of it carefully, judge it to be fine for her to have made that choice. Of course it's fine! But the difference between a judgment and a belief is the difference between an occurrence and a steady-state thing. A judgment happens in a moment; a belief endures, at least for a while. The question is: Does the judgment stick? Does that momentary assessment have enough cognitive traction to change how I will feel about it next time I return to the question? After the conscious thought vanishes, will it leave some sort of more durable trace in my cognitive structure? Or it is here and gone? Belief requires, I suggest, that more durable trace.

One way to think of it is this: A conscious thought is in a way a preparation for a judgment, and a judgment is in a way a preparation for a belief. "P" bubbles up into your mind, for some reason. If P finds the right kind of momentary home in your mind, if, at that moment, for the duration of its presence in the footlights of consciousness, it shifts or solidifies related aspects of your mentality, then it is a full-bodied judgment and not just an idle thought. And if what it shifts and solidifies stays shifted and solidified after the judgment fades from consciousness, then that judgment has become a belief.

Back to the secret agenda: If this is right, you cannot just read what you believe, or even what you currently judge, off of what you can introspectively discover, or what you say with a feeling of sincerity. Genuine belief and judgment require penetration deeper into the springs of thought and action.



"A Dispositional Approach to the Attitudes: Thinking Outside of the Belief Box" (in Nottelmann, ed., New Essays on Belief, 2013).

"Do You Have Whole Herds of Swiftly Forgotten Microbeliefs?" (Feb 1, 2019). [N.B.: Today's post suggests a partial resolution to the question that the microbeliefs post leaves open.]

Against Intellectualism about Belief (Jul 31, 2015)

Friday, March 01, 2019

In Philosophy, Departments with More Women Faculty Award More PhDs to Women (Plus Some Other Interesting Facts)

Women constitute about 32% of Philosophy Bachelor's degree recipients in the U.S., about 29% of Philosophy PhD recipients, and about 20-25% of philosophy faculty. (Paxton et al 2012; Schwitzgebel and Jennings 2017). It is sometimes suggested that the relatively low percentage of women faculty in philosophy explains the relatively low percentage of women who major in philosophy (which then in turn explains the relatively low percentage of women who become the next generation of philosophy faculty).

I was curious whether philosophy departments with a relatively high percentage of women faculty would also have a relatively high percentage of students who are women. Maybe departments with more women faculty are more "woman friendly", with a visible effect on the proportion of women who complete the Bachelor's or PhD?

Paxton et al. 2012 provide some evidence of a relationship between departments' proportion of women faculty, women undergraduates, and women graduate students. In a sample of 49 departments, they found a substantial correlation between the percent of women faculty and the percent of undergraduate philosophy majors who are women (r = .45, p = .012). However, in a similar sample of 31 departments, they did not report finding such a correlation between percent of faculty who are women and percent of PhD students who are women.

There are a few limitations in the Paxton et al. study. First, thirty-one departments is a somewhat small number for such an analysis, yielding only limited statistical power to detect medium-sized correlations (note that with 49 departments in their undergraduate analysis, Paxton et al's p-value was greater than .01 despite a correlation of .45). Second, the sample of departments might be unrepresentative. And third, the proportion of women who complete the PhD might be a better measure of women-friendliness or women's success than proportion enrolled in the PhD program, since a substantial proportion of philosophy PhD students do not complete their degrees (in many departments completion rates are around 50%) and (anecdotally) non-completion rates might be higher for women than men (I welcome pointers to systematic data on this).

For these reasons, I decided to examine whether in a larger sample of PhD-granting philosophy departments in the U.S., the percent of women faculty would correlate with the percent of women completing the PhD.

For the data on students, I relied on the IPEDS database from the National Center for Educational Statistics, using an eight-year time frame from the academic year 2009-2010 to 2016-2017. For faculty, I used Julie Van Camp's counts of women faculty and total faculty in 97 doctoral programs in the U.S. from January 2006 and January 2015, as recovered through the Wayback Machine Internet Archive. (These 97 programs produce about 95% of the Philosophy PhDs in the U.S. ETA: This includes tenured and tenure-track faculty only.) For each department women faculty percentage score, I averaged the percentage of women faculty in 2006 and in 2015 to reduce noise due to temporary gains and losses. (My own department, for example, had 2/17 [12%] women faculty in 2006 and 4/19 [24%] in 2015, and is probably better represented by 18% than by either the higher or the lower number.)

Overall, women were 20% of faculty in 2006 (340/1669) and 25% of faculty in 2015 (442/1755), a statistically significant increase (z = 3.4, p = .001). Although 20% to 25% may not sound like much, it is actually quite remarkable for such a short period. The faculty growth between 2006 and 2015 in this set of universities was only 86 positions (from 1669 to 1755 total faculty), while the growth of women faculty was 102 positions.

The pattern in undergraduate Bachelor's degree completions in these same institutions is in some ways similar. Among these 97 institutions, the percentage of women earning BAs increased from 29% (1066/3618) to 34% (957/2787). This is statistically significant (z = 4.1, p < .001), and intermediate years show a slow steady increase (30%, then 31%, then 32%). However, it is possible that this is just a brief fluctuation in a long-term trend, in which percentage of women among philosophy majors has held approximately steady at 30-34% since at least 1986. Also notable: While faculty numbers increased, graduating majors decreased (fitting with national trends across all university types).

The pattern in PhD completions is approximately flat over the period (fitting with results from the NSF reported here), fluctuating between 25% and 33% women -- coincidentally, 27% both at the beginning (100/372) and at the end (113/415) of the period. However, with numbers this low, statistical power is an issue.

The main question I was looking at was correlational: Do the universities with a higher proportion of women faculty tend to have a higher proportion of women completing their PhDs? And the answer is...


Here it is as a chart:

[apologies for blurry image: click to clarify and enlarge]

The correlation is substantial r = .42 (p < .001). For example, although only 37 of the 97 universities had over 25% women faculty, all ten of the universities that had the highest proportion of women among their Philosophy PhD recipients did.

Oddly, however, for Bachelor's degrees, I can find no relationship at all, with a correlation of r = -.01 (p = .96). This result contrasts sharply with the Paxton et al. results, and I'm not sure what to make of it. A follow-up study might look at a broader sample of undergraduate institutions to see what sort of relationship there is between percent of women faculty and percent of women undergraduates in philosophy and whether it might vary with institution type.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Seven Principles of Humane PhD Advising

It's difficult to be a PhD student. One's entire future career prospects depend on (or seem to depend on) one's ability to please and impress one's dissertation advisor. This generates a lot of stress and a weird power dynamic between student and advisor. Also, one needs to build a new life and a new social network in a new town, during a time in life when social support is often crucial. And one probably wants one's dissertation to be the best most wonderful awesome thing one has ever written in one's life, despite never having had any experience writing anything as long and ambitious. Ouch!

In many ways, being a PhD student is a wonderful and amazing thing, but given the above, humane PhD advising is called for -- not harshness or rigidity.

[image source]

Here are seven principles to consider, if you are a PhD advisor, or maybe to hope for in a PhD advisor, if you are student.

(1.) Don't take more than a month to return comments on written drafts. We advisors have a lot to do -- the book contract, the grant deadline, the trip to Germany. But it's our responsibility to give our students comments in a timely fashion. Next month will be busy too, and putting it off won't actually reduce the overall load unless you are slow enough to discourage students from showing their work very often (and I don't think that's what we should normally want). Taking three months to return comments risks slowing down your student's progress by a whole semester. The student might not prod you. They might say it's fine, no hurry -- but take that with a grain of salt, given the power relations. Find the time.

(2.) Don't assume that your student wants to be a superstar researcher. If you're supervising PhD students, you probably see the academic world through the lens of research, and you probably esteem other professors in your field mostly in proportion to the strength of their research. It's great if one of your students lands a job at a research university! It's good, but nothing special, if they land a job at a non-research-focused teaching-intensive university. If they end up teaching at a two-year community college, well, that's maybe a disappointment? Of course some students do really want top research jobs and really would be disappointed to teach at a community college. It's kind of in the air, in grad programs, that a research career is the ideal. But not all students want that. Most of world's professors work in teaching-intensive schools rather than powerhouse research universities -- and that's great. I love to hear it when students tell me that they'd rather teach community college than land a job at Harvard. If you assume that all of your students want to be superstar researchers, you contribute to a competitive and high-pressure environment in which teaching careers are devalued, students who don't appear to be on a research-career trajectory are perceived as disappointing, and students may not feel comfortable honestly sharing their non-research career goals with their professors. All of this unfair and disheartening. (Of course, it's terrific when a student aims for a stellar research career and achieves it. I'm just saying don't assume that's what your students want, and don't push those expectations on them.)

(3.) Don't pressure your students to work more quickly. Sure, the university might want to see them finish in five years. But you should be the advocate of your students' interests against the university, rather than vice versa. Life happens. Depression. Writer's block. Parenthood. Second thoughts and half-pursued career changes. Financial trouble. Illness. A rare and exciting opportunity to see Brazil with their sister. The situation is stressful enough for them without their advisor's giving them time pressure too. You might think it's in their interest to work more quickly; and maybe it is. But rather than take a harsh or paternalistic approach, pressuring them to work faster "for their own good", let them decide what pace works for them. With perfect neutrality, help them finish quickly if that's what they want; and let them take their time if that's what they want.

(4.) Remember that your student is already excellent. It is so hard to gain admissions into a good PhD program these days that only excellent students are able to do so. They might not know how to write a dissertation yet, and they won't have as deep an understanding as you do of the research methods and the existing literature in your subfield. But I've yet to meet a PhD student who didn't have the potential to be a terrific scholar and teacher. There's no need for weeding them out or trying to figure out who are the strong vs. the weak ones. Instead, help each of your amazing students more fully realize the excellence they already have.

(5.) Evaluate the work, not the student. Evaluation is the constant duty of a professor. But focus your evaluation on the student's work rather than on the student's ability or overall quality. Excellent scholars sometimes produce mediocre work, especially when they're under pressure or trying something new. No biggie! (Reminder: Your student is under pressure and trying something new.) If a student feels that everything they produce will be evaluated as a sign of their genius or (more likely) lack of genius, the atmosphere will be one of anxiety, pressure, perfectionism, defensiveness, and competitiveness. Eventually, of course, the core parts of the student's dissertation will have to be excellent, but that's at the end of the PhD program. Assuming that your student is a human being, their work along the way will have its ups and downs, and some of it will have to be discarded or will need at lot of revision, especially if they're creative, adventuresome, and open to risk. How are they going to get helpful feedback if they feel that you are so constantly judging them that they dare not show you material unless they feel it's already near perfect?

(6.) A hoop is just a hoop. A class is just a class. A draft is just a draft. Help them move efficiently through requirements (without pressuring them to do so (#3)). The standard should be adequacy rather than exceptional brilliance. If your student feels a need to prove their genius at every step, it should be no surprise if they're stressed out, taking incompletes, prepping far too long for their quals, etc. Since they're already excellent (#4), if you've been a good advisor and if too many uncontrollable life changes haven't happened, their dissertation will be excellent at the end, when it's finished (#5).

(7.) Be ever mindful of the asymmetry of power. The extreme asymmetry can be easy for advisors to forget, especially for those of us who regard ourselves as egalitarians and who like to be on a friendly, first-name basis with our students. What you "lightly" request might be experienced as compulsion. You might casually criticize, or tease, or razz them as you would a peer, but the effects of such casual remarks can be much more devastating, disruptive, or disorienting than you realize. If a full professor says to another full professor working in the same field "that's obviously wrong" or "that's stupid", that might just be an occasion for friendly disagreement; not with a student whose whole career depends on your opinion.


All of these principles are defeasible, of course. They represent my perspective on being a humane PhD advisor. I might be wrong, and I might be much less humane than I think I am or than I hope to be. (My grad students say they find me to be a good advisor, but given the power dynamics they might feel compelled to say that. Few of us really know, I think, how good we are as advisors.)

One disadvantage of my adherence to (7) above, I suspect, is that I'm less chummy with my students than some other advisors are. Socializing, inviting students to my house, sharing details of our personal lives, etc., feels slightly strange to me given the power dynamic -- is the "friendliness" free or compelled? I feel like I can't know, and that uncertainty keeps me always slightly guarded and formal. I can only hope I'm not too standoffish as a result.

One disadvantage of my adherence to (2) and (5) above, I suspect, is that the stronger students receive from me less of an encouraging vibe of "you're the best, you're going to be a superstar researcher" than they might hope or expect. All my students are excellent and I prefer not to rank them in my mind. Before anointing one as the next research superstar, let's see how the dissertation turns out in the end. Nor do I especially value research excellence over teaching excellence.

When I think back on how warm and friendly and encouraging my father was with his strongest students (not PhD students in his case, but Master's), I somewhat regret my restraint in both of these respects. There is, I suppose, no perfect solution but instead a range of tradeoffs that can reasonably be weighed differently.



Against Those Year-End Faculty Meetings to Discuss the Graduate Students (June 17, 2014)

Think of Your Dissertation as Your Longest Work, Not Your Best Work (July 19, 2018).

Friday, February 15, 2019

Studying Ethics Should Influence Your Behavior (But It Doesn't Seem to)

Some academic disciplines have direct relevance to day-to-day life. Studying these disciplines, you might think, would have an influence on one's practical behavior. Studying nutritional health, it seems plausible to suppose, would have an influence of some sort on your food choices. Studying the stock market would likely have an influence on your investment strategies. Studying parenting styles in developmental psychology would have an influence on your parenting decisions. The effects might not be huge: A scholar of nutrition might not be able to entirely sacrifice Twinkies. A scholar of parenting styles might sometimes lose her temper in ways she knows from her research to be counterproductive. But it would be strange if studying such topics had no effect whatsoever -- if there were a perfect isolation between one's research on nutrition, investment, or parenting and one's personal food choices, investments, and approaches to parenting.

[A doctor doing what doctors in fact don't do very much of.]

Other academic topics have tenuous connections at best to practical matters of day-to-day life: studying the first second of the Big Bang, or mereological approaches to objecthood, or tortoise-shell divination in ancient China. Of course, studying such things could have behavioral effects. Maybe immersion in Big Bang cosmology inspires one to a broader, less parochial worldview. But I don't think we should particularly expect that or think something is strange if it doesn't. It's not strange for a cosmologist to be parochial in the same way it would be for an anti-trans-fat health researcher to not attempt to reduce her own trans-fat intake.

Ethics seems clearly to be in the category of academic disciplines that are directly relevant to scholars' day-to-day lives. Not every sub-issue of every sub-specialization of ethics is so, of course. Some ethical questions are highly abstract or concern matters irrelevant to the immediate choices of the scholars' lives; but few ethicists spend all of their energy on issues of that sort. Issues like our obligations to the poor, the ethics of honesty and kindness, animal rights and environmentalism, prejudice, structural injustices in our society, the proper weighing of selfish concerns against the demands of others, the question of how much to abide by laws or directives with which you disagree -- all seem directly relevant to our lives. It would be odd if devoting a substantial part of one's career to thinking about such issues had no influence of any sort on one's day-to-day behavior.

And yet it's not clear to me that studying ethics does have any influence on day-to-day behavior. Across a wide range of studies, my collaborators and I have found no convincing evidence of systematic behavioral differences between ethicists and non-ethicists of similar social background. Also, impressionistically, in my personal interactions with professional ethicists, my sense is that they behave overall similarly to non-ethicists. Furthermore, there's little evidence that university-level ethics classes influence students' behavior either.

Maybe studying ethics does sometimes have a practical effect. It would, in my mind, be stunning if studying ethics never had any influence of any sort on one's behavioral choices! But the effects, if any, are subtle and difficult to detect empirically.

Why this should be so is an underappreciated puzzle.

The easiest answers -- "academic ethics is all abstract and impractical", "ethics is all post-hoc rationalization of what you were going to do anyway", "our immoral desires are so compelling that no amount of rational thought could lead us to act otherwise" -- don't withstand critical scrutiny as fully adequate answers (although each may have some element of truth).

For several of my imperfect attempts to resolve this puzzle, see:

"The Moral Behavior of Ethicists and the Power of Reason" (with Joshua Rust), Advances in Experimental Moral Psychology (ed. H. Sarkissian and J. Wright, 2014).

"Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical Thought" (with Jon Ellis), Moral Inferences (ed. J.F. Bonnefon and B. Tremoliere, 2017).

"Aiming for Moral Mediocrity" (manuscript in draft).

I'm still banging my head against it.

[image source]

Friday, February 08, 2019

Is a Blind Person's Consciousness Partly Contained in Her Cane?

Karina Vold spoke interestingly last week at UC Riverside on "vehicle externalism" about consciousness. (Here's some of her published work on the topic.) According to vehicle externalism, the "vehicle" of consciousness -- that is, its actual physical basis -- is not, as many think, the brain, but rather the brain plus some of the world beyond the body. Central to Vold's presentation was the classic example of the blind person and her cane.

Before discussing that example, I want to start (as Vold did) with a well-known argument fom Andy Clark and David Chalmers. Otto is a forgetful fellow, and so he always carries a notepad with him, full of reminders. When he wants to go to the museum, he pulls out his notebook, which reminds him that the museum is on 53rd Street, and then heads that way. Without the notebook, he would be lost. Clark and Chalmers argue that Otto's retrieving information from the notebook is not relevantly functionally different from a less forgetful person's retrieving the same information from memory. Because of this, they argue, it's correct to say that as long as the notebook is reliably in his pocket (even before he consults its contents), Otto knows that the museum is on 53rd Street. Otto's memory, and thus his mind, is not entirely confined within his skull. It extends to the notepad in his pocket.

Vold and some other defenders vehicle externalism (but not Clark and Chalmers) want to say something similar about consciousness. To explain how and why, Vold invokes a blind person with a cane -- let's call her Genesis [name randomly selected].

Genesis skillfully uses her cane to help her move about, swinging and tapping it to detect obstacles, objects, slopes, textures, and materials. A skilled cane user can learn a lot from a tap or two! Her cane is always with her when she walks, and in some sense it feels almost as if it were a part of her body. (You might experience a lesser version of this if you take a pen in your hand and use it to stroke and tap things. Many people report that it feels almost as though they are directly feeling objects via the pen, as opposed to feeling the pen in their fingers and inferring from those sensations what the objects beyond must be like.) Genesis experiences the world via a sensorimotor loop that travels from brain through arm and hand, through cane, then both into the ears and back up through the arm into the brain.

If a brain-based view of consciousness is correct, it is from her brain alone that Genesis's sensory experience arises, with signals up the arm serving only as input to the brain processes supporting consciousness. In contrast, according to vehicle externalism, the cane and arm do not merely provide inputs. Rather, consciousness arises from cane and arm and brain jointly operating as an integrated system. Consciousness does not depend only causally on the input Genesis receives from the stick. Rather the stick itself is a constituent of an extended system that as a whole constitutes or gives rise to consciousness.

The difference between the internalist input view and the vehicle externalist view can be a little hard to fathom. Here, I think the philosophical concept of supervenience can help. But before I get to supervenience, let me stave off one possible error. The vehicle externalist is not merely saying that consciousness feels as though it is located in the cane. Everyone agrees that consciousness can feel as though it's somewhere other than the location of the system that gives rise to the experience. Pain can feel as though it's in your toe even though the material process that directly gives rise to it, on an internalist view, is in the brain rather than the toe. This seems especially clear in the case of phantom limb pain.

A set of properties, properties of Type A, supervenes on another set of properties, properties of Type B, if and only if there is no possible difference in the As without a difference in the Bs. For example, the score of a baseball game supervenes on the number of times each individual player has officially crossed home plate. There is no possible difference in score without some difference in the number of times at least one individual player has crossed home. (The converse is not the case: It is possible for the score to be the same even if some individual runners had scored a different number of runs.)

The core question of vehicle externalism, as I see it, can be expressed in terms of supervenience: Does consciousness supervene on the brain, as the internalist would say? Or is it possible to have different conscious experiences despite having exactly the same brain states? (Not all vehicle externalists need actually be committed to denying the supervenience of consciousness on the brain, but then I worry that their view might collapse into a notational variant of the internalist input view.)

Consider Otto. If you accept vehicle externalism about Otto's memory, then it should be possible to change Otto's memory state without changing his brain state at all. Otto-1 has the notepad in his pocket. Otto-2 has been pickpocketed, though he hasn't noticed it. Assume that Otto-1 and Otto-2 have exactly the same brain states. On Clark and Chalmers's vehicle externalism, Otto-2 no longer remembers where the museum is (and many other things), although Otto-1 does remember. Despite this difference in memory, on Clark and Chalmers's internalist view about consciousness, Otto-1 and Otto-2 will differ not at all in their conscious experiences. Their conscious experiences will only start to diverge when Otto-2 reaches for his missing notebook. Otto's consciousness, but not his memory, supervenes on his brain state.

Now consider Genesis. If a substantive form of vehicle externalism about consciousness is correct, we should be able to concoct a case in which Genesis-1 and Genesis-2 have identical brain states but non-identical conscious experiences. To claim that such a case is possible is just what it is to deny that consciousness supervenes on the brain.

In other words, we want to imagine changing the cane in some important way, without changing the brain. The vehicle externalist ought to say that the conscious experiences will be different. If consciousness is literally partly contained in or constituted by the cane, Genesis-1 and Genesis-2, with identical brains but different canes, ought to have different conscious experiences.

Let's consider a small slice of time -- a third of a second -- when Genesis's cane is swinging through the air between things. Suppose, hypothetically, that a friend were able to undetectably change the tip of the cane just before that third of a second. Genesis is swinging her cane and touches a passerby who "accidentally" jostles the cane a bit. In Genesis-1, the cane is unchanged after the jostling. In Genesis-2, the long tip of her cane has been covertly swapped for a shorter tip of the right weight (slightly heavier, to compensate for the difference in leverage). The swap is so perfect that for the entire third of a second after the bump and before her cane strikes the next object, the signals into their brains are identical. For this brief duration, Genesis-1 and Genesis-2 have identical brain states but different cane states.

[Update: Instead of a clever prankster, it could be a friend who arranges the swap, with Genesis's prior consent but without her knowledge of the time or method of the swap. See the comments section for discussion.]

Shortly, the brain states of Genesis-1 and Genesis-2 will diverge: Genesis-2 will think the next object is closer than it is, and after the strike she might notice some difference in the sound and tactile dynamics of her cane. The question concerns what happens before that next tap of the cane. The canes are different. The sensorimotor contingencies are different (though that difference has not yet resulted in divergent input signal). Will the conscious experiences, already, be different?

It seems unintuitive that they would be. Most of the vehicle externalists about consciousness I have pressed on this question either hesitate to answer, or try to wiggle out in some way. Also, if introspection is something that happens in the brain, and if consciousness is always immediately available for introspection, the case seems to present trouble. Some philosophers might think that if the view implies a not-immediately-introspectible difference in conscious experience, that would be a fatal flaw. But I disagree. Intuitions about consciousness aren't always correct, and simple, immediate-access models of introspection may not be correct. That Genesis-1 and Genesis-2 have different conscious experiences already in that first third of a second is an interesting possibility, worth considering, and it seems to flow naturally from vehicle externalism. If this is a "bullet", I think the vehicle externalist should bite it.

[image by Ken Walton]

Friday, February 01, 2019

Do You Have Whole Herds of Swiftly Forgotten Microbeliefs?

I believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun, that I am wearing shoes, and that my daughter is in school right now. That seems unproblematic. But do I believe (assuming I don't stop to explicitly think about it) that my desk chair will swivel to the left, as I push off with my right foot to reach for a book? Driving to campus today, did I believe that the SUV approaching on the crossroad wouldn't blow through the red light? Reaching into my box of Triscuits, do I believe that the inner plastic bag is folded over twice to the left and that I need to unfold it to the right to access the snacks inside, as I absentmindedly, but skillfully enough, do just that?

Many philosophers, following Donald Davidson, hold that when you act intentionally, you must have beliefs about what you are doing -- beliefs that what you are doing will (or at least has a chance of) bringing about the event you want to bring about by doing that thing. Intricacies bloom if you analyze the idea carefully (which is what makes it fun philosophy), but the basic thought is that when I intentionally flip the switch to turn on the light, I want to turn on the light and I believe that by flipping the switch I will do so.

But those types of beliefs are about your actions and their effects -- not about the details of the world that shapes your actions. It would be odd to think that you could intentionally act in the world without a broad range of beliefs about your environment, but it's much less clear how much you have to believe, that is, how fine-grained or detailed your beliefs need to be. If I'm intentionally driving to work, I have to believe that I'm in my car. Maybe I have to believe that this is the route to work (though absent-mindedly driving toward a bridge you know is closed is a problem case for this claim). Probably I have to believe that the light is red, as I stop for it. But do I have to believe that all four wheels of my car are currently touching the road? Do I have to believe that the drivers nearby will stay in their lanes? Do I believe that lightpost that I don't really notice, but certainly see, is right there?

Here are two extreme views:

Restrictive View: I only believe what I explicitly reflect on. Unless the thought "I am on the correct route to work" actually bubbles up to consciousness, I don't really believe that. Unless I specifically attend to the fact that I still have two arms, I don't believe that I do.

Liberal View: I believe everything about the world that my skillful actions depend on. I believe that by shifting my weight such-and-so as I walk, I won't tip over. I believe that my right forefinger now needs to come down a half inch from the Y to hit the H I am about to strike on the keyboard. I believe that this patch of road is not yellow, and this patch, and this patch, for every patch of road that flies past my peripheral vision if it is the case (as it presumably is) that were one of those patches yellow I would steer slightly differently to give it a wider berth.

The Restrictive view seems too restrictive -- at least on the standard Anglophone philosopher's understanding of "belief", according to which, belief is, to a first approximation, synonymous with a certain standard usage of "think" or "thought" -- not the active use ("I am thinking of Triscuits") but a more passive use ("I thought there were Triscuits in the cupboard, honey?"). I can truly say to a colleague "I thought you were coming to the department meeting", i.e., I believed that he was, even if I only assumed that he was coming and I didn't entertain the specific conscious thought "Isaiah will be coming to the meeting". If knowledge of the fact that P requires believing that P, as most philosophers think (other than me, but never mind that!), it seems that we can truly say "I knew you wouldn't let me down" even if the thought that you wouldn't let me down never explicitly came to mind -- perhaps especially if the thought that you wouldn't let me down never explicitly came to mind.

On the other hand, the Liberal view seems too liberal. Normally I can report my beliefs, if you ask, but I cannot report these. (I might not even remember where the Y and the H are relative to each other, if you asked me when I didn't have a keyboard to look at.) Normally, also, our beliefs can broadly inform our reasoning, but these cannot do so. Although our habits and our fine-grained motor skills depend in some way on responsiveness to environmental details, whatever is guiding that responsiveness appears to be isolated to the execution of specific tasks rather that being generally available for cognition.

If what I've said so far is right, the best view is somewhere in the middle, between the Restrictive and the Liberal. But where in the middle? Do we have whole herds of microbeliefs that guide our action -- and which we could report, perhaps, if asked that very split second -- but which are almost all swiftly forgotten? Or are our beliefs more coarse-grained and durable than that -- the big-picture stuff that we are likely to remember for at least a minute or two?

Here's what I think: It's fine to talk either way, within broad limits, as long as you are consistent about it.

What's not fine, I'd suggest, is to commit to there being an ontologically or psychologically real sharp line, such that exactly this much availability and reportability and memory (or whatever), no more, no less, is what's necessary for belief. What's not fine, I'd suggest, is the kind of industrial-grade realism that holds that there is a precise fact of the matter, if only we could know it, that I believe exactly P, Q, and R while I'm driving and not the ever-so-slightly-more-fine-grained T, U, and V.

I hope you find this assertion plausible, reflecting on the range of examples I've given. If not, maybe I can strengthen my case by referring to other classes of phenomena where the boundaries of belief appear to be fuzzy (e.g., here, here, here, and here).

If I am right in denying this sharp line, that fact fits much more comfortably with dispositionalism about belief, which treats believing as a matter of matching, to a sufficient degree, a profile pattern of actions, thoughts, and reactions characteristic of that belief than it fits with a view on which believing requires that you possess discrete representations of P, Q, and R, which are always either discretely stored, or not stored, somewhere in the functional architecture of your mind.



Do You Have Infinitely Many Beliefs about the Number of Planets? (Oct 17, 2012)

It's Not Just One Thing, to Believe There's a Gas Station on the Corner (Feb 28, 2018)

In-Between Believing (Philosophical Quarterly, 2001)

A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief (Nous, 2002).

A Dispositional Approach to the Attitudes: Thinking Outside of the Belief Box, in Nottelmann, ed., 2013.

And Daniel Dennett's classic Real Patterns (Journal of Philosophy, 1991).

[image source]

Thursday, January 24, 2019

How to Turn Five Discrete Streams of Consciousness into a Murky Commingling Bog

Here's something you might think you know about consciousness: It's unified and discrete.

When we think about the stream of conscious experience -- the series of conscious thoughts, perceptual experiences, felt emotions, images, etc., that runs through us -- we normally imagine that each person has exactly one such stream. I have my stream, you have yours. Even if we entertain very similar ideas ("the bus is late again!") each of those ideas belongs determinately to each of our streams of experience. We share ideas like we might share a personality trait (each having a full version of each idea or trait), not like we share a brownie (each taking half) or a load (each contributing to the mutual support of a single whole). Our streams of experience may be similar, and we may influence each other, but each stream runs separately without commingling.

Likewise, when we count streams of experience or conscious entities, we stick to whole numbers. It sounds like a joke to say that there are two and a half or 3.72 streams of conscious experience, or conscious entities, here in this room. If you and I are in the room with a snail and an anesthesized patient, there are either two conscious entities in the room with two streams of conscious experience (if neither snails nor people in that type of anesthesized state have conscious experiences), or there are three, or there are four. Even if the anethesized patient is "half-awake", being half-awake (or alternatively, dreaming) is to be fully possessed of a stream of experience -- though maybe a hazy stream with confused ideas. Even if the snail isn't capable of explicit self-representation of itself as a thinker, if there's anything it's like to be a snail, then it has a stream of experience of its own snailish sort, unlike a fern, which (we normally think) has no conscious experiences whatsoever.

I find it hard to imagine how this could be wrong. And yet I think it might be wrong.

To start, let's build a slippery slope. We'll need some science fiction, but nothing too implausible I hope.

At the top of the slope, we have five conscious human beings, or even better (if you'll allow it) five conscious robots. At the bottom of the slope we have a fully merged and unified entity with a single stream of conscious experience. At each step along the way from top to bottom, we integrate the original five entities just a little bit more. If they are humans, we might imagine growing neural connections, one at a time, between their brains, slowly building cross-connections until the final merged brain is as unified as one could wish. If necessary, we could slowly remove and reconfigure neurons during the process so that the final merged brain is exactly like a normal human brain.

Since the human brain is a delicate and bloody thing, it will be much more convenient to do this with robots or AI systems, made of silicon chips or some other digital technology, if we are willing to grant that under some conditions a well-designed robot or AI system could have a genuine stream of consciousness. (As intuitive examples, consider C3P0 from Star Wars or Data from Star Trek.) Such systems could be slowly linked up, with no messy neurosurgery required, and their bodies (if necessary) slowly joined together. On the top of the slope will be five conscious robots, on the bottom one conscious robot.

The tricky bit is in the middle, of course. Either there must be a sudden shift at exactly one point from five streams of experience to one (or four sudden shifts from exactly 5 to 4 to 3 to 2 to 1), as a result of ever so small a change (a single neural connection), or, alternatively, streams of experience must in some cases not be discretely countable.

To help consider which of these two possibilities is the more plausible, let's try some toy examples.

You and me and our friends are discretely different animals with discretely different brains in discretely different skulls, with only one mouth each. So we are used to thinking of the stream of conscious experience like this:

The red circles contain what is in our streams of conscious experience -- sometimes similar (A and A', which you and I share), sometimes different (C belongs only to you), all reportable out of our discrete mouths, and all available for the guidance of consciously chosen actions.

However, it seems to be only a contingent fact about the biology of Earthly animals that we are designed like this. An AI system, or an alien, might be designed more like this:

Imagine here a complex system with a large pool of representations. There are five distinct verbal output centers (mouths), or five distinct loci of conscious action (independent arms), each of which draws on some but not all of the pool of representations. I have included one redundant representation (F) and a pair of contradictory representations (B and -B) to illustrate some of the possible complexity.

In such a case, we might imagine that there are exactly five streams, though they overlap in some important way.

But this is still much simpler than it might be. Now imagine these further complications:

1. There is no fixed number of mouths or arms over time.
2. The region of the representational pool that a mouth or arm can access isn't fixed over time.
3. The region of the representational pool that a mouth or arm can access isn't sharp-boundaried but is instead a probability function, where representations functionally nearer to the mouth or arm are very likely to be accessible for reporting or action, and representations far from the mouth or arm are unlikely to be accessible, with a smooth gradation between.

This picture aims to capture some of the features described:

Think of each color as a functional subsystem. Each color's density outside the oval is that system's likelihood, at any particular time, of being available for speech or action in that direction. Each color's density inside the oval is the likelihood of representations in that region being available to that subsystem for speech or action guidance. With a rainbow of colors, we needn't limit ourselves to a discretely countable number of subsystems. The figure also might fluctuate over time, if the probabilities aren't static.

In at least the fluctuating rainbow case, I submit, countability and discreteness fail. Yet it is a conceivable architecture -- a possible instantiation of an intermediate case along our slippery slope. If such an entity could host consciousness, and if consciousness is closely related to its fluctuating rainbow a structural/functional features, then the entity's stream(s) of conscious experience cannot be effectively represented with whole numbers. (Maybe we could try with multidimensional vectors.)

Is this too wild? Well, it's not inconceivable that octopus consciousness has some features in this direction (if octopi are conscious), given the distribution of their cognition across their arms; or that some overlap occurs in unseparated craniopagus twins joined at the head and brain; or even -- reading Daniel Dennett in a certain way -- that we ourselves are structured not as differently from this as we normally suppose.



A Two-Seater Homunculus (Apr 1, 2013);

How to Be a Part of God's Mind (Apr 23, 2014);

If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious (Philosophical Studies, 2015);

Are Garden Snails Conscious? Yes, No, or *Gong* (Sep 20, 2018).

Thursday, January 17, 2019

I Asked 400 Undergrads to Perform 90 Minutes of Kindness for No Reward. Here's What Happened

Followers of this blog will recall my post from October 30, where I solicited ideas about a "Kindness Assignment" for my lower-division philosophy class "Evil". The assignment was to perform ninety minutes of kindness for one or more people, with no formal accountability or reward. I canceled one day of class to free up time for students to perform their act of kindness. I described the Kindness Assignment as "required", but I told them I would not be checking on or grading them in any way.

Here's the full text of the Kindness Assignment.

During the final exam, I gave students a single detached page, front and back, on which they could write about their experiences with the Kindness Assignment. The page was prominently marked as "optional". I said I would not grade their responses and would only view the responses after final grades were submitted, so that their reports would have no influence of any sort on their grades.

On the page, students could say what they did (if anything), what they learned (if anything), how they felt about the fact that there was no reward or accountability, how they felt about having spent 90 minutes that way, and how their thoughts about the assignment connected to course themes. I also asked students whether they thought I should give the Kindness Assignment again, and if so, what if anything they would recommend changing. Here's the full text of the response sheet.

Three hundred and ninety-eight students took the final exam. Of these, 150 (38%) wrote something on the Kindness Assignment response sheet. It was a long and difficult exam, and since responding was optional and not for credit, some students who completed the Kindness Assignment may not have submitted a response. I assume that many or most of the non-submitters did not complete the assignment. Reviewing the responses, I estimate that 20% of the students who submitted a response said that they did not perform the assignment. Thus, approximately 120 students performed the Kindness Assignment and chose to tell me about their experience.

Understandably, in the context of an exam, only a minority of students took the time to answer all eight questions on the two-page response sheet. Some just gave a brief summary of what they did. Others praised or criticized the assignment without detailing what they did.

Responses to "What, if anything, did you do for the Kindness Assignment?"

Among the approximately 20% who said they didn't complete the Kindness Assignment, a substantial minority said they had planned to do so but forgot or were prevented. Others said that with no reward or accountability, they didn't feel motivated to do it.

Among those who reported completing the assignment, about 25% chose to spend the time helping a friend or family member with chores, about 25% chose to spend the time in a unusually meaningful or thoughtful personal interaction with a family member, about 25% helped strangers with chores or gifts (esp. homeless people or the elderly, sometimes through an organization), and the rest did a variety of other things.

One student bought five extra-large pizzas and shared them with people on Skid Row, which he described as "a really humbling experience.... Seeing people who were down on their luck cry/smile over some warm food really impacted me. Not sure how to succinctly phrase this, but it showed me a good and kind side of humanity that I often have trouble seeing."

Among students who interacted meaningfully with family:

  • One decided to dedicate the whole weekend to her family and "learned that I needed to re-evaluate my priorities.... I was working and making money... and in a way I was becoming greedy." She concluded "It's sad that it took an assignment... for me to realize this."
  • Another took her niece, who she usually ignores, out for ice cream, and said she came to appreciate that "little kids... are the nicest types of human beings."
  • Another student had a long, personal phone call with his stepfather, from whom he normally felt emotionally estranged, and said he finally realized that his stepfather wasn't really a bad person.
  • Still another "decided on actually listening to my parents about their issues & problems. Each of them had a curious look and asked where all of this had come from. I told them all about the course.... I could even see my dad tearing up while talking. I bet it's from not just having a heart to heart talk in who knows how long but also with his own son for I think the first time."
  • One student, saying he was inspired by Peter Singer's work on charitable giving gave $5000 (!) to an acquaintance in financial need.

    Responses to "What, if anything, did you learn from doing the Kindness Assignment?

    Answers to this question varied considerably. Maybe 20% of respondents said they learned nothing. Maybe half of respondents said something about learning how kindness can be pleasurable both for the giver and receiver. Some who had especially moving experiences said that they learned something important about people close to them, or about their own values, or about the kindness of humanity.

    Several students said that they learned, from the fact that they didn't complete the assignment, that they weren't much motivated to be kind without the benefit of some further reward.

    Responses to "How do you feel about the fact that there is no formal accountability or reward for completing this assignment?"

    For this question I coded responses as pro, con, or mixed/ambiguous. Thirty-four out of 78 (44%) of respondents were pro. They offered a variety of justifications, including (a.) having no tangible reward ensures that the kindness is authentic rather than forced; (b.) it allows students who are introverted or otherwise not disposed to do the assignment the opportunity to decline to participate without penalty; and (c.) it led them to think about whether they or other people would really be willing to go out of their way to be kind for ninety minutes without any tangible benefit.

    Ten out of 78 (13%) were con. When they offered a reason, it was generally that people wouldn't be sufficiently motivated without reward.

    The remainder, also 34/78 (44%), were ambiguous or mixed. Most of these said they "didn't mind" not receiving reward or that it "didn't matter" to them that there was no reward.

    Responses to "How do you feel about having spent ninety minutes in this way?"

    The majority of respondents reported feeling good about having done the assignment: 53/70 (76%). Only a few felt negative about it: 6/70 (9%). One student, for example, who offered to clean a friend's dorm room ended up feeling taken advantage of, especially after other friends started asking for their rooms to be cleaned too. The remainder were mixed or ambiguous 11/70 (16%).

    Unfortunately, the student who gave the $5000 expressed mixed emotions at having given so much, saying that "I can feel my soul feel happy about this" but "looking at my bank account, I am not happy. In fact, close to very sad/depressed." He recommended that in the future I suggest that students not give money.

    This student happened to be among the several students in the course I had come to know personally. I emailed him, asking if he's doing okay, and inviting him to discuss his experience further if he wants. After a brief exchange, he consented to my sharing his experience with others, so that others might learn from it.

    Singer argues that we should give away all of the money that we would otherwise spend on luxuries. My impression is that few students who read Singer on this topic are convinced by his arguments (I have opinion survey data to support this claim), and that among the few who do decide to give, almost all give well within their means, without regret.

    However, once in a rare while, people probably are inspired to radical sacrificial actions by reading the ethics texts that we philosophy professors assign. I tend to forget that this can be a consequence of teaching ethical views like Singer's. Arguably, as a teacher I have partial responsibility for such consequences, perhaps especially for students who are still in their teens.

    Responses to "Should the professor give a version of the Kindness Assignment in the future?"

    The large majority who responded -- 54 out of 63 (86%) -- answered yes, some with big exclamation marks and high enthusiasm. Only four (6%) answered no and 5 (8%) were mixed or ambiguous.

    Recommendations for changes to the assignment.

    Many students said the assignment was excellent as-is, but a substantial minority recommended one change or another. The most common recommendations were to offer credit for it (10 students), to clarify better what sorts of kind actions I had in mind (7 students), and to shorten the length of the act of kindness (6 students).

    Next time, I probably will better clarify the kind of actions I have in mind -- and I will suggest that students not give money.

    [image source]

    Friday, January 11, 2019

    Zhuangzi Might Prefer the Passive Knife to the Skillful Cook

    ... contra the currently dominant "skill" interpretations of the Zhuangzi.

    Among the most famous and striking passages by the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi is the following:

    A butcher was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. Wherever his hand touched, wherever his shoulder leaned, wherever his foot stepped, wherever his knee pushed -- with a zip! with a whoosh! -- he handled his chopper with aplomb, and never skipped a beat. He moved in time to the Dance of the Mulberry Forest, and harmonized with the Head of the Line Symphony. Lord Wenhui said, "Ah, excellent, that technique can reach such heights!"

    The butcher sheathed his chopper and responded, "What your servant values is the Way, which goes beyond technique. When I first began cutting up oxen, I did not see anything but oxen. Three years later, I couldn't see the whole ox. And now, I encounter them with spirit and don't look with my eyes. Sensible knowledge stops and spiritual desires proceed. I rely on the Heavenly patterns, strike in the big gaps, am guided by the large fissures, and follow what is inherently so. I never touch a ligament or tendon, much less do any heavy wrenching! A good butcher changes his chopper every year because he chips it. An average butcher changes it every month because he breaks it. There are spaces between those joints, and the edge of the blade has no thickness. If you use what has no thickness to go where there is space -- oh! there's plenty of extra room to play about in. That's why after nineteen years the blade of my chopper is still as through fresh from the grindstone.

    "Still, when I get to a hard place, I see the difficulty and take breathless care. My gaze settles! My movements slow! I move the chopper slightly, and in a twinkling it's come apart, crumbling to the ground like a clod of earth! I stand holding my chopper and glance all around, dwelling on my accomplishment. Then I clean my chopper and put it away."

    Lord Wenhui said, "Excellent! I have heard the words of a butcher and learned how to care for life!"

    (Kjellberg trans., Ch. 3).


    Based partly on this passage from the (generally regarded as authentic) Inner Chapters and several related passages from the (more textually dubious) Outer Chapters, it is more or less orthodox to treat the celebration of skillful artisanal or athletic activity as central to Zhuangzi's worldview (e.g. Graham 1991; Hansen 1992; Ivanhoe 1993; Slingerland 2007; Fraser 2014).

    However, if we take the Inner Chapters as our guide to the core "Zhuangzi" outlook, a puzzle arises. Nowhere else in the Inner Chapters is artisanal or athletic skill of this sort singled out for praise. Indeed, skill is frequently criticized, or associated with negative outcomes. Zhuangzi celebrates the useless yak in contrast to a weasel or a dog who is skilled at catching rats (the weasel ends up dead in a trap [Ziporyn trans., p. 8] and the dog bound by a leash [p. 51]). His "desk slumping" friend Huizi's logical skill brings him nothing but trouble. Skilled musical practitioners end up quarreling (p. 15), and people who test their skills in contests start bright but end up in dark conniving (p. 28); "skill [is] mere salesmanship" (p. 48); the divine creator or teacher "supports heaven and earth, and carves out all forms, but without being skillful" (p. 49).

    If skillful activity, guided by the spirit rather than the eyes, is central to Zhuangzi's values, why doesn't he say so anywhere else in the chapters that form the authentic core of the book? Why doesn't he celebrate the skillful weasel rather than the unskilled yak and the various other seemingly unskilled characters in his stories, such as Horsehead Humpback (p. 35-36)?

    The answer, I think, is that Zhuangzi doesn't particularly value skillful artisanal or athletic activity. Celebrating the skill of the butcher in one place and deriding skill in others is an example of Zhuangzian self-contradiction. I have argued (here and here) that Zhuangzi intentionally contradicts himself within and between passages, in his project of undercutting doctrinaire adherence to any set of motivating values.

    So how should we interpret the passage of the butcher? How does the butcher's activity teach the king "how to care for life"?

    The first thing to notice is that the long-lived thing is not the butcher. It's the knife. After nineteen years, the knife is as sharp as if fresh off the whetstone. In contrast, the butcher is in danger! As Zhuangzi says in Chapter 4 and elsewhere, it is dangerous to display your talents before a king. If you please the king, he might bind you into servitude; if you displease him, he might kill you.

    What's good about the knife, or at least what leads to its healthy longevity, is that it simply follows along through empty spaces, rather than hacking and slicing. It lets the butcher's hand lead it, not fighting, not resisting, but also not helping things along. The knife itself has no skills. Due to the butcher's skill, the knife itself needs to do almost no cutting at all.

    Going along with things, doing nothing, lounging in the shade, standing useless and quiet, like a yak or an ancient gnarled tree -- that's closer to Zhuangzi's core vision than acting with impressive skill, like an accomplished artisan or athlete.


    For a fuller treatment of these issues see my forthcoming essay, "The Unskilled Zhuangzi: Big and Useless and Not So Good at Catching Rats".

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    Tuesday, January 01, 2019

    Writings of 2018

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

    This past year, I worked quite a bit on consciousness and Chinese philosophy, also some on AI ethics, moral psychology, belief, and the sociology of philosophy. May 2019 be similarly fruitful!

    Book forthcoming:

    Full-length non-fiction essays appearing in print in 2018:
    Full-length non-fiction essays finished and forthcoming:
    Shorter non-fiction:
    Editing work:
      In print in 2018: The Oneness Hypothesis (with P.J. Ivanhoe, O. Flanagan, R. Harrison, and H. Sarkissian), Columbia University Press.
      Under contract: Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories, (with Helen De Cruz and Johan De Smedt). Bloomsbury Press.
    Non-fiction essays in draft and circulating:
    Science fiction stories:
      I didn't publish any new stories this year, though I have a few in draft that I plan to submit in 2019.
    Some favorite blog posts:
    Selected interviews:

    Thursday, December 27, 2018

    Some Structural Disadvantages of Interdisciplinary Research, and What to Do About Them

    My own academic department has treated me well over the years, accepting my interdiscipinary forays into psychology and science fiction. But most academic researchers who do interdisciplinary work face structural disadvantages. I speak from my experience in philosophy, but the problems are deeply rooted in the academic system.

    I will focus on two disadvantages: The "But It Isn't X" Complaint (from colleagues from your home discipline) and Prejudice / Turf Defense (from colleagues from disciplines other than your home discipline).


    The "But It Isn't X" Complaint

    If you apply for a job in a department in discipline X, the hiring department will care almost exclusively about your work in X. When you stand for promotion or most other sorts of disciplinary recognition, you will be evaluated almost exclusively for your work within the discipline. If you ask for your work outside the discipline to be counted equally, you will be told that it isn't really X and therefore doesn't count for much toward hiring, promotion, or recognition in discipline X.

    The "But It Isn't X" Complaint is entirely understandable. Shouldn't hiring and promotion into a philosophy department, for example, and recognition in philosophy, depend on the candidate's contributions to philosophy? And even if in principle the evaluators want work outside of their discipline to count equally, they will feel unable to properly evaluate it. In the disciplinary evaluations on which most of academia is built, within-discipline contributions count most.

    The almost inevitable consequence is that researchers who devote substantial time to interdisciplinary work will be severely disadvantaged in hiring, promotion, and disciplinary recognition.

    What to Do on Behalf of Your Interdisciplinary Colleagues

    If a department wants to recognize interdisciplinary colleagues appropriately in hiring, promotion, and other types of evaluation, they need to ask not "how much has this person contributed to our discipline?" but rather (1.) "how much has this person contributed to academia as a whole?" and (2.) "has this person contributed enough to our discipline to still count as member of this discipline?" Suppose someone straddles two disciplines 50/50, and over some period of time they publish three excellent papers in their home discipline and three excellent papers in another discipline. Evaluate them not according to the three home-discipline papers, with the three others as "frosting", but treat all six papers on a par. Of course, if the majority of papers are in another discipline, at some point it would be reasonable to consider a change of department. But until that time, all contributions should be valued and evaluated by the home department.

    If there is to be room in academia, as I think there should be, for people who bridge two disciplines, those people need to be valued for their contributions to both disciplines. If people in their home discipline cannot expertly evaluate that person's interdisciplinary work -- quite understandable! -- they should consult with others from the appropriate discipline, or even better with others who are interdisciplinary between the same two disciplines.

    What to Do If You Are the Interdisciplinary Researcher

    Assuming your colleagues and evaluators are not implementing the strategy above, as most will not, I advise three strategies:

    (1.) Do as much in your home discipline as your colleagues do. Publish the six papers in your home discipline and three outside your discipline. This isn't easy to implement, of course! But one of the advantages of interdisciplinary research is that your expertise outside of your home discipline can be a font of fresh ideas. If your c.v. contains as much good work in X as your colleagues', it doesn't matter so much if they think of your other work as of secondary importance.

    (2.) Take advantage of higher-level administrators' appreciation of interdisciplinarity. In my experience, the majority of higher-level administrators (deans, etc.) value interdisciplinarity. Their evaluations rarely matter enough to compensate for the structural disadvantages I mentioned above, but often their evaluations matter somewhat. There are sometimes grant opportunities, teaching release opportunities, or other recognition for interdisciplinary work; keep your eyes open for these. Also, if your disciplinary colleagues are supportive, you can remind them that there are aspects of your research profile that will be attractive to administrators because of your interdisciplinarity. This can lead your colleagues' to be more assertive in making your case than they would otherwise be, anticipating approval from the higher-ups.

    (3.) Relabel your work as a contribution to your discipline. This is the boldest move, and it will have mixed success at best. For example, when I first started doing work in psychology I thought of it just as work in psychology that had consequences for philosophy. After all, if you run an empirical experiment that looks like a psychology experiment, or contribute an article to a psychology journal, isn't that doing psychology?

    However, starting around 2003, Joshua Knobe, Shaun Nichols, Steve Stich, Jonathan Weinberg, and others started calling their empirical research on non-philosophers' philosophical opinions "experimental philosophy" rather than psychology, and they successfully campaigned to publish some of it in straight-up philosophy journals. They partly succeeded in changing the borders of the discipline of philosophy to include work that would previously have been called psychology. They haven't convinced everyone, of course. Not all philosophers think of "experimental philosophy" as really philosophy. But the situation is better than it was. Arguably, "behavioral economics" is a similar story, even more successful.

    Similarly, I have been starting to make the case that writing fiction can also be a way of doing philosophy -- witness Rousseau, Sartre, Nietzsche, Plato, Murdoch, Voltaire, etc.!


    Prejudice / Turf Defense

    Interdisciplinary prejudice and turf defense are slightly different but related phenomena.

    Interdisciplinary prejudice is the understandable default assumption that someone outside of your discipline isn't going to be nearly as good at work in your discipline as someone whose formal affiliation and training is in your discipline. Turf defense is an emotional reaction to the threatening idea that someone outside of your discipline might be as good as you and your colleagues, or better, at work in your own discipline [ETA:] or that others might falsely perceive them that way.

    Usually, interdisciplinary prejudice is justified, and perhaps not deserving of a pejorative label. If a non-philosopher submits something to a philosophy journal, odds are good that it won't be an excellent work of philosophy. If a philosopher tries to run a psychology experiment, odds are good that their methods and analyses won't be as solid as a psychologist's. For similar reasons, turf defense isn't wholly unjustified: You don't want others to mistakenly think that the non-X researcher's probably-inferior work is as good as a disciplinary expert's work, so it makes sense in a way to guard against incursions. The turf defense reaction is also, I think, partly driven by feelings that the outsider is being disrespectful: If an outsider thinks they can come in and beat us at our own game, that seems to suggest that they lack respect for our years of hard work and disciplinary training.

    However, sometimes people really can do excellent work in more than one discipline. It takes years of effort to acquire the knowledge and skills; but people do sometimes put in the requisite time and effort. An Associate Professor of X with a strong interdisciplinary focus might have as much knowledge of and experience in Y as an Assistant Professor in Y. (It would be almost superhuman, though, for an Associate Professor in X to have as much knowledge and experience in Y as an Associate Professor in Y, unless the situation is very unusual.) However, even when the outsider does have the requisite knowledge and skills, it is, I fear, a sociological fact that substantial prejudice and turf defense remain.

    What to Do on Behalf of Interdisciplinary Colleagues

    (1.) Be aware of your possible interdisciplinary prejudice and turf defense and the fact that they are not always justified. Try to evaluate work in your home discipline by someone outside of your home discipline in approximately the same way you would evaluate other contributions to your discipline.

    (2.) Implement anonymous review when possible. If the work passes muster, it shouldn't matter if it's from a Stanford professor in your discipline or someone from a less prestigious university with a different disciplinary affiliation or from a construction worker in Tallahassee.

    (3.) Where anonymous review isn't possible, downplay departmental affiliations on the first page of articles and applications -- for the same reasons.

    What to Do If You Are the Interdisciplinary Researcher

    (1.) Collaborate with someone from the other discipline. There appears to be much less prejudice and turf defense when at least one member of the research team is from the target discipline. Furthermore, the collaborator will bring an inside-the-discipline perspective that it is very difficult to achieve from outside a discipline, even if one has substantial expertise.

    (2.) Watch for shibboleths. By shibboleths I mean superficial signs of being an insider rather than an outsider. It helps reduce prejudice and turf defense the more you can write and speak indistinguishably from members of the target discipline. (Collaborators can help with this.) If you sound like an outsider, even if your content is good, that will tend to amplify negative reactions to your work.

    (3.) Cite thoroughly and carefully early in your project. Show, from the very beginning, thorough and serious engagement with the existing work in the target discipline. This shows respect for that work, reducing the turf defense reaction, and it shows that you have substantial expertise, reducing the prejudice reaction.


    Barring radical changes, structural disadvantages will continue to impair people who do interdisciplinary work. However, I do also believe that there is one major compensatory advantage, over the long run of a research career. Often, the freshest and most fruitful academic ideas come from researchers with expertise in more than one area, who can use their expertise in Y to shine new interesting light on X. Your colleagues won't always appreciate this right away. But in the long run, you will have different things to say than those whose expertise is exclusively within a single discipline. You will have a distinctive perspective and contribution.

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