Thursday, May 26, 2016

Empty Box Rationalization

A hypothetical from Darrell Rowbottom, in conversation: Suppose you are a perfect moral rationalizer. Suppose you know that for any action you want to do, you are clever enough a moral theorist that you could find some plausible-seeming post-hoc justification for it. Would you actually need to come up with the justification? Maybe it's enough just to know in advance that you could come up with one, and not actually do the work?

Think of the savings of time and cognitive effort! Also, since self-serving rationalizations might tend to lead one away from the moral truth, you might be epistemically better off too. With or without an actual filled-in rationalization, you'll be able to feel fine about doing what you want.

Call this Empty Box Rationalization. Why bother to fill the box with an actual rationalization? Simply postulate that a plausible-seeming justification could be found!

Of course, few of us are clever enough moral theorists to take advantage of Empty Box Rationalization without limitation. As skilled as we may happen to be at justifying our actions to ourselves, there will be some actions beyond the pale, which we are incapable of plausibly rationalizing.

However, we might be able to take advantage of Limited Empty Box Rationalization. Limited Empty Box Rationalization differs from full Empty Box Rationalization by confining itself to a range of rationalizable actions. For any action within a certain range, I know that I am clever enough a rationalizer to devise, if I want, some plausible-seeming justification which I would accept upon reflection; and thus I can postulate that such a justification is out there to be found.

Here's an example. Suppose I'm always fifteen minutes late. Every time I show up late, I always manage to find a satisfactory excuse. Sometimes it's traffic. Sometimes it's that I really needed to finish some important task first. Sometimes it's that I got lost. Sometimes it's that I was detained by someone else. I always find some way to let myself off the hook, so that I never feel guilty. Now imagine that today I find myself arriving fifteen minutes late for a meeting with a graduate student. I could, hypothetically, go through the effort of trying to concoct an excuse. But maybe instead of wasting that time, I can just postulate the existence of some plausible excuse or other, so that we can get straight into the meeting without further delay.

(Sure, maybe an actual filled-in excuse from me would serve some kind of function for the other person. I set that aside for these reflections.)

People will differ in their degree of cleverness and thus differ in their working ranges of Limited Empty Box Rationalization. Some will be clever enough reliably to justify 15 minutes of tardiness; others clever enough reliably to justify 30 minutes. Some will be clever enough to justify reneging on wider ranges of commitments, to justify wider ranges of gray-area misconduct, perhaps even to justify, to their own satisfaction, what the rest of us would judge to be plainly morally odious. For one especially skillful example, consider Heidegger on Nazism.

Of course, this isn't fair. If only we were more clever we too could rationalize such actions! Perhaps for any action that I've done or that I'd really like to do, a clever enough moral theorist could, with enough work, come up with some plausible-seeming justification of it that would satisfy me. But then -- maybe that's good enough! If I know that a cleverer version of myself would believe A, then maybe that knowledge itself suffices to justify A, since who am I to disagree with a cleverer version of myself, who could of course get the better of me in argument?

Advanced Empty Box Rationalization begins with that thought. Advanced Empty Box Rationalization widens the range of Limited Empty Box Rationalization beyond the boundaries of one's own actual rationalizing capacities. For some range of actions wider than one's usual range of rationalizable actions, one justifiably accepts that either one could come up with a plausible-seeming justification that one would accept upon reflection, given that one is motivated to do so, or a cleverer version of oneself could devise such a justification. Perhaps as a limiting case one could accept that an infinitely clever version of oneself could hypothetically justify anything in this manner.

Application of these thoughts to current and past scandals in the profession is left as an exercise for the reader.


  • Schwitzgebel & Ellis (forthcoming), Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical Thought.
  • [image source]

    Tuesday, May 17, 2016

    Whether to Take Peter Singer to McDonalds

    Greetings from Hong Kong!

    I'm highly allergic to shellfish. I'm allergic enough that cross-contamination is an issue: If I'm served something that has been fried on the same surface as shellfish or touched with an implement that has touched shellfish, I will have a minor allergic reaction. Shellfish is so prevalent in the southern coastal Chinese diet that I have minor shellfish reactions at about half of my lunch or evening meals, even if I try to be careful. I've learned that there are only two types of restaurants that are entirely safe: strict Buddhist vegetarian restaurants and McDonalds.

    I was discussing this with my hosts at a university here in Hong Kong. One of the hosts said, "Well, we could go to that Buddhist restaurant that we took [the famous vegetarian philosopher] Peter Singer to". Sounds like a good idea to me! Another host said, "Yes, but that restaurant is so expensive! Too bad there isn't another good Buddhist restaurant around." I suggested that McDonalds would be fine, really. I didn't want to force them to spend a lot of money hosting me.

    It occurred to me that they should have taken Peter Singer to McDonalds, too. Singer is as famous for his argument against luxurious spending as he is for his argument in favor of vegetarianism, and one of his favorite examples of needless luxury spending is high-priced restaurant meals. The idea is that the money you spend on a luxurious restaurant meal could be donated to charity and perhaps save the life of a child living in poverty somewhere.

    So here's my thought. Suppose that the two options are (a) an expensive Buddhist restaurant, maybe $300 Hong Kong dollars per person for 10 people, $3000 Hong Kong dollars total ($400 US dollars), or (b) McDonalds for $500 HKD total ($65 US dollars). The money saved by choosing option b, if donated to an effective charity, is within the ballpark of what could be expected to save one person's life [update: or maybe about a tenth of a life; estimates vary]. On the other hand, the flesh from a steer can generate about 2000 McDonald's hamburgers, so ten people would be eating only 1/200 of a steer. Clearly one [or one tenth of a] human life is more valuable than 1/200 of a steer. Therefore, the university should have taken Peter Singer to McDonalds and donated the savings to an effective charity.

    Of course, there are other costs to McDonalds (other wasteful practices, environmental damage in meat production, etc.) and possibly other benefits to eating at the Buddhist restaurant (supporting good farming practices, possibly putting the profits to good use) -- but it seems unlikely that these differences would cumulatively outweigh the central tradeoff of the unsaved human life vs. 1/200 of a steer.

    If I ever have the chance to take Singer to dinner, I'd like to try this argument out on him and see what he thinks. (I wouldn't be surprised if he has already thought all of this through.)

    Our own dinner decision resolved in favor of the cheap student vegetarian cafeteria nearby, which I think maybe they had been hesitating about because it didn't seem fancy enough a venue for a visiting speaker. But it was perfect for me -- a rather "utilitarian" place, I might say -- and probably where they really should have taken Singer.

    [image source]

    Wednesday, May 11, 2016

    The Gender Situation Is Different in Philosophy

    As Carolyn Dicey Jennings and I have documented, academic philosophy in the United States is highly gender skewed, with gender ratios more characteristic of engineering and the physical sciences than of the humanities and social sciences. However, unlike engineering and the physical sciences, philosophy appears to have stalled out in its progress toward gender parity.

    Some of the best data on gender in U.S. academia are from the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED). In an earlier post, I analyzed the philosophy data since 1973, creating this graph:

    The quadratic fit (green) is statistically much better than the linear fit (red; AICc .996 vs .004), meaning that it is highly unlikely that the apparent flattening is chance variation from a linear trend.

    Since the 1990s, the gender ratio of U.S. PhDs in philosophy has hovered steadily around 25-30%.

    The SED site contains data on gender by broad field, going back to 1979. It is interesting to juxtapose these data with the philosophy data. (The philosophy data are noisier, as you'd expect, due to smaller numbers relative to the SED's broad fields.)

    The overall trend is clear: Although philosophy's percentages are currently similar to the percentages in engineering and physical sciences, the trend in philosophy has flattened out in the 21st century, while engineering and the physical sciences continue to make progress toward gender parity. All the broad areas show roughly linear upward trends, except for the humanities which appears to have flattened at approximately parity.

    These data speak against two reactions that I have sometimes heard to Carolyn's and my work on gender disparity in philosophy. One reaction is "well, that just shows that philosophy is sociologically more like engineering and the physical sciences than we might have previously thought". Another is "although philosophy has recently stalled in its progress toward gender parity, that is true in lots of other disciplines as well". Neither claim appears to be true.

    [I am leaving for Hong Kong later today, so comment approval might be delayed, but please feel free to post your thoughts and I'll approve them and respond when I can!]

    New Op-Eds on Ethnic Diversity in Philosophy

    A couple very cool op-eds today on ethnic diversity in philosophy:

    Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden in the New York Times:

  • If Philosophy Won't Diversify, Let's Call It What It Really Is
  • And John E. Drabinski, on his home page, with mostly supportive but partly critical read of the Garfield and Van Norden:

  • Diversity, Neutrality, Philosophy
  • -------------------------------------------------

    Related posts:

  • Philosophy Is Incredibly White, but This Does Not Make It Unusual Among the Humanities (Sep. 3, 2014)
  • What's Missing in Philosophy Classes? Chinese Philosophers (Los Angeles Times, Sep. 11, 2015)
  • Monday, May 09, 2016

    I Also Doubt That It Is Contingently So

    Vocals: Nomy Arpaly. Guitar: David Estlund.
    Lyrics by Nomy Arpaly:

    It ain't necessarily so
    It ain't necessarily so
    What ethicists say
    Can sound good in a way
    But it ain't necessarily so

    Morality trumps other oughts
    Morality trumps other oughts
    No rational action
    Can be an infraction
    Morality trumps other oughts

    For eudaimonia --
    You get the idea --
    Be virtuous by day and night
    Departures from virtue
    Are all gonna hurt you
    Sometimes I wanna say yeah right

    We always give laws to ourselves
    We always give laws to ourselves
    We lose our potential
    For being agential
    When we break them laws from ourselves

    I say it ain't necessarily so
    It ain't necessarily so
    I'll say it though, frankly
    They'll stare at me blankly
    It ain't necessarily so

    Wednesday, May 04, 2016

    Possible Architectures of Group Minds: Perception

    My favorite animal is the human. My favorite planet is Earth. But it's interesting to think, once in a while, about other possible advanced psychologies.

    Over the course of a few related posts, I'll consider various possible architectures for superhuman group minds. Such minds regularly appear in science fiction -- e.g., Star Trek's Borg and the starships in Ann Leckie's Ancillary series -- but rarely do these fictions make the architecture entirely clear.

    One cool thing about group minds is that they have the potential to be spatially distributed. The Borg can send an away team in a ship. A starship can send the ancillaries of which it is partly composed down to different parts of the planet's surface. We normally think of social groups as having separate minds in separate places, which communicate with each other. But if mentality (instead or also) happens at the group level, then we should probably think of it as a case of a mind with spatially distributed sensory receptors.

    (Elsewhere, I've argued that ordinary human social groups might actually be spatially distributed group minds. We'll come back to that in a future post, I hope.)

    So how might perception work, in a group mind?

    Central Versus Distributed Perceptual Architecture:

    For concreteness, suppose that the group mind is constituted by twenty groups of ten humanoids each, distributed across a planet's surface, in contact via relays through an orbiting ship. (This is similar to Leckie's scenario.)

    If the architecture is highly centralized, it might work like this: Each humanoid aims its eyes (or other sensory organs) toward a sensory target, communicating its full bandwidth of data back up to the ship for processing by the central cognitive system (call it the "brain"). This central brain synthesizes these data as if it had two hundred pairs of eyes across the planet, using information from each pair to inform its understanding of the input from other pairs. For example if the ten humanoids in Squad B are flying in a sphere around an airplane, each viewing the airplane from a different angle, the central brain forms a fully three-dimensional percept of that airplane from all ten viewing angles at once. The central brain might then direct humanoid B2 to turn its eyes to the left because of some input from B3 that makes that viewpoint especially relevant -- something like how when you hear a surprising sound to your left, you spontaneously turn your eyes that direction, swiftly and naturally coordinating your senses.

    Two disadvantages of this architecture are the bandwidth of information flow from the peripheral humanoids to the central brain and the possible delay of response to new information, as messages are sent to the center, processed in light of the full range of information from all sources, and then sent back to the periphery.

    A more distributed architecture puts more of the information processing in the humanoid periphery. Each humanoid might process its sensory input as best it can, engaging in further sensory exploration (e.g., eye movements) in light of only its own local inputs, and then communicate summary results to the others. The central brain might do no processing at all but be only a relay point, bouncing all 200 streaming messages from each humanoid to the others with no modification. The ten humanoids around the airplane might then each have a single perspectival percept of the plane, with no integrated all-around percept.

    Obviously, a variety of compromises are possible here. Some processing might be peripheral and some might be central. Peripheral sources might send both summary information and also high-bandwidth raw information for central processing. Local sensory exploration might depend partly on information from others in the group of ten, others in other 19 groups of ten, or from the central brain.

    At the extreme end of central processing, you arguably have just a single large being with lots of sensory organs. At the extreme end of peripheral processing, you might not want to think about the system as a "group mind" at all. The most interesting group-mind-ish cases have both substantial peripheral processing and substantial control of the periphery either by the center or by other nodes in the periphery, with a wide variety of ways in which this might be done.

    Perceptual Integration and Autonomy:

    I've already suggested one high integration case: having a single spherical percept of an airplane, arising from ten surrounding points of view upon it. The corresponding low integration case is ten different perspectival percepts, one for each of the viewing humanoids. In the first case, there's single coherent perceptual map that smoothly integrates all the perceptual inputs; in the second case each humanoid has its own distinct map (perhaps influenced by knowledge of the others' maps).

    This difference is especially interesting in cases of perceptual conflict. Consider an olfactory case: The ten humanoids in Squad B step into a meadow of uniform-looking flowers. Eight register olfactory input characteristic of roses. Two register olfactory input characteristic of daffodils. What to do?

    Central dictatorship: All ten send their information to the central brain. The central brain, based on all of the input, plus its background knowledge and other sorts of information, makes a decision. Maybe it decides roses. Maybe it decides daffodils. Maybe it decides that there's a mix of roses and daffodils. Maybe it decides it is uncertain, and the field is 80% likely to be roses and 20% likely to be daffodils. Whatever. It then communicates this result to each of the humanoids, who adopt it as their own local action-guiding representation of the state of the field. For example, if the central brain says "roses", the two humanoids registering daffodil-like input nonetheless represent the field as roses, with no more ambivalence about it than any of the other humanoids.

    Winner-take-all vote: There need be no central dictatorship. Eight humanoids might vote roses versus two voting daffodils. Roses wins, and this result becomes equally the representation of all.

    Compromise vote: Eight versus two. The resulting shared representation is either a mix of the two flowers, with roses dominating, or some feeling of uncertainty about whether the field is roses (probably) or instead daffodils (possible but less likely).

    Retention of local differences: Alternatively, each individual humanoid might retain its own locally formed opinion or representation even after receiving input from the group. A daffodil-smeller might then have a representation something like this: To me it smells like daffodils, even though I know that the group representation is roses. How this informs that humanoid's future action might vary. On a more autonomous structure, that humanoid might behave like a daffodil smeller (maybe saying, "Ah, it's daffodils, you guys! I'm picking this one to take one back to the daffodil loving Queen of Mars") or it might be more deferential to the group (maybe saying, "I know my own input suggests daffodils, but I give that input no more weight than I would give to the input of any other member of the group").

    Finally, no peripheral representation at all: An extremely centralized system might involve no perceptual representations at all in the humanoids, with all behavior issuing directly from the center.

    Conceptual Versus Perceptual:

    There's an intuitive distinction between knowing something conceptually or abstractly and having a perceptual experience of that thing. This is especially vivid in cases of known illusion. Looking at the Muller-Lyer illusion you know (conceptually) that the two lines minus the tails are the same length, but that's not how you (perceptually) see it.

    The conceptual/perceptual distinction can cross-cut most of the architectural possibilities. For example, the minority daffodil smeller might perceptually experience the daffodils but conceptually know that the group judgment is roses. Alternatively, the minority daffodil smeller might conceptually know that her own input is daffodils but perceptually experience roses.

    Counting Streams of Experience:

    If the group is literally phenomenally conscious at the group level, then there might be 201 streams of experience (one for each humanoid, plus one for the group); or there might be only one stream of experience (for the group); or streams of experience might not be cleanly individuated, with 200 semi-independent streams; or something else besides.

    The dictatorship, etc., options can apply to the group-level stream, as well as to the humanoid-level streams, perhaps with different results. For example, the group stream of consciousness might be determined by compromise vote (80% roses), while the humanoid streams of experience retain their local differences (some roses, some daffodils).

    To Come:

    Similar issues arise for group level memory, goal-setting, inferential reasoning, and behavior. I'll work through some of these in future posts.

    I also want to think about the moral status of the group and the individuals, under different architectural setups -- that is, what sorts of rights or respect or consideration we owe to the individuals vs. the group, and how that might vary depending on the set-up.



  • Possible Psychology of a Matrioshka Brain (Oct. 9, 2014).
  • If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious (Philosophical Studies 2015).
  • [image source, image source]

    Wednesday, April 27, 2016

    Orange on the Seder Plate

    ... and celebrating the death of children?

    "Does it matter if the story of the escape from Egypt is historically true?" Rabbi Suzanne Singer asked us, her congregants, on Saturday, at the Passover Seder dinner at Temple Beth El in Riverside.

    We're a liberal Reform Judaism congregation. Everyone except me seemed to be shaking their heads, no, it doesn't matter. I was nodding, however. Yes, it does matter.

    Rabbi Singer walked over to me with the microphone, "Okay, Eric, why does it matter?"

    I say "we" are a Reform Judaism congregation, but let me be clear: I am not Jewish. My wife Pauline is. My teenage son Davy is. Davy even teaches at the religious school. My nine-year-old daughter Kate, adopted from China at age one, recently described herself as "half Jewish". We're members. We volunteer, attend some of the services. Sometimes I try to chant the chants, sometimes I don't. I always feel a little... ambiguous.

    I hadn't been expecting to speak. I came out with some version of the following thought. If the story of Passover is literally true, then there's a miracle-working God. And it would matter if there were such a God. I don't think I would like the moral character of that God, a God who kills so many innocent Egyptians. I'm glad it's not literally true. It matters.

    I find it interesting, I added, that we ("we"?) have this celebratory holiday about the death of children, contrary to the values of most of us now. It's interesting how we struggle to deal with that change in values while keeping the traditions of the holiday.

    Passover, as you probably know, celebrates a story from Exodus. The Jews are slaves in Egypt. Moses and Aaron approach the Pharaoh and demand the release of their people. The Pharaoh refuses and God sends disaster after disaster upon the Egyptians. In the tenth and final plague, God sweeps through Egypt killing the firstborn son in every house, except the houses marked with the lamb's blood of the Jewish "Passover" sacrifice. In the traditional Haggadahs (i.e. scripts of how the ceremony is to be conducted), God's destruction of the Egyptians seems to be enthusiastically relished, the general tone being one of overflowing celebration for all the good things God (or G-d) has bestowed upon us: He didn't need to plague and torment our enemies and kill their firstborns, but he did, hooray!

    (One does remove a bit of wine from one's glass for each of the ten plagues, which has been explained to me as reducing one's joy to recognize the Egyptians' suffering; but not all traditional haggadahs offer that explanation and the overall tone is cheery about the plagues.)

    Temple Beth El uses a Reconstructionist Haggadah which is more reflective about the Egyptians' suffering and emphasizes the plight of the enslaved and oppressed everywhere throughout world history. The holiday is no longer understood as it once was. But still, we sing the happy songs.

    Others in Temple Beth El spoke up in response to my comment: values change, ancient war sadly and necessarily involved the death of children too, we're really celebrating the struggle for freedom.... The rabbi asked if this answered my question, or if I had anything more to say. Davy whispered, "Dad, you don't have anything more to say." I took his cue and shut my trap.

    The caterers arrived late. I was pleased to see that they put oranges upon the Seder plates this year. (It seems to be on and off in our congregation.) The traditional Seder plate has no orange: two bitter herbs (for the bitterness of slavery), charoset (sweet fruit and nuts as mortar for the storehouses of Egypt), parsley (dipped into salt water representing the tears of slavery), a roasted lamb bone (for the Passover sacrifice), and a hard boiled egg.

    The first time I saw an orange on the Seder plate, I was told this story about it: A woman was studying to become a rabbi. An orthodox rabbi told her that a woman belongs on the bima (pulpit) like an orange belongs on the Seder plate! When she became a rabbi, she put an orange on the plate.

    A wonderful story! The orange on the Seder plate is wild, defiant, overturning the rules, the beginning of a new tradition to celebrate gender equality.

    Does it matter if it's true?

    The true story is more complicated. Dartmouth Jewish Studies professor Susannah Heschel was speaking to a Jewish group at Oberlin College. The students had written a story in which a young girl asks a rabbi what room there is for lesbians in Judaism, and the rabbi rises in anger, shouting, "There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate!" Heschel, inspired by the story, but not wanting to put anything as unkosher as leavened bread on the Seder plate, put an orange on her family's Seder plate the next year.

    In the second story, the orange is not a wild act of defiance but already a compromise. The shouting rabbi is not an actual person but only an imagined, simplified foe.

    It matters that it's not true. From the two stories of the orange, we learn what I regard as the central lesson of Reform Judiasm, that myths are cultural inventions built to suit the values of their day, idealizations and simplifications, that they change as our values change, but also that there's only so much change that is possible in a tradition-governed institution, which is necessarily a compromise between past and present. An orange can be considered, but not a crust of bread.

    My daughter and I -- active in the temple but not quite Jewish, we too are oranges on the Seder plate, a new sort of thing in a congregation, without a marked place, welcomed this year, unsure how much we belong or want to belong, at risk of rolling off.

    In the car on the way home, my son scolded me: "How could you have said that, Dad? There are people in the congregation who take the Torah literally, very seriously. You should have seen how they were looking at you, with so much anger. If you'd said more, they would practically have been ready to lynch you."

    Due to the seating arrangement, I had been facing away from most of the congregation, while Davy had been facing toward most of the congregation. I didn't see those faces. Was Davy telling me the truth on the way home that night? Or was he creating a simplified myth of me?

    Today I celebrate the orange, that unstable mix of truth and myth, tradition and change.

    Thursday, April 21, 2016

    Possible Cognitive and Cultural Effects of Video Lifelogging

    Last week science fiction writer Ted Chiang came to Riverside to talk about the possible cognitive effects of video lifelogging. He also explores these issues in his 2013 story The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling. It was an interesting talk! Chiang focused, as he also does in the story, on the transformative effects video lifelogging might have on our memories, including the possible decline of our ability to remember life events unaided if we can instead just easily call up results from a lifelog.

    Lifelogging is a movement aimed at recording and monitoring the details of your everyday life. Video lifelogging, which is just starting to become feasible, involves video-recording every moment of your waking day.

    Good search technology will be crucial. Imagine subvocalizing "the name of that book Emmeline[1] recommended at dinner last week" or "that time Taimur cracked a raw egg on his head", then having the relevant audiovisual results show up on your palm or your Google glass. The eventual effects on our minds, Chiang suggests, would be comparable to the transformative effects of literacy. In his talk, Chiang emphasized the decline of unaided memory and the ability to hold ourselves to higher standards of truthfulness about past deeds (what did you really say in that argument last week?).

    Just as early Chinese calligraphers could not have predicted quantitative textual analysis or the internet, I think we can assume that if video lifelogging is integrated deeply into our daily lives, it will change us in ways we can't fully anticipate. I'd like to suggest two possible effects that Chiang didn't mention.

    First: It is much easier to record audio and video than other sensory modalities. The recording and recreation of taste, smell, touch, and somatic sensation are much more speculative and remote. Most people already tend to privilege sight and hearing, but lifelogging could amplify that dominance -- perhaps so much that the other senses almost seem like a forgettable, buzzing distraction. Your memories of sex, for example, might focus much more on the audiovisual parts of the experience, if those are what you can easily revisit and recall (esp. with decreases in unaided memory, as Chiang suggests would be likely) -- and that in turn might lead you to focus more on those senses than on other senses in your future encounters, which in turn might substantially alter the cultural structures and expectations around sex. Similarly, perhaps, for the pleasures of eating.

    Second: Chiang had explicitly set aside privacy issues, and I will also do so (maybe Cory Doctorow will address these when he comes next fall), but intentional sharing raises interesting possibilities, especially if it's possible in real-time. Suppose we can't all afford to go to the concert -- but if we pool our funds, you can go, and we can all watch your lifelog in real-time (perhaps in immersive virtual reality), which will then be saved in our lifelogs. If our cognition and culture have shifted more toward the audiovisual, then it might seem closer to actually being there than it would seem to people now, and if our autobiographical memories have become dominated by lifelog results, then later it might feel more like a real memory of having been there than an analogous experience would seem to people now. Pushed to the extreme, an emphasis on shared real-time and remembered experiences might begin to blur the boundaries of the experienced self, including reducing how much we care about whether it was our own bodies that did something or someone else's.

    Just for starters.

    [image source]

    Friday, April 15, 2016

    New Essay in Draft: Phenomenal Consciousness, Defined and Defended as Innocently as I Can Manage

    Commentary on Keith Frankish (forthcoming), "Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness".

    I don't see Keith's paper publicly available, but you can get a general sense of his view from his 2012 paper Quining Diet Qualia; and in any case I've written the essay to be comprehensible without prior knowledge of Frankish's work.

    Phenomenal consciousness can be conceptualized innocently enough that its existence should be accepted even by philosophers who wish to avoid dubious epistemic and metaphysical commitments such as dualism, infallibilism, privacy, inexplicability, or intrinsic simplicity. Definition by example allows us this innocence. Positive examples include sensory experiences, imagery experiences, vivid emotions, and dreams. Negative examples include growth hormone release, dispositional knowledge, standing intentions, and sensory reactivity to masked visual displays. Phenomenal consciousness is the most folk psychologically obvious thing or feature that the positive examples possess and that the negative examples lack, and which preserves our ability to wonder, at least temporarily, about antecedently unclear issues such as consciousness without attention and consciousness in simpler animals. As long as this concept is not empty, or broken, or a hodgepodge, we can be phenomenal realists without committing to dubious philosophical positions.

    This paper further develops ideas from my similarly titled blog post on Feb 18. Many thanks for the helpful comments on that post!

    Full paper here. As always, questions, comments, and objections are welcome, either as comments on this post or by email.

    Thursday, April 14, 2016

    Paraphenomenal Experience: Conscious Experience Uncorrelated with Cognition and Behavior

    My student Alan T. Moore defends his dissertation today. (Good thing we proved he exists!) One striking idea from his dissertation is that much of our consciousness might be, in his terminology, paraphenomenal. A conscious experience is paraphenomenal to the extent it is uncorrelated with cognitive and behavioral processes. (That's my own tweaking of his formulation, not quite how Alan phrases it himself.)

    Complete paraphenomenality is a possibility so bizarre and skeptical that I'm unaware of any philosopher who has seriously contemplated it. (It seems likely, though, that someone has, so I welcome references!) Complete paraphenomenality would mean having a stream of experience that was entirely uncorrelated with any functional, cognitive, or sensory input and entirely uncorrelated with any functional, cognitive, or behavioral output (including introspective self-report). Imagine laying the stream of William James's conscious experience atop the behavior and cognitive life of Moctezuma II, or atop a stone -- simply no relationship between the non-phenomenal aspects of one's cognitive life and one's outward behavior (or lack of it) and the stream of lived experience. Or imagine taking the philosophical zombie scenario and instead of denying the zombies any experience, randomly scramble which body has which set of experiences, while holding all the physical and behavioral stuff constant in each body.

    Paraphenomenal is not the same as epiphenomenal. Epiphenomenalism about consciousness is the view that conscious experience has no causal influence, the view that consciousness is a causal dead-end. But most epiphenomenalists believe, indeed emphasize, that conscious experience still correlates with causally efficacious brain processes. On paraphenomenalism, in contrast, there aren't even correlations.

    Complete paraphenomenalism is about as implausible a philosophical view as one is likely to find. However, partial paraphenomenalism has some plausibility as an interpretation of recent empirical evidence, from Moore and others. Partial paraphenomenalism is the view that the correlations between conscious experiences and cognitive processes are weaker and more limited than one might otherwise expect -- that, for example, presence or absence of the conscious experience of visual imagery is largely irrelevant to performance on the types of cognitive tasks that are ordinarily thought to be aided by imagery. If so, this would be one way to explain empirical results suggesting that self-reported visual imagery abilities are largely uncorrelated with performance on "imagery" tasks like mental rotation and mental folding. (See my discussion here and in Ch. 3 of my 2011 book.)

    Especially strikingly to me are the vast differences in the experiences that people report in Russell T. Hurlburt's Descriptive Experience Sampling (e.g., here, here, here, here). Hurlburt "beeps" people at random moments throughout their day. When the beep sounds, their task is to recall their last moment of experience immediately before the beep. Hurlburt then later interviews them about details of the targeted experience. Some of Hurlburt's participants report conscious sensory experiences in almost all of their samples, while others almost never report sensory experiences. Some of Hurlburt's participants report inner speech in almost all of their samples, while others almost never report inner speech. Similarly for emotional feelings, imageless or "unsymbolized" thinking, and visual imagery -- some participants report these things in almost every sample, others never or almost never. Huge, huge differences in the general reported arc of experience! When functional cognitive capacities vary that much between people, it's immediately obvious (e.g., blind people vs. sighted people). But no such radical differences are evident among most of Hurlburt's participants. Participants often even surprise themselves. For example, it's not uncommon for people to initially say, before starting the sampling process, that they experience a stream of constant inner speech, but then report few or no instances of it when actually sampled.

    In his dissertation, Moore finds very large differences in people's reported experiences while reading (some of the preliminary data were reported here), but those reported experiential differences don't seem to predict performance in plausibly related cognitive tasks like recall of visual details from the story (for people reporting high visual imagery), rhyme disambiguation (for people reporting hearing the text in inner speech), or recall of details of the visual layout of the text (for people reporting visually experiencing the words on the page in front of them).

    When faced with radical differences in experiential report that are largely uncorrelated with the expected outward behavior or cognitive skills, we seem to have three interpretative choices:

    1. We could decide that the assumed functional relationship shouldn't have been expected in the first place. For example, in the imagery literature, some researchers decided that it was a mistake to have expected mental rotation ability to correlate with conscious visual imagery. Conscious visual imagery plays an important causal functional role in cognition, just not that role.

    2. We could challenge the accuracy of the subjective reports. This has tended to be my approach in the past. Maybe people who deny having visual sensory experience of the scene before them in Hurlburt's and Moore's data really do have sensory experience but either forget that experience or fail to understand exactly what is being asked.

    3. We could adopt partial paraphenomenalism about the experience. Maybe people really are radically different in their streams of experience while reading, or while going about their daily life, but those differences have little systematic relationship to the remainder of their cognition or behavior (apart from their ability to generate reports). I wouldn't initially have been much attracted to this idea, but I now think it's an important option to keep explicitly on the table. Alan Moore's dissertation builds an interesting case!

    [image source]

    Friday, April 08, 2016

    Awesome New SF Story about the Problem of Consciousness and Scientific Rationalization

    by University of Michigan philosopher and science fiction writer David John Baker, in leading SF podcast Escape Pod:

    The Hunter Captain.


    This is exactly the kind of interaction between philosophy and speculative fiction that I would like to see more of. The philosophical issues drive the story, giving the story depth and interest; at the same time, the vivid character and narrative in the story bring the philosophical issue to life.

    [See also: Philosophical SF: Recommendations from 41 Philosophers]

    Thursday, April 07, 2016

    Some Pragmatic Considerations Against Intellectualism about Belief

    Consider cases in which a person sincerely endorses some proposition ("women are just as smart as men", "family is more important than work", "the working poor deserve as much respect as the financially well off"), but often behaves in ways that fail to fit with that sincerely endorsed proposition (typically treats individual women as dumb, consistently prioritizes work time over family, sees nothing wrong in his or others' disrespectful behavior toward the working poor). Call such cases "dissonant cases" of belief. Intellectualism is the view that in dissonant cases the person genuinely believes the sincerely endorsed proposition, even if she fails to live accordingly. Broad-based views, in contrast, treat belief as a matter of how you steer your way through the world generally.

    Dissonant cases of belief are, I think, "antecedently unclear cases" of the sort I discussed in this post on pragmatic metaphysics. The philosophical concept of belief is sufficiently vague or open-textured that we can choose whether to embrace an account of belief that counts dissonant cases as cases of belief, as intellectualism would do, or whether instead to embrace an account that counts them as cases of failure to believe or as in-between cases that aren't quite classifiable either as believing or as failing to believe.

    I offer the following pragmatic grounds for rejecting intellectualism in favor of a broad-based view. My argument has a trunk and three branches.


    The trunk argument.

    Belief is one of the most central and important concepts in all of philosophy. It is central to philosophy of mind: Belief is the most commonly discussed of the "propositional attitudes". It is central to philosophy of action, where it's standard to regard actions as arising from the interaction of beliefs, desires, and intentions. It is central to epistemology, much of which concerns the conditions under which beliefs are justified or count as knowledge. A concept this important to philosophical thinking should be reserved for the most important thing in the vicinity that can plausibly answer to it. The most important thing in the vicinity is not our patterns of intellectual endorsement. It is our overall patterns of action and reaction. What we say matters, but what we do in general, how we live our lives through the world -- that matters even more.

    Consider a case of implicit classism. Daniel, for example, sincerely says that the working poor deserve equal respect, but in fact for the most part he treats them disrespectfully and doesn't find it jarring when others do so. If we, as philosophers, choose describe Daniel as believing what he intellectually endorses, then we implicitly convey the idea that Daniel's patterns of intellectual endorsement are what matter most to philosophy: Daniel has the attitude that stands at the center of so much of epistemology, philosophy of action, and philosophy of mind. If we instead describe Daniel as a mixed-up, in-betweenish, or even failing to believe what he intellectually endorses, we do not implicitly convey that intellectualist idea.

    Branch 1.

    Too intellectualist a view invites us to adopt noxiously comfortable opinions about ourselves. Suppose our implicit classist Daniel asks himself, "Do I believe that the working poor deserve equal respect?" He notices that he is inclined sincerely to judge that they deserve equal respect. Embracing intellectualism about belief, he concludes that he does believe they deserve equal respect. He can say to himself, then, that he has the attitude that philosophers care about most – belief. Maybe he lacks something else. He lacks "alief" maybe, or the right habits, or something. But based on how philosophers usually talk, you'd think that's kind of secondary. Daniel can comfortably assume that he has the most important thing straightened out. But of course he doesn't.

    Intellectualist philosophers can deny that Daniel does have the most important thing straightened out. They can say that how Daniel treats people matters more than what he intellectually endorses. But if so, their choice of language mismatches their priorities. If they want to say that the central issue of concern in philosophy is, or should be, how you act in general, then the most effective way to encourage others to join them in that thought is to build the importance of one's general patterns of action right into the foundational terms of the discipline.

    Branch 2.

    Too intellectualist a view hides our splintering dispositions. Here's another, maybe deeper, reason Daniel might find himself too comfortable: He might not even think to look at his overall patterns of behavior in evaluating what his attitude is toward the working poor. In Branch 1, I assumed that Daniel knew that his spontaneous reactions were out of line, and he only devalued those spontaneous reactions, not thinking of them as central to the question of whether he believed. But how would he come to know that his spontaneous reactions are out of line? If he's a somewhat reflective, self-critical person, he might just happen to notice that fact about himself. But an intellectualist view of the attitudes doesn’t encourage him to notice that about himself. It encourages Daniel, instead, to determine what his belief is by introspection of or reflection upon what he is disposed to sincerely say or accept.

    In contrast, a broad-based view of belief encourages Daniel to cast his eye more widely in thinking about what he believes. In doing so, he might learn something important. The broad-based approach brings our non-intellectual side forward into view while the intellectualist approach tends to hide that non-intellectual side. Or at least it does so to the extent we are talking specifically about belief -- which is of course a large part of what philosophers do in fact actually talk about in philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, and epistemology.

    Another way in which intellectualism hides our splintering dispositions is this: Suppose Suleyma has the same intellectual inclinations as Daniel but unlike Daniel her whole dispositional structure is egalitarian. She really does, and quite thoroughly, have as much respect for the custodian as for the wealthy business-owner. An intellectualist approach treats Daniel and Suleyma as the same in any domain where what matters is what one believes. They both count as believers, so now let's talk about how belief couples with desire to beget intentions, let's talk about whether their beliefs are justified, let's talk about what set of worlds makes their beliefs true -- for all these purposes, they are modeled in the same way. The difference between them is obscured, unless additional effort is made to bring it to light.

    You might think Daniel's and Suleyma's differences don't matter too much. They're worth hiding or eliding away or disregarding unless for some reason those differences become important. If that's your view, then an intellectualist approach to belief is for you. If on the other hand, you think their differences are crucially important in a way that ought to disallow treating them as equivalent in matters of belief, then an intellectualist view is not for you. Of course, the differences matter for some purposes and not so much for other purposes. The question is whether on balance it's better to put those differences in the foreground or to tuck them away as a nuance.

    Branch 3.

    Too intellectualist a view risks downgrading our responsibility. It's a common idea in philosophy that we are responsible for our beliefs. We don't choose our beliefs in any straightforward way, but if our beliefs don't align with the best evidence available to us we are epistemically blameworthy for that failure of alignment. In contrast, our habits, spontaneous reactions, that sort of thing -- those are not in our control, at least not directly, and we are less blameworthy for them. My true self, my "real" attitude, the being I most fundamentally am, the locus of my freedom and responsibility -- that's constituted by the aspects of myself that I consciously endorse upon reflection. You can see how the intellectualist view of belief fits nicely with this.

    I think that view is almost exactly backwards. Our intellectual endorsements, when they don't align with our lived behavior, count for little. They still count for something, but what matters more is how we spontaneously live our way through the world, how we actually treat the people we are with, the actual practical choices we make. That is the "real" us. And if Daniel says, however sincerely, that he is an egalitarian, but he doesn't live that way, I don't want to call him a straight-up egalitarian. I don't want to excuse him by saying that his inegalitarian reactions are mere uncontrollable habit and not the real him. It's easy to talk. It's hard to change your life. I don't want to let you off the hook for it in that way, and I don't want to let myself off the hook. I don't want to say that I really believe and I am somehow kind of alienated from all my unlovely habits and reactions. It's more appropriately condemnatory to say that my attitude, my belief state, is actually pretty mixed up.

    It's hard to live up to all the wonderful values and aspirations we intellectually endorse. I am stunned by the breadth and diversity of our failures. What we sincerely say we believe about ourselves and the people around us and how we actually spontaneously react to people and what we actually choose and do -- so often they are so far out of line with each other! So I think we've got to have quite a lot of forgiveness and sympathy for our failures. My empirical, normative, pragmatic conjecture is this: In an appropriate context of forgiveness and sympathy, the best way to frankly confront our regular failure to live up to our verbally espoused attitudes is to avoid placing intellectual endorsements too close to the center of philosophy.

    [image source]

    Tuesday, March 29, 2016

    Introspective Attention as Perception with a Twist

    Tomorrow I'm off to the Pacific APA in San Francisco. Thursday 4-6 I'm commenting on Wayne Wu's "Introspection as Attention and Action". This post is adapted from those comments.

    (Also Wed 6 pm I'm presenting my paper "A Pragmatic Approach to the Metaphysics of Belief" and Sat 6-9 I'm critic in an author-meets-critics on Jay Garfield's Engaging Buddhism. Feel free to stop by!)


    What does introspective attention to one's perceptual experiences amount to? As I look at my desk, I can attend to or think about my ongoing sensory experiences, reaching judgments about their quality or character. For example, I'm visually experiencing a brownish, slightly complicated oblong shape in my visual periphery (which I know to be my hat). I'm having auditory experience of my coffee-maker spitting and bubbling as it brews the pot. What exactly am I doing, in the process of reaching these judgments?

    One thing that I'm not doing, according to Wayne Wu, is launching a new process, distinct from the perceptual processes of seeing the hat and hearing the coffee-maker, which turns an "attentional spotlight" upon those perceptual processes. Introspective attention, Wu argues -- and I agree -- is a matter of applying phenomenal concepts in the course of ordinary perceiving, with the goal of arriving at a judgment about your perceptual experience -- doing so in a way that isn't radically different from the way in which, according to your goals, you can aim to categorize the things you perceive along any of several different dimensions.

    I hope the following is a Wu-friendly way of developing the idea. Suppose you're looking at a coffee mug. You can do so with any of a variety of perceptual goals in mind. You can look at it with the aim of noticing details about its color -- its precise shade and how consistent or variable its color is across its face. You can look at it with the aim of noticing details of its shape. You can look at it with the aim of thinking about how it could effectively be used as a weapon. You can look at it with a critical aesthetic eye. Each of these aims is a way of attending differently to the mug, resulting in judgments that employ different conceptual categories.

    You can also look at the mug with an introspective aim, or rather with one of several introspective aims. You can look at the mug with the aim of reaching conclusions about what your visual experience is as you look at the mug rather than with the aim of reaching conclusions about the physical mug itself. You might be interested in noticing your experience of the mug's color, possibly distinct from mug's real color. According to Wu, this is not a process radically different from ordinary acts of perception. Introspection your visual experience of the color or shape of the mug is not a two-stage process that consists of first perceiving the mug and then second of introspecting the experiences that arise in the course of that perceptual act.

    The approach Wu and I favor is especially attractive in thinking about what the early introspective psychologists E.B. Titchener and E.G. Boring called "R-error" or "stimulus error". Imagine that you're lying on your stomach and an experimenter is gently poking the bare skin of your back with either one or two toothpicks. You might have one of two different tasks. An objective task would be to guess whether you are being poked by only one toothpick or instead by both toothpicks at once. You answer with either "one" or "two". It's easy to tell that you're being poked by two if the toothpicks are several centimeters apart, but once they are brought close enough together, the task becomes difficult. Two toothpicks placed within a centimeter of each other on your back are likely to feel like only a single toothpick. The objective task would be to guess how many toothpicks you are being poked with in reality.

    An introspective task might be very similar but with a crucial difference: You are asked to report whether you have tactile experience of two separate regions of pressure or only one region. Again you might answer "one" or "two". This is of course not the same as the objective task. You're reporting not on facts about the toothpicks but rather on facts about your experience of the toothpicks. The objective task and the introspective task have different truth conditions. For example if two toothpicks are pressed to your back only 6 millimeters apart and you say "one" you've given the wrong answer if your task is objective but quite possibly the right answer if your task is introspective.

    [Edwin G. Boring in 1961]

    Here's the thing that Titchener and Boring noticed, which they repeatedly warn against in their discussions of introspective methodology: People very easily slide back and forth between the introspective task and the objective task. It's not entirely natural to keep them distinct in your mind over the course of a long series of stimuli. You might be assigned the introspective task, for example, and start saying "one", "one", "two", "one", "two", "two", "two" -- at first your intentions are clearly introspective, but then by the thirtieth trial you have slipped into the more familiar objective way of responding and you're just guessing how many toothpicks there actually are, rather than reporting introspectively. If you've slipped from the introspective to the objective mode of reporting, you've committed what Titchener and Boring call stimulus error.

    For Wu's and my view, the crucial point is this: It's very easy to shift unintentionally between the two ways of deploying your perceptual faculties. In fact I'm inclined to think -- I don't know if Wu would agree with me about this -- that for substantial stretches of the experiment your intentions might be vague enough that there's no determinate fact about the content of your utterances. Is your "one" really a report about your experience or a report about the world outside? It might be kind of muddy, kind of in-between. You're just rolling along not very thoughtful of the distinction. What distinguishes the introspective judgment from the perceptual judgment in this case is a kind of minor thing about your background intentions in making your report.

    Introspection of perceptual experience is perception with a twist, with an aim slightly different from the usual aim of reporting on the outside world. That's the idea. It's not a distinct cognitive process that begins after the perceptual act ends, ontologically distinct from the perceptual act and taking the perceptual act as its target.

    When you know that your experience might be misleading, the difference can matter to your reporting. For example, if you know that you're pretty bad at detecting two toothpicks when they're close together and you have reason to think that lots of the trials will have toothpicks close together, and if your focus is on objective reporting, you might say: "Well, 50-50% -- might be one, might be two for all I know". For introspective reporting, in contrast, you might say something like "Sure feels like one, though I know you might well actually be touching me with two".

    In visual experience, noticing blurriness is similar. Take off your glasses or cross your eyes. You know enough about the world to know that your coffee mug hasn't become objectively vague-edged and blurry. So you attribute the blurriness to your experience. This is a matter of seeing the world and reaching judgments about your experience in the process. You reach an experiential judgment rather than or in addition to an objective judgment just because of certain background facts about your cognition. Imagine someone so naive and benighted as to think that maybe actual real-world coffee mugs do in fact become vague bordered and blurry edged when she takes off her glasses. It seems conceivable that we could so bizarrely structure someone's environment that she actually came to adulthood thinking this. That person might then not know whether to apply blurriness to the outward object or to her experience of the object. It's a similar perceptual act of looking at the mug, but given different background concepts and assumptions in one case she reaches an introspective attribution while in the other case she reaches an objective attribution.

    [image source]



  • "Introspection, What?" (2012), in D. Smithies and D. Stoljar, eds., Introspection and Consciousness (Oxford). My own positive account of the nature of introspection.
  • "Introspection". My Stanford Encyclopedia review article on theories of introspection.
  • "The Problem of Known Illusion and the Resemblance of Experience to Reality" (2014), Philosophy of Science 81, 954-960. Puzzlement and possible metaphysical juice, arising from reflections on the weird relation between objective and introspective reporting.
  • Wednesday, March 23, 2016

    My Workday as a Philosophy Professor

    [cross-posted from The Philosophers' Cocoon, "Real Philosophy Jobs Part 3"]

    How hard does the typical tenured professor work, and on what? Good information is hard to come by. I will describe my own workload and typical workday, as one data point.

    I am a full professor of philosophy, with a six-digit salary and tenure at UC Riverside, whose philosophy PhD program is ranked 28th in the US by the Philosophical Gourmet. Our normal teaching load is four 10-week courses (plus final exams) spread over three “quarters” (hence 1-2-1), plus independent supervision of graduate students.

    Unlike most of my colleagues, I try to work regular workdays – about 8:00 to 5:30 Monday to Friday, with evenings and weekends reserved for home life (below, I’ll add some caveats to that). I also try to have relatively normal holidays: the official US holidays, a couple weeks for family vacation during the summer, about a week over winter break, and a smattering of other days off.

    My typical day:


    Email is a major part of the job. After arriving at the office around 8:00, I’ll usually spend my first hour reading and answering email. I’ll also check and answer email through the rest of the day. The distinction between “answering email” and “doing tasks that were precipitated by receiving an email” is vague, but I’d estimate that I spend about two hours a day reading and answering emails. Last week I received 359 email messages, almost none of which were junk mail from corporations. (I use a separate email account for that.) Approximately one half were group emails that I could skim or ignore. The other half I had to actually read. About half of those, I replied to. I of course also send emails that are not simply replies. Last week, I sent 107 email messages. That’s an average of 36 substantive incoming and 21 outgoing messages per weekday. If I spend one minute per message, that’s already an hour a day right there. Of course some messages require less time, others substantially more.

    Here’s a Monday morning sample, which includes Friday evening through 10:00 a.m. Monday: a few emails discussing dinner plans after a talk at the APA; two submitted blog comments which I approved (including one where I followed a link to an interesting article that I’d already read); an email from a potential coauthor about an op-ed piece we’re considering writing together; A-V information about an upcoming talk; three emails in a four-way philosophical discussion about Asian philosophy and oneness; an undergraduate request for me to write a letter of recommendation, which I replied to with substantial advice; a reminder about some written interview questions that I got last week and haven’t yet managed to answer; a question from another philosopher about my data collection methods from a recent paper; an email trying to coordinate a meeting with a colleague at the coming APA; two requests to referee articles for journals (one accepted, one declined); three emails of thanks for reference letters I wrote last week; an email confirming that my request for $10,000 to organize a mini-conference has been approved, precipitating a message to my collaborator about next steps; a link to a recently published article citing one of my articles, interesting enough that I read the abstract, downloaded, and quickly skimmed for possible later reading; two emails from my wife with info about getting my son organized for applying to colleges next year; a couple emails about arranging the hotels for my trip to Hong Kong in May; an email from a speaker I’ve invited to talk at UCR next year who is unsure whether he’ll be able to fit it into his schedule; and two emails concerning getting the overhead lights in my office fixed. That gives you the flavor, I think!

    Classroom teaching:

    Most of my undergraduate classes are already prepped from previous years. I’ll spend about 60-90 minutes refreshing myself on the material and reviewing and tweaking my overheads. (If it’s material I haven’t taught before, it takes several hours.) Then I’ll spend 50 minutes on a lecture stage in front of hundreds of students (for a lower-division class), 80 minutes in lecture-and-informal discussion with about 30 students (for an upper-division class), or three hours in focused discussion with about 8 students (for a grad seminar).

    Teaching the giant lecture classes is stressful, but also a thrill when it goes well. When I switched from the ordinary “Introduction to Philosophy” material to material that more students cared about, with real emotional resonance – lynching, the Holocaust, sex and death, the role of cognition and emotion in moral development, starvation amid wealth – I found my passion for the lower division teaching. One time, the two hundred students were so still in the lecture hall that the motion sensors decided the classroom was empty and the lights turned themselves off. Whoa. When I can bring that intensity to students on topics like these, that feels meaningful and worthwhile.

    In upper-division courses and grad seminars, I rely on more from the students. Classes become a mix of semi-structured mini-lectures, freewheeling tangents, and informal debate among students. UCR students are strong enough that their discussions are reliably interesting as long as I can do two things: (a.) draw out the best in students’ sometimes half-baked ideas, and (b.) succeed in expanding the conversation away from just the most assertive talkers.


    On days when I’m not teaching, probably about half of my time is research. On teaching days, research is sometimes squeezed out altogether. Research is mostly reading and writing, but I also (unusually for a philosopher) also do some experimental work and data analysis.

    Reading. I don’t read many books cover to cover. I read a mix of happenstance material and targeted material. The happenstance will be recent articles from journal tables of contents, articles or books or book chapters that people have mentioned or emailed to me as possibly of interest (including their own work), work that cites my own, and other work that catches my eye for whatever reason. The targeted material will be current or classic or historical work that is relevant to an article or blog post that I am currently writing or thinking about. For example, for my recent paper on rationalization with Jon Ellis, I read through bunches of relevant psychological literature, some fun classic work from the history of psychology, a whole bunch of Habermas (which I ended up only barely citing but seemed worth knowing anyway), relevant work by philosophers on rationalization and on self-knowledge, and various tangentially related material.

    Writing: Blog. I have an active blog, The Splintered Mind, where I try to post at least once a week, usually about 500-1000 words with a fresh idea about something I’ve been working on recently. Typically this takes me a few hours, plus maybe another hour replying to comments on the blog or on social media sites where I’ve linked to the blog. I find it good discipline to get my ideas out there in some sort of comprehensible shape on a regular basis, and to get some feedback about them. I usually try not to spend more than five hours blogging per week.

    Writing: Articles. I am always bursting with writing ideas – far more stuff than I can actually write up. (The blog is a good vent for ideas that won’t make it into articles.) A first draft will normally take me about an hour a page. Most of my non-empirical articles go through one to five top-to-bottom rewrites from beginning to end, plus multiple smaller-scale revisions and rereadings. For me, a typical full-length published article reflects about 100-200 hours of writing and revising. I try to write always for two audiences simultaneously: the fast skimming reader who just wants the big picture and the careful nitpicking reader who is looking to critique me on details. I care about prose style. I care about trying to draw the reader in, about revealing the importance of the issues, about being fun and accessible rather than dry and technical, to the extent that’s compatible with rigorously covering the issues. I love the craft of writing.

    Writing: Other. I’ve also recently started writing science fiction and op-eds. Because why not? These can, of course, take a lot of time, and it’s a challenge to acquire the relevant skills. (I rather enjoy the challenge.) It helps that I’ve recently been getting grant money for teaching release, so that I don’t have to compromise my other research to do these things.

    One of the things I love about this job, especially now that I’m tenured, is the enormous freedom I have to read and write whatever I feel like reading and writing, at whatever pace and schedule I feel like doing so. Especially during the summer, my office is a playground for my mind. Of course, it’s not always like that – when I commit to particular writing projects with deadlines and/or co-authors, I have to prioritize them on a schedule I might not prefer, and there are the frequent scheduled demands of teaching and meetings that can feel like they get in the way of my passionate desire to think and read and write, and of course there’s always the stack of email which if I ignore for even one day becomes quite daunting by the next.

    Other Stuff:

    Meetings. During the term, I probably average about 1-2 hours in meetings per day. This includes university committee meetings, faculty meetings, departmental talks and receptions, graduate student oral exams, open-door office hours, and one-on-one meetings in person or by phone or Skype with students, collaborators, and colleagues.

    Grading. Grading undergraduate exams and essays is a pretty tough slog, and probably my least favorite part of the job – though those occasional “A” papers are like lights in the mist. When I’m teaching upper-division without TAs, this will be several hours a week several weeks of the term. Evaluating graduate student essays and dissertations is not as grueling, but is still quite a bit of work – in combination amounting to hundreds of comments over hundreds of pages.

    Miscellaneous Tasks. These typically come via email – things I can’t just respond to with a quick email in reply. They include: writing letters of recommendation; writing referee reports on articles submitted to journals; organizing events; organizing travel and financial matters (including applying for and managing grants); dealing with students with special issues; keeping up to some extent with what’s going on in the philosophical corners of social media and the popular press; evaluating research proposals as part of a committee or review board or as an outside evaluator; planning new courses or course material; evaluating graduate admissions applications if I’m on the admissions committee or job applications if I’m on a hiring committee; evaluating the promotion and merit files of my colleagues; completing well-intentioned administrative forms; and other such – I’m sure I’ve forgotten some.

    Although I don’t conceptualize this “other stuff” as research, most of it does expose me, in one way or another, to work going on in the field.

    I’ll take about 15 minutes for lunch (walk to the student cafeteria then walk back, often eating en route) and maybe another 30 minutes over the day for non-philosophy stuff like internet news, humor items, non-philosophy social media, and family-related things.

    When I’m Not in the Office:

    Morning walks. I walk an hour every morning – often my favorite part of the day. I’ll let my mind drift. Maybe a third of the time I’m drifting off into philosophical thoughts, things I’d like to write or revise, blog post ideas, project plans, etc. Sometimes I’ll listen to a podcast or a text-to-speech article (philosophy, science fiction, or otherwise), or I’ll look a bit at social media. When I’ve slept well and in a good mood, I’m just bursting with enthusiasm and fun ideas – sometimes ideas that seem a bit too silly in my more sober moods later.

    Evenings and weekends. Evenings and weekends, I prioritize family. I’ll check social media a bit, sometimes reading or commenting on philosophical things, but always in a light way – never in a concentrated-this-feels-like-work way. I won’t check email, except maybe to scan headers if I think there might be something urgent. I always read before going to sleep – about half an hour, often something related to philosophy but which doesn’t feel workish, such as a popular book of history or psychology or some speculative science fiction.

    Travel. I have a deal with my family: four out-of-town trips per year, one of which is overseas. The overseas trip will usually be about two weeks, and I’ll try to string together a bunch of talks at different places, in quick succession. The other three will normally be 2-4 nights, and I’ll try to string together two or three talks in nearby places if it can be arranged.

    So How Much Do I Work and on What?

    If we figure that the travel approximately cancels out the arbitrary days I take off, that leaves me with about 49 weeks per year, at about (9:30 minus 0:45) x 5 = 43.75 hours per week, plus some hard-to-count off-the-clock stuff like light reading at night and philosophical thinking during my morning walks. Maybe about 40% my work time is reading and writing with research ends in mind, about 25% of it teaching related, and 35% everything else.

    But all this task-and-hour-counting omits something essential: the extent to which my work has shaped my sense of who I am and what I value. I could not simply cut it away. As my children will attest, I am a philosopher even in my light-hearted play with them. I have become what my work has made me.

    Thursday, March 17, 2016

    "Crash Spaces" for Ancestral Ways of Meaning-Making

    R. Scott Bakker's story "Crash Space", which I solicited for a special issue of Midwest Studies in Philosophy last year, is stuck in my head.

    Without giving away too much of Bakker's story, here's the guiding thought: A world in which you have almost complete voluntary control over your emotions is a world in which your emotions won't effectively do their job in regulating your behavior. It's crucial to the operation of an emotion like guilt or ecstatically forgetful bliss that it be at least partly outside your direct control. Otherwise, why not just turn off the guilt and amp up bliss and go wild?

    In fact, once you even start to dampen down your moral emotions or long-term thinking, that might create a situation in which you'll then dampen those emotions farther -- since there will be less guilt, shame, etc., to prevent you from continuing to downregulate. It's easy to see how a vicious cycle could start and be hard to escape. If you could, in a moment of recklessness, say to yourself "let's crank up the carpe diem and forget tomorrow!" and then (through emotion-regulating technology) actually do that, then it might be hard to find your way back to moderation. A bit of normal short-term thinking might lead you to temporarily dampen your concern for the future, but once concern for the future is dampened your new short-term-thinking self might naturally be inclined to say, "what the heck, let's dampen it even more!"

    In a postscript to his story, Bakker defines a crash space as "a problem solving domain where our tools seem to fit the description, but cannot seem to get the job done" (p. 203). Bakker argues, plausibly, that the cognitive and emotional structures that give meaning to our lives and constrain us ethically can be expected to work only in a limited range of environments -- roughly, environments similar in their basic structure to those in our evolutionary and cultural history. Break far enough away, and our ancestrally familiar approaches will cease to function effectively.

    For a very different set of cases in the same vein, consider utility monster and fission-fusion monster cases that might well become possible if we can someday create human-like consciousness in computers or robots. (Utility monsters are capable of vastly superhuman amounts of pleasure. Fission-fusion monsters are individuals who can merge and subdivide at will.) The human notion of individual rights, for example, only makes sense in a context in which targets of moral concern are individuals who remain discrete from each other for long periods of time -- who don't merge and divide and blend into each other. Break this assumption, and much of our ordinary moral thinking seems to break along with it. (See also Briggs and Nolan 2015.) What becomes of "one person, one vote", for example, when people can divide into a million individuals the day before the election and then merge back together again -- or not -- the day after, or when you have a huge entity with many semi-independent subparts?

    Part of the potential philosophical power of science fiction, I think, is in imagining possible crash spaces for our ancestral, historical, or socially familiar ways of finding personal and moral meaning in the world. Pushing imaginatively against existing boundaries, we can begin to see possible risks in the future. But discovering our crash spaces is also of intrinsic philosophical interest, potentially revealing previously unnoticed implicit background assumptions behind our ordinary patterns of evaluation.

    Some other interesting science fiction on the hazards of external self-control of emotions include Larry Niven's pleasure-center-simulating tasps and ecstasy plugs (turn on and forget even to eat!), and Greg Egan's exoselves in Permutation City and Diaspora (shell programs that regulate one's personality and preferences).

    One flip side of Bakker's "Crash Space" is Egan's short story "Reasons to Be Cheerful", about the challenge of choosing a new set of desires and preferences from scratch, in a self-conscious, hyper-rational way.

    [image source]

    Monday, March 14, 2016

    Changes in the Race and Gender of U.S. Philosophy Faculty, 1988-2004

    Historical data on the percentage of women and minorities in philosophy in the U.S. are hard to find. It's clear that the numbers have increased since the 1970s, but it's possible that some of the trends have flattened since the 1990s. Without good historical data, it's hard to evaluate this possible flattening.

    So I put in a request to the National Center for Education Statistics, and they generated estimates of the percentage of women and the percentage of non-Hispanic white people in philosophy vs. other disciplines based on governmental surveys conducted from 1988, 1993, 1999, and 2004. These data concern only full-time faculty in 4-year institutions.

    With their permission, I've made these NCES estimates available here (XLSX format).

    The 1988 and 1993 are aggregate data for philosophy, religion, and theology (which appear not to have been coded separately in the NCES survey raw data). However, I believe that these aggregated data can serve as reasonable estimates for philosophy in those two years, as I'll explain in point (4) below.

    Gender data:

    1988: philosophy*: 91% male (vs. 75% for all fields).

    1993: philosophy*: 88% male (vs. 70% for all fields).

    1999: philosophy: 80% male (vs. 67% for all fields).

    2004: philosophy: 86% male (vs. 64% for all fields).

    Race/ethnicity data:

    1988: philosophy*: 93% white non-Hispanic (vs. 89% for all fields).

    1993: philosophy*: 95% white non-Hispanic (vs. 86% for all fields).

    1999: philosophy: 91% white non-Hispanic (vs. 84% for all fields).

    2004: philosophy: 89% white non-Hispanic (vs. 80% for all fields).


    (1.) Unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with the demographics of philosophy in the U.S., philosophy was very white and very male throughout the period -- more so than academia as a whole. The trends have been toward increasing diversity, but only slowly.

    (2.) The fluctuations suggest statistical error of at least a few percent. On the second page of the worksheet, you can also see the calculated standard errors from the NCES, generally about 1-4%. The dip from 88% to 80% back up to 86% in particular seems unlikely to reflect real demographic change. Turnover in full-time positions is slow; the field doesn't change that fast.

    (3.) For comparison, the U.S. Survey of Earned Doctorates from the 1990s shows 73% of U.S. philosophy PhDs going to men and 91% going to non-Hispanic whites (the latter number excludes temporary residents and decline-to-state). So PhD recipients during the period had a bit more gender and ethnic diversity than faculty as a whole, consistent with a slow trend toward diversification.

    (4.) As mentioned, the 1988 and 1993 numbers are actually numbers from "philosophy, religion, and theology". I nonetheless believe that these are also decent estimates for philosophy alone. My reasoning is this: (a.) In the chart linked to above, we can see that philosophy and religion are treated separately and together in 1999 and 2004. The aggregate estimate is always somewhat closer to philosophy than to religion, suggesting that there are somewhat fewer faculty in religion -- which also fits with recent data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates (e.g., in 2009 423 doctorates were awarded in philosophy and 323 in religion). (b.) The race and gender percentages for religion and philosophy in 1999 and 2004 aren't hugely different, though religion tends to be a little closer to parity than philosophy in both respects (which also fits with recent SED data, which finds religion to be almost as race and gender-skewed as philosophy). For example, averaging 1999 and 2004, philosophy has 83.2% men to religion's 81.0%, and 90.0% white non-Hispanic to religion's 84.6%. So, combined with point a, the percentages for philosophy alone are likely to be similar to the percentages for philosophy and religion together, perhaps philosophy alone a bit more white and male. Of course, because of the nature of this estimate, as well as the fluctuations noted in (2) above, we should keep in mind that these are rough estimates, probably good only plus or minus a few percentage points.

    Tuesday, March 08, 2016

    New Paper in Draft: Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical Thought

    ... coauthored with Jonathan Ellis.


    Rationalization, in our intended sense of the term, occurs when a person favors a particular conclusion as a result of some factor (such as self-interest) that is of little justificatory epistemic relevance, if that factor then biases the person’s subsequent search for, and assessment of, potential justifications for the conclusion. Empirical evidence suggests that rationalization is common in ordinary people’s moral and philosophical thought. We argue that it is likely that the moral and philosophical thought of philosophers and moral psychologists is also pervaded by rationalization. Moreover, although rationalization has some benefits, overall it would be epistemically better if the moral and philosophical reasoning of both ordinary people and professional academics were not as heavily influenced by rationalization as it likely is. We discuss the significance of our arguments for cognitive management and epistemic responsibility.

    Full paper here.

    Thoughts and comments welcome, as always -- either in the comments field of this post or by email to me or Jon.

    Saturday, March 05, 2016

    Like the Oscars, #PhilosophySoWhite

    ... a new piece in the L.A. Times by Myisha Cherry and me.

    Academic philosophy in the United States has a diversity problem.

    No other discipline of comparable size in the humanities is as gender-skewed as philosophy. Women still receive only about 28% of philosophy PhDs in the United States, and are still only about 20% of full professors of philosophy — numbers that have hardly budged since the 1990s. And among U.S. citizens and permanent residents receiving philosophy PhDs in this country, 86% are non-Hispanic white. The only comparably-sized disciplines that are more white are the ones that explicitly focus on the European tradition, such as English literature.

    Black people are especially difficult to find in academic philosophy. Black people or African Americans constitute 13% of the U.S. population, 7% of PhD recipients across all fields, 2% of PhD recipients in philosophy, and less than 0.5% of authors in the most prominent philosophy journals.

    One of the main causes of homogeneity in philosophy, we believe, is subjectivity and bias in the evaluation of philosophical quality.

    continued here

    Some thoughts occasioned by the discussion I've seen of this piece since it went live last night:

    (1.) Shelley Tremain pointed out that we don't mention the underrepresentation of disabled people in philosophy (some stats and discussion in her piece here). As Tremain has emphasized, discussions of diversity tend to focus on race and gender to the exclusion of other dimensions of diversity, and I think we fell too much into that standard mode of thinking. I would conjecture that the same "seeming smart" phenomenon disadvantages people with visible disabilities that are stereotypically culturally associated with low power and low academic skill, and that this might explain the underrepresentation of such people in the profession, regardless of actual skill levels.

    (2.) I think one way to begin to address the issue (in addition to direct action to increase diversity) is to shift the culture of philosophy a bit more toward valuing plain-spoken philosophy, with minimal apparatus, which discusses issues that non-philosophers find interesting. I think this might have at least two positive effects: First it would make philosophy more attractive to people from a wide range of perspectives; and second it would improve our ability to evaluate quality, reducing the role of dazzling incomprehensible showmanship in the discipline. (This isn't to deny a role for highly technical philosophy, such as technical formal logic and detailed examination of the texts of historical figures. I would just advocate some shift in emphasis.)

    (3.) Myisha and I didn't have a chance to discuss how these things play out in other disciplines. I am not expert in other disciplines (except psychology to some extent), but I do have some data-supported conjectures. The entire story will be complex and multi-factorial. Some things to note: Mathematics, the physical sciences, and engineering are approximately as gender-skewed as philosophy. They are somewhat less race-skewed. (I don't know of class and disability data for these disciplines.) I suspect that this skew arises from a somewhat different confluence of factors (including associations of math and gender going back into childhood), though I think there's probably also substantial overlap since "seeming smart" is, I suspect, very important throughout academia, and the math-gender relationship also penetrates philosophy to some extent (especially philosophy of math and physics).

    (4.) Another interesting disciplinary comparison is literature. Literature, I think, shares with philosophy a very high level of subjectivity and cultural variability in quality assessment. It is much less gender-skewed. The race skew story is complicated by the fact that many literature programs focus explicitly on the European tradition (e.g., English, French). Again, I don't know of disability data and economic-privilege data. I see at least two important differences between literature and philosophy: One is that cultural associations with beauty and artistic creativity are not as white-male-centric as are cultural associations with intelligence (think of the stereotypes of the beautiful woman and the creative black jazz musician) and assessments of beauty and creativity may play a proportionately larger role in literature than in philosophy. The other is that literature as a set of academic disciplines in our culture has made more effort to explicitly diversify its canon than has philosophy, and diversifying the canon might tend to lead toward the diversification of the professors teaching that canon, via a few different mechanisms.

    (5.) Our brief discussion of this study didn't make the final cutdown for the op-ed, but we think it's important and supports our hypothesis. On Rate My Professors, undergraduate students are more likely to use the word "brilliant" to describe philosophy instructors -- especially male philosophy instructors -- than instructors in any of the other nine fields examined. These data fit both the gender skew in perceptions of "seeming smart" and our conjecture that seeming smart is a skill even more central to philosophy than other academic disciplines.

    (6.) Four interesting, related papers on seeming smart in philosophy:
    * Liam Kofi Bright "Against Candidate Quality";
    * Katrina Hutchison "Sages and Cranks: The Difficulty of Identifying First-Rate Philosophers;
    * Jennifer Saul "Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Women in Philosophy";
    * Dan Sperber "The Guru Effect".