Thursday, July 11, 2019

Ethics Classes Can Influence Student Behavior: Students Purchase Less Meat after Discussing Arguments for Vegetarianism

by Eric Schwitzgebel, Bradford Cokelet, and Peter Singer

[poster presentation for the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, 2019 meeting]

All data and analyses are tentative, pending final checks and peer review.


Work by Haidt (2012) and Schwitzgebel & Rust (2016) suggests that philosophical ethical argumentation might have little influence on real-world moral behavior.

However, to our knowledge there are no existing ecologically valid studies of the influence of university-level philosophy classes on non-laboratory, non-self-reported moral behavior.


1143 undergraduates in four large lower-division classes at U.C. Riverside.


Half of students were required to read a philosophy article defending vegetarianism (Rachels 2004), followed by a group discussion section and an optional advocacy video.

The other half received similar materials and discussion on charitable giving.

Opinion Measure

Later that week, students received an anonymous questionnaire asking their opinion about four moral issues.

The target question was “Eating the meat of factory farmed animals is unethical” with response options from “strongly agree” (+3) to “strongly disagree” (-3).

Behavioral Measure

We examined campus dining card purchase data for 5,981 campus food purchases from 476 students for whom data were available.

Only purchases of at least $4.99 were included.

Purchases were coded as either vegetarian or non-vegetarian.

Results: Opinion

In the meat ethics group, 43% of respondents agreed (+1 to +3) that eating the meat of factory farmed animals is unethical, compared to 29% in the charitable giving control group (z = 5.0, p < .001; mean +0.12 vs -0.46, t(1029) = 5.6, p < .001).

Responses to other ethical questions, including one about charitable giving, did not differ between the groups.

Results: Purchase Behavior

In the control group, 52% of purchases included meat, both before and after the discussion section.

In the meat ethics group, meat purchases declined from 52% to 45% (z = 3.3, p = .001).

Participant-by-participant among students with purchases both before and after the discussion:

  • The control group averaged 53% meat purchases both before and after.
  • The meat ethics group averaged 56% meat purchases before and 45% after (paired t(162) = 4.3, p < .001).
  • Monday, July 01, 2019

    Elite Philosophy PhD Programs Mostly Admit Students from Other Elite Schools (or Sorry, Cal State Undergrads, No Berkeley Grad School for You!)

    Do elite PhD programs in the U.S. admit mostly students from elite undergraduate backgrounds? Let's look at the numbers. (Spoiler alert: yes.)

    Let's call a U.S.-based PhD program in philosophy "elite" if it is among the top ten ranked programs in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. Let's call a U.S. college or university elite if it is among the top 25 "national research universities" or the top 15 "national liberal arts colleges" in US News & World Report. For purposes of philosophy PhD admissions specifically, let's add five more schools to this elite list: NYU, Rutgers, Michigan, and Pitt due to the the top-five PGR ranking of their philosophy PhD programs, and Reed College, which has a well-deserved reputation as an elite liberal arts college, especially among philosophers, despite its notoriously low US News ranking. This yields 13 elite PhD programs in philosophy in the U.S. (due to a five-way tie for 9th) and 46 elite U.S. colleges and universities that they might draw from (due to a two-way tie for 25th among national research universities). Of course all such rankings are imperfect.

    To assess the undergraduate background of students in the top ten programs, I examined student information on departments' websites. Undergraduate institution was readily available for philosophy PhD students on the websites of 8 of the 13 elite PhD programs: NYU, Rutgers, Michigan, Pitt, Yale, USC, Columbia, and Berkeley. The biggest systematic shortcoming in the data was that Columbia provided information for only about half of their listed graduate students. In all, the departmental websites listed 332 current or recently completed PhD students. The most recent previous educational institution was available for 281 students (85%) and undergraduate institution was unambiguously available for 252 students (76%).[1]

    Foreign Students

    The primary analysis concerns U.S. students. Therefore, I excluded from analysis 83 students whose most recent degree was from a non-U.S. university who did not unambiguously receive an undergraduate degree from a U.S. university.[2] This constituted 30% of the 281 students for whom most recent previous educational institution was available.

    If this estimate is accurate, elite philosophy PhD programs have a larger proportion of foreign students than do nonelite philosophy PhD programs: The National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates shows only 14% of recipients of philosophy PhDs in 2017 to have been temporary visa holders.

    Elite universities are highly represented among the 100 students whose most recent previous university was non-U.S.: 24 (!) were from Oxford, 10 from Toronto, 8 from Cambridge, 5 from McGill, and 4 from St Andrews. Half of the students hailed from just these five universities. Many (but not all) of the rest hailed from universities that count among the most elite in their respective countries, such as Peking (Beijing), Pisa, and UNAM.[3]

    Graduate Study Before the PhD

    The primary analysis concerns U.S. undergraduate institution. However, it is also interesting to examine graduate study before the PhD. Of 176 the students whose most recent institution was in the U.S. (excluding five with unclear information), 48 (27%) had Master's degrees, law degrees, or similar graduate work. Thus, contrary to some rumors, most U.S. students in elite PhD programs are admitted straight from undergraduate study.

    Most students with previous graduate degrees attended an elite university or a leading terminal Master's program: Nineteen of the 48 hailed from one of the five terminal M.A. programs described as "very strong" in the PGR (Tufts, Brandeis, Georgia State, Northern Illinois, and Milwaukee) and another fourteen hailed from elite national universities (Harvard, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale). Just six universities accounted for more than half of U.S. students' prior graduate degrees: Harvard, Milwaukee, Northern Illinois, Stanford, Tufts, and Yale.[4]

    The Majority of U.S. Students in Elite PhD Programs Received Their Bachelor's Degrees from Other Elite Schools

    Using the definitions of "elite" above, and treating the available data as representative, the majority of U.S. students in elite philosophy PhD programs received their undergraduate degrees from other elite schools.

    Of the 183 students with listed U.S. undergraduate degrees, 106 (60%) hailed from elite schools. Five universities contributed at least eight students to the list, that is, at least one student per examined PhD program: Berkeley (10), Chicago (10), NYU (10), Harvard (8), and Stanford (8). These five schools alone are responsible for 25% of listed students. Several other elite schools contributed at least four students each: Rutgers (6), Princeton (5), Yale (5), Dartmouth (4), Reed (4), and Williams (4).[5] Each of the top ten ranked national universities contributed at least one student.

    Only a Small Percentage of Students Are from Unranked Schools

    I count 20 students total (11%) from schools that are not nationally ranked in US News. (These schools are all regionally ranked.) Represented are: Cal Baptist, Calvin College (3), Cedarville, College of Charleston, Columbia College, CUNY Brooklyn, James Madison, Loyola Marymount, Middle Tennessee, Missouri-Kansas City, Providence College, Simon's Rock, Spring Arbor, St Thomas, SUNY Geneseo, Trinity University (2), and Western Washington. Nine of these students received M.A. degrees elsewhere before moving on to the PhD, and another spent time at Oxford. This list contains only ten students from nationally unranked schools who appear to have made the leap straight into an elite PhD program without training elsewhere.

    Bear in mind that most U.S. universities are not nationally ranked. For example, of the 23 universities in the California State University system, which awards about 100,000 undergraduate degrees every year, only four are nationally ranked. Not a single student with an undergraduate degree from Cal State appears on the list. (There are three students, however, from the well regarded terminal M.A. programs at CSULA and San Francisco State.)

    Even nationally ranked but nonelite colleges and universities are only sparsely represented. Although you might think that national universities ranked 51-100 would graduate a large number of philosophy majors ready for graduate study, only 13 students from this group of universities appear on the list (excluding Rutgers and Pitt) -- not many more students from these 48 universities combined than from Berkeley, Chicago, or NYU alone. In my twenty-two years at UC Riverside (ranked 85 among national universities), I have never seen a student admitted to a top-ten ranked philosophy PhD program.[6]

    But Maybe Elite Schools Generate More Philosophy Majors?

    Looking at data from the National Center for Education Statistics, I find 829 schools that have awarded at least one Bachelor's degree in philosophy (IPEDS category 38.01) in the seven years from 2011-2017. However, elite schools and schools with very strong philosophy faculties do tend to graduate many more philosophy majors on average than do other universities. For example, the two schools that graduated the most philosophy majors in that period are both top 25 research universities: Penn (915) and UCLA (888).[7]

    In 2011-2017, the 46 schools I have classified as elite awarded 9,174 philosophy BAs, while the remaining 783 schools awarded 51,078 philosophy BAs. If we consider this to be approximately the pool of students from which my list of students at elite PhD programs is drawn, then approximately 1.2% of philosophy graduates from elite schools appear on my list, while 0.15% of graduates from nonelite schools do so. A rough estimate, taking into account missing data, students who enter PhD programs without an undergraduate major in philosophy, and students who are admitted but who choose a lower ranked program or drop out early, maybe about 2.5% of philosophy majors from elite schools gain admission to top-ten ranked PhD programs in philosophy and maybe about 0.3% of philosophy graduates from nonelite schools do.

    What Percentage Had Philosophy Majors?

    One hundred ninety-three students had undergraduate major information listed. Of these, 167 (87%) majored in philosophy or a cognate discipline like History and Philosophy of Science -- sometimes with a double major. Of the 26 without an undergraduate major in philosophy, 18 (69%) had previous graduate work in philosophy. Thus, 96% of students had either an undergraduate degree or previous graduate work in philosophy.

    What Explains the Phenomenon?

    I don't conclude that admissions committees are being unfair, much less explicitly elitist. Maybe students from Berkeley and Chicago really are much better. Or maybe students from elite universities are more skilled specifically at the task of producing writing samples and personal statements that will delight admissions committees. (My advice for students seeking admittance to PhD programs in philosophy, which I have begun to update, is intended in part to help mitigate that particular advantage.) Or maybe the epistemic task of discerning the genuinely most promising applicants is so difficult that committees need to play the odds and the odds almost always say that the Berkeley student is more likely to succeed than the Cal State student. Or maybe so much turns on the credibility of the letter writers that students whose letter writers aren't well known can't really be fully evaluated. Or, or, or, or.

    But regardless how innocent the explanation, it's a shame. I am sure there are many potentially excellent philosophers from nonelite schools who are missing terrific educational and career opportunities because students from elite schools have such a large competitive advantage.


    Note 1: In a few ambigous cases, I assumed that a student's last listed university was their most recent. For example, "he comes by way of Wesleyan and Princeton" was coded as ambiguous regarding which college awarded the undergraduate degree, with Princeton as the most recent previous institution.

    Note 2: 100 students' most recent degree was from a non-U.S. university. Of these, 17 unambiguously had a U.S. undergraduate degree. Strikingly, 12 of these 17 attended Oxford.

    Note 3: The full list of foreign universities is: Amsterdam (2), ANU, Auckland, Barcelona, Birkbeck (2), British Colombia, Buenos Aires, Cambridge (8), Cape Town, Carleton Univ., China (unspecified), Edinburgh (3), Frankfurt, Freie Univ. Berlin, Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem (2), Humboldt Univ. Berlin, King's College (3), Ludwig Maximilian (2), McGill (5), Melbourne, Oxford (24), Peking, Pisa, Queens, Queensland (2), Ruhr Univ. Bochum, Seoul, Sheffield, Simon Fraser, St Andrews (4), Sydney, Tel Aviv, Toronto (10), Tubingen, Univ. of Hong Kong, Univ. of Paris, University College London (2), UNAM, Univ. Catolica Peru, Univ. de los Andes, University College Dublin, Wits South Africa, Wuhan, and Yale-NUS. [Corrected Jul 8, 2019]

    Note 4: The full list is: Arizona State, Brandeis (3), Brown, Cal State LA, Fordham, Georgia State, Harvard (3), Houston, Johns Hopkins, Milwaukee (5), Missouri St Louis, Northern Illinois (6), NYU, Princeton (2), San Francisco State, Stanford (3), Texas Tech, Tufts (4), U Conn, UC Davis, UNC Chapel Hill, Union Theological Seminary, USC, Western Michigan, and Yale (4).

    Note 5: The full list of elite programs is: Amherst College (2), Berkeley (10) Brown (3), Carleton College (3), Chicago (10), Claremont McKenna, Columbia (3), Cornell, Dartmouth (4), Emory, Grinnell (2), Harvard (8), Haverford (2), Johns Hopkins (2), MIT, Northwestern (2), NYU (10), Penn (3), Pitt, Pomona, Princeton (5), Reed (4), Rutgers (6), Stanford (8), USC, Virginia, Washington U. St Louis, Wellesley, Williams (4), and Yale (5).

    Note 6: The full list of nationally ranked but nonelite schools is: Alabama, Arizona State (2), Auburn, Biola (2), Boston College, Brandeis (2), Cinncinnati, Franklin & Marshall, Furman, Houston, Illinois College, Indiana (2), Kenyon, Lafayette, Lewis & Clark, Marquette, Maryland-Baltimore County, Minnesota (2), Missouri-Columbia, North Carolina State, Northeastern (2), Oberlin (2), Pepperdine, Purdue, Sewanee, St Johns, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Stony Brook (2), UC Davis, UC San Diego (2), University of Missouri-St Louis, UNC Chapel Hill (5), UNC-Asheville, Union College, University at Buffalo-SUNY, Vermont, Wake Forest, Washington-Seattle, West Point, West Virginia, Westmont, Wheaton, Whitman, and William & Mary.

    Note 7: For the curious, the remaining top ten are UC Santa Barbara (693), Boston College (654), UC Berkeley (644), Washington-Seattle (485), Wisconsin-Madison (478), UC Santa Cruz (468), Colorado-Boulder (428), and University of Arizona (426). (Washington-Bothell is excluded due to what I interpret as a classification error by NCES.)


    Related: Sorry, Cal State Students, No Princeton Grad School for You! (Oct 27, 2011). (This post contains a similar analysis from 2011, with similar results and lots of interesting discussion in the comments section.)

    [image source]

    Thursday, June 20, 2019

    Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

    In 2007, I ran a series of posts on applying to PhD programs in philosophy. Over the years, many graduate students have told me they found it useful. After twelve years, it's high time for an update!

    Part One: Should You Apply, and Where?

    Warning: This might be depressing!

    It's Extremely Competitive

    At U.C. Riverside (currently ranked 32 in the U.S. in the Philosophical Gourmet Report), we typically receive between a hundred and two hundred applications for a target entering class of six students. Our "yield" rate is usually under 50%, so we typically admit about 15-20 students for those six slots.

    Last year, we had 96 applicants, of whom we admitted eleven. Of those eleven, seven accepted, so there was no need for us to make a second round of admissions offers. Although last year was probably atypically low in applicant number and atypically high in yield, a faculty member here who often serves on admissions tells me that there has been a long term trend toward fewer applicants but a higher percentage of applicants who are an excellent "fit" for our program.[1] (More on "fit" in Part V.)

    Most applicants have excellent grades both in upper-division undergraduate philosophy courses and overall, and about 50%-75% of admitted applicants also have some graduate level work. Looking at data on eight of our eleven admittees this year (excluding one international applicant whose transcripts aren't comparable and two who quickly declined UCR for higher ranked programs), all but one had GPAs over 3.85 at their most recent institution, with a median GPA of 3.92/4.00. While it's not impossible to be admitted to a mid-ranked PhD program without stellar grades, it is rare. If you are applying as an undergraduate or M.A. student, you want straight As, or very close, in your upper-division philosophy classes. (Graduate students seeking to switch institutions are a more complicated case. In Part II, I'll talk in more detail about grades and transcripts.)

    For comparison, the median GPA of admittees to Harvard Law School and Harvard Medical School are currently 3.86 and 3.92 respectively.

    Higher-ranked PhD programs presumably receive substantially more applicants and presumably have substantially higher yield rates, meaning they can be even more selective than U.C. Riverside. It seems a safe bet that it is considerably more difficult to gain admission to Harvard's Philosophy PhD program than Harvard Law or Medical. Consider my own case: Back in 1991 (when it was probably easier to be admitted than it is now), I was rejected from Harvard despite having virtually straight As from Stanford, almost perfect GRE scores, and strong recommendation letters from world-renowned philosophers.

    Undergraduate institutional prestige is also a substantial factor in admissions, as I have discussed elsewhere and will discuss in more detail in Part II. It is extremely difficult to gain admittance to the most elite philosophy PhD programs if you aren't from an elite university or liberal arts college. On the other hand, mid-ranked PhD programs like UCR admit students from a wide range of undergraduate institutions.

    The top 1-2 philosophy majors at U.C. Riverside every year have GPAs around 3.9. Those who apply to graduate schools typically land in schools ranked in the 25-50 range. In my twenty-two years at UCR, I have never seen a student admitted to a top-ten PhD program in philosophy. Maybe next year!

    So... be realistic.

    Prospects After Admission

    Although I haven't seen systematic data on this, my impression is that most philosophy PhD programs have completion rates of around 50%; that most of the people who do finish take longer than advertised, often 7-9 years (though Stanford and Princeton have reputations for being quick); and that most of the people who drop out do so during the dissertation phase, after already having completed several years of study.

    Those students who do complete their degrees don't always find tenure-track teaching jobs -- and those who do find tenure-track jobs often have to apply for several years, be willing to move anywhere in the country, and settle for schools they've never heard of. (If you're in a large metropolitan area and willing to teach at the community college level, and if you're patient about piecing together temporary "freeway flier" jobs for a few years, you may be able to stay local after graduation.) Students completing their degrees at top ten universities have a better chance of finding a job at a school they've heard of before, but are often not taken seriously as applicants at lower prestige schools.

    Most philosophy PhD programs now make their job placement data available online. Search for "placement", "philosophy", and the name of the school, and the department's placement record should be among the top hits. Here are the data for U.C. Riverside (which has recently performed unusually well for a department of its rank). Data from most of the PhD programs have also been compiled at the APDA database, and Jonathan Weisberg has done some interesting analyses. Bear in mind that placement lists don't include students who didn't finish their degrees, and departments don't consistently update former students' placement information when they change jobs. Also, one way to get a rough idea of completion rates is to compare the size of the typical entering class at a school with the average number of PhDs listed per year on their placement lists.

    My sense is that a typical outcome for a student who completes a PhD at a mid-ranked program like UCR is to bounce around for 2-3 years with temporary jobs (postdocs and/or adjunct professor gigs), often having to move several times, then eventually to land in a tenure-track job at a non-prestigious four-year school or a community college. Sometimes people get jobs right away, of course; but a substantial minority, dispiritingly, never find a permanent teaching position. Those who don't find permanent teaching positions usually either end up in the business world somehow or apply to law school (where they generally do very well).

    I advise students not to consider graduate school in philosophy unless (1.) they'd be happy teaching philosophy at a low prestige college and are willing to move almost anywhere in the country, and (2.) even if they never finished the degree they would have found the process of studying philosophy at the graduate level intrinsically worthwhile.

    My sense is that the last criterion is key to completing the degree. Students who are extrinsically motivated in their education are unlikely to complete a dissertation in philosophy. There are no real deadlines, no structure imposed by your advisor. You simply have to sit down and think and read and write about the same topic, usually without a whole lot of outside help or direction, for a few years. At the same time, you're in a very anxiety-producing situation: Your whole career depends on how good your dissertation is, and the power your dissertation chair has over you -- in the form of approving or not approving your dissertation chapters and in writing a good or a weak letter for you at the end of the process -- is enormous. This is not a situation in which people who are not powerfully intrinsically motivated to do philosophy are likely to succeed.

    On the bright side: It's delightful to be able to spend your time surrounded by others as nerdy about philosophy as you are -- peer-to-peer interactions are one of the most rewarding aspects of graduate school -- and you have great liberty to explore almost any topic you want in seminars, independent studies, reading groups, and later your dissertation. Also, unlike law school or medical school, almost all ranked philosophy Ph.D. programs will give you some combination of fellowship and teaching support so that if you live frugally you might not need to borrow (too much?) money or hold down jobs outside of philosophy (except possibly in the summer) in order to get through school.

    Choosing Where to Apply

    If all this hasn't soured you on the prospects of graduate school in philosophy, then you're just the sort of maniac who might succeed! The Philosophical Gourmet Report is the natural starting place for thinking about where to apply, along with with advice from your professors. Any ranking of PhD programs will be controversial, but my sense is that the Gourmet Report does a good job (a much better job, for example, than the NRC) at capturing perceptions of relative prestige in mainstream Anglophone academic philosophy.

    Once you have a sense of about where you might expect to land in prestige level based on the features of your application, you might select 4-8 schools at that level, two more prestigious schools as longshots, and 2-3 fallback schools. Look at faculty profiles (on each department's web page) and at the Gourmet's specialty rankings to see what schools have strengths in the areas or points of view that appeal to you. If you find that geography is a major factor for you, you might consider whether you'll be ready to be geographically flexible in your job search later; if not, bear in mind that community college teaching is the most likely outcome.

    ETA June 22: Several people have suggested that it might be desirable to apply to more than the 8-13 schools implied by these remarks, due to the chanciness of the process.

    Generally speaking, career prospects are better from ranked (i.e. top 50) than from unranked PhD programs, but in some cases an unranked PhD program could be a good choice, if you fit with one of their areas of strength and if that particular school has an established track record of placing students in good jobs.

    If there are features of your application that are unusual -- for example, terrible GRE scores but great everything else, or a quirky set of interests that might or might not map onto faculty strengths, or mediocre grades in your first year of school followed by straight As later, or transcripts that are hard to evaluate because they aren't on the standard U.S. 4-point grading system, you might want to apply to even more schools. Indeed, for everyone, the process is chancy, so there are advantages to rolling the dice multiple times. But the costs in both time and money can be significant.

    Speaking of money: Many schools allow you to waive the fee for the PhD application if you can establish that the fee is a financial hardship. They will only do this for a minority of students, but if you might be among that minority, look for the box to tick, or if you can't find such a box, inquire. Unlike with undergraduate applications at some colleges, there is little chance that admission of financial need will harm your chances of admission.

    Should You Apply to an M.A. Program First?

    If you're determined to get into a PhD program in philosophy and you don't have the application for it straight out of undergraduate, a terminal M.A. program in philosophy can be a springboard to a PhD program. There is a lot of variation in the quality of terminal M.A. programs, the graduation rates of their students, and their success in placing students into PhD programs, but the strong ones do have substantial success. Unfortunately -- unlike PhD programs -- for M.A. programs you often have to pay your way. That can mean a lot of debt to carry into a career that is only moderately lucrative, and success is by no means assured. However, other schools support most or all of their terminal M.A. students. See Geoff Pynn's helpful list of philosophy M.A. funding at U.S. and Canadian institutions (available in a Dropbox from his website).[2]

    PhD programs will generally award the M.A. to their students along the way, if they don't already have an M.A. This is very different from programs with a terminal M.A. PhD programs will not usually also admit students just for an M.A.

    Usually, if you can get into at least a mid-ranked PhD program straight out of undergraduate, it's advisable to do so. One reason is this: If you did well enough as an undergraduate to gain admission into a mid-ranked PhD degree program, you did great! You might do equally well or better in an M.A. program -- but you might not. It's a life transition; you'll probably be moving to a new city; you'll have new peers and new advisors, who might not harmonize as well with you; stuff happens. Grab the opportunity while it's hot. The other reason is, of course, the time and (unless you have full support) the money. (That said, students will sometimes decline admission to PhD programs to go to an elite M.A. program like Tufts, and some of those students do then succeed in making the leap to an elite PhD program, so it's a possible path, if you really have your sights set on Princeton or NYU.)

    Unfortunately, the most competitive terminal M.A. programs are probably not much easier to gain admittance to than are the bottom half of ranked PhD programs.

    Application deadlines for some of the most competitive terminal M.A. programs are in the same time range as those for PhD programs (early winter, for admission the following fall), while others have spring deadlines, so that you can wait to apply until after having heard back from PhD programs.

    Although technically most community colleges only require their professors to have an M.A., most people who find permanent community college teaching positions nowadays either have a Ph.D. in hand or nearly finished.

    Should You Apply to Your Own Department?

    Undergraduates at schools with PhD programs will be tempted to apply to their own programs. Presumably, they're having a positive experience and enjoying the good opinion of their professors, if they're considering graduate school in philosophy. They will receive good advice against this from their letter writers.

    Every department has a character. Certain philosophers and issues will be taken as core, others not much discussed. How seriously is Davidson taken? Wittgenstein? Heidegger? Modal realism? Contemporary English philosophy of perception? Different approaches will be valued -- keeping up with the journals or emphasizing the classics, valuing the empirical or the a priori, applied ethics or metaethics, etc. Of course, faculty will have diverse opinions on these issues, but that doesn't prevent the shock and surprise -- or simply the breath of fresh air -- that students feel going to a department where things are viewed very differently on the whole!

    Students who spend their whole careers in a single department thus risk a stunted and provincial view of philosophy. It's also difficult for them to gain an accurate sense of how their advisors are perceived by the field as a whole. They will learn less from taking classes from the same professors again than they would from a new crop of professors. They may also find it's very different being a star undergraduate than an average graduate student; the tone of their relations with their mentors will change.

    When I have served on admissions committees I have argued that we should have a higher bar for our own students than for others. Still, it can be difficult to reject a student when your colleague down the hall insists that she deserves admission!

    Should You Despair?

    Okay, you're at Cal State Whatever or Southern Iowa Christian, and you would love to be an Ivy League professor of philosophy someday. Is there simply no hope? I would hate to counsel despair. At every step, there are a small number of people who do the unlikely: Get into a top-ranked PhD program from a non-elite school, get an elite starting job from a mid-ranked PhD program (go, Sam!), move from a non-elite university to an elite one later in their career.

    Great students from non-elite schools do sometimes make an impression on a "top ten" admissions committee. Maybe our best UCR students have been a bit unlucky. There's lots of chance in the process. Is your glowing letter from someone that someone on the admissions committee happens to really respect? (It's a small world!) Does your writing sample really resonate with someone?

    It can also help to be pro-active. For example, can you drive across town, or apply to an exchange program, or take some time off, to take or audit courses at an elite university? Can you attend talks, colloquia, conferences around town and out of town, and possibly make some connections or at least give your letter writers fodder for backing up their claims never to have seen so energetic and dedicated a student?

    But most importantly: Polish, polish, polish that writing sample! (And do so under the guidance of at least one professor.) If a committee member reads a polished, professional sample that they feel they have learned something from, in prose that compares favorably with the typical journal article (not through being flowery or technical but through being elegant and precise), that's an applicant they'll want to admit, more so than the Harvard student with the 3.95 GPA who has a so-so sample. Very few undergraduates can write such samples -- which is why, of course, they're so precious.

    All that said, bear in mind that for anyone an Ivy-League career is a longshot. I would not advise pursuing a career in philosophy if you wouldn't be happy teaching at a non-elite school.


    I welcome comments from faculty who would like to add to my advice or who think I am off-base in some way. I also welcome questions from applicants -- but please read the other relevant parts of the series first to be sure it's not addressed elsewhere.

    Also -- lots of interesting comments have started accumulating below, articulating different perspectives or discussing details particular to specific schools or regions. Thanks, folks, and keep them coming!

    Full series from 2007.

    Part Two forthcoming.


    Note 1: Faculty at other US PhD programs, I'd be curious to hear whether or not you've seen a similar trend among applicants to your departments.

    Note 2: This was revised at 8:56 p.m. June 20, after helpful input from Margaret Atherton, Eddy Nahmias, John Schwenkler, and Brandon Warmke.

    [image source]

    Friday, June 14, 2019

    Will Philosophy Ever Come to an End?

    A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with the prominent Chinese science fiction writer Xia Jia, who is visiting UC Riverside for a year. She asked me whether I thought that if we were to create, or become, post- or transhuman superintellects, would all important philosophical questions be answered?

    You might think so. If fundamental philosophical questions about knowledge, value, meaning, and mentality aren't entirely hopeless -- if we can make some imperfect progress on them, even with our frail human intellects, so badly designed for abstract philosophical theorizing -- then presumably entities who are vastly intellectually superior to us in the right dimensions could make more, maybe vastly more, philosophical progress. Maybe they could resolve deep philosophical questions as easily as we humans can solve two-digit multiplication problems.

    Or here's another thought: If all the facts of the universe are ultimately facts about microphysics and larger-level patterns among entities constituted microphysically, then the main block to philosophical understanding might be only the limits of our observational methods and our computational power. Although no superintelligence in the universe could realistically calculate every motion of every particle over all of time, maybe all of the "big picture" general issues at the core of philosophy would prove tractable with much better observational and calculational tools.

    And yet...

    I want to say no. Philosophy never could be fully "solved", even by a superintelligence. (It might end, of course, in some other way than being fully solved, but that's not the kind of end Xia or I had in mind.)

    First reason: Any intelligent system will be unable to fully predict itself. It will thus always remain partly unknown to itself. This lack of self-knowledge will remain an ineradicable seed for new philosophy.

    To predict its own behavior a system will require a subsystem or subprocess dedicated to the task of prediction. That subsystem or subprocess could potentially model all of the entity's other subsystems and subprocesses to an arbitrarily high degree of detail. But the subsystem could not model itself in perfect detail without creating a perfect model of its modeling procedures. But then, to fully predict itself, it would need a perfect model of its perfect model of its modeling procedures, and so on, off into a vicious infinite regress.

    Furthermore, some calculations are sufficiently complicated that the only way to predict their outcome is to actually do them. For any complex cognitive task, there will (plausibly) be a minimum amount of time required to physically construct and run the process by which it is done. If there is no limit to the complexity of some problems, there will also (plausibly) be no limit to the minimum amount of time even an ideal process would require to perform the cognitive task, even if the cognitive task is completable in principle. Therefore, given any finite amount of time to construct the prediction there will always be some outcomes that a superintelligence will be unable to foresee.

    Now even if you grant that no superintelligent system could fully predict itself, it doesn't straightaway follow that philosophical questions will remain. Maybe the only sorts of questions that escape the superintelligence's predictive powers are details insufficiently grand to qualify as philosophical -- like the 10^10^100th digit of pi?

    No, realistically, the actual self-predictive power of any practical superintelligence will always fall far, far short of that. As long as it has some challenging tasks and interests, it won't be able to predict exactly how it will cope with them until it actually copes with them. It won't know the outcome of its mega-intelligent processes until it runs them. So it will always remain partly a mystery to itself. It will be left to wonder uncertainly about what to value and prioritize in light of its ignorance about its own future values and priorities. I'd call that philosophy enough.

    Second reason: No amount of superintelligence can, I suspect, entirely answer the question of fundamental values. I don't intend this in any especially mysterious way. I'm not appealing to spooky values that somehow escape all empirical inquiry. But it does seem to me that a general-capacity superintelligence ought always be able to question what it cares about most. A superintelligence might calculate with high certainty that the best thing to do next, all things considered, would be A. But it could reopen the question of the value weightings that it brings to that calculation.

    Again, we face a kind of regress. Given values A, B, and C, weighted thus-and-so relative to each other, A might be clearly the best choice. But why value A more than C? Well, the intelligence could do further inquiry into the value of A -- but that inquiry too will be based on a set of values that it is at least momentarily holding fixed. It could challenge those values using still other values....

    The alternative seems to be the view that there's only one possible overall value system that a superintelligence could arrive at, and that once it has arrived there it need never reflect on its values again. This strikes me as implausible, when I think about the diversity of things that people value and about how expanding capacities and experience increase that diversity rather than shrink it. As new situations, opportunities, and vistas open up for any being, no matter how intelligent, it will have new occasions to reflect on changes to its value system. Maybe it invents whole new forms of math, or art, or pleasure -- novel enough that big questions arise about how to weigh the pursuit of these new endeavors against other pursuits it values, and unpredictable enough in long term outcome that some creativity will be needed to manage the uncertain comparison.

    No superintelligence could ever become so intelligent as to put all philosophical questions permanently to rest.


    Related: Possible Psychology of a Matrioshka Brain (Oct 9, 2014)

    [image source]

    Friday, June 07, 2019

    Why Academic Philosophy Ought to Be One of the Most Demographically Diverse Disciplines, Instead of One of the Least

    Academic philosophy in the U.S. remains largely male. In 2017 (the most recent data available), only 27% of PhDs in Philosophy were granted to women, according to the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates. This percentage hasn't budged for decades: In the 1990s, 27% of Philosophy PhDs were women. In the 2000s, also 27%. (See here.) Among major field and subfield categories with at least 200 PhDs awarded in 2017, only major fields Engineering and Mathematics had a smaller proportion of women (25%) and some subfields within Engineering, Mathematics, and the Physical Sciences. (Physical Sciences overall had 33% women PhD recipients.) In the humanities, arts, and social sciences, only Economics (34%) and Religious Studies (35%) awarded less than 40% of their PhDs to women.

    Philosophy in the U.S. remains largely non-Hispanic white: 86% in the NSF SED data from 2017. Among the 92 major fields and subfields awarding doctorates to at least 200 U.S. citizens or permanent residents who reported their ethnicity, only Ecology was more white (89%). In 2017, only 20/340 (6%) of Philosophy PhD recipients reported being Hispanic or Latino, 11 reported being Asian (3%), 4 reported being Black or African American (1%), 0 (0%) reported being American Indian or Alaska Native, and 8 (2%) reported being mixed race or other. The percentage of Hispanic and Asian Philosophy PhD recipients has very slowly increased over time, but the percentage of Black and Native American Philosophy PhD recipients has remained essentially flat at 1%-2% and 0%-1% respectively since the beginning of the recorded data in the 1970s (see here).

    Although systematic demographic data on disability, LBGTQ status, economic disadvantage, and other types of demographic diversity are not as readily available, academic philosophy in the U.S. might not be especially diverse in these respects either. (See, for example, this recent testimonial by a transgender graduate student.)

    It is sometimes suggested that even in a fully egalitarian society, equally welcoming of people from all backgrounds, we should not expect an exactly proportional representation of women and of the races in academic philosophy. Some academic fields might be naturally more attractive to men and white folks, others to women and black folks, and with equal opportunity, people in these different demographic categories might sort themselves disproportionately. Little boys disproportionately like monster trucks and little girls disproportionately like cute ponies, even if their parents (supposedly) don't force such preferences upon them. A career in academic philosophy might be like that. Philosophy might be the monster truck of academic disciplines.

    While such reasoning might or might not apply to Ecology and Mechanical Engineering, such claims cannot, I think, be true of academic philosophy as properly practiced. Academic philosophy should in fact skew the opposite direction, with unusual demographic backgrounds disproportionately over-represented.

    Academic philosophy is not about one thing. It's about everything. It concerns the entire universe and the whole human condition. One gender or one ethnicity may care especially much about monster trucks or black holes, but one gender or one ethnicity should not similarly tend to care more than another about the human condition in general. We all do, or should, care about philosophy. You may have no theory of black holes, but for sure you have philosophical views, at least implicitly -- background ethical positions, background assumptions about the general nature of things, a background sense of the sources of knowledge, opinions about death and the possibility or not of an afterlife, aesthetic opinions, political values. Academic philosophy is, or should be, just the most general academic treatment of issues such as these. It is unlikely that in an egalitarian society, women and non-whites would be less interested in exploring fundamental questions about the world and the human condition than are white men, or less inclined to pursue them given the opportunity.

    Maybe something about the highly abstract nature of academic philosophy, or its combativeness, or its roots in the European tradition tends to draw white men and repel others? I am not sure that's right, but even if so, these are accidental features of the field, which we ought to consider reforming. Philosophy can work as well by science fictional narrative [1] or engaged dialogue as by highly abstract argumentation. It needn't, and I think shouldn't, be as combative as it often is. And the ignorance and disrespect U.S. philosophers often display toward non-European traditions is a flaw we should repair, rather than a feature to be taken for granted.

    There is one structural feature of academic philosophy that I do think ought to influence its demographic proportions: Its celebration of the presentation of novel views and arguments, minority positions, and challenges to what people ordinarily take for granted. Philosophy is, and should be, to a substantial extent, about considering new ideas, rethinking convention, exploring radical and strange-seeming possibilities. For these reasons, outsiders to the cultural mainstream and people who have lived with the disadvantages of existing cultural structures and worldviews, ought to be especially valued and welcomed in the discipline -- overrepresented rather than underrepresented.


    Note 1: If you think that science fiction is mostly white male, you need to update to the 21st century, friend. For example, check out last year's Nebula Award nominees.

    [image source]

    Friday, May 31, 2019

    The Dualist's Quadrilemma -- and All of Ours?

    Old-school substance dualists hold that people not only have material or physical bodies but also immaterial souls, and that the soul rather than the body is the locus and origin of conscious experience (qualia, "something-it's-like"-ness, phenomenality). Two great advantages of this view are (1.) that it avoids the puzzle of having to explain how dumb, bumping matter can give rise to something as seemingly ontologically radically different as consciousness (at least many people find this puzzling), (2.) that it promises hope of an afterlife, since possibly the soul could continue to exist after the body has died.

    However, substance dualism faces a scope of ensoulment problem, or what I'll call the dualist's quadrilemma. The more I think about this quadrilemma, however, the more I think some version of it might trouble virtually all theories of consciousness.

    Who has a soul? I see four possible answers, each of which is problematic:

    (1.) Only human beings have souls. (At least on Earth. Let's bracket Martians and angels.) At the moment of conception or at the moment of birth, God or nature gives us a soul, but no dog or chimpanzee or raven has a soul. From this it follows, since souls are the locus of conscious experience, that dogs and chimpanzees and ravens have no conscious experiences -- no emotional experiences, no experiences of pain or hunger, no visual or olfactory experiences. There is nothing it's like to be a dog or chimpanzee or raven -- they are, so to speak, entirely experientially blank, as blank as we normally assume a toy robot to be. They emit behavior similar to the behavior we emit when we experience pain or hunger, and they have nervous systems that closely resemble ours, but that is misleading. They lack the soul-stuff that turns on the lights.

    This view is difficult to accept, both on commonsensical and on scientific grounds. Ordinarily, we think that dogs, chimpanzees, and ravens do have experiences, even if their experiences are not as cognitively complex as ours. And scientifically, this view seems to overestimate the gulf between us and our nearest biological relatives -- and furthermore seems to require that there was some discrete moment in our evolutionary history when we changed from unensouled to ensouled creatures (Australopithecus anamensis? Homo habilus?), despite, presumably, no radical saltation in our physiology.

    (2.) Everything has a soul! Maybe we all are subparts of a single, grand, universe-sized soul; or maybe there are many, many, tiny souls for tiny objects such as electrons.

    Although panpsychist views of this sort have received increasing attention in the philosophy and psychology of consciousness recently, most people in our culture appear to find panpsychism too bizarre to accept. My own view is that one of the main pressures in favor of panpsychism is the seeming unpalatability of the other three horns of this quadrilemma.

    (3.) There's a line in the sand. Somewhere between electrons and humans, there's a sharp line between the ensouled and the unensouled creatures. Maybe mammals have souls but no other animal does. Or maybe toads have souls but (cognitively simpler) pond frogs don't.

    The problem with this view is that physiology and cognitive sophistication comes in degrees, with no sharp dividing line among the species. If having a soul matters, then there ought to be some radical difference between the souled and unensouled creatures -- at least in their cognition, and probably also in their physiology. But the only place it seems at all plausible to draw a sharp line is between human beings and all the rest -- which puts us back on Horn 1.

    [illustration of one possible theory of ensoulment; image source]

    (4.) Having a soul isn't a yes/no thing but rather a matter of degree. Some creatures are half-ensouled or 6% ensouled.

    The problem with this view is that is requires an entirely novel metaphysics that is difficult to envision. What would it be to be kind of ensouled? Some properties lend themselves to in-between, indeterminate cases: a color might be on the vague boundary between blue and not-quite-blue, a person might be in the vague region between being an extravert and being not quite an extravert. We can imagine how such cases go and build a metaphysics of colors and personality traits to accommodate in-between cases and matters of degree. But souls seem like the kinds of things that one either has or doesn't have, with no in-between cases. I am not aware of any philosopher who has attempted to construct a metaphysics of half-souls, and it's hard to see how this would go.

    Now you might say so much the worse for substance dualism! But I think non-dualists face the same quadrilemma, even if not quite as vividly.

    What kinds of creatures are conscious? If we don't want to say "only humans" and we don't want to say "everything", then we need either a bright line somewhere or we need a concept of in-between consciousness. A bright line seems implausible given the continuity of cognitive capacities and physiology across living species, in the course of fetal development, and in the course of evolution. So are we (even non-dualists) then pushed into conceptualizing consciousness as the kind of thing that one can kind of have, or half have? I, at least, find this difficult to conceive, and I know of no good attempts to make theoretical sense of the idea. On the face of it, a stream of conscious experience appears to be something you either have (however small or snail-like) or fail to have -- like a soul. There's either a center of subjectivity where experiences arise, or there isn't.

    So maybe I need to reconcile myself to one of the other three horns? But they're all so unattractive!

    Thursday, May 23, 2019

    Science Fiction as Philosophy

    Ploddingly detailed expository arguments deserve a central role in academic philosophy. Yay for boring stuff![*] But emotionally engaging fiction can be philosophy too. And science fiction or "speculative fiction" has a special philosophical value that is insufficiently appreciated by mainstream philosophers.

    I am inspired to write this after having organized and chaired a session on Science Fiction as Philosophy at the SFWA Nebula conference last weekend. (SFWA is the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, the main professional organization of SF writers in the U.S.)

    Canonically recognized Western philosophers have often worked through fiction: Sartre's plays, Camus's stories, Nietzsche's Zarathustra, Rousseau's Emile and Heloise, to some extent Plato's dialogues, and (a personal favorite) Voltaire's Candide. My favorite non-Western philosopher, Zhuangzi, often uses brief parables or goofy stories (such as his famous butterfly dream). And I would argue that great works of fiction are often philosophical in the sense that they inspire, or become the medium of, potentially transformative reflection on the human condition -- even if those works aren't normally treated as "works of philosophy". In the Western literary tradition, for example: Shakespeare, George Eliot, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Faulkner.

    What is philosophy? I reject the idea that philosophy is argument. If philosophy is argument, then Confucius's Analects is not philosophy, and the pre-Socratics' fragments are not philosophy, and the aphorisms of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are not philosophy. I say, instead: If an essay, or a parable, or a dialogue, or an aphorism, or a movie engages the reader toward new reflections on fundamental questions about meaning, value, the human condition, the nature of knowledge or art or morality or love or mentality, pushing us out of our settled and conventional ways of thinking, challenging us to explore and reconsider -- that's philosophy. Most real philosophy, as experienced by most people, takes the form of fiction.

    Although expository essays have many virtues, they also have limitations. Compared to fictions, expository essays tend to lack imaginative specificity and emotional power. Philosophy looks different through the lens of imagination and emotion. It's one thing to consider, wholly abstractly, some principle like "in an emergency, you should act to maximize the expected number of lives saved". Maybe it sounds pretty good in the abstract (perhaps with some modifications to consider quality of life or expected remaining life years). But it's hard really to evaluate an abstract claim without trying some thought experiments. For example, if the only way to save five innocent people in a hideout would be to kill a noisily crying baby, ought you do it, as the abstract principle says you should?

    Our philosophical evaluations are dry and empty if we don't challenge ourselves to emotionally engage with imaginatively vivid scenarios and consequences. We needn't always judge that overall the best thing to do is the thing that's most emotionally attractive when vividly imagined, but we should at least think through how it might really feel to live one way or another. Philosophers' paragraph-long thought experiments start us down the path. But more vivid, richly imagined fictions take us farther. Fiction and abstract expository argument have complementary roles to play in philosophy. Each needs the other.

    Science fiction or speculative fiction deserves a special role. "Literary fiction" imagines scenarios that are broadly within the normal run of human experience. Speculative fiction, as I define it, imagines scenarios beyond the normal run of human experience. Speculative fiction can pull apart things that normally go together, can highlight and exaggerate one aspect of life so that we can see it better, can imagine possible transformations of our world and society. Speculative fiction, when written with philosophical purpose, is philosophical thought experiment with blood and bones.

    Consider George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", great philosophical SF movies like The Matrix and Her, great philosophical TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation or Black Mirror. All of them imagine a way the world could be, or a helpfully simplified and cartooned world with certain aspects exaggerated, and they challenge us to think better about fundamental questions of human value and the human condition -- and they do so in a way that no abstract essay could.

    Today in my upper-division class Philosophy of Mind I will teach Star Trek: The Next Generation's episode on whether the robot Data deserves human rights, alongside expository prose by John Searle and Daniel Dennett's famous philosophical story "Where Am I?". Terrific philosophy, all -- one no less than the others.

    [image source]


    [*] Though see also Trusting Your Sense of Fun (Jan 2, 2013).

    Monday, May 20, 2019

    Intuition, Disagreement, and a Rope Around the Earth

    Check out this awesome new philosophical video by philosopher Jon Ellis at Santa Cruz.

    The video starts with this thought experiment from Wittgenstein:

    Suppose that a very long piece of rope is wrapped around the equator of the Earth. Now imagine that the rope is lengthened by one yard, but its circular form is preserved, so that the rope no longer fits snugly but occupies a circle at some slight constant distance from the Earth's surface. How great would that distance be? (reported in Horwich 2012, p. 7).

    Your attitudes toward philosophical and political propositions might be kind of like your attitude toward that rope -- but with no clear mathematical means to resolve the disagreement.

    If you like the video, you might check out Jon's on my paper Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical Thought.

    Thursday, May 16, 2019

    The Ethics of Drones at the University of California

    I've been appointed to an advisory board to evaluate the University of California's systemwide policy regarding Unmanned Aircraft Systems or "drones". We had our first meeting Tuesday. Most of the other members of the committee appear to be faculty who use drones in their research, plus maybe a risk analyst or two. (I missed the first part of the meeting with the introductions.)

    Drones will be coming to college campuses. They might come in a big way, as Amazon, Google, and other companies continue to explore commercial possibilities (such as food and medicine delivery) and as drones' great potential for security and inspection becomes increasing clear. Technological change can be sudden, when an organization with resources decides the time is right for a big investment. Consider how fast shareable scooters arrived on campus and in downtown areas.

    We want to get ahead of this. Since University of California is such a large and prominent group of universities, our policies might become a model for other universities. The advisory board is only about a dozen people, and they seem interested to hear the perspective a philosopher interested in the ethics of technology. So I have a substantial chance to shape policy. Help me think. What should we be anticipating? What ethical issues are particularly important to anticipate before Amazon, or whoever, arrives on the scene and suddenly shapes a new status quo?

    One issue on my mind is the combination of face recognition software and drones. It's generally considered okay to take pictures of crowds in public places. But drones could create a huge stream of pictures or video, sometimes from unexpected angles or locations, possibly with zoom lenses, and possibly with facial recognition, which creates privacy issues orders of magnitude more serious than photographers on platforms taking still photos of crowds on a busy street.

    Another issue on my mind is the possibility of monopoly or cartel power among the first company or first few companies to set up a drone network -- which in the (moderately unlikely but not impossible) event that drone technology starts to become integral to campus life, could become another source of abusive corporate power. (Compare the abuses of for-profit academic journals.)

    I'm not as much concerned about conventional safety issues (drones crashing into crowded areas), since such safety issues are already a central focus of the committee. I'd like to use my role on this committee as an opportunity to highlight potential concerns that might be visible to those of us who think about the ethics of technology but not as obviously visible to drone enthusiasts and legally trained risk analysts.

    An agricultural research drone at UC Merced

    Incidentally, what great fun to be a tenured philosophy professor! I get to help shape drone policy. Last weekend, I enjoyed entertaining UCSD philosophers with lots of amazingly weird facts about garden snails (love darts!, distributed brains!), while snails crawled around on the speaker's podium. This coming weekend, I'll be running a session at the conference of the Science Fiction Writers Association on "Science Fiction as Philosophy". I'm designing a contest to see if any philosopher can write an abstract philosophical argument that actually convinces readers to give money to charity at higher rates than control. (So far, the signs aren't promising.) Why be boring?

    Philosophers, do stuff!


    Friday, May 10, 2019

    Early Onset Summer Illusion

    Every spring I suffer the Summer Illusion. The following three incompatible propositions all seem to me, in the spring, to be true:

    (1.) When summer arrives, I'll finally get a bunch of that research done which has been crowded out by my teaching and administrative commitments during the school year.

    (2.) When summer arrives, I'll finally get a chance to do all of that non-academic stuff that I've been putting off during the school year -- big home maintenance projects, vacation travel to the four new places I want to visit, my plan to catch up on the whole history of golden-age science fiction.

    (3.) When summer arrives, I'll finally have a chance to spend a lot more time just relaxing.

    The Summer Illusion is surprisingly robust. Every spring, I suffer the Summer Illusion, building up big plans and hopes. Then, every summer, as those hopes fall apart, I scold my springtime self for having fallen, yet again, into the Summer Illusion. The pattern is so common and predictable I've given it a memorable name, The Summer Illusion, to help convince myself that it really is an illusion -- and hopefully not fall into it again. And yet I fall into it again.

    You might think that the Summer Illusion depends on entertaining only one of the three propositions at a time. You might think that the way it works is that sometimes I entertain proposition 1 (I'll get my research done!), and at other, different times I entertain proposition 2 (I'll get all my other projects done!), and at still other times I entertain proposition 3 (I'll finally have lots of time to relax!). Largely this is so. And yet the Summer Illusion also survives simultaneous consideration of the three propositions. Even looking at the propositions side by side like this, I am tempted to believe them. Some part of me thinks of course all three can't be true, as I've seen time and time again -- and yet in my heart I continue to believe. Summer days expand so magnificently to fit my fantasies!

    This year, I have Early Onset Summer Illusion. While I was working on my book, I thought to myself: Come April and May I will have plenty of time for all of my other projects. And so I put off project and project and project and project. And I also thought to myself: Come April and May, I'll finally have some good time to relax a bit more at work.

    It's almost an inversion of busyness. If a period of time has the outward appearance of being a "relaxed", low-commitment period of time, it serves as a fantasy-and-procrastination magnet. I pile my future plans and hopes into that period of time, not noticing the impossibly mounting sum of expectations.

    Well, now I'm off to U.C. San Diego to talk to the Philosophy Department about whether garden snails are conscious -- come by if you like! If this blog post seems a little short, well, it seemed like this week would be such an easy week, and so I found that I'd promised to finish this and this and this and this....

    [image source]

    Thursday, May 02, 2019

    Flavors of Group Consciousness: Vanilla, Strawberry, and Chunky Monkey with Extra Nuts

    Yesterday, I was rereading Philip Pettit's 2018 article "Consciousness Incorporated". Due to some vocabulary mismatch, I find his exact commitments on group phenomenal consciousness not entirely clear [note 1]. (By "consciousness" or "phenomenal consciousness" I just mean conscious experience, the stream of experience, or "something-it's-like-ness" in a relatively theoretically innocent sense.)

    Pettit endorses group consciousness of some flavor. But what flavor? A mild flavor, he hopes: something "sufficient to engage philosophical interest" but not too "challenging and mysterious" (p. 33). In contrast, in my article "If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious", I see myself as defending a radical position that clashes sharply with ordinary common sense. So the question is, can we distinguish among different degrees of ontological commitment in endorsing "group consciousness", with vanilla on one end (palatable to almost everyone) and, on the other end, well, let's call it "Chunky Monkey with Extra Nuts".

    Group Consciousness: Vanilla

    Sometimes a group of people all, or mostly, share a particular conscious state -- in a weak or innocuous sense of "sharing". Individually, everyone (or almost everyone, or at least enough of the group) is undergoing that type of conscious experience. So if I say that the theater audience was alarmed by the sudden collapse of the lead actor onstage, or if I say that World Cup viewers around the globe saw the amazing goal, and if we assume that the alarm and the seeing are conscious experiences, then in a certain innocuous sense the groups share conscious experiences.

    (One complication: The alarm or the seeing might manifest differently in different members of the group, depending on, e.g., their mood and their viewing position. Set this aside for simplicity.)

    Here's a depiction:

    [as always, click to clarify and enlarge]

    "The audience felt alarmed by the actor's sudden collapse": In this vanilla version of group consciousness, that statement only implies that (enough) of the audience experienced, as individuals, a feeling of alarm (conscious state A in the depiction above).

    Pettit clearly wants something more flavorful than this.

    Group Consciousness: Chunky Monkey with Extra Nuts

    A radical view of group consciousness, in contrast, posits the existence of a stream of experience possessed by the group in addition to the streams of experience possessed by each individual. I have argued that the United States might have a distinctive stream of experience over and above the experiences had by individual citizens and residents of the United States. If streams of experience, or centers of subjectivity, are discrete, countable things (they might not be), and the group contains N members, then on the Chunky-Monkey-Extra-Nuts view, there are N+1 discrete streams of conscious experience -- 300,000,000-ish for the individual members of the United States plus another one for the group as a whole.

    Furthermore, on a view of this sort, the conscious experiences of the group mind might be very different from the conscious experiences of any individual members of the group. If the United States is a conscious entity, for example, it might consciously enforce an embargo. But what it feels like, subjectively from the inside, to enforce an embargo might be completely opaque to any individual person. (Alternatively, consider a possible human-grade group mind that is composed out of smaller insect-grade individual minds, capable of appreciating Shakespeare in a manner far beyond what any insect could do: my Antarean Antheads case).

    Here's a depiction:

    It is highly counterintuitive (in current mainstream Anglophone culture) to think that the United States, or any existing groups of people, actually give rise to a discrete, higher-level stream of consciousness at the group level -- a distinct locus of subjectivity. On this view, group-level mental states arise from, and are not merely composed of, the mental states (and other interactions) of the members, so that there are four, not three, distinct occurrences of experience A (three among the individuals and a fourth for the group) as well as the possibility of experiences (B, D, E) that occur in none of the individuals. If you find this a weird and radical view, you are probably understanding it correctly.

    Pettit presumably doesn't want to defend this flavor of group consciousness. [Note 2]

    Group Consciousness: Strawberry

    Can we and Pettit find an intermediate flavor -- more interesting than vanilla but not as wild as extra nuts?

    Pettit compares the relation that a group mind (or "agent") has to its members to the relation of that a statue has to the molecules composing it:

    As the statue relates to its molecules, so the group agent relates to its members. The group agent is not the same agent as the set of its members, because the set of members is not, as such, an agent at all. But still, the group agent is a set of members -- a suitably organized or networked set -- and qua set it is the same collection as the set of members who make it up. The group agent is distinct from the members under the one aspect but not distinct from them under the other (p. 23).

    This physical analogy captures the intended non-radicalness of Pettit's view. It is a little too simple, however, since not everything in the members' minds belongs to the group mind, and since the group can have mental states that none of the members individually possess. This isn't analogous to how we normally think of the molecular composition of statues.

    A favorite example of Pettit's is the following: The group has three members. Member A believes P, Q, and not-R. Member B believes P, not-Q, and R. Member C believes not-P, Q, and R. No one believes P-and-Q-and-R. The group decides collectively, however, that P-and-Q-and-R is a view they can stand behind as a group. They might endorse "We believe P&Q&R" -- though not all of them even need to endorse that, as long as there's a procedure by which it comes to constitute the group's view, for example, by being voiced by the leader after a proper consultative process.

    We might depict the situation thus:

    The conscious experience of the group is in the red box: The group consciously believes P&Q&R. It's not enough for the members to share a conscious state (e.g., A), and no individual believes P&Q&R, but due to structural features of their relationships, the group believes P&Q&R in virtue of the right members accepting that "we believe P&Q&R". (Let's ignore the trickier case in which the group believes P&Q&R without any individual member accepting that the group believes this.)

    Now, is this an interestingly intermediate "strawberry" flavor of group consciousness? Maybe! But here's a question: In virtue of what is "P&Q&R" a conscious belief that the group possesses? If P&Q&R is a conscious belief because individual group members consciously endorse P and Q and R and/or P&Q&R in the right kind of coordinated way, then maybe this is a fairly vanilla view after all: Conscious experience is still the province of individual people. What Pettit adds is only a somewhat more complex way of picking out which individual conscious experiences count as the group's shared conscious experience. Group consciousness is just individual consciousness, plus a criterion for attributing some of those states to the group as a whole.

    On the other hand, if the social relationships among the group members yield more than that, if the group's conscious experience arises from the interconnections among members so that conscious experiences at the group level aren't just individuals' conscious experiences plus a criterion -- well then maybe we're starting to get into Chunky Monkey territory after all.

    Suppose there's something it's like to consciously think, "Ah, P&Q&R, that's right!" On the Chunky Monkey view, this experience could really transpire in the group entity, even if it occurs in no individual member's head. On the strawberry-that's-basically-vanilla view, that's impossible, and to say that the group consciously endorses P&Q&R is only to say something about structural relationships among what individual group members do consciously endorse.


    Note 1: Pettit prefers "coawareness", which he appears to equate with "access consciousness" in Ned Block's sense. He says that access consciousness implies there being "something it's like" and maybe vice versa (at least for the case of belief). Despite this, he says he is "setting aside" the issue of phenomenal consciousness -- perhaps thinking of "phenomenal consciousness" as a phrase that is more theoretically commissive than I hear it as being (see p. 12-14, 33).

    Note 2: In footnote 6, for example, Pettit favorably cites his sometimes-coauthor Christian List's 2018 criticism of my article on USA consciousness.

    Friday, April 26, 2019

    Animal Rights for Animal-Like AIs?

    by John Basl and Eric Schwitzgebel

    Universities across the world are conducting major research on artificial intelligence (AI), as are organisations such as the Allen Institute, and tech companies including Google and Facebook. A likely result is that we will soon have AI approximately as cognitively sophisticated as mice or dogs. Now is the time to start thinking about whether, and under what conditions, these AIs might deserve the ethical protections we typically give to animals.

    Discussions of ‘AI rights’ or ‘robot rights’ have so far been dominated by questions of what ethical obligations we would have to an AI of humanlike or superior intelligence – such as the android Data from Star Trek or Dolores from Westworld. But to think this way is to start in the wrong place, and it could have grave moral consequences. Before we create an AI with humanlike sophistication deserving humanlike ethical consideration, we will very likely create an AI with less-than-human sophistication, deserving some less-than-human ethical consideration.

    We are already very cautious in how we do research that uses certain nonhuman animals. Animal care and use committees evaluate research proposals to ensure that vertebrate animals are not needlessly killed or made to suffer unduly. If human stem cells or, especially, human brain cells are involved, the standards of oversight are even more rigorous. Biomedical research is carefully scrutinised, but AI research, which might entail some of the same ethical risks, is not currently scrutinised at all. Perhaps it should be.

    You might think that AIs don’t deserve that sort of ethical protection unless they are conscious – that is, unless they have a genuine stream of experience, with real joy and suffering. We agree. But now we face a tricky philosophical question: how will we know when we have created something capable of joy and suffering? If the AI is like Data or Dolores, it can complain and defend itself, initiating a discussion of its rights. But if the AI is inarticulate, like a mouse or a dog, or if it is for some other reason unable to communicate its inner life to us, it might have no way to report that it is suffering.

    A puzzle and difficulty arises here because the scientific study of consciousness has not reached a consensus about what consciousness is, and how we can tell whether or not it is present. On some views – ‘liberal’ views – for consciousness to exist requires nothing but a certain type of well-organised information-processing, such as a flexible informational model of the system in relation to objects in its environment, with guided attentional capacities and long-term action-planning. We might be on the verge of creating such systems already. On other views – ‘conservative’ views – consciousness might require very specific biological features, such as a brain very much like a mammal brain in its low-level structural details: in which case we are nowhere near creating artificial consciousness.

    It is unclear which type of view is correct or whether some other explanation will in the end prevail. However, if a liberal view is correct, we might soon be creating many subhuman AIs who will deserve ethical protection. There lies the moral risk.

    Discussions of ‘AI risk’ normally focus on the risks that new AI technologies might pose to us humans, such as taking over the world and destroying us, or at least gumming up our banking system. Much less discussed is the ethical risk we pose to the AIs, through our possible mistreatment of them.

    This might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but insofar as researchers in the AI community aim to develop conscious AI or robust AI systems that might very well end up being conscious, we ought to take the matter seriously. Research of that sort demands ethical scrutiny similar to the scrutiny we already give to animal research and research on samples of human neural tissue.

    In the case of research on animals and even on human subjects, appropriate protections were established only after serious ethical transgressions came to light (for example, in needless vivisections, the Nazi medical war crimes, and the Tuskegee syphilis study). With AI, we have a chance to do better. We propose the founding of oversight committees that evaluate cutting-edge AI research with these questions in mind. Such committees, much like animal care committees and stem-cell oversight committees, should be composed of a mix of scientists and non-scientists – AI designers, consciousness scientists, ethicists and interested community members. These committees will be tasked with identifying and evaluating the ethical risks of new forms of AI design, armed with a sophisticated understanding of the scientific and ethical issues, weighing the risks against the benefits of the research.

    It is likely that such committees will judge all current AI research permissible. On most mainstream theories of consciousness, we are not yet creating AI with conscious experiences meriting ethical consideration. But we might – possibly soon – cross that crucial ethical line. We should be prepared for this.

    [originally posted on Aeon Ideas]

    Wednesday, April 24, 2019

    Contest Idea: Can You Write an Philosophical Argument That Convinces Research Participants to Give Some of Their Bonus Money to Charity?

    In a series of studies supported by The Life You Can Save, Chris McVey and I have been showing research participants (mTurk workers) philosophical arguments for charitable giving. Other participants read narratives about children who were helped by charitable donations or (as a control condition) they read a middle-school physics textbook discussion of energy.

    We then ask participants their attitudes about charitable giving and follow up with this question:

    Upon completion of this study, 10% of participants will receive an additional $10. You have the option to donate some portion of this $10 to your choice among six well-known charities that have been shown to effectively fight suffering due to extreme poverty. If you are one of the recipients of the additional $10, the portion you decide to keep will appear as a bonus credited to your Mechanical Turk worker account, and the portion you decide to donate will be given to the charity you pick from the list below.

    Note: You must pass the comprehension questions and show no signs of suspicious responding to receive the $10.  Receipt of the $10 is NOT conditional, however, on your attitudes toward charity, expressed on the previous page, nor on how much you choose to donate if you receive the $10.

    If you are one of the recipients of the additional $10, how much of your additional $10 would you like to donate?

    [response options are in dollar intervals from $0 to $10, followed by a list of six charities to choose among]

    Our November 21 blog post "Narrative but Not Philosophical Argument Motivates Giving to Charity" describes some of our results. Short version: When presented with the narratives, participants choose to donate on average about $4.50 of their possible bonus. When presented with the physics text or the argument, they donate about a dollar less. We've tried varying the argument, to see if we can find a variation that statistically beats the control (with 100-200 participants per condition), but so far no luck.

    This is where you come in. Maybe Chris and I are bad at writing convincing arguments! (Well, one argument we adapted from Matthew Lindauer and collaborators, in consultation with Peter Singer.) The philosophical community might be able to help us create a more effective argument.

    So -- is this too goofy? -- I'm thinking that a contest might be fun. Write a philosophical argument (300-400 words) that actually leads mTurk participants to donate more of their bonus to charity than they do in the control condition. The prize might be $500 outright plus $500 to the winner's choice of an effective charity. If no one can create an argument that can beat the control condition, no winner; otherwise the winner is the author of the argument that generates the highest mean donation.

    There would need to be some constraints: no use of narrative (personal or historical), no discussion of individual people who might be helped, no pictures, no highly emotionally charged content or vivid sensory detail. The argument shouldn't be obviously fallacious, foolish, or absurd. It ought to be something that a thoughtful philosopher could get behind as a reasonable argument. Statistics, empirical details, evidence of overall effectiveness, etc., are fine.

    I'm open to suggestions about how best to administer such a contest, if I can find funding for it -- including thoughts about rules, parameters, the best statistical approach, what the prize should be, what to do if we receive too many submissions to run them all, etc. (I'm also open for funders to volunteer.)

    Also, I'm definitely open to ideas about what features of an argument might make it effective or ineffective among ordinary readers, if you have thoughts about that but don't feel game to write up an argument.

    [image source]

    Thursday, April 18, 2019

    Ethics in Publishing Philosophy

    Tomorrow (Friday) afternoon from 1-4, I'll be a panelist in a session on "Publishing Ethics in Philosophy" at the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Vancouver. Come by if you're in town!

    I'll have ten minutes to say a few things, before the session moves on to other panelists and then (hopefully) lots of discussion. I figure ten minutes is time enough to express three ideas. So... what three points should I make? What issues deserve special emphasis in a forum of this sort? Here are my thoughts:

    Journal and Monograph Response Times

    If the following three conditions all hold at a journal or academic press, there's cause for concern that that publisher's policies are impeding authors' timely publication of their work and progress in their careers:

    (1.) The journal or press does not accept simultaneous submissions (that is, there's an expectation that while the author's work is being considered there it is not also being considered elsewhere).

    (2.) The journal accepts 20% or fewer of submissions.

    (3.) The median response time for a decision is six months or more.

    As we all know, publishable-quality material stands a substantial chance of being rejected for a variety of reasons, including fit with the journal's vision or the vision of the monograph series, the very high selectivity of some venues that leads them to reject much material that they believe is of publishable quality, and chance in the refereeing process. For these reasons, it often takes five or more rejections before publishable-quality work finds a home. If venues are taking six months or more to respond, that can mean three or more years between first submission and final acceptance. That's too long for authors to wait -- especially graduate student authors and untenured faculty.

    Ideally, response times could be ten weeks or less. I don't think that's unattainable with good organization. But if a press or journal can't attain that, they ought to consider either allowing simultaneous submissions or increasing their acceptance rates.

    Journal Pricing

    It's not news to people in academia that some journals charge libraries very hefty subscription fees. The University of California system (UC Berkeley, UCLA, and eight other campuses including my own campus, UC Riverside, plus medical centers and national laboratories) recently cancelled its subscription to Elsevier journals, which was costing the system eleven million dollars a year, about 25% of the university's total journal budget. There's a huge difference in journal pricing, with some high quality journals charging a few hundred dollars a year while other journals, not appreciably better in any way, charge ten times as much for similar services -- with Elsevier and Springer maybe being the worst offenders.

    I looked up the institutional subscription price in US dollars for print and online access to the top twenty "best 'general' journals of philosophy" in a recent poll by Brian Leiter:

  • 1. Philosophical Review (Duke University Press), $264/year (4 issues, 561 pages).
  • 2. Mind (Oxford Academic), $430 (4 issues, 1270 pages).
  • 3. Nous (Wiley), $1532 (4 issues, 981 pages).
  • 4. Journal of Philosophy, $250 (12 issues, 684 pages).
  • 5. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (Wiley), $385 (6 issues, 1594 pages).
  • 6. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, (Taylor & Francis) $509 (4 issues, 838 pages) [Updated: thanks, Neil!].
  • 7. Philosophers' Imprint (hosted by University of Michigan), free open access ($20 recommended fee to submit an article for review; 25 individual articles).
  • 8. Philosophical Studies (Springer), $3171 (17 issues, 4627 pages).
  • 9. Philosophical Quarterly (Oxford), $799 (4 issues, 874 pages).
  • 10. Analysis (Oxford). $288 (4 issues, 784 pages).
  • 11. Synthese (Springer), $4830 (12 issues, 5594 pages).
  • 12. Canadian Journal of Philosophy (Taylor & Francis), $446 (6 issues, 899 pages).
  • 13. Erkenntnis (Springer), $1802 (6 issues, 1320 pages).
  • 14. American Philosophical Quarterly (University of Illinois), $397 (4 issues, approx 420 pages).
  • 15. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly (Wiley), $764 (4 issues, 909 pages).
  • 16. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Oxford), $343 (3 issues, 428 pages).
  • 17. Ergo (hosted by University of Toronto): free open access (41 individual articles).
  • 18. European Journal of Philosophy (Wiley): $1446 (4 issues, 1457 pages).
  • 19. Journal of the American Philosophical Association (Cambridge University): Only available to institutions as part of a large subscription package.
  • 20. Thought (Wiley), $400-$741 (online only; 4 issues, 295 pages).
  • I am not aware of any good reason that Synthese should be almost $5000 a year, while other journals of similar quality are a few hundred dollars. The best explanation, I suspect, is that Springer, as a for-profit company, is taking advantage of inelastic institutional demand for the journal by institutions that want to ensure that they have access to the best-known philosophy journals. It is, I think, contrary to the general interests of academics and the public for Springer and other such companies to charge so much, so some collective resistance might be desirable.

    I recommend that editors, referees, and authors consider journal pricing as one factor in their decisions about serving in editorial roles, refereeing roles, and in choosing where to submit, giving default preference to open-access journals and reasonably priced journals over expensive journals when other factors are approximately equal.

    Responsible Citation Practice

    Increasingly, citation is the currency of academic prestige. People decide what to read based, partly, in what is being cited by others. High citation rates can figure prominently in hiring and tenure decisions. Highly cited authors are generally considered to be experts in their subfields.

    Thus, I think it is important that authors thoroughly review the recent literature on their topic to ensure that they are citing a good selection of recent sources, especially sources by junior authors and lesser-known authors. It is easy -- especially if you are a well-known author, and especially in invited contributions -- to cite the famous people in your subfield and the people whose work you happen to know through existing academic connections. This is not entirely academically responsible, and it can have the effect of illegitimately excluding from the conversation good work by people who are not as academically well connected.

    Citation practice is primarily the responsibility of authors -- but referees and editors might also want to consider this issue in evaluating submitted work.

    Comments/suggestions/reactions welcome -- especially before 1:00 pm tomorrow!

    [image source]