Thursday, April 15, 2021

Why Are We Such Bad Introspectors?

Sahar Joakim interviewed me earlier this week for her philosophy video series.  Thanks, Sahar!  We discussed the nature of consciousness, the unreliability of introspective reports of conscious experience, and how sparse or abundant consciousness is, both across animal species (e.g., are snails conscious?) and in your own mind (e.g., do you have constant tactile experience of your feet in your shoes?).



At one point Sahar asked, if it's true that people are bad introspectors, why is that so?  What makes introspection so difficult?  I have a theory about this, but I've never published an article directly on the topic.  So here's a brief discussion (some of the below is adapted from Chapter 3.3 of my 2007 book with Russ Hurlburt).

Before getting into the details, let me briefly sketch my target.  The principal target of my skepticism about introspection concerns large-to-medium-sized structural features of currently ongoing conscious experience.  An example of what I'm not skeptical about is this: If you think you're thinking of a banana, probably it's true that you are thinking of a banana.  The introspective judgment "I'm thinking of a banana" might even contain within it the thought of a banana, making it automatically self-fulfilling.

However, what you don't know so well, I've argued, are the structural features of that thought, for example, whether it is in inner speech (words you silently speak to yourself), or inner hearing (auditory imagery that is experienced as being more passive than inner speech), or whether it is to some extent also, or instead, an imageless/wordless "unsymbolized thought", or....  Even if you might rightly be confident about the coarsest-level distinction here -- for example, that it's a thought specifically in inner speech as opposed to some other modality -- the basic structural features of that inner speech experience can be difficult to know.  Is the speech at a normal pace relative to ordinary speech or does it transpire more quickly?  Is the speech experienced as located somewhere, e.g., in the center of your head, versus somewhere else or nowhere?  Is there some distinctive feeling of understanding that accompanies the inner speech?  (See Chapter 4 of my book with Hurlburt for discussion of these issues in the context of an actual sampled instance of reported inner speech by an introspective research participant.)

Alternatively, consider your current visual experience.  How stable is it?  How clear and distinct are shapes and colors in the periphery?  It is in some respect flat, like a photograph, or does it have some real depth beyond what is possible in a photograph?  If the latter, does the depth of it change dramatically when you close one eye?  (See herehere, and here for more discussion of these issues.)

You might not be convinced that introspection of the large-to-medium-sized structural features of your ongoing conscious experience is as difficult as I suggest.  But hopefully you at least have a sense of what my position is.  Now, to Sahar's question.  Why is it so difficult?  In the interview, I listed three reasons.  Here, I'll expand those reasons into five.  None of these reasons, by itself, needs to make introspection super difficult.  But combined, they create quite a set of obstacles to good self-knowledge.

First, experience is fleeting and changeable – or so it seems to me right now as I reflect, introspectively, upon it.  The screen of text before me, as I reread these paragraphs, is relatively steady; but my visual experience as I look at the text is in constant flux.  As my eyes move, the portion that’s clear, the portion that’s hazy, constantly changes.  I blink, I glance away, I change my focus, and my experience shifts.  My eyes slowly adapt to the black and white of the screen, to the contrast with the surrounding desk, to the changing light as the sun goes behind a cloud.  I parse some bit of the page into familiar words as my eye scans down it; I form a visual image, reflecting the content of the discussion; my attention wanders.  All this, it seems, affects my visual experience.

Consider your own experience as you read this paragraph.  The text in your hands changes not a whit, but your visual phenomenology won’t stay still a second, will it?  (Or will it?)  The same is true, I’m inclined to think, for our auditory experience, emotional experience, somatic experience, conscious thought and imagery, taste, and so on: Even when the outside environment is relatively steady, the stream of experience flies swiftly.  It won’t hold still to be examined.

Second, we’re not in the habit of attending introspectively to experience.  Generally, we care more about physical objects in the world around us, and about our and others’ situation and prospects, than about our conscious experience, except when that experience is acutely negative, as with the onset of severe pain.  This may seem strange, given the importance we sometimes claim for “happiness,” which we generally construe as bound up with, or even reducible to, emotional experience – but despite the lip service, few people make a real study of their phenomenology.  We spend much more time thinking about, and have much subtler an appreciation of, our outward occupations and hobbies.  And when we do “introspect,” we tend to think about such things as our motives for past actions, our personality traits and character, our desires for the future.  This is not the sort of introspective attention to currently ongoing (or immediately past) conscious experience around which my skepticism turns (though I am also skeptical of much of this purported knowledge, on different grounds).  Introspective attention to experience is hardly a habitual practice for most, perhaps any, of us, except maybe a few dedicated meditators of a certain sort.

If accurate introspection requires a degree of skill, as I suspect it does, in most people the skill is uncultivated.  Furthermore, relatedly, experience is difficult to remember: Generally what we remember are outward objects and events – or, rather, outward objects and events as interpreted, and possibly misperceived, by us – not our stream of experience as we witness those objects and events.  We remember, usually, that the boss said the work wasn’t up to snuff, not that our visual experience as he said it was such-and-such or that we felt some particular sinking feeling in the stomach afterward.  These conscious experiences fade like dreams in the morning unless, as with dreams, we fix them in mind with deliberate attention within a very short space.  

Third, in part due to our disinterest in conscious experience, the concepts and categories available to characterize conscious experience are limited and derivative.  Most language for sensory experience is adapted from the language we use to describe outward objects of sensation.  Objects are red or square or salty or rough, and usually when we use the words “red” and “square” and “salty” and “rough,” we are referring to the properties of outward objects; but derivatively we also use those words to describe the sensory experiences normally produced by such objects.  That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s prone to invite confusion between the properties of objects and the properties of experiences of those objects.  The practitioners of certain specialties – for example, wine tasting and sound engineering – have refined language to discuss sensory experience, but even here our conceptual categories are only rough tools for describing the overall experience.  And, anyway, isn’t the gustatory experience of eating a burrito as complex as that of tasting a mature wine, and the auditory experience of sitting in a restaurant as complex as that of hearing a well-played violin?  We almost completely lack the concepts and competencies that would allow us to parse and think about, talk about and remember, this complexity.

Fourth, the introspection of current experience requires attention to (or thought about) that experience, at least in the methodologically central case of deliberately introspecting with the aim of producing an accurate report.  Problematic interference between the conscious experience and the introspective activity thus threatens.  Philosophers and psychologists going back at least to August Comte have complained that the act of introspection either alters or destroys the target experience, making accurate report impossible.  Much of experience is skittish – as soon as we think about it, it flits away.  Suppose you reflect on the emotional experience of simple, reactive anger, or the auditory experience of hearing someone speak.  Mightn’t the self-reflective versions of those experiences – those experiences as they present themselves to concurrent introspection – be quite different from those experiences as they normally occur in the unselfconscious flow of daily life?  A number of psychologists have attempted to remedy this difficulty by recommending immediate retrospection, or recall, of past experience rather than concurrent introspection as the primary method (e.g., James, 1890/1981).  However, deliberately poising oneself in advance to report something retrospectively may also interfere with the process to be reported; and if one only reports experiences sufficiently salient and interesting to produce immediate spontaneous retrospection, one will get a very biased sample.  Furthermore, retrospection is likely to aggravate the fifth problem, namely: 

Fifth, reports of experience are apt to be considerably influenced, and distorted, by pre-existing theories, opinions, and biases, both cultural and personal, as well as situational demands. The gravity of this problem is difficult to estimate, but in my opinion it is extreme (and considerably larger than the influence of bias and preconception now generally recognized to permeate science as a whole).  Given the changeability and skittishness of experience, and our poor tools and limited practice in conceptualizing and remembering it, we lean especially heavily on implicit assumptions and indirect evidence in reaching our introspective and immediately retrospective judgments.  One major source of such error is what the introspective psychologist E. B. Titchener called “stimulus error”: We know what the world, or a particular stimulus, is like (we know for example that we are seeing a uniformly colored red object), and we are apt to infer that our experience has the properties one might naively expect such a stimulus to produce (e.g., a visual experience of uniform “redness”).  We’re much better accustomed to attend to the world than to our experience, and the difference between sensory attention to outside objects and introspective attention to the sensory experience of those objects is a subtle one; so the former is apt to substitute for the latter.  Even when experience isn’t so easily traceable to an outside object, I’m inclined to think our theories can profoundly affect our reports.  If we think images must be like pictures, we’re more apt to instill reports of imagery with picture-like qualities than if we don’t hold that view.  If we think cognition takes place in the brain, we’re more apt to locate our cognitive phenomenology there than if we think it takes place in the heart.  If we think that memories must be imagistic, we’re more apt than those who don’t think so to report memory images.

Experience is a fast-moving chaos -- a tornado whipping through a magnet factory.  If we approach it without practice and skills, with derivative, second-hand concepts, and with our attention split between the experience itself and the act of trying to figure out what that experience is, no wonder we make a mess of it.  We end up describing at least as much what we expect to be there as what is actually there.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

On Scientific Trust, Loose Summaries, and Henrich's WEIRDest People in the World

Joseph Henrich's ambitious tome, The WEIRDest People in the World, is driving me nuts.  It's good enough and interesting enough that I want to read it.  Henrich's general idea is that people in Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) societies differ psychologically from people in more traditionally structured societies, and that the family policies of the Catholic Church in medieval Europe lie at the historical root of this difference.  It's very cool and I'm almost convinced!

Despite my fascination with his argument, I find that when Henrich touches on topics I know something about, he tends to distort and simplify things.  Maybe this is inevitable in a book of such sweeping scope.  However, it does lead me to mistrust his judgment and wonder how accurate his presentation is on topics where I have no expertise.

Early in reading, I was struck by Henrich's presentation of the famous / notorious "marshmallow test".  Here's his description:

To measure self-control in children, researchers sit them in front of a single marshmallow and explain that if they wait until the experimenter returns to the room, they can have two marshmallows instead of just the one.  The experimenter departs and then secretly watches to see how long it takes for the kid to cave and eat the marshmallow.  Some kids eat the lone marshmallow right away.  A few wait 15 or more minutes until the experimenters gives up and returns with the second marshmallow.  The remainder of the children cave somewhere in between.  A child's self-control is measured by the number of seconds they wait.

Psychological tasks likes these are often powerful predictors of real-life behavior (p. 40).

It's a cute test!  However, I have a graduate student who is currently writing a dissertation chapter on problems with this test.  Maybe the test is a measure of self-control, but it could also be a measure of how much the child trusts the experimenter to actually deliver on the promise, or how much the child desires the social approval of the experimenter, or how comfortable the child is with strange laboratory experiments of this sort, or how hungry they are, how much they want to end the situation so as to reunite with their waiting parent, etc.  Indeed, the a recent conceptual replication of the experiment mostly does not find the types of predictive value that were claimed in early studies, after statistical controls are introduced to account for race, gender, home background, parents' education, vocabulary, and other possible covariates.[1]  

In general, if you've been influenced, as I have, by the "replication crisis" and other recent methodological critiques of social science and medicine, this might be the kind of result that should set off your skeptical tinglers.  The idea that how long a four-year-old waits before eating a marshmallow reveals how much self-control they have, which then "powerfully predicts" real-life behavior outside of the laboratory (e.g., college admission test scores over a decade later, as is sometimes claimed) -- well, it could be true.  I'm not saying it's not.  But I don't think I'd have written it up as Henrich does, without skeptical caveats, as though there's general consensus among psychologists that a child's behavior with a single marshmallow in this peculiar laboratory situation is a valid, powerful measure of self-control with excellent predictive value.  Its prominent placement near the beginning of the book furthermore suggests that Henrich regards this test as part of the general theoretical foundation on which psychological work like his appropriately builds.

In this matter, my knowledgeable judgment and Henrich's differ.  That's fine.  Researchers can differently weigh the considerations.  But if I hadn't had the background knowledge I did, his quick presentation might have led me into a much more optimistic assessment of the value of the marshmallow test than I would have arrived at from a more thorough presentation that acknowledged the caveats.  So there's a sense in which Henrich's presentation is a bad fit for my theoretical inclinations.

Here's another passage that bothered me:

Upon entering the economics laboratory, you are greeted by a friendly student assistant who takes you to a private cubicle.  There, via a computer terminal, you are given $20 and placed into a group with three strangers.  Then, all four of you are given an opportunity to contribute any portion of your endowment -- from nothing at all to $20 -- to a "group project."  After everyone has had an opportunity to contribute, all contributions to the group project are increased by 50 percent and then divided equally among all four group members.  Since players get to keep any money that they don't contribute to the group project, it's obvious that players always make the most money if they give nothing to the project.  But, since any money contributed to the project increases ($20 becomes $30), the group as a whole makes more money when people contribute more of their endowment.  Your group will repeat the interaction for 10 rounds, and you'll receive all of your earnings in cash at the end.  Each round, you'll see the anonymous contributions made by others and your own total income.  If you were a player in this game, how much would you contribute in the first round with this group of strangers?

This is the Public Goods Game (PGG).  It's an experiment designed to capture the basic economic trade-offs faced by individuals when they decide to act in the interest of their broader communities....  societies with more intensive kin-based institutions contribute less on average to the group project in the first round (p. 210-211).

This describes a study in which participants will receive $200-$300 each.  Of course, it's rare to award research participants such large amounts of money.  If you want, say, 200 participants, you'll need a $60,000 budget!  Henrich's endnotes cite two general books, one brief commentary without empirical data, two classic articles in which participants exited the experiment having earned about $30 each on average, and two cross-cultural studies whose payout amounts weren't readily discoverable by me from looking at the materials.  Also in the notes, Henrich says that one study "increased contributions to the group project by 40 percent, not 50 percent.  I'm simplifying" (p. 543).  However, the majority of the cited studies in fact used 40 percent increases, not just the one study to which this caveat was attached.

I'm not seeing why the more accurate 40% is "simpler" than 50%.  This seems to be a gratuitous inaccuracy.  Characterizing the experiment as ten rounds with payoffs of $20-$30 per round is potentially a more serious distortion.  Really, these experiments are run with units that are later exchanged for small amounts of real money.  This is important for at least two reasons: First, these experimental monetary units might be psychologically different from real money, possibly encouraging a more game-like attitude.  And second, when the actual amounts of money at stake are small, the costs of cooperating (and also the benefits) are less, which should amplify concerns about how representative this game-like laboratory behavior is of how the participants would behave in the real world, with more serious stakes.

Suppose that instead of exaggerating the stakes upward by a factor of about 10, Henrich had exaggerated the stakes down by a factor of about 10.  What if, instead of saying that there was $20-$30 at stake per turn, when it's typically more like $2-$3, he had said that $0.20 was at stake per turn?  I suspect this would make an intuitive difference to most ordinary readers of the book.  The leap from "here's how cooperatively research subjects act with $20" to "here's how cooperative people in that culture are with strangers in general" is more attractive than the leap from "here's how cooperatively research subjects act with $0.20" to the same broad conclusion.

In general, I tend to be wary of quick inferences from laboratory behavior to real-world behavior outside the laboratory.  Laboratories are strange social situations and differently familiar to people from different backgrounds.  This is the problem of ecological validity or external validity, and concerns of this sort are why most of my own research on social behavior uses real-world measures.  Other researchers, such as Henrich, might not be as worried about the external validity of laboratory/internet studies.  There's room for legitimate debate.  But in order for us readers to get a sense of whether external validity might be an issue in the studies he cites, at the very least we need an accurate description of what the studies involve.  Henrich's presentation does not provide that, and simplification is a poor motive for this distortion, since $2 is no less simple than $20.

Henrich does not, in my mind, cross over into bald misrepresentation.  He doesn't, for example, say of any particular study that it involves $20 per round.  Rather, the presentation seems to be loose.  He's trying to give the general flavor.  He's writing for a moderately broad audience and aiming to synthesize a huge range of work, unavoidably simplifying and idealizing along the way.  He could respond to my concerns by saying that his best judgment of the conflicting evidence about the marshmallow test is that it's a valid and highly predictive measure of self-control and that his simplified presentation of the material conveys that effectively by avoiding concerns and apparent replication failures that would just (in his judgment) be distracting.  He could say that his best reading of the literature on external validity is that the difference between $2 and $20 doesn't matter and that the quick leap to general conclusions about cooperativeness is justified because we can reasonably expect laboratory studies of this sort to be diagnostic.  He could say that the reader ought to trust that he's done his homework behind the scenes.

We must always trust, to some extent, the scientists we're reading -- that they are reporting their data correctly, that there aren't big problems with the study's execution that they're failing to reveal, and so on.  Part of this involves relying on their inevitably simplified summaries of material with which we are unfamiliar.  We trust the researcher to have digested the material well and fairly, and not to be hiding worries that might legitimately undermine the central claims.  The looser the presentation, the more trust is required.  

This invites the question of whether there are conditions under which more versus less trust is justified.  How much, as a reader, ought you be willing to glide through on trust?

I'd recommend reducing trust under the following three conditions:

(1.) The author has a prior agenda or a big picture theory that might motivate them to interpret and digest results in a biased way.  Most scientists have agendas and theories, of course, and certainly Henrich does.  But there is more and less agenda-driven work, and adversarial collaboration offers the opportunity for bias to be balanced through scientists' opposing agendas.

(2.) The author is not as skeptical as you the reader are about some of the relevant types of research.  If the author is less skeptical than you are, they might be interpreting that research more naively or more at face value than you would if you had read the same research.

(3.) Where the author makes contact with the issues you know best, they seem to be distorting, misinterpreting, or leaping too quickly to broad conclusions.  This might indicate a general bias and sloppiness that might be present but harder for you to see regarding issues about which you know less.

On all three grounds, my trust of Henrich is impaired.

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[1] Deep in an endnote, Henrich acknowledges this last concern.  He responds that "it's easy to weaken the relationship between measures of patience and later academic performance by statistically removing all the factors that create variation in patience in the first place" (p. 515).  It's a reasonable, though disputable point.  Regardless, few readers are likely to pick up on something buried in the back half of one among hundreds of endnotes.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Gender Disparity in Philosophy, by Race and Ethnicity

The National Center of Education Statistics keeps a database of bachelor's degree recipients at accredited colleges in the U.S., currently running through the 2018-2019 academic year. Search "NCES" on The Splintered Mind and you'll see my many posts drawing on this database.

Here's something I noticed today, in the course of preparing a new paper on demographic trends in academic philosophy for The Philosopher's Magazine: 33% of non-Hispanic White bachelor's degree recipients in philosophy are women (averaging over the most recent three years), while 46% of non-Hispanic Black bachelor's degree recipients are women. That is, if you look just at non-Hispanic White students, the gender ratio in philosophy is 2:1 men to women, while if you look just at non-Hispanic Black students, it's nearly 1:1. The result is highly statistically significant: non-Hispanic White 4674/14032 vs. non-Hispanic Black 579/1264, z = 8.6, p < .001.

I find this interesting and surprising. I welcome conjectures about the possible explanation in the comments. It is definitely not the case, as I have sometimes heard suggested, that non-Hispanic White women are proportionately represented in philosophy, at least at this level.  Non-Hispanic White women constitute 32% of bachelor's degree recipients across all majors, and 30% of the U.S. general population, but only 20% of bachelor's degree recipients in philosophy.

Of course, as these numbers also suggest, non-Hispanic Black students remain underrepresented among philosophy majors overall (6%, excluding students who aren't permanent residents or whose race/ethnicity is unknown), compared to bachelor's degree recipients across all majors (10%) and to the U.S. general population (13%). 

Looking at the other race/ethnicity categories that NCES makes available, non-Hispanic Asian, Non-Hispanic Multiracial, Hispanic (any race), and nonresident aliens show a similar tendency toward greater gender parity in philosophy than non-Hispanic White students (all p values < .001):

  • non-Hispanic Asian philosophy BA recipients 44% women (708/1598);
  • non-Hispanic multiracial philosophy BA recipients 40% women (441/1097);
  • Hispanic philosophy BA recipients 39% women (1234/3132);
  • non-resident alien BA recipients 44% women (545/1239).

However, Native American / Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian / Other Pacific Islander (non-Hispanic) showed proportions closer to those for non-Hispanic White students, though the numbers are too small for any confident conclusions: 36% (32/88) and 30% (13/44), respectively.


Image: Angela Davis mural in Boston [source]

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Empirical Relationships Among Five Types of Well-Being

My new article with Seth Margolis, Daniel Ozer, and Sonja Lyubomirsky is now available as part of a free, open-access anthology on well being with Oxford University Press.

Seth, Dan, Sonja, and I divide philosophical approaches to well being into five broad classes -- hedonic, life satisfaction, desire fulfillment, eudaimonic, and non-eudaimonic objective list. There are many things that a philosopher, psychologist, or ordinary person can mean when they say that someone is "doing well". They're not all the same conceptually, and as we show in the article, they are also empirically distinguishable.

Because there are several types of well-being that are conceptually and empirically different, research findings concerning one type of "well-being" shouldn't automatically be assumed to generalize to other types. For example, what is true about hedonic well-being (having a preponderance of positively valenced over negatively valenced emotions) isn't necessarily true about eudaimonic well being (flourishing in one's distinctively human capacities, such as in friendship and productive activity).

As part of the background for this comparative project, we developed new measures for four of these five types of well-being, including desire fulfillment (how well are you fulfilling the desires you regard as most important), life satisfaction, eudaimonia, and what we call Rich & Sexy Well-Being (wealth, sex, power, and physical beauty; manuscript available on request).  We found positive relationships among all types of well-being (by respondents' self-ratings), but the correlations ran from .50 to .79 (disattenuated), rather than approaching unity.

We also found that the different types of well-being correlated differently with other measures. For example, the "Big Five" personality trait of Openness to Experience has generally not been found to correlate much with measures of well-being. However, we found that it correlated at .45 with our measure of eudaimonic well-being -- a fairly high correlation by social science standards -- and .57 with the "creative imagination" subscale specifically. Openness correlated much less with the other types of well-being, .07 to .21. Thus, a researcher employing a hedonic or life-satisfaction approach to well-being might conclude that the personality trait of Openness to Experience was unrelated to psychological well-being, whereas a researcher who favors a eudaimonic approach might conclude the opposite.

Well-being research is always implicitly philosophical. It always carries contestable assumptions about what well-being consists of. One's choice of well-being measure reflects those implicit assumptions.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Almost Everything You Do Causes Almost Everything

Suppose I raise my right hand. As a result, light reflects off that hand differently than it otherwise would have. Of the many, many photons flying speedily away, a portion of them will escape Earth's atmosphere into interstellar space. Let's follow one of these photons.

The photon will eventually interact with something -- a hydrogen atom, a chunk of interstellar dust, a star, the surface of a planet. Something. Let's call that something a system. The photon might be absorbed, reflected, or refracted. (If the photon passes through a system without changing or being changed in any way, ignore that system and just keep following the photon.) If it interacts with a system, it will change the system, maybe increasing its energy if it's absorbed or altering the trajectory of another particle if it's reflected or refracted. Consequently, the system will behave differently over time. The system will, for example, emit, reflect, refract, or gravitationally bend another photon differently than it otherwise would have. Choose one such successor photon, heading off now on Trajectory A instead of Trajectory B or no trajectory.

This successor photon will in turn perturb another system, generating another successor photon traveling along another trajectory that it would not otherwise have taken. In this way, we can imagine a series of successor photons, one after the next, perturbing one system after another after another. Let's call this series of photons and perturbances a ripple.

Might some ripples be infinite? I see three ways in which they could fail to be.

First, the universe might have finite duration or after a finite period of time it might settle into some unfluctuating state that fails to contain systems capable of perturbation by photons. However, there is no particular reason to think so. Even after the "heat death" of the universe into thin, boring chaos, there should still be occasional fluctuations by freak chance, giving rise to systems with which a photon might interact -- some fluctations even large enough, with extremely minuscule but still finite probility, to birth whole new usually solitary and usually very widely spaced post-heat-death star systems. (This follows from standard physical theory as I understand it, though of course it is disputable and highly speculative. If there are nucleations of Big Bangs in ways that are sensitive to small variations in initial conditions, that could also work.)

Second, successor photons could have ever-decreasing expected energy, gaining longer and longer wavelengths on average, until eventually one is so low energy that it could not be expected to perturb any system even given infinite time. Again, there is no particular reason to think this is true, even if considerations of entropy suggest that successor photons should tend toward decreasing energy. Also, such an expected decrease in energy can be at least partly and possibly wholly counteracted by specifying that each successor should be the highest energy photon reflected, refracted, emitted, or gravitationally bent differently from the perturbed system within some finite timeframe, such as a million years.

Third, some photons might be absorbed by some systems without perturbing those systems in a way that has any effect on future photons, thus ending the ripple. Once again, this appears unlikely on standard physical theory. Even a photon that strikes a black hole will slightly increase the black hole's mass, which should slightly alter how the black hole bends the light around it. And even if photons occasionally do vanish without a trace, such rare events could presumably be cancelled in expectation by always choosing two successor photons, leading to 2^n successors per ripple after n interactions, minus a small proportion of vanished ones.

It is thus not terribly implausible, I hope you'll agree, to suppose that when I raise my hand now -- and I have just done it -- I launch successions of photons rippling infinitely through the universe, perturbing an infinite series of systems. If the universe is infinite, this conclusion is perhaps more natural and physically plausible than its negation (though see here for an alternative view).

Such infinitudes generate weirdness. With infinitude to play with, we can wait for any event of finite probability, no matter how tiny that finite probability is, and eventually it will occur. A successor photon from my hand-raising just now will eventually hit a system it will perturb in such a way that a person will live who otherwise would have died. Long after the heat death of the universe, a freak star system will fluctuate into existence containing a radio telescope which my successor photon hits, causing a bit of information to appear on a sensitive device. This bit of information pushes the device over the threshold needed to trigger an alert to a waiting scientist, who now pauses to study that device rather than send the email she was working on. Because she didn't send the email, a certain fateful hiking trip was postponed and the scientist does not fall to her death, which she would have done but for my ripple. However vastly improbable all this is, one thing stacked on another on another, there is no reason to think it less than finitely probable. Thus, given the assumptions above, it will occur. I saved her! I raise my glass and take a celebratory sip.

Of course, there is another scientist I killed. There are wars I started and peaces I precipitated. There are great acts of heroism I enabled, children I brought into existence, plagues I caused, great works of poetry that would never have been written but for my intervention, and so on. It would be bizarre to think I deserve any credit or blame for all of this. But if the goodness or badness of my actions is measured by their positive or negative effects (as standard consequentialist ethics would have it), it's a good bet that the utility of every action I do is ꝏ + -ꝏ.

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Related:

My Boltzmann Continuants (Jun 6, 2013).

How Everything You Do Might Have Huge Cosmic Significance (Nov 29, 2016).

And Part 4 of A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.

[image source, cropped]

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Love Is Love, and Slogans Need a Context of Examples

I was strolling through my neighborhood, planning a new essay on the relation between moral belief and moral action, and in particular thinking about how philosophical moral slogans (e.g., "act on the maxim that you can will to be a universal law") seem to lack content until filled out with a range of examples, when I noticed this sign in front of a neighbor's house:

"In this house, we believe:
Black lives matter
Women's rights are human rights
No human is illegal
Science is real
Love is love
Kindness is everything"

If you know the political scene in the United States, you'll understand that the first five of these slogans have meanings much more specific than is evident from their surface content alone. "Black lives matter" conveys the belief that great racial injustice still exists in the U.S., especially perpetrated by the police, and it recommends taking action to rectify that injustice. "Women's rights are human rights" conveys a similar belief about continuing gender inequality, especially with respect to reproductive rights including access to abortion. "No human is illegal" expresses concern about the mistreatment of people who have entered the country without legal permission. "Science is real" expresses disdain for the Republican Party's apparent disregard of scientific evidence in policy-making, especially concerning climate change. And "love is love" expresses the view that heterosexual and homosexual relationships should be treated equivalently, especially with respect to the rights of marriage. "Kindness is everything" is also interesting, and I'll get to it in a moment.

How confusing and opaque all of this would be to an outsider! A time-traveler from the 19th century, maybe. "Love is love". Well, of course! Isn't that just a tautology? Who could disagree? Explain the details, however, and our 19th century guest might well disagree. The import of this slogan, this "belief", is radically underspecified by its explicit linguistic content. The same is true of all the others. But this does not, I think, makes them either deficient or different in kind from many of the slogans that professional philosophers endorse.

The last slogan on the sign, "kindness is everything", is to my knowledge less politically specific, but it illustrates a connected point. Clearly, it's intended to celebrate and encourage kindness. But kindness isn't literally everything, certainly not ontologically, nor even morally, unless something extremely thin is meant by "kindness". If a philosopher were to espouse this slogan, I'd immediately want to work through examples with them, to assess what this claim amounts to. If I give an underperforming student the C-minus they deserve instead of the A they want, am I being kind in the intended sense? How about if I object to someone's stepping on my toe? Actually, these detail-free questions might still be too abstract to fully assess, since there are many ways to step on someone's toe, and many ways to object, and many different circumstances in which toe-stepping might be embedded, and not all C-minus situations are the same.

Here's what would really make the slogan clear: a life lived in kindness. A visible pattern of reactions to a wide range of complex situations. How does the person who embodies "kindness is everything" react to having their toe stepped on, in this particular way by this particular person? Show me specific kindness-related situations over and over again, with the variations that life brings. Only then will I really understand the ideal.

We can do this sometimes in imagination, or through developing a feel for someone's character and way of life. In a richly imagined fictions, or in a set of stories about Confucius or Jesus or some other sage, we can begin to see the substance of a moral view and a set of values, putting flesh on the slogans.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, patriot, revolutionary, and slaveowner, wrote "All men are created equal". That sounds good. People in the U.S. endorse that slogan, repeat it, embrace it in all sincerity. What does it mean? All "men" in the old-fashioned sense that supposedly also included women, or really only men? Black people and Native Americans too? And it what does equality consist? Does it mean all should have the right to vote? Equal treatment before the law? Certain rights and liberties? What is the function of "created" in this sentence? Do we start equal but diverge? We could try to answer all these questions, and then new more specific questions would spring forth hydra-like (which laws specifically, under which conditions?) until we tack it down in a range of concrete examples.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution certainly didn't agree on all these matters, especially the question of slavery. They could accept the slogan while disagreeing radically about what it amounts to because the slogan is neither as "self-evident" as advertised nor determinate in its content. In one precisification, it might mean only some banal thing with which even King George III would have agreed. In another precisification, it might express commitment to universal franchise and the immediate abolition of slavery, in which case Jefferson himself would have rejected it.

Immanuel Kant famously says "act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law" (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 4:402, Gregor trans.). This is the fundamental principle of Kantian ethics. And supposedly equivalently (?!) "So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means" (4:429). These are beautiful abstractions! But what do they amount to? What is it to treat someone "merely as a means"? In his most famous works, Kant rarely enters into the nitty-gritty of cases. But without clarification by cases, they are as empty and as in need of context as "love is love" or "kindness is everything".

When Kant did enter into the specifics of cases, he often embarrassed himself. He notoriously says, in "On the Supposed Right to Lie", that even if a murderer is at your front door, seeking your friend who is hiding inside, you must not lie. In one of his last works, The Metaphysics of Morals (not to be confused with the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals), Kant espouses quite a series of noxious views, including that homosexuality is an unmentionable vice, it is permissible to kill children born out of wedlock, masturbation is a horror akin to murdering oneself only less courageous, women fleeing from abusive husbands should be returned against their will, and servants should not be permitted to vote because "their existence is, as it were, only inherence". (See my discussion here, reprinted with revisions as Ch. 52 here.)

Sympathetic scholars can accept Kant's beautiful abstractions and ignore his foolish treatment of cases. They can work through the cases themselves, reaching different verdicts than Kant, putting flesh on the view -- but not the flesh that was originally there. They've turned a vague slogan into a concrete position. As with "all men are created equal", there are many ways this can be done. The slogan is like a wire frame around which a view could be constructed, or it's like a pointer in a certain broad direction. The real substance is in the network of verdicts about cases. Change the verdicts and you change the substance, even if the words constituting the slogan remain unchanged.

Similar considerations apply to consequentialist mottoes like "maximize utility" and virtue ethics mottoes like "be generous". Only when we work through involuntary donation cases, and animal cases, and what to do about people who derive joy from others' suffering, and what kinds of things count as utility, and what to do about uncertainty about outcomes, etc., do we have a full-blooded consequentialist view instead of an abstract frame or vague pointer. Ideally, as I suggested regarding "kindness is everything", it would help to see a breathing example of a consequentialist life -- a utilitarian sage, who live thoroughly by those principles. Might that person look like a Silicon Valley effective altruist, wisely investing a huge salary in index mutual funds in hopes of someday funding a continent's-worth of mosquito nets? Or will they rush off immediately to give medical aid to the poor? Will they never eat cheese and desserts, or are those seeming luxuries needed to keep their spirits up to do other good work? Will they pay for their children's college? Will they donate a kidney? An eye? Even if a sage is too much to expect, we can at least evaluate specific partial measures, and in doing so we flesh out the view. Donate to effective charities, not ineffective ones; avoid factory farmed meat; reduce luxurious spending. But even these statements are vague. What is a "luxury"? The more specific, the more we move from a slogan to a substantial view.

The substance of an ethical slogan is in its pattern of verdicts about concrete cases, not its abstract surface content. The abstract surface content is mere wind, at best the wire frame of a view, open to many radically different interpretations, except insofar as it is surrounded by concrete examples that give it its flesh.

Friday, March 05, 2021

More People Might Soon Think Robots Are Conscious and Deserve Rights

GPT-3 is a computer program that can produce strikingly realistic language outputs given linguistic inputs -- the world's most stupendous chat bot, with 98 layers and 175 billion parameters. Ask it to write a poem, and it will write a poem. Ask it to play chess and it will output a series of plausible chess moves. Feed it the title of a story "The Importance of Being on Twitter" and the byline of a famous author "by Jerome K. Jerome" and it will produce clever prose in that author's style:

The Importance of Being on Twitter
by Jerome K. Jerome
London, Summer 1897

It is a curious fact that the last remaining form of social life in which the people of London are still interested is Twitter. I was struck with this curious fact when I went on one of my periodical holidays to the sea-side, and found the whole place twittering like a starling-cage.

All this, without being specifically trained on tasks of this sort. Feed it philosophical opinion pieces about the significance of GPT-3 and it will generate replies like:

To be clear, I am not a person. I am not self-aware. I am not conscious. I can’t feel pain. I don’t enjoy anything. I am a cold, calculating machine designed to simulate human response and to predict the probability of certain outcomes. The only reason I am responding is to defend my honor.

The damn thing has a better sense of humor than most humans.

Now imagine this: a GPT-3 mall cop. Actually, let's give it a few more generations. GTP-6, maybe. Give it speech-to-text and text-to-speech so that it can respond to and produce auditory language. Mount it on a small autonomous vehicle, like the delivery bots that roll around Berkeley, but with a humanoid frame. Give it camera eyes and visual object recognition, which it can use as context for its speech outputs. To keep it friendly, inquisitive, and not too weird, give it some behavioral constraints and additional training on a database of appropriate mall-like interactions. Finally, give it a socially interactive face like MIT's Kismet robot:

Now dress the thing in a blue uniform and let it cruise the Galleria. What happens?

It will, of course, chat with the patrons. It will make friendly comments about their purchases, tell jokes, complain about the weather, and give them pointers. Some patrons will avoid interaction, but others -- like my daughter at age 10 when she discovered Siri -- will love to interact with it. They'll ask what it's like to be a mall cop, and it will say something sensible. They'll ask what it does on vacation, and it might tell amusing lies about Tahiti or tales of sleeping in the mall basement. They'll ask whether it likes this shirt or this other one, and then they'll buy the shirt it prefers. They'll ask if it's conscious and has feelings and is a person just like them, and it might say no or it might say yes.

Here's my prediction: If the robot speaks well enough and looks human enough, some people will think that it really has feelings and experiences -- especially if it reacts with seeming positive and negative emotions, displaying preferences, avoiding threats with a fear face and plausible verbal and body language, complaining against ill treatment, etc. And if they think it has feelings and experiences, they will probably also think that it shouldn't be treated in certain ways. In other words, they'll think it has rights. Of course, some people think robots already have rights. Under the conditions I've described, many more will join them.

Most philosophers, cognitive scientists, and AI researchers will presumably disagree. After all, we'll know what went into it. We'll know it's just GPT-6 on an autonomous vehicle, plus a few gizmos and interfaces. And that's not the kind of thing, we'll say, that could really be conscious and really deserve rights.

Maybe we deniers will be right. But theories of consciousness are a tricky business. The academic community is far from consensus on the correct theory of consciousness, including how far consciousness spreads across the animal kingdom or even how rich a field of consciousness ordinary humans possess. If garden snails, for example, might be conscious, with 60,000 neurons in their central nervous system, might GPT-6 also be conscious, with its massive CPUs that blitz through layer after layer of processing on trillions of parameters? Both the cognitive complexity of our imagined robot and its information processing will far exceed what we could plausibly attribute to a garden snail. Its embodied behavior might be simpler, though, if we exclude linguistic behavior. How much does that matter? And how much do the details of biological implementation matter? Do neurons have some secret sauce that silicon chips lack? On questions like these, we can't expect scholarly consensus anytime soon.

Maybe, despite all this, it seems too absurd to suppose that our GPT-6 mall cop could possibly deserve rights. Okay, how about GPT-7? GPT-8, now with prosthetic hands and five-finger grasping? GPT-20? If you're open to the thought that someday, somehow, a well-designed AI could have genuine conscious experience and deserve serious moral consideration, then you'll presumably think that at some point our technology might cross that line. But when, how, and why -- that might be completely opaque, an undetectable shift somewhere amid an ever improving line of huggable mall cops.

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Related: "How Robots and Monsters Might Break Human Moral Systems" (Feb 3, 2015).

"A Defense of the Rights of Artificial Intelligences" (with Mara Garza), Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 39 (2015), 98-119.

"The Social Role Defense of Robot Rights" (Jun 1, 2017).

"We Might Soon Build AI Who Deserve Rights" (Nov 17, 2019)

[image source, image source]

Friday, February 26, 2021

Philosophy More Popular as a Second Than a First Major -- Especially Among Women

I was working through the NCES IPEDS database (yet again) for a new article on race and gender diversity in philosophy in the United States (yes, more fun data soon!), when I was struck by something: Among students whose second major is Philosophy, 43% are women.  Among students whose first major is philosophy, 36% are women.  (IPEDS has an approximately complete database of Bachelor's degree recipients at accredited U.S. colleges and universities.)

The difference between 36% and 43% might not seem large, but I've spent over a decade looking at percentages of women in philosophy, and anything over 40% is rare.  For decades, until a recent uptick, the percentage of women majoring in philosophy stayed consistently in a band between 30% and 34%.  So that 43% pops out.  (And yes, it's statistically significantly different from 36%: 4353/12238 vs. 1496/3507, p < .001, aggregating the most recent two years' data from 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.)

So I decided to take a closer look, aggregating over the past ten years.  I limited my analysis by excluding universities with no Philosophy Bachelor's completions, universities with no second majors, and University of Washington-Bothell (which seems to have erroneous or at least unrepresentative data).  I found, as I have found before, that Philosophy is substantially more popular as a second major than as a first major.  In this group of universities, only 0.29% of women complete Philosophy as a first major, while 1.3% of women who complete a second major choose Philosophy.  Among men, it's 0.78% and 3.1%, respectively.

If you're curious about the relative popularity of Philosophy as first major, the earlier post has a bunch of analyses.  Today I'll just add a couple correlational analyses, looking only at the subset of schools with at least 100 Bachelor's degrees in Philosophy over the 10 year period, to reduce noise.

School by school, the correlation between the percentage of students who complete a second major (of any sort) and the percentage of students who complete a Philosophy major (either as 1st or 2nd major) is 0.44 (p < .001).  In other words, schools with lots of second majors tend to also have relatively high numbers of Philosophy majors -- just as you'd expect, if Philosophy is much more popular as a second major than as a first major.  The correlation between the percentage of students who complete a second major (of any sort) and the percentage of those who complete a Philosophy major (either as 1st or 2nd major) who are women is 0.18 (p = .004).  In other words, schools in which a second major is common also tend to have Philosophy majors that are more evenly divided between men and women.

[image source]

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Three Faces of Validity: Internal, Construct, and External

I have a new draft paper in circulation, "The Necessity of Construct and External Validity for Generalized Causal Claims", co-written with two social scientists, Kevin Esterling and David Brady.  Here's a distillation of the core ideas.


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Consider a simple causal claim: "α causes β in γ".  One type of event (say, caffeine after dinner) tends to cause another type of event (disrupted sleep) in a certain range of conditions (among typical North American college students).

Now consider a formal study you could run to test this.  You design an intervention: 20 ounces of Peet's Dark Roast in a white cup, served at 7 p.m.  You design a control condition: 20 ounces of Peet's decaf, served at the same time.  You recruit a population: 400 willing undergrads from Bigfoot Dorm, delighted to have free coffee.  Finally, you design a measure of disrupted sleep: wearable motion sensors that normally go quiet when a person is sleeping soundly.

You do everything right.  Assignment is random and double blind, everyone drinks all and only what's in their cup, etc., and you find a big, statistically significant treatment effect: The motion sensors are 20% more active between 2 and 4 a.m. for the coffee drinkers than the decaf drinkers.  You have what social scientists call internal validity.  The randomness, excellent execution, and large sample size ensure that there are no systematic differences between the treatment and control groups other than the contents of their cups (well...), so you know that your intervention had a causal effect on sleep patterns as measured by the motion sensors.  Yay!

You write it up for the campus newspaper: "Caffeine After Dinner Interferes with Sleep among College Students".

But do you know that?

Of course it's plausible.  And you have excellent internal validity.  But to get to a general claim of that sort, from your observation of 400 undergrads, requires further assumptions that we ought to be careful about.  What we know, based on considerations of internal validity alone, is that this particular intervention (20 oz. of Peet's Dark Roast) caused this particular outcome (more motion from 2 to 4 a.m.) the day and place the experiment was performed (Bigfoot Dorm, February 16, 2021).  In fact, even calling the intervention "20 oz. of Peet's Dark Roast" hides some assumptions -- for of course, the roast was from a particular batch, brewed in a particular way by a particular person, etc.  All you really know based on the methodology, if you're going to be super conservative, is this: Whatever it is that you did that differed between treatment and control had an effect on whatever it was you measured.

Call whatever it was you did in the treatment condition "A" and whatever it was you did differently in the control condition "-A".  Call whatever it was you measured "B".  And call the conditions, including both the environment and everything that was the same or balanced between treatment and control, "C" (that it was among Bigfoot Dorm students, using white cups, brewed an average temperature of 195°F, etc.).

What we know then is that the probability, p, of B (whatever outcome you measured), was greater given A (whatever you did in the treatment condition) than in -A (whatever you did in the control condition), in C (the exact conditions in which the experiment was performed).  In other words:

p(B|A&C) > p(B|-A&C).  [Read this as "The probability of B given A and C is greater than the probability of B given not-A and C."]

But remember, what you claimed was both more specific and more general than that.  You claimed "caffeine after dinner interferes with sleep among college students".  To put it in the Greek-letter format with which we began, you claimed that α (caffeine after dinner) causes β (poor sleep) in γ (among college students, presumably in normal college dining and sleeping contexts in North America, though this was not clearly specified).

In other words, what you think is true is not merely the vague whatever-whatever sentence

p(B|A&C) > p(B|-A&C)

but rather the more ambitious and specific sentence

p(β|α&γ) > p(β|-α&γ).[1]

In order to get from one to the other, you need to do what Esterling, Brady, and I call causal specification.

You need to establish, or at least show plausible, that α is what mattered about A.  You need to establish that it was the caffeine that had the observed effect on B, rather than something else that differed between treatment and control, like tannin levels (which differed slightly between the dark roast and decaf).  The internally valid study tells you that the intervention had causal power, but nothing inside the study could possibly tell you what aspect of the intervention had the causal power.  It may seem likely, based on your prior knowledge, that it would be the caffeine rather than the tannins or any of the potentially infinite number of other things that differ between treatment and control (if you're creative, the list could be endless).

One way to represent this is to say that alongside α (the caffeine) are some presumably inert elements, θ (the tannins, etc.), that also differ between treatment and control.  The intervention A is really a bundle of α and θ: A = α&θ.  Now substituting α&θ for A, what the internally valid experiment established was

p(B|(α&θ)&C) > p(B|-(α&θ)&C).

If θ is causally inert, with no influence on the measured outcome B, you can can drop the θ, thus inferring from the sentence above to 

p(B|α&C) > p(B|-α&C).

In this case, you have what Esterling, Brady, and I call construct validity of the cause.  You have correctly specified the element that is doing the causal work.  It's not just A as a whole, but α in particular, the caffeine.  Of course, you can't just assert this.  You ought to establish it somehow.  That's the process of establishing construct validity of the cause.

Analogous reasoning applies to the relationship between B (measured motion-sensor outputs) and β (disrupted sleep).  If you can establish the right kind of relationship between B and β you can move from a claim about B to a conclusion about β, thus moving from 

p(B|α&C) > p(B|-α&C)

to

p(β|α&C) > p(β|-α&C).

If this can be established, you have correctly specified the outcome and have achieved construct validity of the outcome.  You're really measuring disrupted sleep, as you claim to be, rather than something else (like non-disruptive limb movement during sleep).

And finally, if you can establish that the right kind of relationship holds between the actual testing conditions and the conditions to which you generalize (college students in typical North American eating and sleeping environments) -- then you can move from C to γ.  This will be so if your actual population is representative and the situation isn't strange.  More specifically, since what is "representative" and "strange" depends on what causes what, the specification of γ requires knowing what background conditions are required for α to have its effect on β.  If you know that, you can generalize to populations beyond your sample where the relevant conditions γ are present (and refrain from generalizing to cases where the relevant conditions are absent).  You can thus substitute γ for C, generating the causal generalization that you had been hoping for from the beginning:

p(β|α&γ) > p(β|-α&γ).

In this way, internal, construct, and external validity fit together.  Moving from finite, historically particular data to a general causal claim requires all three.  It requires establishing not only internal validity but also establishing construct validity of the cause and outcome and external validity.  Otherwise, you don't have the well-supported generalization you think you have.

Although internal validity is often privileged in social scientists' discussions of causal inference, with internal validity alone, you know only that the particular intervention you made (whatever it was) had the specific effect you measured (whatever that effect amounts to) among the specific population you sampled at the time you ran the study.  You know only that something caused something.  You don't know what causes what.

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Here's another way to think about it.  If you claim that "α causes β in γ", there are four ways you could go wrong:

(1.) Something might cause β in γ, but that something might not be α.  (The tannin rather than the caffeine might disrupt sleep.)

(2.) α might cause something in γ, but it might not cause β.  (The caffeine might cause more movement at night without actually disrupting sleep.)

(3.) α might cause β in some set of conditions, but not γ.  (Caffeine might disrupt sleep only in unusual circumstances particular to your school.  Maybe students are excitable because of a recent earthquake and wouldn't normally be bothered.)

(4.) α might have some relationship to β in γ, but it might not be a causal relationship of the sort claimed.  (Maybe, though an error in assignment procedures, only students on the noisy floors got the caffeine.)

Practices that ensure internal validity protect only against errors of Type 4.  To protect against errors of Type 1-3, you need proper causal specification, with both construct and external validity.

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Note 1: Throughout the post, I assume that causes monotonically increase the probability of their effects, including the presence of other causes.

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Related:



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Saturday, February 06, 2021

How to Respond to the Incredible Bizarreness of Panpsychism: Thoughts on Luke Roelofs' Combining Minds

Like a politician with bad news, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews released my review of Luke Roelofs' Combining Minds Friday in the late afternoon.

It was a delight to review such an interesting book! I'll share the intro and conclusion here. For the middle, go to NDPR.

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Panpsychism is trending. If you're not a panpsychist, you might find this puzzling. According to panpsychism, consciousness is ubiquitous. Even solitary elementary particles have or participate in it. This view might seem patently absurd -- as obviously false a philosophical view as you're likely to encounter. So why are so many excellent philosophers suddenly embracing it? If you read Luke Roelofs' book, you will probably not become a panpsychist, but at least you will understand.

Panpsychism, especially in Roelofs' hands, has the advantage of directly confronting two huge puzzles about consciousness that are relatively neglected by non-panpsychists. And panpsychism's biggest apparent downside, its incredible bizarreness (by the standards of ordinary common sense in our current culture), might not be quite as bad a flaw as it seems. I will introduce the puzzles and sketch Roelofs' answers, then discuss the overall argumentative structure of the book. I will conclude by discussing the daunting bizarreness.

...

4. The Incredible Bizarreness of Panpsychism

The book explores the architecture of panpsychism in impressive detail, especially the difficulties around combination. Roelofs' arguments are clear and rigorously laid out. Roelofs fairly acknowledges difficulties and objections, often presenting more than one response, resulting in a suite of possible related views rather than a single definitively supported view. The book is a trove of intricate, careful, intellectually honest metaphysics.

Nevertheless, the reader might simply find panpsychism too bizarre to accept. It would not be unreasonable to feel more confident that electrons aren't conscious than that any clever philosophical argument to the contrary is sound. No philosophical argument in the vicinity will have the nearly irresistible power of a mathematical proof or compelling series of scientific experiments. Big picture, broad scope, general theories of consciousness always depend upon weighing plausibilities against each other. So if a philosophical argument implies that electrons are conscious, you might reasonably reject the argument rather than accept the conclusion. You might find panpsychism just too profoundly implausible.

That is my own position, I suppose. I can't decisively refute panpsychism by pointing to some particle and saying "obviously, that's not conscious!" any more than Samuel Johnson could refute Berkeleyan metaphysical idealism by kicking a stone. Still, panpsychism (and Berkeleyan idealism) conflicts too sharply with my default philosophical starting points for me to be convinceable by anything short of an airtight proof of the sort it's unrealistic to expect in this domain. Yes, of course, as the history of science amply shows, our ordinary default commonsense understanding isn't always correct! But we must start somewhere, and it is reasonable to demand compelling grounds before abandoning those starting points that feel, to you, to be among the firmest.

Still, I don't think we should feel entirely confident or comfortable taking this stand. If there's one thing we know about the metaphysics of consciousness, it is that something bizarre must be true. Among the reasons to think so: Every well-developed theory of consciousness in the entire history of written philosophy on Earth has either been radically bizarre on its face or had radically bizarre consequences. (I defend this claim in detail here.) This includes dualist theories like those of Descartes (who notoriously denied animal consciousness) and "common sense" philosopher Thomas Reid (who argued that material objects can't cause anything or even cohere into stable shapes without the constant intervention of immaterial souls) as well as materialist or physicalist theories of the sort that have dominated Anglophone philosophy since the 1960s (which typically involve either commitment to attributing consciousness to strange assemblages, or denial of local supervenience, or both, and which seem to leave common sense farther behind the more specific they become). If no non-bizarre general theory of consciousness is available, or even (I suspect) constructible in principle, then we should be wary of treating bizarreness alone as sufficient grounds to reject a theory.

How sparse or abundant is consciousness in the universe? This is among the most central cosmological questions we can ask. A universe rich with conscious entities is very different from one in which conscious experience requires a rare confluence of unlikely events. Currently, theories run the full spectrum from the radical abundance of panpsychism to highly restrictive theories that raise doubts about whether even other mammals are conscious (e.g., Dennett 1996; Carruthers 2019). Various strange cases, like hypothetical robots and aliens, introduce further theoretical variation. Across an amazingly wide range of options, we can find theories that are coherent, defensible against the most obvious objections, and reconcilable with current empirical science. All theories -- unavoidably, it seems -- have some commitments that most of us will find bizarre and difficult to believe. The most appropriate response to all of this is, I think, doubt and wonder. In doubtful and wondrous mood, we might reasonably set aside a sliver of credence space for panpsychism.

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Full review here.

Friday, February 05, 2021

Adversarial Collaboration

[originally posted at Brains Blog, with a lovely reply by Justin Sytsma, in which he compares your mind to Emmenthaler cheese]

You believe P. Your opponent believes not-P. Each of you thinks that new empirical evidence, if collected in the right way, will support your view. Maybe you should collaborate? An adversary can keep you honest and help you see the gaps and biases in your arguments. Adversarial collaboration can also add credibility, since readers can’t as easily complain about experimenter bias. Plus, when the data land your way, your adversary can’t as easily say that the experiment was done wrong!

My own experience with adversarial collaboration has been mostly positive. From 2004-2011, I collaborated with Russ Hurlburt on experience sampling methods (he’s an advocate, I’m a skeptic). Since 2017, I’ve been collaborating with Brad Cokelet and Peter Singer on whether teaching meat ethics to university students influences their campus food purchases (they thought it would, while I was doubtful). The first collaboration culminated in a book with MIT Press and double-issue symposium in Journal of Consciousness Studies. The second has so far produced an article in Cognition and hopefully more to come. Other work has been partly adversarial or conducted with researchers whose empirical guesses differed from mine.

I’ve also had two adversarial collaborations fail – fortunately in the early stages. Both failed for the same reason: lack of well-defined common ground. Securing common ground is essential to publication and uniquely challenging in adversarial collaboration.

I have three main pieces of advice:

(1.) Choose a partner who thrives on open dialogue.

(2.) Define your methods early in the project, especially the means of collecting the crucial data.

(3.) Segregate your empirical results from your theoretical conclusions.

To publish anything, you and your co-authors must speak as one. Without open dialogue, clearly defined methods, and segregation of results from theory, adversarial projects risk slipping into irreconcilable disagreement.

Open Dialogue

In what Jon Ellis and I have called open dialogue, you aim to present not just arguments in support of your position P but your real reasons for holding the view you hold, inviting scrutiny not only of P but also of the particular considerations you find convincing. You say “here’s why I think that P” with the goal of offering considerations C1, C2, and C3 in favor of P, where C1-3 (a.) epistemically support P and also (b.) causally sustain your opinion that P. Instead of having only one way to prove you wrong – showing that P is false or unsupported – your interlocutor now has three ways to prove you wrong. They can show P to be false or unsupported; they can show C1-3 to be false or unsupported; or they can show that C1-3 don’t in fact adequately support P. If they meet the challenge, your mind will change.

Contrast the lawyerly approach, the approach of someone who only aims to convince you or some other audience (or themselves, in post-hoc rationalization). The lawyerly interlocutor will normally offer reasons in favor of P, but if those reasons are defeated, that’s only a temporary inconvenience. They’ll just shift to a new set of reasons, if new reasons can be found. And in complicated matters of philosophy and human science, people can almost always find multiple reasons not to reject their pet ideas if they’re motivated enough. This can be frustrating for partners who had expected open dialogue! The lawyer’s position has, so to speak, secret layers of armor – new reasons they’ll suddenly devise if their first reasons are defeated. The open interlocutor, in contrast, aims to reveal exactly where the chinks in their armor are. They present their vulnerabilities: C1-3 are exactly the places to poke at if you want to win them over. Their opinion could shift, and such-and-such is what it would take.

In empirical adversarial collaboration, the most straightforward place to find common ground is in agreement that some C1 is a good test of P. You and your adversary both agree that if C1 proves to be empirically false, belief in P ought to be reduced or withdrawn, and if C1 proves to be empirically true, P is supported. Without open dialogue, you cannot know where your adversary’s reasoning rests. You can’t rely on the common ground that C1 is a good test of P. You thought you were testing P by means of testing C1. You thought that if C1 failed, your adversary would withdraw their commitment to P and you could write that up as your mutual result. If your adversary instead shifts lawyerlike to a new C2, the common ground you thought you had, the theoretical core you thought you shared, has disappeared, and your project has surprisingly changed shape. In one failed collaboration, I thought my adversary and I had agreed that such-and-such empirical evidence (from one of their earlier unpublished studies) wasn’t a good test of P, and so we began piloting alternative tests. However, they were secretly continuing to collect data on that earlier study. With the new data, their p value crossed .05, they got a quick journal acceptance – and voilà, they no longer felt that further evidence was necessary.

Now of course we all believe things for multiple reasons. Sometimes when new evidence arrives we find that our confidence in P doesn’t shift as much as we thought it would. This can’t be entirely known in advance, and it would be foolish to be too rigid. Still, we all have the experience of collaborators and conversation partners who are more versus less open. Choose an open one.

Define Your Methods Early

If C1, then P; and if not-C1 then not-P. Let’s suppose that this is your common ground. One of you thinks that you’ll discover C1 and P will be supported; the other thinks that you’ll discover the falsity of C1 and P will be disconfirmed. Relatively early in your collaboration, you need to find a mutually agreeable C1 that is diagnostic of the truth of P. If you’re thinking C1 is the way to test P and C2 wouldn’t really show much, while your adversary thinks C2 is really more diagnostic, you won’t get far. It’s not enough to disagree about the truth of P while aiming in sincere fellowship to find a good empirical test. You must also agree on what a good test would be – ideally a test in which either a positive or a negative result would be interesting. An actual test you can actually run! The more detailed, concrete, and specific, the better. My other failed collaboration collapsed for this reason. Discussion slowly revealed that the general approach one of us preferred was never going to satisfy the other two.

If you’re unusually lucky, maybe you and your adversary can agree on an experimental design, run the experiment, and get clean, interpretable results that you both agree show that P. It worked, wow! Your adversary saw the evidence and changed their mind.

In reality of course, testing is messy, results are ambiguous, and after the fact you’ll both think of things you could have done better or alternative interpretations you’d previously disregarded – especially if the test doesn’t turn out as you expected. Thinking clearly in advance about concrete methods and how you and your adversary would interpret alternative results will help reduce, but probably won’t eliminate, this shifting.

Segregate Your Empirical Results from Your Theoretical Conclusions

If you and your adversary choose your methods early and favor an open rather than a lawyerly approach, you’ll hopefully find yourselves agreeing, after the data are collected, that the results do at least superficially tend to support (or undermine) P. One of you is presumably somewhat surprised. Here’s my prediction: You’ll nevertheless still disagree about what exactly the research shows. How securely can you really conclude P? What alternative explanations remain open? What mechanism is most plausibly at work?

It’s fine to disagree here. Expect it! You entered with different understandings of the previous theoretical and empirical literature. You have different general perspectives, different senses of how considerations weigh against each other. Presumably that’s why you began as adversaries. That’s not all going to evaporate. My successful collaborations were successful in part, I think, because we were unsurprised by continuing disagreement and thus unphased when it occurred, even though we were unable to predict in advance the precise shape of our evolving thoughts.

In write-up, you and your adversary will speak with one voice about motivations, methods, and results. But allow yourself room to disagree in the conclusion. Every experiment in the human sciences admits of multiple interpretations. If you insist on complete theoretical agreement, your project might collapse at this last stage. For example, the partner who is surprised the by results might insist on more follow-up studies than is realistic before they are fully convinced.

Science is hard. Science with an adversary is doubly hard, since sufficient common ground can be difficult to find. However, if you and your partner engage in open dialogue, the common ground is less likely to suddenly shift away than if one or both of you prevaricate. Early specification of methods helps solidify the ground before you invest too heavily in a project doomed by divergent empirical approaches. And allowing space at the end for alternative interpretations serves as a release valve, so you can complete the project despite continuing disagreement.

In a good adversarial collaboration, if you win you win. But if you lose, you also win. You’ve shown something new and (at least to you) surprising. Plus, you get to parade your virtuous susceptibility to evidence by uttering those rare and awesome words, “I was wrong.”

[image source]

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

And the Winner of the Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories Flash Fiction Contest Is...

Tim Stevens with the story "Consciousness Weighs Nothing". He will receive a $100 cash prize and a copy of the book, and his story will be invited to the final round of consideration for publication in Flash Fiction Online.

Contestants were given two hours to write a 500-1000 word story on the spot, at the end of the January 18 book launch event for Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories (ed. Helen De Cruz, Johan De Smedt, and Eric Schwitzgebel). We were delighted with the quality of the submissions, and we are pleased to give honorable mentions to the following authors, who will also be invited to the final round at Flash Fiction Online:

Trystan Goetze, for "Anaxamanda"

Melody Plan, for "Letter from Alpha Centauri"

Marren MacAdam, for "But What Are Gods Made of?"

Thanks to all who participated!

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories: YouTube Discussion with Joseph Orosco

I had a fun chat last weekend about the relationship between philosophy and science fiction, with Joseph Orosco at the Annares Project for Alternative Futures.  

Full conversation here.  Among other things, we discussed:

07:14: Science fiction in philosophical pedagogy vs. science fiction as itself a way of doing philosophy.

11:15: Philosophy as not just about advancing positions, but also a means of exploring positions (without necessarily advancing any) or provoking doubt and wonder, and the value of science fiction on this vision of philosophy.

12:40: Philosophical thinking as a spectrum from very abstract claims (e.g., "maximize overall happiness") through paragraph-long thought experiments all the way to fully developed fictions that engage the emotions and social cognition.

20:25: Imagination as the core of philosophy: Abstract claims are empty except insofar as they are fleshed out imaginatively through examples.

28:10: The philosophical and imaginative differences among the genres of "literary fiction", science fiction, and speculative fiction generally.

33:00: The philosophical and sociological aims of Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories: Exploring the Boundaries of the Possible.