Friday, December 15, 2006

Brief Hiatus

I'll be off skiing with my family at Mammoth Mountain next week -- so definitely no blogging for me Sunday-Wednesday. I might be able to squeeze a little in next Thursday or Friday, or I might not! (I'll try at least to respond to comments.) Then the week after, too, I'll be in and out of town, so I won't be back on my regular schedule until the new year.

My mother (67 years old) is a maniac skier, and used to sometimes race Super G in the 55+ category. When I was a kid, she did a lot of part-time ski patrol in the mountains near L.A., and I'd tag along. By the time I was 17, the only people better than me were professionals. I had a particular affection for cutting new lines through the crud between the trees -- the steeper the better (Alta, with its weird traverses, was great for this). I haven't skied much since then, but if my son (now seven) takes to it, maybe I will!

A Sampled Experience: Beep 1.1

Regular readers may know that Russ Hurlburt and I have a book forthcoming with MIT Press. Russ and I interviewed a woman -- "Melanie" -- about randomly sampled moments of her experience while wearing a beeper. The book centers on lightly edited transcripts of those interviews. The reader can see what Melanie says about her experience, how Russ and I, in our different ways, question her further about it, and -- both in the dialogue and in side boxes -- how Russ and I disagree about how far to believe her and how to connnect what she says with existing literature in philosophy and psychology.

I'm thinking that periodically, I may feature one of the "beeped" experiences on this blog. Today: Beep 1.1. Melanie says that she has an episode of inner speech or inner hearing paced faster than normal speech, but not rushed; and she says she experiences the humorousness of that thought (the one expressed by the inner speech/hearing) as a kind of "rosy-yellow glow" surrounding her. Two of the interesting questions -- interesting to me at least -- that arise from this sample are:

* Does inner speech normally transpire at the same rate as outer speech, or does it often go faster?

* Do normal (non synaesthetic) people often experience color with their emotions -- like "seeing red" when angry? Or should we take attributions of color to emotions more metaphorically?

Let me invite you to read the transcript for yourself. Comments welcome!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Curious Effect of Vibrating Phones

Sometimes -- not often, actually -- I set my cell phone on vibrate. I keep it in my left front pocket. Now, it seems to me that I feel vibrations at the top of my left leg periodically, even when the phone is not vibrating, even when the phone is not in my pocket at all. I was reminded of this a few days ago when a colleague remarked on a similar experience.

My question is: What's going on here?

Here's one possibility. Primed to feel subtle vibration against that part of my leg, I sometimes misjudge whether there is vibration. Well, maybe! But here are my qualms. On the one hand, if the judgment here is supposed to about the vibration of an external object against my leg, I don't think I'm actually (or at least not usually) making that judgment. Rather, I'm judging that there's a vibrating feeling resembling the feeling when an object vibrates against my leg. But -- and this is the "other hand" -- if the judgment is just about my experience, it seems at least a little strange to say that I'm wrong in that judgment, i.e., wrong that I am experiencing a buzzing feeling of a certain sort -- though maybe!

Here's another possibility: My body is constantly -- or frequently -- abuzz with vibrations, or vibration-feelings, of various sorts, but I rarely notice them. Having the cell phone has attuned me especially to vibrations at the top front of my left leg, so now I notice them there, whereas I didn't before. Quite possibly so! But that's a pretty rich view of experience. It doesn't seem now, as I've been sitting here typing, thinking about buzzing feelings, and even pausing occasionally to reflect on whether anything is buzzing, that my bodily experience is so rich with sensation. On the other hand, it has only been about 20 minutes. If I feel five hundred buzzes a day, and one -- the one I notice -- is in that exact location on my leg (which I'd estimate to be about 1/500 of my body surface), then I should expect a buzz only about... well, doing the math (assuming 16 waking hours), actually about every two minutes! Hm!

Or maybe the buzzing is a new experience, arising somehow from the fact that I have a readiness to feel buzzing in the location, and accurately apprehended as an experience when it occurs. I do now occasionally "buzz" at the top of my leg, as a result of carrying that phone in my pocket, whereas I didn't before. Though this also seems slightly strange, it is perhaps the most appealing possibility -- intellectually appealing I mean! At another level, I'm not sure I like the idea that I've added a buzz to my stream of somatic experience....

Monday, December 11, 2006

When Do You Know You're Speaking to Yourself?

Here's an issue Al Mele and I discussed last week during his visit to UCR: Let's say you're talking silently to yourself and you are aware of the fact that you are doing so. Are the inner speech and the awareness of it strictly simultaneous? Or might there be a delay, on the order of some tens of milliseconds, between the phenomenology of inner speech -- the subjective experience of speaking -- and the knowledge or judgment that you are innerly speaking?

Why do I care about this? Well, the question is diagnostic of more general views about consciousness and self-knowledge. For example, if you think -- as I am inclined to think -- that our phenomenology, or subjective experience, is one thing and our judgments about that phenomenology or experience are quite another -- then you might assume that there must be some sort of causal process, and hence delay, between inner speech and the knowledge of it. On the other hand, if you think that phenomenology or subjective experience essentially involves self-awareness, then you'll probably reject the possibility of any delay between the felt experience and the judgment or knowledge that one is feeling the experience. (I think the latter assumption was implicit in Mele's talk, which is how we got started talking about it.)

More complicated views are possible, too. For example, one might draw a distinction between "dispositional" knowledge (a mere readiness to reach the right judgment about your inner speech, say) and "occurrent" judgment (an actually occuring thought about your inner speech), and say the first is simultaneous with the inner speech, the second slightly delayed. Or one might think that the felt experience of innerly speaking is part of the judgment that one is innerly speaking (a la Shoemaker); and then the exact causal and temporal relationships might be hard to tease out. Or like Dennett, you might resist the idea that there are temporal facts this precise about consciousness.

Another complication is that if the inner speech is intentionally excuted, you have a kind of ongoing knowledge of it as it is occuring as a result of the fact that you know you are (or are about to) put your intention into action. Correspondingly, if I plan to type a word, I know that I am doing it as I am doing it not entirely by virtue of seeing it spelled out on the page. But given my propensity for typos, it's probably true to say that I don't really know that I've typed a word until I actually see it correctly on the page; so the knowledge is delayed, after all. Likewise, perhaps, if we don't always execute the inner speech we plan to -- and that itself is an interesting question: can we, and if so how often do we, err in executing our inner speech intentions? -- the knowledge might not come until after we have, as it were, innerly heard our inner speech. On the other hand, there's something weird -- too many moving parts? -- in the idea that we have to innerly hear (or the like) our inner speech to know that we've said something to ourselves....

Friday, December 08, 2006

Do Ethicists Steal More Books? More Data

I've finished collecting data relevant to the question of whether ethics books are more likely to be missing from libraries than non-ethics books in philosophy. You might think ethics books would vanish at a lower rate, if the people interested in them were influenced by the contents! (See this post for some earlier discussion.)

I was led to gather these data by what I call The Problem of the Ethics Professors -- the fact, or apparent fact, that ethics professors seem to behave no better than the rest of us. This is perhaps one small, imperfect way of assessing the presupposition behind that question. If I'm wrong, and ethicists really do behave better than the rest of us, perhaps this will reveal itself in their library habits?

It doesn't. For this analysis, I constructed a list of ethics books in philosophy and a comparison list of non-ethics books. The ethics list was derived from all the ethics books reviewed in Philosophical Review from 1990-2001 -- mostly technical work in philosophy principally of interest to advanced graduate students and professors -- combined with all the books originally published after 1959 that appear it at least five different bibliographies in the ethics entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (including political philosophy, legal philosophy, and history of ethics, but excluding philosophy of action and moral psychology). The comparison list was composed of about 1/3 of the non-ethics books from the same issues of Phil Review (randomly selected, and excluding philosophy of action, moral psychology, and philosophy of religion), combined with books appearing in at least five different SEP entries on philosophy of mind or language (excluding philosophy of action and moral psychology).

I then looked at the holdings of these books at the libraries in UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UC Santa Cruz, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Michigan, and Texas, as well as all the COPAC libraries in Britian, which includes all the major university libraries. (I won't get into the principles of library selection.) A paid research assistant helped me with some of this!

I sorted the information into five categories: On shelf; checked out but not overdue; overdue one year or less; "missing" or more than one year overdue (which I will interpret as also missing); uninterpretable (e.g., "record unavailable").

Here are the uninterpreted numbers:
Ethics books:
Total holdings: 14,551
Total out or missing: 3,708
Total overdue or missing: 780
Total missing: 305

Non-ethics books:
Total holdings: 9,584
Total out or missing: 1,764
Total overdue or missing: 176
Total missing: 113

Obviously more ethics books are overdue and missing, but of course more are also held and checked out. The most interesting figures, I think, are these:

Overdue or missing, as a percentage of those off shelf:
Ethics: 21.0%
Non-ethics: 10.0%

Missing, as a percentage of those off shelf:
Ethics: 8.2%
Non-ethics: 6.4%

An ethics book is more than twice as likely to be overdue, given that it is off the shelf, and about 25% more likely to be missing!

The first difference is statistically significant at p < .001, the second at p = .02, using a simple one-proportion test (two-tailed, of course!).

Now obviously there are confounds. I'm trying to work on straightening those out, and I'll hopefully report more on them next week. I'd be interested to hear suggestions for further analyses.

Here are three worries I have:
(1.) Ethics books are more checked out than non-ethics books, and there is a correlation in the data between number checked out and percentage of those off shelf that are missing or overdue.
(2.) Older books are more likely to be missing than more recent books, and the weighted average age of the ethics books (weighted by number of checkouts) is about two years earlier than that of non-ethics books (1989 vs. 1991).
(3.) It might be those pesky law students! How will things look if I exclude philosophy of law texts or exclude results from law schools?

As far as I can tell from preliminary analysis, controlling for (2) or (3) slightly reduces the effect, but a statistically significant difference remains. Controlling for (1) seems to eliminate the second effect, but not the first.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Ethics Books More Popular in Britain

I've been crunching numbers all day in service of my inquiry into whether ethicists steal more books. I was hoping to post results on the blog today, but it looks like it will have to wait 'til Friday. Now I have to dash off to dinner with Al Mele, who just gave a very interesting talk criticizing Libet's work on the timing of decisions and what that has to say about free will.

But here's a tidbit to reflect on in the meantime. In a sample of British academic libraries (those showing checkout information in COPAC -- virtually all the major universities in Britain), major ethics books are about 2.5 times more likely to be checked out than non-ethics books. This applies across the board, from major texts (like Theory of Justice) to texts primarily of interest to a narrow group of specialists. In the United States (looking at the UC's, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Michigan, and Texas), ethics books are still more likely to be checked out than non-ethics books (about 1.6 times), but that difference pretty much vanishes if one excludes a handful of exceptional texts with interdisciplinary appeal in law and women's studies.

Is this a sign that British academics take ethics more seriously than those in the U.S.?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Chalmers on "Modal Rationalism"

In my undergraduate/graduate seminar this quarter, we read David Chalmers's influential book, The Conscious Mind, and now we’re reading some of the subsequent criticism and discussion of it, and Chalmers’s replies.  A common theme in many replies -- and my sense, too, is that there’s something fishy about reflecting from the armchair about what we can conceive and reaching conclusions on that basis about the fundamental structure of the universe.

Chalmers’s response to this (in Philosophy & Phenomenological Research, 1999, p. 490; see also "Does Conceivability Entail Possibility?") is interesting. He insists -- correctly, I think -- that either you’re doing empirical exploration or you’re engaged in a “rationalist” enterprise centering on ideas such as “consistency, entailment, and ideal conceivability” -- that either you're doing scientific research or you’re exploring our concepts. In particular, he attacks the idea that something might be conceptually possible but still metaphysically impossible: Metaphysics just is about our conceptual space. This is hard for what Chalmers calls “Type B materialists” to swallow: They want to embrace materialism as a “metaphysical” thesis and at the same time allow that it’s conceivable that materialism is false, that it's conceivable (for example) that “zombies” -- beings physically identical to us but with no conscious experience -- exist.

As I said, I’m inclined to agree with Chalmers about this and disagree with the majority of his critics. But I think this only raises even more sharply the fundamental concern that seems to me to be driving them.  If Chalmers’s (and all of our) “metaphysics” is just exploration of our concepts, how can we claim to discover anything about the fundamental structure of the universe thereby -- anything about anything other than our concepts? Metaphysics seems then to become a branch of psychology.

Now, actually, I’m quite happy with that, but I’m not sure Chalmers should be, and it isn’t the tenor of The Conscious Mind as I read it. And if materialism is true, then I’d say it’s not -- or shouldn’t be -- construed as a metaphysical thesis at all, but rather as a scientific thesis, a claim only about the “laws of nature”, and not a claim about Kripkean “a posteriori metaphysical necessity” or the like.

Friday, December 01, 2006

New Book: Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic -- Now Online

here! (forthcoming with MIT Press in 2007)

Russ Hurlburt, a psychologist at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and I got together and jointly interviewed a subject, "Melanie", about randomly sampled moments of her "inner experience" while she was wearing a beeper. Russ has been using this methodology for decades to discover, he thinks, all kinds of interesting facts about people's inner lives. I've published a number of essays skeptical of our capacity accurately to introspect our experience, even under favorable conditions. At the center of the book is a lightly edited transcript of our six days of interviewing Melanie about 18 experiences.

In this book, Russ and I confront each other's views in the context of concrete, unselected reports by a particular person, Melanie. You get to see what Melanie says about her experience, how Russ tries to bring out what's accurate in her reports, and the sources of my doubts and criticisms. In side boxes, we continue our debates and connect what we say to contemporary and historical literature in philosophy and psychology. We've also written separate introductory and concluding chapters, each from our own point of view.

Right now I'm thinking I might present readers of the blog with one "beep" at a time every Friday, assuming people might be interested in that. Although Melanie’s experiences are in certain respects quite ordinary, we think the reader will find at least some of her descriptions surprising, intriguing, and suggestive -- even independently of Russ's and my disputes about how far to believe them.