Monday, April 30, 2007

The Trembling Stoic

On a dispositionalist view of belief (which I elaborate in this essay and this encyclopedia entry), to believe some proposition P is just to act and react, both in one's outward behavior and one's inward feelings, as though P were the case. One difficulty for this sort of view is what to do when someone seems to sincerely, wholeheartedly endorse some proposition -- and hence, we might say, believe it -- and yet does not pervasively act and react as though that proposition were true.

Excluding cases of deception (self or other) or unusual cognitive background (such as strange accompanying beliefs and desires), such cases seem to come mainly in two varieties:

(1.) Trembling Stoic cases. The Stoic sincerely judges, both alone in his study and out in the world in discussions with others, unhesitantly and unreservedly, that death is not bad. Yet he trembles before the sword, and he fears what the doctor will say. Or: A liberal professor sincerely professes that all the races are intellectually equal (and has, let's suppose, the scientific evidence to prove it), yet reveals implicitly in her behavior and reactions a subtle but persistent racism when it comes to matters of intelligence. Or: Someone comes to believe that God and Heaven exist, but does not transform her behavior accordingly.

These cases needn't involve self-deception or insincerity. One may perfectly well realize the need to reform. Nor are such cases necessarily matters of "weakness of will" in the face of acute, impulsive desires: Our liberal professor, for example, need have no particular desire to treat other races as intellectually inferior.

(2.) Momentary forgetfulness cases. I get an email saying a bridge I normally take to work is closed. Yet the next day, I find myself headed toward the bridge, rather than my intended alternate route, until at some moment (maybe only after seeing the bridge) I recall the previous day's email. Or: The trashcan used always to be under the sink, now it's by the fridge. I still reach under the sink half the time, though, when I go to throw something away.

Aaron Zimmerman, Tori McGeer, and Ted Preston have emphasized the importance of such cases to me in evaluating dispositionalism about belief (Tori and Ted being sympathetic to dispositionalism, Aaron less so).

My response to such cases is to distinguish broadly dispositional belief from momentary occurrences of sincere judgment. Then I'll "bite the bullet" on belief: The Stoic, the absent-minded driver, do not fully and completely believe, respectively, that death is not bad, that the bridge is closed (neither do they fully and completely believe the opposite). Although there are moments when they make sincere judgments to that effect, it takes a certain about of work and self-regulation to allow such judgments fully to inform one's habitual everyday behavior. Until that work is done, they don't fully believe.

(I recognize that it may grate a bit to say that I don't believe that the bridge is closed, as I'm driving toward it, especially since it seems right for me to say, in retrospect, "I knew the bridge was closed!" Here's a brief discussion of that particular issue.)

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Flurry of Essays

In the last few weeks I've had four essays come out -- a flood, really. (I published six essays total in the four years from 2003-2006.) These essays had all been cooking for at least two years. Philosophical publishing is molasses-slow! (A warning to new assistant professors.) I started working on the HPQ essay in 1998. One essay I've been working on (sporadically) since 1993 still isn't out. (Well, it is on decision theory, which is pretty low in my research priorities these days.)

For a general list of on-line essays in philosophy, not confined to Schwitzgeblia, I recommend Jonathan Ichikawa's conscientiously-maintained (but oxymoronically titled) Online Papers in Philosophy. (Don't see the oxymoron? Look at the second word. I'm trying to jettison the habit of referring to essays as "papers", for pointlessly priggish etymological reasons I suppose -- the same sorts of reasons that make me resist pronouncing "processes" with a long final "e" [as though the singular were "processis"], the same sorts of reasons that make me wince when people speak of "steep learning curves" without realizing that steepness in traditional behaviorist learning curves indicates learning quickly.)

Okay, enough free association. Here are the essays. Their topics should be clear enough from their titles. They develop ideas about conscious experience, self-knowledge, and moral development that are among the frequent themes of this blog.

Human Nature and Moral Education in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau. History of Philosophy Quarterly, 24 (2007), 147-168.

Do Things Look Flat? Philosophy & Phenomenological Research, 72 (2006 - yes, they're a bit behind!), 589-599.

Do You Have Constant Tactile Experience of Your Feet in Your Shoes? Or Is Experience Limited to What's in Attention? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 14 (2007), no. 3, 5-35.

No Unchallengeable Epistemic Authority, of Any Sort, Regarding Our Own Conscious Experience -- Contra Dennett? Phenomenology & the Cognitive Sciences, 6 (2007), 107-112.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Happy First Birthday, The Splintered Mind

Today, The Splintered Mind is one year old. (Let's hope it doesn't take 'til age 38 to peak!) A few reflections on my first year of blogging:

* It's a lot of work, but I like the discipline of posting on a MWF schedule. Every philosopher should have three thoughts a week good enough to be worth sharing in a casual way, with a forgiving audience.

* I am delighted with the readership of the blog. Comments are substantive and thoughtful (and polite!); and they often lead me to (or force me to) refine my thinking, or better understand potential objections, or see precedents. It's like contantly being in a (slow-paced) philosophical conversation. And I, as a philosopher, tend to learn more from and be more motivated by conversation than anything else.

* Blogging helps teach humility. Working on my own, it often seems to me that various things are obvious or obviously false, brilliant or ridiculous. But if I put it that way in the blog, people will call me out. I'm too often wrong to get away with being arrogant!

Since its launch one year ago, this blog has had a bit over 40,000 "unique visitors" (each new day someone visits, that person counts as a new unique visitor). I'd estimate that about half of the visitors were looking for this blog or following a link and about half happened upon it as the result of a topical search.

The monthly stats:
Apr 2006: 38 visitors
May 2006: 511 visitors
Jun 2006: 445 visitors
Jul 2006: 1642 visitors
Aug 2006: 1945 visitors
Sep 2006: 1922 visitors
Oct 2006: 2230 visitors
Nov 2006: 8320 visitors
Dec 2006: 2952 visitors
Jan 2007: 6707 visitors
Feb 2007: 4025 visitors
Mar 2007: 4340 visitors
Apr 2007: 5226 visitors (so far)

Although these numbers don't reach anything like the lofty heights of Leiter's blog (for understandable reasons!), I'm quite happy with them. Surely, these are many more people than read my articles; and my impression is that the readership is largely advanced students and youngish professors of philosophy. And if too many people read my blog, I wouldn't have enough time to respond individually to nearly every comment, which is my current practice!

The peaks in Nov. 2006 and Jan. 2007 are due entirely to my two most popular, most linked blog posts:

Most-Cited Ethicists in the Stanford Encyclopedia (and its companion Most-Cited Philosophers of Mind and Language in the Stanford Encyclopedia).


Still More Data on the Theft of Ethics Books.

Thanks for visiting!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The New Philosophers' Carnival is...

here. (Thanks to Avery Archer.)

Monday, April 23, 2007

Peer Opinion of the Behavior of Ethicists: Results by Academic Rank

As regular visitors to this blog will know, survey data Josh Rust and I collected at the Pacific and Eastern meetings of the American Philosophical Association suggest that philosophers don't think ethicists behave much differently than philosophers who aren't ethicists.

Results from the Eastern division meeting suggested the possibility of a U-shaped curve based on rank. Students and full professors seemed to think better of ethicists than did professors around tenure time. Was this trend borne out by the Pacific Division data?

Not at first glance. Here are the Pacific results broken down by rank. Q1 is whether ethicists on average behave better than non-ethicists in philosophy. Q3 is whether specialists in metaphysics and epistemology (including philosophy of mind) behave better than philosophers who are not M&E specialists. The scale ranges from 1 (substantially morally better) through 4 (about the same) to 7 (substantially morally worse).

Q1 (ethicists vs. other philosophers):
Undergraduates: 3.7
Graduate students: 3.5
Adjuncts: 3.9
Assistant Profs (tenure track): 3.8
Associate Profs: 3.8
Full Profs: 3.7
Distinguished Profs: 3.9

Q3 (M&E specialists vs. other philosophers):
Undergraduates: 3.5
Graduates: 4.0
Adjuncts: 4.2
Assistant Profs: 4.3
Associate Profs: 4.1
Full Profs: 4.3
Distinguished Profs: 4.1

No striking trends here. Of course, if one has a generally low opinion of philosophers, that might not show up in these questions, which only ask to compare philosophers of one group with philosophers as a whole. More telling perhaps are Q2 and Q4, which are identical to Q1 and Q3 except that the comparison group is "non-academics of similar social background".

Q2 (ethicists vs. non-academics):
Undergraduates: 3.6
Graduate students: 3.5
Adjuncts: 4.0
Assistant Profs (tenure track): 3.6
Associate Profs: 3.5
Full Profs: 3.5
Distinguished Profs: 3.2

Q4 (M&E specialists vs. non-academics):
Undergraduates: 2.9
Graduates: 3.9
Adjuncts: 3.8
Assistant Profs: 3.9
Associate Profs: 3.8
Full Profs: 3.8
Distinguished Profs: 3.4

There is a weak but not statistically significant trend here toward the students and full professors thinking better of philosophers than do adjuncts, assistants and associates (mean 3.6 vs. 3.8, p = .16).

As these numbers also suggest, there was a general tendency for Q1 & Q3 to have lower numbers than Q2 & Q4 -- implicitly suggesting that philosophers think philosophers behave morally better than non-academics (mean 3.9 vs. 3.6, p = .003). That trend is largely, but not entirely, driven by the tendency of ethicists to rate ethicists as morally better than non-philosophers (mean 3.1).

When asked to compare the behavior of a particular ethicist or M&E specialist in the department to that of other members of the department and to non-academics of similar social background (Version 2 of the questionnaire), the breakdown by ranks looks rather different, with a general tendency for higher rank to correlate with a lower opinion of one's colleagues and a lower opinion of ethicists in particular.

For example, when asked to compare the moral behavior of the ethicist in your department whose name comes next in alphabetical order after yours (looping around from Z to A if necessary) to others in your department and to non-academics of similar social background, here's the the breakdown by rank:

That particular ethicist in your department vs. others in your department:
Undegrad: 2.9
Grad: 3.5
Adjunct: 3.6
Assistant: 3.0
Associate: 3.8
Full: 4.1
Distinguished: 4.1
(ANOVA, p = .03)

That particular ethicist in your department vs. non-academics:
Undegrad: 2.6
Grad: 3.2
Adjunct: 3.5
Assistant: 3.0
Associate: 3.4
Full: 3.9
Distinguished: 4.2
(ANOVA, p = .07)

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Moral Behavior of Ethicists: Opinions Revealed in Conversation and on Questionnaires

Questionnaire respondents at the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association a few weeks ago and at the Eastern Division meeting a few months ago said that ethicists behaved about as well, on average, as non-ethicists. At least, that's what the average non-ethicist said. Ethicists thought ethicists behaved a little bit better.

These results surprised me, not because I think ethicists actually behave particularly better or worse than non-ethicists, but because of what I've heard in conversation. I have probably spoken to about 200 philosophers about the moral behavior of ethicists. I'd say about 55-60% say ethicists behave about the same as non-ethicists, about 35-40% say they behave worse, and only about 5-10% say they behave better. On the questionnaire, on the other hand, responses were closer to 1/3 - 1/3 - 1/3.

Why this difference between my questionnaire results and what people say in conversation?

Some possibilities:

(1.) In conversation, ethicists will be shy about saying ethicists behave better, since that might seem insulting to non-ethicists. (Of course, this wouldn't explain the fact that many non-ethicists said on the questionnaire that ethicists behave better.)

(2.) Saying ethicists behave worse, or about the same, makes for more entertaining conversation, but it may not reflect the speaker's true opinion. (It seems a little strange to me to suppose that non-ethicists especially would deliberately hide their opinions about this, but maybe it's plausible as a covert conversational pressure operating non-consciously.)

(3.) People might be reluctant to say ethicists behave better because it risks seeming naive -- and more so in face-to-face conversation than in an anonymous questionnaire. Conversely, saying that ethicists behave the same or worse might seem worldly and sophisticated.

(4.) My inclination to think that ethicists don't behave better, or much better, may come across very early in the conversation. (I hope not, but I don't really know. Why my bias should have an asymmetic effect -- causing those with higher opinions of ethicists to adjust their statements but not those with lower opinions -- would need to be explained.)

(5.) Some respondents might worry about showing the profession in a bad light and so present themselves, in a formal survey, as a bit more sanguine about the behavior of ethicists than the really are. In conversation they might be more frank.

(6.) The more cynical philosophers, with darker views in general and darker views of ethicists in particular, may be less likely to volunteer to complete a questionnaire than the average philosopher, causing sanguine philosophers to be overrepresented in the respondent pool. This might have been especially true at the Eastern meeting, where many people seemed to assume my co-investigator, Josh Rust, was selling or advertising something. (At the Pacific, the sign clarified that it was a "philosophical/scientific" questionnaire; and I -- who knew probably 100 people at the meeting -- personally was at the table half the time.)

(1)-(4), if true, suggest that the questionnaire is the more reliable instrument; (5)-(6) that informal conversation is more telling.

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Judgment, Attunement, and Introspection

I've argued that we have only very poor knowledge of our own stream of conscious experience. When asked to form judgments about our visual experience, our auditory experience, our inner speech and imagery, we're prone to gross mistakes. But don't we have some sort of accurate responsiveness to our stream of experience (and not just the grossest features of it)? I'm not sure I want entirely to let go of that idea.

To the rescue (maybe!): the concept of attunement.

I catch a baseball in the net of my mitt. I don't see it go in. I don't feel the baseball directly, or even through a thin layer of leather. But I know it's in there. How do I know? My judgment about the baseball's presence in the net is in some way based on knowledge of what is going on with my mitt.

But is "knowledge" the right word here? If someone were to ask what about my mitt permits me to know so confidently that I caught the ball, I might easily stumble. Is it that the mitt tugged against my hand in a certain way? Is it that it has a kind of weighty inertia to it? I might not only fail to express it in words, but I might really have no real idea at all. And yet, some epistemic relationship I stand in with respect to my mitt seems to serve as the basis of my knowledge that I caught the ball.

Let's say that I am "attuned" to certain things that happen to my mitt, and this attunement grounds my knowledge that I caught the ball.

Or: I can see from my wife's face that she's feeling a bit edgy and tired. But what exactly in her face reveals this to me I don't know. Or: I know that someone is standing behind me. But whether I hear his breathing, or detect a sound-occluding object through echolocation, or have tuned into a difference in lighting, or have paranormal powers, I don't know. Let's say it's by echolocation. I'm attuned to the sound occluding properties of his body, but have no idea that this is the case.

Might we, then, be attuned to our stream of experience, in this sense, without being able to make accurate judgments about it, as I don't make accurate judgments about the mitt or my wife's face?

(I do worry, though, that if so, this might lead too quickly to something like an "indirect perception" theory of perception, according to which my knowledge of external objects is grounded in knowledge of -- in this case, attunement to -- the sensory experiences those objects produce in me. I'm not sure I want to go there....)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Are 38-Year-Olds the Best Philosophers?

I'm sitting here looking at the covers of Donald Davidon's recently re-issued anthologies. Boy does he look old. Is that what philosophers look like?

Davidson was born in 1917. The pictures must have been taken near the time of his death (I'd almost say after) in 2003, when he was 86. But his most famous, best regarded essays were written long before, in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was in his 40s and 50s. Why not grace the cover with a picture of him from that era? Non-philosophers often think of philosophers as old. My mother advised me, when I was an undergraduate, to do science first and philosophy when I'm old, since the best scientists are young the the best philosophers are old!

Davidson actually started a bit late. In my philosophy of mind class, I present to students the dates of the philosophers we read and the dates of publication of the assigned essays -- some of the most important essays in historical and 20th-century philosophy of mind. To calculate age, I subtract one from the difference of the years (if you're born in the middle of 1900, in 1950 you're 49 for half the year, and there's always a delay before publication). Here's the list from the main part of the course:

Rene Descartes: 1596-1650. Meditations on First Philosophy: 1641 (age 44).

John Locke (1632-1704). Essay Concerning Human Understanding: 1689 (age 56).

George Berkeley (1685-1753). A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge: 1710 (age 24). Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous: 1713 (age 27).

Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709-1751). Man a Machine: 1748 (age 38).

J. J. C. Smart (1920- ). "Sensations and Brain Processes": 1959 (age 38).

Hilary Putnam (1926- ). "The Nature of Mental States": 1967 (age 40).

David Lewis (1941-2001). "Psychophysical and Theoretical Identifications": 1972 (age 30). "Mad Pain and Martian Pain": 1980 (age 38).

Ned Block (1942- ). "Troubles with Functionalism": 1978 (age 35).

Frank Jackson (1943- ). "What Mary Didn’t Know": 1986 (age 42).

Paul M. Churchland (1942- ). "Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes": 1981 (age 38).

Colin McGinn (1950- ). "Can we solve the mind-body problem?": 1989 (age 38).

David Chalmers (1966- ). The Conscious Mind: 1996 (age 29).

Supposing these data are representative, here are two theories:
(1.) Philosophers tend to peak around age 40; or
(2.) Philosophers who haven't done anything very influential by age 40 tend to withdraw from publishing philosophy, or not aim very high, for the rest of their careers; and those who do achieve eminence by age 40 tend to regress toward the mean for the rest of their careers. (How many great ideas, or bursts of genius, can you expect one person to have?) This second theory would explain the overrepresentation of great work by 40-year-old philosophers without committing to the thesis that 40 years of age is the best time to do philosophy.

(I just left 38 behind me last weekend. What will I think of this issue, I wonder, when I'm 60?)

Friday, April 13, 2007

Obedience and Evil in McDonald's

In Milgram's famous experiments on the moral psychology of evil, he finds that obedience to commands to deliver extreme electric shocks to another person decreases as the person issuing the commands gets farther away from the subject as and the victim of the shocks gets closer. On the basis of his research, one might expect very low rates of obedience when the victim is in close physical proximity and the authority is issuing commands over the telephone.

This video is therefore doubly interesting. A man calls a McDonald's in Kentucky, purporting to be a police officer, and orders the assistant manager to strip search a teenage girl. Eventually, the assistant manager's fiance is brought in to replace the assistant manager, and at the command of the man on the phone he performs corporal punishment on the naked girl and has her perform sexual acts. This goes on for several hours. I recommend watching the video (which consists of security camera clips and interviews with the victim and assistant manager) to get a vivid sense of the events.

Several features of the situation may be working to increase compliance, despite the proximity of the victim and distance of the authority: the slow, stepwise progression (for the assistant manager), the existence of an apparently more knowledgeable person whose interpretation of the situation would frame his own (for the fiance), the obedience generally accorded police, and maybe (esp. for the fiance) an appealingly erotic aspect of the activity.

Only when a sufficiently skeptical outsider was brought in, with a different perspective on the sitution, was the assistant manager able to reframe the situation and consider the possibility that the commands of the "authority" on the phone were not legitimate.

We shouldn't be too quick, I think, to assume that we would have seen through the ploy and resisted the man's commands....

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors: Peer Opinion

At the Pacific Division meeting of the APA last week, Josh Rust and I offered passersby chocolate for completing questionnaires on the moral behavior of ethics professors.

We did a preliminary study of this at the Eastern APA. It also connects to a general interest I have in the relationship between moral reflection and moral behavior.

The survey came in two versions. The key questions in Version 1 were:

1. Take a moment to consider the various ethics professors you have known, both as colleagues and in the student-mentor relationship. As best you can determine from your own experience, do professors specializing in ethics tend, on average, to behave morally better, worse, or about the same as philosophers not specializing in ethics? (Please circle one number below.)

[The numbers then ran from 1 ("substantially morally better") to 4 ("about the same") to 7 ("substantially morally worse").]


2. [same question, but with the comparison group being "non-academics of similar social background"].

For comparison, identical questions were asked about "specialists in metaphysics and epistemology (including philosophy of mind)".

Version 2 was similar, but it asked the respondent to think about the particular ethicist in your department whose name comes next in alphabetical order after yours (looping around from Z to A if necessary). [Thanks to Jonathan Ichikawa for formulating this question, in a comment on this blog!] Again, for comparison, identical questions were asked about the metaphysics and epistemology specialist in your department. In both versions we collected demographic information about area of specialization, rank, type of institution, and graduate school.

277 people completed questionnaires out of about 1300 registered for the meeting. There were some cute stories, too. Among them: An eminent ethicist who shall remain nameless grabbed a chocolate from our table without completing the survey, then dashed off, saying "I'm being evil!" I don't think she realized that her behavior was actually pertinent to the content of the questionnaire!

Preliminary results: Ethicists think ethicists behave slightly better than philosophers specializing in other areas. Non-ethicists think they behave the same.

On Version 1, ethicists' mean response for the question comparing ethicists' behavior to the behavior of non-ethicists was 3.44 (where 4 is "about the same") (t-test vs. 4, p = .01). M&E specialists got a mean of 4.26. On Version 2, they rated an arbitrarily chosen ethicist in their department better, compared to others in their department, than an arbitrarily chosen M&E specialist (3.38 vs. 3.98) (p = .05)

On Version 1, non-ethicists rated ethicists at an even 4.00 vs. other philosophers. (About 1/3 said they behaved better, about 1/3 said they behaved worse.) On Version 2, non-ethicists rated both the ethicists and the M&E specialists at about 3.5 compared to others in their departments (showing a slight bias toward favoring individuals over groups, but no better opinion of ethicists overall).

More thoughts (including analysis by rank and institution type) to come soon!

Friday, April 06, 2007

At the APA

I'm up in San Francisco for the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association. The APA has generously permitted me to set up a table outside the book display, where I'm offering people chocolate in exchange for filling out a questionnaire.

The 5-minute questionnaire solicits opinions about the moral behavior of ethics professors. I'll post preliminary results here at The Splintered Mind within the next couple of weeks.

Respondents and passersby have largely been neutral or kind, but -- to me a bit surprisingly -- very few eminent professors I know (even those who know me fairly well) have stopped to complete the questionnaire. In striking contrast, nearly everyone I know personally who is a peer or lower in professional status has completed a questionnaire or promised to.

Now maybe the eminent professors are just busier and more besieged by people competing for their attention than are the others, or maybe their high salaries give them less incentive to earn chocolate, but also it seems to me that several were somewhat uncomfortable seeing me at a table distributing questionnaires. (This is without even knowing the content of the questionnaire.) One shook his head and smiled disapprovingly. I said, "It's even worse than you think." When he turned to walk away, I asked him if I didn't at least pique his curiosity. He said I only tweaked his aversion.

What am I doing to their APA...?

Update, 11:08 p.m.:
I should partly take these observations back. A couple very eminent professors completed the questionnaire today; and I'm feeling a bit more sympathetic right now with the extent to which the ones who did not may generally feel pressed from many directions for their time and attention at meetings of this sort.

Update, 4:23 p.m., April 11:
Maybe I should largely take back the post above. I seemed to get better reactions from eminent philosophers as the meeting went on -- whether by chance or for some other reason, I don't know. In the end, 16 of the 277 respondents indicated (hopefully honestly!) that their highest level of academic achievement was "distinguished professor" (which is the highest academic rank and generally indicates eminence in the field). And 1:16 sounds like a roughly plausible ratio of distinguished professors to others of lower rank among meeting attendees.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Happy Lynchers (repost)

I'm headed off to the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association (where, hopefully, I'll get some data of interest to readers of this blog); and I just taught a class on the psychology of lynching, so I hope readers will forgive me for my first-ever repost. (This post harks back to the early weeks of this blog -- May 2006. I only got 511 visitors in May. Now I get that many in about 3 days!)

To render the photos below less viscerally disturbing, I've blanked out sections. They remain, I think, ethically quite disturbing.

The blanked out parts of the pictures are, of course, the victims of lynchings (all African-American) in early 20th-century United States. I won't risk the sensibilities of readers any more than I already have by describing the details of the corpses, but to put it blandly, in the first and third pictures especially, they are grotesquely mutilated.

I post these pictures not (I hope) from any motive of voyeurism, but to share with you my sense that they powerfully raise one of the most important issues in moral psychology: the emotions of perpetrators of evil. Though it's a bit hard to see in these small pictures (the maximum size Blogger allows), I hope it's nonetheless evident that most of the lynchers look relaxed and happy -- though they're only feet from a freshly murdered corpse. It was not uncommon to bring small children along to lynchings, to collect souvenirs, to take photos and sell them as postcards. (These pictures are from a collection of just such postcards: James Allen's Without Sanctuary.)

Although I'm attracted to a roughly Mencian view of human nature, according to which something in us is deeply revolted by evil, when that evil is nearby and "in one's face" as it were, I find pictures like this somewhat difficult to reconcile with that view. Are these people inwardly revolted, under their smiles?

(The old comments and replies are here.)

Monday, April 02, 2007

Against "Appearances"

Chisholm (1957) and Jackson (1977) distinguish an epistemic from a phenomenal sense of the word "appears".

The epistemic sense: If I say "It appears the Democrats are headed for defeat", normally I'm expressing a kind of hedged judgment. I'm expressing the view that the Democrats are headed for defeat, qualified with a recognition that my judgment may be wrong. I'm not saying anything in particular about my "phenomenology" or stream of experience. I'm not claiming for example, to be entertaining a mental image of defeated Democrats or to hear the word "defeat" ringing in my mind in inner speech.

The phenomenal sense: If I say, looking at a well-known visual illusion, "The top line appears longer", I'm not expressing a judgment about the line. I know the lines are the same length. Instead, I'm making a claim about my phenomenology, my visual experience.

These senses sometimes come together in perception: If I say, looking at two peaks in the distance, "The one on the left appears higher", I might be saying something about the peaks, or I might be saying something about my experience, or (more interestingly) I might be saying something about the peaks by way of saying something about my experience. I might be saying: "My visual experience is a left-looking-higher kind of visual experience; based on that I tentatively conclude that the left peak is higher."

Now how often do we actually do that last type of thing? If not in conversation with others, in our own cognition? How often, that is, do we reach judgments about outward objects on the basis of our knowledge of our own experience?

Traditional "veil of perception" views of perception (e.g., Descartes and Locke, on standard interpretations) suggest that that is what we do all the time in perception. We know outward things only by knowing our own minds first (and better), in particular by knowing our inner experiences of those things. What we know directly is our own sensory experience; our knowledge of the outside world is derivative of that. (Thus, it is as though our sensory experience stands like a veil between us and the world, preventing direct contact with things as they are in themselves.)

I worry that the word "appearance", as philosophers of perception typically use it, invites something like this view, by blurring together the phenomenal and the epistemic senses of "appears". I worry that it invites the view that our judgments about the things we see -- the real, physical objects around us -- are grounded in facts about how those objects are experienced phenomenally. I worry it invites the view that when I say "It (visually) appears that there is a coffee cup on the table" I mean both that I (visually) am inclined to judge that there is a coffee mug on the table and that I am having a visual experience of a certain sort -- a coffee-muggish experience; and that these two events are integrated in a certain way, as different aspects of the "appearance" perhaps. It's because I have the visual experience that I reach the visual judgment.

But here's the question: Do we reach judgments about the properties of objects based on the sensory experiences they produce in us? Or is the visual experience we have of an object the product of, or something created in parallel with, our judgments about the object? If I'm right that talk of "visual appearances" tends to invite the former view, that's reason to be wary of it, if the latter view has merit.