Friday, August 31, 2007

Describing Inner Experience? -- book cover

Whew! I've been chugging away so hard at a draft of my "Eyes Closed" essay that I've barely come up for air the last two days. But instead of trying everyone's patience with more of that, I think I'll toss up something visual: The book cover design for Russ Hurlburt's & my forthcoming book Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic.

Russ and I gave a subject, Melanie, a random beeper which she wore during her normal daily activities. When the beep went off, Melanie was to make her best effort to discern and recall her last undisturbed moment of inner experience immediately before the beep. She collected several such samples a day, and then we interviewed her about them -- Russ as a proponent of this as the best way he knows of to get at people's real inner lives, I as someone pretty skeptical about the accuracy of introspective reports.

We edited transcripts of six days of interviews, with Melanie describing her randomly sampled experiences as best she could, Russ probing her about it based on years of experience with such interviews, and I probing in my own way and asking skeptical questions. We added several dozen side boxes continuing our debates and connecting what's going on in the interviews with contemporary and historical literature in psychology and philosophy. Finally, Russ and I wrote introductory and concluding chapters each from our own perspective.

But most importantly: What do you think of the tangled thread cover design? Pretty nifty?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Eyes Closed in the Sun

Okay, I confess, I'm obsessed. I've been trying to acquaint myself with the whole history of phenomenological reports of visual experience (excluding imagery experience and afterimages) with one's eyes closed. I've been running subjects and bothering undergraduates and Philosophy Department staff. I've even opened a new blog category: eyes closed.

Today, among other things, I obtained two reports on visual experience while facing the sun with eyes closed. Reviewing almost 200 years of literature, I've amazingly never found an attempted replication of Purkinje's 1919 report that "most people" see checkboard figures under these conditions. Here's a figure drawn from his own experience:

I don't think I've ever seen such checkerboard or latticework figures in the sun! (And now, of course, I've tried several times for extended periods.) I gave four people beepers and asked them to sit in the sun; only two, I think actually did face the sun directly, and one reported a Purkinje-like "honeycomb" visual experience in a couple of cases, while the other reported no such thing.

So today, I coaxed two people to stare with closed eyes directly at the noontime sun for seven minutes (independently, one after the other), while I collected blow-by-blow reports. About halfway through each observation, I explicitly asked them if they saw any checkerboard or honeycomb-like figures.

The observers' reports were very similar: Both reported bright fields fluctuating in color from red to orange or yellow or white. Both reported the field as pretty uniform, apart from some perturbations (one reported diagonal lines that came and went, the other reported squiggles and lighting-like branching figures), and possibly a bit darker toward the periphery. Both explicitly denied any checkerboard, latticework, or honeycomb-like shape.

These reports are very similar to what I recall experiencing myself, though I believe I in no way suggested anything like this to the observers. When I invited him, the first observer said he knew what he would experience -- a bright red spot in the middle of his visual field -- and he was surprised to have to report otherwise.

Yet Purkinje's language about this is very strong:

Furthermore, I must mention that the described figures, especially the little squares, were noticed by most individuals with whom I made the experiments, insofar as, without drawings, it was possible to get an imperfect report through words.

They would come, therefore, not merely to particular individuals under quite special organic conditions, but rather would be grounded in general conditions of the organism or even in all subjects due to physical laws.


[Update, Sept. 10: I've just discovered a translation of this passage in Purkinje (Wade & Brozek 2001) and I think I may have got a key phrase and idea wrong. It looks as though Purkinje thinks that one must maintain a fast waving of the fingers and that this is key to the phenomenon, which is almost stroboscopic. Helmholtz 1856/1909/1962, vol. 2, p. 256-7, reports similar phenomena; as do Smythies (1957) and others in discussion of "stroboscopic" effects....]

Monday, August 27, 2007

Eyes Closed Visual Experience -- Subject 2

What, if anything, do you visually experience when your eyes are closed? Historical reports are diverse (some of the most detailed are Purkinje's, partially translated here). So are casually collected contemporary introspective reports. To get some more data, I gave five people random beepers to wear while keeping their eyes closed for extended periods. About a week ago, I described what Subject 1 said was going on visually with him at the last undisturbed moment before he was beeped. Today, Subject 2.

While Subject 1 reported sensory visual experience in only 4 of his 14 samples (and visual imagery in many but not all of the rest), Subject 2 (who, like Subject 1, was a male graduate student in philosophy) described sensory visual experiences in all 10 of his samples. This immediately prompted me to wonder: Does Subject 1 really have relatively little visual experience when his eyes are closed, or did he simply forget his experience? Did Subject 2 really have visual experience in every single sample, or did he unwittingly fabricate some post hoc, after the beep occurred? Do you think you always have visual experience when your eyes are closed? Or does the experience fade away entirely when your mind is on other things? People appear to have divergent intuitions on this question.

When Subject 2 took his samples in a relatively dark environment, Subject 1 tended to report something like a black/gray wash permeated with varying tones of yellows, oranges, and whites, shifting in intensity but not swirling or moving in an organized way. In some samples one side of the field might be lighter gray or than another or yellowish-orangish (though still, despite the hue, as dark as black -- reminding me of Paul Churchland's "chimerical colors"). Not so different from Subject 1's reports.

Subject 2 also took samples in direct sunlight -- the first was fairly similar to the dark samples, but with more yellow-orange as well as streaks or flashes of light. However, in the remaining sunlight samples, Subject 2 tended to report honeycombs and latticework, and different backgrounds. For example, in one sample Subject 2 reported a bright red field with a large magenta circle in the center, with a darker red honeycomb structure over the whole field.

One reason I found these sunlight reports interesting is that Purkinje in 1819 reported that most of his observers saw checkerboard or latticework patterns when they faced the sun with their eyes closed (see fig. 2 here) -- something I don't recall any other researcher saying, and something I don't think I normally experience. (Do you?) So almost two centuries later, is Purkinje's report being vindicated? I resolved to ask my three remaining subjects to take some samples in direct sunlight....

Friday, August 24, 2007

From Helmholtz's Treatise on Physiological Optics

Today I share a long quote from Hermann von Helmholtz's Treatise on Physiological Optics. Helmholtz was one of the great intellectual figures of the 19th century, making seminal contributions in physiology and physics as well as psychology.

It might seem that nothing could be easier than to be conscious of one’s own sensations; and yet experience shows that for the discovery of subjective sensations some special talent is needed, such as PURKINJE manifested in the highest degree; or else it is the result of accident or of theoretical speculation. For instance, the phenomena of the blind spot were discovered by MARIOTTE from theoretical considerations. Similarly, in the domain of hearing, I discovered the existence of those combination tones which I have called summation tones.... It is only when subjective phenomena are so prominent as to interfere with the perception of things, that they attract everybody’s attention. Once the phenomena have been discovered, it is generally easier for others to perceive them also, provided the proper precautions are taken for observing them, and the attention is concentrated on them. In many cases, however – for example, in the phenomena of the blind spot, or in the separation of the overtones and combination tones from the fundamental tones of musical sounds, etc. – such an intense concentration of attention is required that, even with the help of convenient external appliances, many persons are unable to perform the experiments. Even the after-images of bright objects are not perceived by most persons at first except under particularly favorable external conditions. It takes much more practice to see the fainter kinds of after-images. A common experience, illustrative of this sort of thing, is for a person who has some ocular trouble that impairs his vision to become suddenly aware of the so-called mouches volantes in his visual field, although the causes of this phenomenon have been there in the vitreous humor all his life. Yet now he will be firmly persuaded that these corpuscles have developed as a result of his ocular ailment, although the truth simply is that, owing to his ailment, the patient has been paying more attention to visual phenomena. No doubt, also there are cases where one eye has gradually become blind, and yet the patient has continued to go about for an indefinite time without noticing it, until he happened one day to close the good eye without closing the other, and so noticed the blindness of that eye.

When a person’s attention is directed for the first time to the double images in binocular vision, he is usually greatly astonished to think that he had never noticed them before, especially when he reflect that the only objects he has ever seen single were those few that happened at the moment to be about as far from his eyes as the point of fixation. The great majority of objects, comprising all those that were farther or nearer than this point, were all seen double (Helmholtz 1856/1909/1962, vol. 3, p. 6-7, emphasis in original).

In a Cartesian (1641/1984) or Price-ian (1932) mood, it can seem almost impossible to doubt the correctness of your consequent judgments about your ongoing experience; but the leading figures of introspective psychology had quite the opposite opinion (as do I here and here). This was, no doubt, grounded in their experience of finding people disagreeing radically about their phenomenology, without any plausible physiological or behavioral or environmental differences underlying that disagreement; and of people changing their minds as their theories change, conforming too neatly to expectations, being swayed by the reports and opinions of their friends and advisors, and missing things that seem in retrospect to be obvious.

Consider Helmholtz’s own examples in this passage. The most familiar example to contemporary readers is the blind spot, which even in monocular vision can be very difficult to notice without aid. The musically or psychoacoustically trained will be familiar with combination tones and overtones, which are accompanying tones different in pitch from the fundamental tones produced by musical instruments. These tones surely add to our musical experience, but they can be very difficult to discern without training (see here for further explanation and a recreation the combination tone training exercises of Titchener 1901-1905). Whether Helmholtz is right about their being summation tones in particular (tones of the pitch characteristic of A+B, supposedly produced when sounds of frequency A and B occur together) remains unclear – buttressing his fundamental point. People sometimes notice bright afterimages – those that interfere with ordinary perception, especially, such as after having glanced at the sun – but rarely do they notice faint ones, which one might (with Helmholtz) think to be more or less a constant phenomenon of vision, or imperfections and floaters in the fluid that fills the eye, even when they’re looking for them; but is this imperfection in introspection, as Helmholtz supposes, or is our visual experience normally free of such perturbations?

Helmholtz’s final example is maybe the most striking: He suggests that most of the objects in the visual field, most of the time are seen double, but we fail to notice that. Reid (1764/1997) and Titchener (1910) and others make similar remarks (I discuss this also here and here). If you hold your finger near your nose and focus in the distance, the finger may seem to you to double. But is our visual experience of most objects like that? I can’t say it seems to me that way as I gaze about the room. But I haven’t had 10,000 trials of introspective training yet! Or maybe it’s Helmholtz and Reid and Titchener who are mistaken? But that only advances Helmholtz’s central point about the difficulty of the introspection. Or are we to suppose that Helmholtz and Reid saw most things double and the rest of us do not? – that everyone is right about his own experiences and wrong about everyone else’s? Besides the physiological and psychological implausibility of that (unless we see appropriate corresponding physiological or psychological differences), that supposition makes nonsense of people’s changing their minds....

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Self-Reported Vividness of Imagery and the Cortex

In 2002, I published an article critical of the generally weak-to-nonexistent relationships between self-reported vividness of imagery and performance on tasks psychologists have often thought to involve imagery, such as mental rotation tasks and tests of visual memory and visual creativity. Differences in subjective report about imagery, I suggested, may relate only poorly to real differences in imagery experience. This fits with my general skepticism about the trustworthiness of our reports about our own conscious experience.

Yesterday, on a tip from Anibal in a comment on Monday's post, I read two articles on the relationship between self-reported vividness of visual imagery and activation in the cortex during visual imagery tasks.

The self-report measure was the widely-used Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ). The VVIQ asks respondents to imagine various scenes (e.g., some relative or friend -- the exact contours of face, head, shoulders, and body; characteristic poses, etc.) and then rate the "vividness" of the resulting image on a scale from 1 (perfectly clear and vivid as normal vision) to 5 (no image at all, you only "know" you are thinking of the object).

Amedi et al. 2005 looked at nine subjects. Those who rated their images as more vivid on the VVIQ showed a trend (not statistically significant, though) to have more activity in their visual cortex during visual imagery tasks and, perhaps more interestingly, a substantial (and statistically significant) tendency to show less activation in their auditory cortex -- which Amedi et al. interpreted as showing a narrow focus of concentration on visual matters.

Cui et al. 2007 retested the issue of visual cortex activation and were able to confirm Amedi et al.'s trend: In their eight subjects, there was a strong and significant tendency for those claiming more vivid imagery on the VVIQ to show more activation in the visual cortex during visual imagery tasks. Although Cui et al. don't comment on this, a striking trend appears in their time course data: The self-rated poor visualizers start out with as much visual cortex activation as their vividly-visualizing peers, but that activation rapidly declines relative to other brain activity (over 10 seconds), while the good visualizers keep their level of visual cortex activation constant or increase it. The possibility occurs to me, then, that the difference between them may be in maintaining focus on the task -- which would also harmonize with the Amedi et al. results that more vivid self-rated visualizers show more selective cortical activation.

It still puzzles and troubles me that VVIQ scores should relate so poorly to behavioral performance. If only there were more research like this, showing consistent relationships between self-report of conscious experience and third-person measures!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Can You Directly Will Sensory Experiences?

You can will changes in your sensory visual experience indirectly, of course, by deliberately looking one direction, or closing your eyes, or pressing on your eyelids. And you can directly will visual imagery experiences by, for example, deciding to form the image of your house as seen from the street. But normally we don't think we can directly will sensory experience: We don't think we can will ourselves simply to see red or see a cross-shaped figure.

In 1894, the eminent psychologist George Ladd asserted, to the contrary, that he and his students could form visual experiences by direct willing.

What they were asked to do was briefly this: to close the eyes, allow the after-images completely to die away, and then persistently and attentively to will that the color-mass caused by the Eigenlicht [that is, the dark or chaotic visual field one supposedly experiences with one's eyes closed] should take some particular form, - a cross being the most experimented with.... Of the sixteen persons experimenting with themselves, four only reported no success; nine had a partial success which seemed to increase with practice and which they considered undoubtedly dependent directly upon volition; and with the remaining three the success was marked and really phenomenal. It should be said, however, that of the four who reported 'no success,' only one appears to have tried the experiment at all persistently.

As far as I am aware no one has ever published an attempted replication of Ladd's experiment.

What do you think? Can you make a cross -- not just an image of a cross but a sensory experience of a cross -- by closing your eyes and trying hard? Ladd recommends a few trials of no more than 5-7 minutes.

The Chinese Government Blocks This Blog

... I've just learned.

Maybe it's because of my dim view of Laozi?

Someone over there must have a lot of time on his hands, if he's combing through obscure philosophy blogs.

How Not to Pack a Suitcase

My friend Doug King advises us How Not to Pack a Suitcase.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Eyes Closed Visual Experience -- Subject 1

Over the last year, I've been thinking a bit about visual experience with our eyes closed (e.g., here, here, here, here). A few months ago, I started giving volunteer subjects random beepers and having them keep their eyes closed for two hours a day over the course of three days. After each random beep, they were to note whether they had any sort of visual experience in the last undisturbed moment immediately before the beep, and if so what it was. After each day (about 3-6 beeps), each participant came to my office for an hour-long interview.

Subject 1 was a male graduate student in philosophy who expected not to find any visual experience, not even of blackness, with his eyes closed. (On people's differing opinions about the omnipresence or not of visual experience see here.) He distinguished sharply between sensory visual experiences and visual imagery experiences. (To understand that distinction, keep your eyes open and form a mental image of the front of your house. There's a difference of some sort -- even if only in vividness [per Hume and Perky] -- between that imagery experience and your ordinary sensory visual experience, no?)

Of the 14 sampled experiences we discussed, Subject 1 reported 8 with visual imagery experience only and no visual sensory experience, 1 with visual sensory experience only and no visual imagery experience (the very first sample), 2 with neither sort of experience, and 3 with both visual imagery and visual sensory experience. He did not think his visual sensory experience and his visual imagery experiences interacted at all -- for example, in one sample he reported a visual sensory experience of a uniform, darkish orange field of light with a slight texture (as I understood it, he meant not a textured depth, but a bit of repetitive random variation in the color). He also had complex visual imagery of a former apartment of his. The visual imagery was not tinted orange, nor was it located in space (next to, behind, etc.) relative to the sensory visual experience.

Subject 1 generally reported his visual sensory experience with his eyes closed to be flat, two dimensional, and located in a forward direction, but without any sense of depth or distance. One experience he described as being "black with staticky [colored] swirls"; the rest he described as a lightly textured uniform darkish orange.

In coming posts, I'll describe four more subjects' reports. The big question for me: What patterns will emerge in their reports? What will they tend to agree on and disagree on? Will they all describe their sensory experience as flat? Will they all have the same view of the difference between, and non-interaction between, visual imagery and visual sensation? Will they report relatively simple, undifferentiated visual sensations, like Subject 1's? Like Subject 1, will they report visual sensory experience in only a minority of samples?

Not since the early 20th century has this sort of thing been studied systematically -- not that I have found yet, anyway! -- and early authors diverged considerably in their opinions.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Zombies and anti-zombies (by guest blogger Keith Frankish)

I'm coming to the end of my stint as guest blogger. It's been fun, and I'd like to thank Eric and everyone who has commented. I thought I'd finish with another post about consciousness.

Every schoolboy knows how the zombie argument goes. Zombies -- physical duplicates of us that lack consciousness –- are clearly conceivable. If a scenario is clearly conceivable, then it is metaphysically possible (the conceivability–possibility, or CP, principle). So zombies are metaphysically possible, and therefore physicalism is false. (Physicalism is the view that consciousness supervenes metaphysically on the physical and thus that there is no world where the physical correlates of consciousness are instantiated without consciousness.) I suspect that the first premise here is false -- that zombies are not conceivable, at least in the rigorous way required by the argument. (For a persuasive statement of the case for this view, see Allin Cottrell's paper, 'Sniffing the Camembert'.) But even if that's wrong, I still don't think the argument works. Like many people, I'm suspicious of the CP principle. And one way to highlight the problem is to note that physicalists can also invoke the principle to argue for their position. Here's how it goes.

Consider anti-zombies. These are beings that are physical duplicates of humans, and that have no non-physical properties, but which are nonetheless conscious. They inhabit an anti-zombie world, which is a physical duplicate of ours, but where no non-physical properties are instantiated. (Physicalists think that we are anti-zombies, of course.) Then we can run an anti-zombie argument for physicalism, as follows. Anti-zombies are conceivable and therefore, by the CP principle, metaphysically possible. And if anti-zombies are metaphysically possible, then physicalism is true. The last step may seem a big one, but it should be uncontroversial. In the anti-zombie world consciousness is physical, so the microphysical features of that world are metaphysically sufficient for consciousness, and any world with the same microphysical features will have the same distribution of phenomenal properties. But, by definition, our world has the same microphysical features as the anti-zombie world. Hence the microphysical features of our world are metaphysically sufficient for the existence of consciousness, which is to say that physicalism is true.

The argument has been anticipated by various writers -- notably Peter Marton -- but I've but tried give it a definitive statement in a recent paper (available here for those with a Blackwell Synergy subscription). As I stress in the paper, the only response available to defenders of the zombie argument is to deny the first premise, that anti-zombies are conceivable.

The point can be made independently by considering the unique world that is a physical duplicate of ours and where no further, non-physical properties are instantiated. This should be a zombie world, if any is. But it's also the only candidate for an anti-zombie world. Thus, the possibility of zombies is incompatible with that of anti-zombies. And if conceivability entails possibility, then the conceivability of zombies is incompatible with that of anti-zombies. So defenders of the zombie argument must deny that anti-zombies are conceivable.

Now of course physicalism is the view that we are anti-zombies, so if anti-zombies aren't conceivable then physicalism isn't conceivable either. In short, if you want to endorse the zombie argument, then you have to maintain that physicalism is inconceivable.

That's all from me. So long and thanks for all the fish.

Monday, August 13, 2007

On the Winnowing of Greats

Before about 1950 or so, it seems, academic giants straddled whole fields. They were few and far between. Now, it seems, there are no Greats though a number of Very Goods. Consider 1850-1950: In philosophy: Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Russell, Wittgenstein (and others). In psychology: Freud, Piaget, James (and others). So also in other academic fields. Where are the Einsteins and Darwins of the last 60 years? Have we run dry? (Let's not pretend Hawking and Crick are Einstein and Darwin, please!)

A few obvious factors:

* Fields are much more specialized. Given the number of researchers and articles, it's going to be very difficult to have an expert command of as broad an area as all of psychology or all of physics. Part of being Great might be having command of a wide area.

* Also because there are many more people in each field, one would expect the very best thinkers to have other nearly as good thinkers nearby. Greatness might be in part a comparative measure.

* With improved communication and travel, it's easier to keep atop of the best and latest thinking from relatively remote places. This creates a more competitive, egalitarian atmosphere. It also may make it more difficult for the odd genius to incubate away from mainstream opinion.

But there's also, I think, the following effect, little remarked upon (and somewhat in tension with my Hawking/Watson remark above), which I'll call the winnowing of greats with distance: The farther away your perspective on any body of people varying in eminence, the more isolated and comparatively great will the most eminent among them seem.

Consider the matter abstractly, first. Let's say that a field has 100 eminent practioners, with levels of eminence varying from 1 to 100 -- with most clustered near the bottom of this distribution and tailing off toward the top. For specificity, suppose the 10 most eminent are A (with an eminence of 91), B (80), C (75), D (64), E (58), F (57), G (50), H (46), I (45), and J (40). Suppose you're in the field, and you know of all 100 people. A is the most eminent, but B isn't far off, and all of A-J are among the very eminent -- in the 90th percentile among the 100 most eminent practioners, after all! To the extent greatness involves being head-and-shoulders above everyone else, A, though the most eminent, is only one of a group.

Someone who knows much less of the field might only have heard of A-J. Everyone else, from their perspective, will be a non-entity. Someone who knows still less may know only A-E, or A-C, or A. In textbooks and summaries, where only one or a few people can be mentioned, A will be mentioned almost every single time, and B and C will sometimes be mentioned; D rarely so. Suddenly A, or A-C, are no longer the best among peers but peerless.

Consider early introspective psychology: All academics know James. All psychologists have heard of Wundt. Many psychologists know about Titchener. But only specialists like me know Kuelpe and Mueller and Stumpf and Calkins and Sanford. Though I don't deny that James was the best of the lot and indeed a rare genius, from my perspective he is not a peerlessly great, solitary figure. Similarly, we all know Chaplin, but when I started learning more about silent comedy, I learned about Keaton and Lloyd, and Chaplin no longer seemed quite as peerless.

As we back away from late 20th-century philosophy and our lists get shorter, will Rawls and Kripke (and a few others) look more and more like they stand alone?

One other effect as one backs away from a field: One's judgment becomes homogenized with that of others. An early film enthusiast may not actually think Chaplin is the best. I might think Kuelpe has the edge over Titchener. The implicit uniformitarianism of ignorant distance can produce a unanimous chorus that artificially gives the impression of greatness (though over time this may become the irresistable, self-fulfilling "judgment of history").

Friday, August 10, 2007

'What am I?' (by guest blogger Keith Frankish)

Eric's recent post about subjective time set me thinking about how strange and different the mental life of children can be. Here's a little example from my own experience. When I was a young child, around the age of four, I discovered that I could put myself into a rather odd state of mind simply by repeating to myself the question 'What am I?'. This had two effects. First, it generated a strong sense that I was not the boy Keith – the boy whose body I was associated with. The sense wasn't simply of a dissociation between mind and body; rather it was the sense of being a different person from Keith, in mind as well as body. It was as if I were someone who inhabited Keith's body and normally let him speak and act for me, but who was nonetheless quite distinct from Keith and didn’t wholly approve of him. The second effect was to generate a mild form of out-of-body experience. I felt as if I were slightly behind and above Keith's body, almost outside it, but not wholly separate. (Of course, I am describing all this in an adult vocabulary, but I'm trying to capture what it felt like, as far as I can remember it.)

I used to find this experience interesting rather than scary, and I would induce it quite often. I'm not sure how I interpreted the feelings it generated, though I do remember that I was puzzled enough to ask my mother what I was -- what I was -- to which of course I got the true but unsatisfactory response that I was a little boy. As the years passed, the experience become weaker and it became harder and harder for me to induce it, and by adolescence I completely lost the knack.

What was going on? I don't think it was merely a problem with the indexical 'I'. The sense of distinctness was too real to be the product of semantic confusion, and I didn't have similar problems with other indexicals (I wasn't given to asking where was here, for example). Perhaps it was a side-effect of the acquisition of full-blown theory of mind -– which we know happens between three and four. With theory of mind in place, we are able to think, not only about the thoughts of others, but also about our own thoughts, and to a child this might easily generate a sense of puzzlement. 'If I am thinking about someone's mind,' a child might reason, 'then I must be separate from that person, especially if I disapprove of their thoughts and feelings' (as I said, I didn't wholly approve of Keith). In an imaginative child, this puzzlement might also generate some phenomenology of dissociation. One attraction of this account is that it would explain why I eventually lost the ability to induce the dissociative state, since the fallacy in the reasoning behind it would in time have become apparent.

I'd be interested to know if others can recall having similar experiences or if anyone knows of research that has been done on this topic.

Monday, August 06, 2007

New Essay: Do Ethicists Steal More Books?

I've put up a new essay on my homepage: Do Ethicists Steal More Books? This essay presents more formally and in more detail the data discussed in two previous posts: Still More Data on the Theft of Ethics Books and Liberating On Liberty (from the Library).

I planning to submit this essay to a psychology journal soon. So email me your devastating objections now, before I embarrass myself in public! (Well, I suppose my websites are public too -- but you all know and love me, right?)

The abstract:

If explicit reasoning about morality is morally useful, as Kohlberg and many ethicists have suggested, then one might expect ethics professors to behave particularly well. However, professional ethicists’ behavior has never been systematically studied. The present research examines the rates at which ethics books are missing from leading academic libraries, compared to other philosophy books. Study 1 found that contemporary (post-1959) ethics books were actually 25% more likely to be missing than non-ethics books. When the list was reduced to the relatively obscure books most likely to be borrowed exclusively by professional ethicists, ethics books were almost 50% more likely to be missing. Study 2 found that classic (pre-1900) ethics books were more than twice as likely to be missing as other classic philosophy books.

I'm off camping for a few days, so this is in lieu of the usual Wednesday post. See (see?) you all Friday!

Introspection and consciousness (by guest blogger Keith Frankish)

One of the deepest disagreements about consciousness is whether the subjective character of experience is exhausted by its intentional content or whether it also has an intrinsic, non-representational component. The latter view is the traditional one, but it has come under attack in recent years from first-order representational theorists, such as Fred Dretske and Michael Tye.

Now, you would think this dispute would be easy to settle. The putative intrinsic properties of experience are very different from the properties of external objects represented in experience. The reddishness (to use Joseph Levine's term) of an experience of a red apple is a very different property from the redness of the apple itself. And if our experiences have these distinctive non-representational properties, then surely introspection should reveal this to us. (Indeed it's not clear that anything else could reveal it.)

This invites a bit of experimental philosophy, so I ran an informal survey on the philosophy discussion lists at the Open University. I asked people to pay close attention to their perceptual experiences and say whether, when they did so, they were (a) aware only of properties of the objects of the experiences, or (b) aware both of properties of the objects of the experiences and of properties of the experiences themselves. Twenty-two people replied, of whom five said (a), ten said (b), and seven objected to the way the question was posed. (Four respondents said the answer was sometimes (a) and sometimes (b), so I counted them as a half member of each of those camps.) From their comments, it appeared that some people were answering (b) because they were aware of feelings and reactions associated with their perceptual experiences, so I re-ran the survey stressing that participants should ignore such associations and focus on the character of the experiences themselves. In the event, this seemed to make little difference. Fourteen people replied, of whom three said (a), six said (b), and five questioned the question.)

Now, of course, this wasn't a serious piece of research, but the results are interesting all the same – both because of the number of people who rejected the question and because of the disagreement among those who accepted it. Why should people reject the question? Either experiences possess non–representational properties or they don't, and introspection should be the best, if not the only, way to find out. And assuming people don't have radically different inner lives, how could they differ as to the answer to the question? If experiences of red things possess reddishness, then how could even a minimally attentive introspector miss the fact? And if they don’t, then how could introspection lead us to think they do?

Of course, I'm being a bit disingenuous here. I think that introspective reports are heavily theory-laden, so I wasn't surprised by the results. But the results ought to be surprising, I think, on a very common view of consciousness, which takes the nature of the phenomenon to be an unproblematic given. ('If you have to ask, you ain't never gonna know.') What would Jackson's Mary say, I wonder, if she knew that people on the outside had such differing views about what could be learned from introspection?

Friday, August 03, 2007

Do Business Ethics Courses Do Any Good?

... and by "doing any good" I mean do they actually cause students to behave more ethically?

A hard issue to study, but surely there's some research on it, even with some mickey-mouse measure of ethical behavior? Or maybe there's an epidemiological study or two of people convicted of white-collar crimes -- are they any more or less likely to have been exposed to business ethics courses than an appropriately matched group of non-criminals?

Well, shoot. I can't find a single study. As far as I can see from the journals, no one has ever studied the effects of taking a business ethics course on real-world behavior. Hm!

A number of studies have looked at whether taking a business ethics course is related to self-reported attitudes about business ethics or sophistication of reasoning about moral dilemmas. The results are mixed, with some studies finding that students completing business ethics courses show more ethical or more mature responses (Boyd, 1981; Glenn, 1992; Hiltebeitel & Jones, 1992; Murphy & Boatright, 1994; Loe & Weeks, 2000; Luthar & Karri, 2005) and others finding a very limited relationship (Duizend & McCann, 1998; Conroy & Emerson, 2004) or none at all (Wynd & Mager, 1989; Borkowski & Ugras, 1992; Smith & Oakley, 1996; Martin, 2007).

Many of these studies are flawed in not having control groups or control questions. Without control questions, students can be rated as "more ethical" by means of simple strategies. For example, a number of studies simply measure the degree of students' self-reported condemnatory attitudes about hypothetical violations of ethical standards. Students may then appear more ethical simply by showing a bias toward regarding any presented scenario or behavior as ethically problematic -- a response strategy that ethical training courses may tend to encourage but which needn't show any real improvement in moral understanding, much less in moral behavior. The literature is, if anything, even worse than the literature on the relationship between religion and moral behavior.

Let me hazard a guess as to why there are no published studies on the real-world effects of business ethics courses: There is no effect. Not overall (again, perhaps, like religion). But studies with a null effect have to be pretty good (or pretty large) to be published, and given the difficulty of the assessment no such good or large studies yet exist.


Cati Porter urges us to eat our shoast.

Since a friend of mine (Dan George -- I'd link him, but his website has been hijacked!) and I invented the word, vanity, and curiosity about the unlikely possibility that the word might make it into wider usage, impels me to link it here!