Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Philosopher's Epitaph

He looked square at the hardest questions
and was extremely difficult to satisfy.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Do You Mostly See Double? (Yet Again)

The more people I ask, the more people seem okay with the idea that most of what we see, most of the time (roughly, everything not in the region of optical focus), is double. Whoa! I get the heebie-jeebies. Either common sense is badly wrong -- if common sense is what I take it to be! -- or a substantial number of introspectors (including such eminent ones as Helmholtz and Titchener) are badly wrong. Grist for my skeptical mill. But not happy grist. Now I'm walking around thinking maybe I'm crazy for not seeing the persistent doubling that so many say is always there!

I take comfort, though, that Stephen Palmer, whose 1999 textbook Vision Science is generally considered standard in the field, analyzes the phenomenon much as I would:

One question that naturally arises from all this talk about disparity between the two retinal images is why don't we normally experience double images?... The answer has at least two parts. One is that points on or near the horopter [roughly, points at the same distance as the point on which you are focusing and on which your eyes are converging] are fused perceptually into a single experienced image. The region around the horopter within which such disparate images are perceptually fused is called Panum's fusional area. The second part of the answer is that for points that lie outside Panum's area, the disparity is normally experienced as depth. You can experience double images if you attend to disparity as "doubleness," however, or if the amount of disparity is great enough, as whenyou cross your eyes by focusing on your nose (p. 209).

Palmer seems to be saying that normally we don't see double, unless we attend to disparity as doubleness. He might then say -- as I would say -- that the reason so many people seem willing to attribute doubleness to their daily experience, when prompted to attend to double images created on the spot, is that they illegitimately infer that their normal visual experience is like their experience during such doubling exercises. But if so, that suggests an interesting instability and suggestibility among people in their judgments about ordinary visual experience!

Conversely, someone might argue against me, and against Palmer, that our experience when we think about doubling is our typical experience: We just ordinarily miss it in ordinary experience because we don't really think about or register the actual double-experiences we have of things off the horopter (or outside Panum's area) in the everyday run of life.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Do You Mostly See Double? (revisited)

Wednesday, my senior seminar surprised me. We were talking about depth perception and how your eyes converge slightly when you focus on something nearby, when one student casually remarked that when he focused on a nearby object a more distant object in front of him (a student sitting on the opposite side of the seminar table, as it happened) appeared double.

I find it easy to get a double image by holding one finger about four inches before my nose and focusing in the distance, but I've always found it more difficult to get doubling by the converse operation of focusing on something close and attending to an object in the distance -- though many early introspective psychologists claimed that the phenomenon of doubling in the distance is common or even pervasive (e.g., Reid, Purkinje, J. Mueller, Helmholtz, Stout, Sanford, Titchener). Helmholtz, for example, writes:

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 reflects 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 (1910/1962, III.7; see also this post).

This has always seemed to me introspective psychology gone awry. In a 2006 essay (Do Things Look Flat?), I conjectured that the attribution of pervasive doubling in visual experience had something to do with the popularity of stereoscopes in the late 19th century and the analogy between binocular vision and stereoscopy; but recently, especially in light of the view's relatively early roots, I've been more inclined to think it has to do with overemphasis of the theory of the horopter in binocular vision.

With this in mind, I asked the eight students in my seminar to converge their eyes upon their fingers before the nose and report on whether the student across the table seemed to them to double. I went to the board to write down poll numbers, yes or no. No need to write the numbers down, though -- all the students immediately said yes! (Well, one was quiet, but when I specifically asked him, he agreed with the others.) Evidently, I was the only one who didn't find the effect.

One student then said that he has always been very aware of the persistent doubling of things in vision. He or another student then recommended that we look at the Julesz random dot stereogram on p. 112 of Dennett's (1991) Consciousness Explained (which we were reading). Several students claimed that they could "fuse" it and see the square pop out by allowing their vision to double (though I should say not all the alleged pop-outers initially agreed on the shape that popped out). Here's the stereogram:

Now to me the prospect of trying to merge those two images in my mind to get a three-dimensional pop-out effect seems utterly hopeless!

I'm sitting in my office trying to get that doubling in the distance. I put my finger before my nose and compare its position to that of a V8 bottle six feet away. I close one eye, then the other, and notice how my finger seems to change position relative to the bottle. This gives me a sense of how far apart, maybe, to expect to see the doubled bottles when I converge my eyes upon my finger. Then I do converge my eyes. Maybe that bottle doubles -- but I'm not sure. I try again, and now it seems clear that there is no doubling.

But I've always had an unusually dominant left eye (I had "lazy eye" as a kid), so maybe I'm the one who's unusual? Do most of us always see most things double (per Helmholtz et al.)? Or does it take an unusual effort? My confidence that the Helmholtz quote is a bit of madness with which few ordinary observers would agree has been shaken.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Readers of this blog may be interested to look at David Chalmers's and David Bourget's new bibliography of over 18,000 papers in philosophy of mind, with links to online versions where possible, here.

A shorter bibliography (only 5000 papers!) focuses on free online papers on consciousness, here.

Let's see. If I read 5 papers a day every day for 10 years, I should be fully up to date in philosophy of mind -- assuming of course, that no one publishes anything in the interval! (Oh, and I guess I'll have a to read a few books on the side.)

An embarrassment of riches! Fortunately, "expert" is a relative term.

A completely irrelevant etymological aside: Ever since an undergraduate pointed out to me, a few years ago, that his electronically submitted assignment wasn't really a "paper" in the strictest sense, I've been having these distractingly purist thoughts about what exactly qualifies as a "paper". Uh oh. Will you, too, now?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Game of Jerk and Sucker (Freeway Version)

Almost no one who is a jerk thinks he's a jerk. So how do you know if you are one? The ordinary devices of introspection won't do the trick. You need to look, without blinkers, at your behavior. To do so, you need a situation where the line between jerk and not-jerk is clear and there are many others in essentially the same situation against whom to compare yourself.

Fortunately (or, rather, unfortunately) the freeways of California provide just such a situation. What I'm talking about, of course, is the guy who speeds by the long line of cars waiting in the congested exit lane and cuts in at the last second.

Some might doubt that this is jerkish behavior. Surely those are the very people who themselves cut in. But is that unorthodox opinion the cause of the aggressive driving or the (rationalizing, self-deceived) effect of it? Introspection, again, will be of no help here.

Consider Kant: Surely the maxim "skip the line to cut in at the last minute" is not universalizable. It's not a maxim that you could simultaneously will that everyone abide by, since their doing so would cause congestion in your own fast-flowing lane, exactly the kind of congestion you are aiming to avoid.

Or take a consequentialist tack: Does your cutting in at the last second maximize happiness or human flourishing? Well, you save time and you may feel good (perhaps even deliciously wicked), but you cost each of the many cars behind you a little time and you annoy those who see you scoot past; you may slow down your own faster-moving lane with your last-minute cut-in; and you increase the risks of an accident. It's hard to see how the calculus could be positive here, unless you have a very good reason for thinking your time is more precious than others'. (Maybe you're running late? Well, couldn't you have hit the road earlier?)

Or consider character examplars: Would Confucius cut in at the last minute? How would Jesus drive?

With this behavioral measure in hand, each of us can reflect on our jerk-sucker ratio. Suppose for every 48 cars that wait in an orderly way (the suckers) there are 2 who cut in (the jerks). If you are among those two, that puts you in the 96th percentile for jerks! On the other hand, if there are 15 cars cutting in and 35 waiting, cutting puts you only in the top 70th percentile. (If the ratio gets too balanced, though, the formula breaks down: 50-50 is just a jam, and 45-55 is probably just choosing one's lane wisely.)

Me, I find myself typically at about the 80th percentile. I'll wait patiently if almost everyone else is doing so -- but if enough people are cutting in, I'll break and run (or plan to do so next time around). But since I really loathe being either jerk or sucker, my preferred plan is to stay off the road!

Actually, at such times I think I would usually will the Kantian maxim. I'd be delighted if both lanes were equally plugged. Gladly, I'd sacrifice the jerk's time savings to avoid the jerk-sucker game entirely! But that still doesn't change the uncomfortable fact that, for the most part, I'd rather be in the 80th percentile for jerk than the 20th for sucker.

Now the question is, how well does this tendency to be self-serving carry across situations...?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Philosophers' Carnival #55...


The Full Text of Applying to Ph.D. Programs in Philosophy Is Available...


I will try occasionally to visit that post and the original posts to look at the comments. Although I can't address particular students' situations, I can address general questions.

I would be especially interested to hear from professors who have served on admissions committees who think that my advice is inaccurate or misleading.

Applying to Philosophy Ph.D. Programs, Part VII: After You Hear Back

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades and Classes

Part III: Letters of Recommendation

Part IV: Writing Samples

Part V: Statement of Purpose

Part VI: GRE Scores and Other Things

Part VII: After You Hear Back

When You'll Hear and When You'll Have to Decide

There's a general agreement among philosophy Ph.D. programs that applicants have until April 15 to decide whether to accept an offer of admission. This deadline drives the process.

Schools with a hard cap on their admissions offers might be permitted by the administration to admit only eight students, for example, or to offer funding (in the form of T.A.-ships and fellowships) to only eight students. These schools will try to admit those eight students quickly (in February, maybe) and will often pressure those students to make a decision as soon as they can so that if they decline, another student further down the list can be admitted or offered funding.

Other departments will target a certain entering class size and admit approximately twice that many students (or more or less, depending on the "yield" rates in recent years) with the expectation that about half of the admitted students will decline. (For example, UCR was aiming for 10-12 last year. We admitted 24 and got 11.) In principle, these departments could admit all those students early in the process, but in fact things often fall behind. If the number of students accepting offers seems to be falling short of expectations, a few may be admitted at the last minute.

If you're at the top of a department's list, expect (typically, depending on the committee's speed) to hear mid-Februrary to mid-March. Applicants lower down on the list may not hear until April, even April 15th itself! You may not hear good news about funding, in particular, until very near the April 15th deadline, if the department has a hard cap on funding. Be ready on April 15th to make an immediate decision about an offer should one come -- and don't be too far from the phone! It's not unreasonable to ask for an additional day or two to decide, should you hear on April 15th, but the department may or may not comply with such a request.

It's generally in the interest of the applicants, then, to wait on their decisions until April 15. However, it is in the interest of departments to extract decisions from applicants as early as possible. Unfortunate!

Occasionally, if an entering class is looking smaller than expected, a department may admit someone after April 15th. That student may already have committed to another school. Generally speaking, it's good to keep to your commitments, but if the one program is much more appealing than the other, I'd recommend reneging with a heartfelt apology!

Funding Offers

Most top-50 ranked Ph.D. programs do not expect students to pay their way through graduate school. They'll offer funding (at poverty levels) in the form of T.A.-ships and fellowships. When comparing funding offers between schools, don't just look at the raw dollar amounts. Some schools inflate their dollar amounts by adding the cost of tuition to their stated funding totals -- money which of course comes right back to them. Make sure, also, that your funding offer includes student medical insurance.

Most departments will guarantee students five years of support (though UCR typically offers only four years to students entering with an M.A.) in some combination of fellowship and T.A.-ship. If you're on fellowship you're paid just for being a student! (Sweet!) A typical offer at a typical department will be for one year of fellowship (your first year, when you aren't really advanced enough a student to be a T.A., anyway, in the eyes of most deparments) and four years of T.A.-ship. Students especially targeted by the department may receive additional fellowship years. (Outstanding GPA and GRE scores help a lot here, since the high-level administrators who often give out those fellowship packages can evaluate those numbers better than they can evaluate writing samples and letters of recommendation.) Although most Ph.D. programs expect most of their students to pay their way through most of their years by T.A.-ing, a few schools -- especially the smaller private schools -- don't expect much T.A.-ing from their students and offer comparatively more fellowship support.

You might also consider how much is expected of a T.A.: Teaching one section of 25 students is much easier than teaching three sections of 25 which in turn is easier (usually) than teaching an entire course on your own. Also consider what happens when your guaranteed years of funding run out, since most students at most schools run out of guaranteed funding before they complete their degrees.

Don't expect too much wiggle room in negotiations about funding. But if a comparable department is offering you a better package than the school that would otherwise be your first choice, it can't hurt to politely mention that fact to the chair of the admissions committee.

Financial offers generally don't include summer funding, though often students can apply for a limited number of summer-school teaching positions. So how are you going to get through the summer?

Unless summer funding is dependable, I recommend considering writing test questions for ETS or a similar organization. Question writing often pays pretty well (by graduate student standards) and since it's piece work, you can do as little or as much of it as you like, on your own time. Such organizations often appreciate the precise turn of mind typical of philosophy students, who as a group do very well on standardized tests. (The organization I worked for, ACT, specifically recruited philosophy Ph.D. students, and the guide to writing questions used philosophical jargon and made reference to Quine!) Unfortunately, it can take several months to get training and certification to write questions, so if you consider this option, plan well in advance. Or -- again, if you're the sort who does well on standardized tests -- you can approach the issue from the other side and teach SAT or GRE prep courses. (Of course teaching philosophy is even better, if you can swing it!)

Letting People Know Where You've Been Admitted

Let your letter writers know where you've been admitted -- or even if you haven't been admitted anywhere -- and ultimately where you decide to go. It's only polite, since they put in work on your behalf. It helps them have a better sense, too, of what to expect for future students. And besides, they might have some helpful advice.

Admissions committee chairs also like to know where you've been admitted and where you decide to go (if not to their school) and why. You needn't share this information if you don't want to, but it helps them in thinking about future admissions. For example, if lots of admittees are going to comparably ranked schools because those schools have better funding offers, admissions committees can make a case for more funding to the college administrators. If admittees are declining mostly for much better-ranked schools, then committees know that their low yield rates are due to having a strong batch of applicants. Etc.

Visiting Departments

I highly recommend visiting the departments to which you've been admitted -- but only after you've been admitted. Admitted students, whom departments now want and are competing to attract, are treated much differently than students who have merely applied or who are on the "waiting list" (if there is one), who will be seen as petitioners. Unfortunately, then, it won't be possible to properly visit departments that admit you at the last minute.

Some departments have money to help students fly out to visit, others don't. It doesn't hurt to ask politely. In any case, let the admissions committee chair know you intend to visit. Even if funding isn't available, she can help arrange your stay -- for example by mentioning what times would be good or bad and maybe finding a graduate student willing to put you up for a night or two.

There are two main reasons to visit departments: First and obviously, it can help you decide where to go. But second, and less obviously, it is a valuable educational experience in its own right.

The second point first: As I mentioned in Part I, students who spend their whole time in one department often have a provincial view of philosophy. Even visiting another department for a few days can crack that provincialism and give an invigorating and liberating, broader perspective on the field. Also, you will never again be treated as well by eminent professors as you will when you are a prospective (admitted!) graduate student. The country's best-known philosophers will take you out to lunch or coffee for an hour and genuinely listen to your views on philosophical topics. They'll be solicitous of you. They'll value your opinion. I remember one extremely eminent professor spending a full day with me. We toured his campus and another nearby campus; we listened to music late into the night; he shared gossip about the state of the profession. (Spending a full day is highly unusual, though! Don't expect it. Aim for coffee. Interestingly, this particular professor had no idea who I was when I saw him again a few years later.) Graduate students -- who at top schools sometimes soon become influential professors themselves -- will engage you in long discussions about the state of philosophy, and you'll (sometimes) feel a real camraderie. My own graduate school tour, for which I set aside three full weeks (for six campuses) was one the highlights of my philosophical education.

To maximize all this, try to stay at each campus for a few weekdays. Weekends don't really count. If you have to cut classes, cut classes. This is much more important than whether you get an A or a B in Phil 176. Also, I'd recommend emailing in advance the professors you'd like to meet and asking them if they're willing to go out for coffee with you.

When you visit a school, the department will generally set you up with first- and second-year students to meet. No harm in that, but bear in mind that first- and second-year students are often still in the glow of having been admitted and they haven't yet started the most difficult part of their education, their dissertation. Insist on meeting students in their 5th year and beyond, especially students working with advisors you imagine you might be working with. In my experience, such students will generally be brutally honest. Unlike new graduate students and unlike professors they don't really care whether you come to their school or not, so they have little motive to draw a rosy picture. And often they're just itching to have someone to grouse to.

Meet the professors, but don't expect their solicitious treatment to continue after you've enrolled. The advanced students' opinions about the professors are probably a better gauge of how you'll actually be treated. Nonetheless, if you talk substance with professors on philosophical topics you care about, you can get a sense of whether you're likely to see eye-to-eye philosophically.

The Summer Before

Students often seem to be shy about showing their faces around the department to which they've been admitted until either classes start or there's some formal introductory event. No need for this. Move in early. Meet some professors and ask them for some reading suggestions pertinent to your shared interests or classes you'll be taking with them in the fall. Get a running start. Professors are often quite interested in meeting the new students -- until the inevitable disappointment of discovering that on average they're only average! But if you get a running start, maybe that's a sign that you'll be an unusually good student...?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Dennett on the "Cartesian Theater"

In his seminal 1991 book Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett famously criticizes what he calls the "Cartesian Theater" view of the mind. I find the criticism odd.

The central "Cartesian" claim Dennett targets is that there is a specific location in the brain "arrival at which is the necessary and sufficient condition for conscious experience" (p. 106). His argument consists mainly in denying that there's always a fact of the matter about when, exactly, an experience occurs, if one considers events at very small time scales (on the order of tenths of a second). He appears to draw from this argument what seems to be the fairly radical anti-"Cartesian" conclusion that there are, in general, no definitive facts of the matter about the flow of conscious experiences independent of the changing "narratives" we construct about them. (Elsewhere in the book, however, Dennett writes as though there are such facts. I criticize his apparent inconsistency about such matters here.)

The argument is odd in two ways:

First: Dennett does not want to deny the intuitive idea that there are "afferent" (inbound) brain processes that are not in themselves conscious, such as early visual processes in the retina and early visual cortex. Nor does he want to deny that there may be similarly non-conscious "efferent" neural processes, going out from the brain -- for example, motor impulses travelling from the supplementary motor area down the spinal cord (p. 108-109). So evidently there is a center in the brain where everything comes together, on his view. The only question is how large that center is. But how could that question of size be theoretically deep enough to drive the general conclusions Dennett wants and his characterization of the issue as one on which most previous philosophers have gone radically wrong?

Second: Ordinary external events may also be temporally indeterminate, if one looks at narrow enough time slices (even independently of issues of Einsteinian relativity). Consider an example from a real theater: An elephant and an acrobat charge onto stage right and stage left respectively, at about the same time. The elephant's trunk comes in at t + 0 milliseconds but his tail doesn't come in until t + 600 milliseconds. The acrobat's leading foot comes in at t + 200 milliseconds but his trailing foot doesn't come in until t + 350 milliseconds. Did the elephant or the acrobat enter first? Obviously, many variations of this scenario are possible. But does this support any radical, general conclusion about the temporal order of events? Does it show that the best way to think of the processing of events is in terms of multiple scripts and that there are no facts independent of our narratives? Of course not! In real theaters as in Cartesian theaters, there is blurriness at the edges. That's how the world works in general (except maybe at the quantum level). Nothing radical follows.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Applying to Philosophy Ph.D. Programs, Part VI: GRE Scores and Other Things

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades and Classes

Part III: Letters of Recommendation

Part IV: Writing Samples

Part V: Statement of Purpose

Part VI: GRE Scores and Other Things

GRE Scores

GRE scores are less important to your application than grades, letters, writing sample, and statement of purpose. A few schools don't even require them. In my experience, some members of admissions committees take them seriously and others discount them entirely. My own opinion is that they add little useful information. However, since some committee members take them seriously, it's worth studying for the GRE and retaking it if you didn't do well. Also, since the higher-level administrators who oversee the process and often make the decisions about fellowship funding can really only evaluate your GPA and GRE scores, people who do well on these quantitative measures are likely to get better funding offers -- more years of fellowship without teaching, for example (being paid simply to be a student!). Also, it looks good for the department if the students they admit have better average grades and GREs than the students in psychology, economics, etc. We don't want to send too many 1100 GRE offers up to the dean's office for approval!

The GRE scores for this year's entering class at UCR ranged from 1230 to a perfect 1600, with most in the 1300s and 1400s. At UCR I'd say below 1250 is a strike against an applicant, above 1400 is a bonus. There is no GRE Subject Test in Philosophy.


Of course you made dean's list! If you list too many awards, the really good ones may escape notice. Among the most impressive awards: Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, departmental or college "outstanding student" or "outstanding essay" awards (if the department only selects one per year and the college only a few), awards from nationally- or internationally-recognized institutions such as the NSF or DAAD. Generally, though, even fairly impressive awards don't count for much. It's your grades, letters, and sample that really matter.

Race and Gender

Some schools give you the option of specifying your race and gender. Letter writers must also choose pronouns and can choose to mention race if they think it is relevant. (Some would never do so. Others think they help the applicant by doing so, if the applicant is a minority. If you prefer to keep the information confidential, tell your letter writers in advance.) Committees will often guess gender and ethnicity based on names.

Philosophy is largely a male discipline right now in the United States, and it's overwhelmingly non-Hispanic Caucasian. (Tenured men outnumber tenured women by a ratio of about 4-to-1. The ratio of non-Hispanic Caucasians to minorities is probably even more skewed.) I believe there are persistent systemic biases. However, I also believe that most admissions committees would like to counter these biases and see a broader diversity in the field. Admissions committees may nonetheless show bias implicitly in how they read a file from "Maria Gonzales" compared to a file from "Mark Johnson", unconsciously expecting less from the first file than the second. However, at least the admissions committees I've worked on have used conscious strategies in attempt to counteract, maybe more than counteract, these biases. For underprivileged minorities, especially, an application might be seriously considered that would be quickly dismissed if the applicant were a white male.

While we white males might feel disadvantaged by this, we should bear in mind that we profit from persistent bias in our favor in other contexts. For example, it's generally much easier to fit a professor's stereotype for a "promising philosophy student" if you have a certain kind of look and diction, the tone of voice and cultural attitude, that is characteristic of upper middle class white men. Decades of psychological studies suggest that stereotype-driven expectations can have substantial effects not only on how one is perceived (and thus presumably on letters) but also on one's performance on objective tests (through being encouraged, supported, believed in, made comfortable, etc., by one's teachers).

Personal Contact and Connections

Such things don't help much, I suspect, unless they bring substantive new information. If a professor at some point had a good substantive, philosophical conversation with an applicant and mentions that to the committee, that might help a bit. But seeking out professors for such purposes could backfire if it seems like brown-nosing, or if the applicant seems immature, arrogant, or not particularly philosophically astute.

Some professors may be very much swayed by personal connections, I suppose. I myself, however, often have a slightly negative feeling that I'm being "played"; and even if I know the person hasn't sought me out for the purpose of improving her admissions chances, in aiming to be fair and objective in my evaluations I will tend to discount that person's application somewhat -- maybe even more than it deserves.

Cover Letters

Your cover letters may be thrown away or lost. Don't include any important information in them.

Part VII: After You Hear Back

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Brief Hiatus

for Geekend! Back on Wednesday. I'll try to catch up with all comments then, and I'll post the next in my series on applying to philosophy Ph.D. programs.

Why I'm Not a Moral Relativist

Moral relativism (or descriptive moral relativism) is the view that... well, let me just quote Chris Gowans' excellent definition in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Descriptive Moral Relativism (DMR). As a matter of empirical fact, there are deep and widespread moral disagreements across different societies, and these disagreements are much more significant than whatever agreements there may be.

(Metaethical moral relativism is the view that the real -- and not just perceived -- truth or falsity of moral claims varies from society to society. Since philosophers generally don't accept metaethical moral relativism unless they accept descriptive moral relativism, I focus on the descriptive thesis.)

Some of my favorite empirically-oriented philosophers of psychology -- Jesse Prinz, John Doris, Stephen Stich, and Shaun Nichols -- have recently avowed moral relativism. But I can't agree.

My argument against relativism is simple. There is no culture with a written philosophical tradition that is farther removed from the contemporary West than is ancient China. Yet the moral thought expressed by philosophers of the period is remarkably similar to our own. Consider, to take an arbitrary sample, the first five passages of Confucius's (Kongzi's) Analects, the most important philosophical text of the period (D.C. Lau, trans.):

I.1. The Master said, "Is it not a pleasure, having learned something, to try it out at due intervals? Is it not a joy to have friends come from afar? Is it not gentlemanly not to take offense when others fail to appreciate your abilities?"

I.2. Yu Tzu said, "It is rare for a man whose character is such that he is good as a son and obedient as a young man to have the inclination to transgress against his superiors; it is unheard of for one who has no such inclination to be inclined to start a rebellion. The gentleman devotes his efforts to the roots, for once the roots are established, the Way will grow therefrom. Being good as a son and obedient as a young man is, perhaps, the root of a man's character."

I.3. The Master said, "It is rare, indeed, for a man with cunning words and an ingratiating face to be benevolent."

I.4. Tseng Tzu said, "Every day I examine myself on three counts. In what I have undertaken on another's behalf, have I failed to do my best? In my dealings with my friends have I failed to be trustworthy in what I say? Have I passed on to others anything that I have not tried out myself?"

I.5. The Master said, "In guiding a state of a thousand chariots, approach your duties with reverence and be trustworthy in what you say; avoid excess in expenditure and love your fellow men; employ the labor of the common people only in the right seasons."

In these passages, Confucius and his school praise honesty, moderation, concern for others, obedience to authority, and humility. They don't say: Kill your relatives for fun, never pay your debts, burn down your neighbors' houses. Nor does any other major school of philosophical or religious thought, no matter how far culturally removed. Indeed, it's hard to see how a society could survive with such a morality.

Though the points of commonality far exceed the points of difference, the ancient Confucian tradition does differ from mainstream U.S. ethics in some important secondary ways -- most notably in demanding a high level of respect for parents and elders and in their emphasis on following ritual and custom. However, other philosophers within the ancient Chinese tradition criticize the Confucians for these very things, such as Mozi and Zhuangzi. So also in the U.S. we have libertarians and fundamentalists, Earth First!ers and yuppies. The real diversity of moral opinion is more to be found within ancient China and within the contemporary U.S. than between the two cultures. (But even that diversity isn't so great, if one keeps a broad view and excludes the deranged and those who merely thrill at being provocative.)

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Latest Philosophy Carnival...


Monday, October 08, 2007

Applying to Philosophy Ph.D. Programs, Part V: Statement of Purpose

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades and Classes

Part III: Letters of Recommendation

Part IV: Writing Samples

Part V: Statement of Purpose

I've never read a first draft of a statement of purpose (also called a personal statement) that was any good. These things are hard to write, so give yourself plenty of time and seek the feedback of at least two of your letter writers. Plan to rewrite from scratch at least once.

It's hard to know even what a "statement of purpose" is. Your purpose is to go to graduate school, get a Ph.D., and become a professor. Duh! Are you supposed to try to convince the committee that you want to become a professor more than the next guy? That philosophy is written in your genes? That you have some profound vision for the transformation of philosophy or philosophy education?

Some Things Not to Do

Don't let someone in business tell you how to write a statement of purpose. The kind of sales pitch that results will rub professional philosophers the wrong way. Indeed, bad statements of purpose can go wrong in many ways. For example:

Corny: "Ever since I was eight, I've pondered the deep questions of life."

Brown-nosed: "In my opinion, U.C. Riverside is the best philosophy department in the country." (Shh! Don't let out the secret!)

Unrealistic or arrogant: "I plan eventually to teach philosophy at a top ten philosophy department." (Do you already know that you'll be a more eminent philosopher than the people on your admissions committee?)

Self-important: "I will attempt to revive American pragmatism."

Ignorant: "U.C. Riverside suits my interests especially well because of its strengths in the philosophy of artificial intelligence." (No one here works on AI.)

Self-promoting: "I have always been at the top of my classes and active in class discussions."

Obvious (the least of these sins): "I hope to become a philosophy professor and teach philosophy."

A more subtle way in which statements of purpose can go wrong is in endorsing a particular substantive philosophical position. You are probably not far enough in your philosophical education to justifiably feel confident that you know enough about some particular philosophical issue that your mind is immune to change on it. Thus, saying things like "I would like to defend Davidson's view that genuine belief is limited to language-speaking creatures" comes off as a little bit close-minded and if not exactly arrogant at least not as charmingly humble as you might like. Similarly, "I showed in my honors thesis that Davidson's view...". If only, in philosophy, honors theses ever really showed anything! Much better: "My central interests are philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. I am particularly interested in the intersection of the two, for example in Davidson's argument that only language-speaking creatures can have beliefs in the full and proper sense of 'belief'."

Don't tout your accomplishments. Let your letter writers do that. It comes off so much better! (Make sure, in advance, that your letter writers know what your accomplishments are. See my discussion of letters in Part III.)

Don't tell the story of how you came to be interested in philosophy. It's not really relevant.

What To Write

So how do you fill up that awful, blank-looking page? With a cool, professional description of your areas of interest. If you have, say, three main areas of interest, devote one short paragraph to each of them -- a few sentences describing what questions or subareas within that larger area you find particularly intriguing or have already thought and written about. For example:

I took a two-term independent study course with Prof. Hoffman on Descartes' theory of the passions and its connection to freedom of the will. I anticipate that the history of modern philosophy will continue to be a central interest of mine, especially early modern philosophers' conceptions of the mind. For example, how is Hume's theory of the passions similar to and different from Descartes'? What is the relationship between mentality and personhood for Locke, Hume, and other philosophers of the era? To what extent was Malebranche's occasionalism about causation a development of views already implicit in Descartes?

A statement of this sort tells the committee two things. First, it tells them that you are knowledgeable about the areas of philosophy you plan to study -- not every undergraduate knows about Hume's theory of the passions and Malebranche's occasionalism! -- and it does so without risk of sounding arrogant or close-minded by making pronouncements about what philosophical views are right or wrong. And second, it gives the committee a sense of whether you would be a good fit for the department. If no one in the department teaches the history of modern philosophy (unlikely, actually, but if my example were different the issue could more plausibly arise) or if the people who do teach early modern really focus only on moral and political philosophy (possible), you won't seem like a good match. On the other hand, if the department has specialist(s) in your area(s) of interest, being a "good fit" can boost the likelihood of acceptance.

Explaining Weaknesses in Your File

Although hopefully this won't be necessary, a statement of purpose can also be an opportunity to explain weaknesses or oddities in your file -- though letter writers can also do this, often more credibly. For example, if one quarter you did badly because your health was poor, you can mention that fact. If you changed undergraduate institutions (not necessarily a weakness if the second school is the more prestigious), you can briefly explain why. If you don't have a letter from your thesis advisor because he died, you can point that out.

Tailoring to Specific Schools

It's not necessary, but you can tailor your applications to individual schools. I'm not sure I'd recommend changing your stated areas of interest to suit the schools, though I see how that might be strategic. (If you change them too much, however, there might be some discord between your statement of purpose and the letters of recommendation in your file.) If there is some particular reason you find a school attractive, there's no harm in mentioning that in a final paragraph. For example, you might mention 2-3 professors whose work especially interests you. (But if you mischaracterize them or they don't match your areas of stated interest, this can backfire, so be careful.)

Some people mention personal reasons for wanting to be in a particular geographical area (near family, etc.). Although this can be good because it can make it seem more likely that you would accept an offer of admission, I'd avoid it since graduating Ph.D.'s generally need to be flexible about location and it might be perceived as indicating that a career in philosophy is not your first priority.

On the bright side: Most statements of purpose are flawed in one or more of the ways described above. Committees are used to it and generally don't hold it much against the applicant. Though you can shoot yourself in the foot by coming across as particularly arrogant or poetical or uninformed, this is the one part of the application where standards are low. Philosophers are not, as a rule, especially talented at self-presentation! (I include myself.) The main thing committees want to see is a match between (most of) your areas of interest and what they can teach.

For further advice, see this discussion on Leiter Reports -- particularly for a discussion between the difference between U.S. and U.K. statements of purpose.

Part VI: GRE Scores and Other Things

Friday, October 05, 2007

Are Doctors Less Likely to Smoke? Do Economists Invest Better? Are Political Scientists More Likely to Vote?

And do ethicists behave better? Regular visitors will know that the last question is one I've been struggling with for a while. But what about the three in the title? If it turns out, as most philosophers seem to think, that ethicists don't behave morally better than non-ethicists of similar social background, is that simply part of a general phenomenon -- a general disconnection between professional stance and personal behavior? Or is it something more specific to ethics?

Before reading on, pause a bit. What do you think? Are doctors less likely to smoke than non-doctors of similar social background? Are economists more astute with their money?

Here's what I've found so far: Doctors are, it seems, substantially less likely to smoke. In U.S. and Australian surveys (the two countries that have the most literature on this), they typically come in dead last in smoking, or very nearly so, among long lists of professions. For example, David J. Lee et al. (2007) find that workers in U.S. "health diagnosing occupations" report smoking at rates of 5-6% in the last 20 years, compared to 26-28% of the general population. "Teachers, librarians, and counselors", the occupational category with the second-lowest rate, were twice as likely to report smoking as were doctors: 11-13%.

One complication is that these surveys are based largely (not entirely) on self-report, and doctors may be more embarrassed to report smoking than are teachers. It seems unlikely to me that embarrassment alone would explain such a large effect, but it would be nice to see a confirmatory study not based on self-report.

Nor is it just in the U.S. and Australia that doctors appear to smoke less. Recently, studies in China and the Ukraine have found similar results. Studies of doctors' other health behaviors (getting shots, mammograms, checkups, etc.) are more mixed, but are confounded by differences in availability and the temptation to self-diagnose and self-treat.

I've had more trouble finding data on whether economists invest better. However, Charlotte Christiansen, a Danish economist, shared with me a forthcoming study that suggests that Danish economists are at least more likely to hold stocks than comparably educated peers in other professions. Given the standard view in portfolio theory that most investors err in being insufficiently invested in stocks (often simply failing to "invest" at all, leaving their money in bank accounts and money market funds), and that almost everyone of middle-class means should own some stocks, Christiansen's results suggest that at least economists aren't falling quite as much into that mistake. About 42% of those with an education in economics owned stocks, compared to no more than 27% for any of the other 10 educational groups.

I haven't yet managed to find any data on whether professors of political science are more likely to vote, but I'm considering looking into that issue myself. Whether someone has voted is publicly available information in California. I could, for example, compare lists of ethics professors, non-ethicist philosophers, political science professors, and a control group of other professors, and see which groups are more likely to execute this civic duty. Any guesses?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Applying to Philosophy Ph.D. Programs, Part IV: Writing Samples

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades and Classes

Part III: Letters of Recommendation

Do Committees Read the Samples?

Applicants sometimes doubt that admissions committees (constituted of professors in the department you're applying to) actually do read the writing samples, especially at the most prestigious schools. It's hard to imagine, say, John Searle carefully working through that essay on Aristotle you wrote for Philosophy 183! However, my experience is that the essays are read. For example, when I visited U.C. Berkeley in 1991 after having been admitted, I discussed my writing sample in detail with one member of the admissions committee, who very convincingly assured me that the committee read all plausible applicants' writing samples. She said that they were the single most important part of the application.

At UCR, every writing sample is read by at least two members of the admissions committee. How conscientiously they are read is another question. If an applicant doesn't look plausible on the surface based on GPA and letters, I'll skim through the sample pretty quickly, just to make sure that we aren't missing a diamond in the rough. For most applicants, I'll at least skim the whole sample, and I'll select a few pages in the middle to read carefully.

Few undergraduates can write really beautiful, professional-looking philosophy that sustains its quality page after page. But if you can -- or more accurately if some member of the admissions committee judges that you have done so in your sample -- that can make all the difference to your application. I remember in one case falling in love with a sample and persuading the committee to admit a student whose letters were tepid at best and whose grades were more A-minus than A. That student in fact came to UCR and did well. I'll almost always plug for the admission of the students who wrote, in my view, the very best samples, even if other aspects of their files are less than ideal. Of course, most such students have excellent grades and letters as well!

Conversely, admissions committees look pretty skeptically at applicants with weak samples. You definitely want to spend some time making your sample excellent.

What I, at Least, Look For

First, the sample must be clearly written and show a certain amount of philosophical maturity. I can't say much about how to achieve these things other than to be a good writer and philosophically mature. I think they're hard to fake. Trying too hard to sound sophisticated usually backfires.

Second, what I look for in the middle is that the essay gets into the nitty-gritty somehow. In an analytic essay, that might be very detailed analysis of the pros and cons of an argument, or of its non-obvious implications, or of its structure. In a historical essay, that might be a very close reading of a passage or a close look at textual evidence that decides between two competing interpretations. Many otherwise nicely written essays stay largely at the surface, simply summarizing an author's work or presenting fairly obvious criticisms at a relatively superficial level.

Most analytic philosophers favor a lean, clear prose style with minimal jargon. (Some jargon is often necessary, though: There's a reason specialists have specialists' words!) When I've spent a lot of time reading badly written philosophy and fear my own prose is starting to look that way, too, I read a bit of David Lewis or Fred Dretske.

Choosing Your Sample

Consider longish essays (at least ten pages) on which you received an A. Among those, you might have some favorites, or some might seem to have especially impressed the professor. You also want your essay, if possible, to be in one of the areas of philosophy highlighted as an area of interest in your statement of purpose. If necessary, you can adjust your statement of purpose, but that can only go so far. If your best essay is in Chinese philosophy or medieval philosophy or Continental philosophy or technical philosophy of physics or Bayesian decision theory, or some other subfield that's outside the mainstream, and you aren't planning to apply to schools that teach in that area, it's a bit of a quandary. You want to show your best work, but you don't want the school to reject you because your interests don't fit their teaching profile, and also the school might not have someone available who can really assess the quality of your essay.

Approach the professor(s) who graded the essay(s) you are considering and ask for her frank opinion about whether the essay might be suitable for revision into a writing sample. Not all A essays are. You might even consider taking a term of independent study with that professor, with the aim of deepening your knowledge on the topic and generating at the end a truly excellent longer essay that goes well beyond what you originally covered in class.

Revising the Sample

Samples should be about 12-20 pages long (double spaced, in a 12-point font). Longer samples can be submitted, but I'd recommend including an abstract on the first page along with advice about what sections (totaling 20 pages or fewer) the admissions committee should focus on in evaluating the sample.

If possible, you should revise the sample under the guidance of the professor who originally graded it (who will presumably also be one of your letter writers). Your aim is to transform it from an A paper to an A+ paper. Deepen the analysis. Connect it more broadly to the literature, maybe. Consider -- or better, anticipate and defuse -- more objections. With your professor's help, eliminate those phrases, simplifications, distortions, and caricatures that suggest either an unsubtle mind or ignorance of relevant literature -- things which professors usually let pass in undergraduate essays but which can make a difference in how you come across to an admissions committee.

Part V: Statement of Purpose

Monday, October 01, 2007

In Defense of Phacts

The phenomenology (or conscious experience) of perception would be much easier to study scientifically if the only relevant facts were -- as Pete Mandik suggests (if I understand him right) -- facts about, on the one hand, external objects and the sensory organs, and on the other hand, our judgments about external objects and sensory organs. Facts of the first sort are objectively measurable and facts of the second sort are directly reportable or expressible (at least on a sufficiently thin notion of "judgment").

On such a view, when I stare at a visual illusion and say "Line A looks longer to me than Line B", I can be wrong about the length of the lines, but I can't be wrong about how the lines look to me. There is no thing, distinct from the lines in the world, the state of my eyes (about which I'm making no claims), and that very judgment itself for me to be wrong about.

The view is appealing, but I don't think it can be right. For one thing, consider non-obvious visual illusions. The following figure is sometimes presented as an instance of the "horizontal-vertical" illusion, according to which vertical lines look longer. There may also be other illusions in it. (Do the lines look like each bisects the other exactly, or does one of the segments look longer?)

One might be wrong about the actual lengths of the lines on the screen. One might be wrong about how people in general would judge the lines or whether there are consistent errors how we'd reach for such a figure. One might be wrong about the impression such a figure would make on one's retina. But can't one also feel uncertainty about -- and thus presumably go wrong about (or is the uncertainty merely foolish?) -- something else, too: How the figure looks to you right now, whether one line really does look longer to you now than the other? And doesn't a different sort of fact make claims of the last sort true than makes the other claims true?

If I judge that I am experiencing pain, there's a feeling of pain and there's a judgment about it. The pain isn't just the judgment. Nor is the feeling just some fact about external tissue damage, since I might be unconscious or under anaesthesia and so feel no pain.

Suppose I'm convinced that I'm a brain in a vat. I have no eyes, no sensory organs at all, and there are no objects around me -- or so I think. I judge that I'm having a sensory experience of redness right now. That can't be a judgment about external things or about sensory organs, for in my view there are no such things. Am I judging that I'm judging there to be a red patch out there? That can't be right either. I don't judge that there's a red patch in my environment. Am I judging that I'm having an experience that's like the experience that would normally be caused by looking at something red? I don't see why I have to be judging that, either -- I might be skeptical about "normal causes" -- but let's say, for the sake of argument, that that is what the judgment comes down to. There's that word "experience" in there. It seems I'm making a specifically phenomenal claim -- a "phactual" claim, if you will -- a claim that is made true or false by facts about my experience, not facts about the outside world or my sense organs or about some judgment.