Friday, November 30, 2007

Do Political Scientists Vote More Often?

Well, I was hoping to work up a post today on the voting behavior of political scientists, but so far the only literature I can find on this is old and hideous -- and now I have to dash off to Cal State Long Beach to give a talk (on the moral behavior of ethicists)!

So a tidbit: Henry A. Turner and Charles B. Spaulding (1969) mailed questionnaires to academics in various disciplines, asking people about their voting histories. 61% of the questionnaires were returned (ah, the good old days!). 89% of the respondents said they voted in 1956 and 91% of the respondents said they voted in 1960. Were political scientists the most likely to have said they voted? Nope! Geologists were (95% and 97% in the two elections). The methodological shortcomings of this study are left as an exercise for the reader.

Chasing threads through citation databases, I found a cluster of articles in the same general vein in the 1960s and 1970s -- mostly focusing on the party affiliations of the respondents (overwhelmingly Democrat in the humanities). Then the citation thread peters out....

Hopefully next week I can dig up something more recent and methodologically better. Or will it be up to me? Surely someone must have studied whether political scientists actually vote!

(You ask why I care? Well, beside its being intrinsically interesting, I need a comparison group for when I go hunt down the data on whether political philosophers are more likely than others to vote.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mill on Moral Reflection and Moral Behavior

Two weeks ago, I posted some of Kant's remarks about the relationship between moral reflection and moral behavior. Kant suggests that people who tend to engage in moral reflection (like professional ethicists, presumably) will be less likely to fall for easy rationalizations of their inclinations, and so they will behave with more scruple.

Today, John Stuart Mill:

[Once an ethical or religious creed becomes dominant, believers] neither listen, when they can help it, to arguments against their creed, nor trouble dissentients (if there be such) with arguments in its favour. From this time may usually be dated the decline of the living power of the doctrine. We often hear the teachers of all creeds lamenting the difficulty of keeping up in the minds of believers a lively apprehension of the truth which they nominally recognise, so that it may penetrate the feelings, and acquire real mastery over the conduct. No such difficulty is complained of while the creed is still fighting for its existence: even the weaker combatants then know and feel what they are fighting for, and the difference between it and other doctrines; and in that period of every creed's existence, not a few persons may be found who have realised its fundamental principles in all the forms of thought, have weighed and considered them in all their important bearings, and have experienced the full effect on the character which belief in that creed ought to produce in a mind thoroughly imbued with it. But when it has come to be an hereditary creed, and to be received passively, not actively -- when the mind is no longer compelled, in the same degree as at first, to exercise its vital powers on the questions which its belief presents to it, there is a progressive tendency to forget all of the belief except the formularies, or to give it a dull and torpid assent, as if accepting it on trust dispensed with the necessity of realising it in consciousness, or testing it by personal experience, until it almost ceases to connect itself at all with the inner life of the human being....

All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point which it is usual to act upon them....

The same thing holds true, generally speaking, of all traditional doctrines -- those of prudence and knowledge of life, as well as of morals or religion.... [M]uch more of the meaning even of these would have been understood, and what was understood would have been far more deeply impressed on the mind, if the man had been accustomed to hear it argued pro and con by people who did understand it (from On Liberty, Ch. II).
Forgive the long quote. Mill writes so beautifully!

I hesitate to set my own prose next to Mill's, lest the contrast be too painfully evident, so I'll just briefly remark: If what Mill says is true, then professional ethicists, who know better than almost anyone the pros and cons of their moral creeds, who discuss them endlessly, who comprehend as well as people can the principles undergirding them, ought to display those moral principles in their character and behavior. Yet from what I see, they behave no differently than do others of similar social background.

Is Mill simply wrong, then? He seems so right! I cannot bring myself to reject the moral value of ethical reflection, consigning it to mere froth and rationalization with no power to alter and improve our behavior.

I call this the problem of the ethics professors.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Dennis Becomes a Dentist and Moves to Denver

In the last few weeks, it seems like I keep coming across references to Brett Pelham's work on name effects in life decisions. Striking stuff! Here are some data from his 2002 article:

Ratio of lawyers to dentists among people whose names start with "Den": 7.22.
Ratio of lawyers to dentists among people whose names start with "La": 8.98.

Odds of moving from one's home state to live in Virginia, as opposed to Georgia, among people named Virginia: 2.10.
Odds among people named Georgia: 0.97.

Increased likelihood of living in the city of "St. X" if your first name is X (e.g., Paul in St. Paul, Louis in St. Louis): 44%.
Increased likelihood if your last name is X: 55%.

Pelham and his coauthors go on through dozens of analyses. They conclude that people are attracted to locales and careers in part because of the similarity to their names. Although one could quibble with each analysis -- maybe people with family ties to Georgia are more likely to name their daughters Georgia, maybe people in St. Paul are more likely to name their children Paul (and so people named Paul don't choose to live in St. Paul) -- the effect is so widespread and consistent among so many different measures that Pelham's conclusion feels hard to resist by the end.

I suppose it's no surprise that we are as irrational in our big life decisions (where to live) as in our small decisions (where to eat lunch) and as influenced by silly little things.

Or is it irrational? Maybe there's nothing inherently unreasonable in choosing one's residence based on similarity to one's name rather than (say) climate or job opportunities. Probably people have little self-knowledge about the influences of such factors on their decisions - but does that make the operation of such factors irrational? Acting on hunches and intutions, without knowing their basis, is not always irrational. Might Virginia be a little happier living in Virginia? I don't see why not. If so, and if salary (above poverty levels) doesn't have much of an effect on happiness (as per recent research), then maybe Dennis is better off earning $60K in Denver than $70K in Atlanta, and his gut steered him right.

Well, I don't know. But as a Schwitzgebel, it's natural for me to be drawn to scepticism!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Latest Philosophers' Carnival...


Materialism Is Not (or Shouldn't Be) a Metaphysical Thesis

Materialism is the view that the world is entirely material (or physical). There are no immaterial souls or properties. There is no ghost in the machine.

David Chalmers argues against materialism as follows:

(1.) I can conceive of a world in which everything material is as it is in the actual world, yet in which there is no consciousness. (This would be a zombie world, which has a counterpart Eric Schwitzgebel who says and writes and does exactly the same things as I do, but who has no light of consciousness inside and is in the relevant sense an empty machine.)

(2.) Although such a world may not be naturally possible -- that is, although such a world may violate the laws of nature that hold at our world -- the fact that it is conceivable shows that it is metaphysically possible. (Compare: It is conceivable, and metaphysically possible, that my coffee cup rise of its own accord into the air and circle around my head in violation of the laws of gravity and inertia. A three-sided square, in contrast, is neither naturally nor metaphysically possible.)

(3.) Since in that world my counterpart does not have the property of being conscious though he shares all material properties with me, the property of being conscious must not be a material property.

(4.) So the world is not entirely material.

(Obviously, this argument is condensed. See Chalmers's 1996 book for the full details!)

What has always struck me as strange about this argument is how it derives a conclusion about the fundamental structure of reality from facts about what we can conceive. How could that possibly work? How could doing thought experiments in my armchair reveal whether the world is purely material or not?

Most materialist responses to Chalmers either deny that we can really conceive of such a world or deny that conceivability is an adequate test of metaphysical possibility. However, I find Chalmers convincing in his responses to both lines of attack. My thinking, instead, is that we should conceive metaphysical possibility as conceptual possibility but deny that materialism is (or should be) a thesis about what is conceptually possible.

To make this work, I need to play around with the concept of a "property". For a simple, concrete example, let's say that that in all naturally possible worlds I'm in brain state #1117A if and only if I'm having the conscious experience of pain. My zombie counterpart without consciousness (in a conceptually possible but naturally impossible world) has #1117A but not conscious pain. We might define thinly-sliced properties as properties individuated such that if they diverge even only in conceptually possible worlds, they are different properties. Thickly-sliced properties, in contrast, might be individuated such that if two diverge only in conceptually possible worlds but never in naturally possible worlds, they really are only one property. Conscious pain and #1117A would thus be different thinly-sliced properties but the same thickly-sliced property.

Now the question is, should we think of materialism as a claim about properties thinly sliced or thickly sliced? Let me suggest that the proper spirit of materialism, as a scientific hypothesis, confines it to being a claim about what is naturally possible, not a claim about what is conceptually possible. So zombie worlds and thinly-sliced properties are irrelevant to its truth. Materialists can give Chalmers "property dualism" if "property" means thinly-sliced property. In some sense, I do have non-material properties, but that's just a function of the fact that such thinly-sliced "properties" are individuated in accord with the concepts of the person attributing them and the human concept of consciousness pulls apart from the human concept of the material.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Caterpillar Effect in Ethical Reflection

The caterpillar who thinks about how its legs work falls on its chin, the story goes. So similarly, Joshua Rust (my co-author on The Moral Behavior of Ethicists: Peer Opinion) suggests that in cases when our spontaneous responses would be morally appropriate, moral reflection can tangle up the works. If ethicists in fact act worse than non-ethicists, as suggested by about one-third of non-ethicist philosophers in our peer opinion survey, Josh believes the caterpillar effect may be the explanation why.

Consider my finding that ethics books are more likely to be missing from academic libraries. Here's a Rustian (Rusty?) explanation: Our normal, unreflective treatment of library books includes returning them when they're due and being sure to check them out before leaving the library. If we start to think about the ethics of returning books, these spontaneously virtuous responses might get thrown off. We might find ourselves, for example, rationalizating and justifying theft or carelessness.

Or, Bernard Williams-style, consider the person who pauses to reflect on the moral pros and cons before helping a person in need versus the person who unreflectively leaps to assist.

I'm not sure I'm quite ready to get on board with Josh on this one yet, though. It seems to me that often our spontaneous reactions are self-serving, and habits of ethical reflection can break us away from those. I'm inclined to think that overall (even if not in every particular situation) it's good to have habits of moral reflection. This, I suppose, is part of why I find it interesting and puzzling that ethicists, who presumably do tend to reflect morally more often on average than non-ethicists, seem to behave no better than anyone else.

I've posted Josh's draft essay on this in the Underblog. I'm sure he'd appreciate comments!

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Metaphysics of Ghosts

I've been thinking (again) about why Chalmers's dualism about consciousness dissatisfies me. Apropos of this, a metaphysics of ghosts.

First, let's distinguish between experiential and non-experiential ghosts.

Non-experiential ghosts are, lets say (for now), constituted of non-physical stuff, ectoplasm. They engage in stereotyped, repetitive actions (shaking shackles, gliding down hallways) but don't think and have no conscious experiences. The person whose living form they resemble is dead and gone with no personal psychic connection to the ghost.

Experiential ghosts, in contrast, think and have experiences, maybe engaging in more complex behavior. While there's something it's like to be an experiential ghost, there's nothing it's like to be a non-experiential ghost -- just as there's nothing it's like to be a mirror image or a shadow or a footprint. The following discussion is confined to non-experiential ghosts.

How do non-experiential ghosts come into being and how are they perceived? Here's a theory-sketch: A person (a projector) has a psychological trauma that creates a non-physical ectoplasmic entity resembling her. Once created, this ectoplasmic entity exists independently of the projector's experience. Such ghosts are seen and heard not by reflecting or creating photons or producing sonic vibrations in the air. Rather, they work directly on the perceiver's visual and auditory cortex. This direct action on the brain explains why ghosts cannot be photographed or audiotaped. Call this the ectoplasmic theory of ghosts.

Here's a competing theory -- the materialist theory. There is no ectoplasm. Rather, when a certain sort of trauma occurs, it directly affects the brains of ghost perceivers, through "paranormal" but perfectly physical action at a distance, cutting out the ectoplasmic middleman. A traumatic event in Schnerdfoot's brain as he is murdered directly causes visual and auditory cortical activity in the brains of other perceivers who walk by the scene of Schnerdfoot's death years later.

Now suppose, further, that the materialist theory of ghosts turns out to be true. It seems right to say, then, something like this: Ghosts are really nothing but effects on our brains from earlier trauma in other people's brains. There are no immaterial entities or properties (setting aside any qualms about whether consciousness itself might be immaterial).

Question: Could a philosopher (Chalmers's counterpart?) in Materialist Ghost World run the following argument? I know that it's a law of nature that whenever there's a ghost it's produced by trauma of such-and-such a sort and has such-and-such effects on perceivers' brains. Yet I can conceive of those causes and effects without the presence of a ghost. Therefore, "being haunted" is not the same property as "being a place in which past trauma causes certain effects in perceivers' brains". There's a possible world in which those properties come apart. Furthermore, since I know Schnerdfoot's house is haunted, I know that materialism is false: There are non-physical properties instantiated in my world!

Since it seems wrong to say of the Materialist Ghost World that it is a world in which non-physical properties are instantiated, there must be some flaw in the argument.

I initially conceived this post as a challenge to Chalmers, but now that I've arrived at the end, I've come to think it fails as a challenge. Here's why: Our Materialist Ghost World philosopher must, it seems, either conceive of ghosts ectoplasmically or conceive of them functionally (in terms of their causes and effects). If the first, it's false to say that he knows that ghosts exist in his world. If the second, it's false to say that there is a physically identical possible world that doesn't contain ghosts. It's not clear that Chalmers's argument for dualism fails in the same way, since it's not clear that he has to choose between an ectoplasmic and a functional conception of consciousness.

Next week I'll try another crack at Chalmers -- without the ghosts!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Kant on Rationalization

Will moral philosophers behave better than non-philosophers? Kant seems to imply as much. From the Groundwork (1785/2002, Ch. 1):

A wonderful thing about innocence -- but also something very bad -- is that it cannot defend itself very well and is easily led astray. For this reason even wisdom -- which otherwise is more a matter of acting than knowing -- also needs science [i.e., Wissenschaft: academic learning], not in order to learn from it, but in order to gain access and durability for what it prescribes. Human beings feel within themselves a powerful counterweight opposed to all the commandments of duty... the counterweight of needs and inclinations.... From this there arises a natural dialectic -- that is, a tendency to quibble with these strict laws of duty, to cast doubt on their validity or at least on their purity and strictness, and, if possible, to make them conform better to our wishes and inclinations....

In this way, common human reason is driven... to take a step into the field of practical philosophy. There it seeks instruction and precise direction as to the source of its own principle and about the correct function of this principle in contrast with maxims based on need and inclination. It ventures into philosophy so as to escape from the perplexity caused by conflicting claims and so as to avoid the risk of losing all genuine moral principles through the obscurity into which it easily falls.
Generally speaking, Kant interpretation is not for the faint-hearted, but this passage seems straightforward enough, even lucid: Without philosophy, our moral thinking is apt to be tangled up with self-serving impulses. We're apt to be led astray, illegitimately justifying just what it is that we desire. Philosophical reason, because it sees more accurately the true principles of morality, tends to counter such self-serving rationalizations.

From this it seems to follow that the more we beef up the philosophical end of the "dialectic" -- that is, the more we reflect on moral principles -- the more steadily we will see the moral right and the less will selfish desires entangle our understanding. This is the "science" that ordinary wisdom needs to "gain access and durability for what it prescribes".

As I see it, the issue is empirical. Does training in philosophical ethics help insulate one from ethical confusion due to self-serving impulses? Do ethicists engage in less rationalization? Does some principle, some unblinking knowledge of the right shine through?

Or, instead, does ethics tend to give one additional resources for rationalization? The ethicist may see more easily than others through the crudest, stupidest rationalizations -- but might this gain may be offset, or even more than offset, by a talent for subtle, sophisticated rationalizations...?

Friday, November 09, 2007

What Is "Experimental Philosophy"?

Appeals to intuition have been central to analytic philosophy since at least the 1970s. Epistemologists rely on our intuitive judgments about whether someone looking at a real barn in (unbeknownst to her) Fake Barn Country knows that it's a barn she's seeing. Ethicists rely on our intuitive judgments about whether it's wrong to push someone in front of a runaway streetcar, killing him in order to save five others. Philosophers of mind rely on our intuitions about whether a cleverly enough designed machine would be conscious.

Several years ago, a number of young philosophers decided they were fed up with philosophers' armchair claims about "our" intuitions (especially when those claims contradicted each other). Such claims are empirically testable, they said, so let's test them! Hence "experimental philosophy" as a movement was born.

Experimental philosophy, so conceived, is a coherent and interesting movement -- even if it's debatable exactly how much polls of undergraduates about philosophical puzzles really tell us about deep philosophical questions.

But then the question arises: Some philosophers have done experiments that aren't a matter of polling intuitions. Should they, too, be called "experimental philosophers"? It turns out there aren't many such philosophers, but I happen to be one (e.g., this and this and this and this and this).

The consensus seems to be that "experimental philosophy" should be construed broadly to include people like me -- to include, basically, any philosopher who does experiments with an eye to philosophical issues. I'm honored to join the party (and the society and the blog and everything else!), but I'm concerned about this characterization of experimental philosophy. What if a psychologist runs an experiment with an eye to philosophical issues (as many have done)?

For example, I've given people beepers and asked about their stream of consciousness, with an eye to issues about the basic structure and epistemology of our experience (critiquing Descartes and James and Dennett and Siewert and many other philosophers). A psychologist could have done exactly the same thing, though -- and many have done similar things. If we count all such psychologists as experimental philosophers, then the movement is too big and broad to be a coherent entity. On the other hand, if we count me but not those psychologists, then it's hard to see how "experimental philosophy" could be a subdiscipline or movement defined by a set of research questions and methods. Instead, it would have to be some sort of sociologically defined movement in which departmental affiliation plays a key role. But is that what we want?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

My First Book Is Out!

I'm hoping that the book rises above its current sales rank of #5,939,601! Barnes & Noble seems to be offering a 20% discount on it ($27.20 + free delivery). [Update, Nov. 13: Amazon now seems to be offering it for $26.66 + free delivery.]

Russ Hurlburt and I gave a subject a random beeper while she went about her normal day. When the beep sounded, she was to reflect on her "last undisturbed moment of inner experience immediately before the beep". Then we interviewed her about her sampled experiences. We did this for six days. At the core of the book are edited transcripts of the interviews, supplemented with sideboxes where we connect with existing and historical literature in philosophy and psychology. Russ and I have written separate introductory and concluding chapters -- he from the perspective of a proponent of this method for learning about consciousness, I as a skeptic.

Here are three unique things about the book:

(1.) It explores in unprecedented detail randomly sampled moments of an ordinary subject's stream of experience.

(2.) Rather than being a debate between opposing partisans regarding the accuracy of subjective reports about experience, it is a collaboration between opposing partisans, where we really try to get each other's views straight and find common ground, over many conversational turns.

(3.) It takes the question of the accuracy of introspective reports about experience, and the conditions of accuracy and failure, as seriously as has ever been done -- not just regarding beeper methodologies, but (in the extended opening and concluding chapters) regarding introspective reports about consciousness in general.

Russ and I have tried to write so the book would be accessible to non-specialists. I suspect parts of it will be drier than ideal for a broad audience, but if you enjoy the consciousness posts on this blog, I think -- or at least I hope! -- that you'll enjoy the book.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Moral Character of Kantians

In response to my recently posted essay on philosophers' generally mediocre opinion of the moral behavior of ethicists. Brian Leiter writes:

More useful would be to know about the differences between Kantians, utilitarians, and virtue ethicists. Based on my utterly non-scientific, anecdotal method, my conclusion is that you're safest with utilitarians and virtue theorists, and in mortal danger around Kantians (it's that combination of dogmatic rectitude and lack of judgment, I guess--or to quote Geuss again, "The Kantian philosophy is no more than at best a half-secularized version of...a theocratic ethics with 'Reason' in the place of God" [Outside Ethics, p. 20]).

Now I myself have no strong opinion about this question. I know too few ethicists who fall neatly into these categories, and their character seems to me too diverse. My sample size is too small, given the variance! However, I have noticed that everyone I've spoken to so far who thinks there are differences in ethical character between Kantians, utilitarians, and virtue ethicists thinks the Kantians are the worst of the lot. I'd be interested to hear readers' thoughts about this.

I note -- though by itself it shows little -- that utilitarian and virtue ethics books are as likely to be missing from academic libraries as Kantian books, maybe even more likely to be missing: See here.

Although Leiter seems to speak tongue-in-cheek at the end of his post when he calls this a "weighty matter", I myself think there is no matter in ethics weightier than the question of what sorts of moral reflection are prone to encourage or suppress actual moral behavior.

Friday, November 02, 2007

New Draft Essay: The Moral Behavior of Ethicists: Peer Opinion (with Joshua Rust)

is here. Josh and I went to a meeting of the American Philosophical Association last spring and distributed questionnaires asking philosophers their opinion about the moral behavior of ethicists compared to non-ethicist philosophers and compared to non-academics of similar social background. The summary result (announced previously here) is this: The majority opinion among philosophers is that ethicists do not behave better. Ethicists themselves were about evenly divided between saying that ethicists behave better and saying they behave the same. Non-ethicists were about evenly divided between saying that ethicists behave better, the same, and worse.

In conversation, I've found that most philosophers seem untroubled by the view that ethicists are not better behaved than non-ethicists. But I think that if this is true it should be troubling -- both normatively and empirically!

Normatively, because it seems that philosophical reflection about ethical matters should have an impact on one's actual morally behavior. And empirically because it seems that people who devote their careers to ethics should at least be more inclined than average to think that morality is important (and thus worth acting on) and should find violations of their favorite principles more salient than do non-ethicists.

Comments on the essay gratefully welcomed! Email me.