Friday, September 26, 2008

Is Everything that Breaks Breakable?

Well, see, I was working up this neat little post on the subjective location of visual imagery. Do some people experience visual imagery as located inside their heads, while others experience it as located in front of their foreheads and still others experience it as in no location at all? But it turns out I've already written that post. Maybe this time I'd have found a bit more to say, but I'm afraid I stole my own thunder....

Still, something light and quick would be nice before I head over to Talking Points Memo and National Review to resolve my low blood-pressure problem. So how about the following question: Is everything that breaks breakable?

Strangely, this question has been bothering me recently. (See, I really am an analytic philosopher after all!) Now, if "breakable" just means, "under some conditions it would break" then everything that breaks is breakable. But then everything solid is breakable (and maybe some things that aren't solid, too, such as machines made entirely of liquid). That seems to rob the word of its use. So maybe "breakable" means something weaker, like "under less-than-highly-unusual conditions it would break". Of course, then when those highly unusual conditions occur (someone takes a chainsaw to my garbage cans, an earthquake rends the giant granite rock) something that wasn't breakable broke. Hm!

Why do I care? Well, other than the fact that I haven't entirely shucked my inner nerdy metaphysician, the following arguably parallel case lies near my interests: If believing that P is being disposed to judge that P, does an actual occurrence of judging P imply belief that P? (Readers who've visited recently will note the connection between this question and Tuesday's post.)

If this seems to be just a matter of deciding how to use words, well that's what all metaphysics is (I contentiously aver), so this fits right in!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In-Between Believing: The Implicit Racist

Many Caucasians in academia sincerely profess that all races are of equal intelligence. Juliet, let's suppose, is one such person, a Jewish-American philosophy professor. She has, perhaps, studied the matter more than most: She has criticially examined the literature on racial differences in intelligence, and she finds the case for racial equality compelling. She is prepared to argue coherently, authentically, and vehemently for equality of intelligence, and she has argued the point repeatedly in the past. Her egalitarianism in this matter coheres with her overarching "liberal" stance, according to which the sexes too possess equal intelligence, and racial and sexual discrimination are odious.

And yet -- I'm sure you see this coming -- Juliet is systematically racist in her spontaneous reactions, judgments, and unguarded behavior. When she gazes out on class the first day of each term, she can't help but think that some students look brighter than others -- and to her, the black students never look bright. When a black student makes an insightful comment or submits an excellent essay, she feels more surprise than she would were a white or Asian student to do so, even though her black students make insightful comments and submit excellent essays at the same rate as the others; and, worse, her bias affects her grading and the way she guides class discussion. When Juliet is on the hiring committee for a new office manager, it won't seem to her that the black applicants are the most intellectually capable, even if they are; or if she does become convinced, it will have taken more evidence than if the applicant had been white. When she converses with a janitor or cashier, she expects less wit if the person is black. Juliet may be perfectly aware of these facts about herself; she may aspire to reform; she may not be self-deceived in any way.

So here's the question: Does Juliet believe that the races are intellectually equal? Considering similar cases, Aaron Zimmerman and Tamar Gendler have said yes: Our beliefs are what in us is responsive to evidence, what is under rational control; and for Juliet, that's her egalitarian avowals. Her other responses are merely habitual or uncontrolled responses. But this seems to me to draw too sharp a line between the rational and the irrational or merely habitual. Our habits and gut responses are inextricably intertwined with our reason, perhaps often themselves a form of reasoning. Furthermore, imagine two black students in Juliet's class. One says to the other, in full knowledge of Juliet's sincere statements about equality, "and yet, she doesn't really believe that the black people are as smart as white people". Is that student so far wrong? Aren't our beliefs as much about how we live as about what we say?

Does Juliet have contradictory beliefs on the issue (as Brie Gertler seems to suggest about a similar case)? Does she believe both that the races are intellectually equal and that they're not? It's hard for me to know what to make of such an attribution. We might say that part of her believes one thing and part believes another, but there are serious problems with taking such a division literally. (Like: How do the different parts communicate? How much duplication is there in the attitudes held by the different parts and in the neural systems underlying those attitudes?)

Should we simply say that Juliet does not believe that the races are intellectually equal? That doesn't seem to do justice to her sincerity in arguing otherwise.

I recommend we treat this as an "in-between" case of believing. It's not quite right to say that Juliet believes that the races are intellectually equal; but neither is it quite right to deny her that belief. Her dispositions are splintered -- she has, we might say, a splintered mind -- and our attribution must be nuanced. Just as it's not quite right either to say that someone is or is not courageous simpliciter if he's courageous on Wednesdays and not on Tuesdays, it's not quite right to simply ascribe or deny belief when someone's actions and reactions are divided as Juliet's are.

Zimmerman tells me I'm whimsically throwing overboard classical two-valued logic -- the view, standard in logic, that all meaningful propositions are either true or false -- but I say if two-valued logic cannot handle vague cases (and I think it can't, not really), so much the worse for two-valued logic!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Six Ways to Know Your Mind

Philosophers often provide accounts of self-knowledge as though we knew our own minds either entirely or predominantly in just one way (Jesse Prinz is a good exception to the rule, though). But let me count the ways (saving the fun ones for the end).

(1.) Self-observation. Here's an old joke: Q.: How do behaviorists greet each other? A.: "You're fine. How am I?" Writers in the behaviorist tradition stressed the importance of observing your behavior to assess your own mental condition. Gilbert Ryle reportedly said, how do I know what I think until I hear what I have to say? Or: I find myself asking the server for the apple pie; I conclude that I must prefer the apple to the cherry. Every philosopher thinks we can do this, of course. Psychologists such as Bem and Nisbett have stressed (counterintuitively) the centrality of this mode of self-knowledge. I think they're right that it's too easily underrated. [Update: Let me fold all "third-person" methods, such as being told about yourself by someone else or applying a textbook theory, into this category, even though, as Pete Mandik points out in the comments, they're not strictly "self-observation".]

(2.) Introspection. We cast our mental eye inward, as it were, and discern our mental goings-on. This "inner eye" metaphor has been much maligned, and obviously there are differences between external perception and introspection -- but at least for some mental states (I think, especially, conscious states), some quasi-sensory introspective mechanism plausibly plays a role, if we treat the analogy to perception with a light touch: We detect in ourselves, relatively directly and non-inferentially, some pre-existing mental state.

(3.) Self-expression. Wittgenstein suggested that we might learn to say "I'm in pain!" as a replacement for crying -- and just as we don't need to do any introspection or behavioral observation to wince or cry when we burn ourselves in the kitchen, so also we might ejaculate "that hurts!" without any prior introspection or behavioral observation. Or a young child might demand: "I want ice cream!" She's not introspecting first, presumably, and detecting a pre-existing desire for ice cream. Nor is she watching her behavior. Yet she is right: She does want ice cream.

(4.) Self-fulfillment. The thought that I am thinking is necessarily true whenever it occurs. So is the thought that I am thinking of a pink elephant, assuming that attributing myself that thought is enough for me to qualify as thinking of a pink elephant. Again, no detection or observation required. I can make this stuff up on the fly and still be right about it. For some reason, Descartes thought this was important. My own view is that it's about as important as the fact that whenever you say, in semaphore, that you are holding two flags, you're right. (Well, okay, let me moderate that a little: For some mental states it may be an interesting fact that the self-ascription implies the existence of the state -- for example if it's not possible to believe that you believe that P without also thereby at least half-believing that P.)

(5.) Simple derivation. I adopt the following inference rule: If P is true, conclude that I believe that P. This rule works surprisingly well (as Alex Byrne has pointed out). Dodgier but still useable as a rule of thumb: From X would be good, conclude that I want X all else being equal.

(6.) Self-shaping. A romantic novice is out on his first date. He blurts out, simply because it sounds good, "I'm the type of guy who buys women flowers". At the same time, perhaps just as he is finishing up that claim, he successfully resolves from then on to be the kind of guy who buys women flowers. No detection, no observation, no self-expression of a previously existing state, no simple self-fulfillment, no derivational rule. His self-ascription is true because he makes it true as he says it. Victoria McGeer and Richard Moran have developed versions of this view, but neither quite as starkly as this example suggests. But I suspect that much of what we say about ourselves (both publicly and in private) is bluster that we find ourselves committed to living up to. This self-shaping model works pretty well for imagery reports too.

Six ways. That's it. Am I missing any? (By the way, so-called "transparency" views, the object of much recent philosophical attention, can be wedded to any combination of 3-6, and are not by themselves positive accounts of self-knowledge.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

End of (Philosophical) Innocence

Philosophy is built upon intuitions. (Maybe all knowledge is, at root.) Arguments must start somewhere, with something that seems obvious, with something we're willing to take for granted. In the 20th century, philosophers became methodologically explicit about this. Ethicists explicitly appeal to the intuition that it's not right to secretly kill and dissect one healthy person in order to save five needing organ transplants. Metaphysicians appeal to the intuition that if your molecules were scanned and taken apart and that information used to create a person elsewhere who was molecule-for-molecule identical to you, that person would be you. Philosophical debate often consists of noting the apparent clash between one set of intuitions and a theory grounded in a different set of intuitions. For example, if you won't dissect the one to save the five, does that imply that if a runaway trolley is heading toward five immobilized people, you shouldn't divert it to a side-track containing only one? There are ways to say no to the one and yes to the other, of course, but only by means of principles that conflict with still other intuitions... and we're off into the sort of save-the-intuitions game that analytic philosophers (and I too) enjoy!

Until recently, such intuition-saving disputes have been conducted without any careful empirical reflection on the source and trustworthiness of those intuitions. We have the sense that it would be wrong to dissect the one or that the recreated individual would be you, but where does that intuition come from? Do such intuitions somehow track a set of facts, independent of the individual philosopher's mind, about what is really right, or about what personal identity really consists in? A story needs to be told.

That story will necessarily be an empirical story, a story about the psychology of intuition -- and maybe, too, the sociology and anthropology and history and linguistics of intuition. For example, suppose it turns out that only highly educated English speakers share some particular intuition that is widely cited in analytic philosophy. That should cast some doubt -- doubt that can perhaps be overcome with a further story -- about the merit of that intuition. Or suppose that a certain intuition was to be found only among people for whom having that intuition would excuse them from serious moral culpability for actions performed earlier in their lives. That should should cast defeasible doubt on the intuition.

With the maturing of empirical sciences that can cast light on the sources of our intuitions, we philosophers can no longer justifiably ignore such genetic considerations in evaluating our arguments. We can no longer innocently take our intuitions about philosophical cases as simply given. We must recognize that psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and linguistics can cast important light on the merits and especially demerits of particular philosophical arguments.

Of course most philosophers know virtually nothing about psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and linguistics; and most psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and linguists are insufficiently enmeshed in philosophical debates to bring their resources to bear. A huge cross-disciplinary terrain remains almost unspoiled. To me, nothing could be more exciting! (Well, nothing in academia.)

A few have made starts: Paul Bloom, Tony Jack, and Philip Robbins have been discussing the roots of the intuition that mind and body are distinct. Fiery Cushman, Marc Hauser, Joshua Greene, and John Mikhail have been discussing the psychological roots of the moral intuitions in runaway trolley type cases. Reading "intuition" widely to include any views that people find attractive without compelling argument, Shaun Nichols has explored the roots of the intuition that there is no incompatibility between free will and causal determinism. I have examined the culturally-local metaphors behind the sense philosophical phenomenologists and others have that coins look elliptical when seen from an angle. These are barely beginnings.

Monday, September 08, 2008

What Is It Like Not to Notice a Typo?

Most of us (certainly I!) can a dozen times read something we've written without noticing a typo. What, I wonder, is the phenomenology of that?

Suppose I've written a sentence with "that" where "than" should be. Maybe I've been reading Nichols on disgust, and I write "Drinking five glasses of saliva is worse that drinking one." What is it like for me to see that sentence as I read it? Do I see it at all (Hurlburt thinks maybe not)? Supposing I do visually experience the sentence, do I see the "that" as a "than", so that my visual experience, in the appropriate place, is actually "n"-ish rather than "t"-ish? Or is my visual experience really "t"-ish in that spot, though I fail to notice the error? Or is my visual experience somehow indefinite between "n" and "t" (and maybe some other shapes), even though I may be foveating (looking directly) on the "t"?

Suppose I'm also saying the sentence to myself in inner speech as I read it. Parallel questions arise. Do I utter to myself "than", "that", or some more indefinite thing?

Now my own hunch is that I see the "t" (or maybe something more indefinite) but utter the "n". At least it's hard to imagine that I would utter the "that" aloud without noticing the typo. But this is only a hunch, and I'm not a great believer in introspective hunches. Maybe in some future neuroscience, if we can narrow down more precisely the correlations between brain states and conscious experience, we could scan the visual system for a "t"-ish or "n"-ish representation in the right part of the visual system -- but that's a long way off, if ever we'll get there. Could more careful introspection get us the right answer? That's tricky, too -- not noticing something is necessarily an elusive sort of experience. It's hard to believe, though, that something as mundane and nearby as this would be beyond our ken....

Friday, September 05, 2008


A refreshingly harsh and unsympathetic criticism of my recently published paper, "The Unreliability of Naive Introspection" has been posted over at Brain Pains. It's good once in a while (not too often!) to hear frank opinions from people who think you're full of crap. (You all here at The Splintered Mind are so polite and restrained in your comments -- not that I'm complaining!) I've responded at some length. My hope is that the comments are completely off target, but I confess I'm a biased judge!

Josh Rust and I have also just completed a draft of a new essay, "Do Ethicists and Political Philosophers Vote More Often Than Other Professors?". Regular readers of The Splintered Mind will recognize the theme from these earlier posts.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Thoughts on Conjugal Love

In 2003, two friends asked me to contribute something to their wedding ceremony. Since I’m a philosophy professor, I thought I would take the occasion to reflect a bit on the nature of conjugal love, the distinctive kind of love between a husband and wife. I never pursued these thoughts or sought publication for them, since the philosophy of love is not a research specialty of mine, but recently ceramic artist Jun Kaneko asked to publish them in a forthcoming anthology on Beethoven's Fidelio. Objections and corrections appreciated!

The common view that love is a feeling is, I think, quite misguided. Feelings come and go, while love is steady. Feelings are “passions” in the classic sense of ‘passion’ which shares a root with ‘passive’. They strike us largely unbidden. Love, in contrast, is something actively built. The passions suffered by teenagers and writers of romantic lyrics, felt so painfully, and often so temporarily, are not love – though in some cases they may be a prelude to it.

Rather than a feeling, love is a way of structuring one’s values, goals, and reactions. One characteristic of it is a deep commitment to the good of the other for his or her own sake. (This characterization of love owes quite a bit to Harry Frankfurt.) We all care about the good of other people we meet and know, for their own sake and not just for utilitarian ends, to some extent. Only if the regard is deep, though, only if we so highly value the other’s well-being that we are willing to thoroughly restructure and revise our own goals to accommodate it, and only if this restructuring is so well-rooted that it instantly and automatically informs our reactions to the person and to news that could affect him or her, do we possess real love.

Conjugal love involves all this, certainly. But it is also more than this. In conjugal love, one commits oneself to seeing one’s life always with the other in view. One commits to pursuing one’s major projects, even when alone, always in a kind of implicit conjunction with the other. One’s life becomes a co-authored work.

The love one feels for a young child may in some ways be purer and more unconditional than conjugal love. One expects nothing back from a young child. One needn’t share ideals to enjoy parental love. The child will grow away into his or her own separate life, independent of the parents’ preferences.

Conjugal love, because it involves the collaborative construction of a joint life, can’t be unconditional in that way. If the partners don’t share values and a vision, they can’t steer a mutual course. If one partner develops a separate vision or does not openly and in good faith work with the other toward their joint goals, conjugal love is impossible and is, at best, replaced with some more general type of loving concern.

Nonetheless, to dwell on the conditionality of conjugal love, and to develop a set of contingency plans should it fail, is already to depart from the project of jointly fabricating a life and to begin to develop a set of individual goals and values opposing those of the partner. Conjugal love requires an implacable, automatic commitment to responding to all major life events through the mutual lens of marriage. One cannot embody such a commitment if one harbors persistent thoughts about the contingency of the relationship and serious back-up plans.

There may be an appearance of paradox in the idea that conjugal love requires a lifelong commitment without contingency plans, yet at the same time is conditional in a way parental love is not. But there is no paradox. If one believes that something is permanent, one can make lifelong promises and commitments contingent upon it, because one believes the contingency will never come to pass. This then, is the significance of the marriage ceremony: It is the expression of a mutual unshakeable commitment to build a joint life together, where each partner’s commitment is possible, despite the contingency of conjugal love, because each partner trusts the other’s commitment to be unshakeable.

A deep faith and trust must therefore underlie true conjugal love. That trust is the most sacred and inviolable thing in a marriage, because it is the very foundation of its possibility. Deception and faithlessness destroy conjugal love because, and exactly to the extent that, they undermine the grounds of that trust. For the same reason, honest and open interchange about long-standing goals and attitudes stands at the heart of marriage.

Passion alone can’t ground conjugal trust. Neither can shared entertainments and the pleasure of each other’s company. Both partners must have matured enough that their core values are stable. They must be unselfish enough to lay everything on the table for compromise, apart from those permanent, shared core values. And they must be shorn of the tendency to form secret, individual goals. Only to the degree they approach these ideals are they worthy of the trust that makes conjugal love possible.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Causality, Reference, and the Mind/Brain Identity Theory (by guest blogger Teed Rockwell)

The philosophical distinction between sense and reference, which seems straightforward with a small handful of examples like "Cicero" and "Tully" or "The Morning Star' and "the Evening Star" is what underlies the idea that two domains of discourse can describe exactly the same entity. But too much focus on those examples have made it misleadingly easy to assume that the same individual described under two different descriptions would always have identical causal powers. From this it has been easy to conclude that describing a brain as a group of molecules would take nothing away from its causal powers, and that describing a mind as a brain would take nothing away from its causal powers. When we move away from the paradigm cases of Cicero and Venus, however, this is no longer obvious. Consider the following dialogue:

A: Is it true that Socrates' death was caused by drinking a cup of hemlock?
B: Certainly.
A: Is it true that Xantippe's becoming a widow was also caused by his drinking the hemlock?
B: That is also true.
A: Why were both of these events caused by drinking the hemlock?
B: Because they were the same event, so talking about "both events" is not really correct.
A: Consider a different example: the cup's being empty and Socrates' death were both caused by his drinking the hemlock, yet those are two separate events. That is a very different case from Socrates' death and Xantippe's becoming a widow, is it not?
B: Without a doubt. Socrates' death and Xantippe's becoming a widow are really two different descriptions of the same event, not two different events.
A: Excellent. We must therefore conclude that we could have saved Socrates' life by having him divorce Xantippe.
Here’s one way of describing what’s wrong with this conclusion. Each of these different descriptions presupposes a different causal nexus that makes it happen. Consequently, certain attributes will be genuinely causal under one description of an event, and only epiphenomenal under another description. Epiphenomenal properties are just “along for the ride” and have no causal powers of their own. Under the description "Socrates' death" the fact that Socrates is married to Xantippe is epiphenomenal. Under the description, "Xantippe's becoming a widow", the fact that Socrates is married to Xantippe is causal. Thus under the first description, we can have a causal impact on the event only by saving Socrates' life. Under the second description we can have a causal impact on the event by either saving his life or having him divorce Xantippe.

Physical descriptions and mental descriptions outline different nexa of responsibility, and therefore we can never completely substitute one for the other, even when they both refer to the same events. Physical causes are not the only "real" causes, and mental causes are not dismissible as mere epiphenomena. Under physical descriptions, physical attributes are genuinely causal, and mental attributes are epiphenomenal. But under mental descriptions, physical attributes are epiphenomenal and mental attributes are genuinely causal.

Let us assume that P is a neurological event taking place in a brain. Let us replace P with another physical event Q that takes place in a silicon module newly installed in Jones' brain, and which now performs the exact same functional role as did the neurological event P. Because the silicon event Q is functionally identical to the neurological event P, we still get mental state M resulting from Q just as we got it from P. This means that with respect to M's coming into being, the difference between P and Q is epiphenomenal, because it is only physical, and that physical difference has no causal effect on whether M occurs or not. Similarly, if Socrates had taken the hemlock in the public square, rather than in the prison, he would still have died. In the same way, when we change neurological state P to silicon state Q we still get M, and therefore the physical characteristics that differentiate P from Q are epiphenomenal with respect to the mental processes.