Monday, March 29, 2010

Introspection, What?

Never have I worked so long and hard on a paper and been as little satisfied with the result. I have various theories why.

Brief abstract:

I argue for two theses: First, introspection is a species of attention to conscious experience, one that aims to exhibit what I call relatively direct sensitivity to the experience. Second, introspection is not the operation of a single, dedicated mechanism or family of dedicated mechanisms (such as self-scanning or self-monitoring devices); rather, in introspecting we opportunistically deploy a variety of cognitive systems and processes.
Here it is, in draft. Maybe you can help.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

On Being Good at Seeming Smart

Once upon a time, there was a graduate student at UC Riverside whom I will call Student X. (If you are associated with UCR and think you can guess who Student X is, I think you will probably guess wrong.) There seemed to be a general sense among the faculty that Student X was particularly promising. For example, after a colloquium at which the student had asked a question, one faculty member expressed to me how impressive the student was. I was struck by that remark because I had thought the student's question had actually been pretty poor. But it occurred to me that the question had seemed, superficially, to be smart. That is, if you didn't think too much about the content but rather just about the tone and delivery, you probably would get a strong impression of smartness. In fact, my overall view of this student was that he was about average -- neither particularly good nor particularly bad -- but that he was a master of seeming smart: He had the confidence, the delivery, the style, all the paraphernalia of smartness, without an especially large dose of the actual thing.

Since then, I have been collecting anecdotal data on seeming smart. One thing I've noticed is what sort of person tends spontaneously to be described, in my presence, as "seeming smart". A very striking pattern emerges: In every case I have noted the smart-seeming person has been a young white male. Now my sample size is small and philosophy is about 75% white male anyway, so I want to be cautious in this inference. Women and minorities must sometimes "seem smart". And older people maybe have already proven or failed to prove their brilliance so that remarks about their apparent intelligence aren't as natural. (Maybe also it is less our place to evaluate them.) But still I would guess that there is something real behind that pattern, to wit:

Seeming smart is probably to a large extent about activating people's associations with intelligence. This is probably especially true when one is overhearing a comment about a complex subject that isn't exactly in one's expertise, so that the quality of the comment is hard to evaluate. And what do people associate with intelligence? Some things that are good: Poise, confidence (but not defensiveness), giving a moderate amount of detail but not too much, providing some frame and jargon, etc. But also, unfortunately, I suspect: whiteness, maleness, a certain physical bearing, a certain dialect (one American type, one British type), certain patterns of prosody -- all of which favor, I suspect, upper- to upper-middle class white men. If you look and sound like Lisa Kudrow and end every sentence with a rising intonation, it is going to be much harder to seem smart than if you look and sound like Matt Damon. But Lisa might actually be the smarter one. (I don't think there is a single trait of smartness, or even of being a smart philosopher, but let's bracket that for now.)

Here's the twist: Student X actually ended up doing very well in the program and writing an excellent dissertation. I suspect that's not because he started out with better tools but rather because he rose to his teachers' expectations. There is ample evidence in educational psychology that student performance tends to shift toward teacher expectations. Tell girls that girls on average do less well on math tests than do boys and the girls will in fact do less well. Tell a teacher that a particular student will do well and the change in the teacher's expectations will cause that student to actually do better (the Pygmalion effect). Life's not fair.

I hereby resolve to view skeptically all judgments of "seeming smart".

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Boxology of Self-Knowledge

It’s often helpful for cognitive scientists modeling psychological processes to describe the mind’s functional architecture using boxes and arrows, with the boxes indicating various functionally discrete processes or systems and the arrows indicating the causal or functional relationships among those discrete processes or systems. Figure 1 below expresses my view of self-knowledge, using the “boxology” of cognitive science. The model in that figure may be contrasted, for example, with the boxological models of self-knowledge on pages 162 and 165 of Nichols and Stich 2003, which feature tidy arrows in and out of the Belief Box, through a Monitoring Mechanism, a Percept-to-Belief Mediator, and a Theory of Mind Information store. You might also notice a resemblance between my model in Figure 1 and recent boxological models of visual processing, if the latter are squinted at.

Figure 1: The boxology of self-knowledge

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Knowing What You Don’t Believe

(by Blake Myers-Schulz and Eric Schwitzgebel)

Virtually every introduction to epistemology (online examples include the Stanford Encyclopedia and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) highlights the debate about what is commonly called the “JTB” theory of knowledge – the view according to which for some subject S to know some proposition P, it is necessary and sufficient that

(1.) P is true.
(2.) S believes that P is true.
(3.) S is justified in believing that P is true.

According to the JTB theory, knowledge is Justified True Belief. Perhaps the most-discussed issue in the last 40 years of epistemology is whether the JTB theory is true. Debate generally centers on whether there is a way of interpreting or revising the third (justification) condition or adding a fourth condition to avoid apparent counterexamples of various sorts (e.g., Gettier examples). Nearly all contemporary analytic philosophers endorse the truth of conditions (1) and (2): You can’t know a proposition that isn’t true, and you can’t know a proposition that you don’t believe. Few assumptions are more central to contemporary epistemology.

However, we – Blake and Eric – don’t find it intuitive that (2) is true. We think there are intuitively appealing cases in which someone can know that something is true without believing (or, per Eric, determinately believing) that it is true. We have four examples:

(A.) The unconfident examinee (from Colin Radford 1966, one of the very few deniers of (2)): Kate is asked on an exam to enter the date of Queen Elizabeth’s death. She feels like she is guessing, but enters the date correctly. Does Kate know/believe that Elizabeth died in 1603?

(B.) The absent-minded driver (from Schwitzgebel in draft): Ben reads an email telling him that a bridge he usually takes to work will be closed for repairs. He drives away from the house planning to take an alternate route but absent-mindedly misses the turn and continues toward the bridge on the old route. Does Ben know/believe that the bridge is closed?

(C.) The implicit racist (also from Schwitzgebel in draft): Juliet is implicitly biased against black people, tending to assume of individual black people that they are not intelligent. However, she vehemently endorses the (true and justified, let’s assume) claim that all the races are of equal intelligence. Does Juliet know/believe that all the races are intellectually equal?

(D.) The freaked-out movie-watcher: Jamie sees a horror movie in which vicious aliens come out of water faucets and attack people, and she is highly disturbed by it, though she acknowledges that it is not real. Immediately after the movie, when her friend goes to get water from the faucet, Jamie spontaneously shouts “Don’t do it!” Does Jamie know/believe that only water will come from the faucet?

In each case, we think, it is much more intuitive to ascribe knowledge than belief.

So, naturally (being experimental philosophers!), we checked with the folk. We used fleshed-out versions of the scenarios above (available here). Some subjects were asked whether the protagonist knew the proposition in question. Other subjects were asked whether the protagonist believed the proposition in question.

The results came in as predicted. Across the four scenarios, 75% of respondents (90/120, 1-prop z vs. 50%, p < .001) said that the protagonist knew, while only 35% said the protagonist believed (42/120; 1-prop z vs. 50%, p = .001). Considering each scenario individually, in each case a substantial majority said the protagonist knew and in no scenario did a majority say the protagonist believed. (A separate group of subjects were asked “Did Kate think that Queen Elizabeth died in 1603?” [and analogously for other scenarios]. The “think” results were very close to the “believe” results in all scenarios except for the unconfident examinee where they were closer to the “know” results.)

We think epistemologists should no longer take it for granted that condition (2) of the JTB account of knowledge is intuitively obvious.

[Cross-posted at the Experimental Philosophy Blog.]

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Conference: Experimental Philosophy and the Ethics of Autonomy

... in Miami, this Friday and Saturday, organized by past guest blogger Brad Cokelet. Schedule of speakers:

Friday, March 12 (U of Miami, Learning Center, Room 192):

10:30-12:00, Dan Haybron, "Adventures in Assisted Living"
1:35-3:05, Eric Schwitzgebel, "The Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors"
3:15-4:45, Alfred Mele, "Autonomy and Neuroscience"

Saturday, March 13 (U of Miami, Memorial Bldg, Room 192):

10:30-12:00, Valerie Tiberius, "In Defense of Reflection"
1:30-3:00, Blaine Flowers, "Evolution, Sociality, and Eudaimonia: An Aristotelian Integration of Human Nature and Goods"
3:20-5:25, round table discussion

It should be good fun! If you're in south Florida, you might consider checking it out. For further info, contact Brad Cokelet at University of Miami.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Kant on Killing Bastards, on Masturbation, on Wives and Servants, on Organ Donation, Homosexuality, and Tyrants

I'm going to be dissin' on Kant. If you loathe that sort of thing, maybe you'll enjoy reviewing the results of last year's poll by Brian Leiter, according to which Kant is the third most important philosopher of all time -- which should remind you that Kant's reputation is plenty safe from the likes of me.

According to Kant in The Metaphysics of Morals (not to be confused with his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals):

(1.) Wives, servants, and children are possessed in a way akin to our possession of objects. If they flee, they must be returned to the owner if he demands them, without regard for the cause that led them to flee. (See esp. pages 278, 282-284 [original pagination], Gregor trans.) Kant does acknowledge that the owner is not permitted to treat these people as mere objects to "use up", but this appears to have no bearing on the owner's right to demand their return. Evidently, if such an owned person flees to us from an abusive master, we may admonish the master for behaving badly while we return what is rightly his.

(2.) Homosexuality is an "unmentionable vice" so wrong that "there are no limitations whatsoever that can save [it] from being repudiated completely" (p. 277).

(3.) Masturbation is in some ways a worse vice than the horror of murdering oneself, and "debases [the masturbator] below the beasts". Kant writes:

But it is not so easy to produce a rational proof that unnatural, and even merely unpurposive, use of one's sexual attribute is inadmissible as being a violation of duty to oneself (and indeed, as far as its unnatural use is concerned, a violation in the highest degree). The ground of proof is, indeed, that by it a man surrenders his personality (throwing it away), since he uses himself as a means to satisfy an animal impulse. But this does not explain the high degree of violation of the humanity in one's own person by such a vice in its unnaturalness, which seems in terms of its form (the disposition it involves) to exceed even murdering oneself. It consists, then, in this: That a man who defiantly casts off life as a burden is at least not making a feeble surrender to animal impulse in throwing himself away (p. 425).
(If masturbation caused a permanent reduction to sub-human levels of intelligence, this argument might make some sense, but as far as I'm aware, that consequence is rare.)

(4.) On killing bastards:
A child that comes into the world apart from marriage is born outside the law (for the law is marriage) and therefore outside the protection of the law. It has, as it were, stolen into the commonwealth (like contraband merchandise), so that the commonwealth can ignore its existence (since it rightly should not have come to exist in this way), and can therefore also ignore its annihilation (p. 336).
(5.) On organ donation:
To deprive oneself of an integral part or organ (to maim oneself) -- for example, to give away or sell a tooth to be transplanted into another's mouth... are ways of partially murdering oneself... cutting one's hair in order to sell it is not altogether free from blame.
(6.) Servants and women "lack civil personality and their existence is, as it were, only inherence" and thus should not be permitted to vote or take an active role in the affairs of state (p. 314-315).

(7.) Under no circumstances is it right to resist the legislative head of state or to rebel on the pretext that the ruler has abused his authority (p. 319-320). Of course, the ruler is supposed to treat people well -- but (as with wives and servants under abusive masters) there appears to be no legitimate means of escape if he does not.

These views are all, I hope you will agree, odious -- even if there are some good things too in The Metaphysics of Morals (e.g., Kant condemns slavery on p. 329 -- although that was hardly a radical position for a European at the time). But why bring out these aspects of Kant? Shouldn't we expect him to be a creature of his time, an imperfect discoverer of moral truths, someone prone to lapses as are we all?

I mention these aspects of Kant to draw two lessons:

First, from our cultural distance, it is evident that Kant's arguments against masturbation, for the return of wives to abusive husbands, etc., are gobbledy-gook. This should make us suspicious that there might be other parts of Kant, too, that are gobbledy-gook, for example, the stuff that transparently reads like gobbledy-gook, such as the transcendental deduction, and such as his claims that his various obviously non-equivalent formulations of the fundamental principle of morality are in fact "so many formulations of precisely the same law" (Groundwork, 4:436, Zweig trans.). I read Kant as a master at promising philosophers what they want and then effusing a haze of words with glimmers enough of hope that readers can convince themselves that there is something profound underneath.

Second, Kant's philosophical moral reasoning appears mainly to have confirmed his prejudices and the ideas inherited from his culture. We should be nervous about expecting more from the philosophical moral reasoning of people less philosophically capable than Kant.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Get Beeped and Argue about it with Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel

at the biennial Toward a Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson.

We're running a four-hour pre-conference workshop from 9 am to 1 pm on April 12. Official description:

Psychologist Russell Hurlburt is known for his innovative methods of exploring inner experience. Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel is known for his skepticism about such methods. Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel will team up (perhaps “square off” would be a better term) and interview participants in the workshop audience about the details of their inner experience. That interview will follow Hurlburt’s Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES) method: While Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel give presentations outlining their views, a random timer will be set for a beep to sound. When the beep sounds, participants are to reflect on their last undisturbed moment of inner experience just before the beep. A random member of the audience will then be selected to describe her experience, and Hurlburt, Schwitzgebel, and the tutorial attendees will question her about the beep, using a variation of what Hurlburt calls an “expositional interview”. During these interviews, we (all tutorial participants) will conduct “sidebar” discussions about: what are the characteristics of good and bad questions; how believable are the subjects’ reports; to what extent do we “lead the witness”; etc.
Russ and I have done this several times before, and it's always a kick. I expect a small group (five to ten), so it should be a good opportunity for multi-directional interaction. Plus, it would be cool to meet you.

Register here.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Fooling Oneself: Comments on Moeller's The Moral Fool

Hans-Georg Moeller's recent book, The Moral Fool, just earned a harsh review from Michael Slater at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. And indeed, the book is bound to irritate the typical hard-working academic philosopher. The arguments are loose. Moeller's position is stated unclearly and it seems to shift around. Hardly any of the relevant literature is cited. Seen in one way, pretty much every criticism in Slater's review is on the mark. This is not a good piece of academic scholarship.

Thus, I recommend reading this book not as a piece of academic scholarship. Read it instead as an evocative diatribe, which is probably closer to Moeller's intention in writing it. Revel in its colorful prose, its iconoclasm, its anti-authoritarianism. Moeller's guiding idea is that morality, or moral discourse, or moral thinking -- try not to distinguish too precisely among these or you'll start to get frustrated -- makes the world a worse place. It is mostly a sham, a cover-up, a failure, an excuse for violence against people, post-hoc self-serving rationalization or rationalization of one's cultural prejudices. That's a thought, or a cluster of thoughts, or a broad attitude, worth some consideration -- worth more consideration than ethicists generally give it. Moeller plays around with those ideas and presents various thoughts that resonate in various ways with them.

My reactions to the book, using the approach I just described, are here. I'll be presenting these thoughts in an Author-Meets-Critics session on the book at the end of the month at the Pacific APA meeting in San Francisco.

Section ii of my comments may have some interest even to people unfamiliar with Moeller's book. It summarizes my current thinking about whether explicit moral reflection is, on average, an instrumentally good thing. The issue is, I fear, not as clear cut as one might hope.