Monday, October 31, 2011

Is the United States Conscious?

I wrote a bit about this issue last May, and it's still really bugging me. Let me try another angle in.

It would be bizarre to suppose that the United States has a stream of conscious experience distinct from the streams of conscious experience of the people who compose it. I hope you'll agree. (By "the United States" here, I mean the large, vague-boundaried group of compatriots who sometimes act in a coordinated manner.) Yet it's unclear by what materialist standard the U.S. lacks consciousness. Nations, it would seem, represent and self-represent. They respond (semi-)intelligently and self-protectively, in a coordinated way, to opportunities and threats. They gather, store, and manipulate information. They show skillful attunement to environmental inputs in warring and spying on each other. Their subparts (people and larger subgroups of people) are massively informationally connected and mutually dependent, including in incredibly fancy self-regulating feedback loops. These are the kinds of capacities and structures that materialists typically regard as the heart of mentality. Nations do all these things via the behavior of their subparts, of course; but on materialist views individual people also do what they do via the behavior of their subparts. A planet-sized alien who squints might see individual Americans as so many buzzing pieces of a diffuse body consuming bananas and automobiles, invading Iraq, exuding waste.

Even if the U.S. still lacks a little something needed for consciousness, it seems we ought at least hypothetically to be able to change that thing, and so generate a stream of experience. We presumably needn't go nearly as far as Ned Block does in his famous "Chinese nation" example -- an example in which the country of China implements the exact functional structure of someone's mind for an hour -- unless we suppose, bizarrely, that consciousness is only possible among beings with almost exactly our psychology at the finest level of functional detail. If we are willing to attribute conscious experience to relatively unsophisticated beings (frogs? fish?), well, it seems that the United States can, and does sometimes, act with as much coordination and intelligence, if on a larger scale.

The most plausible materialistic attempt I have seen to confine consciousness within the skull while respecting the broadly functionalist spirit of most materialism is Andy Clark's and Chris Eliasmith's suggestion that consciousness requires the functional achievements possible through high bandwidth neural synchrony. However, it's hard to see why speed per se should matter. Couldn't conscious intelligence be slow-paced, especially in large entities? And it's hard to see why synchrony should matter either, as long as the functional tasks necessary for intelligent responsiveness are successfully executed.

Alternatively, one might insist that specific details of biological implementation are essential to consciousness in any possible being -- for example, specific states of a unified cortex with axons and dendrites and ion channels and all that -- and that broadly mammal-like or human-like functional sophistication alone won't do. However, it seems bizarrely chauvinistic to suppose that consciousness is only possible in beings with internal physical states very similar to our own, regardless of outwardly measurable behavioral similarity. If aliens come visit us tomorrow and behave in every respect like intelligent, conscious beings, must we check for sodium and calcium channels in their heads before admitting that they have conscious experience? Or is there some specific type of behavior that all conscious animals do but that the United States, perhaps slightly reconfigured, could not do, and that is a necessary condition of consciousness? It's hard to see what that could be. Is the United States simply not an "entity" in the relevant sense? Well, why not? What if we all held hands?

In his classic early statement of functionalism, Hilary Putnam (1965) simply rules out, on no principled grounds, that a collection of conscious organisms could be conscious. He didn't want his theory to result in swarms of bees having collective conscious experience, he says. But why not? Maybe bee swarms are dumber and represent less than do individual bees -- committees collectively act and collectively represent less than do their members as individuals -- but that would seem to be a contingent, empirical question about bees. To rule out swarm consciousness a priori, regardless of swarm behavior and swarm structure, seems mere prejudice against beings of radically different morphology. Shouldn't a well developed materialist view eventually jettison unprincipled folk morphological prejudices? The materialist should probably expect that some entities to which it would seem bizarre to attribute consciousness do in fact have conscious experience. If materialism is true, and if the kinds of broadly functional capacities that most materialists regard as central to consciousness are indeed central, it may be difficult to dodge the conclusion that the United States has is own stream of conscious experience, in addition to the experiences of its individual members.

(Yes, I know this is crazy. That's the point.)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sorry, Cal State Students, No Princeton Grad School for You!

As I remarked several years ago in my series of posts about applying to PhD programs in philosophy, it seems to be extremely difficult to gain admission to an elite PhD program in philosophy if you're not from an elite undergraduate institution. Inspired by a comment on a recent post, I decided to look at this a bit more systematically.

Here's what I did. First, I looked to see which of the top ten Leiter ranked philosophy PhD programs consistently displayed undergraduate institution information for their graduate students. Two did: Princeton and Berkeley. Of the 121 graduate students listed on their websites, 119 had undergraduate institution information listed. Of these, 25 were from foreign universities -- typically elite universities (especially Oxford). Excluding the foreign students leaves a pool of 94 students with US undergraduate university listed (21 also listed some graduate work, typically an MA). I then looked at the US News and World Report rankings of their undergraduate institutions.

Twenty-seven students (29%) come from just eight universities: The US News top 10 National Universities, excluding MIT and CalTech (Chicago, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale).

Another seventeen (18%) come from the universities ranked 11-25 (Berkeley, Brown, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Rice, UCLA, USC, and Vanderbilt being represented).

Ten more (11%) come from universities ranked 26-50. And of these ten, seven are from universities with elite graduate programs in philosophy: Three from NYU (Leiter ranked #1 in the U.S.), 1 from Michigan (Leiter ranked #5), 2 from UNC Chapel Hill (Leiter ranked #9), and 1 from Tufts (Leiter ranked as the #1 master's program in the U.S). So, really, these universities are more elite in philosophy than their US News ranking would suggest. Rounding out the mix are Brandeis, UC Santa Barbara, and UW Madison. [Revised 10/28]

Only three universities ranked 51-100 are represented: Two students from Rutgers (whose PhD program is Leiter ranked #2), one from Northeastern (though this student took an MA from Minnesota first), and strikingly four students from Colorado (which has a mid-ranked PhD program: Leiter rank #26).

Many of the remaining students are from elite schools in the US News category "National Liberal Arts Colleges". Eight (9%) are from colleges in the top ten (Amherst, Claremont McKenna, Middlebury, Pomona, Swarthmore, and Williams represented), and seven more from those ranked 11-50 (Bates, Franklin & Marshall, Kenyon, Mount Holyoke, Oberlin, and Wesleyan represented).

Only eighteen students (19%) come from all the remaining universities in the United States combined. And even this number overestimates the number of students with genuinely nonelite backgrounds: Three are from Reed College, which though only ranked #57 among liberal arts colleges has a very strong tradition in philosophy; and at least another nine supplemented their undergraduate work with master's degrees or other work at elite schools or places with strong master's programs. Represented are: Arizona State, Biola, Catholic University, Cincinnati, Florida State, Houghton, Indiana-South Bend, Kalamazoo, Nebraska, North Carolina State, Reed, St John's College Santa Fe, St Vincent, and U Mass Boston.

To help give a sense of how thin a representation this is of nonelite schools, consider that there is not a single student on this list from the two biggest public university systems in the country: the Cal State system (412,000 students) and the SUNY system (468,000 students, but that number includes students in two-year colleges and technical institutes). Even the UC system is poorly represented once we exclude the two most elite universities (Berkeley and UCLA): The remaining campuses (Davis, Irvine, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz) are represented by only a single student from Santa Barbara.

I don't conclude that admissions committees are being unfair, much less explicitly elitist. Maybe students from Harvard and Columbia really are that much better. Or maybe the epistemic task of discerning the genuinely most promising applicants is so difficult that committees need to play the odds and the odds almost always say that the Harvard student is more likely to succeed than the Cal State student. Or maybe so much turns on the credibility of the letter writers that students whose letter writers aren't well known can't really be fully evaluated. Or, or, or, or.

But regardless how innocent the explanation, it's a shame.

Update, 5:44 pm:

Very interesting discussion in the comments! Let me clarify two points:

First: I interpret these results as applying only to the very most elite PhD programs -- roughly the Leiter top ten. There is plenty of evidence that lower-ranked PhD programs (like UCR, ranked #30) admit a substantial proportion of their students from nonelite schools (though I suspect there still is a large pedigree advantage). However, that fact is less consoling than it might seem if it's the case, as I suspect it is, the top ten PhD programs are vastly more successful than lower-ranked schools in placing their students into the sorts of elite research-oriented jobs and elite liberal-arts-college teaching jobs that many graduate students covet.

Second: I somewhat regret the impression that the title of this post might give that there is simply no chance to be admitted to an elite program from a Cal State or similar. There are a few exceptions, as should be evident from the data included in the post. At least some of the off-list schools are comparable in prestige to the Cal States and SUNYs. Whether these exceptions are frequent enough to constitute any practical chance even for awesome students from such schools, I'm not sure.

Update, October 28:

A reader compiled some data for me from Stanford. This list is not strictly comparable to the Princeton/Berkeley list, since it is list of last institution prior to Stanford, whether undergrad or graduate, but it's still probably somewhat comparable.

To my eye, the results look similar, with 28% (out of 40 total US students) from the top ten universities, and another 48% from the top 11-50 universities and top 1-50 liberal arts colleges. Only one student is from a university ranked 51-100, and that university, Pittsburgh, has an elite PhD program (Leiter ranked #4). 23% of the students (9 total) are from all the remaining universities in the US; and at least three of those are from well-regarded MA programs at those universities (to judge from those universities' MA placement lists: Cal State LA, Georgia State, and Texas Tech), while one more student is from a university that although not generally elite has a very strong PhD program in philosophy (Arizona, Leiter ranked #13). The remaining five students are from Illinois Wesleyan, Nevada-Las Vegas, Northern Arizona, Northern Iowa, and South Florida.

19%-23% representation from nonelite universities might not seem very skewed, but I think that would be a false impression. Many more students graduate from nonelite universities than from elite universities. Their low odds of admission are better seen looking up from the bottom than down from the top, as it were. If we take an arbitrary selection of nonelite schools, say all of the dozens of Cal States and SUNYs, we see not a single undergraduate from these schools in any of these three departments. (Caveat: Stanford has a CSLA MA student, and to judge from the comments section and private emails, at least two or three Cal State students have recently cracked other top ten departments; I haven't yet heard good news about any SUNY students.) Also if we look at the very good / marginally elite universities ranked 51-100 on the US News list -- schools which one might think could contribute substantial numbers of students to elite PhD programs -- we still see only very thin representation: Combining Princeton, Berkeley, and Stanford together, only four of those 50 schools are represented; only two if Rutgers and Pitt are reclassed as elite due to their top-ten rankings in philosophy. In contrast, almost all of the top 25 schools are represented, often multiply represented.

Here's another way of thinking about the distribution: In a typical smallish Princeton-Berkeley-Stanford class of six students, four will be from elite undergrad institutions, one will be from a (probably elite) foreign institution, and only one will be from any of the hundreds of good but nonelite US institutions -- and that one student as likely as not spent some time in some capacity either visiting an elite institution or at one of the top MA programs.

Update, August 7, 2013:

See these reflections by David Holiday on his failure to make the jump from a non-prestigious MA program to a PhD program. Starting a few paragraphs in he makes the case that "the student at the ho-hum department has no way of knowing what she doesn’t know, and what she doesn’t know is evident in her work". I do suspect this is part of the story.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Obfuscatory Philosophy as Intellectual Authoritarianism and Cowardice

I've been told that Kant and Hegel were poor writers whose impenetrable prose style is incidental to their philosophy. I've also been told that their views are so profound as to defy expression in terms comprehensible even to smart, patient, well-educated people who are not specialists in the philosophy of the period. I've heard similar things about Laozi, Heidegger, Plotinus, Derrida. (I won't name any living philosophers.) I don't buy it.

Philosophy is not wordless profound insight. Philosophy is prose. Philosophy happens not in mystical moments, but in the creation of mundane sentences. It happens on the page, in the pen, through the keyboard, in dialogue with students and peers, and to some extent but only secondarily in private inner speech. If what exists on the page is not clear, the philosophy is not clear. Philosophers, like all specialists, profit from a certain amount of jargon, but philosophy need not become a maze of jargon. If private jargon doesn't regularly touch down in comprehensible public meanings, one has produced not philosophy but merely a fog of words of indeterminate content. There are always gaps, confusions, indeterminacies, hidden assumptions, failures of clarity, even in great philosophical prose stylists like Hume, Nietzsche, and David Lewis. Thus, these philosophers present ample interpretative challenges. But the gaps, confusions, indeterminacies, hidden assumptions, and even to some extent the failures of clarity, are right there on the page, available to anyone who looks conscientiously for them, not shrouded in a general fog.

If a philosopher can convince the public to take him seriously -- or her, but let's say him -- being obfuscatory yields three illegitimate benefits: First, he intimidates the reader and by intimidation takes on a mantle of undeserved intellectual authority. Second, he disempowers potential critics by having a view of such indeterminate form that any criticism can be written off as based on a misinterpretation. Third, he exerts a fascination on the kind of reader who enjoys the puzzle-solving aspect of discovering meaning, thus drawing from that reader a level of attention that may not be merited by the quality of his ideas (though this third benefit may be offset by alienating readers with low tolerance for obfuscatory prose). These philosophers exhibit a kind of intellectual authoritarianism, with themselves as the assumed authority whose words we must spend time puzzling out. And simultaneously they lack intellectual courage: the courage to make plain claims that could be proven wrong, supported by plain arguments that could be proven fallacious. These three features synergize: If a critic thinks she has finally located a sound criticism, she can be accused of failing to solve the interpretive puzzle of the philosopher's superior genius.

Few philosophers, I suspect, deliberately set out to be obfuscatory. But I am inclined to believe that some are attuned to its advantages as an effect of their prose style and for that reason make little effort to write comprehensibly. Perhaps they find their prose style shaped by audience responses: When they write clearly, they are dismissed or refuted; when they produce a fog of words that hint of profound meaning underneath, they earn praise. Perhaps thus they are themselves to some extent victims -- victims of a subculture, or circle of friends, or intended audience, that regards incomprehensibility as a sign of brilliance and so demands it in their heroes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Graduate School Application Advice

Readers interested in graduate school in philosophy might be interested to see my seven-part series on PhD admissions, collected here. It's time to start thinking about the application process, if you're aiming to begin a PhD program in fall 2012.

For advice on applying to Master's programs, see the guest post by Robert Schwartz of University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

My impression is that admissions are somewhat more competitive in recessions than in boom times, since there are fewer options outside of academia to draw top students out of the applicant pool. Regarding the job market for newly minted philosophy PhDs, we should probably think of the period from about 1999-2007, bruising and competitive though it was, as boom times unlikely to be replicated in the near future. So don't be misled by departments' placement records from that period. On the other hand, the horrible job market of the past two years is probably also an aberration.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

David Lewis, Anesthesia by Genocide, and a Materialistic Trilemma

In his famous 1980 essay, "Mad Pain and Martian Pain", David Lewis tries to thread the needle between a flat-footed functionalism and a flat-footed neural-state identity theory about the mental. Flat-footed neural-state identity theory equates mental states, like being in pain, with possession of particular neural states. Thus, counterintuitively, it implies that beings who are behaviorally similar but internally very different, such as (hypothetically) Martians, can't feel pain. Flat-footed functionalism equates mental states with causal/functional roles. Being in pain, on such a view, is just being in a state that is caused by things like tissue stress and that tends to cause things like wincing, avoidance, and self-ascriptions of pain. This view, counterintuitively, implies the impossibility of "madmen" who feel pain for unusual reasons and have unusual reactions to it.

Lewis's solution is to say that some entity X is in pain if and only if X is in the state that occupies the causal role of pain for the "appropriate population". The "appropriate population", he says, might be (1.) us, since it's our term, (2.) a population that X belongs to, (3.) a population in which X is not exceptional, and (4.) a natural kind such as a species. In the normal case, all four criteria are met. In the Martian case, 2-4 are met though 1 is not, which is good enough. In the mad case 1, 2, and 4 are met though 3 is not, which is also good enough. Since mad Martian pain also seems possible, 2 and 4 alone will be sufficient for pain on Lewis's account.

Now the funny thing about these criteria is that they are all extrinsic or relational , and you might have thought that whether X is in pain or not should depend entirely on what is going on within X; you might have thought that pain would, in today's jargon, "supervene locally". The weirdness can be made vivid with further thought experiments. Criterion (3), for example, can be altered by genocide. Suppose that X is in a state that plays the causal role of pain for most of the population but the causal role of hunger for him and maybe a few others -- a "madman" case. On Lewis's account he will be experiencing pain. Now suppose that X is desperate to end his pain. On Lewis's account he might end his pain by perpetrating genocide upon all the non-mad people of the world. Voila, condition (3) flips, and X's pain has changed to hunger! This is anesthesia by genocide. We could similarly produce anesthesia by reproduction or speciation.

Real advocates of physical-state identity theory are hardly ever as flat-footed as those imagined by Lewis (as Lewis explicitly acknowledges). Like Lewis, they tend to embrace accounts on which to be in pain (or any other mental state) is to be in a state of a certain physical type, where the relevant physical type can vary between different types of being. What type of physical state is identical to what type of mental state, for beings of your type, then depends on facts about the particular causal or functional role of that state in members of your group or on the causal or functional history of that physical state in members of your group and/or in your own evolutionary or developmental past. Such type classifications are extrinsic or relational. Thus, such views have the bizarre consequences that flow from the denial of local supervenience. They allow anesthesia by genocide, or by speciation, or by hypothetical differences in past history that have no neural trace in the present.

We might thus see the mad pain-Martian pain issue as a trilemma in which each horn has bizarre consequences: Either accept the bizarre consequences of a strict functionalism (no mad pain), accept the bizarre consequences of neurobiological chauvinism (no Martian pain), or accept the bizarre consequences of denying local supervenience (anesthesia by genocide or speciation). Can a plausible materialist metaphysics dodge this trilemma? (I set aside hand-waving appeals to yet-to-be-identified intrinsic properties, a la John Searle.) I'd be very interested if you think you can point me to an example!

If all the options are bizarre, as I think, then something bizarre must be true. (Yes, dualism is also bizarre.) The problem is in figuring out which bizarre view to accept! If none of the various bizarre options merits credence, then crazyism follows.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Dualists' Troubles with Common Sense

Is there a psychology of metaphysics? Yes! And one of its high-profile results seems to be this: Ordinary people (or at least the less scientific among them) are metaphysical substance dualists. They think that material bodies are one thing and immaterial souls quite another. Paul Bloom argues for this on cross-cultural and developmental grounds. Brian Fiala, Adam Arico, and Shaun Nichols propose a cognitive mechanism to explain it. And it certainly seems to fit with widespread belief in God, the afterlife, etc. You are an immortal soul "fastened to a dying animal".

But if you've read your history of philosophy, you might wonder this: If dualism is just common sense, why are dualistic metaphysical systems always so bizarre? Leibniz sees a universe of "monads" that move in pre-established harmony with each other but do not causally interact. Malebranche thinks nothing has any real causal power except for God, who constantly creates the universe anew at every moment. Descartes, whose "causal interactionist" dualism might initially seem a reasonable candidate for common sense, held that nonhuman animals were mere mindless machines, incapable of conscious experience. (It's hopefully not true that Descartes tossed a cat out of a window in Leiden to illustrate his belief in this.) "Common sense" philosopher Thomas Reid attributed immaterial souls to vegetables and denied that material objects had the power even to cohere into shapes without the regular intervention of immaterial souls on their behalf.

Here's my explanation of the bizarreness of dualist metaphysical systems: Commonsense opinion is not straightforwardly substance dualist. Rather, commonsense opinion about the metaphysics of mind is an incoherent mess. Thus, it's impossible to develop a detailed, coherent dualist metaphysics that respects all the inclinations of common sense.

There are at least two broad issues on which dualistic metaphysical systems have repeatedly stumbled against common sense: the causal powers of the immaterial mind and the class of beings with immaterial minds.

The causal powers issue can be posed as a dilemma: Does the immaterial soul have the causal power to affect material entities like the brain? Both yes and no answers lead to trouble. If yes, then physical entities like neurons must be regularly and systematically influenced by immaterial events. A neuron must be caused to fire not just because of the chemical, electrical, and other physical influences on it but also because of immaterial happenings in spiritual substances. Either events in the immaterial realm give it some physical or quasi-physical push that leads it to behave other than it would without that immaterial push -- which seems to violate our commonsense ideas about nonmiraculous causes of physical movement (and a minimal commonsensical deference to mainstream physics and neuroscience) -- or the immaterial causal influence somehow operates on the physical despite the fact that the physical would behave no differently absent that influence, which seems an equally strange view. Suppose, then, the other horn of the dilemma: The immaterial soul has no causal influence on physical events. If immaterial souls do anything, they engage in rational reflection. On a no-influence view, such rational reflection would have no power to causally influence the movements of the body. You can't make a rational decision that has any effect on the flow of the physical world, including the movements of your own body. This again seems bizarre by the standards of ordinary common sense.

The scope-of-mentality issue can be posed as a quadrilemma: Either (a.) among Earthly animals, only human beings have immaterial souls and they have those souls from birth (or maybe conception), or (b.) there are sharp boundaries in phylogeny and development between ensouled and unensouled creatures, or (c.) whether a being has an immaterial soul isn't a simple yes-or-no matter but rather a gradual affair, or (d.) panpsychism is true, that is, every being has, or participates in having, an immaterial soul. Each possibility violates common sense in a different way. Since on a substance dualist metaphysics of mind, the immaterial soul is the locus of mentality and conscious experience, option (a) denies dogs and apes mentality and conscious experience, contrary to what seems to be the clear opinion of most of humankind. Option (b) requires sudden saltations in phylogeny and development, which seems bizarre given the smooth gradation of differences in behavioral capacity, both developmentally and across the range of non-human animals, and given the work the immaterial soul must do if it's not to be otiose. Option (c) appears incomprehensible from a commonsense point of view: What would it mean to sort of, or kind of, or halfway have an immaterial soul? (Would you sort of go to Heaven? Even Dog Heaven, which might be a "sort of" Heaven, seems to require dichotomously either that dogs are materially instantiated there or that they have some immateriality that transcends the grave.) And despite a certain elegance in panpsychism, the idea, in option (d), that even vegetables and bacteria and proteins and thermostats have immaterial souls, or alternatively that they participate in a single grand immaterial soul, seems bizarre on the face of it, by the standards of ordinary common sense.

Any well developed metaphysical substance dualism must make choices on such matters. And all the choices seem weird. If you think otherwise, I suspect philosophy has dulled your sense of what's weird. But weird does not imply false! We have good independent reasons to think, on physical and cosmological grounds, that the world is a pretty weird place, not well matched with our commonsensical intuitions about what must be so.