Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Can the Skeptic Suspend All Belief?

I keep bumping into this question. Casey Perin gave a talk on it at UCR; Daniel Greco has a forthcoming paper on it in Phil Review. Benj Hellie launched an extended Facebook conversation about it. Can the radical skeptic live his skepticism? I submit the following for your consideration.

First, a bit about belief. I've argued that to believe some proposition P is nothing more or less than to be disposed to act and react in a broadly belief-that-P-ish way -- that is, to be disposed, circumstances to being right, to say things like "P", to build one's plans on the likelihood of P's truth, to feel surprised should P prove false, etc. Among the relevant dispositions is the disposition to consciously judge that P is the case, that is, to momentarily explicitly regard P as true, to endorse P intellectually (though not necessarily in language). Dispositions to judge that P often pull apart from the other dispositions constitutive of belief, for example in self-deception, implicit bias, conceptual confusion, and momentary forgetting. (See here and here.) To believe that P is to steer one's way through the world as though P were the case. One important part of the steering, but not the only part, is being disposed to explicitly judge that P is the case.

Okay, now skepticism. My paradigm radical skeptics are Sextus Empiricus, Montaigne (of the Apology), and Zhuangzi (of Inner Chapter 2). When such radical skeptics say they aim to suspend all belief, I recommend that we interpret them as really endorsing two goals: (a.) suspending all judgment, and (b.) standing openly ready, with equanimity, for alternative possibilities.

Arguments that it's impossible to suspend all belief tend to be, at root, arguments that it's impossible to refrain from action and that action requires belief. Perhaps it is impossible to refrain from all action. No skeptic advises sitting all day in bed (as though that weren't itself an action). Sextus advises acting from habit; Zhuangzi seems to endorse well-trained spontaneity. (Of course, they can't insist dogmatically on this, and Zhuangzi actively undermines himself.) If the runaway carriage is speeding toward the skeptic, the skeptic will leap aside. On my account of belief, such a disposition is partly constitutive of believing that the carriage is heading your way. So the skeptic will have at least part of the dispositional profile constitutive of that belief. This much I accept.

But it's not clear that the skeptic needs to match the entire dispositional profile constitutive of believing the carriage is coming. In particular, it's not clear that the skeptic needs to consciously judge that the carriage is coming. Maybe most of us would in fact reach such a judgment, but spontaneous skillful action without conscious judgment is sometimes thought to be characteristic of "flow" states of peak performance; and Heidegger seems to have valued them and regarded them as prevalent; and perhaps certain types of meditative practice aim at them. Suspension of judgment seems consistent with action, perhaps even highly skilled action. Though suspension of judgment isn't suspension of the entirety of the dispositional profile characteristic of belief, it's suspension of an important part of the profile -- perhaps enough so that the skeptic achieves what I call a state of in-between believing, in which there's enough deviation from the relevant dispositional profile that it's neither quite right to say he believes nor quite right to say he fails to believe.

The skeptic will also, I suggest, stand openly ready, with equanimity, for alternative possibilities. The skeptic will leap away from the carriage, but she won't be as much surprised as the non-skeptic would be if the carriage suddenly turns into a rooster. The skeptic will utter affirmations -- Zhuangzi compares our utterances to the cheeping of baby birds -- but with an openness to the opposing view. The skeptic will be less perturbed by apparent misfortune (for maybe it's really good fortune in disguise) and thus perhaps achieve a certain tranquility unavailable to dogmatists (as emphasized by both Sextus and Zhuangzi). The skeptic stands humbly aware, before God or the universe, of his flawed, infinitesmal perspective (as expressed by Montaigne).

Judgment is stoppered; action still flows; there's a humility, openness, tranquility, lack of surprise. None of this seems psychologically impossible to me. In certain moods, I even find it an appealing prospect.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Empirical Use of History of Philosophy

I conceptualize the history of philosophy as, in part, the source of interesting empirical data about the psychology of philosophy. Nietzsche and Dewey also conceptualized the history of philosophy this way, but I don't think many other philosophers do. There's a lot of untapped potential.

Here are some ways I've put the history of philosophy to empirical use:

* As evidence that it is impossible to construct a detailed, thoroughly commonsense metaphysics of mind-body dualism.

* As evidence for a relationship between culturally available metaphors for visual experience and views of the nature of visual experience.

* As evidence for a relationship between culturally available metaphors for dream experience and views of the nature of dream experience.

* As evidence that philosophical expertise doesn't diminish the likelihood of being swept up in noxious political ideologies.

* As evidence of the diversity of philosophical opinions that can be held by presumably reasonable people (especially on the character of conscious experience and the metaphysics of mind).
I can't resist also mentioning Shaun Nichols's observation of the suspicious lack of historical occupants of one theoretically available position regarding free will.

These analyses are mostly not quantitative, but that doesn't make them less empirical. In all cases, the fact that some philosophers claimed X (or X1... Xn) or did Y is treated as empirical evidence for some different hypothesis Z about the psychology of philosophy.

Maybe empirically oriented philosophers typically don't regard themselves as expert enough in history of philosophy to write about it. But I think we hobble ourselves if we allow ourselves to be intimidated. The standard of expertise for writing about Descartes or Kant in the context of a larger project -- a project that isn't just Descartes or Kant interpretation -- shouldn't be world leadership in Descartes or Kant interpretation. It should be the same standard of expertise as in writing about a contemporary colleague with a large body of influential work, like Dennett or Fodor.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Million Hits

Sometime last week, my blog and academic website passed a million hits since I started tracking in 2006.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Empirical Evidence Against My View of Dream Reports

Nowadays, most Americans report dreaming in color. In the 1950s, most Americans reported dreaming in black and white. In a series of articles I have argued that the reason for this change is not that people used to dream in black and white and now dream in color. Rather, I argue, people over-analogize dreams to movies. Thus, as movie technology shifts, people's dream reports shift, though their dreams themselves remain the same.

(Two pieces of evidence for this view: (a.) The use of color terms ("brown", "orange", etc.) in dream diaries seems to have been consistent since the 1950s. (b.) Color dream reporting correlates with group history of black-and-white media exposure across socioeconomic groups in China.)

A new study by Hitoshi Okada and colleagues in Japan calls my research into doubt. In 1993, Okada and colleagues had found that young Japanese respondents tended to report colored dreaming while older respondents tended to report not dreaming in color -- a result entirely in accord with my hypothesis, due to respondents' presumably different histories of black-and-white vs. colored media exposure. Now in 2011, Okada at al. find almost exactly the same pattern of responding. Thus, the cohort of respondents that was in their 20s and 30s in 1993, and who reported mostly colored dreaming back then, reports relatively infrequent color dreaming now. Twenty years of (presumably) colored media exposure appears not to have shifted them toward reporting more colored dreaming -- if anything, the opposite.

Maybe these results can be reconciled with my view. For example, maybe older Japanese regard as the archetypal movie the old-fashioned high-art black-and-white movies of Kurosawa and others. But that doesn't seem especially likely.

Another possibility (as always!) is that Okada's research is open to interpretations other than its face-value interpretation.

The following is Okada et al.'s entire description of their questionnaire:

The participants were required to check one of five categories describing the frequency with which color occurred in their dreams during the past year: 1 (always), 2 (sometimes), 3 (occasionally), 4 (seldom), or 5 (never) (p. 216).
In English, I don't know that "sometimes" implies higher frequency than "occasionally", but I trust that this is just an infelicity of translation from the original Japanese.

One worry is that this measure has no denominator. So here's one possible explanation of the Okada et al. results: Older Japanese people report dreaming less in general than do younger Japanese, so they report less frequent colored dreaming too. This would be consistent with their self-reported ratio of black-and-white to colored dreaming being about the same. (In my own work on the issue, I ask some respondents about absolute frequency or colored dreaming and others about the proportion of colored to black-and-white dreams.)

Another potential concern is non-response bias. Okada et al. state that their participants were "students in Bunkyo University, Jissen Women’s University, and Iwate University, or members of their families" (p. 215). They don't indicate the response rates of the family members, but it's possible that only a minority of family members who heard about the questionnaire chose to respond. If so, those family responders would mostly be people with higher-than-average interest in the issue of black-and-white vs. colored dreaming. And we might reasonably worry that such people would not have views on that question that are representative of the population as a whole. (This is, of course, the notorious problem with online polls.)

I'd be very interested to see a follow-up study addressing these concerns.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Four Accounts of Philosophical Moral Reflection

What happens to your moral behavior and moral attitudes when you reflect philosophically? Philosophers all seem to have opinions about this, but those opinions diverge and there's very little serious research on the issue.

Here are four possibilities:

(1.) The booster view: Philosophical moral reflection leads to the discovery of moral truths – either general moral truths that people tend to not to endorse absent such reflection (such as, perhaps, that eating meat is morally bad) or particular moral truths about specific situations that would not otherwise have been properly morally appreciated (such as that some particular behavior would be objectionably sexist). Such discoveries have a significant positive overall impact on moral behavior – though perhaps only on average, to a moderate extent, and in some areas. Furthermore, since it reveals connections between specific instances of moral behavior and general moral principles, philosophical moral reflection tends to increase the overall consistency between one’s broad moral attitudes and one’s practical moral behavior.

(2.) The epiphenomenalist view: Philosophical moral reflection is virtually powerless to change moral behavior or moral attitudes, either for better or for worse – though it may produce decorative linguistic justifications of what we would have thought and done in any case.

(3.) The rationalization view: Philosophical moral reflection tends to increase the consistency between attitudes and behavior, as the booster suggests, but it does so in the opposite causal direction than the booster suggests: The ethically reflective person’s attitudes shift to match her behavior rather than her behavior shifting to match her attitudes. The philosophically reflective person’s practical behavior may be unaffected by such rationalizations (the inert rationalization view); or the tendency to rationalize may morally worsen philosophically reflective people by freeing them to act on immoral impulses that are superficially but unsatisfactorily justified by their reflections (the toxic rationalization view). On the inert rationalization view, for example, one will either steal or not steal a library book as a result of psychological processes uninfluenced by one’s philosophical reflections, and then one will shape one’s moral attitudes to justify that incipient or recently past behavior. On the toxic rationalization view, one might feel an inclination to steal the book and act on that inclination as a consequence of a spurious moral justification for the theft.

(4.) The inert discovery view: Philosophical moral reflection tends to lead to the discovery of moral truths (as also suggested by the booster view). However, such discoveries have no material consequences for the practical behavior of the person making those discoveries. Philosophical reflection might lead one to discover, for example, that it is morally wrong to eat the meat of factory-farmed mammals, but on this view one would continue to eat factory-farmed meat at virtually the same rate as one would have done absent any philosophical reflection on the matter.

Any wagers?

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind

... a new essay of mine, now in circulating draft. Comments welcome, either on this post or by email.

Crazyism about X is the view that something it would be crazy to believe must be among the core truths about X. In this essay, I argue that crazyism is true of the metaphysics of mind. A position is "crazy" in the intended sense if it is contrary to common sense and we are not epistemically compelled to believe it. Views that are crazy in the relevant sense include that there is no mind-independent material world, that the United States has a stream of conscious experience distinct from the experiences of the individuals composing it, that chimps or the intelligent-seeming aliens of science fiction fantasy entirely lack conscious experience, that mental events are causally inefficacious. This is by no means a complete list. Well developed metaphysical theories will inevitably violate common sense, I argue, because common sense is incoherent in matters of metaphysics. No coherent and detailed view could respect it all. With common sense thus impaired as a ground of choice, we lack the means to justifiably select among several very different metaphysical options concerning mind and body. Something bizarre must be true about the mind, but which bizarre propositions are the true ones, we are in no good position to know.