Thursday, August 30, 2012

Desiring, Valuing, and Believing Good: Almost the Same Thing

Philosophers typically think of belief as one thing and desire as quite another. Beliefs, for example, represent the world as it is; desires picture the world as we want it to be. Desires are intrinsically motivating; beliefs are maps by which we steer once motivated. Action, it's often thought, requires the copulation of a belief and a desire -- for example the desire to get a cupcake and the belief that the store I'm passing has them at a reasonable price. In generating my action, these attitudes play entirely different roles, sometimes labeled "cognitive" and "conative".

And yet I am struck by how belief and desire can sometimes seem to blur into each other. To believe that it would be good for X to happen is probably not quite the same thing as to desire that X happen, but it takes an unusual psychological wedge to pull them apart. It might not be possible to have an entirely canonical case of the one alongside an entirely canonical lack of the other. And valuing seems a kind of intermediate case: To value one's privacy seems to be almost, on the one hand, to have a kind of belief or set of beliefs about one's privacy but also, on the other hand, to have a certain sort of desire for privacy. Where's the sharp line between cognitive and conative?

I've come to think there is, in fact, no sharp line between the attitude types. This falls out of a general theory of psychological attitudes on which I have been working. (A paper is in progress, but not yet in circulating shape.)

On my view, to believe that something is the case -- for example, to believe that gold is more valuable than molybdenum -- is just to live in a particular way. It is to act and react, and to be disposed to act and react, across a wide variety of hypothetical scenarios, in ways that ordinary people would tend to regard as characteristic of having that belief. So, for example, it is to be willing to say, ceteris paribus (that is, all else being equal or normal, or absent countervailing forces like the intent to deceive), that gold is more valuable than molybdenum. It is to be willing to trade away molybdenum for gold. It is to be disposed to judge others' molybdenum-for-gold trades as wisely done. It is to feel happier upon receiving gold than upon receiving molybdenum, and to judge it reasonable to price the one higher than the other. And so forth. If space aliens were to visit tomorrow and they exhibited this psychological pattern, we would rightly say they believe that gold is more valuable than molybdenum, even though we may know virtually nothing about their internal operations.

To value one thing over another is also, I think, to live in a particular way. In fact, valuing A over B involves almost the same set of characteristic patterns of behavior, subjective experience, and cognition as does believing that A is more valuable than B. The same way of living that makes it true to say of our space aliens that they believe that gold is more valuable than molybdenum also makes it true to say that they value gold over molybdenum.

The same goes for desiring one thing more than another. Almost the same set of dispositions, perhaps with a shift of focus or emphasis, are involved in desiring A over B as in valuing A over B and believing A more valuable than B.

Now perhaps in using the term "desire", we put more emphasis on something like visceral reward or impulse, while "valuing" seems more intellectual or cognitive and "believing valuable" seems more intellectual still; but this is a subtlety. It's a subtlety that can make a difference in an unusual sort of case, where the intellectual and the impulsive pull apart -- where one has an impulse, say, to eat a cupcake but also a sense that it would be bad to do so all things considered. Then we might say, "I want that cupcake, but I don't think it would be good to eat it". But this is not really a canonical case of wanting something. In a way, it seems just as accurate to say that what one really wants is not to eat the cupcake, and what one is fighting is not so much a desire as an impulse.

Shortly after moving into one of my residences I met a nineteen-year-old neighbor. Call him Ethan. In my first conversation with Ethan, it came out (i.) that he had a beautiful, expensive new pickup truck, and (ii.) that he unfortunately had to attend the local community college because he couldn't afford to attend a four-year school. Although I didn't ask Ethan directly whether he thought owning an awesome pickup truck was more important than attending a four-year university, let's suppose that's how he lived his life in general: Ethan's inward and outward actions and reactions -- perhaps not with absolute consistency -- fit the profile of someone who wanted an awesome pickup truck more than he wanted to go to a four-year school, who valued having an awesome pickup truck more than he valued going to a four-year school, and who believed it better or more important to have the one than the other. Approximately the same set of dispositional facts makes each of these psychological attributions true.

Desiring, valuing, believing good, believing valuable -- if to have these attitudes is just a matter of living a certain way, of being disposed to make certain choices, to have certain feelings, to regret some things and celebrate others, etc., then although these attitudes might differ somewhat in flavor and thus sometimes partly diverge, the difference between them is vastly overstated by philosophical talk of the cognitive-conative divide and of the very different psychological roles of belief and desire.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Ghettoization of Nietzsche

A major sociological divide in recent Anglophone philosophy is the divide between philosophers who see themselves as working in the tradition of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida -- so-called "Continental" philosophers -- and those working in the tradition of Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, and Quine -- so-called "analytic philosophers". The labels are problematic and the divisions not always clear, but plainly there's a non-trivial sociological division here. This division is reflected, in part, in journal citation patterns. You might wonder about this history of this. Was Philosophical Review always allergic to Nietzsche? Or is that a relatively recent phenomenon? And how extreme is the phenomenon? Do leading Continental figures get at least some play in the top analytic journals, or are they almost entirely excluded?

Let's look at this quantitatively.

The "Big Three" Anglophone philosophy journals -- all of which have been leading journals since the first decade of the 20th century -- are Philosophical Review, Mind, and Journal of Philosophy (formerly Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods). All currently seem to lean heavily "analytic". Also, all are also indexed in JStor, along with a diverse group of 93 other philosophy journals, many of which are not as sociologically aligned with the analytic tradition. So I have looked, decade by decade, at the rates at which the names of central analytic and Continental philosophers appear in these "Big Three" journals compared to other journals.

Compare, first, Nietzsche and Frege -- foundational figures for both traditions, both born in the 1840s. The crucial measure is the rate at which each is cited in the Big Three vs. the rate at which each is cited in the remainder. For methodological details see this note.* For a clearer view of the charts below, click them.
As you can see, apart from a difference for Nietzsche in 1900-1909, through the 1940s or 1950s the Nietzsche lines stay more or less together and the Frege lines stay more or less together. The dashed and solid lines are clearly separated in the 1970s, after which the separation seems to continue to slowly increase. Particularly remarkable is the fact that in the 1990s-2000s, although the terms "Frege*" and "Nietzsche*" appear approximately as often in journals outside the Big Three, there's a huge difference in how often they appear in the Big Three. Over those two decades, the term "Nietzsche*" appears 20 times total in the Big Three, or about once a year total among the three journals, a citation rate of 1.7% -- compared to 7.2% outside the Big Three.  (For Frege it's 24.1% vs. 10.6%.)

A similar story holds for Heidegger and Wittgenstein -- leading early figures in the Continental and analytic traditions, respectively -- and both born in 1889.  (Again, click chart for clarity.)
Despite being cited in over 5% of articles outside the Big Three, the word "Heidegger*" appears only 16 times in the Big Three from 1990-2009, or in 1.3% of the articles.

Okay, how about the Continentals Sartre (b. 1905), Foucault (b. 1926), and Derrida (b. 1930) vs. the analytics Quine (b. 1908), Chisholm (b. 1916), and Putnam (b. 1926)? The graph is a little crowded but the following should be evident: The muted-color analytics show higher in the Big Three (solid lines) than in the remaining journals (dashed lines), while the bright-color Continentals show the reverse pattern -- and the spread is much more evident in the past few decades than it was mid-century. (There's a bit of false-positive noise for Foucault and Putnam, but not enough to mask the general trend. Russell I have chosen to exclude entirely due to false positives.)
Combining the five analytic and five Continental philosophers in a disjunctive search (Frege or Wittgenstein or Quine or Chisholm or Putnam vs. Nietzsche or Heidegger or Sartre or Foucault or Derrida; no wildcards) yields the following aggregate result.
The trends started rapidly pulling apart in the 1950s through 1970s and have continued to slowly pull farther apart since then.

Here's another way to look at it: For any philosopher or group, divide the percentage representation in the Big Three by the percentage representation in all the remaining journals. This yields an index of proportionally how much the Big Three favor that person or group compared to other journals. Call this the "Big Three favor ratio". Unity would mean equal representation in the Big Three vs. the other journals.
The favor ratio of about 1.5 for the analytics over the past couple decades means that the five sample analytic philosophers are about 50% more likely to be cited in the Big Three journals than in other journals. The favor ratio of about 0.2 for the Continentals means that they are about five times more likely to be cited in journals outside the Big Three than by the Big Three.

In the 1990s and the portion of the 2000s that has so far been indexed in JStor, the words Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida appeared in 45 articles total among 1209 Big Three journal articles (3.7%). Thus, the Big Three journals have included, on average, about one article per journal per year that even passingly mentions any of these five authors.

(On the word "ghetto" in the title of this post: I mean it only to refer to the average Anglophone philosopher's perception of what counts as an elite journal. See, for example, this poll. It is not intended as a personal judgment about journal quality.)

*Percentages are divided by a representative universe of articles hitting search terms philos* or ethic* or mind*. Only English-language articles are included. Reviews and minor documents are excluded by limiting the results to "articles" in JStor and also by excluding articles with a variety of titles such as "books received", "front matter", "back matter", etc. Without these exclusions the results reported above look very different. For example, not using such exclusions raises the occurrence rate of Nietzsche in the Big Three in the 2000s from 1.3% to 12.0%. Although the search terms run through 2009, JStor only covers through the mid-2000s for many journals, including the Big Three.

Friday, August 17, 2012

In Defense of Uncharitable and Superficial History of Philosophy

Charity sounds like a good thing. And it sounds like a good thing when reading the history of philosophy. If a philosopher seems to be incoherent, or self-contradictory, or if the argument seems problematically gappy or to admit of obvious counterexamples, or if the philosopher seems to be saying something patently false, we should still try to put the best possible light on the work. We shouldn't take the text at face value but instead plunge deeper, looking for the real insight beneath the surface.

Okay, maybe sometimes we should do that. But I think most historians of philosophy and most enthusiasts for particular dead philosophers take charity much too far. There are reasons to prefer uncharitable and superficial readings.

One reason is that people are stupid. Or -- more accurately and politely -- people are remarkably poor at abstract thought about big philosophical issues. Even evaluating simple conditional claims about abstract matters is a substantial cognitive challenge for us, as revealed, for example, by our hideous performance on the Wason Selection Task, and as I found in my experience writing logical reasoning questions for the LSAT years ago. (Simple formula for a killer LSAT question: put together a conditional and a negation or two in ordinary language: "Only if interest rates don't decline will the Parliament be re-elected" vs. "The Parliament will not be re-elected unless interest rates don't rise" vs. etc.) Even philosophers are bad at this. Even Kant was a normal muddleheaded human in this regard, I daresay -- as one can see in his works when he comes down from his usual hard-to-evaluate abstractions to make concretely-evaluable claims about, e.g., the a priori necessity of 18th-century physics (oops!) or about the moral horrors of masturbation. So if a philosopher seems to be getting tangled up in her own abstract logic, that appearance is reasonably likely, I think, to reflect cognitive reality.

Another reason favoring uncharitableness and superficiality involves a certain sort of externalist or public view of what philosophy is. Philosophy is not, I submit, primarily a matter of private performances of profound insight. It is a public act of stringing together words and arguments. What is on the page is the philosophy, regardless of what the philosopher might have thought in his secret heart. So if what is on the page is nonsense or self-contradictory or plainly false, the philosophy itself is nonsense or self-contradictory or plainly false. In fact, without the structure enforced by committing one's views to words, philosophical thought tends to be amorphous and weak. Thus, especially in light of the first consideration above, it's a dubious conjecture that beneath the philosopher's surface incoherences are hidden diamond arguments, only poorly expressed. Philosophical thinking is for the most part, and at its best, an outward act of explicit writing or speaking before others.

A third reason to avoid excessive charity is this: What you think is plausible or obviously true might differ enormously from what other people, especially in different cultures and times, think is plausible or obviously true. The reader of philosophy risks hiding this from herself if she insists on de-radicalizing and commonsensifying the texts she encounters, transforming Hegel or Plotinus or Ibn Rushd or Laozi into some approximation of a 21st-century New Yorker. Much of the value of reading history is lost if we insist on turning a blind eye to what seems to us to be obviously crazy -- partly because what we currently think of as "crazy" might in the end be true and partly because, even if it's not true, it's a salutary and humbling exercise to appreciate the wide range of bizarre things that philosophers have believed across history.

I hereby resolve to remain, until further notice, a superficial and uncharitable reader of the history of philosophy!

Monday, August 13, 2012

The External World: Further Experimental Evidence of Its Existence

(collaborative with Alan Moore)

It occurs to me to doubt whether the external world exists -- that is, whether anything exists other than my own stream of conscious experience. Radical solipsism is of course crazy. But can I show it to be wrong? Or is my only recourse simply to assume it's wrong, since any attempt at proof would be circular? Can I break out of the solipsistic circle, using facts about my own stream of experience, knowable from within the solipsistic perspective, to license an inference to the existence of something beyond my stream of experience?

The most famous philosophical attempts to prove the existence of an external world from solipsism-compatible assumptions and methods -- for example, Descartes's and Kant's -- are generally acknowledged by the philosophical community to fail.  I'm inclined to think those attempts fail because they set the bar too high: They aim for certainty through deductive proof.  Better, perhaps, to aim lower -- to use scientific methods and scientific standards, licensing only tentative conclusions as the current best explanation of the available evidence. In another way, too, I aim low: I aim only to refute solipsistic doubts in particular, not other sorts of skeptical doubts such as doubts about memory or reasoning. In fact, I will take the general standards of science for granted, insofar as those general standards are compatible with solipsism. I aim to do solipsistic science.

Last year on my blog I presented the results of two experiments designed to provide evidence that an external world does indeed exist. The first experiment suggested that something exists ("my computer") that is swifter than I at calculating prime numbers. The second experiment suggested that the world has some constancy to it that exceeds the constancy of my memory. Today, I will report on a third experiment.

If solipsism is true, nothing in the universe should exist that is better than I am at chess. Nothing should exist with chess-playing practical capacities that exceed my own. Now I believe that I stink at chess, and my seeming student "Alan" seems to have told me that he is good at chess. If solipsism is true, then he should not be able to beat me at rates higher than statistical chance. I agreed with this seeming-Alan to play twenty games of speed chess, with a limit of about five seconds per move.

Here is what seems to be a picture of our procedure:
(photo credit: seeming-Gerardo Sanchez)

The results: seeming-Alan won 17, I won 2, and one stalemate. 17/19 is statistically higher than 50%, p < .001 (hand calculated).

It occurs to me that I might have hoped to lose, so as to generate results confirming my preferred hypothesis that the external world exists. Against this concern, I comfort myself with the following thoughts: If it was an unconscious desire to lose, then that implies that something exists in the universe besides my own stream of conscious experience, namely, an unconscious part of my mind. So radical solipsism is false. If it was, instead, a conscious desire to lose, I should have been able to detect it, barring an unusual degree of introspective skepticism. What I detected was a desire to win as many games as I could, given my background assumption that if Alan actually exists I would be hard pressed to win even one or two games. I found myself repeatedly and forcefully struck by the impression that the universe contained a practical intelligence superior to my own and bent on defeating me -- an impression, of course, confirmed by the results. The most natural scientific explanation of the pattern in my experience is that that impression is correct.

I might easily enough dream of being consistently defeated in chess. But dreams of this sort, as I seem to remember, differ from the present experiment in one crucial way: They are vague on the specific moves or unrealistic about those moves. In the same way, I might dream of having proven Fermat's last theorem. Both types of case involve dream-like gappiness or irrationality or delusive credulity -- the type of gappiness or irrationality or delusive credulity that might make me see nothing remarkable in my daughter's growing wings or in discovering a new whole number between 5 and 6. Genuine dream doubt might involve doubt about my basic rational capacities, but if so such doubts are additional to simply solipsistic doubt. Whether I am dreaming or not, if I consistently experience specific clever and perceptive chess moves that repeatedly exploit flaws in my own conscious strategizing, flaws that I experience as surprising, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that something exists that surpasses my own conscious intelligence in at least this one area.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Vogon Poetry Contest: Rules

As fans of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy well know, the Vogons are an evil alien race who use their hideous poetry to torture prisoners. But you needn't torture people with bad poetry only in your imagination! You can have a Vogon Poetry Contest here in real life.

It absolutely crucial that this contest be live. Bad poetry skimmed over in print is a mere annoyance. True poetic agony requires more -- requires that the bad poetry be declaimed passionately at a live reading, each word milked with slow lingering passion.

Rules of the Game:
* One host, approximately 12 competitors.
* Each competitor receives a pen and a smallish slip of paper.
* Each competitor writes the title of a bad poem at the top of the paper.
* The host collects the papers and redistributes them so that each competitor has a paper with someone else's title.
* At the signal, each competitor has ten minutes to complete a poem. The time limit is strict, and the host may grab the paper from a competitor mid-sentence if necessary to enforce the time limit.
* The content of the poem need not relate to the title.
* The poem must fit on one side of that slip of paper.
* At the end of the ten minutes, the host gathers the papers and shuffles them randomly.
* The host then reads each poem in self-important, dramatic open-mic fashion. (Imitations of William Shatner are welcome.)
* Anything illegible will be read as nonsense.
* Any stage directions to the host (e.g., "pause here") will be read aloud.
* For each poem, the host will note the volume and the sincerity of the groans of agony, both during the reading of the lines and after the completion of each poem.
* The poem that rates highest on the "groanmeter", in the judgment of the host, wins.
* If necessary, the worst poems will be read a second time in a runoff.

Saturday, I hosted the Third Annual Vogon Poetry Contest at my parents' house in Thousand Oaks. My son, defending champion from the previous year, was the repeat winner, I'm proud to say!

I would share his poem if I thought the goons from the American Poetry Association wouldn't break my legs for the harm done to their favorite art form.