Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Story in Which I Acquire Fisheyes, or The Paranoid Jeweler and the Sphere-Eye God

I become paranoid and quit philosophy. But I need to make money somehow, so I become a jeweler. The problem with being a paranoid jeweler is this: Since I am doing close work, I must focus closely through a magnifying lens, which drastically reduces my ability to keep a constant wary eye on my surroundings. Fortunately, being the clever sort, I hit upon a solution: fisheye lenses!

Above each ear, I mount a fisheye lens, each with a 180-degree field of view, together drawing light from the entire 360 degrees of my environment. Mirrors redirect the light to a screen mounted eight inches in front of my eyes, entirely occluding my normal forward view. Reflections from the right-mounted lens fill almost the whole space before my right eye. Reflections from the left-mounted lens fill almost the whole space before my left eye. Thus, binocularly, I simultaneously see my entire 360-degree environment. No one can sneak up on me now! By shifting attention between my right and left eyes and by shifting my gaze direction, I can focus on different objects in my visual field, thus doing my jeweler's tasks. My best view is of objects near my ears, which in fact are magnified relative to what I could see unaided, while objects near midline, directly in front of me, behind me, or above or below me, are radically shrunk and curved. This is no big problem, though, because I can rotate my head to put whatever I want into the privileged field of view. I quickly acquire the habit of walking with my head turned ninety-degrees sideways and with my ear slightly angled toward the ground.

At first, of course, everything looks radically distorted, given what I am used to. Here's how things look on the right side of my visual field when I turn my right ear toward the sky:

(image from http://www.sandydan.com/photo/wide/fish/ftest5.jpg)

After a while, though, I get used to it -- just like people get used to convex rearview mirrors in cars and just like, given long enough, people adapt to lenses that completely invert the visual field. I come to expect that a gemstone of constant size will look like [this] when held before my forehead and like [that] when held before my ear. I learn to play catch, to ski, to drive a car (no need for rearview mirrors!). After long enough, things look right this way. I would be utterly stymied and physically incompetent without my fisheye lenses.

After long enough, do things go back to looking like they did before I put on the fisheye lenses, the way some people say (but not others!) that after adapting to visual-field inverting lenses things eventually go back to looking the way they did before having donned the lenses? That doesn't seem possible. Unlike in the inverting-lenses case, there doesn't seem to be sufficient symmetry to enable such an adaptation back. I see much better near my ear than in front of my forehead. I see a full 360 degrees. Things might come to look just like I expect, but they can't come look the same as before.

Do things nonetheless look illusory, though now I am used to the illusion? I'm inclined to say no. With full adaptation they will come to seem right, and not illusory -- just as it seems right and not illusory that the angle a person occupies in my visual field grows smaller as he walks away from me, just like it seems right and not illusory that the car behind me appears in my central rear view mirror in my forward gaze as I am driving (and not like a small car somehow elevated in the air in front of me, which I only intellectually know is really behind me). There's nothing intrinsically privileged, I'm inclined to think, about the particular camera obscura optics of the human eye, about our particular form of refraction and focus on an interior retinal hemisphere. Another species might be born with fisheyes, and talk and fight and do physics with us -- do it better than us, and think we are the ones with the weird set-up. A god might have a giant spherical eye gathering light from its interior, in which mortals dwell, with objects occupying more visual angle as they approach the surface of the sphere that bounds its indwellers' world. There is no objectively right visual optics.

From this, I think it might follow that our visual experience of the world as like [this] (and here I inwardly gesture at the way in which my office presents itself to me visually right now, the way my hand before my eyes looks to me right now), is no more the one right veridical visual phenomenology of shape and size and distance than that of my fisheye future self or that of the sphere-eye god.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Re-Post: Does Studying Economics Make You Selfish?

Sometimes when I present my work on the mediocre moral behavior of ethics professors, someone tells me that it's been shown that professional economists behave more selfishly than do non-economists. I was all prepped today to write a post on how the empirical evidence for that claim is actually quite weak. It turns out I already posted on this in 2008, and had just forgotten about it! Perhaps you've forgotten too. Since my thoughts haven't changed much since then, I thought I'd just be lazy and re-post:

There's been a lot of discussion in economics circles about how economics training makes people more selfish -- in particular, by teaching people "rational choice theory", the cartoon version of which portrays rationality as a matter of always acting in one's perceived (economic) self interest (for example, by defecting in prisoner's dilemma games and offering very little in ultimatum games). Accordingly, the economics literature contains a few much-cited studies that seem to show that economics students behave more selfishly than other students.

However, virtually all the experiments cited in support of this view are flawed in one of two ways. Either they test students on basically the same sorts of games discussed in economics classes, or they rely on self-report of selfishness. Relying on econ-class games makes generalizing the results very problematic. It's no surprise that after a semester of being told by your professor that defecting (basically, ratting on your accomplice to get less prison time) would be the rational thing to do in a prisoner's dilemma game, when that same professor or one of his colleagues gives you a pencil-and-paper version of the prisoner's dilemma, you're more likely to say you'd defect than you would otherwise have been (even with small real stakes). What relationship this has to actually screwing over acquaintances is another question.

Likewise, relying on self-report of selfishness is problematic for all the reasons self-report is usually problematic in the domain of morality, and in this case there's an obvious additional confound: People exposed to rational choice theory might feel less embarrassed to confess their selfish behavior (since it is, after all, rational according to the theory), and so might show up as more selfish on self-report measures even if they actually behave the same as everyone else.

I've found so far only three real-world studies of the relationship between economics training and selfishness, and none suggest that economics training increases selfishness.

(1.) Though I find their study too problematic to rely much on, Yezer et al. (1996) found that envelopes containing money were more likely to be forwarded with the money still in them if they were dropped in economics classes than other classes.

(2.) Frey and Meier (2003) found that economics majors at University of Zurich were less likely than other majors to opt to give to student charities when registering for classes, but that effect held starting with the very first semester (before any exposure to rational choice theory), and the ratio of economics majors to non-economics majors donating remained about the same over time (all groups declined a bit as their education proceeded). [Update 21 Nov 2012: Bauman and Rose 2011 finds similar results for students at University of Washington.]

(3.) Studying professional economists, Laband and Beil (1999) found a majority to pay the highest level of dues to the American Economic Association (dues prorated on self-reported income), though they could without detection or punishment have reported lower income and so paid less. Through an analysis of proportion paying dues in each income category vs. proportion in the profession making income in those categories they found similar rates of cheating in self-reported income among sociologists and political scientists.

I see these findings as the flip side of what I've been finding with ethicists: Just as ethical training doesn't seem to increase rates of actual moral behavior much, if at all, so also being bathed in rational choice theory (if, indeed, this is what economics students are mostly taught) doesn't seem to induce real-world selfishness.

Monday, November 12, 2012

New Essay: The Problem of Known Illusion and the Resemblance of Experience to Reality

I'll be presenting a new essay at the Philosophy of Science Association meeting in San Diego on Friday in the morning sessions. I've been drafting it out since 2010, in various shapes and lengths, and I presented it orally in 2011 at UMSL, but the thing always seems to crumble in my hands, and until now I haven't been comfortable posting a circulating draft. However, by stripping it down to 2000 words for a brief oral presentation, I can conveniently decline to delve into the issues that keep stymieing me and present the core idea fairly simply, I hope, with a couple of examples.

Abstract: If Locke is right, when I visually experience a cubical thing and judge rightly that it is in fact a cube, then there is a mind-independent thing out there the shape of which in some important way resembles my experience of its shape. If Kant is right, in contrast, we have no good reason to think that things in themselves are cubical; there's nothing independent of the human mind that has cubical properties that resemble the properties of my visual experience of cubes. I believe we can start to get a handle on this dispute empirically through introspection. Suppose that there are multiple different ways of veridically experiencing the same object and that it can sometimes be the case that there's no good reason to think that one of the two different experiences more closely resembles things as they are in themselves. It would then seem to follow that there's a kind of looseness between features of experience and features of things in themselves. Things in themselves might be more like this or they might be more like that or somewhere in between; but we can no longer say that we know they are like this -- a miniature Kantian victory over Locke. And then the question would be: How far can we push this type of argument? In this paper, I consider two test cases: convex passenger-side car mirrors and inverting lenses of the sort invented by George Stratton.

Full paper here. As always, comments and criticisms welcome, either on this post or by email.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Aaron James's Theory of Assholes

The nature and management of assholes -- or as I generally prefer to say, jerks -- deserves far more attention than it has received thus far in moral psychology. Thus, I commend to your attention Aaron James's recent book Assholes: A Theory.

James defines an asshole as follows. The asshole

(1.) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
(2.) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
(3.) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people (p. 5).
Nuances of ordinary usage aside, it does seem to me that this captures an important type of person, and one deserving of the epithet.

Two of James's insights about the asshole particularly strike me. First, why is the asshole so infuriating, even when the harm he does is slight? James's answer is that the asshole's entrenched sense of entitlement -- the asshole's refusal to treat others as equals -- adds particular sting to the injuries he forces upon us. It's not just that he cuts in line or takes the last two cookies for himself. It's that, even when confronted, he refuses to recognize us as deserving equal consideration for line position and cookie consumption. A mere jerk (in James's terminology) might be moved upon reflection to confess the wrongness of his actions (even if still refusing to yield the second cookie) but all such appeals slide off the asshole. In fact, the more you protest, the more the asshole glazes over and rises, in his own mind, above you. (Here I go somewhat beyond James's own remarks, but I hope I remain within his general spirit.)

Second -- and equally infuriating -- the asshole, unlike the psychopath, is morally motivated. It's not just "morality be damned, I'm getting mine!" Rather, the asshole feels morally entitled to special advantages. An injustice is done, he feels, if he has to wait in the post office line equally with everyone else. After all, he's not a mere schmoe like you! Sanctimonious selfishness is the mark of the asshole.

However, I think James hits one wrong note repeatedly in the book, concerning the asshole's self-knowledge. For example, in the conclusion of his book -- his "Letter to an Asshole" -- he addresses the asshole with remarks like this: "we should ask about the nature of your own presumed special moral status" (p. 198) and "I address you here to give you... an argument that you really should come to recognize others as equals, that you should in this way change your basic way of being" (p. 190). This is off key, I think, because many assholes, perhaps most, would not explicitly acknowledge, even privately to themselves, that they deserve special moral consideration; they would not deny that "all men are created equal" -- in the morally relevant sense of "equal". Rather, I suggest, their spontaneous reactions and their moral judgments about particular cases reveal that they implicitly regard others as undeserving of full moral consideration; but when pushed to verbalize, and when reflecting in their usual self-congratulatory mode, they will deny that this is in fact their view.

Why shouldn't the asshole wait his turn in the post office line, then, in his own mind? Well, it's not that others aren't his equals -- not really -- it's just that he is particularly busy, since he owns his own business, or that he's a particularly important person around town, since he's a distinguished professor at the local university, or... whatever. Anyone else in the same position would (the asshole insists) deserve exactly the same special treatment! It's not that he's inherently superior, he says, but rather that he has achieved something that others have not, and this is entitles him to special privileges. Or: I've got especially important stuff going on today! Alternatively, if achievement and importance-based rationalizations aren't handy, the asshole has the following ready fallback: Cutting in line if you can get away with it is just how this game is supposed to work. Others could easily do so too, if they were more on the ball, if they weren't such cow-like fools. (But not in front of me! Part of the game is also enforcing your line position against intruders; too bad for them that those other people didn't.)

Conveniently for him, there always seems to be a rationalization lying around somewhere. All men are created equal, of course, of course! But not all achieve the same and not everyone can take first place.

Update, Nov. 8: Aaron James has launched a blog on assholes.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Tips for Writing Philosophy Papers

In my undergraduate classes, I normally distribute tips for writing philosophy papers along with my essay assignments. Perhaps others will find these tips helpful.

General Instructions on Writing Philosophy Papers

Philosophy papers can take a variety of forms; no single formula suffices to describe them all. However, most philosophy papers are built around two components: textual analysis and critical discussion. The simplest and most common form of a philosophy paper is the presentation of a particular author’s point of view, coupled with an argument against that view. Another common form is to contrast the views of two authors on a particular issue and to support one author’s view against the other.

The first element: textual analysis. The first element of a successful philosophy paper is an accurate, sympathetic, and cogent presentation of a point of view – typically the point of view of one or more of the authors we have been reading in the class. For longer papers, you should probably present not only a sketch of the author’s position, but also, as sympathetically as possible, some of the reasons the author gives for accepting his or her view. You might also offer your own, or others’, arguments supporting the author’s view. Using your own fresh examples, in the context of more abstract exposition, can especially effectively convey your command of the material.

You should put special care into accurately representing views with which you disagree, since it is tempting to oversimplify or caricature such views. You should also use citations to support your analysis (see below).

The second element: critical discussion. The second element of a successful philosophy paper is a critical discussion of the view (or views) presented. A plausible argument must be mounted either for or against at least one point of view. In constructing this argument, you may use ideas from the readings, lectures, class discussion, or any other source. When using an idea that you obtained from someone else, you must cite the source (see below). While it is not expected in most cases that you will discover wholly novel arguments, you will be expected to put the arguments in your own words, take your own angle on them, and use your own examples, going deeper into at least one issue or objection than we have in class. You should also bear in mind how an opponent might respond to your argument. The best papers often explicitly develop a potential line of criticism against the view the student favors and then show how the view advocated can withstand that criticism. (Of course, it is of little value to do this if the criticism anticipated is too weak to be advocated by thoughtful opponents of your position.) One or two powerful criticisms developed in convincing detail is almost always better than a barrage of quick criticisms treated superficially. Students sometimes relegate their critical discussion to the last paragraph or last page of their papers. Generally, that is a mistake. This is what the rest of the paper is building towards. Spend some time with it; work it out in detail.

One common mistake is to simply state (or restate) your position, or the position of one of the authors, as your critical discussion. Instead, you should mount an argument that brings new considerations to bear or shows some specific weakness in the position or argument you are criticizing. Give reasons for accepting the view you endorse.

Sentences. You should separately evaluate each sentence of your paper along the following three dimensions.

(1.) Is it clear? Although philosophers such as Kant and Heidegger are notorious for their opacity, opacity is not generally accepted in student papers. It should be clear what every sentence means, on the face of it. Avoid technical terms as much as is feasible. When you do use a technical term, for the most part it should be clearly defined in advance. Generally speaking, you should aim to write so that an intelligent person with no background in philosophy can understand most of your paper.

(2.) Is it true or plausible? Every claim you make in a philosophy paper – indeed, every element of every claim – should be either true or plausibly true. Claims that are true or plausible on their face (e.g., “damage to the brain can affect the capacity to think”) may be offered without further support. Claims likely to be questioned by an alert reader (e.g., “nothing immaterial can cause the motion of a material object”) should either precede or be preceded by some sort of consideration or argument in support, although in some cases the support may be fairly simple or preliminary, especially if the point is subsidiary or taken for granted by all the relevant parties.

(3.) Is it relevant? Often, the aim of a philosophy paper is to criticize the view of some particular author. In that case, most of the sentences should serve either to articulate relevant parts of the view that is to be criticized, or they should somehow support the criticism, or they should serve summary or “signpost” functions. In longer papers, digressions and speculations, if they are of sufficient interest, are also acceptable. In more purely interpretive papers, relevance may be harder to assess, but generally you should try to confine yourself either to a single interpretive thesis (e.g., “Descartes would not have accepted Malebranche’s occasionalism”) or you should focus on a narrow enough range of ideas that you can present an insightfully deep exploration of one aspect of the author’s view (as opposed to a scattered, superficial treatment).

Paragraphs. The basic unit of writing is not the sentence but the paragraph. As a general rule, every major point deserves its own paragraph. To make a claim clear it is often desirable to do at least one of the following: Restate it in different words, qualify and delimit it, contrast it to a related point with which it may be confused, present an example of its application, or expand it into several subpoints. To make a claim plausible, it is often desirable to present an example or application, show how it is supported by another claim that is plausible on the face of it, rephrase it in a way that brings out its commonsensicality, or cite an author who supports it. In your critical discussion, it is generally desirable that every major objection you raise receive at least a full paragraph of explanation.

If you treat the paragraph as the basic unit of writing, you will find that only a few points can truly be made well in any one paper, and five or even seven pages will start to seem (if it does not already) a narrow stricture.

Preparation for the paper. In preparing for the paper, I advise that you review the readings and notes relevant to the topic in question. If you have thought of what you consider to be a convincing objection to something in the texts or the lectures, you might want to build your paper around that, carefully describing the view or argument you oppose and then showing why you think we ought not accept that view or argument. If you raise your objection in class discussion, in office hours, or in discussion with friends, then you can see whether others find it convincing and perhaps how someone who disagrees with you would be inclined to respond.

Use of sources. Frequent citations should be used to back up the claims you make in your paper, both in describing an author’s view and in mounting your criticisms, if you depend on the ideas of other people in doing so. Citations serve two purposes: (1.) They credit people for their views, omission of this credit being plagiarism. (2.) If I disagree with your interpretation or recollection of what an author has said, a page reference allows me to check what you have said against the text – otherwise, in cases of disagreement I will have simply to assume that you are mistaken. Citations to particular authors and pages should be included parenthetically in the text, and the bulk of your references should be paraphrases, not direct quotations. Quotes take a lot of space and do not make clear what it is you mean to highlight or extract from the quoted passage, nor do they effectively convey that you understand the quoted material.

Below are two examples of parenthetical citation format for paraphrases. Both are written in the student's own words, not quoting from but rather conveying the crucial idea of the cited text:

It might be thought that materialism cannot be true because people can talk quite intelligently about mental states without knowing anything about brain states – without even believing that the brain is involved in thinking. Consider, however, the case of lightning as an electrical discharge: One can talk intelligently about lightning without knowing about electrical discharges, but this does not prove that lightning is not an electrical discharge (Smart, p. 171).


In support of the view that the mind continues to exist after death, Paterson cites evidence from reports of near-death experiences. Occasionally, Paterson claims, people who have near-death experiences report details of objects and places it would have been impossible for them normally to observe, such as friends unexpectedly arriving in the hospital waiting room (p. 146).

It is not necessary to appeal to secondary sources in discussing your interpretation of the texts. If you do choose to refer to such sources, you should always make your own judgment about whether what they say is plausible and back up your judgment, if possible, with references to the primary texts. Information found on the internet should be treated with special caution. Wikipedia is an unreliable source for philosophy; the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is usually much better. If you find information on the internet that in any way informs your paper, you should be certain to cite it (including the U.R.L.) as you would any other sort of secondary material.

Audience. Imagine the audience of your paper to be a mediocre student taking this class. You need not explain such basic things as who Descartes is. However, you should not assume that your reader has any more than the most rudimentary acquaintance with the texts and arguments or any knowledge at all of literature not assigned in the class. Jargon should be minimized. When you do use jargon, explain carefully what you mean by it.

Introductions. For such a short paper, there is no need for a general introduction to the issues or the particular thinkers being discussed. Get right to the point. The first paragraph should probably contain an explicit statement of what you take your primary point or points to be. There is no need to keep the reader in suspense.

Drafts, outlines, sketches. Many people find it helpful to create an outline of the paper before writing. At a minimum, one should have a general idea, in advance, of the main points one will make. One potential danger with outlines for philosophy papers is that it is often difficult to judge in advance the proper amount of time to spend on any particular sub-claim. Brief sketches of one’s main points and arguments – e.g., a summary of the main project of the paper in one or two paragraphs – are sometimes more helpful. Once you have completed the paper, it can be very rewarding to set it aside for a few days and then return to it, rewriting it from scratch from the beginning. Such rewriting forces you to rethink every sentence afresh as you retype it, which generally results in a clearer, tighter, and more coherent paper. (I rewrite my own essays multiple times before submitting them for publication.)