Monday, September 30, 2013

Philosophy Bites Podcast on the Ethical Behavior of Ethicists

I'm a fan of the Philosophy Bites podcasts, put together by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton. In their 15-minute podcasts, Nigel and Dave interview leading philosophers on a wide range of philosophical topics. One of the most impressive features of Philosophy Bites is how quickly Nigel and David can penetrate to the heart a topic, in plain language.

So it was a delight and an honor to be interviewed by Dave and Nigel when I was in Britain a few weeks ago. The resulting podcast -- on the moral behavior of ethicists -- is now up at the Philosophy Bites website here.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Modest Proposal

That no new form-filling be added to our lives without retiring an existing form that takes equal time to complete.

I will consider any arguments that readers care to advance on behalf of the thesis that we do not spend sufficient time completing forms. If I am convinced, I will withdraw my proposal.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fiction and Skepticism

Regular Splintered Mind readers will notice that I've started posting short speculative fiction about once a month (labeled science fiction, but sometimes more fantasy or thought experiment). I seem to be increasingly drawn to write that sort of thing. It's fun to write, and I have tenure, and a few people seem to like it, so why not?

But I've been thinking about whether I can defend this new behavior of mine from a philosophical perspective. Is there something one can do, philosophically, with fiction that one can't, or can't as easily, do with expository prose? I think of all the great philosophers who have tried their hand at fiction or who have integrated fictions into their philosophical work -- Plato, Voltaire, Boethius, Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, Zhuangzi, Rousseau, Unamuno, Kierkegaard... -- and I think there must be something to it. (I think too of fiction writers who develop philosophical themes, such as Borges.) It is not, I'm inclined to think, merely a secondary pursuit, unconnected to their philosophy, or a pretty but inessential way of costuming philosophy that could equally well be conveyed in a more conventional manner.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi has long been a favorite of mine, and my first published paper was on his use of language toward skeptical ends, including his use of absurd stories and strange dialogues. Zhuangzi used absurd stories, I think, partly to undercut his own authority, and partly to present possibilities for the reader to consider -- possibilities that he wanted to put forward, but not to endorse. For similar ends, I think, he used dialogues in which it was not clear which of the interlocutors was right, or which interlocutor represented his own view.

Zhuangzi could have said "here's a possibility, but I don't know whether to endorse it; here's one position, here's another, but I don't know which is right" -- writing in expository prose rather than fiction; and indeed sometimes that is exactly what he did. But fiction engages the reader's mind somewhat differently; and if Zhuangzi is aiming to unseat the reader's confidence in her presuppositions, perhaps it's best to have a diverse toolbox. Fiction engages the imagination and the emotions more vividly, perhaps; it's also less threatening in a way -- "just" fiction, not advertised truth, an invitation more than a demand. Perhaps, too, it differs in content: Even saying "I don't know" or "Both of these options seem like live possibilities" is to make an assertion, whereas fiction does not assert, or does not assert in the usual way -- a deeper divergence from the norms of expository writing, and perhaps a way to avoid the skeptical paradox of asserting the truth of skepticism....

I think now, too, of Plato. In those dialogues where Socrates is the authority and clearly the voice of Plato, and the interlocutor is reduced to "It is so, Socrates" and presents only objections that can easily be addressed, it is not really dialogue, not really fiction. But elsewhere, Socrates stumbles into confusion, and the interlocutor might be right. Plato, too, uses parable (most famously, the allegory of the cave). Sometimes parables are just exposition in a tutu; but at their best, parables borrow some of the ambiguous richness of reality, with competing layers of meaning beyond what the author could express in prose. The author makes intuitive choices that she cannot explain but which add depth; those choices sometimes resonate with the reader, in a communication that no one fully understands.

I trust my sense of fun. There are parts of psychology I find fun, and I chase them to philosophical ends; there are experiments I thought it would fun to run, and I've found that they tangle around into more philosophy than I at first thought; and now that I've begun to think more seriously about fundamental metaphysics and the nature of value, I'm enjoying exploring these ideas, with the skeptic's hesitation to commit, through the medium of the thought experiment that merges into the parable that merges into a piece of science fiction or fantasy.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Perplexities of Consciousness Now in Paperback

MIT Press is listing it at $16.95, and Amazon has it at $13.05, last I checked. MIT Press has been terrific about keeping the book affordable (for a small-market academic text).

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Discourse on the Size of God

An infinite and infinitely powerful God set the world in motion. Nothing remained to be created, so He became finite. He dwelled magnificent upon the mountain, twenty times the size of any man, throwing thunder and earthquakes – but the thunder and earthquakes were just for show. They arose from His perfectly crafted Laws of Nature, and His antics merely costumed them for our people to appreciate.

As our people matured, we no longer needed a mountain God and so God shrank to human form and walked among us, curing the sick (through natural methods, then mysterious to us) and speaking wisdom. But we tired of Him, so He became a forest fairy.

Sages visited God, Who now sat upon a daisy, and asked Him, are you truly the Creator of Our Universe? And God said yes, what does Size matter? They asked Him for a miracle and He said none was necessary. They asked Him for proof, and He said look into your hearts and know that I am God; and they knew.

The fairies were hunted to extinction, until no one believed in them any longer, and God became an ant. Sages no longer sought Him. The people became atheists.

Centuries passed. A chemist was looking through an electron microscope and saw God. God said, behold your Creator! The chemist said, you are not my Creator. God said, look into your heart, but the chemist could not do so. The chemist centrifuged Him, added Him to a reaction, and precipitated Him out. And God gloried in His Laws, behaving just as an organic molecule should.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Smidgen of Dream Skepticism

Every night I dream. And often when I dream I seem to think that I am awake. Is it possible, then, that I'm dreaming now, as I sit here, or seem to, in my office?

How should I go about addressing this question? The natural place to start, it seems to me, is with my opinions about dreams -- opinions that might be entirely wrong and ill-founded if I'm dreaming or otherwise radically deceived, but which I seem, anyway, to find myself stuck with.

Based on these opinions, I don't find it at all likely that I'm dreaming. For one thing, I tend to favor a theory of dreams on which dreams don't involve perception-like experiences but rather only imagery experiences (see Ichikawa 2009). If that theory is correct, then from the fact -- I think it's a fact! -- that I'm now having perception-like experiences, it follows that I'm not dreaming.

However, theories of this sort admit of some doubt. In the history of philosophy and psychology, as I seem to recall, many thinkers have held that when we dream we have experiences indistinguishable from waking perceptions -- Descartes held this, for example, and more recently Allan Hobson. It would be foolish arrogance to think there is no chance that they are right about this. So maybe I should I should accept the imagination model of dreaming with only, say, 80% credence? That seems pretty close to the confidence level that I do in fact have, when I reflect on the matter.

But even if I allow some possibility that dream experiences are typically much like waking perceptions, I might remain confident that I'm not dreaming. After all, I don't feel like I'm asleep. Maybe my current visual, auditory, and tactile sensory experiences could come to me in a dream, but I think I'm more rational in my cognition than I normally am when dreaming. And I recall, seemingly, a more coherent past. And maybe the stability of the details of my experience is greater.

But again, it seems unwarranted to hold with 100% confidence that dreams can't be rational, coherent, and stable in the way my current attitudes and experience seems to be. After all, people (if I recall correctly) have pretty poor knowledge of the basic facts about dream experience (for example, its coloration). Or even if I do insist on perfect confidence in the instability, incoherence, and irrationality of typical dreams, it seems unwarranted for me to be 100% confident that this is not an exceptional dream of some sort. So maybe I should do another 80-20 split? Or 90-10? Let's say the latter. Conditionally upon a 20% credence in a theory of dreams on which we have waking-like sensory experiences while dreaming, I have about 90% confidence that, nonetheless, my current experience has some other feature, like stability or rational coherence, that establishes that I am not dreaming. That would leave me about 98% confident that I am awake.

But I can do better than that! On some philosophical theories, I couldn't even form the opinion that I might be dreaming unless I really am awake. Alternatively, maybe it's just constitutive of being a rational agent that I assume with 100% confidence that I am awake. Or maybe there's some other excellent refutation of dream doubt -- a refutation I can't currently articulate, but which nonetheless justifies my and others' normal assumption, when awake, that they are indeed awake. Such theories are attractive, since no one (well, almost no one) wants to be a dream skeptic! Dream skepticism is pretty bizarre! So hopefully philosophy can succor common sense in this matter, even I don't currently see exactly how. I'm not extremely confident about any such theory, especially without any compelling argument immediately to hand, but it seems likely that something can be worked out.

Thus, I am almost certain that I am awake. Probably dreams don't involve sense experiences of the sort I am having now; or even if they do, probably something else about my current experience establishes that I am not dreaming; or even if nothing in my current experience establishes that I am not dreaming, probably there is some excellent philosophical argument that would justify confidence in the fact that I am not currently dreaming. But of none of these things am I perfectly confident. My degree of certainty in the proposition that I am now awake is somewhat less than 100%. I hesitate to put a precise number on it, and yet it seems better to attach an approximate number than to keep to ordinary English terms that might be variously interpreted. To have only 90% credence that I am awake seems far more doubt than than is reasonable; I assume you'll agree. On the other hand, 99.9999% credence that I am awake seems considerably too high, once I really think about the matter. Somewhere on the order of 99.9% (or 99.99%?) confidence that I am currently awake, then?

Is that too strange -- not to be exactly spot-on 100% confident that I am awake?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Synchronized Movement and the Self-Other Boundary

I'm traveling around Britain. (Oxford, Bristol, Birmingham, Edinburgh, and St Andrews so far, Sheffield and Bristol again tomorrow and the day after.) I have some post ideas, but I'm too worn out to trust my judgment that I'll do them right, so I'm going to exert the long-time blogger's privilege of reposting something from ancient days -- 2007! Jonathan Haidt and the rubber hand illusion aren't as cutting-edge in 2013 as they were in 2007, but still....


I've been reading The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt -- one of those delightful books pitched to the non-specialist, yet accurate and meaty enough to be of interest to the specialist -- and I was struck by Haidt's description of historian William McNeill's work on synchronized movement among soliders and dancers:

Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that [military] drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual (McNeill 1997, p. 2).
Who'd have thought endless marching on the parade-grounds could be so fulfilling?

I am reminded of work by V.S. Ramachandran on the ease with which experimenters can distort the perceived boundaries of a subject's body. For example:
Another striking instance of a 'displaced' body part can be demonstrated by using a dummy rubber hand. The dummy hand is placed in front of a vertical partition on a table. The subject places his hand behind the partition so he cannot see it. The experimenter now uses his left hand to stroke the dummy hand while at the same time using his right hand to stroke the subject's real hand (hidden from view) in perfect synchrony. The subject soon begins to experience the sensations as arising from the dummy hand (Blotvinick and Cohen 1998) (Ramachandran and Hirstein 1998, p. 1623).
The subject sits in a chair blindfolded, with an accomplice sitting in front of him, facing the same direction. The experimenter then stands near the subject, and with his left hand takes hold of the subject's left index finger and uses it to repeatedly and randomly to [sic] tap and stroke the nose of the accomplice while at the same time, using his right hand, he taps and strokes the subject's nose in precisely the same manner, and in perfect synchrony. After a few seconds of this procedure, the subject develops the uncanny illusion that his nose has either been dislocated or has been stretched out several feet forwards, demonstrating the striking plasticity or malleability of our body image (p. 1622).
So here's my thought: Maybe synchronized movement distorts body boundaries in a similar way: One feels the ground strike one's feet, repeatedly and in perfect synchrony with seeing other people's feet striking the ground. One does not see one's own feet. If Ramachandran's model applies, repeatedly receiving such feedback might bring one to (at least start to) see those other people's feet as one's own -- explaining, in turn, the phenomenology McNeill reports. Perhaps then it is no accident that armies and sports teams and dancing lovers practice moving in synchrony, causing a blurring of the experienced boundary between self and other?

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors and the Role of the Philosopher

Philosophers rarely seem surprised or unsettled when I present my work on the morality of ethicists -- work suggesting that ethics professors behave no differently than other professors or any more in accord with their own moral opinions (e.g., here). Amusement is a more common reaction; so also is dismissal of the relevancy of such results to philosophy. Such reactions reveal something, perhaps, about the role philosophical moral reflection is widely assumed to have in academia and in individual ethicists' personal lives.

I think of Randy Cohen's farewell column as ethics columnist for the New York Times Magazine:

Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn't have to be.... I wasn't hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging. Consider sports writers: not 2 in 20 can hit the curveball, and why should they? They're meant to report on athletes, not be athletes. And that's the self-serving rationalization I'd have clung to had the cops hauled me off in handcuffs.

What spending my workday thinking about ethics did do was make me acutely aware of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short. It is deeply demoralizing.

(BTW, here's my initial reaction to Cohen's column.)

Josh Rust and I have found, for example, that although U.S.-based ethicists are much more likely than other professors to say it's bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals (60% say it is bad, vs. 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and only 19% of professors outside of philosophy), they are no less likely to report having eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal (37%, in our study, vs. 33% of non-ethicist philosophers and 45% of non-philosophers; details here and also in the previously linked paper). So we might consider the following scenario:

An ethicist philosopher considers whether it's morally permissible to eat the meat of factory-farmed mammals. She read Peter Singer. She reads objections and replies to Singer. She concludes that it is in fact morally bad to eat meat. She presents the material in her applied ethics class. Maybe she even writes on the issue. However, instead of changing her behavior to match her new moral opinions, she retains her old behavior. She teaches Singer's defense of vegetarianism, both outwardly and inwardly endorsing it, and then proceeds to the university cafeteria for a cheeseburger (perhaps feeling somewhat bad about doing so).

To the student who sees her in the cafeteria, our philosopher says: Singer's arguments are sound. It is morally wrong of me to eat this delicious cheeseburger. But my role as a philosopher is only to discuss philosophical issues, to present and evaluate philosophical views and arguments, not to live accordingly. Indeed, it would be unfair to expect me to live to higher moral standards just because I am an ethicist. I am paid to teach and write, like my colleagues in other fields; it would be an additional burden on me, not placed on them, to demand that I also live my life as a model. Furthermore, the demand that ethicists live as moral models would create distortive pressures on the field that might tend to lead us away from the moral truth. If I feel no inward or outward pressure to live according to my publicly espoused doctrines, then I am free to explore doctrines that demand high levels of self-sacrifice on an equal footing with more permissive doctrines. If instead I felt an obligation to live as I teach, I would be highly motivated to avoid concluding that wealthy people should give most of their money to charity or that I should never lie out of self-interest. The world is better served if the intellectual discourse of moral philosophy is undistorted by such pressures, that is, if ethicists are not expected to live out their moral opinions.

Such a view of the role of the philosopher is very different from the view of most ancient ethicists. Socrates, Confucius, and the Stoics sought to live according to the norms they espoused and invited others to judge their lives as an expression of their doctrines. It is an open and little-discussed question which is the better vision of the role of the philosopher.

Update 1:17 PM: A number of philosophers have expressed variants of this position to me over the years, but Helen De Cruz has reminded me of Regina Rini's articulate expression of some of these ideas in a comment on one of my earlier posts.]