Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Moral Self-Knowledge by Looking at Others' Faces

Our own moral character is largely unknown to us. Lots of jerks think they're just swell. Lots of saints and sweethearts suffer from moral self-doubt. But a formulaic inversion of one's moral self-opinion doesn't work either: Moral pride and moral self-condemnation sometimes fit the facts quite well. I conjecture approximately a zero correlation between people's moral self-opinions and their actual moral character.

Moral self-knowledge is an unruly beast that cannot, I think, be trapped and held still for systematic examination, partly because moral self-examination is itself a moral act, tangled up with the very traits under consideration. The jerk will tend toward a biased self-examination; the sweetheart will be biased in a different way; and the conclusions one habitually reaches, on either side, can reinforce or undercut the very traits self-ascribed. "Oh, I'm such a sweetheart, so much nicer than everyone else around me" is not, in most circumstances, a thought that sits very comfortably on its bearer.

The usual method by which we consider our moral character -- trying an adjective on for size, as it were, and asking, "Is that me? Am I trustworthy? Am I kind? Am I gentle?" -- is, as suggested by both informal observation and psychological research, a method of little probative value. Maybe somewhat better is taking an icy look at objective data about yourself or asking for the frank opinion of someone whose judgment you trust -- but both of those approaches are also seriously flawed.

So here's another approach to add to the stock -- an approach that is also flawed, but which deserves attention because its potential power hasn't yet, I think, been widely enough recognized. Look at the faces of the people around you. Central to our moral character is how we tend to view others nearby. The jerk sees himself as surrounded by fools and losers. The sweetheart vividly appreciates the unique talents and virtues of whomever he's with. The avaricious person sees the people around her as a threat to her resources (time, money, but also possibly space in the subway, position in line, praise from her peers). The person obsessed with social position sees people who vary finely in their relative social standing. Or consider: What do you notice about others' physical appearance? This reveals something morally important about you -- something not directly under your control, a kind of psychological tell.

Or so I think it's reasonable to suppose. I'm open to counterevidence, e.g., by experience sampling beeper methods, combined with some plausible related measures of moral character. But psychological science isn't there yet.

Of course you can game it. You can sit around and work yourself into a blissed-out appreciation of all those wonderful people around you, congratulating yourself on your sage-like moral awesomeness. This is a misfire, especially if there's an implicit (or explicit) comparative dimension to your moral self-assessment as you do this. (If only everyone were as good at me at seeing how wonderful everyone is!) Or you can choose to recall situations, or choose to put yourself in situations, disproportionately suggestive of the type of moral character you'd like to see yourself as having.

But I don't think it's inevitable that we game the method. I find it interestingly revealing (and disappointing) to look at strangers in the store or acquaintances at a party, letting my relatively uncensored assessments of them float up as an indication not of anything about them but rather as an indication of something about me, that I view them that way.

You can also notice things post-hoc: You can catch yourself viewing people in the way characteristic of the jerk, or in the way characteristic of the avaricious person, or of the person focused on status or sexual attractiveness.

It needn't always be negative. Sometimes you can congratulate yourself on being the one person in line who seemed to treat the cashier as a person. Sometimes you can feel good about the fact that you find yourself feeling good about the people around you. But I emphasize the negative for two reasons. First, I suspect that non-depressed people -- perhaps, especially, relatively affluent Western men? -- tend to err toward having too high an opinion of their moral character. Second, there's probably something cognitively or morally unstable, as I've gestured at a couple times above, about using this technique primarily for moral self-congratulation.

[Jeanette McMullin King has reminded me of the poem "The Right Kind of People", which fits nicely with this post.]

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wildcard Skepticism

Might there be excellent reasons to embrace radical skepticism, of which we are entirely unaware?

You know brain-in-a-vat skepticism -- the view that maybe last night while I was sleeping, alien superscientists removed my brain, envatted it, and are now stimulating it to create the false impression that I'm still living a normal life. I see no reason to regard that scenario as at all likely. Somewhat more likely, I argue -- not very likely, but I think reasonably drawing a wee smidgen of doubt -- are dream skepticism (might I now be asleep and dreaming?), simulation skepticism (might I be an artificial intelligence living in a small, simulated world?), and cosmological skepticism (might the cosmos in general, or my position in it, be radically different than I think, e.g., might I be a Boltzmann brain?).

"1% skepticism", as I define it, is the view that it's reasonable for me to assign about a 1% credence to the possibility that I am actually now enduring some radically skeptical scenario of this sort (and thus about a 99% credence in non-skeptical realism, the view that the world is more or less how I think it is).

Now, how do I arrive at this "about 1%" skeptical credence? Although the only skeptical possibilities to which I am inclined to assign non-trivial credence are the three just mentioned (dream, simulation, and cosmological), it also seems reasonable for me to reserve a bit of my credence space, a bit of room for doubt, for the possibility that there is some skeptical scenario that I haven't yet considered, or that I've considered but dismissed and should take more seriously than I do. I'll call this wildcard skepticism. It's a kind of meta-level doubt. It's a recognition of the possibility that I might be underappreciating the skeptical possibilities. This recognition, this wildcard skepticism, should slightly increase my credence that I am currently in a radically skeptical scenario.

You might object that I could equally well be over-estimating the skeptical possibilities, and that in recognition of that possibility, I should slightly decrease my credence that I am currently in a radically skeptical scenario; and thus the possibilities of over- and underestimation should cancel out. I do grant that I might as easily be overestimating as underestimating the skeptical possibilities. But over- and underestimation do not normally cancel out in the way this objection supposes. Near confidence ceilings (my 99% credence in non-skeptical realism), meta-level doubt should tend overall to shift one's credence down.

To see this, consider a cartoon case. Suppose I would ordinarily have a 99% credence that it won't rain tomorrow afternoon (hey, it's July in southern California), but I also know one further thing about my situation: There's a 50% chance that God has set things up so that from now on the weather will always be whatever I think is most likely, and there's a 50% chance that God has set things up so that whenever I have an opinion about the weather he'll flip a coin to make it only 50% likely that I'm right. In other words, there's a meta-level reason to think that my 99% credence might be an underestimation of the conformity of my opinions to reality or equally well might be an overestimation. What should my final credence in sunshine tomorrow be? Well, 50% times 100% (God will make it sunny for me) plus 50% times 50% (God will flip the coin) = 75%. In meta-level doubt, the down weighs more than the up.

Consider the history of skepticism. In Descartes's day, a red-blooded skeptic might have reasonably invested a smidgen more doubt in the possibility that she was being deceived by a demon than it would be reasonable to invest in that possibility today, given the advance of a science that leaves little room for demons. On the other hand, a skeptic in that era could not even have conceived of the possibility that she might be an artificial intelligence inside a computer simulation. It would be epistemically unfair to such a skeptic to call her irrational for not considering specific scenarios beyond her society's conceptual ken, but it would not be epistemically unfair to think she should recognize that given her limited conceptual resources and limited understanding of the universe, she might be underestimating the range of possible skeptical scenarios.

So now us too. That's wildcard skepticism.

[image source]

Eric Kaplan's Blog

Eric Kaplan, who overlapped with me in grad school at Berkeley but who is now much more famous as a comedy writer for Big Bang Theory, Futurama, and several other shows, has been cooking up weird philosophical-comical blog posts since March at his Wordpress blog here.

Check it out!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tononi's Exclusion Postulate Would Make Consciousness (Nearly) Irrelevant

One of the most prominent theories of consciousness is Guilio Tononi's Integrated Information Theory. The theory is elegant and interesting, if a bit strange. Strangeness is not necessarily a defeater if, as I argue, something strange must be true about consciousness. One of its stranger features is what Tononi calls the Exclusion Postulate. The Exclusion Postulate appears to render the presence or absence of consciousness almost irrelevant to a system's behavior.

Here's one statement of the Exclusion Postulate:

The conceptual structure specified by the system must be singular: the one that is maximally irreducible (Φ max). That is, there can be no superposition of conceptual structures over elements and spatio-temporal grain. The system of mechanisms that generates a maximally irreducible conceptual structure is called a complex... complexes cannot overlap (Tononi & Koch 2014, p. 5).
The basic idea here is that conscious systems cannot nest or overlap. Whenever two information-integrating systems share any parts, consciousness attaches to the one that is the most informationally integrated, and the other system is not conscious -- and this applies regardless of temporal grain.

The principle is appealing in a certain way. There seem to be lots of information-integrating subsystems in the human brain; if we deny exclusion, we face the possibility that the human mind contains many different nesting and overlapping conscious streams. (And we can tell by introspection that this is not so -- or can we?) Also, groups of people integrate information in social networks, and it seems bizarre to suppose that groups of people might have conscious experience over and above the individual conscious experiences of the members of the groups (though see my recent work on the possibility that the United States is conscious). So the Exclusion Postulate allows Integrated Information Theory to dodge what might otherwise be some strange-seeming implications. But I'd suggest that there is a major price to pay: the near epiphenomenality of consciousness.

Consider an electoral system that works like this: On Day 0, ten million people vote yes/no on 20 different ballot measures. On Day 1, each of those ten million people gets the breakdown of exactly how many people voted yes on each measure. If we want to keep the system running, we can have a new election every day and individual voters can be influenced in their Day N+1 votes by the Day N results (via their own internal information integrating systems, which are subparts of the larger social system). Surely this is society-level information integration if anything is. Now according to the Exclusion Postulate, whether the individual people are conscious or instead the societal system is conscious will depend on how much information is integrated at the person level vs. the societal level. Since "greater than" is sharply dichotomous, there must be an exact point at which societal-level information integration exceeds the person-level information integration. Tononi and Koch appear to accept a version of this idea in 2014, endnote xii [draft of 26 May 2014]. As soon as this crucial point is reached, all the individual people in the system will suddenly lose consciousness. However, there is no reason to think that this sudden loss of consciousness would have any appreciable effect on their behavior. All their interior networks and local outputs might continue to operate in virtually the same way, locally inputting and outputting very much as before. The only difference might be that individual people hear back about X+1 votes on the Y ballot measures instead of X votes. (X and Y here can be arbitrarily large, to ensure sufficient informational flow between individuals and the system as a whole. We can also allow individuals to share opinions via widely-read social networks, if that increases information integration.) Tononi offers no reason to think that a small threshold-crossing increase in the amount of integrated information (Φ) at the societal level would profoundly influence the lower-level behavior of individuals. Φ is just a summary number that falls out mathematically from the behavioral interactions of the individual nodes in the network; it is not some additional thing with direct causal power to affect the behavior of those nodes.

I can make the point more vivid. Suppose that the highest-level Φ in the system belongs to Jamie. Jamie has a Φ of X. The societal system as a whole has a Φ of X-1. The highest-Φ individual person other than Jamie has a Φ of X-2. Because Jamie's Φ is higher than the societal system's, the societal system is not a conscious complex. Because the societal system is not a conscious complex, all those other individual people with Φ of X-2 or less can be conscious without violating the Exclusion Postulate. But Tononi holds that a person's Φ can vary over the course of the day -- declining in sleep, for example. So suppose Jamie goes to sleep. Now the societal system has the highest Φ and no individual human being in the system is conscious. Now Jamie wakes and suddenly everyone is conscious again! This might happen even if most or all of the people in the society have no knowledge of whether Jamie is asleep or awake and exhibit no changes in their behavior, including in their self-reports of consciousness.

More abstractly, if you are familiar with Tononi's node-network pictures, imagine two very similar largish systems, both containing a largish subsystem. In one of the two systems, the Φ of the whole system is slightly less than that of the subsystem. In the other, the Φ of the whole system is slightly more. The node-by-node input-output functioning of the subsystem might be virtually identical in the two cases, but in the first case, it would have consciousness -- maybe even a huge amount of consciousness if it's large and well-integrated enough! -- and in the other case it would have none at all. So its consciousness or lack thereof would be virtually irrelevant to its functioning.

It doesn't seem to me that this is a result that Tononi would or should want. If Tononi wants consciousness to matter, given the Exclusion Postulate, he needs to show why slight changes of Φ, up or down at the higher level, would reliably cause major changes in the behavior of the subsystems whenever the Φ(max) threshold is crossed at the higher level. There seems to be no mechanism that ensures this.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Confessional Philosophy (repost)

I'm in Florida with glitchy internet and a 102-degree fever, so now seems like a good day to fall back on the old blogger's privilege of a repost from the past (Sept 15, 2009).


Usually, philosophy is advocacy. Sometimes it's disruption without a positive thesis in mind. More rarely, it's confession.

The aim of the confessional philosopher is not the same as that of someone who confesses to a spouse or priest, nor quite the same (though perhaps closer) as that of a confessional poet. It is rather this: to display oneself as a model of a certain sort of thinking, while not necessarily endorsing that style of thinking or the conclusions that flow from it. Confessional philosophy tends to center on skepticism and sin.

Consider, in Augustine's Confessions the famous discussion of stealing pears, wherein Augustine displays the sinful pattern of his youthful mind. Augustine's aim is not so much, it seems to me, to advocate a certain position (such as that sinful thoughts tend to take such-and-such a form) as to offer the episode for contemplation by others, with no pre-packaged conclusion, and perhaps also to induce humility in both the reader and himself. He offers an analysis of his motives -- that he was trying to simulate freedom by getting away with something forbidden (which would fit with his general theory of sin, that it involves trying to possess something that can only be given by god) -- but then he undercuts that analysis by noting that he would definitely not have stolen the pears alone. Was it then that he valued the camraderie of his sinful friends? He rejects that explanation also -- "that gang-mentality too was a nothing" -- and after waffling over various possibilities he concludes "It was a seduction of the mind hard to understand.... Who can unravel this most snarled, knotty tangle?" (4th c. CE/1997, p. 72-73)

Descartes's Meditations, especially the first two, are presented as confessional -- perhaps partly to display an actual pattern in his past thinking, but perhaps also partly as a pose. Here we see or seem to see the struggles and confusions of a man bent on finding a secure foundation for his thought. Hume's skeptical conclusion to Book One of his Treatise seems to me more genuinely confessional, when he asks how he can dare to "venture upon such bold enterprizes when beside those numberless infirmities peculiar to myself, I find so many which are common to human nature" (1739/1978, p. 265). "The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning.... I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter them and farther (p. 268-269). We see how the skeptic writhes. Hume displays his pattern of skeptical thought, but offers no way out, nor chooses between embracing his skeptical arguments and rejecting them. Nonetheless, in books two and three he's back in the business of philosophical argumentation.

Generally, it's better to offer a tight, polished exposition or argument than to display one's thoughts, errors, and uncertainties. That partly explains the rarity of confessional philosophy. But sometimes, no model of error or uncertainty will serve better than oneself.

[for some discussion, see the comments section of the original post]