Thursday, December 31, 2015

How Prominently Is Women's Philosophical Work Discussed? One Empirical Measure

Citation is one thing. Discussion is another. You can drop a reference without really engaging someone's work (e.g., Snerdfoot 2011). But as Helen de Cruz has emphasized, discussing a possible Bechdel test for philosophy papers, citation analysis is insufficient as a measure of serious engagement with someone's work. I propose two rough measures of "discussion".

"Discussion" itself I operationalize as follows: A person is discussed if that person's name appears in the abstract of an article. Looking at the Philosopher's Index database, I have examined discussion arcs over time for various well-known philosophers in a series of blog posts (e.g., here, here, here, here).

"Extended discussion" I operationalize as follows: A person receives extended discussion if that person is referred to at least twice in the abstract of the article, by either name or pronoun. The nominative pronoun might be especially telling, since its presence suggests that the person is being referred to repeatedly in independent clauses. For example:

Later, Nussbaum gradually reconsidered the notion of patriotism in texts that remained largely unknown and rarely discussed. This article begins with a brief account of her shift from cosmopolitanism to what she terms 'a globally sensitive patriotism,' and the task assigned to education within this framework....

This suggests a possible rough and simple measure of the relative rates at which women receive extended discussion in philosophy articles compared to men: Compare the ratio of "he" to "she" in philosophy abstracts, then remove cases in which those words are used with generic intent (e.g., "If the agent wouldn't have done otherwise whether or not she could have....") or otherwise not referring to an individual philosopher whose work is being discussed (e.g., reference to historical leaders, or third-person references to the author herself for abstracts written in the third person).


I searched Philosopher's Index for all appearances of "he" or "she" in abstracts from 1970 to the present in a sample of ten ethics journals and ten general philosophy journals. [See Note 1 for journal details.] This yielded a total of 2321 abstracts. I then skimmed each abstract to remove all cases in which the pronoun was not used to refer to a specific philosopher whose work was being discussed. [Yes, I looked at over 2000 abstracts! Obviously, my determinations had to be quick, but in almost every case it could be made confidently within just a few seconds.] To examine temporal trends, I grouped results by decade. I also separated citations of pre-20th-century historical figures from 20th and 21st century figures.


Percentage of recipients of extended discussion (as measured by nominative pronoun use in abstracts) who are women:

Ethics: 8/92 (9% women) [so 91% of those receiving extended discussion are men]
General journals: 4/134 (3%)
Ethics: 3/77 (4%)
General: 0/137 (0%)
Ethics: 20/147 (14%)
General: 9/189 (5%)
Ethics: 16/184 (9%)
General: 16/229 (7%)
Ethics: 19/120 (16%)
General: 27/244 (11%)
Merging the ethics and the general journals, so far in the 2010s, approximately 13% of philosophers receiving extended discussion in these journals are women.

In contrast with my earlier data on authorship in the most elite journals, this does appear to be a statistically significant increase since the 1970s (5% vs. 13%, z = 3.2, p = .001).

If we remove discussion the pre-20th century figures (Kant, Plato, etc.), then numbers look like this:

Ethics: 8/64 (13% women)
General journals: 4/97 (4%)
Ethics: 3/54 (6%)
General: 0/106 (0%)
Ethics: 19/94 (20%)
General: 9/144 (6%)
Ethics: 15/140 (11%)
General: 16/184 (9%)
Ethics: 18/95 (19%)
General: 26/210 (12%)
Still only 14%!

(Since ethics is a minority of the discipline, it makes sense that the center of gravity would be closer to the general journals.)

These numbers are consonant with two other measures I've done that suggest that at the very highest levels of prestige our discipline is still predominately male.

  • Among the 267 most-cited contemporary philosophers (in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) only 10% are women.
  • About 13% of authors in the most elite philosophy journals are women.
  • For the discipline as a whole, percentages of faculty in the 21st century are typically in the low 20%'s (U.S. data here).

    The outlier analysis here is my analysis of American Philosophical Association meetings, where women were 35% (144/413) of the invited symposium speakers on the main program, and 32% of main program participants overall.


    Note 1: Ethics and non-ethics were analyzed separately because previous analyses have found differences by area, and because journals divide fairly naturally into those specializing in ethics/political, "general" journals that publish proportionately little ethics, and other types of specialty journals (like philosophy of science).

    Ethics journals were the top ranked journals in surveys by Brian Weatherson and Brian Leiter (excluding the non-ethics journals appearing in the latter) and include Ethics, Philosophy & Public Affairs, Journal of Political Philosophy, Utilitas, Social Philosophy and Policy, Journal of Ethics, Ethical Theory & Moral Practice, Journal of Social Philosophy, Journal of Value Inquiry, and Journal of Moral Philosophy.

    The comparison list was a stratified sample of "general" philosophy journals drawn from Leiter's surveys here and here and included Nous, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Synthese, Mind, Philosophical Studies, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, European Journal of Philosophy, Dialectica, Philosophical Topics, and Theoria. The sample was stratified so that the selected journals would not differ too much in overall prestige from the ethics journals. ----------------------------------------------------------

    For a related post, also including discussion of the use of "he" and "she" and generic pronouns, see Use of "She" and "He" in Philosopher's Index Abstracts (Sep. 16, 2014). See also Kieran Healy's nice analysis of gender citation patterns in four leading philosophy journals.

    Wednesday, December 23, 2015

    A Response to Critiques of Cushman's and My Work on Philosophers' Susceptibility to Order Effects

    The order in which moral dilemmas are presented matters to people's judgments and can substantially influence later judgments about abstract moral principles. This is true even among professional ethicists with PhD's in philosophy. In 2012 and 2015, Fiery Cushman and I published empirical evidence supporting these claims. We invite a metaphilosophical conclusion: If even professional philosophers' expert judgments are easily swayed by order of presentation, then such judgments might not be stable enough to serve as secure grounds for philosophical theorizing.

    Synthese has recently published two critiques of the literature on order effects in philosophy, which address Fiery's and my work (HT Wesley Buckwalter). Both critiques make valuable points. However both also admit of some clear replies.

    To fix ideas, consider two versions of the famous Trolley Problem:

    Push: A runaway boxcar is headed toward five people it will kill if nothing is done. Jane can stop the boxcar by pushing a hiker with a heavy backpack in front of the boxcar, killing him but saving the five.

    Switch: A runaway boxcar is headed toward five people it will kill if nothing is done. Vicki can stop the boxcar by flipping a switch to divert it to a sidetrack where it will kill one person instead of the five.

    Fiery and I presented Push-type and Switch-type scenarios (fleshed with a bit more detail) to professional philosophers and two comparison groups of non-philosophers. We found that when professional philosophers saw a Push-type scenario before a Switch-type scenario, 73% rated the two scenarios equivalently on a 7-point scale. Then later in the questionnaire when asked about the Doctrine of the Double Effect -- a moral principle often interpreted implying that Push-type cases are morally worse than Switch-type cases -- only a minority, 46%, endorsed that principle. In contrast, among philosophers who saw Switch before Push only 54% rated the two scenarios equivalently, and then later a majority, 62%, endorsed the Doctrine of the Double Effect. Endorsement of the principle thus seemed to shift, post-hoc, to rationalize philosophers' order-manipulated judgments about the scenarios.

    We found similar effects for Action-Omission, Moral Luck, and "Asian disease" type cases (though not consistently for every measure across the board). Philosophers with PhDs and self-reported competence or specialization in ethics showed no smaller effects than other philosophers or than comparison groups of non-philosophers -- and in fact trended slightly (non-significantly) toward showing larger order effects.

    In general, we found pretty substantial effect sizes, suggesting substantial instability of judgment even in philosophical respondents' areas of expertise. Hence the metaphilosophical worry.


    Critique by Zachary Horne and Jonathan Livengood.

    Horne and Livengood make three main points about the literature on order effects in philosophy:

    (A.) First, they helpfully distinguish between what they call "updating effects" and "genuine ordering effects". Genuine ordering effects, in their terminology, are effects measured only after all the stimuli have been presented. "Updating effects" are measures taken along the way, and might well reflect participants' learning. There is of course nothing irrational in judging Scenario B differently as a result of seeing Scenario A because one learned something by seeing Scenario A. Most philosophical research on order effects, they note, takes the measures along the way -- and thus might be measuring learning rather than true order effects.

    (B.) Second, they point out that perceptual judgments also show order effects. Thus, if we are to reject any type of evidence that shows order effects, then we must reject perceptual evidence too, which would lead to radical skepticism.

    (C.) Third, they point out that order can sometimes reasonably make a difference to the evaluation of evidence. For example, a smile followed by a frown, on the same person's face, is a different type of evidence than a frown followed by a smile.

    On (A): I find the labels tendentious (since if we know there isn't learning-type updating going on, what we might want to call "genuine order effects" can plausibly be measured mid-stream), however it probably is correct that most studies do not sufficiently rule out the possibility of learning or updating in the course of the experiment, if they have novice participants and take the measurements after each scenario rather than after both scenarios. However, since our participants were experts, we think it unlikely that a significant number learned anything in the process of our brief experiment that would rationally justify shifting their judgment about the equivalency or non-equivalency of Push and Switch. And as Horne and Livengood note, our measure of endorsement of the Doctrine of the Double Effect is a measurement of a "genuine ordering effect" even by their own lights.

    On (B): Yes, of course it would be silly to reject all means of learning that are subject to any order effects! The epistemic sting, as they note, depends not on the mere existence of an order effect in one case, but on how large and how prevalent the order effects are. This is an open empirical question. But the limited empirical evidence that exists suggests that order effects are substantial and prevalent in moral dilemma cases. So far, we have found order effects in all of the scenario types we've tried, with about a 10-20% shift in opinion on the moral equivalency of our scenario pairs and in preference for the risky option in the "Asian disease" cases.

    On (C): It's interesting to consider cases in which earlier evidence rightly colors our reaction to later evidence, but trolley problems presented to disciplinary experts seems a different kind of case.

    Finally, Horne and Livengood suggest that exposure to a pair of dilemmas in our study is unlikely to have a long-lasting impact on professional philosophers' beliefs. I agree. They continue, "But if there is no long-lasting impact, then we think the effect is unlikely to matter to actual philosophical practice outside of the laboratory" (p. 17). I don't think this follows. Fiery's and my view is not that philosophers' opinions are permanently influenced by the order in which the scenarios are presented on any single occasion, but rather that their opinions are unstable -- possibly influenced one direction on one occasion, in another direction on another occasion. This instability is what drives the metaphilosophical worry.


    Critique by Regina Rini:

    Rini -- a recent guest blogger here at the Splintered Mind -- looks only at our 2012 study. (Our 2015 study wasn't published until after her paper was in press.) She finds it plausible that if professional philosophers were already familiar with these cases they would not exhibit order effects of the sort Fiery and I find. She suggests that perhaps respondents were not previously familiar with the cases -- or at least not familiar in the right sort of way. She calls this the "familiarity problem" and offers four possible explanations:

    (1.) The respondents were not really experts. She wonders if our participants, recruited through the internet, really had the degrees they claimed to have.

    (2.) The respondents didn't carefully attend to our scenarios. Maybe they breezed through them so quickly that they failed to notice relevant features.

    (3.) The respondents might not have familiar responses to these types of scenarios. Perhaps they have so far refrained from forming judgments on such cases and principles.

    (4.) The respondents might not have diachronically stable familiar responses. This is the explanation Fiery and I favor. However, Rini helpfully points out that as long as philosophers are aware that their responses are not diachronically stable, the metaphilosophical threat is reduced: Presumably philosophers who are aware that their responses are not stable would be reluctant to ground their theorizing on those responses.

    On (1): I am not aware of a general problem in the survey literature of respondents' frequently misreporting their educational status -- though certainly a bit of misreporting is possible. One specific piece of evidence against this possibility in our own study is that we recruited philosophers mostly by asking department chairs to forward a recruitment email to faculty and graduate students in their departments. Most of our "philosopher" participants took the survey within just a few days of these emails.

    On (2): The median response time on the first scenario was 40 seconds, on the second scenario was 34 seconds. While these are not huge response times, if you stop to count out 34 seconds now, you'll probably notice that it's a reasonable amount of time for a thoughtful response to a brief scenario.

    On (3) and (4): These are potentially quite serious issues, and in fact our follow-up study in 2015 was designed specifically to address them, after we saw an early version of Rini's critique. In our 2015 study we specifically asked participants if they were previously familiar with the scenarios. We also asked whether they regarded themselves as "having had a stable opinion" about the issues before participating in the experiment, and whether they regarded themselves as experts on those very issues. We also added a "reflection" condition to help address concern (2). In the reflection condition we asked participants to reflect carefully before responding and enforced a minimum 15-second delay between when participants reported having finished reading the scenario and when their response options appeared.

    We did not find that self-reported familiarity or stability reduced the size of order effects in two different types of scenario pairs (trolley problems and risky-choice "Asian disease"-type problems), nor did we find reduced order effects in the reflection condition compared to a normal control condition without special instructions to reflect.

    For example, percentage rating the Push and Switch scenarios equivalently:

    Thus, I am inclined to think that Rini's fourth suggestion is the most plausible -- that participants do not have diachronically stable familiar responses, despite high levels of expertise. But since those who report having stable responses were no less subject to order effects than were those who reported not having stable responses, self-knowledge of stability appears to be largely absent. Despite Rini's interesting suggestion that instability is metaphilosophically non-threatening if people are aware of it, Fiery's and my results suggest that we should not hasten to that comfort.


    Both Horne and Livengood and Rini emphasize that we only have very limited evidence about order effects on professional philosophers' judgments. I agree! Fiery's and my two studies are hardly decisive. Convergent evidence from several different labs would be necessary before drawing any confident conclusions, especially if those conclusions are at variance with what one feels one knows from personal experience. Rini also makes positive suggestions for follow-up experimental work that might be done, which I am inclined to support. Both critiques raise important methodological concerns that ought to help shape and direct future work on this topic.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2015

    Only 13% of Authors in Five Leading Philosophy Journals Are Women

    I was all ready for some happy news, or at least neutral news. Although the percentage of women in North American and British philosophy departments is low by humanities standards, maybe in the low 20%s, I found some evidence a few weeks ago of a sharp increase in the percentage of women on the program at meetings of the American Philosophical Association, from 6% in 1955 to 32% in 2015. In ethics, APA program participation might even be approaching gender parity, with 41% women (though non-ethics is still quite far from parity at 26% women).

    In the past week, I thought I'd confirm that trend by looking at five philosophy journals: Mind, Philosophical Review, Journal of Philosophy, Ethics, and Philosophy & Public Affairs. I chose the first three because they are the traditional "big three" philosophy journals, which have been viewed as the leading general philosophical journals for many decades. Since they publish proportionately little ethics, however, I added what are arguably the two leading ethics journals.


    I looked at authorship of the main articles and also commentaries and responses (but not book reviews, editorial remarks, or the recent anniversary retrospects that Ethics has been publishing). All articles in Ethics and PPA were coded as ethics. Articles in the other three were coded either as ethics or non-ethics based on title and sometimes (for less clear cases) a skim of the article. Gender was coded by first name and by personal knowledge, and in cases of ambiguity I looked for disambiguating information on the internet, such as gender-typical photos or references to the person as "him" or "her" in discussions of the person's work. In only 11 cases out of 1202 was I unable to make a determination. I looked at two-year chunks from four periods: 1954-1955, 1974-1975, 1994-1995, and 2014-2015 (though since Phil Review and J Phil have not yet made all 2015 available, I examined back into 2013 to gather exactly two years' worth of data). Only 53 of 1143 (5%) articles were multiply-authored.


    Ethics: 5/107 (5%) of the authors were women
    Non-ethics: 12/236 (5%)

    Ethics: 26/161 (16%)
    Non-ethics: 13/192 (7%)

    Ethics: 21/119 (18%)
    Non-ethics: 11/127 (9%)

    Ethics: 18/119 (15%)
    Non-ethics: 14/130 (11%)

    Here are the data in a graph, with 95% confidence intervals:

    As you can see from the CIs, the numbers are small enough to be consistent with considerable chance variation. Still, to me, three things are immediately striking:

    (1.) women publishing more frequently in ethics than in other areas of philosophy;

    (2.) low percentages of women overall;

    (3.) little progress in the numbers since the 1970s.

    Merging together the ethics and non-ethics (which probably somewhat overrepresents ethics relative to the profession as a whole), women are 32/246 (13%) of authors in these five journals in 2014-2015, with a 95% CI of 9% to 18%. If we assume that the proportion of women in the profession as a whole is at least 20%, then female authors are statistically significantly underrepresented in these journals relative to their population in the profession.

    Especially notable is the huge difference between women's participation in APA ethics sessions and their rate of publishing ethics in these elite journals: in the most recent data, women were 41% of ethics session participants but only 15% of ethics authors (p << .001 of course).

    Post-hoc analysis is always a little tricky, but the data suggest almost no increase in the percentage of women publishing in these journals since the mid-1970s, with merged percentages of 11% (1974-1975), 13% (1994-1995), and 13% (2014-2015). Sally Haslanger's data from 2002-2007 provide further corroboration of this flat trendline, with 12% female authors in a selection of elite philosophy journals, and 13% [corrected 11-Feb-16] in the five journals I've analyzed.

    These data extend and confirm data from Kathryn Norlock that suggest underrepresentation of women in Ethics and the Journal of Moral Philosophy. (See also Meena Krishnamurthy's discussion.)

    Monday, December 07, 2015

    Will Your Driverless Car Kill You So That Others May Live?

    A new op-ed by me, in the Los Angeles Times (with the awesome illustration above, by Wes Bausmith, of car-as-consequentialist-philosopher.

    I argue that programming the collision-avoidance software of an autonomous vehicle is an act of applied ethics, which we should bring into the open for the public to assess and for passengers to see and possibly modify within ethical limits.


    It's 2025. You and your daughter are riding in a driverless car along Pacific Coast Highway. The autonomous vehicle rounds a corner and detects a crosswalk full of children. It brakes, but your lane is unexpectedly full of sand from a recent rock slide. It can't get traction. Your car does some calculations: If it continues braking, there's a 90% chance that it will kill at least three children. Should it save them by steering you and your daughter off the cliff?

    This isn't an idle thought experiment. Driverless cars will be programmed to avoid collisions with pedestrians and other vehicles. They will also be programmed to protect the safety of their passengers. What happens in an emergency when these two aims come into conflict?

    Should your autonomous vehicle risk your safety, perhaps even your life, because a reckless motorcyclist chose to speed around a sharp curve?

    The California Department of Motor Vehicles is now trying to draw up safety regulations for autonomous vehicles. These regulations might or might not specify when it is acceptable for collision-avoidance programs to expose passengers to risk to avoid harming others — for example, by crossing the double-yellow line or attempting an uncertain maneuver on ice.

    Google, which operates most of the driverless cars being street-tested in California, prefers that the DMV not insist on specific functional safety standards. Instead, Google proposes that manufacturers “self-certify” the safety of their vehicles, with substantial freedom to develop collision-avoidance algorithms as they see fit.

    Continued here.

    Friday, December 04, 2015

    A Theory of Rationalization

    The U.C. Santa Cruz philosopher Jon Ellis and I are collaborating on a paper on rationalization in the pejorative sense of the term. I'm trying to convince Jon to accept the following four-clause definition of rationalization:

    A person -- whom, following long philosophical tradition, we dub S -- rationalizes some claim or proposition P if and only if all of the following four conditions hold:

    1. S believes that P.

    2. S attempts to explicitly justify her belief that P, in order to make her belief appear rational, either to herself or others.

    3. In doing 2, S comes to accept one or more justifications for P as the rational grounds of her belief.

    4. The causes of S's belief that P are very different from the rational grounds offered in 3.

    Some cases:

    Newspaper. At the newsstand, the man selling papers accidentally gives Estefania [see here for my name choice decision procedure] a $20 bill in change instead of a $1 bill. Estefania notices the error right away. Her first reaction is to think she got lucky and doesn't need to point out the error. She thinks to herself, "What a fool! If he can't hand out correct change, he shouldn't be selling newspapers." Walking away, she thinks, "And anyway, a couple of times last week when I got a newspaper from him it was wet. I've been overpaying for his product, so this turnabout is fair. Plus, I'm sure almost everyone just keeps incorrect change when it's in their favor. That's just the way the game works." If Estefania had seen someone else receive incorrect change, she would not have reasoned in this way. She would have thought it plainly wrong for the person to keep it.

    Wedding Toast. Adrian gives a wedding toast where she tells an embarrassing story about her friend Bryan. Adrian doesn’t think she crossed the line. Yes, the story was embarrassing, but not impermissible as a wedding toast. Shortly afterward, Bryan pulls Adrian aside and says he can't believe Adrian told that story. A couple of months before, Bryan had specifically asked that her not to bring that story up, and Adrian had promised not to mention it. Adrian had forgotten that promise when preparing her toast, but she remembers it now that she has been reminded. She reacts defensively, thinking: "Embarrassing the groom is what you're supposed to do at wedding toasts. Bryan is just being too uptight. Although the story was embarrassing, it also shows a good side of Bryan. And being embarrassed like this in front of family and friends is just the kind of thing Bryan needs to help him be more relaxed and comfortable in the future." It is only because Adrian doesn't want to see herself as having done something wrong that she finds this line of reasoning attractive.

    The Kant-Hater. Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals -- a famously difficult text -- has been assigned for a graduate seminar in philosophy. Ainsley, a student in that seminar, hates Kant's opaque writing style and the authoritarian tone he thinks he detects in Kant. He doesn't fully understand the text -- who does? -- or the critical literature on it. But the first critical treatment that he happens upon is harsh, condemning most of the central arguments in the text. Because he loathes Kant's writing style, Ainsley immediately embraces that critical treatment and now deploys it to justify his rejection of Kant's views. More sympathetic treatments of Kant, which he later encounters, leave him cold and unwilling to modify his position.

    The Racist Philosopher. A 19th century slave-owner, Philip, goes to university and eventually becomes a philosophy professor. Throughout his education, Philip is exposed to ethical arguments against slave-ownership, but he is never convinced by them. He always has a ready defense. That defense changes over time as his education proceeds and his thinking becomes more sophisticated. What remains constant is not any particular justification Philip offers for the ethical permissibility of slave-ownership but rather only his commitment to its permissibility.

    These cases might be fleshed out with further plausible details, but on a natural understanding of them the primary causes of the protagonists' beliefs are not the justifications that they (sincerely) endorse for those beliefs -- rather, it's that they want to keep the $20, want not to have wronged a close friend at his wedding, dislike Kant's writing style, have a selfish or culturally-ingrained sense of the permissibility of slave-ownership. It is this disconnection between the epistemic grounds that S employs to defend the rationality of believing P and the psychological grounds that actually drive S's belief that P that is the essence of rationalization in the intended sense of the term.

    The condition about which Jon has expressed the most concern is Condition 4: "The causes of S's belief that P are very different from the rational grounds offered in 3." I admit there's something that seems kind of fuzzy or slippery about this condition as currently formulated.

    One concern: The causal story behind most beliefs is going to be very complicated, so talk about "the" causes risks sweeping in too much (all the causal history) or too little (just one or two things that we might choose because salient in the context). I'm not sure how to avoid this problem. Alternatives like "the explanation of S's belief" or "the real reason S believes" seem to have the same problems and possibly to invite other problems as well.

    Another concern: It's not clear what it is for the causes to be "very different" from the rational grounds that S offers. I hope that it's clear enough in the cases above. Here are some reasons to avoid saying, more simply, that the justifications S offers for P are not among the causes of S's belief that P. First, it seems typical of rationalization that once one finds some putative rational grounds for one's belief, those putative grounds have some causal power in sustaining the belief in the future. Second, if one simply couldn't find anything even vaguely plausible in support of P, one might have given up on P -- so the availability of some superficially plausible justifications probably often plays some secondary causal role in sustaining beliefs that primarily arise from other causes. Third, sometimes one's grounds aren't exactly what one says they are, but close enough -- for example, your putative grounds might be your memory that Isaura said it yesterday, while really it was her husband Jeffrey who said it and what's really effective is your memory that somebody trustworthy said it. When the grounds are approximately what you say they are, it's not rationalization.

    So the phrase "the causes... are very different" is meant to capture the idea that if you looked at the whole causal picture, you'd say that neither the putative justifications nor close neighbors of them are playing a major role, or the role you might normatively hope for or expect, in causing or causally sustaining S's belief, even as she is citing them as her justifications.

    What do you think? Is this a useful way to conceptualize "rationalization"? Although I don't think we need to hew precisely to pre-theoretical folk intuition, would this account imply any particularly jarring violations of intuition about cases of "rationalization"?

    I'd also be happy for reading recommendations -- particularly relevant philosophical accounts or psychological results.

    Our ultimate aim is to think about the role of rationalization in moral self-evaluation and in the adoption of philosophical positions. If rationalization is common in such cases, what are the epistemic consequences for moral self-knowledge and for metaphilosophy?

    [image source]


    For related posts, see What Is "Rationalization?" (Feb. 12, 2007), and Susanna Siegel's series of blog posts on this topic at the Brains blog last year.

    Wednesday, November 25, 2015

    Names in Philosophical Examples

    The most notorious men in philosophy used to be Smith and Jones. For example:

    Smith, who works in the country, has promised his wife to be in the city at four o'clock. It is now shortly before half past three, and Smith is seated at a small table in the country airport.... (Lehrer & Taylor 1965)

    ... suppose that Jones has been charged with Smith's murder and has been placed on trial.... (Donnellan 1966)

    Suppose, for example, both that Smith is to-day legally (morally) obligated to pay Jones $500.00 and that a week from to-day Smith will murder Jones.... (Castaneda 1967-1968).

    Concerning such a man we can make many successful predictions about his future actions like: "Smith will never accept a bribe, corrupt the innocent, commit murder or theft...." (Grant 1952)

    In the 1980s and 1990s, the culture of philosophy changed, and first names became more standard for these types of examples. Also, a wider range of names were used, though my impression is that "Alice" and "Bob" were common favorites:

    Al wishes to show Bob how much he appreciates his philosophical help over the years and he believes that an excellent way of doing this is to send Bob an autographed copy of his new book.... (Mele 1988).

    Suppose that none of three women, Alice, Beth, and Carla, has a special relationship with any of the others, and accordingly, none has special responsibilities to any of the others. (Scheffler 1999)

    To many, John has always seemed a model husband. He almost invariably shows great sensitivity to his wife's needs, and he willingly goes out of his way to meet them. (Railton 1984)

    "Smith" and "Jones" were always assumed to be male. In contrast, by the 1980s, philosophy was opening to a mix of male and female example protagonists.

    But there's one thing "Smith", "Jones", "Alice", and "Bob" all have in common. They are bland. Bland, here, is not entirely a good thing. "Bland" is culturally relative. By choosing these names, 20th century philosophers were conveying certain ethnic expectations to their readers -- that their readers, too, will find these names bland, that they will think of people with these names as "like us". The hypothetical worlds of 20th century Anglophone philosophy were worlds populated almost entirely by Bob Smiths and Alice Joneses. Someone with a name like "Rasheed" might understandably find this somewhat alienating. Does he really belong in bed with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, "considering the possibilities"?

    Also, if you do see these names as vanilla -- vanilla after vanilla gets a bit boring, don't you think? Even just on aesthetic grounds, why not mix it up?

    Recently, philosophers have begun drawing their names from a broader ethnic range. But still, few of us regularly mix Chinese, Indian, and Arabic names into our examples.

    Some care is warranted. If "Smith" commits a murder, that's one thing. If one "arbitrarily" picks "Jamal" as the name of the murderer, that's a bit different. One could try to go against the grain, making "Gertrude" the murderer and "Jamal" the aging florist, but that can seem forced and cartoonish, if done too often. My wife enjoys psychoanalyzing my name choices: Why is "Juliet" my racist and "Kaipeng" my Stoic?

    One approach might be to find some list of the most popular names in the world and draw randomly from it. I kind of like that idea. It will generate a lot of "Mohammad", "Qian", and "Aadhya" -- possibly a refreshing change, if done properly.

    But one probably needn't aim for total global egalitarianism in name choice. If a Swedish philosopher uses a representative mix of Swedish names, well, there's something fun about that. I wouldn't want to insist that she always use "Maria" and "Fatima" instead. And maybe for me, as a Californian, I could sample Californian names -- as long as I don't pretend that California is populated only by white, non-immigrant, native English speakers.

    If you're lucky enough to teach at a large, diverse university like my own, a wonderful source of diverse names might be your own student rosters. Sorting names randomly from my largest recent class, these 25 pop out near the top: Rainita, Acenee, Desiree, Rani, Marisa, Guadalupe, Vanseaka, Cameron, Joseph, Christian, Ibrahim, Christina, Jasmine, Marie, Jennifer, Stephen, Philip, Hsin En, Timothy, Elio, Ivan, Deyanira, Izamar, Danielle, and Dennis Yoon. What a wonderful set of names! California's future philosophers, I hope.

    Hey, you go do it some other way if you want. I'm not insisting. Maybe in a few days I'll think this is a totally stupid idea and I won't even do it this way myself. But if you do stick with Bob Smith and Alice Jones, could you least do it ironically?

    [image source]

    Wednesday, November 18, 2015

    Tuesday, November 17, 2015

    Percentage of Women at APA Meetings, 1955, 1975, 1995, 2015

    Last spring, I posted a gender analysis of the program of the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, broken down by ethics vs. non-ethics and by role in the program. I've been coding some other APAs along similar lines. For a broader picture over time, I have now examined gender data for all three divisional meetings of the APA for 1955, 1975, 1995, and the 2014-2015 academic year [note 1].

    Gender was coded by first name and/or by personal or professional knowledge as either "female", "male", or "other/indeterminable". [note 2] I coded the main program only, and I excluded sessions organized by special committees (and all other symposia listed at session end rather than session beginning). My idea in doing this was to capture the mainstream research sessions rather than sessions on the state of the profession, teaching, the status of different ethnic groups, etc.

    As expected, the majority of philosophers on the APA main program are men, but the gender ratios are less skewed now than they were a few decades ago. Overall, the proportion of women on the APA main program has increased from about one sixth in 1975 to about one third in 2015.

    Merging all three divisions, here is the gender breakdown by year:

    1955: 6% women (7/121, excl. 5 indeterminable)
    1975: 16% women (62/397, excl. 20)
    1995: 25% women (220/896, excl. 38)
    2014-2015: 32% women (481/1526, excl. 177 [note 2])

    All three of the 20-year-interval increases are statistically significant, considered individually (two-tailed z tests, p < .001). Differences between divisions were not statistically significant.

    Recent estimates of the percentage of women in philosophy in the United States are typically in the low 20%'s, with 21% the most commonly cited number. Interestingly, at 32% women, the 2014-2015 program data are significantly higher than women's overall representation in the profession (481/1526 vs. 21%, p < .001). Possible explanations: younger philosophers more likely to be women and more likely to attend conferences; non-U.S. participants who are more gender balanced; the gender-indeterminate category ("Chris", foreign names) being disproportionately male; women having more interest in participating in APA sessions; and/or the program committees working to reach out to women.

    I also divided sessions into "ethics", "non-ethics", and "excluded". "Ethics" was construed broadly to include social and political philosophy. Philosophy of action and philosophy of religion were excluded as borderline, unless they were on ethical topics in those sub-areas. My hypothesis was that within philosophy, a larger percentage of women specialize in ethics than in other areas. The results:

    1955 ethics: 5/32 (14% women)
    1955 non-ethics: 2/64 (3% women)

    1975 ethics: 16/110 (15% women)
    1975 non-ethics: 41/249 (17% women)

    1995 ethics: 101/275 (37% women)
    1995 non-ethics: 105/531 (20% women)

    2014-2015 ethics: 206/500 (41% women)
    2014-2015 non-ethics: 217/824 (26% women)

    The numbers are too small in 1955 and 1975 to draw firm conclusions. However, in both 1995 and 2014-2015 the predicted effect is large and statistically significant (p < .001 for both). Since at least 1995, ethics sessions at APA meetings have been much closer to gender balanced than non-ethics sessions.

    Here are the numbers in a graph with 95% confidence intervals:

    I also examined role in the program, to see if women were more or less likely to serve in roles that are typically regarded as more or less prestigious. I divided roles into five types: (1.) Presidential or named lecture / author in author-meets-critics / symposium speaker with at least one commentator on just her paper. (2.) Symposium speaker not in category 1, or AMC critic. (3.) Symposium commentator or introductory remarks for named lecture. (4.) Presenter or commentator in colloquium. (5.) Chair (timekeeper/moderator) in any session.

    The program role results are a bit difficult to interpret, with women more likely to appear as ordinary symposium speakers (role 2) and as session chairs (role 5) and perhaps least likely to appear in colloquia spots (role 4). The trend is evident both in the aggregate data and when only 2014-2015 is considered (for all other years, the individual-year analysis is underpowered). Here's the breakdown for the 2014-2015 data:

    Cat 1 (most prestigious): 27% (27/99)
    Cat 2 (ordinary symposium speaker): 37% (117/314)
    Cat 3 (symposium commentator): 30% (29/96)
    Cat 4 (colloq speaker/commentator): 26% (155/597)
    Cat 5 (chair): 36% (153/420)

    This is statistically significant variation (chi-square [DF 4] = 18.9, p = .001). Overall, I'd say that this tends to disconfirm the hypothesis that women are disproportionately likely to appear in lower-prestige program roles, but beyond that I hesitate to speculate.

    Carolyn Dicey Jennings and I are at work on other analyses of the percentages of women in ethics vs. other areas of philosophy. If other measures also suggest that ethics contains a higher percentage of women than do other areas of philosophy, then at least two conclusions appear to follow for those who wish to help steer philosophy closer to gender parity:

    First, in an ethics context, a proportion of women that is representative of philosophy as a whole might still constitute an underrepresentation of women relative to the available pool.

    Second, the situation outside of ethics might be even more unbalanced than one would guess from looking at philosophy as a whole.

    However, the long-term upward trends both within and outside of ethics are encouraging.


    Note 1: The Eastern Division did not meet in 2015, shifting from a December to a January schedule, so I use the December 2014 data.

    Note 2: I coded as indeterminable: gender-ambiguous Anglophone names ("Pat", "Robin"), mere initials ("C."), and non-Anglophone names whose gender associations were unknown to me ("Asya", "Lijun"). I allowed personal knowledge to resolve ambiguities (e.g., "Pat Churchland" as female). Impressionistically, the higher rate of indeterminable in 2014-2015 (10% of participants, up from 4-5% in 1975 and 1995) was due to more participants with non-Anglophone names. If women are substantially more or less common among the indeterminable names than among the remainder, that might skew the results by a few percent either direction. Still, the overall trend remains clear.


    Thanks to Mara Garza for help with coding some of the data. Thanks to Roger Giner-Sorolla for catching an error in the labeling of the Y axis, which has now been corrected.

    Thursday, November 12, 2015

    Why We Might Have Greater Obligations to Conscious Robots Than to Human Strangers

    A new short piece by me, released today in Aeon Opinions. From the piece:

    [Most philosophers and researchers on artificial intelligence agree that] if someday we manage to create robots that have mental lives similar to ours, with human-like plans, desires and a sense of self, including the capacity for joy and suffering, then those robots deserve moral consideration similar to that accorded to natural human beings.

    I want to challenge this consensus.... I think that, if we someday create robots with human-like cognitive and emotional capacities, we owe them more moral consideration than we would normally owe to otherwise similar human beings.

    Here’s why: we will have been their creators and designers. We are thus directly responsible both for their existence and for their happy or unhappy state. If a robot needlessly suffers or fails to reach its developmental potential, it will be in substantial part because of our failure – a failure in our creation, design or nurturance of it. Our moral relation to robots will more closely resemble the relation that parents have to their children, or that gods have to the beings they create, than the relationship between human strangers.

    Continued here.

    Mara Garza and I also have full-length journal article on this topic forthcoming in a special issue of Midwest Studies -- final manuscript version here.

    [image source]

    Tuesday, November 10, 2015

    Two Very Bad Wizards Ask Me about Ethics Professors

    ... and Nazis, and Chinese philosophy, and the nature of jerkitude, and Kant's defense of murdering bastard children, and many other topics besides.

    I'm talking of course about the latest episode of the Very Bad Wizards podcast, with the witty, knowledgeable, and frequently profane hosts David Pizarro and Tamler Sommers. Before the interview with me is a fun 20-minute segment on the ethics of murdering baby Hitler and on whether self-driving cars should be programmed to sacrifice their passengers if by doing so they can save a greater number of other people.

    The podcast always opens with a quote from the Wizard of Oz: "I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad Wizard." Dave and Tamler still haven't addressed my question (which I posed before we went on air) about the wizard's moral self knowledge. Is he indeed a very good man? Part of the evidence against is that he sends an ill-prepared girl on what he thinks is a hopeless suicide mission against the Wicked Witch of the West.

    Wednesday, November 04, 2015

    Do Neurons Literally Have Preferences?

    Carrie Figdor has been arguing that they do.

    Consider these sentences, drawn from influential works of neuroscience (quoted in Figdor forthcoming, p. 2):

  • A resonator neuron prefers inputs having frequencies that resonate with the frequency of its subthreshold oscillations (Izhikevich 2007).
  • In preferring a slit specific in width and orientation this cell [with a complex receptive field] resembled certain cells with simple fields (Hubel and Wiesel 1962, p. 115).
  • It is the response properties of the last class of units [of cells recorded via electrodes implanted in a rat’s dorsal hippocampus] which has led us to postulate that the rat’s hippocampus functions as a spatial map. ... These 8 units then appear to have preferred spatial orientations (O’Keefe and Dostrovsky 1971, p. 172).
  • These are completely standard, unremarkable claims of the type that neuroscientists have been making for decades. Figdor suggests that it's best to interpret these claims as literal truths. The verbs in these sentences work like many other verbs do -- "twist", "crawl", "touch" -- with literal usage across a wide range of domains, including organic and inorganic, part and whole.

    Figdor's view sounds bizarre, perhaps. People literally have preferences. And rats. Maybe frogs. Not trees (despite 22,000 Google hits for "trees prefer", such as "Ash trees prefer moist, well-draining soil for optimum growth"). Definitely not neurons, most people would say.

    One natural way to object to Figdor's view is to suggest that the language of neurons "preferring" is metaphorical rather than literal. I can see how that might be an attractive first thought. Another possibility worth considering is that maybe there are two senses of "prefer" at work -- a high-grade one for human beings, a thin one for neurons.

    Figdor responds to these objections, in part, with technical linguistic arguments that I am insufficiently schooled in linguistics to evaluate. Does conjoining human and neuronal cases of "prefers" pass the zeugma test?

    However, from seeing others' reactions to Figdor -- she gave a talk here at UCR a couple weeks ago -- I'd say it's not a fine sense of technical linguistics that drives most people's rejection of Figdor's claim. (In conversation, she says agrees with me about this; and in newer work in progress she is de-emphasizing the technical linguistic aspects to focus on the bigger picture, including how terms evolve over time in deference to scientific usage.) What gives folks the heebie-jeebies is the thought that "preferring" is a psychological notion, and so if Figdor is saying that neurons literally have preferences, she appears to be saying that neurons literally have minds or psychological states. And we certainly don't want to say that! (Do we?)

    Figdor is not some far-out panpsychist who believes that neurons tingle with experiences of delight when they receive the stimuli they prefer. But she is far out in another way -- a more sensible and appealing way, perhaps. Once we see the actual source of her radicalism, we can start to appreciate the importance and appeal of her work.

    It's natural -- common sense -- for us to approach the world by dividing it into things with minds (you, me, other people, dogs, birds...) and things without minds (stones, trees, pencils, fingernails). Reflecting on intermediate cases, such as various types of worms, one might sense trouble for a sharp distinction here, but vagueness along a single spectrum of mindedness isn't too threatening to common sense. The essential difference between the minded and the un-minded remains, despite a gray zone.

    Figdor's picture challenges all that. If what she says about "prefer" also goes for some other important psychological terms (as she thinks it does), then mentality spreads wide into the world. Some psychological terms -- "prefer", "decide", and "habituate" are her examples, to which I might add "seek", "learn", "reject", and many others -- appear to spread wide; while other terms, such as "meditate", "confess", and "appreciate", might apply only to humans (or maybe a few other species). Each psychological term has a range of application, and the terms that are more liberally applicable will attach to all sorts of systems that we might not otherwise tend to regard as privileged with any sort of mentality.

    Figdor has taken, I think, a crucial step toward jettisoning the remnants of the traditional dualist view of us as imbued with special immaterial souls -- toward instead seeing ourselves as only complex material patterns whose kin are other complex patterns, whether those patterns appear in other mammals, or in coral, or inside our organs, or in social groups or ecosystems or swirling eddies. Some complexities we share and others we do not. That is the radical lesson of materialism, which we do not fully grasp if we insist on saying "here are the minds and here are the non-minds", demanding a separate set of verbs for each, with truly "mental" processes only occurring in certain privileged spaces.

    With that thought in mind, let's go back to "prefer". Do neurons literally prefer? I don't know whether the linguistic evidence will ultimately support Figdor on this particular case, but I think we can approach it evenhandedly, letting fall wherever they may the technical tests of metaphor and polysemy and other considerations from linguistics and philosophy of language -- figuring that of course some of our mental state verbs literally refer to patterns of behavior that spread widely, and at different spatiotemporal grain, across the complex, multi-layered, dynamically evolving structures of our world.

    [image source]


    Carrie writes:

    Thanks to Eric for posting on my work-in-progress and the opportunity to clarify a few things. First, the technical linguistic stuff is actually my attempt to understand why it could possibly strike anyone as "natural" or "reasonable" to think these uses are metaphorical. Who "naturally" thought Hubel and Wiesel intended their descriptions of their data to be metaphorical? To the contrary, the cry of "Metaphor!" reflects not an astute semantic analysis of their uses but an automatic response to my claim that they should be interpreted literally: "They just can’t possibly be literal." The idea that they are metaphorical is actually one of the weakest semantic alternatives to a literal view.

    That said, Eric is correct that I am not a radical panpsychist. Rather, I’m interested in a plausible, non-ad hoc explanation of the ever-expanding uses of psychological language throughout biology at all levels of complexity. Basically, I think psychological concepts are transitioning to scientifically determined standards for proper use, leaving behind the ideal-rational-human, anthropocentric standards we now have. There’s a lot more to that story, and I hope to make it public very soon.

    Monday, November 02, 2015

    The Journal of Unlikely Academia

    A month ago, Unlikely Story published my story "The Dauphin's Metaphysics" in their themed issue The Journal of Unlikely Academia.

    Some updates:

    Lois Tilton -- perhaps the best-known speculative fiction reviewer in the English language -- gave the story one of her "recommended" ratings, and also what is probably one of her longest write-ups in recent years. She concludes:

    Speculative fiction and philosophy have more in common than many people might suppose, largely because contemporary philosophy isn't widely known. Issues of mind, identity and memory [the notion of the brain in the vat, for example] have long been shared by both disciplines [if we can consider SF to be disciplined]. I'm quite happy to have found this story here.

    I've now had a chance to read the other stories in the themed issue. They are also well written and philosophically interesting.

    "Follow Me Down" by Nicolette Barischoff. The story of a midwife of monstrous babies and the incubus who is one of her rebellious favorites. Monsters deserve affection no less than the rest of us, don't they? (interview with Barischoff)

    "Minotaur: An Analysis of the Species" by Sean Robinson. Based on interviews with actual minotaurs! E.g. the Stack Beast (Respondent 7): "Look. It’s finals week. Is it my fault that some thesis-fried post-grad takes a wrong turn and finds themselves somewhere that shouldn’t exist? They think they’re looking for reference materials for botany, and the stacks start twisting around them." (interview with Robinson; Appendix C: questionnaires)

    "The Librarian's Dilemma" by E. Saxey. There are radical librarians, secretly fighting the system, setting free even books that... well, no spoilers here! (interview with Saxey; other reflections by Saxey)

    Soteriology and Stephen Greenwood by Julia August. A mysterious woman approaches an Oxford medievalist with a fragment of a lost Latin prophecy -- academic listservs, snarky politics, suspicions of museum theft, and maybe something darker.... (Stop the Apocalypse; Who's Saving the World?; tumblrweed across the end of the universe)

    "And Other Definitions of Family" by Abra Staffin-Wiebe. A prostitute servicing aliens takes xeno-anthropology participant observation to new levels of risk and intimacy. (reflections from Staffin-Wiebe)

    "Candidate 45, Pensri Suesat" by Pear Nuallak. A transgender art student in alternative Thailand struggling to fit in with, or maybe escape, the art-school system.

    "The Shapes of Us, Translucent to Your Eye" by Rose Lemberg. How corrupt is the academic system at Middlestate U.? So corrupt that Warda's students are becoming translucent. (I'm unsure how common this effect is, since translucent students are systematically undercounted in the administrative rolls.)

    My Unlikely Interview came out today. August, Staffin-Wiebe, Nuallak, and Lemberg will presumably have interviews rolled out in coming weeks.

    From my interview:

    Q.: The Dauphin’s Metaphysics explores a classic and very interesting question -- if you replicate a person’s experiences exactly, can you replicate the person? What makes a person who they are, nature or nurture? It’s a story about characters reinventing themselves in multiple ways. What drew you to this particular question, and to taking the approach to it that you did in this story?

    A.: I’d been thinking about “singularity upload” stories, like Greg Egan’s Diaspora, where characters destroy their biological bodies to have their mental patterns instantiated in a computational device. These stories raise fascinating questions about personal identity, but they have an air of unreality about them because they aren’t currently technologically possible, and who knows if they ever will be. (One of the best known skeptics about computer consciousness is John Searle, who was one of my PhD supervisors at Berkeley.)

    So I wanted to write an upload story that didn’t require magic or future technology. My father was (among many other things) a licensed hypnotist, and there’s a large psychological literature on how easy it is to implant false childhood memories into people even without hypnosis, so that seemed a natural direction to develop the idea.

    The center of the story is the Dauphin’s upload – but I thought it would be interesting to contrast the case of the Dauphin’s putatively being one person across two bodies with another case arguably interpretable as two different identities in a single body. Hence the story of Fu Hao’s radical break from her childhood self. Chemistry Professor Zeng, though not as fully explored, presents a more ordinary case of slow character change over time.

    [continued here]

    Thursday, October 29, 2015

    Wow, This Amazing Puzzle Will Reveal How Stupid You Are! (Maybe)

    You know the Wason selection task. You know all about Linda the bank teller and the conjunction fallacy. You're smart. You'd never fall for those things now! You know it's not more likely that Linda is a bank teller who is active in the feminist movement than that Linda is a bank teller. You know to flip the Wason card that would break the rule rather than the one that would confirm it. Yes, of course!

    Here's one I learned in junior high school, which I've never seen studied. I don't know the original source. (If you do, let me know!) Maybe it will be fresh to you. Over the years, when I've presented it orally, I've found that even people with PhDs in philosophy often struggle, though really it's very simple.

    A man is looking at a picture. He says,
    "Brothers and sons, I have none,
    but this person's father is my father's son."
    Question: Who is in the picture?

    If you think you know the answer, write it down. I don't want any squirreling around about what you had really been thinking!

    After you've written down your guess, click through to this post on my Underblog for the answer and discussion.

    [image adapted from here]

    Thursday, October 22, 2015

    The Ends of Philosophy

    a guest post by Regina Rini

    I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that’s a tree”, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: “This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty

    The word ‘end’ is usefully ambiguous in the following question: ‘What is the end of philosophy?’ This question could be asking about the goal of philosophy. What is philosophy trying to do? Or it might be asking about where philosophy ends up. What is philosophy’s final resting place? In this post I am asking – and answering – both questions at the same time.

    Most philosophers will tell you that truth is their goal. They want to know the truth about Knowledge or Existence or Justice. I’m sure this is how they sincerely experience it – but I conjecture that ‘truth’ is only an instrumental goal. What these philosophers really want, I suspect, is certainty. They want to hold aspects of the world finally fixed in their minds, to make it the case that they cannot be wrong, at least about certain things. In service of this aim, they will jettison areas of inquiry about which certainty seems impossible. Hence, their category of the philosophical excludes the empirical, the accidental, and the historically contingent. What is left are the necessary truths – those that can be known to need to be true.

    My conjecture fits a dominant thread in western philosophy. What was Descartes doing, after all, other than paring his thoughts back to that which could not be doubted, and then building forward only on foundations of certainty? What was positivism, but an attempt to secure certainty for philosophy by designating as ‘nonsense’ that which could not be verified? And what is the contemporary project of philosophical analysis – with its insistent investigation of proxy concepts amenable to enumerated necessary and sufficient conditions – other than a flight from uncertain actualities?

    Absurdity lurks not far below certainty. We conjure thought experiments in which we have stipulated certainty about the laws of nature or human motivation, and we say that this is the real test of a philosophical concept, even as we struggle to apply that same finely sculpted concept to the unstipulated world. We carve nature at its joints, then display the bleached bones in positions they never naturally took. A protestor comes to our class from the streets of Ferguson, the smell of tear gas on her clothes, seeking guidance of which we apologetically demur; this is a seminar on ideal theory, and she is asking a non-ideal question. “We are not insane,” we say to the intruder in the garden. “We are only doing philosophy.”

    This brings me to the other sense of philosophy’s ‘end’: where does philosophy end up? Where is it located in social space? At the periphery, I think, and trending further so. Contemporary American society has little interest in contemporary American philosophy. When earnest public broadcasters put together a program on the mysteries of the universe, they turn first to physicists. If they want to chat about human nature, they call neuroscientists. Plato at the Googleplex, a very successful recent book, was noted for the thesis that philosophy still matters at all. No one makes news writing that about physics.

    I think that philosophy’s goal-end of certainty helps to explain its outcome-end of social irrelevance. Many people do want certainty, but philosophy is not where they will go to find it. Religion, of course, is an ancient and numerically dominant certainty-provider. But a sense of certainty can also be found in political ideology. Or, increasingly, in science. Philosophy is trying to compete in the certainty marketplace, and it is not winning.

    Philosophy has a crucial weakness when it contends for certainty-seekers. Unlike religion or political ideology, it abjures the manifest certainty of a supreme authority. And unlike science, it does not trend toward disciplinary consensus. A central fact about philosophy is that philosophers have been debating the same questions for millennia, with no end in sight. Philosophy is essentially discursive, even disagreeable, in a way that makes its aim of certainty a collectively self-defeating one. Any particular philosopher may become certain about her own beliefs, but from the outside philosophy will always appear as a squabble among people asserting mutually contradictory claims with equal degrees of extreme confidence.

    This shows the problem with the official justification for philosophical analysis. We say that we need to step back from messy reality in order to sharpen our concepts. We’ll just be away awhile, whetting our logical knives on some stipulated thought experiments. We’ll come back to the world, we insist, once we’ve polished our sufficient conditions. But we never come back. We argue endlessly about what we would need to make our truths necessary, and then we die and are replaced by the next generation’s assorted –ism-ists. We retire from the disorderly public square, into our shaded garden, its trees all arranged in logical space and known with certainty… and we never return.

    Of course some philosophers do venture out from the garden. But for every one who does, there are a half dozen others who whisper unkindly about the impurity of the thing. Philosophy done in public rarely displays the rigor that is a precondition of necessity. There are limits to the number of fussy objections one can anticipate without hogging the speaker’s platform. And so public philosophy will never produce the certainty that many philosophers seek.

    What if we took philosophy out of the certainty game? What would it mean, for philosophers to tolerate uncertainty, ambiguity, irresolution? It might mean trading the necessary for the contingent. Conceding that politics are never ideal. Acknowledging that knowers are embodied and temporal beings are located in history. None of this is absolutely alien to philosophy, but it is far from the apparent aim of many practitioners. Yet if we care about being anywhere other than the social periphery, perhaps we will have to adjust our ends.

    This is my final guest post at The Splintered Mind. Thanks so much to Eric for the wonderful opportunity to speak from this platform. And thanks to everyone who has read and commented on my posts. This has been incredibly enjoyable – of that, I am certain.

    image credit: 'Tree in Fog' by Matthew Paulson


    Thanks so much, Gina, for your wonderful series of posts over the last several weeks!

    For interested readers, here are the other five:

  • Ethics, Metaethics, and the Future of Morality (Sep. 11)
  • Philosophical Conversations (Sep. 17)
  • Microaggression and the Culture of Solidarity (Sep. 28; adapted for the L.A. Times Oct 12)
  • The Laughter of Ethicists (Oct. 6)
  • Consciousness Science and the Privileged Sample Problem (Oct. 14)
  • Monday, October 19, 2015

    Kammerer's New Anti-Nesting Principle

    Anti-nesting principles, in consciousness studies, are principles according to which one stream of consciousness cannot "nest" inside another. According to such principles, a conscious being cannot have conscious subparts -- at least under certain conditions -- even if it meets all other plausible structural criteria for being a conscious system. Probably the best-known anti-nesting principles are due to Hilary Putnam (1965, p. 434) and Giulio Tononi (2012, p. 297). Putnam's version is presented bare, and almost unmotivated, and has been criticized by Ned Block (1981, p. 74-76). Tononi's version is more clearly motivated within his "Integrated Information Theory" of consciousness, but still (I think) has significant shortcomings.

    In this forthcoming paper in Philosophia, Francois Kammerer takes another swing at an anti-nesting principle.

    Though relatively neglected, nesting issues are immensely important to consciousness studies. Intuitively or pre-theoretically, it seems very plausible that neither subparts of people nor groups of people are literally phenomenally conscious. (Unless maybe the brain as a whole is the relevant subpart.) If we want to retain this intuitive idea, then either (a.) there must be some structural feature that individuals have, which groups and subparts of individuals do not, which is plausibly necessary for consciousness, or (b.) consciousness must not nest for some other reason even in cases where human groups or subparts would have the structural features otherwise necessary for consciousness.

    In "If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious", I argue that human groups do have all the structural features that materialists normally regard as characteristic of conscious systems. A materialist who accepts that claim but wishes nonetheless to deny that groups of people are literally phenomenally conscious might then be attracted to an anti-nesting principle.

    Kammerer's principle is a bit complex. Here it is in his own words:

    "Given a whole W that instantiates the functional property P, such that W’s instantiation of P is normally sufficient for W to instantiate the conscious mental state S, W does not instantiate S if W has at least one subpart that plays a role in its functional organization which fulfills at the same time the two following conditions:

  • (A) The performing of this role by the subpart requires (given the nature of this functional role and our theory of consciousness) that this subpart has conscious mental states (beliefs, emotions, hopes, experiences, desires, etc.) that represent W (what it is, what it does, what it should do). That is to say, this subpart has a functional property Q, Q being a sufficient condition for the subpart having the conscious mental state R (where R is a mental state representing W).
  • (B) If such a functional role (i.e., a functional role of such a kind that it requires that the subpart performing it has conscious mental states representing W) was not performed by at least one of the subparts of W, W would no longer have the property P (or any other functional property sufficient for the having of S). In other words: if no subpart of W had R, then W would no longer have S."
  • Short, somewhat simplified version: If the reason a larger entity acts like it’s conscious is that it contains smaller entities within it who have conscious representations of that larger entity, then that larger entity is not in fact conscious. (I hope that's fair, and not too simple to capture Kammerer's main idea.)

    Though Kammerer's anti-nesting principle avoids some of the (apparent) problems with Putnam's and Tononi's principles, and is perhaps the best-developed anti-nesting principle to date, I'm not convinced that we should embrace it.

    I'm working on a formal reply (which I'll probably post a link to later), but my main thoughts are three:

    First, Kammerer's principle doesn't appear to fulfill the intended(?) role of excluding group-level consciousness among actually existing humans, since it excludes group consciousness in only a limited range of cases.

    Second, Kammerer's principle appears to make the existence of consciousness at the group level depend oddly on factors on the individual-person level that might have no influence on group-level functioning (such as whether an individual's thinking of herself as part of the group is emotionally motivating to her, which might vary with her mood even while her participation in the group remains the same, creating "dancing qualia" cases).

    Third, it appears to be unmotivated by a general theory that would explain why satisfying or failing to satisfy (A) or (B) would be crucial to the absence or presence of group-level consciousness.

    None of these three points would be news to Kammerer, so to make them stick would require more development than I'm going to give them today. But before doing that, I thought I solicit reactions from others -- either to the general issue of anti-nesting principles or to Kammerer's specific principle.

    Update Jan. 26, 2016:

    I have now drafted a more formal reply essay here.


    Related posts:

    Martian Rabbit Superorganisms, Yeah! (May 4, 2012)

    Tononi's Exclusion Postulate Would Make Consciousness (Nearly) Irrelevant (Jul 16, 2014)

    The Copernican Sweets of Not Looking Too Closely Inside an Alien's Head (Mar 14, 2014)

    Why [X] Should Think the United States Is Conscious (X = Dennett, Dretske, Humphrey) (Winter 2012).

    [image source]

    Wednesday, October 14, 2015

    Consciousness Science and the Privileged Sample Problem

    a guest post by Regina Rini

    There is, undeniably, such a thing as a science of consciousness. People use brain scanners and clever experimental techniques to figure out the neural processes correlated with conscious experience. I don’t wish to challenge the value of this research. However, I think there is something odd about consciousness as a scientific subject, something I’ll call the privileged sample problem. If I’m right, then consciousness is importantly unlike anything else science claims to study.

    To see the problem, imagine this: you are one of the world’s pre-eminent neuroscientists. You know as much about the cutting-edge science of consciousness as anyone else. Unfortunately, you are in a car crash and suffer serious head injury. For several weeks you are in a coma, but gradually you emerge into consciousness again. Unfortunately, you quickly realize that you have no control over any part of your body. You are an extreme victim of locked-in syndrome: though you are conscious and aware of your surroundings, you cannot move or speak or indicate your awareness to the outside world. (Unlike Jean-Dominique Bauby, the author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, you can’t even control your eyelids, so you can’t communicate by blinking.) As far as anyone else can tell, you are just as you were in coma: lying there in bed, eyes open and unfixed, unable to respond to anyone.

    As it happens, your neuroscientist colleagues have been keeping vigil at your bedside. They are always arguing with each other, and of course they want to know whether you are conscious. Eventually they arrange to have your brain scanned, using the most sophisticated existing techniques for consciousness-detection. But the tests come back negative! And here’s the important part: when they gather around your bedside to discuss the data, you listen. You understand the science just as well as they do, and you realize that, given the data they have and the best existing scientific theory of consciousness, you agree that they are right to conclude that you are not conscious. If you were out there with them and had the same data, you’d think so too. But because you are in here, in your own mind, you know they are wrong. You are conscious. And so now you know that the best existing scientific theory of consciousness is wrong.

    In this story, you are in a position to refute the best existing science based upon a single sample of the phenomenon being studied. This is not a normal feature of science. Science is inductive. Normally, if we discover a single sample which seems to defy our best scientific theory, we first check to see if we have made a mistake in measuring the sample. If we rule that out, we start looking for other samples that replicate the finding. If we can’t find any others – that is, if all other samples remain consistent with the best existing theory – then we will very likely conclude that the single inconsistent sample is a fluke. Our observation about the sample has gone wrong in some way, even if we can’t figure out exactly how it has gone wrong. What we will not do is overturn the best existing theory simply because it fails to cohere with a single sample.

    But things are different when it comes to consciousness. Your own conscious experience is, for you, a privileged sample. It is reasonable for you to conclude that the best existing theory is false if the best existing theory predicts that you are not conscious. It doesn’t matter whether the best existing theory continues to correctly predict all other cases you know about - your own case is special. This is nothing other than Descartes’ famous point: your own consciousness is the last thing you can doubt. You are right to doubt anything else, including the best existing scientific theory, before you doubt that you are conscious.

    Of course, your case is not special for anyone else. This is the other puzzling features of a privileged sample. You and only you have a certain type of access to this sample. Your grounds for employing it to refute the best existing theory are not publicly confirmable. Public confirmation is a cardinal feature of science, yet the science of consciousness is (in principle) constrained by observations that are not publicly confirmable. There exist possible observations that reasonably refute the best existing scientific theory on the basis of a single sample that is not available to public confirmation. That is the privileged sample problem.

    What does the privileged sample problem imply about the nature of consciousness? Well, it doesn’t obviously imply anything radical about the ontology of the conscious mind. We can still be fully-committed physicalists even if we accept that there is something odd about the science of consciousness. But I think it does imply that we should be suspicious of any attempt to treat consciousness as a target of physicalist reduction. Really all I am doing here is find another way to express a point made by Thomas Nagel a long time ago: we have subjective and objective ways of thinking about our own minds, and one cannot be reduced to the other. We should not try to entirely replace conscious-subjectivity talk with physicalist-science talk, because the privileged sample problem shows that the science of consciousness is not a science like any other.

    I got the idea for the privileged sample problem while formulating a question at the ‘Measuring Borderline States of Consciousness’ conference at NYU. Thanks in particular to Adrian Owen and Tim Bayne, whose fascinating talks on detecting consciousness provoked my question.

    image credit: 'Sub Conscious' by Gregg Jaden

    Tuesday, October 13, 2015

    "1% Skepticism" in Nous; "Experimental Evidence for the Existence of an External World" in JAPA

    About a week ago, two of my forthcoming essays appeared.

    "1% Skepticism":

    A 1% skeptic is someone who has about a 99% credence in non-skeptical realism and about a 1% credence that some radically skeptical scenario obtains. The first half of this essay defends the epistemic rationality of 1% skepticism, endorsing modest versions of dream skepticism, simulation skepticism, cosmological skepticism, and wildcard skepticism. The second half of the essay explores the practical behavioral consequences of 1% skepticism.

    Official version in Nous.
    Free manuscript version from my academic homepage.

    "Experimental Evidence for the Existence of an External World" (with Alan T. Moore):

    In this essay I attempt to refute radical solipsism by means of a series of empirical experiments. In the first experiment, I exhibit unreliable judgment about the primeness or divisibility of four-digit numbers, in contrast to a seeming Excel program. In the second experiment, I exhibit an imperfect memory for arbitrary-seeming three-digit number and letter combinations, in contrast to my seeming collaborator with seemingly hidden notes. In the third experiment, I seem to suffer repeated defeats at chess. In all three experiments, the most straightforward interpretation of the experiential evidence is that something exists in the universe that is superior in the relevant respects – theoretical reasoning (about primes), memorial retention (for digits and letters), or practical reasoning (at chess) – to my own solipsistically-conceived self.

    Official version in JAPA.
    Free manuscript version from my academic homepage.

    Both essays began life as posts on The Splintered Mind, the Experimental Philosophy Blog and NewAPPS. Many thanks to those who read and commented!

    By the way, the little picture of me in the upper right corner of this blog is cropped from a photo from the "External World" paper. Why do I look so contemplative? Because Alan is proving to me that the external world exists by beating me in speed chess!

    (photo credit: Gerardo Sanchez)