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]