Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Introspective Attention as Perception with a Twist

Tomorrow I'm off to the Pacific APA in San Francisco. Thursday 4-6 I'm commenting on Wayne Wu's "Introspection as Attention and Action". This post is adapted from those comments.

(Also Wed 6 pm I'm presenting my paper "A Pragmatic Approach to the Metaphysics of Belief" and Sat 6-9 I'm critic in an author-meets-critics on Jay Garfield's Engaging Buddhism. Feel free to stop by!)


What does introspective attention to one's perceptual experiences amount to? As I look at my desk, I can attend to or think about my ongoing sensory experiences, reaching judgments about their quality or character. For example, I'm visually experiencing a brownish, slightly complicated oblong shape in my visual periphery (which I know to be my hat). I'm having auditory experience of my coffee-maker spitting and bubbling as it brews the pot. What exactly am I doing, in the process of reaching these judgments?

One thing that I'm not doing, according to Wayne Wu, is launching a new process, distinct from the perceptual processes of seeing the hat and hearing the coffee-maker, which turns an "attentional spotlight" upon those perceptual processes. Introspective attention, Wu argues -- and I agree -- is a matter of applying phenomenal concepts in the course of ordinary perceiving, with the goal of arriving at a judgment about your perceptual experience -- doing so in a way that isn't radically different from the way in which, according to your goals, you can aim to categorize the things you perceive along any of several different dimensions.

I hope the following is a Wu-friendly way of developing the idea. Suppose you're looking at a coffee mug. You can do so with any of a variety of perceptual goals in mind. You can look at it with the aim of noticing details about its color -- its precise shade and how consistent or variable its color is across its face. You can look at it with the aim of noticing details of its shape. You can look at it with the aim of thinking about how it could effectively be used as a weapon. You can look at it with a critical aesthetic eye. Each of these aims is a way of attending differently to the mug, resulting in judgments that employ different conceptual categories.

You can also look at the mug with an introspective aim, or rather with one of several introspective aims. You can look at the mug with the aim of reaching conclusions about what your visual experience is as you look at the mug rather than with the aim of reaching conclusions about the physical mug itself. You might be interested in noticing your experience of the mug's color, possibly distinct from mug's real color. According to Wu, this is not a process radically different from ordinary acts of perception. Introspection your visual experience of the color or shape of the mug is not a two-stage process that consists of first perceiving the mug and then second of introspecting the experiences that arise in the course of that perceptual act.

The approach Wu and I favor is especially attractive in thinking about what the early introspective psychologists E.B. Titchener and E.G. Boring called "R-error" or "stimulus error". Imagine that you're lying on your stomach and an experimenter is gently poking the bare skin of your back with either one or two toothpicks. You might have one of two different tasks. An objective task would be to guess whether you are being poked by only one toothpick or instead by both toothpicks at once. You answer with either "one" or "two". It's easy to tell that you're being poked by two if the toothpicks are several centimeters apart, but once they are brought close enough together, the task becomes difficult. Two toothpicks placed within a centimeter of each other on your back are likely to feel like only a single toothpick. The objective task would be to guess how many toothpicks you are being poked with in reality.

An introspective task might be very similar but with a crucial difference: You are asked to report whether you have tactile experience of two separate regions of pressure or only one region. Again you might answer "one" or "two". This is of course not the same as the objective task. You're reporting not on facts about the toothpicks but rather on facts about your experience of the toothpicks. The objective task and the introspective task have different truth conditions. For example if two toothpicks are pressed to your back only 6 millimeters apart and you say "one" you've given the wrong answer if your task is objective but quite possibly the right answer if your task is introspective.

[Edwin G. Boring in 1961]

Here's the thing that Titchener and Boring noticed, which they repeatedly warn against in their discussions of introspective methodology: People very easily slide back and forth between the introspective task and the objective task. It's not entirely natural to keep them distinct in your mind over the course of a long series of stimuli. You might be assigned the introspective task, for example, and start saying "one", "one", "two", "one", "two", "two", "two" -- at first your intentions are clearly introspective, but then by the thirtieth trial you have slipped into the more familiar objective way of responding and you're just guessing how many toothpicks there actually are, rather than reporting introspectively. If you've slipped from the introspective to the objective mode of reporting, you've committed what Titchener and Boring call stimulus error.

For Wu's and my view, the crucial point is this: It's very easy to shift unintentionally between the two ways of deploying your perceptual faculties. In fact I'm inclined to think -- I don't know if Wu would agree with me about this -- that for substantial stretches of the experiment your intentions might be vague enough that there's no determinate fact about the content of your utterances. Is your "one" really a report about your experience or a report about the world outside? It might be kind of muddy, kind of in-between. You're just rolling along not very thoughtful of the distinction. What distinguishes the introspective judgment from the perceptual judgment in this case is a kind of minor thing about your background intentions in making your report.

Introspection of perceptual experience is perception with a twist, with an aim slightly different from the usual aim of reporting on the outside world. That's the idea. It's not a distinct cognitive process that begins after the perceptual act ends, ontologically distinct from the perceptual act and taking the perceptual act as its target.

When you know that your experience might be misleading, the difference can matter to your reporting. For example, if you know that you're pretty bad at detecting two toothpicks when they're close together and you have reason to think that lots of the trials will have toothpicks close together, and if your focus is on objective reporting, you might say: "Well, 50-50% -- might be one, might be two for all I know". For introspective reporting, in contrast, you might say something like "Sure feels like one, though I know you might well actually be touching me with two".

In visual experience, noticing blurriness is similar. Take off your glasses or cross your eyes. You know enough about the world to know that your coffee mug hasn't become objectively vague-edged and blurry. So you attribute the blurriness to your experience. This is a matter of seeing the world and reaching judgments about your experience in the process. You reach an experiential judgment rather than or in addition to an objective judgment just because of certain background facts about your cognition. Imagine someone so naive and benighted as to think that maybe actual real-world coffee mugs do in fact become vague bordered and blurry edged when she takes off her glasses. It seems conceivable that we could so bizarrely structure someone's environment that she actually came to adulthood thinking this. That person might then not know whether to apply blurriness to the outward object or to her experience of the object. It's a similar perceptual act of looking at the mug, but given different background concepts and assumptions in one case she reaches an introspective attribution while in the other case she reaches an objective attribution.

[image source]



  • "Introspection, What?" (2012), in D. Smithies and D. Stoljar, eds., Introspection and Consciousness (Oxford). My own positive account of the nature of introspection.
  • "Introspection". My Stanford Encyclopedia review article on theories of introspection.
  • "The Problem of Known Illusion and the Resemblance of Experience to Reality" (2014), Philosophy of Science 81, 954-960. Puzzlement and possible metaphysical juice, arising from reflections on the weird relation between objective and introspective reporting.
  • Wednesday, March 23, 2016

    My Workday as a Philosophy Professor

    [cross-posted from The Philosophers' Cocoon, "Real Philosophy Jobs Part 3"]

    How hard does the typical tenured professor work, and on what? Good information is hard to come by. I will describe my own workload and typical workday, as one data point.

    I am a full professor of philosophy, with a six-digit salary and tenure at UC Riverside, whose philosophy PhD program is ranked 28th in the US by the Philosophical Gourmet. Our normal teaching load is four 10-week courses (plus final exams) spread over three “quarters” (hence 1-2-1), plus independent supervision of graduate students.

    Unlike most of my colleagues, I try to work regular workdays – about 8:00 to 5:30 Monday to Friday, with evenings and weekends reserved for home life (below, I’ll add some caveats to that). I also try to have relatively normal holidays: the official US holidays, a couple weeks for family vacation during the summer, about a week over winter break, and a smattering of other days off.

    My typical day:


    Email is a major part of the job. After arriving at the office around 8:00, I’ll usually spend my first hour reading and answering email. I’ll also check and answer email through the rest of the day. The distinction between “answering email” and “doing tasks that were precipitated by receiving an email” is vague, but I’d estimate that I spend about two hours a day reading and answering emails. Last week I received 359 email messages, almost none of which were junk mail from corporations. (I use a separate email account for that.) Approximately one half were group emails that I could skim or ignore. The other half I had to actually read. About half of those, I replied to. I of course also send emails that are not simply replies. Last week, I sent 107 email messages. That’s an average of 36 substantive incoming and 21 outgoing messages per weekday. If I spend one minute per message, that’s already an hour a day right there. Of course some messages require less time, others substantially more.

    Here’s a Monday morning sample, which includes Friday evening through 10:00 a.m. Monday: a few emails discussing dinner plans after a talk at the APA; two submitted blog comments which I approved (including one where I followed a link to an interesting article that I’d already read); an email from a potential coauthor about an op-ed piece we’re considering writing together; A-V information about an upcoming talk; three emails in a four-way philosophical discussion about Asian philosophy and oneness; an undergraduate request for me to write a letter of recommendation, which I replied to with substantial advice; a reminder about some written interview questions that I got last week and haven’t yet managed to answer; a question from another philosopher about my data collection methods from a recent paper; an email trying to coordinate a meeting with a colleague at the coming APA; two requests to referee articles for journals (one accepted, one declined); three emails of thanks for reference letters I wrote last week; an email confirming that my request for $10,000 to organize a mini-conference has been approved, precipitating a message to my collaborator about next steps; a link to a recently published article citing one of my articles, interesting enough that I read the abstract, downloaded, and quickly skimmed for possible later reading; two emails from my wife with info about getting my son organized for applying to colleges next year; a couple emails about arranging the hotels for my trip to Hong Kong in May; an email from a speaker I’ve invited to talk at UCR next year who is unsure whether he’ll be able to fit it into his schedule; and two emails concerning getting the overhead lights in my office fixed. That gives you the flavor, I think!

    Classroom teaching:

    Most of my undergraduate classes are already prepped from previous years. I’ll spend about 60-90 minutes refreshing myself on the material and reviewing and tweaking my overheads. (If it’s material I haven’t taught before, it takes several hours.) Then I’ll spend 50 minutes on a lecture stage in front of hundreds of students (for a lower-division class), 80 minutes in lecture-and-informal discussion with about 30 students (for an upper-division class), or three hours in focused discussion with about 8 students (for a grad seminar).

    Teaching the giant lecture classes is stressful, but also a thrill when it goes well. When I switched from the ordinary “Introduction to Philosophy” material to material that more students cared about, with real emotional resonance – lynching, the Holocaust, sex and death, the role of cognition and emotion in moral development, starvation amid wealth – I found my passion for the lower division teaching. One time, the two hundred students were so still in the lecture hall that the motion sensors decided the classroom was empty and the lights turned themselves off. Whoa. When I can bring that intensity to students on topics like these, that feels meaningful and worthwhile.

    In upper-division courses and grad seminars, I rely on more from the students. Classes become a mix of semi-structured mini-lectures, freewheeling tangents, and informal debate among students. UCR students are strong enough that their discussions are reliably interesting as long as I can do two things: (a.) draw out the best in students’ sometimes half-baked ideas, and (b.) succeed in expanding the conversation away from just the most assertive talkers.


    On days when I’m not teaching, probably about half of my time is research. On teaching days, research is sometimes squeezed out altogether. Research is mostly reading and writing, but I also (unusually for a philosopher) also do some experimental work and data analysis.

    Reading. I don’t read many books cover to cover. I read a mix of happenstance material and targeted material. The happenstance will be recent articles from journal tables of contents, articles or books or book chapters that people have mentioned or emailed to me as possibly of interest (including their own work), work that cites my own, and other work that catches my eye for whatever reason. The targeted material will be current or classic or historical work that is relevant to an article or blog post that I am currently writing or thinking about. For example, for my recent paper on rationalization with Jon Ellis, I read through bunches of relevant psychological literature, some fun classic work from the history of psychology, a whole bunch of Habermas (which I ended up only barely citing but seemed worth knowing anyway), relevant work by philosophers on rationalization and on self-knowledge, and various tangentially related material.

    Writing: Blog. I have an active blog, The Splintered Mind, where I try to post at least once a week, usually about 500-1000 words with a fresh idea about something I’ve been working on recently. Typically this takes me a few hours, plus maybe another hour replying to comments on the blog or on social media sites where I’ve linked to the blog. I find it good discipline to get my ideas out there in some sort of comprehensible shape on a regular basis, and to get some feedback about them. I usually try not to spend more than five hours blogging per week.

    Writing: Articles. I am always bursting with writing ideas – far more stuff than I can actually write up. (The blog is a good vent for ideas that won’t make it into articles.) A first draft will normally take me about an hour a page. Most of my non-empirical articles go through one to five top-to-bottom rewrites from beginning to end, plus multiple smaller-scale revisions and rereadings. For me, a typical full-length published article reflects about 100-200 hours of writing and revising. I try to write always for two audiences simultaneously: the fast skimming reader who just wants the big picture and the careful nitpicking reader who is looking to critique me on details. I care about prose style. I care about trying to draw the reader in, about revealing the importance of the issues, about being fun and accessible rather than dry and technical, to the extent that’s compatible with rigorously covering the issues. I love the craft of writing.

    Writing: Other. I’ve also recently started writing science fiction and op-eds. Because why not? These can, of course, take a lot of time, and it’s a challenge to acquire the relevant skills. (I rather enjoy the challenge.) It helps that I’ve recently been getting grant money for teaching release, so that I don’t have to compromise my other research to do these things.

    One of the things I love about this job, especially now that I’m tenured, is the enormous freedom I have to read and write whatever I feel like reading and writing, at whatever pace and schedule I feel like doing so. Especially during the summer, my office is a playground for my mind. Of course, it’s not always like that – when I commit to particular writing projects with deadlines and/or co-authors, I have to prioritize them on a schedule I might not prefer, and there are the frequent scheduled demands of teaching and meetings that can feel like they get in the way of my passionate desire to think and read and write, and of course there’s always the stack of email which if I ignore for even one day becomes quite daunting by the next.

    Other Stuff:

    Meetings. During the term, I probably average about 1-2 hours in meetings per day. This includes university committee meetings, faculty meetings, departmental talks and receptions, graduate student oral exams, open-door office hours, and one-on-one meetings in person or by phone or Skype with students, collaborators, and colleagues.

    Grading. Grading undergraduate exams and essays is a pretty tough slog, and probably my least favorite part of the job – though those occasional “A” papers are like lights in the mist. When I’m teaching upper-division without TAs, this will be several hours a week several weeks of the term. Evaluating graduate student essays and dissertations is not as grueling, but is still quite a bit of work – in combination amounting to hundreds of comments over hundreds of pages.

    Miscellaneous Tasks. These typically come via email – things I can’t just respond to with a quick email in reply. They include: writing letters of recommendation; writing referee reports on articles submitted to journals; organizing events; organizing travel and financial matters (including applying for and managing grants); dealing with students with special issues; keeping up to some extent with what’s going on in the philosophical corners of social media and the popular press; evaluating research proposals as part of a committee or review board or as an outside evaluator; planning new courses or course material; evaluating graduate admissions applications if I’m on the admissions committee or job applications if I’m on a hiring committee; evaluating the promotion and merit files of my colleagues; completing well-intentioned administrative forms; and other such – I’m sure I’ve forgotten some.

    Although I don’t conceptualize this “other stuff” as research, most of it does expose me, in one way or another, to work going on in the field.

    I’ll take about 15 minutes for lunch (walk to the student cafeteria then walk back, often eating en route) and maybe another 30 minutes over the day for non-philosophy stuff like internet news, humor items, non-philosophy social media, and family-related things.

    When I’m Not in the Office:

    Morning walks. I walk an hour every morning – often my favorite part of the day. I’ll let my mind drift. Maybe a third of the time I’m drifting off into philosophical thoughts, things I’d like to write or revise, blog post ideas, project plans, etc. Sometimes I’ll listen to a podcast or a text-to-speech article (philosophy, science fiction, or otherwise), or I’ll look a bit at social media. When I’ve slept well and in a good mood, I’m just bursting with enthusiasm and fun ideas – sometimes ideas that seem a bit too silly in my more sober moods later.

    Evenings and weekends. Evenings and weekends, I prioritize family. I’ll check social media a bit, sometimes reading or commenting on philosophical things, but always in a light way – never in a concentrated-this-feels-like-work way. I won’t check email, except maybe to scan headers if I think there might be something urgent. I always read before going to sleep – about half an hour, often something related to philosophy but which doesn’t feel workish, such as a popular book of history or psychology or some speculative science fiction.

    Travel. I have a deal with my family: four out-of-town trips per year, one of which is overseas. The overseas trip will usually be about two weeks, and I’ll try to string together a bunch of talks at different places, in quick succession. The other three will normally be 2-4 nights, and I’ll try to string together two or three talks in nearby places if it can be arranged.

    So How Much Do I Work and on What?

    If we figure that the travel approximately cancels out the arbitrary days I take off, that leaves me with about 49 weeks per year, at about (9:30 minus 0:45) x 5 = 43.75 hours per week, plus some hard-to-count off-the-clock stuff like light reading at night and philosophical thinking during my morning walks. Maybe about 40% my work time is reading and writing with research ends in mind, about 25% of it teaching related, and 35% everything else.

    But all this task-and-hour-counting omits something essential: the extent to which my work has shaped my sense of who I am and what I value. I could not simply cut it away. As my children will attest, I am a philosopher even in my light-hearted play with them. I have become what my work has made me.

    Thursday, March 17, 2016

    "Crash Spaces" for Ancestral Ways of Meaning-Making

    R. Scott Bakker's story "Crash Space", which I solicited for a special issue of Midwest Studies in Philosophy last year, is stuck in my head.

    Without giving away too much of Bakker's story, here's the guiding thought: A world in which you have almost complete voluntary control over your emotions is a world in which your emotions won't effectively do their job in regulating your behavior. It's crucial to the operation of an emotion like guilt or ecstatically forgetful bliss that it be at least partly outside your direct control. Otherwise, why not just turn off the guilt and amp up bliss and go wild?

    In fact, once you even start to dampen down your moral emotions or long-term thinking, that might create a situation in which you'll then dampen those emotions farther -- since there will be less guilt, shame, etc., to prevent you from continuing to downregulate. It's easy to see how a vicious cycle could start and be hard to escape. If you could, in a moment of recklessness, say to yourself "let's crank up the carpe diem and forget tomorrow!" and then (through emotion-regulating technology) actually do that, then it might be hard to find your way back to moderation. A bit of normal short-term thinking might lead you to temporarily dampen your concern for the future, but once concern for the future is dampened your new short-term-thinking self might naturally be inclined to say, "what the heck, let's dampen it even more!"

    In a postscript to his story, Bakker defines a crash space as "a problem solving domain where our tools seem to fit the description, but cannot seem to get the job done" (p. 203). Bakker argues, plausibly, that the cognitive and emotional structures that give meaning to our lives and constrain us ethically can be expected to work only in a limited range of environments -- roughly, environments similar in their basic structure to those in our evolutionary and cultural history. Break far enough away, and our ancestrally familiar approaches will cease to function effectively.

    For a very different set of cases in the same vein, consider utility monster and fission-fusion monster cases that might well become possible if we can someday create human-like consciousness in computers or robots. (Utility monsters are capable of vastly superhuman amounts of pleasure. Fission-fusion monsters are individuals who can merge and subdivide at will.) The human notion of individual rights, for example, only makes sense in a context in which targets of moral concern are individuals who remain discrete from each other for long periods of time -- who don't merge and divide and blend into each other. Break this assumption, and much of our ordinary moral thinking seems to break along with it. (See also Briggs and Nolan 2015.) What becomes of "one person, one vote", for example, when people can divide into a million individuals the day before the election and then merge back together again -- or not -- the day after, or when you have a huge entity with many semi-independent subparts?

    Part of the potential philosophical power of science fiction, I think, is in imagining possible crash spaces for our ancestral, historical, or socially familiar ways of finding personal and moral meaning in the world. Pushing imaginatively against existing boundaries, we can begin to see possible risks in the future. But discovering our crash spaces is also of intrinsic philosophical interest, potentially revealing previously unnoticed implicit background assumptions behind our ordinary patterns of evaluation.

    Some other interesting science fiction on the hazards of external self-control of emotions include Larry Niven's pleasure-center-simulating tasps and ecstasy plugs (turn on and forget even to eat!), and Greg Egan's exoselves in Permutation City and Diaspora (shell programs that regulate one's personality and preferences).

    One flip side of Bakker's "Crash Space" is Egan's short story "Reasons to Be Cheerful", about the challenge of choosing a new set of desires and preferences from scratch, in a self-conscious, hyper-rational way.

    [image source]

    Monday, March 14, 2016

    Changes in the Race and Gender of U.S. Philosophy Faculty, 1988-2004

    Historical data on the percentage of women and minorities in philosophy in the U.S. are hard to find. It's clear that the numbers have increased since the 1970s, but it's possible that some of the trends have flattened since the 1990s. Without good historical data, it's hard to evaluate this possible flattening.

    So I put in a request to the National Center for Education Statistics, and they generated estimates of the percentage of women and the percentage of non-Hispanic white people in philosophy vs. other disciplines based on governmental surveys conducted from 1988, 1993, 1999, and 2004. These data concern only full-time faculty in 4-year institutions.

    With their permission, I've made these NCES estimates available here (XLSX format).

    The 1988 and 1993 are aggregate data for philosophy, religion, and theology (which appear not to have been coded separately in the NCES survey raw data). However, I believe that these aggregated data can serve as reasonable estimates for philosophy in those two years, as I'll explain in point (4) below.

    Gender data:

    1988: philosophy*: 91% male (vs. 75% for all fields).

    1993: philosophy*: 88% male (vs. 70% for all fields).

    1999: philosophy: 80% male (vs. 67% for all fields).

    2004: philosophy: 86% male (vs. 64% for all fields).

    Race/ethnicity data:

    1988: philosophy*: 93% white non-Hispanic (vs. 89% for all fields).

    1993: philosophy*: 95% white non-Hispanic (vs. 86% for all fields).

    1999: philosophy: 91% white non-Hispanic (vs. 84% for all fields).

    2004: philosophy: 89% white non-Hispanic (vs. 80% for all fields).


    (1.) Unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with the demographics of philosophy in the U.S., philosophy was very white and very male throughout the period -- more so than academia as a whole. The trends have been toward increasing diversity, but only slowly.

    (2.) The fluctuations suggest statistical error of at least a few percent. On the second page of the worksheet, you can also see the calculated standard errors from the NCES, generally about 1-4%. The dip from 88% to 80% back up to 86% in particular seems unlikely to reflect real demographic change. Turnover in full-time positions is slow; the field doesn't change that fast.

    (3.) For comparison, the U.S. Survey of Earned Doctorates from the 1990s shows 73% of U.S. philosophy PhDs going to men and 91% going to non-Hispanic whites (the latter number excludes temporary residents and decline-to-state). So PhD recipients during the period had a bit more gender and ethnic diversity than faculty as a whole, consistent with a slow trend toward diversification.

    (4.) As mentioned, the 1988 and 1993 numbers are actually numbers from "philosophy, religion, and theology". I nonetheless believe that these are also decent estimates for philosophy alone. My reasoning is this: (a.) In the chart linked to above, we can see that philosophy and religion are treated separately and together in 1999 and 2004. The aggregate estimate is always somewhat closer to philosophy than to religion, suggesting that there are somewhat fewer faculty in religion -- which also fits with recent data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates (e.g., in 2009 423 doctorates were awarded in philosophy and 323 in religion). (b.) The race and gender percentages for religion and philosophy in 1999 and 2004 aren't hugely different, though religion tends to be a little closer to parity than philosophy in both respects (which also fits with recent SED data, which finds religion to be almost as race and gender-skewed as philosophy). For example, averaging 1999 and 2004, philosophy has 83.2% men to religion's 81.0%, and 90.0% white non-Hispanic to religion's 84.6%. So, combined with point a, the percentages for philosophy alone are likely to be similar to the percentages for philosophy and religion together, perhaps philosophy alone a bit more white and male. Of course, because of the nature of this estimate, as well as the fluctuations noted in (2) above, we should keep in mind that these are rough estimates, probably good only plus or minus a few percentage points.

    Tuesday, March 08, 2016

    New Paper in Draft: Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical Thought

    ... coauthored with Jonathan Ellis.


    Rationalization, in our intended sense of the term, occurs when a person favors a particular conclusion as a result of some factor (such as self-interest) that is of little justificatory epistemic relevance, if that factor then biases the person’s subsequent search for, and assessment of, potential justifications for the conclusion. Empirical evidence suggests that rationalization is common in ordinary people’s moral and philosophical thought. We argue that it is likely that the moral and philosophical thought of philosophers and moral psychologists is also pervaded by rationalization. Moreover, although rationalization has some benefits, overall it would be epistemically better if the moral and philosophical reasoning of both ordinary people and professional academics were not as heavily influenced by rationalization as it likely is. We discuss the significance of our arguments for cognitive management and epistemic responsibility.

    Full paper here.

    Thoughts and comments welcome, as always -- either in the comments field of this post or by email to me or Jon.

    Saturday, March 05, 2016

    Like the Oscars, #PhilosophySoWhite

    ... a new piece in the L.A. Times by Myisha Cherry and me.

    Academic philosophy in the United States has a diversity problem.

    No other discipline of comparable size in the humanities is as gender-skewed as philosophy. Women still receive only about 28% of philosophy PhDs in the United States, and are still only about 20% of full professors of philosophy — numbers that have hardly budged since the 1990s. And among U.S. citizens and permanent residents receiving philosophy PhDs in this country, 86% are non-Hispanic white. The only comparably-sized disciplines that are more white are the ones that explicitly focus on the European tradition, such as English literature.

    Black people are especially difficult to find in academic philosophy. Black people or African Americans constitute 13% of the U.S. population, 7% of PhD recipients across all fields, 2% of PhD recipients in philosophy, and less than 0.5% of authors in the most prominent philosophy journals.

    One of the main causes of homogeneity in philosophy, we believe, is subjectivity and bias in the evaluation of philosophical quality.

    continued here

    Some thoughts occasioned by the discussion I've seen of this piece since it went live last night:

    (1.) Shelley Tremain pointed out that we don't mention the underrepresentation of disabled people in philosophy (some stats and discussion in her piece here). As Tremain has emphasized, discussions of diversity tend to focus on race and gender to the exclusion of other dimensions of diversity, and I think we fell too much into that standard mode of thinking. I would conjecture that the same "seeming smart" phenomenon disadvantages people with visible disabilities that are stereotypically culturally associated with low power and low academic skill, and that this might explain the underrepresentation of such people in the profession, regardless of actual skill levels.

    (2.) I think one way to begin to address the issue (in addition to direct action to increase diversity) is to shift the culture of philosophy a bit more toward valuing plain-spoken philosophy, with minimal apparatus, which discusses issues that non-philosophers find interesting. I think this might have at least two positive effects: First it would make philosophy more attractive to people from a wide range of perspectives; and second it would improve our ability to evaluate quality, reducing the role of dazzling incomprehensible showmanship in the discipline. (This isn't to deny a role for highly technical philosophy, such as technical formal logic and detailed examination of the texts of historical figures. I would just advocate some shift in emphasis.)

    (3.) Myisha and I didn't have a chance to discuss how these things play out in other disciplines. I am not expert in other disciplines (except psychology to some extent), but I do have some data-supported conjectures. The entire story will be complex and multi-factorial. Some things to note: Mathematics, the physical sciences, and engineering are approximately as gender-skewed as philosophy. They are somewhat less race-skewed. (I don't know of class and disability data for these disciplines.) I suspect that this skew arises from a somewhat different confluence of factors (including associations of math and gender going back into childhood), though I think there's probably also substantial overlap since "seeming smart" is, I suspect, very important throughout academia, and the math-gender relationship also penetrates philosophy to some extent (especially philosophy of math and physics).

    (4.) Another interesting disciplinary comparison is literature. Literature, I think, shares with philosophy a very high level of subjectivity and cultural variability in quality assessment. It is much less gender-skewed. The race skew story is complicated by the fact that many literature programs focus explicitly on the European tradition (e.g., English, French). Again, I don't know of disability data and economic-privilege data. I see at least two important differences between literature and philosophy: One is that cultural associations with beauty and artistic creativity are not as white-male-centric as are cultural associations with intelligence (think of the stereotypes of the beautiful woman and the creative black jazz musician) and assessments of beauty and creativity may play a proportionately larger role in literature than in philosophy. The other is that literature as a set of academic disciplines in our culture has made more effort to explicitly diversify its canon than has philosophy, and diversifying the canon might tend to lead toward the diversification of the professors teaching that canon, via a few different mechanisms.

    (5.) Our brief discussion of this study didn't make the final cutdown for the op-ed, but we think it's important and supports our hypothesis. On Rate My Professors, undergraduate students are more likely to use the word "brilliant" to describe philosophy instructors -- especially male philosophy instructors -- than instructors in any of the other nine fields examined. These data fit both the gender skew in perceptions of "seeming smart" and our conjecture that seeming smart is a skill even more central to philosophy than other academic disciplines.

    (6.) Four interesting, related papers on seeming smart in philosophy:
    * Liam Kofi Bright "Against Candidate Quality";
    * Katrina Hutchison "Sages and Cranks: The Difficulty of Identifying First-Rate Philosophers;
    * Jennifer Saul "Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Women in Philosophy";
    * Dan Sperber "The Guru Effect".

    Thursday, March 03, 2016

    From God to Skepticism

    Maybe God created the world. But what kind of god?

    It seems reasonable to have doubts about God's moral character. Some religions claim that if God exists, he/she/it is morally perfect. Other religions, especially polytheistic religions, make no such claims. Even the Old Testament, if read at face value, does not appear to portray a morally perfect God.

    And of course there's the "problem of evil": The fact that the world is -- or appears to be -- full of needless suffering and wickedness that one might hope a morally good God would work to prevent. God could, it seems, have given Hitler a heart attack. God could, it seems, prevent people from dying young of painful diseases. One possible explanation for God's failure to prevent evil and suffering is that evil and suffering really don't bother God so much. Maybe God even enjoys watching us suffer. That would be one reason to create a world -- as a kind of LiveLeak voyeurism on human misery.

    Similarly, it seems reasonable to have doubts about the extent of God's power. Maybe God really wanted to stop the Holocaust, but just couldn't get there in time, or was constrained by non-interference regulations enforced by the Council of Worldbuilders, or was so busy stopping other bad things that this one slipped through the net. Maybe God would have liked to create human teeth sufficiently robust that they did not decay, but had to compromise given the resources at hand.

    Here's one way gods might work: by creating simulated worlds inside their computers, populated by conscious AIs who experience those simulated worlds as real. (Imagine the computer game "The Sims", but with conscious people inside.) I've argued that any manager of such a world would literally be a god to the beings inside that world. But of course those sorts of gods might be highly limited in their abilities. Maybe we too are in a Sim. (Personally, this strikes me as a more plausible version of theism than orthodox Catholic theology.) There's no guarantee that if some god launched our world, that god is all-powerful.

    So maybe God (if there is a god) is all-powerful and morally perfect, and maybe not. I think it's reasonable to have an open mind about that question. But now radically skeptical doubts seem to arise.

    An imperfect god might, for example, create millions of brief universes, one after the next, as trial runs -- beta versions, or quick practice sketches. An imperfect God might require multiple attempts to get things right. If so, then maybe we're in one of the betas or sketches, without much past or future, rather than in the final product.

    An imperfect god, once it/she/he has the knack of things, might just create favorite moments, or interesting moments, in multiple copies -- might create you, or your city, or your planet with a fake past, then suddenly introduce a change of laws, or a disaster, or a highly unlikely stroke of good fortune, just to see what happens. Why not? If you're going to create a world, you might as well play around with it.

    An imperfect god might create a universe as a project that runs for a while, but which will be shut down the moment God gets bored or receives a passing grade from the other gods or fails to pay the utility bill.

    It was crucial to Descartes' famous (and famously unsuccessful) argument against skepticism that he establish that God is perfect and, specifically, not a deceiver. Descartes was right to emphasize this for his anti-skeptical aims. If you admit that God might have created the world but then don't put substantial constraints on God's behavior, then you are imagining a being with the power and motive to create worlds who really kind of might do anything -- and who (if we use human psychology as our best-guess model) seems reasonably likely to do something other than create a boring, stable, predictable, one-shot universe of the sort we normally think we inhabit.



  • Reinstalling Eden (with R. Scott Bakker; Nature 503: 562, Nov. 28, 2013)
  • Our Possible Imminent Divinity (Jan. 2, 2014)
  • What Kelp Remembers (Weird Tales, Apr. 14, 2014)
  • Out of the Jar (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2015)
  • 1% Skepticism (Nous, forthcoming)

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