Tuesday, November 29, 2016

How Everything You Do Might Have Huge Cosmic Significance

Infinitude is a strange and wonderful thing. It transforms the ridiculously improbable into the inevitable.

Now hang on to your hat and glasses. Today's line of reasoning is going to make mere Boltzmann continuants seem boring and mundane.

First, let's suppose that the universe is infinite. This is widely viewed as plausible (see Brian Greene and Max Tegmark).

Second, let's suppose that the Copernican Principle holds: We are not in any special position in the universe. This principle is also widely accepted.

Third, let's assume cosmic diversity: We aren't stuck in an infinitely looping variant of a mere (proper) subset of the possibilities. Across infinite spacetime, there's enough variety to run through every finitely specifiable possibility infinitely often.

These assumptions are somewhat orthodox. To get my argument going, we also need a few assumptions that are less orthodox, but I hope not wildly implausible.

Fourth, let's assume that complexity scales up infinitely. In other words, as you zoom out on the infinite cosmos, you don't find that things eventually look simpler as the scale of measurement gets bigger.

Fifth, let's assume that local actions on Earth have chaotic effects of an arbitrarily large magnitude. You know the Butterfly Effect from chaos theory -- the idea that a small perturbation in a complex, "chaotic" system can make a large-scale difference in the later evolution of the system. A butterfly flapping its wings in China could cause the weather in the U.S. weeks later to be different than it would have been if the butterfly hadn't flapped its wings. Small perturbations amplify. This fifth assumption is that there are cosmic-scale butterfly effects: far-distant, arbitrarily large future events that arise with chaotic sensitivity to events on Earth. Maybe new Big Bangs are triggered, or maybe (as envisioned by Boltzmann) given infinite time, arbitrarily large systems will emerge by chance from low-entropy "heat death" states, and however these Big Bangs or Boltzmannian eruptions arise, they are chaotically sensitive to initial conditions -- including the downstream effects of light reflected from Earth's surface.

Okay, that's a big assumption to swallow. But I don't think it's absurd. Let's just see where it takes us.

Sixth, given the right kind of complexity, evolutionary processes will transpire that favor intelligence. We would not expect such evolutionary processes at most spatiotemporal scales. However, given that complexity scales up infinitely (our fourth assumption) we should expect that at some finite proportion of spatiotemporal scales there are complex systems structured in a way that enables the evolution of intelligence.

From all this it seems to follow that what happens here on Earth -- including the specific choices you make, chaotically amplified as you flap your wings -- can have effects on a cosmic scale that influence the cognition of very large minds.

(Let me be clear that I mean very large minds. I don't mean galaxy-sized minds or visible-universe-sized minds. Galaxy-sized and visible-universe-sized structures in our region don't seem to be of the right sort to support the evolution of intelligence at those scales. I mean way, way up. We have infinitude to play with, after all. And presumably way, way slow if the speed of light is a constraint. Also, I am assuming that time and causation make sense at arbitrarily large scales, but maybe that can be weakened if necessary to something like contingency.)

Now at such scales anything little old you personally does would very likely be experienced as chance. Suppose for example that a cosmic mind utilizes the inflation of Big Bangs. Even if your butterfly effects cause a future Big Bang to happen this way rather than that way, probably a mind at that scale wouldn't have evolved to notice tiny-scale causes like you.

Far fetched. Cool, perhaps, depending on your taste in cool. Maybe not quite cosmic significance, though, if your decisions only feed a pseudo-random mega-process whose outcome has no meaningful relationship to the content of your decisions.

But we do have infinitude to play with, so we can add one more twist.

Here it is: If the odds of influencing the behavior of an arbitrarily large intelligent system are finite, and if we're letting ourselves scale up arbitrarily high, then (granting all the rest of the argument) your decisions will affect the behavior of an infinite number of huge, intelligent systems. Among them there will be some -- a tiny but finite proportion! -- such that the following counterfactual is true: If you hadn't made that upbeat, life-affirming choice you in fact just made, that huge, intelligent system would have decided that life wasn't worth living. But fortunately, partly as a result of that thing you just did, that giant intelligence -- let's call it Emily -- will discover happiness and learn to celebrate its existence. Emily might not know about you. Emily might think it's random or find some other aspect of the causal chain to point toward. But still, if you hadn't done that thing, Emily's life would have been much worse.

So, whew! I hope it won't seem presumptuous of me to thank you on Emily's behalf.

[image source]

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Odds of Getting Three Consecutive Wars in a Row in the Card Game

What better way to spend the Sunday after Thanksgiving than playing card games with your family and then arguing about the odds?

As pictured, my daughter and I just got three consecutive "wars" in the card game of war. (I lost with a 3 at the end!)

What are the odds of that?

Well, the odds of getting just one war are 3/51, right? Here's why. It doesn't matter whether my or my daughter's card is turned first. That card can be anything. The second card needs to match it. With the first card out of the deck, 51 cards remain. Three of them match the first-turned card. So 3/51 = .058824 = about a 5.9% chance.

Then you each play three face down "soldier" cards. Those could be any cards, and we don't know anything about them, so they can be ignored for purposes of calculation. What's relevant are the next upturned cards, the "generals". Here there are two possibilities. First possibility: The first general is the same value as the original war cards. Since there are 50 unplayed cards and two that match the original two war cards, the odds of that are 2/50 = .040000 = 4.0%. The other possibility is that the value of the first general differs from that of the war cards: 48/50 = .960000 = 96.0%.

(As I write this, my son is sleeping late and my wife and daughter are playing with Musical.ly -- other excellent ways to spend a lazy Sunday!)

In the first case, the odds of the second general matching are only one in 49 (.020408, about 2.0%), since three of the four cards of that value have already been played and there are 49 cards left in the deck (disregarding the soldiers). In the second case, the odds are three in 49 (.061224, about 6.1%).

So the odds of two wars consecutively are: .058824 * .04 * .020408 (first war, followed by matching generals, i.e. all four up cards the same) + .058824 * .96 * .061124 (first war, followed by a different pair of matching generals) = .000048 + .003457 = .003505. In other words, there's about a 0.35% chance, or about one in 300 chance, of two consecutive wars.

If the second war had generals that matched the original war cards, then there's only one way for the third war to happen. Player one draws any new general. The odds of player two's new general matching are 3/47 (.063830).

If the second war had generals that did not match the original war cards, then there are two possibilities.

First possibility: The first new general is the same value as one of the original war cards or previous generals. There's a 4 in 48 (.083333) chance of that happening (two remaining cards of each of those two values). Finally, there's a 1/47 (.021277) chance that the last general matches this one (last remaining card of that value).

Second possibility: The first new general is a different value from either the original war cards or the previous generals. The odds of that are 44/48 (.916667), followed by a 3/47 (.063830) chance of match.

Okay, now we can total up the possibilities. There are three relevantly different ways to get three consecutive wars in a row.

A: First war, followed by second war with same values, followed by third war with different values: .058824 (first war) * .04000 (first general matches war cards) * .020408 (second general matches first general) * .063830 (odds of third war with fresh card values) = .000003 (.0003% or about 1 in 330,000).

B: First war, followed by second war with different values, followed by third war with same values as one of the previous wars: .058824 (first war) * .960000 (first general doesn't match war cards) * .061224 (second general matches first general) * .083333 (first new general matches either war cards or previous generals) * .021277 (second new general matches first new general) = .000006 (.0006% or about 1 in 160,000).

C: First war, followed by second and third wars, each with different values: .058824 (first war) * .960000 (first general doesn't match war cards) * .061224 (second general matches first general) * .916667 (first new general doesn't match either war cards or previous generals) * .063830 (second new general matches first new general) = .000202 (.02% or about 1 in 5000).

Summing up these three paths: .000003 + .000006 + .000202 = .000211. In other words, the chance of three wars in a row is 0.0211% or 1 in 4739.

Now for some leftover turkey.


As it happens we were playing the variant game Modern War -- which is much less tedious than the traditional card game of war! But since it was only the first campaign the odds are the same. (In later campaigns the odds of war increase, because smaller cards fall disproportionately out of the deck.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Moral Compass and the Liberal Ideal in Moral Education

Here are two very different approaches to moral education:

The outward-in approach. Inform the child what the rules are. Do not expect the child to like the rules or regard them as wise. Instead, enforce compliance through punishment and reward. Secondarily, explain the rules, with the hope that eventually the child will come to appreciate their wisdom, internalize them, and be willing to abide by them without threat of punishment.

The inward-out approach. When the child does something wrong, help the child see for herself what makes it wrong. Invite the child to reflect on what constitutes a good system of rules and what are good and bad ways to treat people, and collaborate in developing guidelines and ideals that make sense to the child. Trust that even young children can come to see the wisdom of moral guidelines and ideals. Punish only as a fallback when more collaborative approaches fail.

Though there need be no neat mapping, I conjecture that preference for the outward-in approach correlates with what we ordinarily regard as political conservativism and preference for the inward-out approach with what we ordinarily regard as political liberalism. The crucial difference between the two approaches is this: The outward-in approach trusts children's judgment less. On the outward-in approach, children should be taught to defer to established rules, even if those rules don't make sense to them. This resembles Burkean political conservativism among adults, which prioritizes respect for the functioning of our historically established traditions and institutions, mistrusting our current judgments about how to those institutions might be improved or replaced.

In contrast, the liberal ideal in moral education depends on the thought that most or all people -- including most or all children -- have something like an inner moral compass, which can be relied on as at least a partial, imperfect guide toward what's morally good. If you take four-year-old Pooja aside after she has punched Lauren (names randomly chosen) and patiently ask her to explain herself and to think about the ethics of punching, you will get something sensible in reply. For the liberal ideal to work, it must be true that Pooja can be brought to understand the importance of treating others kindly and fairly. It must be true that after reflection, she will usually find that she wants to be kind and fair to others, even without outer reward.

This is a lot to expect from children. And yet I do think that most children, when approached patiently, can find their moral compass. In my experience watching parents and educators, it strikes me that when they are at their best -- not overloaded with stress or too many students -- they can successfully use the inward-out approach. Empirical psychology also suggests that the (imperfect, undeveloped) seeds of morality are present early in development and shared among primates.

It is I think foundational to the liberal conception of the human condition -- "liberal" in rejecting the top-down imposition of values and celebrating instead people's discovery of their own values -- that when they are given a chance to reflect, in conditions of peace, with broad access to relevant information, people will tend to find themselves revolted by evil and attracted to good. Hatred and evil wither under thoughtful critical examination. So we liberals must believe. Despite complexities, bumps, regressions, and contrary forces, reflection and broad exposure to facts and arguments will bend us toward freedom, egalitarianism, and respect.

If this is so, here's something you can always do: Invite people to think alongside you. Share the knowledge you have. If there is light and insight in your thinking, people will slowly walk toward it.

Related essay: Human Nature and Moral Education in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau (History of Philosophy Quarterly, 2007)

[image source]

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Three Ways to Be Not Quite Free of Racism

Suppose that you can say, with a feeling of sincerity, "All races and colors of people deserve equal respect". Suppose also that when you think about American Blacks or South Asians or Middle Eastern Muslims you don't detect any feelings of antipathy, or at least any feelings of antipathy that you believe arise merely from consideration of their race. This is good! You are not an all-out racist in the 19th-century sense of that term.

Still, you might not be entirely free of racial prejudice, if we took a close look at your choices, emotions, passing thoughts, and swift intuitive judgments about people.

Imagine then the following ideal: Being free of all unjustified racial prejudice. We can imagine similar ideals for classism, ableism, sexism, ethnicity, subculture, physical appearance, etc.

It would be a rare person who met all of these ideals. Yet not all falling short is the same. The recent election has made vivid for me three importantly distinct ways in which one can fall short. I use racism as my example, but other failures of egalitarianism can be analyzed similarly.

Racism is an attitude. Attitudes can be thought of as postures of the mind. To have an attitude is to be disposed to act and react in attitude-typical ways. (The nature of attitudes is a central part of my philosophical research. For a fuller account of my view, see here.) Among the dispositions constitutive of all-out racism are: making racist claims, purposely avoiding people of that race, uttering racist epithets in inner speech, feeling negative emotions when interacting with that race, leaping quickly to negative conclusions about individual members of that race, preferring social policies that privilege your preferred race, etc.

An all-out racist would have most or all of these dispositions (barring "excusing conditions"). Someone completely free of racism would have none of these dispositions. Likely, the majority of people in our culture inhabit the middle.

But "the middle" isn't all the same. Here are three very different ways of occupying it.

(1.) Implicit racism. Some of the relevant dispositions are explicitly or overtly racist -- for example, asserting that people of the target race are inherently inferior. Other dispositions are only implicitly or covertly racist, for example, being prone without realizing it to evaluate job applications more negatively if the applicant is of the target race, or being likely to experience negative emotion upon being assigned a cooperative task with a person of the target race. Recent psychological research suggests that many people in our culture, even if they reject explicitly racist statements, are disposed to have some implicitly racist reactions, at least occasionally or in some situations. We can thus construct a portrait of the "implicit racist": Someone who sincerely disavows all racial prejudice, but who nonetheless has a wide-ranging and persistent tendency toward implicitly racist reactions and evaluations. Probably no one is a perfect exemplar of this portrait, with all and only implicitly racist reactions, but it is probably common for people to match it to a certain extent. To that extent, whatever it is, that person is not quite free of implicit racism.

Implicit racism has received so much attention in the recent psychological and philosophical literature that one might think that it is the only way to be not quite free of racism while disavowing racism in the 19th-century sense of the term. Not so!

(2.) Situational racism. Dispositions manifest only under certain conditions. Priscilla (name randomly chosen) is disposed sincerely to say, if asked, that people of all races deserve equal respect. Of course, she doesn't actually spend the entire day saying this. She is disposed to say it only under certain conditions -- conditions, perhaps, that assume the continued social disapproval of racism. It might also be the case that under other conditions she would say the opposite. A person might be disposed sincerely to reject racist statements in some contexts and sincerely to endorse them in other contexts. This is not the implicit/explicit division. I am assuming both sides are explicit. Nor am I imagining a change in opinion over time. I am imagining a person like this: If situation X arose she would be explicitly racist, while if situation Y arose she would be explicitly anti-racist, maybe even passionately, self-sacrificingly so. This is not as incoherent as it might seem. Or if it is incoherent, it is a commonly human type of incoherence. The history of racism suggests that perfectly nice, non-racist-seeming people can change on a dime with a change in situation, and then change back when the situation shifts again. For some people, all it might take is the election of a racist politician. For others, it might take a more toxically immersive racist environment, or a personal economic crisis, or a demanding authority, or a recent personal clash with someone of the target race.

(3.) Racism of indifference. Part of what prompted this post was an interview I heard with someone who denied being racist on the grounds that he didn't care what happened to Black people. This deprioritization of concern is in principle separable from both implicit racism and situational racism. For example: I don't think much about Iceland. My concerns, voting habits, thoughts, and interests instead mostly involve what I think will be good for me, my family, my community, my country, or the world in general. But I'm probably not much biased against Iceland. I have mostly positive associations with it (beautiful landscapes, high literacy, geothermal power). Assuming (contra Mozi) that we have much greater obligations to family and compatriots than to people in far-off lands, my habit of not highly prioritizing the welfare of people in Iceland probably doesn't deserve to labeled pejoratively with an "-ism". But a similar disregard or deprioritization of people in your own community or country, on grounds of their race, does deserve a pejorative label, independent any implicit or explicit hostility.

These three ways of being not quite free of racism are conceptually separable. Empirically, though, things are likely to be messy and cross-cutting. Probably the majority of people don't map neatly onto these categories, but have a complex set of mixed-up dispositions. Furthermore, this mixed-up set probably often includes both racist dispositions and, right alongside, dispositions to admire, love, and even make special sacrifices for people who are racialized in culturally disvalued ways.

It's probably difficult to know the extent to which you yourself fail, in one or more of these three ways, to be entirely free of racism (sexism, ableism, etc.). Implicitly racist dispositions are by their nature elusive. So also is knowledge of how you would react to substantial changes in circumstance. So also are the real grounds of our choices. One of the great lessons of the past several decades of social and cognitive psychology is that we know far less than we think we know about what drives our preferences and about the situational influences on our behavior.

I am particularly struck by the potentially huge reach of the bigotry of indifference. Action is always a package deal. There are always pros and cons, which need to be weighed. You can't act toward one goal without simultaneously deprioritizing many other possible goals. Since it's difficult to know the basis of your prioritization of one thing over another, it is possible that the bigotry of indifference permeates a surprising number of your personal and political choices. Though you don't realize it, it might be the case that you would have felt more call to action had the welfare of a different group of people been at stake.

[image source Prabhu B Doss, creative commons]

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Thought for the Day

What you believe is not what you say you believe. It is how you act.

What you desire is not what you say you desire. It is what you choose.

Who you are is how you live.

You know this about other people, but it is very difficult to know this about yourself.


Acting Contrary to Our Professed Beliefs (Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 2010).

Knowing Your Own Beliefs (Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 2011).

A Dispositional Approach to the Attitudes (New Essays on Belief, 2013).

The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief (in draft)

Friday, November 04, 2016

Use of "Genius", "Strict", and "Sexy" in Teaching Evaluations, by Discipline and Gender of Professor

Interesting tool here, where you can search for terms in professors' teaching reviews, by discipline and gender.

The gender associations of "genius" with male professors are already fairly well known. Here's how they show in this database:

Apologies for the blurry picture. Click on it to make it clearer!

On the other hand, terms like "mean", "strict", and "unfair" tend to occur more commonly in reviews of female professors. Here's "strict":

How about "sexy"? You might imagine that going either way: Maybe female professors are more frequently rated by their looks. On the other hand, maybe it's "sexier" to be a professor if you're a man. Here how it turns out:

Update, 10:45.

I can't resist adding one more. "Favorite":

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Introspecting an Attitude by Introspecting Its Conscious Face

In some of my published work, I have argued that:

(1.) Attitudes, such as belief and desire, are best understood as clusters of dispositions. For example, to believe that there is beer in the fridge is nothing more or less than to be disposed (all else being equal or normal) to go to the fridge if one wants a beer, to feel surprised if one were to open the fridge and find no beer, to conclude that the fridge isn't empty if that question becomes relevant, etc, etc. (See my essays here and here.)


(2.) Only conscious experiences are introspectible. I characterize introspection as "the dedication of central cognitive resources, or attention, to the task of arriving at a judgment about one's current, or very recently past, conscious experience, using or attempting to use some capacities that are unique to the first-person case... with the aim or intention that one's judgment reflect some relatively direct sensitivity to the target state" (2012, p. 42-43).

Now it also seems correct that (3.) dispositions, or clusters of dispositions, are not the same as conscious experiences. One can be disposed to have a certain conscious experience (e.g., disposed to experience a feeling of surprise if one were to see no beer), but dispositions and their manifestations are not metaphysically identical. Oscar can be disposed to experience surprise if he were to see an empty fridge, even if he never actually sees an empty fridge and so never actually experiences surprise.

From these three claims it follows that we cannot introspect attitudes such as belief and desire.

But it seems we can introspect them! Right now, I'm craving a sip of coffee. It seems like I am currently experiencing that desire in a directly introspectible way. Or suppose I'm thinking aloud, in inner speech, "X would be such a horrible president!" It seems like I can introspectively detect that belief, in all its passionate intensity, as it is occurs in my mind right now.

I don't want to deny this, exactly. Instead, let me define relatively strict versus permissive conceptions of the targets of introspection.

To warm up, consider a visual analogy: seeing an orange. There the orange is, on the table. You see it. But do you really see the whole orange? Speaking strictly, it might be better to say that you see the orange rind, or the part of the orange rind that is facing you, rather than the whole orange. Arguably, you infer or assume that it's not just an empty rind, that it has a backside, that it has a juicy interior -- and usually that's a safe enough assumption. It's reasonable to just say that you see the orange. In a relatively permissive sense, you see the whole orange; in a relatively strict sense you see only the facing part of the orange rind.

Another example: From my office window I see the fire burning downtown. Of course, I only see the smoke. Even if I were to see the flames, in the strictest sense perhaps the visible light emitted from flames is only a contingent manifestation of the combustion process that truly constitutes a fire. (Consider invisible methanol fires.) More permissively, I see the fire when I see the smoke. More strictly, I need to see the flames or maybe even (impossibly?) the combustion process itself.

Now consider psychological cases: In a relatively permissive sense, you see Sandra's anger. In a stricter sense, you see her scowling face. In a relatively permissive sense, you hear the shyness and social awkwardness in Shivani's voice. In a stricter sense you hear only her words and prosody.

To be clear: I do not mean to imply that a stricter understanding of the targets of perception is more accurate or better than a more permissive understanding. (Indeed, excessive strictness can collapse into absurdity: "No, officer, I didn't see the stop sign. Really, all I saw were patterns of light streaming through my vitreous humour!")

As anger can manifest in a scowl and as fire can manifest in smoke and visible flames, so also can attitudes manifest in conscious experience. The desire for coffee can manifest in a conscious experience that I would describe as an urge to take a sip; my attitude about X's candidacy can manifest in a momentary experience of inner speech. In such cases, we can say that the attitudes present a conscious face. If the conscious experience is distinctive enough to serve as an excellent sign of the real presence of the relevant dispositional structure constituting that attitude, then we can say that the attitude is (occurrently) conscious.

It is important to my view that the conscious face of an attitude is not tantamount to the attitude itself, even if they normally co-occur. If you have the conscious experience but not the underlying suite of relevant dispositions, you do not actually have the attitude. (Let's bracket the question of whether such cases are realistically psychologically possible.) Similarly, a scowl is not anger, smoke is not a fire, a rind is not an orange.

Speaking relatively permissively, then, one can introspect an attitude by introspecting its conscious face, much as I can see a whole orange by seeing the facing part of its rind and I can see a fire by seeing its smoke. I rely upon the fact that the conscious experience wouldn't be there unless the whole dispositional structure were there. If that reliance is justified and the attitude is really there, distinctively manifesting in that conscious experience, then I have successfully introspected it. The exact metaphysical relationship between the strictly conceived target and the permissively conceived target is different among the various cases -- part-whole for the orange, cause-effect for the fire, and disposition-manifestation for the attitude -- but the general strategy is the same.

[image source]