Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What Would (or Should) You Do With Administrator Access to Your Mind (guest post by Henry Shevlin)

guest post by
Henry Shevlin

'Dial 888,' Rick said as the set warmed. 'The desire to watch TV, no matter what's on it.

'I don't feel like dialling anything at all now,' Iran said.

'Then dial 3,' he said.

'I can't dial a setting that stimulates my cerebral cortex into wanting to dial! If I don't want to dial, I don't want to dial that most of all, because then I will want to dial, and wanting to dial is right now the most alien drive I can imagine.’

(PHILIP K. DICK, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep)


We don’t have direct control over most our beliefs and attitudes, let alone most of our drives and desires. No matter how much money was offered as an incentive, for example, I couldn’t will myself to believe in fairies by this evening. Similarly, figuring out how to rid ourselves of our involuntary prejudices and biases is tricky (see here for an attempt), and changing our basic drives (such as our sexual orientation) is almost certainly impossible.

That’s not to say that we have zero control over any of these things. If I wanted to increase the likelihood of having religious beliefs, for example, I might decide to start hanging out with religious people, or attending services. But it’s a messy and indirect path to acquiring new beliefs and values.

Imagine, then, how useful it would be if we had some kind of more direct ability to control our minds. In thinking about this possibility, a useful analogy comes from the idea of Administrator access on a computer. What if – perhaps for just a few hours a month – you could delve into your beliefs, your values, and your drives, and reconfigure them to your heart’s content, before ‘logging back in’ as your (now modified) self?

Some immediately tempting applications of this possibility are fairly clear. For one, we’d perhaps want to eliminate or tone down our most egregious cognitive biases: confirmation bias, post-purchase rationalization, the sunk cost fallacy, and so on. Similarly, we might want to rid ourselves of implicit prejudices that we may have against groups or individuals. Prejudiced against elderly people? Just go into Settings Menu and adjust your slider to correct it. Irrationally resentful of a colleague who accidentally slighted you? A quick fix to remove the relevant emotion and you’re sorted.

Another attractive application might be to bring our immediate desires into line with our higher-order desires. Crave cigarettes and wish you didn’t? Tamp down the relevant first-order desire and you’re sorted. Wish you had the motivation to run in the mornings? Then ramp up the slider for “desire to go jogging”. We might even want to give ourselves some helpful false beliefs or ‘constructive myths’. Disheartened by the fact that you as an individual can do little to prevent climate change? Maybe a false belief that you can be a powerful agent for change will help you do good.

Finally, we come to the most controversial stuff, like values, drives, and memories. Take values first. Imagine that you find yourself trapped in a small town where you’re ostracised for your deviant political beliefs. One easy option might be to simply tweak your values to come into line with your community. Or imagine if you could adjust things like your sexual drives and orientation. Certainly, some people might feel relief at ridding themselves of certain kinks or fetishes that they found oppressive, while others might enjoy experimenting with recalibrating their sexuality. But we could also find that people were pressured or tempted to adjust their sexuality to bring it into line with the bigoted social expectations of their community, and it’s hard not to find that a morally troubling idea. Finally, imagine if we could wipe away unpleasant memories at will – the bad relationships, social gaffes, and painful insults could be gone in a moment. What could possibly go wrong with that?

As much as I like the idea of tweaking my mind, I feel uncomfortable about lot of these possibilities. First, at the risk of sounding cliched, it seems like the gains of personal growth are often as much in the journey as the destination. So, take someone who learns to become more patient with others’ failings. Along the way, she’s probably going to pick up a bunch of other important realizations – of her own fallibility, perhaps, or of the distress she’s caused in the past by dismissing people. Skipping straight to the outcome threatens to cheat her, and us, of something valuable. Similarly, sometimes along the road of personal change, we realize that we’ve been aiming for the wrong thing. Someone who desperately wants to fit in with their peer group, for example, might slowly and painfully realize that they don’t like their peers as much as they thought. Skipping out the journey, then, not only robs us of potential goods we might find along the way, but also of the capacity to change our mind about where we’re going.

There might also be some kinds of extrinsic goods that would be lost if we could all tweak our minds so effortlessly. Take the example of someone who wishes he could fit in with his more conservative community. Even though he might relish not having values that are different from those around him, by holding onto them, he could be providing encouragement and cover for other political deviants in his town. In much the same way, diversity of opinion, outlook, and motivation may be valuable for the community at large, despite not always being pleasant for those in the minority. This can be true even if the majority perspective in the community is in the right: dissenters can helpfully force the dominant voices to articulate and justify their views.

Finally, we could run into serious unexpected consequences – maybe getting rid of the availability heuristic would turn out to drastically slow down my reasoning, for example, or perhaps making myself more prosocial could backfire on me if I live in an antisocial community. Still more catastrophic consequences might involve deviant paths to fulfilment of desires. If (in Administrator mode) I give myself an overriding desire to be “fitter than the average person in my town”, for example, I might (as a normal user) go on to decide that the fastest way to achieve that goal is to kill all the healthy people in my community! More prosaically, it’s also easy to imagine people being tempted to reconfigure their difficult-to-achieve desires (like becoming rich and famous) and instead replacing them with stuff that’s easy to achieve (collecting paperclips, say, or counting blades of grass). Perhaps they would be well advised to do so, but this is philosophically controversial to say the least!

While Administrator Access to our own minds is of course just science fiction for now, I think it’s a useful tool for probing our intuitions about well-being, rationality, and personal change. It could also potentially guide us in situations where do have more powerful ways of influencing the development of minds. This may be a big deal in the development of future forms of artificial intelligence, for example, but something similar arguably applies even when we’re deciding how to raise our children (should we encourage them to believe in Santa Claus?).

For my part, I doubt I could resist making a few tweaks to myself (maybe I’d finally get to make good use of that gym membership). But I’d do so carefully... and likely with a sense of trepidation and unease.

[image source]

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Ethical Significance of Toddler Tantrums (guest post by Henry Shevlin)

guest post by
Henry Shevlin

As any parent can readily testify, little kids get upset. A lot. Sometimes it’s for broadly comprehensible stuff - because they have to go to bed or to daycare, for example. Sometimes it’s for more bizarre and idiosyncratic reasons – because their banana has broken, perhaps, or because the Velcro on their shoes makes a funny noise.

For most parents, these episodes are regrettable, exasperating, and occasionally, a little funny. We rarely if ever consider them tragic or of serious moral consequence. We certainly feel some empathy for our children’s intense anger, sadness, or frustration, but we generally don’t make a huge deal about these episodes. That’s not because we don’t care about toddlers, of course – if they were sick or in pain we’d be really concerned. But we usually treat these intense emotional outbursts as just a part of growing up.

Nonetheless, I think if we saw an adult undergoing extremes of negative emotion of the kind that toddlers go through on a daily or weekly basis, we’d be pretty affected by it, and regard it as something to be taken seriously. Imagine you’d visited a friend for dinner, and upon announcing you were leaving, he broke down in floods of tears, beating on the ground and begging you not to go. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about sticking around until he felt better. Yet when a toddler pulls the same move (say, when we’re dropping them off with a grandparent), most parents remained, if not unmoved, then at least resolute.

What’s the difference between our reactions in these cases? In large part, I think it’s because we assume that when adults get upset, they have good reasons for it – if an adult friend starts sobbing uncontrollably, then our first thought is going to be that they’re facing real problems. For a toddler, by contrast – well, they can get upset about almost anything.

This makes a fair amount of sense as far as it goes. But it also seems to require that our moral reactions to apparent distress should be sensitive not just to the degree of unhappiness involved, but the reasons for it. In other words, we’re not discounting toddler tantrums because we think little kids aren’t genuinely upset, or are faking, but because the tantrums aren’t reflective of any concerns worth taking too seriously.

Interestingly, this idea seems at least prima facie in tension with some major philosophical accounts of happiness and well-being, notably like hedonism or desire satisfaction theory. By the lights of these approaches, it’s hard to see why toddler emotions and desires shouldn’t be taken just as seriously as adult ones. These episodes do seem like bona fide intensely negative experiences, so for utilitarians, every toddler could turn out to be a kind of negative utility monster! Similarly, if we adopt a form of consequentialism that aims at maximizing the number of satisfied desires, toddlers might be an outsize presence – as indicated by their tantrums, they have a lot of seemingly big, powerful, intense desires all the time (for, e.g., a Kinder Egg, another episode of Ben and Holly, or that one toy their older sibling is playing with).

One possibility I haven’t so far discussed is the idea that toddlers’ emotional behavior might be deceptive: perhaps the wailing toddler, contrary to appearances, is only mildly peeved that a sticker peeled off his toy. There may be something to this idea: certainly, toddlers have very poor inhibitory control, so we might naturally expect them to be more demonstrative about negative emotions than adults. That said, I find it hard to believe that toddlers really aren’t all that bothered by whatever it is that’s caused their latest tantrum. As much as I may be annoyed at having to leave a party early, for example, it’s almost inconceivable to me that it could ever trigger floods of tears and wailing, no matter how badly my inhibitory control had been impaired by the host’s martinis. (Nonetheless, I’d grant this is an area where psychology or neuroscience could be potentially informative, so that we might gain evidence that toddlers’ apparent distress behavior was misleading).

But if we do grant that toddlers really get very upset all the time, is it a serious moral problem? Or just an argument against theories that take things like emotions and desires to be morally significant in their own right, without being justified by good reasons? As someone sympathetic to both hedonism about well-being and utilitarianism as a normative ethical theory, I’m not sure what to think. Certainly, it’s made me consider whether, as a parent, I should take my son’s tantrums more seriously. For example, if we’re at the park, and I know he’ll have a tantrum if we leave early, should I prioritize his emotions above, e.g., my desire to get home and grade student papers? Perhaps you’ll think that in reacting like this, I’m just being overly sentimental or sappy – come on, what could be more normal than toddler tantrums! – but it’s worth being conscious of the fact that previous societies normalized ways of treating children that we nowadays would regard as brutal.

There’s also, of course, the developmental question: toddlers aren’t stupid, and if they realize that we’ll do anything to avoid them having tantrums, then they’ll exploit that to their own (dis)advantage. Learning that you can’t always get what you want is certainly part of growing up. But thinking about this issue has certainly made me take another look at how I think about and respond to my son’s outbursts, even if I can’t fix his broken bananas.

Note: this blogpost is an extended exploration of ideas I earlier discussed here.

[image: Angelina Koh]

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Top Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazines 2017

In 2014, as a beginning writer of science fiction or speculative fiction, with no idea what magazines were well regarded in the industry, I decided to compile a ranked list of magazines based on awards and "best of" placements in the previous ten years. Since people seemed to find it useful or interesting, I've been updating it annually. Below is my list for 2017.

Method and Caveats:

(1.) Only magazines are included (online or in print), not anthologies or standalones.

(2.) I gave each magazine one point for each story nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Eugie, or World Fantasy Award in the past ten years; one point for each story appearance in any of the Dozois, Horton, Strahan, Clarke, or Adams "Year's Best" anthologies; and half a point for each story appearing in the short story or novelette category of the annual Locus Recommended list.

(3.) I am not attempting to include the horror / dark fantasy genre, except as it appears incidentally on the list.

(4.) Prose only, not poetry.

(5.) I'm not attempting to correct for frequency of publication or length of table of contents.

(6.) I'm also not correcting for a magazine's only having published during part of the ten-year period. Reputations of defunct magazines slowly fade, and sometimes they are restarted. Reputations of new magazines take time to build.

(7.) Lists of this sort do tend to reinforce the prestige hierarchy. I have mixed feelings about that. But since the prestige hierarchy is socially real, I think it's in people's best interest -- especially the best interest of outsiders and newcomers -- if it is common knowledge.

(8.) I take the list down to 1.5 points.

(9.) I welcome corrections.


1. Asimov's (244.5 points)
2. Fantasy & Science Fiction (182)
3. Clarkesworld (129.5)
4. (120) (started 2008)
5. Lightspeed (83.5) (started 2010)
6. Subterranean (79.5) (ceased 2014)
7. Strange Horizons (48)
8. Analog (47.5)
9. Interzone (45.5)
10. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (30.5) (started 2008)
11. Fantasy Magazine (27.5) (merged into Lightspeed 2012, occasional special issues thereafter)
12. Uncanny (19) (started 2014)
13. Apex (15.5)
14. Jim Baen's Universe (11.5) (ceased 2010)
14. Postscripts (11.5) (ceased short fiction in 2014)
14. Realms of Fantasy (11.5) (ceased 2011)
17. Nightmare (10) (started 2012)
18. The New Yorker (8)
19. Black Static (7)
20. Intergalactic Medicine Show (6)
21. Electric Velocipede (5.5) (ceased 2013)
22. Helix SF (5) (ceased 2008)
22. Tin House (5)
24. McSweeney's (4.5)
24. Sirenia Digest (4.5)
26. Conjunctions (4)
26. The Dark (4) (started 2013)
28. Black Gate (3.5)
28. Flurb (3.5) (ceased 2012)
30. Cosmos (3)
30. GigaNotoSaurus (3) (started 2010)
30. Harper's (3)
30. Shimmer (3)
30. Terraform (3) (started 2014)
35. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (2.5)
35. Lone Star Stories (2.5) (ceased 2009)
35. Matter (2.5) (started 2011)
35. Slate (2.5)
35. Weird Tales (2.5) (off and on throughout period)
40. Aeon Speculative Fiction (2) (ceased 2008)
40. Futurismic (2) (ceased 2010)
42. Abyss & Apex (1.5)
42. Beloit Fiction Journal (1.5)
42. Buzzfeed (1.5)
42. Daily Science Fiction (1.5) (started 2010)
42. e-flux journal (1.5) (started 2008)


(1.) The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney's, Conjunctions, Harper's, and Beloit Fiction Journal are prominent literary magazines that occasionally publish science fiction or fantasy. Cosmos, Slate, and Buzzfeed are popular magazines that have published a little bit of science fiction on the side. e-flux is a wide-ranging arts journal. The remaining magazines focus on the F/SF genre.

(2.) It's also interesting to consider a three-year window. Here are those results, down to six points:

1. Clarkesworld (66.5)
2. (61)
3. Asimov's (59)
4. Lightspeed (49.5)
5. F&SF (37.5)
6. Analog (21)
7. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (20)
8. Uncanny (19)
9. Subterranean (16)
10. Interzone (11.5)
11. Strange Horizons (11)
12. Nightmare (9)

(3.) One important thing left out of these numbers is the rise of good podcast venues such as the Escape Artists' podcasts (Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders), Drabblecast, and StarShipSofa. None of these qualify for my list by existing criteria, but podcasts are an increasingly important venue. Some text-based magazines, like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons also regularly podcast their stories.

(5.) Philosophers interested in science fiction might also want to look at Sci Phi Journal, which publishes both science fiction with philosophical discussion notes and philosophical essays about science fiction.

(6.) Other lists: The SFWA qualifying markets list is a list of "pro" science fiction and fantasy venues based on pay rates and track records of strong circulation. is a regularly updated list of markets, divided into categories based on pay rate.

(7.) The "Sad Puppy" kerfuffle threatens to damage the once-sterling reputation of the Hugos, but the Hugos are a small part of my calculation and the results are pretty much the same either way.

[image source; admittedly, it's not the latest issue!]

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Welcome to the Blogosphere, Nomy Arpaly

One of my favorite living philosophers, Nomy Arpaly, has a new blog, The View from the Owl's Roost!

It's off to a great start, with a fun, insightful post about our excessive confidence in our limited imaginations.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Why Was Sci-Fi So Slow to Discover Time Travel? (Guest Post by Henry Shevlin)

guest post by
Henry Shevlin

Time travel is a more or less ubiquitous feature of modern sci-fi. Almost every long running SF show – Star Trek, Futurama, The X-Files – will have a time travel episode sooner or later, and some, like Doctor Who, use time travel as the main narrative device. The same applies to novels and, of course, to Hollywood – blockbuster SF franchises like the Terminator and Back to the Future employ it, as do quirkier pictures like Midnight in Paris. And of course, there’s no shortage of time travel novels, including old favorites like A Christmas Carol, and perhaps most influentially, HG Wells’s wonderful social sci-fi novella The Time Machine.

I don’t find it particularly surprising that we’re so interested in time travel. We all engage in so called ‘mental time travel’ (or Chronaesthesia) all the time, reviewing past experiences and imagining possible futures, and the psychological capacities required in our doing so are the subject of intense scientific and philosophical interest.

Admittedly, the label “mental time travel” may be a bit misleading here; most of what gets labelled mental time travel is quite different from the SF variant, consisting in episodic recall of the past or projection into the future rather than imagining our present selves thrown back in time. But I think we also do this latter thing quite a lot. To give a commonplace example, we’re all prone to engage in “coulda woulda shoulda” thinking: if only I hadn’t parked the car under that tree branch in a storm, if I only I hadn’t forgotten my wedding anniversary, if only I hadn’t fumbled that one interview question. Frequently when we do this, we even elaborate how the present might have been different if we’d just done something a bit differently in the past. This looks a lot like the plots of some famous science fiction stories! Similarly, I’m sure we’ve all pondered what it would be like to experience different historical periods like the American Revolution, the Roman Empire, or the age of dinosaurs (you can even buy a handy t-shirt). More prosaically, I imagine many of us have also reflected on how satisfying it would be to relive some of our earlier life experiences and do things differently the second time round – standing up to high school bullies, or studying harder in high school (again, a staple of light entertainment).

Given the above, I had always assumed that time travel was part of fiction because it was simply part of us. Time travel narratives, in other words, were borrowed from the kind of imaginings we all do all the time. It was with huge surprise, then, that I discovered (while teaching a course on philosophy and science fiction) that time travel doesn’t appear in fiction until the 18th century, in the short novel “Memoirs of the Twentieth Century”. Specifically, this story imagines letters from the future being brought back to 1728. The first story of any kind (as far as I’ve been able to find) that features humans being physically transported back into the past doesn’t come until 1881, in Edward Page Mitchell’s short story “The Clock That Went Backwards”.

Maybe this doesn’t seem so surprising – isn’t science fiction in the business of coming up with bizarre, never before seen plot devices? But in fact, it’s pretty rare for genuinely new ideas to show up in science fiction. Long before we had stories about artificial intelligence, we had the tales of Pinocchio and the Golem of Prague. Creatures on other planets? Lucian's True History had beings living on the moon and sun back in the 2nd century AD. For huge spaceships, witness the mind-controlled Vimanas of the Sanskrit epics. And so on. And yet, for all the inventiveness of folklore and mythology, there’s very little in the way of time travel to be found. The best I’ve come up with so far is some time dilation in the stories of Kakudmi in the Ramayanas, and visions of the past in the Book of Enoch. But as far as I can tell, there’s nothing that fits the conventional time travel narratives we’re used to, namely physically travelling to ages past or future, let alone any idea that we might alter history.

What’s going on here? One possibility is that something changed in science or society in the 18th century that paved the way for stories about time travel. But what would that be, and how would it lead to time travel seeming more plausible? For example, if the first time travel literature had accompanied the emergence of general relativity (with all its assorted time related weirdness), then that would offer a satisfying answer. However, Newtonian physics was already in place by the late 17th century, and it’s not clear which of Newton’s principles might pave the way for time travel narratives.

I’m very open to suggestions, but let me throw out one final idea: time travel narratives don’t show up in earlier fiction because they’re weird, unnatural, and counterintuitive. Even weirder than the staples of folklore and mythology, like people being turned into animals. Time travel is just not the kind of thing that naturally occurs to humans to think about at all, and it’s only via a few fateful books in the 18th century and its subsequent canonisation in The Time Machine that it’s become established as a central plot device in science fiction.

But doesn’t that contradict what I said earlier about how we all often naturally think about time travel related scenarios, like changing the past, or witnessing historical events firsthand? Not necessarily. Maybe these kinds of thought patterns are actually inspired by time-travel science fiction. In other words, prior to the emergence of time travel as a trope, maybe people really didn’t daydream about meeting Julius Caesar or going back and changing history. Perhaps the past was seen simply as a closed book, rather than (in the memorable words of L. P. Hartley) just “a foreign country”. That’s not to suggest, of course, that people didn’t experience memories and regrets, but maybe they experienced them a little differently, with the past seeming simply an immutable background to the present.

I’m excited the idea that a science fiction trope might have birthed a new and widespread form of thinking. Partly that’s because it suggests that science fiction may be more influential than we realize, and partly it’s because, as a philosopher, I’m interested in where patterns of thought come from. However, I’m very happy to proven wrong in this conjecture – perhaps there are letters from the Middle Ages in which writers engage in precisely this kind of speculation. Or perhaps the emergence of science fiction in the 18th century can be explained in terms of some historical event I’ve missed. Or who knows: maybe there’s an untranslated gnostic manuscript out there where Jesus has a time machine....

[image source]