Thursday, October 31, 2019

Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part IV: Writing Sample

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades, Classes, and Institution of Origin

Part III: Letters of Recommendation


Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy
PART IV: Writing Samples

[Probably not your writing sample]

Do Committees Read the Samples?

Applicants sometimes doubt that admissions committees (composed of professors in the department you're applying to) actually do read the writing samples, especially at the most prestigious schools. It's hard to imagine, say, John Searle carefully working through that essay on Aristotle you wrote for Philosophy 183! However, my experience is that the writing samples are read. For example, back when I visited U.C. Berkeley as an applicant in 1991 after having been admitted, I discussed my writing sample in detail with one member of the admissions committee, who convincingly assured me that the committee read all plausible applicants' samples. She said they were the single most important part of the application. Since that time, other professors at other elite PhD programs in philosophy have continued to assure me that they do carefully read and care about the writing samples. At U.C. Riverside, where I sometimes serve on graduate admissions, every writing sample is read by at least two members of the admissions committee.

How conscientiously they are read is another question. If an applicant doesn't look plausible on the surface based on GPA and letters, I'll skim through the sample pretty quickly, just to make sure we aren't missing a diamond in the rough. For most applicants, I will at least skim the whole sample, and I'll select a few pages in the middle to read carefully. I'll then revisit the samples of the thirty or so applicants who make it to the committee's cutdown list for serious consideration. Other committee members probably have similar strategies.

Few undergraduates can write really beautiful, professional-looking philosophy that sustains its quality page after page. But if you can -- or more accurately if some member of the admissions committee judges that you have done so in your sample -- that can make all the difference to your application. I remember in one case falling in love with a sample and persuading the committee to admit a student whose letters were tepid and whose grades were more A-minus than A. That student in fact came to UCR and did well. I'll almost always advocate the admission of the students who wrote, in my view, the very best samples, even if other aspects of their files are less than ideal. Of course, almost all such students have excellent grades and letters as well!

Conversely, admissions committees look skeptically at applicants with weak samples. Straight As and glowing letters won't get you into a mid-ranked program like UCR (much less a top program like NYU) if your sample isn't also terrific. There are just too many other applicants with great grades and glowing letters. The grades and letters get you past the first cut, but the sample makes you stand out.

You definitely want to spend time making your sample excellent. It is perhaps the most important thing to focus your time on in the fall term during which you are applying.

What I, at Least, Look for

First, the sample must be clearly written and show a certain amount of philosophical maturity. I can't say much about how to achieve these things other than to write clearly and be philosophically mature. These things are, I think, hard to fake. Trying too hard to sound sophisticated usually backfires.

Second, I want to see the middle of the essay get into the nitty-gritty somehow. In an analytic essay, that might be a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of an argument, or of its non-obvious implications, or of its structure. In a historical essay, that might be a close reading of a passage or a close look at textual evidence that decides between two competing interpretations. Many otherwise nicely written essays stay largely near the surface, simply summarizing an author's work or presenting fairly obvious criticisms at a relatively superficial level.

Most philosophers favor a lean, clear prose style with minimal jargon. (Some jargon is often necessary, though: There's a reason specialists have specialists' words.) When I've spent a lot of time reading badly written philosophy and fear my own prose is starting to look that way, I read a bit of David Lewis or Fred Dretske for inspiration.

Choosing Your Sample

Consider longish essays (at least ten pages) on which you received an A. Among those, you might have some favorites, or some might seem to have especially impressed the professor. You also want your essay, if possible, to be in one of the areas of philosophy you will highlight as an area of interest in the personal statement portion of your application. If your best essay is not in an area that you're planning to focus on in graduate school, however, quality is the more important consideration. So as not to show too much divergence between your writing sample and your personal statement, you might in your personal statement describe that topic as a continuing secondary interest.

If your best essay is in Chinese philosophy or medieval philosophy or 20th century European philosophy or technical philosophy of physics or some other area that's outside of the mainstream, and you're planning to apply to schools that don't teach in that area, it's a bit of a quandary. You want to show your best work, but you don't want to school to reject you because your interests don't fit their teaching profile, and also the school might not have a faculty member available who can really assess the quality of your essay.

Approach the professor(s) who graded the essay(s) you are considering and ask them for their frank opinion about whether the essay might be suitable for revision into a writing sample. Not all A essays are.

Revising the Sample

Samples should be about 12-20 pages long (double spaced, in a 12-point font). If possible, you should revise the sample under the guidance of the professor who originally graded it (who will presumably also be one of your letter writers). You aim is transform it from an undergraduate A paper to a paper that you would be proud to submit at the end of a graduate seminar dedicated to the topic in question. What's the most convincing evidence that an admissions committee could see that you will be able to perform excellently in their graduate seminars? It is, of course, that you are already doing work that would receive top marks in their seminars. Philosophy PhD admissions are so competitive that many applicants will already have samples of that quality, or nearly that quality; so it will be hard to stand out unless you do too.

I recommend that you treat the improvement of your writing sample as though it were an independent study course. If you can, you might even consider signing up for a formal independent study course aimed exactly at transforming your already-excellent undergraduate paper into an admissions-worthy writing sample. Revise, revise, revise! Deepen your analysis. Connect it more broadly with the relevant literature. Consider more objections -- or better, anticipate them in a way that prevents them from even arising. With your professor's help, eliminate those phrases, simplifications, distortions, and caricatures that suggest either an unsubtle understanding or ignorance of the relevant literature -- things which professors usually let pass in undergraduate essays but which can make a big difference in how you come across to an admissions committee.

What If Your Sample Is Too Long?

Most PhD programs cap the length of the writing sample: something like 20 double-spaced pages, or an equivalent number of words, sometimes as few as 15 pages. What if your best writing is an honors or master's thesis that's 45 pages long?

If that's your best work, then you definitely want it to be your sample. Some applicants ignore the length limits and submit the whole thing, hoping to be forgiven. (Sometimes they single-space or convert to a small font, hoping to minimize the appearance of violation.) Others mercilessly chop until they are down within the limit. Admissions committee members vary in their level of annoyance at samples that exceed the stated limits. Some don't care -- they just want to see the best. Others refuse to read the sample at all, using the rules violation as an excuse to nix the application. I'd guess that the median reaction is to accept the sample but only read a portion of it -- say 15 to 20 pages' worth.

You should probably assume that the admissions committee will only read the number of pages stated in their page limits. There are three reasonable approaches to this problem. One is good old-fashioned cutting -- which, though hard, sometimes does strengthen an essay by helping you laser in on the most crucial issue. Another is submitting the entire sample but with a brief preface advising the committee to read only sections x, y, and z (totaling no more than 15 to 20 pages). Still another approach is to replace some of your sections with bracketed summaries.

For example, if your paper defends panpsychism (the view that consciousness is ubiquitous) and you need to cut a three-page section that responds to the objection that panpsychism is too radically counterintuitive to take seriously, you might replace that section with the following statement: "[For reasons of length, here I omit Section 5, which addresses the objection that panpsychism is too radically counterintuitive to take seriously. I respond by arguing that (1) intuition is a poor guide to philosophical truth, and (2) all metaphysical views of consciousness, not only panpsychism, have radically counterintuitive consequences.]"


Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part V: Statement of Purpose

[Old Series from 2007]

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Philosophy Contest: Write a Philosophical Argument That Convinces Research Participants to Donate to Charity

Can you write a philosophical argument that effectively convinces research participants to donate money to charity?

Prize: $1000 ($500 directly to the winner, $500 to the winner's choice of charity)


Preliminary research from Eric Schwitzgebel's laboratory suggests that abstract philosophical arguments may not be effective at convincing research participants to give a surprise bonus award to charity. In contrast, emotionally moving narratives do appear to be effective.

However, it might be possible to write a more effective argument than the arguments used in previous research. Therefore U.C. Riverside philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel and Harvard psychologist Fiery Cushman are challenging the philosophical and psychological community to design an argument that effectively convinces participants to donate bonus money to charity at rates higher than they do in a control condition.

General Contest Rules

Contributions must be no longer than 500 words in length, text only, in the form of an ethical argument in favor of giving money to charities. Further details about form are explained in the next section.

Contributions must be submitted by email to by 11:59 pm GMT on December 31, 2019.

The winner will be selected according to the procedure described below. The winner will be announced March 31, 2019.

Form of the Contribution

Contributions must be the in the form of a plausible argument for the conclusion that it is ethically or morally good or required to give to charity, or that "you" should give to charity, or that it's good if possible to give to charities that effectively help people who are suffering due to poverty, or for some closely related conclusion.

Previous research suggests that charitable giving can be increased by inducing emotions (Bagozzi and Moore 1994; Erlandsson, Nilsson, Västfjäll 2018), by including narrative elements (McVey & Schwitzgebel 2018), and by mentioning an "identifiable victim" who would be benefited (Jenni & Loewenstein 1997; Kogut & Rytov 2011). While philosophical arguments sometimes have such features, we are specifically interested in whether philosophical arguments can be motivationally effective without relying on such features.

Therefore, contributions must meet the following criteria:

  • Text only. No pictures, music, etc. No links to outside sources.
  • No mention of individual people, including imaginary protagonists ("Bob"). Use of statistics is fine. Mentioning the individual reader ("you") is fine.
  • No mention of specific events, either specific historical events or events in individuals' lives. Mentioning general historical conditions is fine (e.g., "For centuries, wealthy countries have exploited the global south...."). Mentioning the effects of particular hypothetical actions is fine (e.g., "a donation of $10 to an effective charity could purchase [x] mosquito nets for people in malaria-prone regions").
  • No vividly detailed descriptions that are likely to be emotionally arousing (e.g., no detailed descriptions of what it is like to live in slavery or to die of malaria).
  • Nor should the text aim to be emotionally arousing by other means (e.g., don't write "Close your eyes and imagine that your own child is dying of starvation..."), except insofar as the relevant facts and arguments might be somewhat emotionally arousing even when coolly described.
  • The text should not ask the reader to perform any action beyond reading and thinking about the argument and donating.
  • The argument doesn't need to be formally valid, but it should be broadly plausible, presenting seemingly good argumentative support for the conclusion.
  • [ETA, Oct 28] Entries must not contain deception or attempt to mislead the reader.
  • If your argument contains previously published material, please separately provide us with full citation information and indicate any text that is direct quotation.

    Choosing the Winner

    Preliminary winnowing. We intend to test no more than twenty arguments. We anticipate receiving more than twenty submissions. We will winnow the submissions to twenty based on considerations of quality (well written arguments that are at least superficially convincing) and diversity (a wide range of argument types).

    Testing. We will recruit 4725 participants from Mechanical Turk. To ensure participant quality and similarity to previously studied populations, participants will be limited to the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Australia, and they must have high MTurk ratings and experience. Each participant (except those in the control condition) will read one submitted argument. On a new page, they will be informed that they have a 10% chance of receiving a $10 bonus, and they will be given the opportunity to donate a portion of that possible bonus to one of six well-known, effective, international charities. If no argument statistically beats the control condition, no prize will be awarded. If at least one argument statistically beats the control condition, the winning argument will be the argument with the highest mean donation. See the Appendix of this post for more details on stimuli and statistical testing.


    The contributor of the winning argument will receive $500 directly, and we will donate an additional $500 to a legally registered charity (501(c)(3)) chosen by the contributor.

    Unless the contributor requests anonymity, we will announce the contributor as winner of the prize and publicize the contributor's name and winning argument in social media and other publications.

    Contributors may submit up to three entries if they wish, but only if those entries are very different in content.

    Contributions may be coauthored.

    All tested contributions will be made public after testing is complete. We will credit the authors for their contributions unless they request that their contributions be kept anonymous.


    For further information about this contest, please email eschwitz at domain When you are ready to submit your entry, send it to


    This contest is funded by a subgrant from the Templeton Foundation.




    After consenting, each participant (except for those in the control condition) will read the following statement:

    Some philosophers have argued that it is morally good to donate to charity or that people have a duty to donate to charity if they are able to do so. Please consider the following argument in favor of charitable donation.

    Please read as many times as necessary to fully understand the argument. Only click "next" when you feel that you adequately understand the text. In the comprehension section, you will be asked to recall details of the argument.

    The text of the submitted argument will then be presented.

    After the reader clicks a button indicating that they have read and understood the argument, a new page will open, and participants will read the following:

    Upon completion of this study, 10% of participants will receive an additional $10. You have the option to donate some portion of this $10 to your choice among six well-known, effective charities. If you are one of the recipients of the additional $10, the portion you decide to keep will appear as a bonus credited to your Mechanical Turk worker account, and the portion you decide to donate will be given to the charity you pick from the list below.

    Note: You must pass the comprehension question and show no signs of suspicious responding to receive the $10. Receipt of the $10 is NOT conditional, however, on how much you choose to donate if you receive the $10.

    If you are one of the recipients of the additional $10, how much of your additional $10 would you like to donate?

    [response scale $0 to $10 in $1 increments]

    Which charity would you like your chosen donation amount to go to? For more information, or to donate directly, please follow the highlighted links to each charity.

  • Against Malaria Foundation: "To provide funding for long-lasting insecticide-treated net (LLIN) distribution (for protection against malaria) in developing countries."
  • Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières: "Medical care where it is needed most."
  • Give Directly: "Distributing cash to very poor individuals in Kenya and Uganda."
  • Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition: "To tackle the human suffering caused by malnutrition around the world."
  • Helen Keller International: "Save the sight and lives of the world's most vulnerable and disadvantaged."
  • Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation: "We collect, interpret and activate the largest collection of quality information and put it to work for every person with multiple myeloma."
  • These charities will have been listed in randomized order.

    After this question, we will ask the following comprehension question: "In one sentence, please summarize the argument presented on the previous page", followed by a text box. Participants will be excluded if they leave this question blank or if they give what a coder who is unaware of their responses to the other questions judges to be a deficient answer. Participants who spend insufficient time on the argument page will also be excluded.

    Based on the submissions, we may add exploratory follow-up questions designed to discover possible mediators and moderators of the effects on charitable donation.

    After consenting, participants in the control condition will read the statement:

    Please consider the following description of the nature of energy. Please read as many times as necessary to fully understand the description. Only click "next" when you feel that you adequately understand the text. In the comprehension section, you will be asked to recall details of the text.

    They will then receive a 445-word description of the nature of energy from a middle school science textbook. After clicking a button indicating that they have read and understood the description, a new page will open, and participants will read the following:

    Some philosophers have argued that it is morally good to donate to charity or that people have a duty to donate to charity if they are able to do so.

    After the reader clicks a button indicating that they have read and understood the statement, a new page will open containing the same donation question as in the argument conditions.

    Statistical Testing

    In an initial round, 2500 participants will each be assigned to read one of the twenty arguments. The five arguments with the highest mean donation will be selected for further testing. These five arguments will each be given an additional 350 participants, and 475 participants will be entered into the control condition. If none of the five arguments is statistically better than control, then we will announce that there is no winner. We will pool all 475 participants (minus exclusions) in each of the five selected argument conditions, then we will compare each condition separately with the control group by a two-tailed t-test at an alpha level of .01. If at least one argument is better than control, the award will be given to the argument with the highest mean donation.

    Justification: Based on preliminary research, we expect a mean donation of about $3.50, a standard deviation of about $3, and clustering at $0, $5, and $10. In Monte Carlo modeling of twenty arguments with population mean donations in ten cent intervals from $2.60 to $4.50, the argument with the highest underlying distribution was over 90% likely to be among the top five arguments after a sample of 100 participants per argument (allowing 25 exclusions), and after 400 participants per argument (allowing 75 exclusions) the winning argument was about 85% likely to be one of the two with the highest underlying mean.

    Given that we will be running five statistical tests, we set alpha at .01 rather than .05 to the reduce the risk of false positives. In preliminary research, McVey and Schwitzgebel found that exposure to a true story about a child rescued from poverty by charitable donation increased average rates of giving by about $1 (d = 0.3). Power analysis shows that an argument with a similar effect size would be 95% likely to be found statistically different from the control group at an alpha level of .01 and 400 participants in each group, while an argument with a somewhat smaller effect size (d = 0.2) would be 60% likely to be found statistically different.

    [image source]

    Thursday, October 17, 2019

    I'm Morally Good Enough Already, Thanks!

    In a fascinating new paper (forthcoming in Psychological Science), Jessie Sun and Geoffrey Goodwin asked undergraduate students in psychology to rate themselves on several moral and non-moral dimensions, and they asked those same students to nominate "informants" who knew them well to rate them along the same dimensions. Non-moral traits included, for example, energy level ("being full of energy") and intellectual curiosity ("being curious about many different things"). Moral traits included specific traits such as fairness ("being a fair person") but also included self-ratings of overall morality ("being a person of strong moral character" and "acting morally"). They then asked both the target participants and their informants to express the extent to which they aimed to change these facts about themselves (e.g., "I want to be helpful and unselfish with others..." or "I want [target's name] to be helpful and unselfish with others...") from -2 ("much less than I currently am") to +2 ("much more than I currently am").

    Before I spill the beans, any guesses?

    I've already got some horses in this race. Based partly on Simine Vazire's work, partly on my general life experience, and partly on theoretical reflections about the semi-paradoxical nature of self-evaluations of jerkitude and general moral character, I have speculated that we should see little to no relationship between self-evaluations of general moral character and one's actual moral character. Also, based partly on recent work in social psychology and behavioral economics by Cialdini, Bicchieri, and others, and partly again on general life experience, I have conjectured that most people aim for moral mediocrity.

    You will be unsurprised, I suppose, to hear that I interpret Sun and Goodwin's results as broadly confirmatory of these predictions.

    To me, perhaps their most striking result -- though not Sun's and Goodwin's own point of emphasis -- is the almost non-existent correlation between self-ratings of general morality and informant ratings of general morality. Neither of their two samples of about 300-600 participants per group showed a statistically detectable relationship (there was a weak positive trend: r = .15 & .10, n.s). Self-ratings of some specific moral traits -- honesty, fairness, and loyalty -- also showed at best weak correlations with spotty statistical significance (r = 0 to .3, none significant in both samples). However, other specific moral traits showed better correlations (purity, compassion, and responsibility, r = .2 to .5 in both samples).

    In other words, Sun and Goodwin find basically no statistically detectable relationship between how morally good you say you are, and how honest and fair and loyal you say you are, and what your closest friends and family say about you.

    Could the informants be wrong and the self-ratings correct? Well, of course! That thing I did that seemed immoral, unfair, and dishonest... of course, it wasn't nearly as bad as it seemed. In fact it was good! But only I fully appreciate that, since only I know the full details of the situation. Informants might underestimate my moral character. (If this sounds like suspicious self-exculpation, well, at least sometimes our moral excuses have merit.)

    Alternatively, close friends and family might overestimate my moral character: The people who know me well who I nominate for a study like this might cut me more slack than I deserve. I might rightly be hard on myself for the dishonest things I've done that they don't know about or know about but forgive; or maybe they don't want to express their true middling opinion of the target participants in a study like this. Likely, something like this is going on in these data: Overall, informants gave higher moral ratings to target participants than the target participants gave to themselves -- practically at ceiling (mean 4.5 and 4.4 on a 1-5 scale, compared to 4.0 in the targets' self-ratings). Maybe this reflects the way the informants were chosen and how they were prompted to respond.

    Without a general moralometer, or even observational data about plausibly moral or immoral behavior, it's hard to know how accurate such self- and other-ratings are. Nonetheless, the discorrelation is striking. While "people who know you well" might easily be wrong about your moral character, you might think that, if anything, participants would tend to nominate informants whose views of them align with their own self-conceptions (their best friends and favorite family members), in which case any error would tend to be on the side of overcorrelation rather than undercorrelation. The lack of correlation suggests an abundance of moral disagreement and error somewhere. My guess would be everywhere, with ample problems on both sides, for multiple reasons. Moral self-assessment is hard, and friend-assessment is at least dicey.

    This isn't a general problem in the Sun and Goodwin data. The self-ratings and informant ratings of non-moral traits generally showed good correlations (mostly r = .5 to .7, p < .001) -- including for seemingly mushy traits like "aesthetic sensitivity" and "trust".

    How about the moral mediocrity thesis? Do people generally express a strong desire to improve morally? Not in Sun and Goodwin's data. Respondents tended to prioritize reducing negative emotionality (e.g., depression, anxiety) and improving achievement (productiveness, creative imagination). Moral improvement appeared near the bottom of their list of goals. Given the opportunity to choose their three top goals among 21 possible general self-improvement goals of this sort, only 3% of target respondents ranked general moral improvement among those three. People who rated themselves comparatively high in moral traits gave even lower priority to moral self improvement than people who rated themselves comparatively lower, suggesting that they are especially likely see themselves as already morally "good enough" -- even if, as I'm inclined to think, such self-ratings of morality are almost completely uncorrelated with genuine morality.

    [Detail of Figure 2, from Sun & Goodwin 2019; click to enlarge]

    One thing that Sun and Goodwin did not ask about, which might have been interesting to see, is whether people would express willingness to trade away moral traits for desirable non-moral traits: If they could become more creative and less anxious at the cost of becoming less honest and less morally good overall, would they? I'm not sure I would trust self-reports about this... but I'd at least be curious to ask.

    In their deeds, as revealed by the choices they make and the discussions they choose to have and not have and the goals they choose to pursue, people tend to show little interest in accurate moral self-assessment or in general moral self-improvement above a minimal, mediocre standard. In my experience, if asked explicitly, people won't typically own up to this. But maybe, as suggested by Sun's and Goodwin's data, they will admit it implicitly, or admit to pieces of it explicitly, if asked in the right kind of way.

    Tuesday, October 15, 2019

    New Kickstarter Project: Vital: The Future of Healthcare

    ... here.

    Help fund science fictional speculation on health technology!

    If the project is funded, I will contribute a new story I am writing about the possible future of mood and attitude control in schoolchildren.

    Thursday, October 10, 2019

    Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part III: Letters of Recommendation

    Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

    Part II: Grades, Classes, and Institution of Origin

    Good grades alone won't secure admission to a PhD program in philosophy. Writing samples and letters of recommendation are also very important. I believe that writing samples should carry more weight than letters of recommendation (and admission committee members often say they do), but I suspect that in fact letters carry at least as much weight. An applicant needs at least three.

    Who to Ask

    If a professor gave you an A (not an A-minus) in an upper-division philosophy course, consider them a candidate to write a letter. You needn't have any special relationship with the professor, or have visited during office hours, or have taken multiple classes from them -- though all of these things can help. Don't be shy about asking; we're used to it!

    No matter how friendly they seem, you should be cautious about asking for letters from professors who have given you A-minuses or below, since if they have integrity in writing their letters, it will come out that your performance in their class was not quite top notch. If a professor has given you both an A and an A-minus, there might still have to be some restraint in the letter -- though less so if the A is the more recent grade.

    Letters from philosophers are distinctly preferable to letters from non-philosophers. Letters from eminent scholars are distinctly preferable to letters from assistant professors. Of course, these factors need to be weighed against the expected quality of the letter.

    You may submit more than the stated minimum of letters, but be advised that three strong letters looks considerably better in an application than three strong letters and a mediocre one.

    Although it's a delicate matter, you can ask a professor whether they think they can write a strong letter for you. If you feel doubt, and if you have a backup letter writer in mind, tactfully asking is probably a good idea.

    Should You Waive Your Right to See the Letter?

    Most applicants waive the right, and some professors will feel offended or put on the spot if an applicant does not waive the right.

    However, I confess that in my own case, I think I might be slightly less likely to say something negative, and I might think more carefully about how the letter would come across, if I think the applicant might view it. On the other hand, for the few very best of my letters, I might also slightly restrain my transports of enthusiasm. (I suspect professors don't really have good self-knowledge about such matters.)

    I have sometimes heard philosophers on admissions committees say that they look more skeptically on letters where the applicant hasn't waived the right. This might be so, but I have not noticed that tendency at UCR.

    Enabling Your Professors to Write the Best Possible Letters

    Think of all those wonderful things you've done that don't show up on your transcript! You went to a bunch of talks at the APA last year when it was in town. You gave free tutoring to high school students. You won the Philosophy Department award for best undergraduate essay. All on your own, you read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason last summer and two commentaries on it. You play piano in nightclubs. You have two thousand Twitter followers. (Be careful, however, what you say on publicly viewable social media, since admissions committees might discover it.) You got a perfect score on the SAT. You work with a local charitable organization. You're captain of the college debate team.

    Your letter writers want to know these things. Such facts come across much better in letters than in your personal statement (where they might seem immodest or irrelevant). In letters, they can be integrated with other facts to draw a picture of you as an interesting, promising student. So give your letter writers a brag sheet and don't be modest! Err on the side of over-including things rather than under-including. Sit there while they read it so they have a chance to ask questions. Explain to them that it's just a brag sheet and that you realize that much or most of it might be irrelevant to their letters. If you're embarrassed, feel free to blame me! ("Well, on Eric Schwitzgebel's blog, he said I should give you a brag sheet with all of this kind of stuff, even though it's kind of embarrassing.")

    Give your professors copies of all of the essays you've written for them, including if possible their comments on those essays. I don't always remember what my students have written about, especially if it has been a year, even if the essays are excellent. With a copy of the essays in hand, I can briefly describe them -- their topics, what seemed especially good about them -- in a way that adds convincing detail to the letter and gives the impression that I really do know and remember the student's work.

    Give your letter writers copies of your personal statement. If a letter writer says "Augustin has a deep passion for epistemology and hopes to continue to study that in graduate school" and your personal statement says nothing about epistemology, it looks a bit odd. You want the portraits drawn by your letter writers and your own self-portrait to match. Also, personal statements are extremely hard to write well (more on that later!) and it's good to have feedback on them from your letter writers.

    Give your letter writers your transcript. They may not know you have excellent grades across the board. Once they know this, they can write a stronger letter and one that more concretely addresses your performance relative to other students at your school. Also, they might be able to comment helpfully to the admissions committee on aberrations in your transcript. ("Prof. Hubelhauser hasn't given a student an A since 2003" or "Although Vania's grades slipped a bit in Fall Quarter 2016, her mother was dying of cancer that term, and her previous and subsequent grades more accurately reflect her abilities". Of course, they can't write the latter unless you tell them.)

    Give your letter writers a list of all the schools you are applying to and their deadlines, ideally with the first deadline highlighted. This serves several functions: It tells them when the letter needs to be completed (the first deadline). It makes it convenient for them to confirm that they have received all of the schools' letter requests and sent out all of their letters. It is an opportunity for them to provide feedback on your choice of schools. (Maybe there's a school that would be a good fit that you are needlessly omitting?) And it gives them an occasion to reflect on whether they might want to customize their letters for some of the schools.

    Maybe I'm a little old fashioned, but I prefer all of this material printed in hard copy. Then I can just staple it together and easily access everything I need. But it probably wouldn't hurt to also send it electronically, for professors who prefer things that way.

    Give your letter writers all of this material at least one month before the first deadline.

    Gentle Reminders

    Professors are flaky and forgetful. They are hardly ever punished for such behavior, so their laxity is unsurprising. Also, it's part of the charm of being absent-minded and absorbed in deeper things like the fundamental structure of reality!

    Consequently, it is advisable to email your letter writers a gentle reminder a week before your first deadline. If you don't receive confirmation from the schools (some will give you confirmation, some won't) or from the letter writer, saying that the letters are sent, send another reminder a week after the deadline.

    Don't panic if the letters are late. Admissions committees are used to it, and they don't blame the applicant. However, if the letter still isn't in the file by the time the committee gets around to reading your application, it will probably never be read. (You may still be admitted if the two letters that did arrive were good ones.)

    If the school doesn't provide electronic confirmation that your application is received and complete, it might be advisable to email the secretarial staff a week or so after the deadline to confirm that your application is all in order.

    Advice to Letter Writers

    Reading hundreds of letters of recommendation, things become something of a blur. Most letters say "outstanding student" or "I'm delighted to recommend X" or "I'm confident X will succeed in graduate school in philosophy". It would be strange not to say something of this sort, but still -- my eyes start to glaze over. I suspect that trying to detect nuanced differences in such phrases is pointless, since I doubt such nuances closely track applicant quality. More helpful: (1.) Comparative evaluations like: "best philosophy major in this year's graduating class"; or "though only an undergraduate, one of three students, among 9, to earn an 'A' in my graduate seminar"; or "her GPA of 3.87 is second-highest among philosophy majors". (2.) Descriptions of concrete accomplishments: "Won the department's prize in 2018 for best undergraduate essay in philosophy"; or "President of the Philosophy Club". It's also nice to hear a little about the applicant's work and what's distinctive of her as a student and person.

    Regarding those little checkboxes on some schools' cover sheets ("top 5%, top 10%" etc.): My impression is that letter writers vary in their conscientiousness about such numbers and have different comparison groups in mind, so I tend to discount them unless backed up by specific comparison assessments in the letter. However, my experience is that other people on the admissions committee sometimes take the checkboxes more seriously.

    Most letter writers write the same letter for every school rather than addressing the specific paragraph-answer questions that some schools ask. However, if you think an applicant is a particularly good fit for one school, a specifically tailored letter that explains why can be helpful.

    Gifts of Thanks

    The best gift of thanks that you can give to your letter writers is to update them on your admissions and rejections from time to time. Even if it's a complete whiff and you're rejected everywhere, please do tell them. Also, maybe about year later, after you're in a graduate program, or alternatively after you're out of academia into the world of business or elsewhere, an update on how things are going is lovely to hear!

    Personally, I -- and I suspect most letter writers -- prefer not to receive chocolates or gift cards or such. Of course, we appreciate the thought behind such tokens, and there's nothing wrong with expressing appreciation this way. If you do this, please keep the monetary value low.


    Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy Part IV: Writing Sample

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    Tuesday, October 08, 2019

    So 2018?

    I'm told that A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures is now being printed. I haven't yet seen a physical copy, but hopefully soon! If you're thinking of reviewing it or commenting on it, that would be awesome, and I can see if I can talk MIT Press into sending you an advance copy.

    PS: Is the cover already dated? Will vaping hipsters soon seem so 2018, a relic of the past, to whom we owe mainly a wistful nostalgia?

    Friday, October 04, 2019

    What Makes for a Good Philosophical Argument, and The Common Ground Problem for Animal Consciousness

    What is it reasonable to hope for from a philosophical argument?

    Soundness would be nice -- a true conclusion that logically follows from true premises. But soundness isn't enough. Also, in another way, soundness is sometimes too much to demand.

    To see why soundness isn't enough, consider this argument:

    Premise: Snails have conscious sensory experiences, and ants have conscious sensory experiences.

    Conclusion: Therefore, snails have conscious sensory experiences.

    The argument is valid: The conclusion follows from the premises. For purposes of this post, let's assume that premise, about snails and ants, is also true and that the philosopher advancing the argument knows it to be true. If so, then the argument is sound and known to be so by the person advancing it. But it doesn't really work as an argument, since anyone who isn't already inclined to believe the conclusion won't be inclined to believe the premise. This argument isn't going to win anyone over.

    So soundness isn't sufficient for argumentative excellence. Nor is it necessary. An argument can be excellent if the conclusion is strongly suggested by the premises, despite lacking the full force of logical validity. That the Sun has risen many times in a regular way and that its doing so again tomorrow fits with our best scientific models of the Solar System is an excellent argument that it will rise again tomorrow, even though the conclusion isn't a 100% logical certainty given the premises.

    What then, should we want from a philosophical argument?

    First, let me suggest that a good philosophical argument needs a target audience, the expected consumers of the argument. For academic philosophical arguments, the target audience would presumably include other philosophers in one's academic community who specialize in the subarea. It might also include a broader range of academic philosophers or some segment of the general public.

    Second, an excellent philosophical argument should be such that the target audience ought to be moved by the argument. Unpacking "ought to be moved": A good argument ought to incline members of its target audience who began initially neutral or negative concerning its conclusion to move in the direction of endorsing its conclusion. Also, members of its target audience antecedently inclined in favor of the conclusion ought to feel that the argument provides good support for the conclusion, reinforcing their confidence in the conclusion.

    I intend this standard to be a normative standard, rather than a psychological standard. Consumers of the argument ought to be moved. Whether they are actually moved is another question. People -- even, sad to say, academic philosophers! -- are often stubborn, biased, dense, and careless. They might not actually be moved even if they ought to be moved. The blame for that is on them, not on the argument.

    I intend this standard as an imperfect generalization: It must be the case that generally the target audience ought to be moved. But if some minority of the target audience ought not to be moved, that's consistent with excellence of argument. One case would be an argument that assumes as a premise something widely taken for granted by the target audience (and reasonably so) but which some minority portion of the target audience does not, for their own good reasons, accept.

    I intend this standard to require only movement, not full endorsement: If some audience members initially have a credence of 10% in the conclusion and they are moved to a 35% credence after exposure to the argument, they have been moved. Likewise, someone whose credence is already 60% before reading the argument is moved in the relevant sense if they rationally increase their credence to 90% after exposure to the argument. But "movement" in the sense needn't be understood wholly in terms of credence. Some philosophical conclusions aren't so much true or false as endorseable in some other way -- beautiful, practical, appealing, expressive of a praiseworthy worldview. Movement toward endorsement on those grounds should also count as movement in the relevant sense.

    You might think that this standard -- that the target audience ought to be moved -- is too much to demand from a philosophical argument. Hoping that one's arguments are good enough to change reasonable people's opinions is maybe a lot to hope for. But (perhaps stubbornly?) I do hope for it. A good, or at least an excellent, philosophical argument should move its audience. If you're only preaching to the choir, what's the point?

    In his preface to Consciousness and Experience, William G. Lycan writes

    In 1987... I published a work entitled Consciousness. In it I claimed to have saved the materialist view of human beings from all perils.... But not everyone has been convinced. In most cases this is due to plain pigheadedness. But in others its results from what I now see to have been badly compressed and cryptic exposition, and in still others it is articulately grounded in a peril or two that I inadvertently left unaddressed (1996, p. xii).

    I interpret Lycan's preface as embracing something like my standard -- though with the higher bar of convincing the audience rather than moving the audience. Note also that Lycan's standard appears to be normative. There may be no hope of convincing the pigheaded; the argument need not succeed in that task to be excellent.

    So, when I write about the nature of belief, for example, I hope that reasonable academic philosophers who are not too stubbornly committed to alternative views, will find themselves moved in the direction of thinking that a dispositional approach (on which belief is at least as much about walking the walk as talking the talk) will be moved toward dispositionalism -- and I hope that other dispositionalists will feel reinforced in their inclinations. The target audience will feel the pull of the arguments. Even if they don't ultimately endorse my approach to belief, they will, I hope, be less averse to it than previously. Similarly, when I defend the view that the United States might literally be conscious, I hope that the target audience of materialistically-inclined philosophers will come to regard the group consciousness of a nation as less absurd than they probably initially thought. That would be movement!

    Recently, I have turned my attention to the consciousness, or not, of garden snails. Do garden snails have a real stream of conscious experience, like we normally assume that dogs and ravens have? Or is there "nothing it's like" to be a garden snail, in the way we normally assume there's nothing it's like to be a pine tree or a toy robot? In thinking about this question, I find myself especially struck by what I'll call The Common Ground Problem.

    The Common Ground Problem is this. To get an argument going, you need some common ground with your intended audience. Ideally, you start with some shared common ground, and then maybe you also introduce factual considerations from science or elsewhere that you expect they will (or ought to) accept, and then you deliver the conclusion that moves them your direction. But on the question of animal consciousness specifically, people start so far apart that finding enough common ground to reach most of the intended audience becomes a substantial problem, maybe even an insurmountable problem.

    I can illustrate the problem by appealing to extreme cases; but I don't think the problem is limited to extreme cases.

    Panpsychists believe that consciousness is ubiquitous. That's an extreme view on one end. Although not every panpsychist would believe that garden snails are conscious (they might think, for example, that subparts of the snail are conscious but not the snail as a whole), let's imagine a panpsychist who acknowledges snail consciousness. On the other end, some philosophers, such as Peter Carruthers, argue that even dogs might not be (determinately) conscious. Now let's assume that you want to construct an argument for (or against) the consciousness of garden snails. If your target audience includes the whole range of philosophers from panpsychists to people with very restrictive views about consciousness like Carruthers, it's very hard to see how you speak to that whole range of readers. What kind of argument could you mount that would reasonably move a target audience with such a wide spread of starting positions?

    Arguments about animal consciousness seem always to start already from a set of assumptions about consciousness (this kind of test would be sufficient, this other kind not; this thing is an essential feature of consciousness, the other thing not). The arguments will generally beg the question against audience members who start out with views too far away from one's own starting points.

    How many issues in philosophy have this kind of problem? Not all, I think! In some subareas, there are excellent arguments that can or should move, even if not fully convince, most of the target audience. Animal consciousness is, I suspect, unusual (but probably not unique) in its degree of intractability, and in the near-impossibility of constructing an argument that is excellent by the standard I have articulated.

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