Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Most Visible Academic Presses in Philosophy

Now that I've signed the contract for my fourth book (working title, The Weirdness of the World, with Princeton University Press), I've been thinking of sharing some reflections on how to publish a book in philosophy. Even the basics of how to land a book contract aren't obvious (e.g., can you approach more than one press at a time? [Yes, but!]). A guide could be helpful.

Part of the guide will involve advice about the relative prestige or visibility of different academic presses in philosophy. I have some informal impressions, but I thought some quantitative support would be good. Toward that end, I've collected data toward a ranking of the most visible academic presses in philosophy.

I relied on five sources of book reviews, critical notices, and book symposia: Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Philosophical Review, Mind, Journal of Philosophy, and Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, using data from January 1, 2018, through May 25, 2020. I chose NDPR as probably the most-circulated regular source of reviews of academic philosophy books, and I chose the other four journals because of their top-5 rating in Brian Leiter's most recent poll of "best 'general' journals of philosophy". (Nous, also in the top five, had no book reviews, critical notices, or book symposia during the period.)

I granted each press one point for each book review in any of the four included journals. For an article-length critical notice or a book symposium, I granted 4 points. NDPR issues many, many reviews -- 726 in the target period, which is more than 4 times as many as all other sources combined. To give NDPR a total of 1/5 of the weight in the final ranking, it was necessary to grant only .079 of a point for an NDPR review.

I welcome corrections.

The results:

1. Oxford University Press (210.5)

2. Cambridge University Press (12.7)

3. MIT Press (12.2)

4. Routledge (10.8)

5. Princeton University Press (10.1)

6. Harvard University Press (6.2)

7. Fordham University Press (4.5)

8. Bloomsbury (3.6)

9. University of Chicago Press (2.7)

10. Columbia University Press (2.0)

11. Indiana University Press (1.8)

12. Springer (1.7)

13. Rowman and Littlefield (1.11)

14t. McGill-Queen's University Press (1.08)

14t. Open Court (1.08)

16t. Palgrave Macmillan (0.47)

16t. University of Minnesota Press (0.47)

18t. Edinburgh University Press (0.40)

18t. Lexington (0.40)

20t. De Gruyter (0.32)

20t. Polity (0.32)

20t. SUNY Press (0.32)

24. Ohio University Press (0.24)

25. Editiones Scholasticae (0.16)

One NDPR review each: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Catholic University of America Press, Hackett, John Benjamins, Leuven University Press, Mangalam Press, Northwestern University Press, Open Book Publishers, Pennsylvania State University Press, The Warburg Institute, University of Pennsylvania Press, University of Pittsburgh Press, University of Virginia Press, Wiley-Blackwell, Yale University Press.


* Oxford's lead is huge. My sense is that this is not because Oxford is that much more prestigious than others in the top six but rather because it has a much longer list (see below). Oxford might or might not be the most prestigious university press in academic philosophy, but due to the length of their list plus their prestige and quality, they are clearly the most visible press in academic philosophy.

* Fordham's high ranking is due almost entirely to Judith Butler's Senses of the Subject. With four points possible for a symposium or critical notice, we ought to expect substantial noise in the data at below 8 points. The fact that there aren't more presses over four points is evidence that, for at least the past two-plus years, the top six presses pretty much have a lock on reviews and symposia in the most elite general philosophy journals, except when a highly visible philosopher, like Butler, publishes elsewhere.

* The number of NDPR reviews is extremely skewed, saying something about the presses' list sizes (though of course many scholarly philosophy books are not reviewed in NDPR): Oxford 298, Routledge 99, Cambridge 97, Bloomsbury 46, Chicago 22, Springer 21, Harvard 15, MIT 15, Princeton 14, Rowman and Littlefield 14, Columbia 13, every other press 10 or less. Oxford is the 800 pound gorilla! Routledge and Cambridge also publish lots of scholarly work in philosophy. MIT, Princeton, and Harvard appear to have short but selective lists.

Update 5:11 p.m.

Several people have suggested I divide the points by the total number of books published. I'm not seeing a good way to get those numbers for all of the presses, but one easy approach would just be this: Look at what percentage of the reviews are in NDPR. A score of .50 would mean that for every book reviewed in NDPR, the press also had a review in one of the elite journals.  A score of .00 would mean that no books by that press were reviewed in one of the elite journals during the period.

Using this method, and limiting it only to presses with at least 15 reviews for stability, we get the following ranking:

1. MIT Press (.42)

2. Oxford University Press (.31)

3. Princeton University Press (.30)

4. Harvard University Press (.25)

5. Cambridge University Press (.05)

6. University of Chicago Press (.04)

7. Routledge (.03)

If we include all presses, then McGill-Queens and Open Court are tied for first at .50, each with one NDPR review and one non-NDPR review on my list. Also in the mix are Fordham (.14), Indiana (.09), Columbia (.07), and Chicago (.04).  All of these presses have only one review on my list apart from NDPR.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Dispute Concerning Science Fiction, Philosophy, and the Nutritional Content of Maraschino Cherries

Helen De Cruz, Johan De Smedt, and Eric Schwitzgebel

forthcoming introduction to Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories

“—this dialogue, for example,” said Johan, folding his arms, gazing across the table in the hotel bar at the meeting of the American Philosophical Association. “It didn’t even happen. Fictional philosophical dialogue is out of fashion for excellent reason.”

“But that’s the beauty of it!” replied Eric, looking slightly hurt. His imaginary cocktail was bright pink, with three cherries and an umbrella.

“No one will believe it. What’s the point? It’s a waste of time. If you’re doing philosophy, just lay it out straight. Say what you want to say. Don’t decorate it with fiction.” Johan pointed accusingly at Eric’s cocktail. “I mean, why an umbrella? It’s silly froufrou.”

“It’s cute!” said Helen, who you didn’t picture until just now, but who had been sitting at the imaginary table all along. “It enhances the mood. It adds color. Even if strictly speaking it has no nutritional content, its vivid turquoise complements the pink and red of drink and cherry. Fiction dresses an idea, invites you to engage with that idea, makes it attractive in a certain sort of way.”

“The wrong sort of way!” said Johan.

“Fiction is the very flesh on the bones, not decoration,” said Eric.

“Imagine a man who is explicitly sexist,” said Helen. “He is committed to patriarchy, thinks that women should only have certain roles. They should only be mothers and homemakers. Now give him a story to read. Tell it from a woman’s point of view. Make it some future dystopia where women are oppressed in a way that even he would say is bad. Get him to sympathize with those fictional women, really feeling their plight. Tell the story vividly, emotionally, with depth and detail over three hundred pages.[1] When he pokes his head back up out of the story, maybe he’ll see the world a little differently. Maybe he’ll have a little more sympathy for women in oppressive systems. Maybe he’ll see similarities between the exaggerated situation in the fiction and the experiences of women in his own society, and maybe he’ll be a tiny bit more open to change. He’ll have shifted a little, philosophically, in his view of the world. That’s the kind of work philosophical fiction can do.”

Johan looked around the bar. For a long time, academic philosophy in Europe and North America had been almost exclusively the province of white men, and—since what is not made explicit in fiction conforms to the reader’s beliefs about the actual world[2]—it still showed in the demographics of the discipline[3] in this imaginary hotel. Aristotle, Kant, and Locke could probably have benefited from imaginative exercises like the one Helen was describing.[4] And yet … “that’s not really philosophy, exactly, I’d say.” Johan paused, seeming to gauge Helen. “Philosophy is about rational argumentation. Of course, things other than rational argumentation can change your worldview. Even listening to a great piece of music, such as Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony[5], can be emotionally profound. It can fill you with awe just by its very sound, with no rational content at all. And maybe, in the right circumstances, it could color your future perspective. But that wouldn’t make Beethoven a philosopher or his symphonies philosophical works.”

“If the work explores or promotes a worldview,” said Eric, “I don’t see why we shouldn’t call it philosophical.” He pierced a maraschino cherry with the stem of the umbrella, then lifted it to eye level. “Now suppose that the intent of this cocktail,[6] in its pink and turquoise flamboyance, is to celebrate life’s capacity to delight us with sweet, luxurious, unapologetic indulgence. The manager highlights this drink on the cocktail list with that very intent, and knowing that intention, the bartender mixes and presents it. This cocktail , then, is itself an act of philosophy, even if certain dowdy no-funners are unable to appreciate it.” With one finger, Eric flicked the cherry off the umbrella, high into the air, aiming to catch it in his mouth on its downward arc. The cherry struck him on the chin, then bounced to the floor. The bartender, who in mixing the cocktail had no such intentions as Eric described, glanced critically in their direction.

Helen stooped to retrieve the cherry, then set it on a napkin in front of her. “So, we can drink philosophy as well as read it, Eric? Should we invite the bartender to give a colloquium talk?”

Eric lifted his cocktail. “That would be awesome! But of course she will need to perform in her accustomed liquid medium.”[7]

“Argument by cocktail? I wouldn’t go as far as that,” Helen said, gazing absently at the hotel’s logo on the crumpled napkin. “But maybe a great painting can express a philosophical idea more vividly and effectively than an expository essay. Take Picasso’s Guernica—such an austere, quasi-monochrome study in the horrors of war.[8] A few days ago, I was in a museum and saw a painting by, I think, a French painter, of glossy horses standing in the shade and bedraggled donkeys standing in the glaring sun.[9] It showed how they kept those animals for hire, but clearly it was also a social commentary. Its basic content was kind of obvious and simple—but it was political philosophy. And maybe it would reach people better than an essay. I imagine some aristocrat contemplating the painting, pitying the donkeys. Maybe later, as he’s rolling along in a lovely carriage, he sees someone selling apples in the bleaching sun and thinks “What are we doing? We’re treating people as badly as those donkeys!” It’s not like he couldn’t get similar ideas from prose and think the same thing non-metaphorically, but the vividness of the metaphor hooks him in, leads him along, makes the idea salient and emotional and memorable in a way it wouldn’t otherwise be.”

“But, Helen,” groaned Johan, “now everything will become philosophy. You can’t sustain the compromise position you want. Every work of fiction, implicitly or explicitly, critiques or celebrates a worldview. The main characters have ideals and values, they make life choices, and by portraying these sympathetically or unsympathetically, and by showing us how those values and choices play out in the story, the fiction nudges us toward a worldview. But surely, we don’t want to say that all fiction is philosophy. And it isn’t just fiction. All movies and TV shows, all lyrical songs, and maybe all songs of any sort—maybe even architecture and fashion and product design. If you say that painting is philosophy, lots of things risk becoming philosophy, until you end in the inanity of turquoise-umbrella cocktail philosophy. Eric’s ability to appreciate the cocktail in phenomenological terms does not turn the bartender into a phenomenologist. Where do you stop?”

“Why stop?” said Eric. “I rather like the idea that everything you do is implicit philosophy. Every choice you make manifests your worldview. Every public act is a kind of advertisement for a way of being. We are all always philosophers. Why does philosophy need to be some rarified, privileged activity?”

... the dialogue continues here.



[1] Atwood, M. (1985). The handmaid’s tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

[2] Lewis, D. (1978). Truth in fiction. American Philosophical Quarterly, 15(1), 37-46.

[3] See e.g., Wilhelm, I., Conklin, S. L., & Hassoun, N. (2018). New data on the representation of women in philosophy journals: 2004–2015. Philosophical Studies, 175(6), 1441-1464; Schwitzgebel, E., & Jennings, C. D. (2017). Women in philosophy: Quantitative analyses of specialization, prevalence, visibility, and generational change. Public Affairs Quarterly, 31(2), 83-106; Botts, T. F., Bright, L. K., Cherry, M., Mallarangeng, G., & Spencer, Q. (2014). What is the state of blacks in philosophy? Critical Philosophy of Race, 2(2), 224-242.

[4] Van Norden, B.W. (2017). Taking back philosophy. A multicultural manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press.

[5] van Beethoven, L. (1812). Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93. The work can be heard here:

[6] On the philosophy of cocktails, see e.g., Bakewell, S. (2016). At the existentialist café. Freedom, being, and apricot cocktails. London: Vintage.

[7] Schwitzgebel, E. (2020). A theory of jerks and other philosophical misadventures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, chapter 50, The philosopher of hair.

[8] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. s.v. "Guernica (Picasso)" (accessed August 10, 2019).

[9] Actually, Joseph Stevens is a Belgian painter. We apologize for embarrassing fictional Helen in this way. The work is linked here:

[image source]

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Gender and Sexual Orientation of First-Year Philosophy Students in the U.S.

by Eric Schwitzgebel, Morgan Thompson, and Eric Winsberg

With funding from the American Philosophical Association (thanks, APA!), we obtained access to data from the Higher Education Research Institute's "Freshman Survey", which aims to construct a representative sample of first-year students in four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. We will be analyzing these data with an eye toward looking at demographic trends in the philosophy major over time.

The most recent year to which we currently have access is 2016, and already there are lots of interesting facts that we are eager to report! For today's analysis, we'll be merging the 2015 and 2016 data to give a bigger sample. Respondents were 171,300 first-year students from 253 colleges in 2016 and 202,033 first-year students from 311 colleges in 2015 (almost all from four-year colleges).

Among these 373,333 students, 0.36% (1132/315158 students, excluding undecided and unanswered) expressed an intention to major in Philosophy. This compares with Philosophy being either the first or second major of 0.39% of students receiving graduate degrees in the most recent available year (2018) in the NCES IPEDS database.[Note 1]

Two gender identity questions are included in the survey:

* Your sex (male, female)

* Are you transgender? (no, yes)

Although men were more likely than women to express an intention to major in philosophy, the ratio was closer to parity than we see among graduates in philosophy: 43% (485/1132) of intended philosophy majors were women (1%, or 7 total, declined to state), compared to 58% of first-year students overall.

Since the latest data from NCES show that among Bachelor's degree recipients, 36% are women, the HERI data are consistent with the "leaky pipeline" hypothesis about women in philosophy. (The leaky pipeline hypothesis holds that over the course of their education, women are more likely than men to leave philosophy.) We plan a more careful time course analysis of these data in the near future, with a close eye on potential non-response bias in the HERI dataset.[Note 2]

Nine percent (105/1132) of the philosophy majors declined to state whether they were transgender. Among philosophy major respondents, 8/1027 (0.8%) identified as transgender. Among students with other majors, 8% did not respond and 0.4% (1172/288989) identified as transgender. Note, however, that with such small proportions, a disproportionate representation of transgender students among those who decline to state (perhaps because they are not sufficiently "out" to want to reveal their transgender status on a questionnaire of this sort), could dramatically affect the results. Similar considerations apply to transgender students who might falsely state that they are not transgender. Given the small number of self-reported transgender students and these resulting interpretative difficulties, we are hesitant to draw conclusions about the proportion of students who are transgender or about whether philosophy students were more likely than other students to be transgender.

Students were asked their sexual orientation as follows:

What is your sexual orientation?

Overall, across all majors, 92% identified as straight, 4% as bisexual, 2% as other, and the remaining groups 1% each. Philosophy majors were more likely to report non-heterosexual sexual orientation: 88% straight, 6% bisexual, 3% other, 2% gay, 1% queer, and < 1% lesbian. (p < .001, comparing the proportion straight). Although nonresponse was again an issue, with 10% of philosophy majors not responding and 8% of students overall not responding, the proportions, absolute numbers, and effect sizes are large enough to permit some confidence in the conclusion. Students intending to major in philosophy are more likely to identify as non-heterosexual than are students in other majors.[Note 3]

Perhaps this in unsurprising. However, we have not previously seen good systematic data on the sexual orientation of philosophy majors. (Please let us know if we've missed something!) In previous work, Schwitzgebel noted the possible disproportionate representation of non-heterosexual philosophers among the most-cited authors in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Unsurprisingly, philosophy isn't the queerest of all disciplines. Among disciplines with at least 1000 respondents, that was theater (23% non-heterosexual). If we include smaller disciplines, it was women's studies / gender studies (42% non-heterosexual). Most of the arts, humanities, and social sciences had at least as high a proportion of non-heterosexual majors (among disciplines with at least 1000 intended majors responding, art, English, foreign language, media studies, music, theater, environmental science, music/art education, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and social work were all at least 12% non-straight). The least queer discipline? Finance, 98% identifying as straight.


Note 1: One complication in these data is that respondents are disproportionately drawn from higher-status universities and from Catholic and private universities, and women are more likely to respond. To compensate for this, HERI stratifies universities by status (high, medium, low), by university type (private university, public university, public college, private nonsectarian college, Catholic college, other sectarian college, and historically black), by gender (man, woman), and by race/ethnicity, then assigns each respondent a "weight", with higher weights for respondents from lower response-rate groups (e.g., men from lower status public non-sectarian colleges) and lower weights for respondents from higher response-rate groups. Respondents from two-year colleges and from institutions with response rates much below 65% are given zero weight. HERI's own "norms" and population estimates are based on these weights. Above, I report raw numbers rather than weighted numbers. For these analyses, the weighting does make a bit of a difference. For example, the unweighted percentage of philosophy majors is 0.36% and the weighted percentage is 0.32%. Other weighted calculations will be reported in subsequent notes.

Note 2: Using HERI's weighting procedure [note 1], 41% of first-year philosophy majors were women and 55% overall were women.

Note 3: Using HERI's weighting procedure [note 1], 11% of first-year philosophy majors do not identify as heterosexual, vs 8% from all other majors combined.

[image source]

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Five Books of Philosophical Wonder

Over at Five Books, I've shared some thoughts on philosophical wonder, alongside five book recommendations and reflections about those books in conversation with Nigel Warburton.

The books are:

  • Zhuangzi (c. 300 BCE/1964). Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings. Trans. B. Watson.
  • Montaigne, Michel de (1580-1588/1957). The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Trans. D.M. Frame.
  • Borges, Jorge Luis (1940-1960/1964). Labyrinths. Ed. D.A. Yates & J.E. Irby.
  • Sacks, Oliver (1985). The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales.
  • Egan, Greg (1998). Diaspora.
  • Ah... such wonderful books! I'm pausing right now to relish their awesomeness.

    [insert a momentary reverie here]

    Topics of the interview include:

  • the nature of philosophical wonder
  • Zhuangzi's butterfly dream
  • wu wei / "doing nothing" in the skillful flow sense vs. the nap-beneath-a-tree sense
  • Montaigne on cannibals, religious elephants, and the contingency of our cultural practices
  • Borges on the infinitely random "Library of Babel" and the non-identity of indiscernible works
  • Sacks's "Lost Mariner" -- a man stuck in 1945, incapable of forming new long-term memories
  • Egan on dream apes, radical freedom in value choice, and the amazing variety of forms of life that might open up in the future
  • ----------------------------------------------

    Five Books of Philosophical Wonder

    Before we discuss your books, let’s start with the topic, philosophical wonder. What do you mean by that?

    I was just wondering what I meant by that this morning. I don’t have an analytical philosopher’s definition of ‘wonder’ yet. Here’s what I have so far: We go through life with all kinds of presuppositions, which are usually implicit, about how things are and how they must be. Philosophical wonder occurs when we’re jostled out of that and we start to see new, interesting possibilities.

    The idea that did it for me when studying philosophy, that certainly changed my outlook on the world, even though I wasn’t convinced by the arguments, was reading Descartes’ First Meditation, and suddenly having that idea, ‘could I be dreaming?’ This was in the early 80s when we hadn’t had so many movies that addressed just that question. If you take it seriously, it gets you into a position where you have to think quite hard and change your attitude to things you had previously taken for granted.

    Right. We normally assume that we’re awake. But when I engage with Descartes or with Zhuangzi [or Chuang Tzu], the author of the first of the five books I’m going to talk about—then I start to wonder, is it possible that I could be dreaming right now?

    Probably the most famous passage in the Zhuangzi is this. One night Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, fluttering around, doing whatever he liked, and giving no thought to humans. Then he woke up and suddenly there he was, a human! So he wondered, is he a human who had dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming that he’s a human? How could he tell the difference? That’s one of the earliest historical statements of dream doubt, in ancient China around 300 BCE, long before Descartes’ Meditations.

    Before we get on to Zhuangzi as a book choice, what part does this kind of philosophical wonder play in your life and your writing as a philosopher?

    I’ve always liked when philosophy pulls the rug out from under me. People come to philosophy with different aims and preferences. Maybe what I value most is when I’m reading a philosopher and suddenly something that I took for granted is exposed to me as merely contingent, or possibly untrue, or something I might not be 100% justified in believing. When that happens, the universe seems to expand. There’s this sense of more possibilities than I had assumed to exist before. The world gets bigger.

    That sounds very like the language that people who’ve taken psychedelic drugs use.

    I guess so! I have never actually tried psychedelic drugs, although my father was a collaborator with Timothy Leary on one of his classic papers.

    That’s amazing. Did your father take drugs to do that?

    Not for that paper. He was an observer during that experiment rather than a participant. But, yes, he took some psychedelic drugs in his life. Not a lot.

    So, you’re getting a natural high from philosophy.

    That’s one way of thinking of it!

    I took some LSD when I was a student. I would say that, in my experience, it wasn’t different from doing philosophy. It was continuous with it in some senses and it informed it. You don’t have to do it more than once or twice to discover that. It’s just that there are different ways of organizing experience. That’s for sure.

    Right. My father was also a licensed hypnotist. So I got to see how hypnosis worked. Dreaming is another kind of altered state of consciousness too, and it’s quite normal. There are lots of different ways that the human mind can encounter the world.

    Continue here

    Friday, May 01, 2020

    Your Infinite Counterparts

    The visible universe is tiny -- only about 93 billion light-years. The whole universe might be much larger, maybe even infinite. A trillion galaxies might be an infinitesimal fragment of a speck of the tiniest toenail of what there is. Think large!

    If you think large enough, eventually you'll get recurrence. There are only finitely many ways a finite number of particles can arrange themselves, within some arbitrarily small error tolerance. Some of the same stuff, eventually, will repeat.

    If we assume cosmic diversity in which we're not exceptional (for example, if we assume that it's not just flat vacuum apart from our one special region), then eventually among the things that will repeat is you. Not you you exactly. Your counterpart, let's say. Someone who, to some arbitrarily fine degree of precision, is just like you in locally measurable qualities. The more precision we want, and the more life history we want (the past five minutes? your whole life? the whole history of Earth?), the farther away in spacetime we should expect this counterpart to be. But if the universe truly is infinite, that counterpart will out be there, eventually, at some spatiotemporal distance. And then again somewhat farther, and again still farther, and again -- infinitely often.

    If you don't want to be so self-focused, fine. Maybe you care more about your daughter. Eventually, there will be a counterpart of your daughter. Maybe you care about Socrates's conversations in Athens. Those will of course repeat, too -- in every possible variation.


    My question is, what should our attitude be toward this repetition, if we assume it exists? Should you care that somewhere out there are infinitely many counterparts of you, your daughter, and Socrates in dialogue? Should the existence of such things have any effect on how you think about your own life or what's happening on Earth? Or is it all a big meh?

    Nietzsche, for one, didn't think recurrence would be a meh.

    What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy, and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence? -- even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, a speck of dust!"

    Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: "You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine." If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, "Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?" would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? (Gay Science 341, Kaufmann trans.).

    Nietzsche's posthumous notes suggest that he might have been thinking of recurrence in something like the sense I've described, as a genuine physical conjecture (cf. Boltzmann and Poincaré), though that remains disputed.

    We might challenge Nietzsche's implicit personal identity claim -- that if the hourglass of existence were turned over and everything was run again, it would be "you" doing all the same things, rather than merely a duplicate of you.


    Straightaway, I can imagine two reasons to favor Team Meh. One concerns distance, the other causation.

    On distance: These counterparts are, in all likelihood, very far from you, spatiotemporally. Maybe that distance matters. You probably care a lot about what's happening in your house, less about what's happening down the street, still less about what's happening on the other side of the planet, even less about what's happening in Andromeda, and basically not at all about something that's a googol lightyears distant. Distance breeds indifference.

    On the other hand, there's something odd about thinking that distance per se is indifference-making. If someone kidnapped your daughter and took her around the world -- to New Zealand, say, if you're in the U.S. -- you wouldn't find yourself (I assume) growing more indifferent as she approached New Zealand and then, maybe, starting to care about her more after the kidnappers did a U-turn. More fancifully, if you knew that you'd be deep-frozen then revived after a trillion years in some other galaxy, you'd probably care about what your new home would be like even before you were frozen. The mere fact of its physical distance isn't enough to make it irrelevant to you.

    Lack of causal interaction correlates with distance and maybe is a more justifiable basis for indifference. You normally have had and will have many more, and more important, causal interactions with your daughter than with a stranger in New Zealand, even if they are both in New Zealand right now. And in the deep-freeze case, you care about that future galaxy because it will be you there, carrying forward the effects of all your past choices and life events. You care about Earth Socrates more than counterpart-Earth counterpart-Socrates because Earth Socrates is the one who actually had the effects on your culture and philosophical tradition.

    On the other hand, we can sometimes care about distant strangers, even when the causal threads are thin. And causation is cheap, if we're patient enough, echoing butterfly-like through the world, and maybe even scaling up infinitely over vast spans of time, so that eventually any action you do could have whatever arbitrarily specific effects you desire, on some far distant counterpart.

    That last thought is so speculative that we might brush it aside. Fair enough (though read my post and book chapter on it, if you like). Lack of causal interaction, or lack of the right kind of causal interaction, might justify a "meh" reaction to those infinitely many far-distant counterparts, playing out all those versions of your life.

    If "meh" is the reaction that you arrive at, or want to arrive at, you can probably justify it. But I invite you to consider whether, on reflection, you really do find the possibility of a universe with infinitely many duplicates and near-duplicates of whatever you care about to be meh, rather than worrying, intriguing, puzzling, or in some other way potentially of interest.


    Suppose you are struck and killed by lightning. Somewhere out there in the infinite universe -- if standard physical theory is correct -- will be a suddenly congealed new version of you, in an arbitrarily large environment. Alongside the duplicate, if you are willing to look far enough, will be duplicates also of your home, your family, your country, your galaxy. (Sudden chance organization from disorganized chaos is, of course, extremely unlikely in any region of spacetime as minuscule as a few trillion light years. But literal infinitude is powerful.) This new entity and its friends will (presumably, but disputably) have seeming-memories, experiences, plans, attitudes, that are qualitatively identical to yours even if they have a radically different history. In some sense, no one will notice the gap. It will be as though you smoothly continued. (Compare Swampman. See also the story "Penelope's Guide to Defeating Time, Space, and Causation" in my recent book [free manuscript draft here].)

    Sometimes, we treasure uniqueness. There's only one copy of the Michelangelo's statue of David. That makes it, maybe, uniquely valuable in a way that any one instance of Rodin's The Thinker, of which there are 28 castings, is not. Suppose that our galaxy were to happen only once. Suppose that the overall sum of awesomeness and value of our entire galactic history is n units. Now suppose a precisely similar version of it happens again, and again, and again. Is each version worth n more units? Or does repetition decrease the marginal value, so to speak? If you were God, choosing a universe, would you say -- well, we did that once, done, that's enough! Or would you say, replay, replay, replay, endlessly with no point of diminishing returns?

    What Nietzsche seems to think most of us would find terrifying about repetition is that every decision we have would have infinite weight. We decide as it were, not only for ourselves, but for all our duplicates. (Though I wonder, on this perspective, if I'm not first in the chain, maybe I don't decide at all because an earlier version already decided for me?) Although what you choose wouldn't normally cause your distant duplicates to choose the same, it might at least signify that they would and will choose the same. In some sense, you speak for all of them. Maybe, if there's some chance in the process, or some divergence in the process due to small differences, you will make a different choice than some -- and so there will be near-duplicates of you playing out each possible choice, among which you either belong to the majority or you make an atypical choice. Do you follow the crowd of yourself? Is it too strange to find some small comfort in the idea that somewhere out there is a duplicate of you who made a better choice?

    Just some things I find interesting to think about, if the universe is infinite.


    If you enjoy my blog, check out my recent book: A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.

    [image duplicated from here]