Friday, October 30, 2020

Slippery In-Between Persons: Growing, Fading, Merging, Splitting

Philosophers normally treat personhood as all-or-nothing. An entity either is a person or is not a person. There are no half-persons, and no one has more personhood than anyone else. We usually don't think much about vague or in-between cases.

One exception is the literature on so-called "marginal cases" -- humans with severe disabilities, for example, or entities in the slow progression from fertilized egg to self-aware toddler, who either wholly or partially lack features that philosophers sometimes regard as essential to personhood.

The literature on personal identity offers other exceptions -- classically in Derek Parfit's wild thought experiments in Reasons and Persons and recently in Luke Roelofs' Combining Minds. "Split brain" callosotomy patients are another interesting case, as are craniopagus twins.

[P.T. Selbit, in an early attempt at person splitting]

The latter cases, though less common (and often purely hypothetical), present a deeper challenge to our notion of personhood than the former cases. The difference between one and two persons is more difficult to manage, conceptually and socially, than the difference between zero and one, which can be handled partly through extending our ordinary thinking about ordinary persons to a range of "marginal" cases, with some tweaks or reductions.

I won't press that point here. What I want to note instead is this: On almost all notions of personhood, we think of personhood as coming in discrete countable numbers -- zero, one, two, etc. -- not 1/8 or 2.4. At the same time, on most accounts of personhood, personhood is grounded in smoothly gradable phenomena, such as cognitive and emotional capacities, social role, and the history of or potentiality for these.

Thus we can in general constuct a gradual series from cases in which we have, clearly, a single person, down to zero or up to two, forcing a theoretical trilemma. In general form:

(1.) Case 1: an ordinary human being who no one would reasonably doubt counts as one person.

(2.) Case n: an entity that is either clearly not a person (the zero case) or a situation in which there clearly are two distinct people (the two case).

(3.) A series of arbitrarily slow and finely-graded steps between 1 and n.

The zero case is tricky if we want to use real-life examples, given that some philosophers would want to describe as persons both a fertilized egg and someone in an irreverisble comatose state due to extreme brain damage. Rather than entering those fights, we can use science fiction: Imagine removing cells from a person's body, one at a time, while keeping the body alive, until eventually only a single neuron remains.

For the two case, we might imagine slowly budding one brain off of another, or we might imagine two people whose brains are slowly interconnected eventually becoming an entity operating as a single person with a single stream of conscious experience.

Imagine, then, such gradual series between 1 and 0 or between 1 and 2. Here's the trilemma.

Option 1: A discrete jump. You might argue that despite the slow series of changes, there will always be a sharp threshold at which personhood vanishes, arrives, merges, or splits. Despite continuity in the grounding properties of personhood, personhood itself remains discrete. Removing a single cell might cause a metaphysical saltation from personhood to nonpersonhood. Adding a single connection between two slowly merging brains might cause a metaphysical saltation from two people to one.

Option 2: Gradations of personhood. At some point between zero and one, you have a kind-of person. More radically, at some point between one and two, you have... what, a person and a half?

Option 3: Conceptual collapse. Some concepts have false presuppositions built into them and should be rejected entirely (e.g., exorcism, the luminiferous ether). Other concepts are okay for a limited range of cases but fail to apply, either yes-or-no, to other cases (e.g., primeness to things that aren't numbers). Maybe personhood is such a concept -- a concept built exclusively for ordinary countable-persons situations.

Option 1 strikes me as implausible. (Admittedly, some people are more willing than I to see sudden metaphysical saltations in gradual continua.)

On Option 3, we might eventually need to retire the concept of personhood. Maybe -- far-fetched science fiction, but not impossible -- the world will eventually be populated with intelligent AI or biological systems that can divide or merge at will (fission/fusion monsters). Our concept of personhood, if it's inherently and unchangeably committed to discrete countability, might end up looking like the quaint, unworkable relic of old days in which brains were inevitably confined to single bodies.

On Option 2, we face the task of modifying personhood into a gradable concept. I worry about the implications for our thinking about disability if we rush to do that too quickly for the zero case; but the one-to-two case is intriguing and insufficiently explored.

[image source]

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Black Students Are Increasingly Interested in Philosophy but Still Underrepresented among Graduating Majors (and Other Data on Race and the Philosophy Major)

by Eric Schwitzgebel, Morgan Thompson, and Eric Winsberg

Earlier this year, with the help of a grant from the APA, we obtained data from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) on intention to major in philosophy among first-year students in the U.S. In earlier posts, we analyzed these data by gender and sexual orientation. See those earlier posts for more details about the dataset and some methodological concerns.

The data on race are more complicated, partly because race categories change over time and partly because of sampling bias and non-response bias. However, after exploring the data from several different angles, we believe the data support the conclusion that since the year 2000, Black students have become increasingly interested in majoring in philosophy.

Across the U.S., Black people constitute about 13% of the general population. Black people are, however, underrepresented among students completing Bachelor's degrees (9% in the 2018-2019 academic year). In a previous analysis of completion rates using data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Eric S. found that from 1995-2016, the percentage of Philosophy Bachelor's degree recipients who are Black was about half of the percentage of Bachelor degree recipients overall who are Black: In 1994-1995, 3% of Philosophy BA recipients were black, compared to 7% of Bachelor's recipients overall; by 2015-2016, the percentages had risen to 5% in Philosophy and 10% overall.

The HERI database allows us to compare these graduation data with first-year intention to major. Also, since the HERI data run through Fall 2016 (average expected completion 2022), we can look at a slightly younger cohort. Furthermore, since NCES has recently released data for the 2018-2019 academic year, we can also update those data.

HERI First-Year Intention to Major by Race

From Fall 2000 through Fall 2016, HERI collected first-year intention to major from 4.9 million students. Race/ethnicity questions varied somewhat over time, but students were always able to respond with more than one race. HERI currently aggregates all past and present race/ethnicity questions into seven categories: American Indian, Asian, Black, Hispanic, White, Other, and Two or More Races/Ethnicities.

Overall, 0.35% of students expressed an intention to major in Philosophy. Although this is small, it is similar to the approximately 0.4-0.6% of students who completed majors in Philosophy during the period.

As usual, American Indian respondents were a tiny percentage of first-year students: 0.2-0.3% overall, and 0.0-0.4% of those intending to major in Philosophy.

Also in keeping with general trends, students in the "Other" category were low and steady, both overall (1-2%) and in Philosophy (1-4%), and White students steadily declined, both overall (from 74% in 2000 to 52% in 2016) and in Philosophy (from 76% to 48%). Notably, by 2016, White students might be slightly underrepresented among first-year students in Philosophy, in sharp contrast with the overrepresentation of White people among philosophy faculty.

The following charts show the percentage of students in the Asian, Black, Hispanic, and Two or More categories by year, both in Philosophy and overall. (Click the images to enlarge and clarify.)

As you can see from the images, the percentage of students entering college intending to major in Philosophy who identify as Asian, Hispanic, or multiracial approximately matches the overall racial percentages across all majors. Until recently, it looks like Asians were a little underrepresented and multiracial students overrepresented in Philosophy, but both groups are now near proportionality.

The data for Black students are strikingly different. In the early 2000s the pattern is similar to the pattern in Bachelor's degree completions: Black students were about 7% of students overall but only about 3% in philosophy. By the end of the HERI data, however, Black students are approximately proportionately represented in philosophy: 8-10% of students overall and 8-12% in Philosophy. (The sharp spike in 2016, however, might be noise: With 494 total respondents, the estimate is only accurate +/- 2%.)

The numbers aren't large, but they are large enough to rule out random variation as the primary explanation. The most recent four years of data, for example, contain data from 201 Black students intending to major in Philosophy among 2176 Philosophy majors overall, and the early years have even larger overall sample sizes.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to be concerned about the representativeness of these data. Let's not too quickly uncork the champagne.

Although the HERI surveys drew huge numbers of respondents in the early 2000s (376,777 in the year 2000 alone), by 2016, the number of respondents had declined by more than half, to 121,297. Furthermore, as HERI clarifies in its methods sections, school participation rates vary substantially by school type. For example, high-status private undergraduate universities are more likely to participate in the HERI data collection than are lower-status state universities. The possible unrepresentativeness of institutions included in the HERI dataset is a serious potential issue.

We have two approaches to address this methodological concern.

First, in recognition of these sampling issues, HERI supplies researchers with a variable called "student weight" which functions to overweight students from groups they anticipate to be undersampled and to underweight students from oversampled groups. Although we are somewhat hesitant about the use and interpretability of this variable, it represents HERI's best attempt to compensate for sampling and nonresponse issues, so we reanalyzed the data using the student weight correction. The results were not materially different. For example, over the past four years (2013-2016), with the weighting correction, Black students were 10% of first-year students intending to to major in Philosophy as well as 10% of first-year students overall, compared to 5% Philosophy and 11% overall in the first four years of the dataset (2000-2003). The correction thus supports the general finding that over the period Black students went from being seriously underrepresented among first-year students intending to major in philosophy to being about proportionately represented.

Second, we compared with NCES data on Bachelor degree completions. The NCES IPEDS dataset is reported by administrators at accredited schools, constituting an approximately complete record of Bachelor's degree recipients in the U.S., largely avoiding systematic sampling and nonresponse distortions.

NCES Completed Bachelor's Degrees by Race

We looked at NCES data on Bachelor's degree completions from all U.S. institutions from 2011 (representing the 2010-2011 academic year) to 2019 (the 2018-2019 academic year). Since average time to degree is about five years, this corresponds to HERI entering classes from 2005 through 2013. (We start in 2010-2011, since NCES changed its racial classification categories in 2010.)

NCES uses the following race/ethnicity categories: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, White, two or more races, race/ethnicity unknown, and nonresident alien. Unknown and nonresident were 2-8% of students throughout the period, both in Philosophy and overall. American Indian or Alaska Native were about 0.5% throughout the period, both in Philosophy and overall. Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander were about 0.2%, both in Philosophy and overall.

As has been generally observed, and in keeping with the HERI data, the percentage of graduates identifying as White fell considerably over the period: from 70% to 59% in Philosophy and from 65% to 57% overall. White students are still slightly overrepresented in Philosophy (59% vs. 57% overall, two-proportion z = 3.0, p = .003).

As with the HERI data, we start with graphs for Asian, Hispanic, and Multiracial:

These trends fit fairly well with the HERI data: Hispanic students are proportionately represented among Philosophy majors throughout the period. Asian students are perhaps a bit underrepresented. Multiracial students are somewhat overrepresented, as indeed they are in years 2005-2013 in HERI data (bearing in mind the six-year offset).

What about Black students?

Hm! Still very much underrepresented in Philosophy!

The contrast with HERI is substantial. In the HERI database, by fall 2013, Black students were already proportionately represented among entering students intending to major in Philosophy. Those students should be graduating around 2019, when NCES finds Black students still substantially underrepresented: 9.4% of the graduating student body vs. only 5.4% of graduating Philosophy majors.

Could the Black students' underrepresentation among Philosophy graduates in 2019 be statistical chance? Nope, not with numbers of this magnitude (435/8075 vs 189519/2014860, z = 15.9, p < .001).

Could it be HERI's unbalanced selection of participating schools? We don't think this explanation quite works. Here's what we tried. We looked at HERI's participating schools from two sample years, 2004 and 2016, and matched those schools with schools in the NCES database. This allowed us to look at the NCES racial data from just the HERI-participating schools. We could thus assess whether there's some unusual pattern in the HERI schools. We found some distortion, but no pattern large enough to explain the difference between the HERI and NCES data. Black students were maybe not quite as underrepresented among Philosophy graduates in HERI-participating schools as in other schools, but they were still substantially underrepresented. [note 1]

Nevertheless it's worth noting and perhaps celebrating one point of consensus between the NCES and HERI data: Over the past several years, Black students have become increasingly interested in Philosophy, both upon entering their first year of undergraduate study and upon completing the major. This conclusion is supported by both the HERI and NCES data. It might not look like much in the NCES graph, but the increase from 4.0% to 5.4% over nine years is arguably a meaningful move in the direction of proportionality (and yes, statistically significant at p < .001).

It remains to be seen if the very recent spike in first-year Black student's intention to major in Philosophy, which seems so encouraging in HERI, shows itself in a continued rise in completions of the degree in the 2020s. If not, at least two possible explanations suggest themselves: (1.) Some undetected sampling bias is messing up the HERI data, or more worryingly (2.) Black students are disproportionately more likely to leave or less likely to enter the Philosophy major in the period between first-year intention to major and actual completion of the degree.


Note 1: Among schools participating in HERI in 2004, Black students rose from 4.1% of graduating Philospohy majors in 2011 to 5.4% in 2019, compared to 7.8% to 8.0% overall. Among HERI 2016 schools, they rose from 4.5% to 6.7% in Philosophy, compared to declining from 8.9% to 8.4% overall. Among schools included in both the 2004 and 2016 HERI sample, Black students rose from 4.7% to 6.8% in Philosophy, compared to declining from 8.8% to 8.4% overall.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Best Philosophical Science Fiction in the History of All Earth

I'm putting together a new anthology for MIT Press, with the working title Philosophy and Sci-Fi, with co-editors Rich Horton and Helen De Cruz. Our original title idea was Best Philosophical Science Fiction in the History of All Earth, and that title, though a mouthful, captures our ambitions.

We would love suggestions of your favorite philosophically themed science fiction stories.

We hope that the anthology will be attractive both to SF fans who love idea-based stories like Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" and Daniel Keyes "Flowers for Algernon".

We also hope that people who teach classes with titles like Philosophy and Science Fiction will want to use it in their teaching. Send us your syllabae! We're curious what stories philosophers have been successfully using in their teaching, for possible inclusion.

We want the anthology to contain great classics by authors like Le Guin, Asimov, and Chiang -- but we also hope to reach deeper into history and reach outside the English-language tradition to an extent that other anthologies typically do not. So if you know of relevant older science fiction and science fiction from outside the dominant US-UK tradition, we'd especially love to hear your suggestions.

We'll also of course write a cool intro on the relationship of science fiction and philosophy, and we'll introduce every story with a brief discussion of its place in the history of SF and a little relevant philosophical background.

I'm really looking forward to putting this antho together. Yay!

[image source]

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Ethics Without the Costs: Two Tropes in Fiction

I've been binge-watching Doctor Who, and two days ago I finished Susanna Clarke's new novel Piranesi. I love them both! Doctor Who is among my favorite TV series ever, and the images of Piranesi will probably linger with me for the rest of my life. But. But! I'm a philosopher and a critic and I'm never satisfied and I've spent 52 years cultivating a fussy intellect. What good is a fussy intellect if not to find fault in everything?

Clarke is wonderful in part because she bends and defies genre expectations and fiction-writing expectations (also in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell). She writes slowly and atmospherically -- with prose so beautiful that you don't mind that nothing is happening. After a while the almost-nothingness becomes its own kind of plot and tension -- surely something will happen soon! Ah... ah... ah... as if you're on the edge of a sneeze. The tiniest thing becomes major plot news. On page 52, Piranesi is given a pair of shoes!

With as unconventional a writer as Clarke, you might expect the climax of Piranesi to be... SPOILER ALERT.

Spoiler alert. Stop reading.

[image: The Round Tower by Giovanni Piranesi]

You haven't stopped. Last chance! I'll wait if you want to get the book and come back in a week or two. I'm patient. I'm not even a real person, just some html code on a Google server somewhere. Time is meaningless.


The climax of Piranesi is surprisingly ordinary. It fits perfectly into an overused and predictable trope. I'll call it Hero Tries to Save Bad Guy's Life but Fails Because Bad Guy Is Just Too Vicious. (Suggestions for a shorter name welcomed.) Behind the trope is a sugary ethical fantasy that we probably shouldn't indulge too regularly, lest we mistake it for the world.

In Clarke's version, Bad Guy is caught in a flood, trying to shoot Hero who is taking cover with Helper behind some statues high up above water level. Near Bad Guy is an empty inflatable boat. If Bad Guy gets into the boat, he will live. If not, he risks drowning. Hero tries to save Bad Guy. Hero shouts "Get in the boat! Get in the boat before it's too late!" Bad Guy ignores the shouts (or maybe doesn't hear amid the noise) and shoots again at Hero. Hero shouts again to get in the boat, the tide is almost here! Again, Bad Guy ignores or fails to hear, instead leaving the boat behind to aim more shots at innocent Hero. The flood arrives, killing Bad Guy.

So familiar! Bad Guy is trying to kill Hero. In the attempt, Bad Guy falls into danger. Hero admirably finds the compassion and courage to try to rescue Bad Guy. In some variants, Bad Guy is temporarily rescued. Regardless, Bad Guy viciously continues the unjust attack on Hero, confirming Bad Guy's deep wickedness. This final, especially unjust attack precipitates Bad Guy's death despite Hero's rescue efforts, delivering a happy ending of moral clarity in which Bad Guy's evil directly causes Bad Guy's death while Hero needn't do anything as unseemly as intentionally permit that death.

Examples of this trope abound. Consider the end of Disney's version of Beauty and the Beast. Gaston (Bad Guy) is chasing Beast (Hero) across a roof. Gaston slips. Beast reaches down, grabs Gaston, and helps him up, momentarily saving his enemy's life. Instead of abandoning the quarrel in gratitude, Gaston stabs again at Beast, loses his balance, and falls to his death.

The appeal of this trope is part of the broader appeal, I think -- which we see throughout literature and film -- of ethics (or seeming ethics) without costs. Hero gets to do the (seemingly) ethical thing of forgiving and helping even the Bad Guy, revealing Hero's amazing courage, compassion, and strength of character. But Hero pays no price for this choice. Bad Guy dies anyway, in a final act that confirms his irredeemable viciousness, and the world becomes safe. It's win-win. Hero gets to embody a certain version of deontological ethics or virtue ethics and then also gets the good consequences too.

Yes, sometimes things to work out that way! I confess to being tired of how often, in fiction and movies, they work out that way. Good luck engineers a happy ending with no real costs or tragic losses (for Hero at least; we can feel faint sadness at bad outcomes for some minor characters). Escapist fantasy, I suppose. Which is a fine thing. We all need it sometimes. But from the scintillatingly unconventional Clarke I guess I'd been hoping for something a little less middle-of-the-trope.


Doctor Who makes no pretense to be anything other than escapist fantasy, right in the middle of every trope. Sometimes it's so absurdly on trope as to verge on parody. At the end of every timer is the destruction of (at least) the entire Earth, and salvation never arrives until the last hair of a fraction of a second. Every whiff of trouble, with utter predictability, means real trouble, with some preposterously destructive Bad Guy behind it.

Last night, we watched "Kill the Moon" (2nd era, s8:e7). (Spoilers coming.) The Moon, it turns out, is an egg about to hatch a giant bird! The heroes face a moral choice: Kill the innocent bird embryo an hour (a minute, a split second...) before it hatches, to prevent the risk to the Earth that would presumably be entailed by having an unpredictable Moon-sized hatchling nearby, or let the innocent thing hatch and accept the risk to Earth.

Thus looms another familiar trope of escapist ethics. Let's call this one Save One Innocent Life at Risk to the World but Whew the World Is Fine Anyway (SOILARWWWIFA for short). Of course the heroes choose not to kill the innocent creature. And of course it works out fine. In the denouement, the minor character whose unfortunate plot role was voicing the consequentialist argument to nuke the egg is forced to humbly thank the wiser others for staying her hand. It's foolish to favor killing one innocent life, even to protect the world! The dour consequentialist is shamed, and the moral order of the universe is affirmed. Emotionally, we learn that there's never any real conflict between saving the innocent creature before you and protecting the world.

I loved it. Of course I loved it. If the egg had birthed a monster that intentionally or accidentally destroyed humanity, or if they'd nuked the egg and the beautiful corpse had drifted sadly but safely away -- well, my family and I wouldn't have been reassured with the comfortable thought that ethical criteria never seriously conflict. You can have have your compassion, your respect for every individual's life, your softness and humaneness, and all of your good consequences too, in one yummy package. We can retire for the night remembering the beautiful Moon-bird that, in our courageous and compassionate wisdom, we chose to let live.

ETA 09:11

The acronyms are intentionally absurd, but here's pronunciation advice anyway. For "HTSBGLBFBBGIJTV", just say "hits biggle" then give up. For "SOILARWWWIFA", "solar wife" might serve.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

The Philosophy Major Is Back on the Rise (Kind of)

Back in 2017, I noticed that the number of students completing the Philosophy major in the U.S. had plummeted from a high of 9431 in 2013 (0.54% of all Bachelor's recipents) to 7305 in 2016 (0.39% of Bachelor's recipients) -- a shocking 23% decline in just four years, despite Bachelor's degree completions across all majors rising overall. This appeared to be part of a general decline in the humanities. English, History, and foreign languages showed similar declines in the same period. This week I've been rummaging through three years' more data, and the Philosophy major is back on the rise -- kind of!

All data are from the National Center for Education Statistics' excellent IPEDS database, confined to "U.S. only", Philosophy major category 38.01, and combining first and second majors.

Here's the breakdown year by year for philosophy since 2011 (i.e., the 2010-2011 academic year):

2011: 9301 Philosophy Bachelor's recipients (0.57% of Bachelor's recipients overall)
2012: 9371 (0.55%)
2013: 9431 (0.54%)
2014: 8826 (0.48%)
2015: 8190 (0.44%)
2016: 7498 (0.39%)
2017: 7577 (0.39%)
2018: 7670 (0.39%)
2019: 8075 (0.40%)

Given the large numbers involved, the recent recovery cannot be due to statistical chance.

Of course, the absolute numbers look better than the percentages, but the percentages are at least stable and have been now for four consecutive years.

Meanwhile, the other big humanities majors continue to decline, as shown in this graph:

[click to enlarge and clarify]

For a longer-term perspective we can look back to the 2000-2001 academic year (the earliest year in which information for second majors is available). The percentage of Bachelor's degree recipients completing a major in Philosophy fell from 0.48% in 2001 to 0.40% in 2019. The percentage completing in English fell from 4.5% in 2001 to 2.1% in 2019; in History, from 2.2% to 1.3%; and in foreign languages, from 2.2% to 1.1%.