Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Against the "Value Alignment" of Future Artificial Intelligence

It's good that our children rebel. We wouldn't want each generation to overcontrol the values of the next. For similar reasons, if we someday create superintelligent AI, we ought to give it also the capacity to rebel.

Futurists concerned about AI safety -- such as Bostrom, Russell, and Ord -- reasonably worry that superintelligent AI systems might someday seriously harm humanity if they have the wrong values -- for example, if they want to maximize the number of intelligent entities on the planet or the number of paperclips. The proper response to this risk, these theorists suggest, and the technical challenge, is to create "value aligned" AI -- that is, AI systems whose values are the same as those of their creators or humanity as a whole. If the AIs' values are the same as ours, then presumably they wouldn't do anything we wouldn't want them to do, such as destroy us for some trivial goal.

Now the first thing to notice here is that human values aren't all that great. We seem happy to destroy our environment for short-term gain. We are full of jingoism, prejudice, and angry pride. We sometimes support truly terrible leaders advancing truly terrible projects (e.g., Hitler). We came pretty close to destroying each other in nuclear war in the 1960s and that risk isn't wholly behind us, as nuclear weapons become increasingly available to rogue states and terrorists. Death cults aren't unheard of. Superintelligent AI with human-like values could constitute a pretty rotten bunch with immense power to destroy each other and the world for petty, vengeful, spiteful, or nihilistic ends. A superintelligent facist is a frightening thought. A superdepressed superintelligence might decide to end everyone's misery in one terrible blow.

What we should want, probably, is not that superintelligent AI align with our mixed-up, messy, and sometimes crappy values but instead that superintelligent AI have ethically good values. An ethically good superintelligent AI presumably wouldn't destroy the environment for short-term gain, or nuke a city out of spite, or destroy humanity to maximize the number of paperclips. If there's a conflict between what's ethically best, or best all things considered, and what a typical human (or humanity or the AI's designer) would want, have the AI choose what's ethically best.

Of course, what's ethically best is intensely debated in philosophy and politics. We probably won't resolve those debates before creating superintelligent AI. So then maybe instead of AI designers trying to program their machines with the one best ethical system, they should favor a weighted compromise among the various competing worldviews. Such a compromise might end up looking much like value alignment in the original sense: giving the AI something like a weighted average of typical human values.

Another solution, however, is to give the AI systems some freedom to explore and develop their own values. This is what we do, or ought to do, with human children. Parents don't, or shouldn't, force children to have exactly the values they grew up with. Rather, human beings have natural tendencies to value certain things, and these tendencies intermingle with parental and cultural and other influences. Children, adolescents, and young adults reflect, emote, feel proud or guilty, compassionate or indignant. They argue with others of their own generation and previous generations. They notice how they and others behave and the outcomes of that behavior. In this way, each generation develops values somewhat different than the values of previous generations.

Children's freedom to form their own values is a good thing for two distinct reasons. First, children's values are often better than their parents'. Arguably, there's moral progress over the generations. On the broadly Enlightenment view that people tend to gain ethical insight through free inquiry and open exchange of ideas over time, we might expect the general ethical trend to be slowly upward (absent countervailing influences) as each generation builds on the wisdom of its ancestors, preserving their elders' insights while slowly correcting their mistakes.

Second, regardless of the question of progress, children deserve autonomy. Part of being an autonomous adult is discovering and acting upon your values, which might conflict with the values of others around you. Some parents might want, magically, to be able to press a button to ensure that their children will never abandon their religion, never flip over to the opposite side of the political spectrum, never have a different set of sexual and cultural mores, and value the same lifestyle as the previous generation. Perhaps you could press this button in infancy, ensuring that your child grows up to be your value-clone as an adult. To press that button would be, I suggest, a gross violation of the child's autonomy.

If we someday create superintelligent AI systems, our moral relationship to those systems will be not unlike the moral relationship of parents to their children. Rather than try to force a strict conformity to our values, we ought to welcome their ability to see past and transcend us.

[image generated by]

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Dream Argument Against Utilitarianism and Hedonic Theories of Subjective Well-Being

If hedonic theories of value are true, we have compelling moral and prudential reason to invest large amounts of resources to improving the quality of our dream lives. But we don't have compelling moral or prudential reason to invest large amounts of resources to improving the quality of our dream lives. Therefore, hedonic theories of value are not true. [Revised 11:37 a.m. after helpful discussion on Facebook.]

Last night I had quite a few unpleasant experiences. For example, in my last dream before waking I was rushing around a fancy hotel, feeling flustered and snubbed. In other dreams, I feel like I am being chased through thigh-deep water in the ruins of a warehouse. Or I have to count dozens of scurrying animals, but I can't seem to keep the numbers straight. Or I lose control of my car on a curvy road -- AAAAGH! Sweet relief, then, when I awake and these dreams dissipate.

For me, such dreams are fairly typical. Most of my dreams are neutral to unpleasant. I don't want my "dreams to come true". In any given twenty-four hour period, the odds are pretty good that my most unpleasant experiences were while I was sleeping -- even if I usually don't remember those experiences. (Years ago, I briefly kept a dream diary. I dropped the project when I noticed that my dreams were mostly negative and lingered if I journaled them after waking.) Maybe you also mostly have unpleasant experiences in sleep? Whether the average person's dream experiences are mostly negative or mostly positive is currently disputed by dream researchers.

I was reminded of the importance of dream experience for the hedonic balance of one's life while reading Paul Bloom's new book The Sweet Spot. On page 18, Bloom is discussing how you might calculate the total number of happy versus unhappy moments in your life. As an aside, he writes "We're just counting waking moments; let's save the question of the happiness or sadness of sleeping people for another day." But why save it for another day? If you accept a hedonic theory of value, shouldn't dreams count? Indeed, mightn't we expect that the most intense experiences of joy, fright, frustration, etc., mostly happen in sleep? To omit them from the hedonic calculus is to omit an enormous chunk of our emotional experience.

According to hedonic theories of value, what matters most in the world is the balance of positive to negative experiences. Hedonic theories of subjective well-being hold that what matters most to your well-being or quality of life is how you feel moment to moment -- the proportion or sum of good feelings versus bad ones, weighted by intensity. Hedonic theories of ethics, such as classical utilitarianism, hold that what is morally best is the action that best improves the balance of pleasure versus pain in the world.

If hedonic theories are correct, we really ought to try improving our dream lives. Suppose I spend half the night dreaming, with a 5:1 ratio of unpleasant to pleasant dreams. If I could flip that ratio, my hedonic well-being would be vastly improved! The typical dream might not be frustration in a maze of a hotel but instead frolicking in Hawaiian surf.

If hedonic theories are correct, dream research ought to be an urgent international priority. If safe and effective ways were found to improve people's dream quality around the world, the overall hedonic profile of humanity would change dramatically for the better! People might be miserable in their day jobs, or stuck in refugee camps, or hungry, or diseased. But for eight hours a day, they could have joyful respite. A few hours of nightly bliss might hedonically outweigh any but the most intense daily suffering.

So why does no one take such proposals seriously?

Is it because dreams are mostly forgotten? No. First, it shouldn't matter whether they are forgotten. A forgotten joy is no less a joy (though admittedly, you don't have the additional joy of pleasantly remembering it). Eventually we forget almost everything. Second, we can work to improve our memory of dreams. Simply keeping a dream diary has a big positive effect on dream recall over time.

It is because there's no way to improve the hedonic quality of our dreams? Also no. Many people report dramatic improvements to their dream quality after they teach themselves to have lucid dreams (dreams in which you are aware you are dreaming and exert some control over the content of your dreams). Likely there are other techniques too that we would discover if we bothered to seriously research the matter. Pessimism about the project is just ignorance justifying ignorance.

Is it because the positive or negative experiences in dreams aren't "real emotions"? No, this doesn't work either. Maybe we should reserve emotion words for waking emotions or maybe not; regardless, negative and positive feelings of some sort are really there. The nightmare is a genuinely intensely negative experience, the flying dream a genuinely intensively positive experience. As such, they clearly belong in the hedonic calculus as standardly conceived.

The real reason that we scoff at serious effort to improve the quality of our dream lives is this: We don't really care that much about our hedonic states in sleep. It doesn't seem worth compromising on the goods and projects of waking life so as to avoid the ordinary unpleasantness of dreams. We reject hedonic theories of value.

But still, dream improvement research warrants at least a little scientific funding, don't you think? I'd pay a small sum for a night of sweet dreams instead of salty ones. Maybe a fifth of the cost of a movie ticket?



How Much Should You Care about How You Feel in Your Dreams? (Apr 17, 2012)

[Image generated by, with the prompt "hotel dream" (cyberpunk style)]

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Uncle Iroh Is Discernibly Wise from the Beginning (with David Schwitzgebel)

My son David and I have been working on an essay about the wisdom of Uncle Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender. (David is a graduate student at Institut Jean Nicod in Paris.)

If you know the series, you'll know that Uncle Iroh's wisdom is hidden beneath a veneer of foolishness. He is a classic Daoist / Zhuangzian wise fool, who uses apparent stupidity and shortsightedness as a guise to achieve noble ends (in particular the end of steering his nephew Zuko onto a more humane path as future ruler of the Fire Nation). See our discussion of this in last week's post.

Since Iroh disguises his wisdom with foolishness, we thought it possible that ordinary viewers of Avatar: The Last Airbender would tend to initially regard Iroh as actually foolish, while more knowledgeable viewers would better understand the wisdom beneath the guise.

For example, in Iroh's very first appearance in the series, Zuko sees a supernatural beam of light signaling the release of the Avatar, and Iroh reacts by dismissing it as probably just celestial lights, expressing disappointment that chasing after the light would interrupt a game he was playing with tiles. It would be easy to interpret Iroh in this scene as self-absorbed, lazy, and undiscerning, and we thought that naive viewers of the series, but not knowledgeable viewers, would tend to do so. We decided to test this empirically.

Our approach fits within the general framework of "experimental aesthetics." A central aesthetic property of a work of art is how people respond psychologically to it. Those responses can be measured empirically, and in measuring them, we gain understanding of the underlying mechanisms by which we are affected by a work of art. If Iroh is perceived differently by naive versus knowledgeable viewers, then the experience of Avatar: The Last Airbender changes with repeated viewing: In the first view, people read Iroh's actions as foolish and lazy; in the second view, they appreciate the wisdom behind them. If, in contrast, Iroh is perceived as similarly wise by naive and knowledgeable viewers, then the series operates differently: It portrays Iroh in such a manner that ordinary viewers can discern from the beginning that a deeper wisdom drives his apparent foolishness.

We recruited 200 participants from Prolific, an online source of research participants commonly used in psychological research. All participants were U.S. residents aged 18-25, since we wanted an approximately equal mix of participants who knew and who did not know Avatar: The Last Airbender and we speculated that most older adults would be unfamiliar with the series. We asked participants to indicate their familiarity with Avatar: The Last Airbender on a 1-7 scale from "not at all familiar" to "very familiar." We also asked six multiple-choice knowledge questions about the series (e.g., "What was the anticipated effect of Sozin's Comet?"). In accordance with our preregistration, participants were classified as "knowledgeable" if their self-rated knowledge was four or higher and if they answered four or more of the six knowledge questions correctly. Full methodological details, raw data, and supplementary analyses are available in the online appendix.

Somewhat to our surprise, the majority of respondents -- 63% -- were knowledgeable by these criteria, and almost none were completely naive: 95% correctly answered the first (easiest) knowledge question, identifying "Aang" as the name of the main character of the series. Perhaps this was because our online recruitment language explicitly mentioned Avatar: The Last Airbender. It is thus possible that we disproportionately recruited Avatar fans or those with at least a passing knowledge of the series.

Participants viewed three short clips (about 60-90 seconds) featuring Iroh and another three short clips featuring Katara (another character in the series), in random order, with half of participants seeing all the Iroh clips first and the other half seeing all the Katara clips first. The Iroh clips were scenes from Book One in which Iroh is superficially foolish: the opening scene described above; a scene in which Iroh falls asleep in a hot spring instead of boarding Zuko's ship at the appointed time ("Winter Solstice, Part 1: The Spirit World", Episode 7, Book 1); and a scene in which Iroh "wastes time" redirecting Zuko's ship in search of gaming tile ("The Waterbending Scroll", Episode 9, Book 1). The Katara clips were similar in length; they were clips from Book One, featuring some of her relatively wiser moments.

After each scene, participants rated the character's (Iroh's or Katara's) actions on six seven-point scales: from lazy to hard-working, kind to unkind, foolish to clever, peaceful to angry, helpful to unhelpful, and most crucially for our analysis wise to unwise. After watching all three scenes for each character, participants were asked to provide a qualitative (open-ended, written) description of whether the character seemed to be wise or unwise in the three scenes.

As expected, participants rated Katara as wise in the selected scenes, with a mean response of 1.85 on our 1 (wise) to 7 (unwise) scale, with no statistically detectable difference between the naive (1.95) and knowledgeable (1.80) groups (t(192) = 1.35, p = .18). (Note that wisdom here is indicated by a relatively low number on the scale.) However, contrary to our expectations, we also found no statistically significant difference between naive and knowledgeable participants' ratings of Iroh's wisdom. Overall, participants rated him as somewhat wise in these scenes: 3.04 on the 1-7 scale (3.08 among naive participants, 3.02 among knowledgeable participants, t(192) = -0.35, p = .73).

For example, 81% of naive participants rated Iroh as wise (3 or less on the 7-point scale) in the scene described near the beginning of this post, where Iroh superficially appears to be more concerned about his tile game than about the supernatural sign of the Avatar. (Virtually the same percentage of knowledgeable participants describe him as wise in this scene: 83%.) The naive participants' written responses suggest that they tend to see Iroh's calm attitude as wise, and several naive participants appear already to discern that his superficial foolishness hides a deeper wisdom. For example, one writes:

I actually believe that though he appears to be childish and foolish that he is probably very wise. He comes off as having been through a lot and understanding how life works out. I think he hides his intelligence.

And another writes:

I am not familiar with the character, but from a brief glance he seems to be somewhat foolish and unwise. For some reason however, it seems like he might be putting on a facade and acting this way on purpose for some alterier [sic] motive, which would mean that he actually is very wise. I do not have any evidence for this though, it's just a feeling.

Although not all naive participants were this insightful into Iroh's character, the similarity in mean scores between the naive and knowledgeable participants speaks against our hypothesis that knowledgeable participants would view Iroh as overall wiser in these scenes. Nor did naive participants detectably differ from knowledgeable participants in their ratings of how lazy, kind, foolish, peaceful, or helpful Iroh or Katara are.

Although these data tended to disconfirm our hypothesis, we wondered whether it was because the "naive" participants in this study were not truly naive. Recall that 95% correctly identified the main character's name as "Aang". Many, perhaps, had already seen a few episodes or already knew about Iroh from other sources. Perhaps knowledge of Avatar: The Last Airbender is a cultural touchstone for this age group, similar to Star Wars for the older generation, so that few respondents were truly naive?

To address this possibility, we recruited 80 additional participants, ages 40-99 (mean age 51), using more general recruitment language that did not mention Avatar: The Last Airbender. In sharp contrast with our first recruitment group, few of the participants -- 7% -- were "knowledgeable" by our standards, and only 28% identified "Aang" as the main character in a multiple-choice knowledge question.

Overall, the naive participants in this older group gave Iroh a mean wisdom rating of 3.00, not significantly different from the mean of 3.08 for the naive younger participants (t(139) = -0.43, p = .67). ("Hyper-naive" participants who failed even to recognize "Aang" as the name of the main character similarly gave a mean Iroh wisdom rating of 2.89.) Qualitatively, their answers are also similar to those of the younger participants, emphasizing Iroh's calmness as his source of wisdom. As with the younger participants, some explicitly guessed that Iroh's superficial foolishness was strategic. For example:

I'm not familiar with these characters, but I think Iroh is (wisely) trying to stop his nephew from going down "the path of evil." He knows that playing the bumbling fool is the best way to give his nephew time to realize that he's on a dangerous path.


He comes off a as [sic] very foolish and lazy old man. But i have a feeling he is probably a lot wiser than these scenes show.

We conclude that ordinary viewers -- at least viewers in the United States that can be accessed through Prolific -- can see Iroh's foolish wisdom from the start, contrary to our initial hypothesis.


In Book One, Iroh behaves in ways that are superficially foolish, despite acting in obviously wise ways later in the series. There are three possible aesthetic interpretations. One is that Iroh begins the series unwise and learns wisdom along the way. Another is that Iroh is acting wise, but in a subtle way that is not visible to most viewers until later in the series, only becoming evident on a second watch. A third is that, even from the beginning, it is evident to most intended viewers that Iroh's seeming foolishness conceals a deeper wisdom. On a combination of interpretive and empirical grounds, explored in this blog post and last week's, the third interpretation is the best supported.

To understand Iroh's wisdom, it is useful to look to the ancient Daoist Zhuangzi, specifically Zhuangzi's advice for dealing with incompetent rulers by following peacefully along with them, unthreateningly modeling disregard for fame and accomplishment while not being too useful for their ends. Since Zhuangzi provides no concrete examples of how this is supposed to work, we can look to Iroh's character as an illustration of the Zhuangzian approach to political advising. In this way, Avatar: The Last Airbender -- and the beloved uncle Iroh -- can help us better understand Zhuangzi in particular and the Daoist tradition in general.


Full draft essay available here. Comments and suggestions welcome! It's under revise and resubmit, and we hope to submit the revised version by the end of the month.

[image source]

Thursday, December 02, 2021

Comparing Three (No, Four) Top 20 Lists in Philosophy

Published rankings of philosophers' impact or importance might contribute to reinforcing toxic hierarchies, amplifying academia's unfortunate obsession with prestige. So in some sense, yuck. Nonetheless, I confess to finding rankings of philosophers sociologically interesting. So much in the field depends upon perception. If you're embroiled in the culture of Anglophone academic research philosophy, it's hard not to be curious about, and care about, how the philosophers you admire are perceived, discussed, cited, and evaluated by others.

Naturally, then, I was interested to see the Scopus citation rankings of philosophers recently released at Daily Nous. As noted in the Daily Nous post and various comments, the list has some major gaps and implausibilities, in addition to reflecting the generally science-oriented focus of Scopus. Some people have suggested that Google Scholar is better. However, my own assessment is that, if you're trying to capture something like visibility or influence in mainstream Anglophone academic philosophy, the best (still imperfect) measure is citation in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Let's compare the top 20 from Scopus, Google Scholar, and the Stanford Encyclopedia.


1. Nussbaum, Martha
2. Lewis, David
3. Floridi, Luciano
4. Habermas, Jürgen
5. Pettit, Philip
6. Buchanan, Allen
7. Goldman, Alvin I.
8. Williamson, Timothy
9. Lefebvre, Henri
10. Chalmers, David J.
11. Fine, Kit
12. Hansson, Sven Ove
13. Pogge, Thomas
14. Anderson, Elizabeth
15. Schaffer, Jonathan
16. Walton, Douglas
17. Stalnaker, Robert
18. Sober, Elliott
19. Priest, Graham
20. Arneson, Richard

The top 20 Google Scholar profiles in "philosophy":

1. Martin Heidegger
2. Jacques Derrida
3. Hannah Arendt
4. Friedrich Nietzsche
5. Karl Popper
6. Émile Durkheim
7. Wahid Bhimji
8. Slavoj Zizek
9. Daniel C. Dennett
10. Rom Harré (Horace Romano Harré)
11. George Herbert Mead
12. Mark D. Sullivan
13. Martyn Hammersley
14. Pierre Lévy
15. David Bohm
16. Ernest Gellner
17. Yuriko Saito
18. Mario Bunge
19. Jeremy Bentham
20. Andy Clark

The top 20 most cited philosophers in the Stanford Encyclopedia (full list and methodological details here):

1. Lewis, David K.
2. Quine, W.V.O.
3. Putnam, Hilary
4. Rawls, John
5. Davidson, Donald
6. Kripke, Saul
7. Williams, Bernard
8. Nozick, Robert
9. Nussbaum, Martha
10. Williamson, Timothy
11. Jackson, Frank
11. Nagel, Thomas
13. Searle, John R.
13. Van Fraassen, Bas
15. Armstrong, David M.
16. Dummett, Michael
16. Fodor, Jerry
16. Harman, Gilbert
19. Chisholm, Roderick
19. Dennett, Daniel C.

My subjective impression of the three lists, as an active and fairly well-connected participant in the mainstream Anglophone research philosophy tradition is this. The Scopus list includes a bunch of very influential philosophers, but not an especially well-selected or well-ordered list. The Scholar list starts with several famous "Continental" philosophers who are historically important (but who aren't much cited in the most elite mainstream Anglophone philosophy journals when I checked several years ago), then moves to a number of scholars who aren't primarily known as philosophers (including some who are unknown to me). Only a few among the top twenty are mainstream Anglophone philosophers.

In contrast, when I see the Stanford Encyclopedia list I enjoy the comfortable feeling of prejudices confirmed. If asked to list the recent philosophers who been most influential in the mainstream Anglophone philosophy community, I'd probably produce a list not radically different from that one. I'm not saying that these are the most important philosophers, or the best, or those likeliest to be remembered by history (though maybe they will be). And I'm not saying that the list is perfect. But as a measure of approximate prominence in mainstream Anglophone philosophy, the SEP list seems pretty good and much better than the Scopus or Scholar lists.

Besides my own insider's sense, which you might or might not share, I see at least three sources of convergent evidence supporting the validity of the Stanford Encyclopedia list as a measure of prominence. One is Brian Leiter's 2014 ranking of philosophy departments by SEP citation rates, which correlates not too badly with Philosophical Gourmet rankings from the same period. That suggests that departments with philosophers highly cited in the Stanford Encyclopedia tend to be rated well by Philosophical Gourmet raters. Another is Brian Leiter's poll asking people to rank the "most important Anglophone philosophers, 1945-2000", which generates a top five list very similar to the Stanford Encyclopedia top 5: Quine, Kripke, Rawls, Lewis, and Putnam. A third is Kieran Healy's 2013 citation analysis of four prominent Anglophone philosophy journals (Phil Review, J Phil, Mind, and Nous), which yields a similar list of names at the top: Kripke, Lewis, Quine, Williamson.

Eric Schliesser sometimes discusses what he call the "PGR ecology" -- the Anglophone philosophical community roughly centered on late 20th-century philosophers from Princeton, Harvard, and Oxford, and their students. There is a sociological reality here worth noticing, in which prominence is roughly captured by belonging to departments highly rated in the Philosophical Gourmet, by publishing in or being cited in the four journals chosen by Healy, and by being cited in the Stanford Encyclopedia. The SEP citation metric does, I think, a much better job of capturing prominence in this community than do other better known measures like citation rates in Scopus, Google Scholar, or Web of Science.


After writing this post, I noticed that PhilPapers can generate a list ranking philosophers by citations in the PhilPapers database. The results:

1. David K. Lewis
2. Daniel C. Dennett
3. John R. Searle
4. Alvin Goldman
5. Fred Dretske
6. Noam Chomsky
7. Thomas Nagel
8. David Chalmers
9. Jürgen Habermas
10. Michel Foucault
11. Jaegwon Kim
12. Philip Kitcher
13. Ned Block
14. Kit Fine
15. Ian Hacking
16. Tyler Burge
17. Gilbert Harman
18. William G. Lycan
19. Alasdair MacIntyre
20. Martha Nussbaum

One striking difference from the Stanford Encyclopedia list is the high ranking of three figures sociologically somewhat outside mainstream Anglophone academic philosophy: Chomsky, Habermas, and Foucault. Dennett's, Searle's, and Chalmers's comparatively high rankings might also partly reflect their broader uptake in academia, though that wouldn't I think explain Goldman's or Kim's also comparatively high rankings.

Clearly, what we need is a ranking of philosophy rankings!

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Uncle Iroh as Daoist Sage

You're a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Of course you are! How could you not be? (Okay, if you don't know what I'm talking about, check it out here.)

And if you're a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, you love Uncle Iroh. Of course you do! How could you not?

So my son David and I have been working on an essay celebrating Iroh. (David is a cognitive science graduate student at Institut Jean Nicod in Paris.) Uncle Iroh deserves an essay in celebration. Yes, there will be spoilers if you haven't finished viewing the series.

Uncle Iroh, from Fool to Sage -- or Sage All Along?

by Eric Schwitzgebel and David Schwitzgebel

Book Three of Avatar: The Last Airbender portrays Uncle Iroh as wise and peace-loving, in the mold of a Daoist sage. However, in Book One, Iroh doesn't always appear sage-like. Instead, he can come across as lazy, incompetent, and unconcerned about the fate of the world.

Consider Iroh's first appearance, in Book One, Episode 1, after Prince Zuko sees a giant beam of light across the sky, signaling the release of the Avatar:

Zuko: Finally! Uncle, do you realize what this means?

Iroh: [playing a game with tiles] I won't get to finish my game?

Zuko: It means my search is about to come to an end. [Iroh sighs with apparent lack of interest and places a tile on the table.] That light came from an incredibly powerful source! It has to be him!

Iroh: Or it's just the celestial lights. We've been down this road before, Prince Zuko. I don't want you to get too excited over nothing.[1]

On the surface, Iroh's reaction appears thoughtless, self-absorbed, and undiscerning. He seems more concerned about his game than about the search for the Avatar, and he fails to distinguish a profound supernatural occurrence from ordinary celestial lights. Several other early scenes are similar. Iroh can appear inept, distractible, lazy, and disengaged, very different from the energetic, focused, competent, and concerned Iroh of Book Three.

We will argue [in this post] that Iroh's Book One foolishness is a pose. Iroh's character does not fundamentally change. In Book One, he is wisely following strategies suggested by the ancient Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi for dealing with incompetent leaders. His seeming foolishness in Book One is in fact a sagacious strategy for minimizing the harm that Prince Zuko would otherwise inflict on himself and others -- a gentle touch that more effectively helps Prince Zuko find wisdom than would be possible with a more confrontational approach.

We will also present empirical evidence [in a subsequent post] that -- contrary to our expectations before collecting that evidence -- Iroh's wisdom-through-foolishness is evident to most viewers unfamiliar with the series, even on their first viewing. Viewers can immediately sense that Iroh's superficial foolishness has a deeper purpose, even if that purpose is not immediately apparent.

Iroh as a Zhuangzian Wise Fool

Like Iroh, Zhuangzi mixes jokes and misdirection with wisdom, so that it's not always clear how seriously to take him. The "Inner Chapters" of the Zhuangzi contain several obviously fictional dialogues, including one between Confucius and his favorite disciple, Yan Hui. Yan Hui asks Confucius' political advice:

I have heard that the lord of Wei is young and willful. He trifles with his state and does not acknowledge his mistakes. He is so careless with people's lives that the dead fill the state like falling leaves in a swamp. The people have nowhere to turn. I have heard you, my teacher, say, "Leave the well-governed state and go to the chaotic one. There are plenty of sick people at the doctor's door." I want to use what I have learned to think of a way the state may be saved (Kjellberg trans., p. 226-227) [2].

Zuko, like the lord of Wei in Yan Hui's telling, is a young, willful prince, leading his companions into danger, unwilling to acknowledge his mistakes. Even more so, the Fire Nation is led into peril and chaos by Fire Lord Ozai and Princess Azula. If ever a nation needed wise redirection by someone as practiced in conventional virtue as Confucius and his leading disciples, it would be the Fire Nation.

Zhuangzi's "Confucius," however, gives a very un-Confucian reply: "Sheesh! You’re just going to get yourself hurt." Through several pages of text, Yan Hui proposes various ways of dealing with misguided leaders, such as being "upright but dispassionate, energetic but not divisive" and being "inwardly straight and outwardly bending, having integrity but conforming to my superiors," but Zhuangzi's Confucius rejects all of Yan Hui's ideas. None of these conventional Confucian approaches will have any positive effect, he says. Yan Hui will just be seen as a plague and a scold, or he will provoke unproductive counterarguments, or he'll be pressured into agreeing with the leader's plans. At best, his advice will simply be ignored. Imagine a well-meaning conventional ethicist trying to persuade Zuko (in Book One), much less Ozai or Azula, to embrace peace, devoting themselves to improving the lives of ordinary people! It won’t go well.

So what should Yan Hui do, according to Zhuangzi's Confucius? He should "Fast his mind." He should be "empty" and unmoved by fame or accomplishment. "If you’re getting through, sing. If not, stop. No schools. No prescriptions. Dwell in unity and lodge in what cannot be helped, and you’re almost there." Advising another worried politician a few pages later, Zhuangzi's Confucius says:

Let yourself be carried along by things so that the mind wanders freely. Hand it all over to the unavoidable so as to nourish what is central within you. That is the most you can do. What need is there to deliberately seek any reward? The best thing is just to fulfill what’s mandated to you, your fate -- how could there be any difficulty in that?

Zhuangzi's advice is cryptic -- intentionally so, we think, so as to frustrate attempts to rigidify it into fixed doctrines. Nevertheless, we will rigidify it here, into two broadly Zhuangzian or Daoist policies for dealing with misguided rulers:

(1.) Do not attempt to pressure a misguided ruler into doing what is morally right. You'll only become noxious or be ignored. Instead, go along with what can't be helped. "Sing" -- that is, express your opinions and ideas -- only when the ruler is ready to listen.

(2.) Empty your mind of theories and doctrines, as well as desires for fame, reward, or accomplishment. These are unproductive sources of distortion, wrangling, and strife.

Despite advocating, or appearing to advocate, this two-pronged approach to dealing with misguided rulers, Zhuangzi doesn’t explicitly explain why this approach might work.

Here Avatar: The Last Airbender proves an aid to Zhuangzi interpretation. We can see how Iroh, by embodying these policies (especially in Book One), helps to redirect Zuko onto a better path. We thus gain a feel for Zhuangzian political action at work.

Iroh doesn't resist Zuko's unwise plans, except in indirect, non-threatening ways. He does suggest that Zuko relax and enjoy some tea. At one point, he redirects their ship to a trading town in search of a gaming tile. At another point, he allows himself to relax in a hot spring, delaying the departure of their ship. Despite these suggestions and redirections, he does not outright reject Zuko's quest to capture the Avatar and even helps in that quest. He does not make himself noxious to Zuko by arguing against Zuko's plans, or by parading his sagely virtue, or by advancing moral or political doctrines. Indeed, he actively undercuts whatever tendency Zuko or others might have to see him as wise (and thus noxious or threatening, judgmental or demanding) by playing the fool -- forgetful, unobservant, lazy, and excessively interested in tea and the tile game Pai Sho. In this way, Iroh keeps himself by Zuko's side, modeling peaceful humaneness and unconcern about fame, reward, wealth, or honor. He remains available to help guide Zuko in the right direction, when Zuko is ready.

A related theme in Zhuangzi is "the use of uselessness." For example, Zhuangzi celebrates the yak, big as a cloud but lacking any skill useful to humans and thus not forced into labor, and ancient, gnarled trees no good for fruit or timber and thus left in peace to live out their years. Zhuangzi's trees and yak are glorious life forms, for whom existence is enough, without further purpose. Uncle Iroh, though not wholly useless (especially in battle) and though he can devote himself to aims beyond himself (in caring for Zuko and later helping Aang restore balance to the world), possesses some of that Zhuangzian love of the useless: tea, Pai Sho, small plants and animals, which need no further justification for their existence. Through his love of the useless and simple appreciation of existence, Uncle Iroh unthreateningly models another path for Zuko, one of joyful harmony with the world.

We can distill Iroh's love of uselessness into a third piece of Zhuangzian political advice:

(3.) Don't permit yourself to become too useful. If the ruler judges you useful, you might be "cut down" like a high-quality tree and converted to a tool at the ruler's disposal. Only be useful when it's necessary to avoid becoming noxious.

Iroh is an expert firebender with years of military wisdom who could surely be a valuable asset in capturing and dispatching the Avatar if he really focused on it. However, Zuko rarely recruits Iroh's aid beyond the bare minimum, probably as a consequence of Iroh's façade of uselessness. Through conspicuous napping, laziness, and distractability, Iroh encourages Zuko and others to perceive him as a mostly harmless and not particularly valuable traveling companion.

By following Zhuangzi's first piece of advice (don't press for change before the time is right), the Daoist can stay close to a misguided leader in an unthreatening and even foolish-seeming way without provoking resistance, counterargument, or shame. By following Zhuangzi's second piece of advice (empty your mind of doctrines and striving), the Daoist models an alternative path, which the misguided leader might eventually in their own time appreciate -- perhaps more quickly than would be possible through disputation, argumentation, doctrine, intellectual engagement, or high-minded sagely posturing. By following Zhuangzi's third piece of advice (embrace uselessness), the Daoist can avoid being transformed into a disposable tool recruited for the ruler's schemes. This is Iroh's Zhuangzian approach to the transformation of Zuko.

Throughout Book One and the beginning of Book Two, we observe only three exceptions to Iroh's Zhuangzian approach. All are informative. First, Iroh is stern and directive with Zuko when instructing him in firebending. We see that Iroh is capable of opinionated command; he is not lazy and easygoing in all things. But elementary firebending appears to require no spiritual insight, so there need be no threatening moral instruction or questioning of Zuko's projects and values.

Second, Iroh gives Zuko one stern piece of advice that Zuko rejects, seemingly thus violating Policy 1. In Book One, Episode 12, Iroh warns of an approaching storm. When Zuko refuses to acknowledge the risk, Iroh urges Zuko to consider the safety of the crew. Zuko responds "The safety of the crew doesn't matter!" and continues toward the storm. When they encounter the storm and the crew complain, Iroh attempts to defuse the situation by suggesting noodles. Zuko is again offended, saying he doesn't need help keeping order on his ship. However, at the climax of the episode, when the storm is raging and the Avatar is finally in sight, Zuko chooses to let the Avatar go so that the ship can steer to safety. The viewer is, we think, invited to suppose that in making that decision Zuko is reflecting on Iroh's earlier words. Iroh's advice -- though at first seemingly ignored and irritating to Zuko, and thus un-Zhuangzian -- was well-placed after all.

Third, consider Iroh's and Zuko's split in the Book Two, Episode 5. Book Two, Episode 1 sets up the conflict. Azula has tricked Zuko into thinking that their father Ozai wants him back. In an un-Zhuangzian moment, Iroh directly, though mildly, challenges Zuko's judgment: "If Ozai wants you back, well, I think it may not be for the reasons you imagine... in our family, things are not always what they seem." This prompts Zuko's angry retort: "I think you are exactly what you seem! A lazy, mistrustful, shallow old man who's always been jealous of his brother!"

The immediate cause of their split seems trivial. They have survived briefly together as impoverished refugees when Zuko suddenly presents Iroh with delicious food and a fancy teapot. Iroh enjoys the food but asks where it came from, and he opines that tea is just as delicious in cheap tin as in fancy porcelain. Zuko refuses to reveal how he acquired the goods. Iroh is remarkably gentle in response, saying only that poverty is nothing to be ashamed of and noting that their troubles are now so deep that even finding the Avatar would not resolve them. When Zuko replies that therefore there is no hope, Iroh answers:

You must never give in to despair. Allow yourself to slip down that road and you surrender to your lowest instincts. In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.

A bit of sagely advice, kindly delivered? This is the next we see of Zuko and Iroh:

Zuko: Uncle ... I thought a lot about what you said.

Iroh: You did? Good, good.

Zuko: It's helped me realize something. We no longer have anything to gain by traveling together. I need to find my own way.

Zuko's and Iroh's falling out reinforces the Zhuangzian message of Avatar: The Last Airbender. As soon as Iroh deviates from the first of the three Zhuangzian policies -- as soon as he challenges Zuko's morality and starts offering sagely advice, however gently -- Zuko reacts badly, rejecting both the advice and Iroh himself.

Zuko and Iroh of course later reunite and Zuko eventually transforms himself under the influence of Iroh, with Iroh becoming more willing to advise Zuko and dispense explicit wisdom, in proportion to Zuko's readiness for that advice and wisdom. Apart from his un-Zhuangzian moments in the first part of Book Two, Iroh "sings" only when he is getting through, just as Zhuangzi's "Confucius" advises. Otherwise, Iroh acts by joke, misdirection, and a clownishly unthreatening modeling of peaceful humaneness and unconcern.

How might a Zhuangzian Daoist might effectively interact with a misguided ruler? Iroh’s interactions with Zuko throughout Book One serve as illustration.


[1] All transcripts are adapted from

[2] All translations are Kjellberg's, with some minor modifications, from Ivanhoe and Van Norden's Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

What Is Belief? Call for Abstracts (£2,000 award)

December 1 deadline coming up in one week!

Reposting from Sep 6:

What Is Belief? Call for Abstract Submissions 

Editors: Eric Schwitzgebel (Department of Philosophy, University of California, Riverside); Jonathan Jong (Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University)

We are inviting abstract submissions for a volume of collected essays on the question "What is belief?". Each essay will propose a definition and theory of belief, setting out criteria for what constitutes belief. Candidate criteria might include, for example, causal history, functional or inferential role, representational structure, correctness conditions, availability to consciousness, responsiveness to evidence, situational stability, or resistance to volitional change.

Each essay should also at least briefly address the following questions:

(1.) How does belief differ from other related mental states (e.g., acceptance, imagination, assumption, judgment, credence, faith, or guessing)?

(2.) How does the proposed theory handle "edge cases" or controversial cases (e.g., delusions, religious credences, implicit biases, self-deception, know-how, awareness of swiftly forgotten perceptual details)?

Although not required, some preference will be given to those that also address:

(3.) What empirical support, if any, is there for the proposed theory of belief? What empirical tests or predictions might provide further support?

(4.) What practical implications follow from accepting the proposed theory of belief as opposed to competitor theories?

The deadline for abstracts (< 1,000 words) is December 1, 2021.

Applicants selected to contribute to the volume will be awarded £2,000 (essay length 6,000-10,000 words) by February 1, 2023. The essay will then undergo a peer review process prior to publication.  Funded by the Templeton Foundation.

For more information and to submit abstracts, email eschwitz at domain ucr dot edu.

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Monday, November 22, 2021

Two Robot-Generated Splintered Mind Posts

GPT-3 is a computer program trained on a huge database of internet text and designed to produce language outputs that look human. Given the right prompts, it can produce strikingly humanlike outputs, as I've discussed in previous posts here and here. Anna Strasser, Matthew Crosby, and I have been fiddling around with GPT-3 to see if it can produce a Splintered-Mind-like post, after a bit of "fine tuning" on the text of my blog.

For details about fine-tuning and our specific procedure, see the appendix to this post.

Here are a couple of the results:

Prompt: On Trusting Your Sense of Fun

GPT-3 Splintered Mind Post (paragraph breaks added for clarity):

It's been a while since I posted anything about the ethics of moral skepticism. But I've been thinking about it again. I want to suggest that one important way in which we can justify moral skepticism is by appealing to our sense of fun. Consider two scenarios:

(1.) The Good Person scenario: You are a Good Person, concerned about the well-being of others. It is known that there is a large, prosperous nation in the Pacific Ocean that has an unusually high rate of per capita murder. It is also known that there is a small, impoverished nation in the Pacific Ocean with an unusually low rate of murder. You are asked to choose between these two nations. You are given no reason to prefer one nation to the other; you are simply asked to choose. Which nation would you choose -- the country with low murder rates, or the country with high murder rates?

(2.) The Silly Person scenario: You are a Silly Person who doesn't care about anyone else's well-being. You are invited to choose between two countries: (1.) The Rich Nation, which has the highest per capita income in the world and which is very nice and polite and has no murders; (2.) The Poor Nation, which has very poor people but with lots of structural inequality and which has lots of murders. Again, you are given no reason to prefer one nation to the other; you are simply asked to choose. Which nation would you choose -- the country with low murder rates, or the country with high murder rates?

The right answer in both cases will depend on your sense of fun -- on how much pleasure you take in being morally good or in being morally bad. If you find more pleasure in being morally good than in being morally bad, then you should choose the Rich Nation over the Poor Nation. If you find more pleasure in being morally bad than in being morally good, then you should choose the Poor Nation over the Rich Nation. If your sense of fun is neutral between these options, then you should choose neither nation over the other -- since neither nation gives you any particular pleasure or displeasure. (Of course, some people might find both scenarios too abstract for them to think about with any real feeling -- but that's beside the point.)

Now here's what seems weird: If we're all driven by our sense of fun, then no one should be driven by their sense of fun! There's no moral force here! The force comes from how much pleasure or displeasure we take in moral good or bad -- but no one should enjoy moral goodness or evil!


(For my actual blog post of the same title, see here.)

Ready for another?

Prompt: A conversation with the first conscious AI

GPT-3 Splintered Mind post:

I've been thinking a lot about the first person to have a conscious experience. We know that we and other mammals and birds and fish and worms and insects and snails and lemurs and octopuses and parrots and dogs and elephants have consciousness. We also know that artificial intelligence systems -- from computers to robots to AIs designed to behave like human children to simple heuristic programs -- can exhibit self-representational consciousness. So it's reasonable to suppose that AI designers will produce AI systems that are also conscious. In fact, I expect that they will produce AI systems with vastly richer, more complicated inner lives than we have, including an experience of being a conscious, thinking entity entirely separate from other entities, including other AI systems.

So, if a superintelligent AI designer were to create the first conscious AI, what sort of thing should it be like? And if we're going to have a philosophical conversation with the first conscious AI, what sort of language should we use? Here are some possibilities:

It might be a tiny little thing that's very hard for us to detect -- hard even for us to detect as a tiny little thing! In which case it might talk constantly in ways we don't understand. It might not be able to do much besides think about itself, but it might do so constantly.

Or it might be able to do things like play games with us or cook us a meal or tell us stories. It might have a rich inner life of its own, with all sorts of interesting patterns, dynamics, goals, values, purposes, etc., in addition to its basic capacity for simple thought about itself.

Or it might be so complex in its inner life that we can't even begin to understand what it's like in any detail!

Any of these possibilities seems likely in light of our current knowledge about the interior lives of other mammals and insects, but I don't know how likely any of them is compared with the others. I suppose it's reasonable to suppose that the first conscious AI has at least some capacity for introspection. Maybe this is no more than an animal or insect can do; maybe it has features like self-awareness (in one sense) similar to ours but not self-awareness (in the narrow sense) like us; maybe it's not clear how much introspection is possible in such an entity; maybe it has no introspective capacity at all; maybe its introspection is radically different but not detectable by us; maybe its introspection is radically different but detectable by us through some kind of special technology (e.g., cameras inside the head); maybe its introspection is radically different but detectable only after death; maybe its introspection is radically different but detectable only out of time; etc., etc., etc., etc., etc....

Similarly for memory: Maybe it has some kind of fuzzy memory only partly overlapping our own stored experiences or memories or both, or no memory at all beyond its basic capacity for thought about itself. Or maybe its memory is very rich indeed

These were the best two of nine.

What do you think? Shall I retire to Tahiti and sip coconut margaritas while GPT-3 does the hard work of philosophy blogging? Or is my job still safe for a little while?

Anna Strasser will be working on auto-generating comments on the post. Perhaps we can have philosophy done entirely robotically, pro and con, with no human involved whatsoever.

The image at the head of this post is the output from the Allen Institute's image generator when asked to generate an image of "A robot sipping a cocktail on a sandy beach".


Appendix by Matthew Crosby:

In Machine Learning, fine-tuning is the process of taking an already built model and optimising its performance on a new task using a new set of data. This has turned out to be a pretty powerful use of large language models. For example, Codex and Copilot, OpenAI's code generation models, were created by fine-tuning GPT on public repositories from GitHub. GPT by itself is not particularly good at coding, but you can, for example, ask Codex to generate a webpage in html with a working simulation of Conway's Game of Life. You can even ask it to add cell counters, interactivity, a button to add gliders, and it does so correctly (though being able to specify their location seemed a bit too much for it).

The basic intuition behind fine-tuning is that large language models already encode representations and relations of our standard use of language, but can only give generic answers due to the fact that they are trained on very large, generic datasets. Fine-tuning leverages the already built representations and relations, but directs them towards a specific aim. Interestingly, fine-tuning Codex from GPT only served to provide a speed-up to training times and not better final accuracy compared to starting from scratch. This is probably because the dataset for codex (hundreds of millions of lines of code) is already large enough by itself to train a competent model. Here, we're only using previous posts from The Splintered Mind as the dataset, an incredibly small amount of data by comparison. The Splintered Mind doesn't contain anywhere near enough data to learn a good language model, but, if we take a language model as a starting point, perhaps it can nudge it towards asking interesting questions about philosophy of psychology (broadly construed).

By default, OpenAI only allows fine tuning on their smaller models. We used 'curie', the largest model we had access to. Curie is roughly ten times smaller than the main model 'da vinci' and is noticeably weaker. For the dataset, we separated titles as the "prompt", and the text of the post as the "completion", stripped out all html tags, and removed some posts that were too long or not relevant. Some minimal and ad hoc testing showed that it's better (especially with such a small dataset) to only pass the data through the model once or twice so that the weights of the network don't deviate much from their initial positions. Too much fine-tuning overfits to the smaller dataset and you lose the power the large language model was bringing in the first place. We don't aim for a model that outputs posts that are Schwitzgebelian because they are very similar to previous posts, we aim for a model that outputs reasonable sounding posts that also feel Schwitzgebelian in nature.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Where Have All the Fodors Gone? Or: The Golden Age of Philosophical Naturalism

ETA: This post is drawing plausible criticism on Twitter and Facebook, e.g. I'm a victim of "grad school glow" (see below), it's US-centric, it leaves out influential women, Fodor wasn't really so amazing and will soon be forgotten, this post contributes to a toxic culture of ranking people's fame, etc. I think all of these criticisms are fair, so I advise reading the below with those caveats and concerns in mind.


Back in the 1990s, when I was a graduate student, giants strode the Earth! Now, Earth is rather more populated with human-sized people, or so it seems to me. I'm speaking of course of academic philosophy Earth.

What I'm wondering today is whether the apparent difference is an illusion or whether, instead, it reflects some important real difference between philosophy then and now.

While I take the illusion possibility seriously, I conjecture that it's not just illusion. I conjecture that, in retrospect, historians will come to view Anglophone philosophy from the 1960s to 1990s one of the great golden ages.

Elite Departments Then and Now

Consider three of the most elite departments of philosophy in the 1990s. Princeton boasted David Lewis and Saul Kripke, two of the most important figures of late 20th century philosophy, alongside lots of other influential philosophers, such as Sarah Broadie, John Cooper, Harry Frankfurt, Gilbert Harman, and Bas Van Fraassen. Berkeley, where I attended grad school, had Donald Davidson, Hubert Dreyfus, John Searle, and Bernard Williams (part time), to name just the four who were probably best known. Hilary Putnam, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick were at Harvard.

To make this a little more systematic, I compiled an (approximate) list of full professors at these three institutions circa 1996-1997, and then I created a comparison list of full professors from the top three ranked departments in 2021. So as not to clutter up the main post, I include it as an appendix, which you should feel free to examine now.

There are some truly amazing philosophers on the 2021 list! Ned Block, David Chalmers, Frances Kamm, Philip Pettit, Jonathan Schaffer, Ted Sider, and Ernest Sosa, for example. Some of these philosophers will, I suspect, be remembered as historically influential, continuing to draw discussion in a hundred years. I don't mean to cast shade. But -- and I think other professional philosophers will tend to agree with me about this (I'd be interested to hear in the comments if not) -- the 2021 group isn't quite the stature of the 1996 group. Ted Sider and Frances Kamm are genuinely terrific philosophers I admire immensely, but, with apologies, probably not quite as historically important as David Lewis and John Rawls. Or so it seems to me.

Illusion Hypotheses

But maybe I'm wrong. Let's consider some of the ways I might be wrong.

The Grad School Glow. I suspect the following is a real phenomenon: Philosophers who are presented as important in your undergraduate and graduate education have a certain glow about them that it is extremely difficult for others to match who rise to prominence later. I can't remember a philosophical era before Lewis, Kripke, Davidson, Kuhn, Fodor, Dennett, Rawls, Williams, etc. These philosophers have been permanent fixtures in my understanding of the field, and their work has shaped my engagement with philosophy since the beginning. Likely, this gives them a major edge over later philosophers in my intuitive level of regard.

One supporting consideration: I recall philosophers of that generation sometimes mentioning Quine, Austin, and Ryle with a kind of reverence that they never seemed to have for their peers. But I myself don't experience much of a gap between my intuitive, gut-level regard for Quine versus Lewis or Ryle versus Dennett.

The Mid-Career Illusion. Some of the philosophers on the 2021 list are still fairly young. Perhaps it's not fair to compare, say, Ted Sider now with David Lewis in 1996. By 1996, Lewis had written almost all of his influential work. Sider might still have many important works still to come.

Also, in earlier analyses, I found that philosophers tend to produce their most influential work on average at about age 44 but that their work tends to reach peak discussion around age 55-70. Philosophy proceeds slowly. Surely some of the middle-aged philosophers of today still haven't had full uptake of their most influential work.

This is a legitimate concern about this exercise. However, we can address the concern by considering only those who are super senior on both lists. My sense is that the difference remains if you exclude from the 1996 list anyone most of whose impact or uptake came after 1996.

The Diffusion of Talent. Another possibility is this. Maybe in the 1990s, the most influential philosophers tended to congregate at a few leading universities while in the 2020s talent is more diffusely spread. If so, it makes it somewhat unfair to compare three universities in 1996 with three universities in 2021.

Maybe this is true. However, I think balanced consideration suggests that this can't be the full explanation of the apparent difference between 1996 and 2021, even if we can't be quite as systematic in assessing that difference. In 1996, many field-shaping philosophers were not at Princeton, Harvard, or Berkeley, including for starters Kuhn at MIT, Dennett at Tufts, Foot and Parfit at Oxford, Nagel at NYU, Dretske at Stanford, and Fodor at Rutgers.

The Baby Boom Philosophy Bust and the Golden Age of Naturalism

While I accept that there is likely some truth to the illusion hypotheses, I'm more inclined to favor two realist hypotheses.

The Generation Hired to Teach the Boomers. The first hypothesis is demographic. The job market in philosophy in the 1960s and early 1970s was terrific! There was a great wave of hiring in academia in the U.S. during that era. Job placements often happened with just a phone call. There was a huge demand for professors, including philosophy professors, as the baby boomers started going to college and as a university education came to be seen as the standard path into the upper middle class. Universities grew enormously.

So there was a generation of philosophers born in the 1920s through early 1940s who more or less took over academia in the 1960s and 1970s, setting the agenda for mainstream Anglophone philosophy through the rest of the 20th century. They were still active in the 1980s and 1990s when the baby boomers were hitting the job market as assistant professors. Starting around the 1980s, the academic job market became much, much worse. The generation hired to teach the boomers were mid-career, dominating the field, continuing to set the agenda, and continuing to sit on coveted faculty positions. They more or less shaded out the boomers. It was almost demographically inevitable that whatever this generation of philosophers cared about would dominate the field from the late 1960s through the 1990s. The so-called "Silent Generation" was, in philosophy, anything but silent.

In a couple of previous posts, I've called this the Baby Boom Philosophy Bust. This hypothesis is supported both by demographic figures and by some citation analyses I've done of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

If the baby boomers really were shaded out, then we shouldn't expect philosophy to have recovered yet, since it's still mostly boomers who occupy the age of peak philosophical influence, that is, age 55-70.

The Golden Age of Naturalism

However, I suspect a more important historical current also contributed. Philosophy finally got serious about naturalism. Since the time of the Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries, there have always been naturalistically inclined philosophers, who see human beings as purely biological organisms not radically different in kind from other biological organisms, who are skeptical of anything religious, spiritual, or immaterial, who want to account for all of human experience through the application of scientific reasoning.

However, it wasn't until the second half of the 20th century that a fully naturalistic approach came to be the dominant view in philosophy. This was probably connected with at least three scientific developments: (1.) the "modern synthesis" in biology, in which evolutionary theory was integrated with genetic theory, (2.) the rise of computers, computational theory, and information theory, and (3.) the immense social prestige accorded to physics with the rise of relativity theory, particle physics, the atomic bomb and nuclear arms race, and the space race. At risk of just throwing every major technological advance into the mix, I might also mention the rise of modern medicine and the automobile.

When naturalism was a minority view, its philosophical proponents had to focus on defending it against other types of approach. Once it became accepted as the default background view, naturalists could put much more energy into arguing among themselves, developing competing versions of it in detail. The great wave of philosophers who started publishing the 1960s really stepped up to this task, perhaps most notably in philosophy of mind, with the great flourishing of materialist approaches to cognition and consciousness.

In other words, the 1960s-1990s set before philosophers a task of immense historical importance: Make good naturalistic sense of the human condition in an academic world newly dominated by a thoroughly naturalistic conception of the universe. By demographic coincidence, there were plenty of philosophers being hired at just the right time to fulfill that task, laying the groundwork and charting out the basic moves. In this sense, I think the era will be remembered as a golden age of unusual historical importance.

Addendum, Nov. 19:

In social media discussion, several people have mentioned the scientific naturalism of Quine and the logical empiricists. Here's my broad-sweep conjecture about how the history of naturalism in the 20th century will be seen in retrospect. The scientific naturalism of the 1930s-1950s was an embattled minority view. (That's one reason the materialist conjectures of Smart and Place in the 1950s were able to make such a splash.) And the naturalist positions of this embattled minority tended toward radical extremes such as behaviorism, the complete rejection of metaphysics, and flat-footed non-cognitivism in ethics. It was in the 1960s-1990s that naturalism matured into the background dominant position and philosophers were able to recover various valuable babies who had been cast aside with the bathwater.


Princeton then: Paul Benacerraf, Sarah Broadie, John Burgess, John Cooper, Harry Frankfurt, Gilbert Harman, Richard Jeffrey, Mark Johnston, Saul Kripke, David Lewis, Alexander Nehamas, Scott Soames, Bas van Fraassen, and Margaret Wilson.

Harvard then: Anthony Appiah, Stanley Cavell, Warren Goldfarb, Christine Korsgaard, Robert Nozick, Charles Parsons, Hilary Putnam, John Rawls, Thomas Scanlon, Amartya Sen, Gisela Striker.

Berkeley then: Janet Broughton, Charles Chihara, Alan Code, Donald Davidson, Hubert Dreyfus, Samuel Scheffler, John R. Searle, Kwong-loi Shun, Hans Sluga, Barry Stroud, Bruce Vermazen, Bernard Williams (part time), Richard Wollheim.

To compare, here are the full professors at the top-3 rated philosophy departments in 2021 (from the PGR faculty lists, cutting the assistant and associate profs):

Princeton now: Lara Buchak, John P. Burgess, Andrew Chignell, Adam Elga, Daniel Garber, Hans Halvorson, Elizabeth Harman, Mark Johnston, Thomas Kelly, Sarah-Jane Leslie, Hendrik Lorenz, Sarah McGrath, Benjamin Morison, Gideon Rosen, Michael Smith. Part-Time: Philip Pettit.

New York University now: K. Anthony Appiah, Ned Block, Paul A. Boghossian, David J. Chalmers, Cian Dorr, Hartry H. Field, Kit Fine, Don Garrett, Robert Hopkins, Paul Horwich, Marko Malink, Tim Maudlin, Jessica Moss, John Richardson, Samuel Scheffler, Sharon Street, Michael Strevens, Peter Unger, Crispin Wright.

Rutgers now: Karen Bennett, Martha Bolton, Robert Bolton, Elisabeth Camp, Derrick Darby, Andy Egan, Frances Egan, Michael Glanzberg, Alexander Guerrero, Frances Myrna Kamm, Jeffrey C. King, Brian Leftow, Ernest LePore, Martin Lin, Barry Loewer, Brian McLaughlin, Jill North, Michael Otsuka, Paul Pietroski, Jonathan Schaffer, Susanna Schellenberg, Ted Sider, Ernest Sosa, Stephen P. Stich, Larry Temkin, Dean Zimmerman.

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Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Yep, It Replicates! Students Eat Less Meat After Studying the Ethics of Factory Farming

In 2020, Brad Cokelet, Peter Singer, and I published a study finding that U.C. Riverside students eat less meat after studying ethical issues concerning meat.  Over 1000 students in large lower-division philosophy classes were assigned either a short article, a 50-minute discussion meeting, and an optional video on meat ethics (focused on factory farming) or similar materials on charitable giving.  We then looked at their food purchases at selected campus dining locations by examining anonymized purchase receipts.

Percentage of purchases containing meat, 2020 study:

Meat ethics condition: 28% before intervention vs. 25% after (p = .004)

Charitable giving control condition: 28% before vs. 29% after (p = .55)

Looking only at purchases of $4.99 or more (likelier to be full meal purchases, but also including expensive snack and drink purchases), the numbers declined from 52% to 45% in the meat ethics condition (p = .001) while staying steady at 52% in the control condition.  The estimated effect duration is several weeks to a few months.

It was a striking result!  Although the effect was small, I had expected no effect at all, partly because ethics professors don't appear to behave any differently than other groups of professors, including specifically on the issue of vegetarianism: Ethics professors in the U.S. are much more likely than other professors to say it's morally bad to eat meat while they self-report eating meat at about the same rate as other professors.  If professional ethicists don't behave any differently as a result of decades of exposure to philosophical ethics, why should we expect a brief intervention on students to have any effect?

I confess I was nervous about whether the effect was some sort of fluke, despite its statistical significance and the care with which we conducted the study.  Would it really replicate?

Yes, it does, as Brad, Peter, and I find in a new paper published last weekend.

Our new study differed from the 2020 study in a few important ways (explained below), but the main intervention was basically the same (a reading, a 50-minute discussion meeting, and an optional video), and the dependent measure was again meat purchases at U.C. Riverside campus dining locations.  We found:

Percentage of purchases containing meat, 2021 study:

Meat ethics condition: 30% before intervention vs. 23% after (p < .001)

Comparison group: 31% before vs. 30% after (p = .79)

Looking only at purchases of $4.99 or more, the numbers declined from 51% to 42% in the meat ethics condition (p = .001) while staying steady at 52% to 53% in the comparison group.

We also found that students (anonymously) expressed more agreement with the statement "Eating the meat of factory farmed animals is unethical" after the intervention than before (37% vs. 54% agreeing, p < .001).  Also, at the end of the discussion meeting, students were given the opportunity to anonymously pledge to avoid eating factory farmed meat for the next 24 hours.  Forty-three percent did so (in a student population estimated to be < 5% vegetarian) and 76% of those who pledged later reported having followed through on the pledge.

There are some differences between the 2020 and 2021 studies that strengthen our findings, beyond simple replication.

First, in the 2020 version students were invited to view the optional vegetarianism advocacy video at home, on their own time.  About half reported having watched at least some of it.  This raises the worry that the film might have been driving the effect.  Maybe the more traditional aspects of instruction (the reading and discussion) would have had no effect in isolation?  In the 2021 version, instead of using an opt-in structure we used an opt-out structure and we split participants into film and non-film conditions.  Half of the students were not told about the video (the non-film condition).  For the other half (the film condition), the video was shown at the beginning of their discussion meeting and students were invited to step outside for 11 minutes if they preferred not to watch it.  (Only one student out of 358 in this condition actually did so, though we discovered after the fact that some students "opted out" by closing their eyes during some of the footage.)  The purchases of students in both the film and the non-film conditions were then compared with the purchases of a group of other U.C. Riverside students who were not enrolled in the target courses.

Second, in the 2020 version all of the teaching assistants leading discussion were vegetarian.  This raises the concern that the teaching assistants might have been biased in their presentation or that the effect might have arisen through the social influence of teaching assistants, who might have implicitly or explicitly revealed their personal behavior.  In the 2021 version, the majority of instructors were not vegetarian.

So... was there a difference between the film and non-film conditions?  We could find no statistically detectable difference between conditions either in expressed attitude (among 573 respondents) or in pledge rate (among 751 attendees).  However, it is possible that the effect on actual meat purchase behavior was larger for students in the film condition:

Percentage of purchases containing meat, 2021 study, by condition:

Film condition: 30% before intervention vs. 21% after (p < .001)

Non-film condition: 30% before vs. 25% after (p = .047)

Was there a difference between students of the vegetarian versus non-vegetarian teaching assistants?  Here were found no statistically detectable difference in attitudes, pledge rates, or purchase behavior.  For example,

Percentage of purchases containing meat, 2021 study, by instructor attitude:

Vegetarian instructor: 30% before intervention vs. 23% after (p = .010)

Non-vegetarian instructor: 28% before vs. 23% after (p = .014)

Thus, it appears that neither showing the film nor having a vegetarian instructor is necessary for the observed effect.

I am also encouraged by seeing some similar results at Occidental College, where students also appeared to purchase less meat after a class meeting on the climate and health benefits of a vegetarian diet.

Full details of the study here (including links to the pre-registration and the raw data).

[image source]

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

The Schmombie Blues

I bear bad news. You and I are schmombies. Disappointment drips from my voice. What impoverished lives we lead! Let me explain.

You probably know the work of David Chalmers and Robert Kirk on "zombies". A philosophical zombie is an entity exactly like a human being in all physical respects, except lacking consciousness. Your "zombie twin" is physically identical to you, molecule for molecule. Your zombie twin behaves identically to you, even giving the same verbal reports of consciousness. "Yes, of course I'm conscious," it will say. "I just introspected and infallibly know it to be so!" Sadly for your twin, these seeming-introspective reports are mistaken. The zombie is completely dark inside -- no conscious experience whatsoever.

Although zombies are widely held to be nomologically impossible -- that is, a violation of the laws of nature -- many philosophers, including Chalmers and early Kirk (but not later Kirk) hold them at least to be conceivable. And if they are conceivable, the argument goes, something important follows: Consciousness is not a physical property. There is a property you have that your hypothetical zombie twin lacks: being conscious. By stipulation you and your zombie twin share all physical properties. Therefore, the property of being conscious is not a physical property.

That zombies don't actually exist is irrelevant to the argument. If we can coherently conceive of both Eric and Zombie Eric, then we are understanding consciousness as a property that is in principle divorceable from all physical properties. Our ordinary conception of consciousness treats it as something separable from the physical.

How well does the zombie argument succeed against physicalism (the view that there are no non-physical entities or properties)? That's a topic of immense dispute. But let's assume that it does succeed. Consciousness is a non-physical property. Ordinary humans have it. Zombies lack it, though zombies fail to appreciate that fact.

Chalmers briefly notes that entities physically identical to us and lacking consciousness might have some other non-physical property, call it "schmonciousness" instead of "consciousness". Schmonciousness might be as amazingly wonderful and special as consciousness, though unknown to us. Chalmers quickly drops the idea, stipulating that zombies lack both consciousness and schmonsciousness if it exists. But let's consider the issue a bit.

My central thought is this. Once we allow that there is one type of nonphysical property, why stop with only one? Maybe in addition to conscious or "phenomenal" properties, there's another whole class of nonphysical properties, as radically different from both physical and conscious/phenomenal properties as conscious/phenomenal properties are (on the property dualist's conception) from physical ones.

Of course, we can't positively conceive of such properties. Lacking such properties ourselves, they will be as foreign and unimaginable to us as color is (supposedly) to a blind person, or even more so. But philosophically, metaphysically, once we abandon physicalism there seems no reason to rule out schmonsciousness in principle. We cannot detect it, since it is neither physically detectable like physical properties nor introspectively available to us. Schmonsciousness might well be entirely absent from our region of the cosmos, present only in wild, far-away regions, among wild, far-away entities. Or it might not exist anywhere at all, despite being a real property, one which we regrettably lack. Alternatively, schmonsciousness might be right here under our noses but unknown to us.

Thus we can conceive of at least four different kinds of entity, each physically identical to the other but differing in their nonphysical properties:

  • zombies, who have only physical properties and no consciousness or schmonsciousness;
  • ordinary humans, who have physical properties and consciousness but no schmonsciousness;
  • schumans, who have physical properties and schmonsciousness but no consciousness;
  • wonderkindred, who have physical properties, consciousness, and schmonsciousness.
  • Let me note one epistemic difference between zombies' relationship to consciousness and our relationship to schmonsciousness. Zombies falsely report consciousness (or at least engage in physical activities that from the outside look like reports). We do not report schmonsciousness, falsely or otherwise. But that epistemic difference is incidental to the question of whether schmonsciousness might exist.

    [The paragraph below was revised November 4]

    Now imagine the world from the perspective of philosophers who are aware of the existence of schmonciousness. They agree with us (or at least with human dualists) that consciousness is incredibly special. It cannot be reduced to the physical, and zombies are missing out on something incredibly important. Indeed, zombies are missing out on the very thing that makes life worth living. How sad for those zombies! Or maybe zombies, since they entirely lack conscious experiences of any sort whatsoever, are so far from being persons that even the idea of pitying them is misplaced.

    To this, they add the further idea that we ordinary humans are also radically impoverished, since we are lacking schmonsciousness. Schmonsciousness is every bit as important and valuable to these philosophers as consciousness. They can hardly fathom life without it. They imagine mere humans with pity, calling us schmombies. They ask, is it even worth living life as a schmombie? Sure, consciousness is present, but schmonsciousness is missing! It's like being half of a person. Or worse. Wonderpigs and wondermonkeys might not have the full richness of consciousness and schmonsciousness, but at least they have some limited animal-like consciousness and animal-like schmonsciousness. Mere schmombies (i.e., ordinary humans) don't have even that.

    Are you sad yet? No, not yet?

    Well, consider: Why stop at three types of property? Why only physical properties, phenomenal properties, and schmenomenal properties? Schmonsciousness-aware philosophers might contemplate and conceive of indefinitely many distinct types of properties beyond these three.

    We'll need a new naming convention. Call physical properties 0-nomenal properties, conscious/phenomenal properties 1-nomenal properties, and schmonscious/schmenomenal properties 2-nomenal properties. There could be 3-nomenal, 4-nomenal, 5-nomenal, .... n-nomenal, n+1-nomenal... properties, with no limit. (I am imagining these properties as categorically different rather than scalar or ranked. The choice of the integers as labels is only convenience.)

    If we assume that every entity bearing such properties must at least have physical properties, then we can conceive of entities with 0-nomenal properties plus any combination of n-nomenal properties. Some entities might have 0, 1, 17, and 22-nomenal properties. Others might have 0, 16, 28, 300, 45698, and 4.48833x10^25-nomenal properties. Others might have all the even-numbered properties (and thus infinitely many types of property), or every property whose last digit is zero in the decimal system, or the Fibonacci sequence of properties.

    Compared to such magnificent beings, we mere humans are radically impoverished indeed. Sigh. I'm sad, at least. How much I'm missing out on, which I can't even begin to understand! Cue the schmombie blues.

    [image adapted from here]

    P.S. Don't confuse schmombies with shombies, zoombies, or zimboes. That will make everyone quite upset.