Friday, January 29, 2021

Invisible Revisions

Imagine an essay manuscript: version A.  Monday morning, I read through version A.  I'm not satisfied. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I revise and revise -- cutting some ideas, adding others, tweaking the phrasing, trying to perfect the manuscript.  Wednesday night I have the new version, version B.  My labor is complete. I set it aside.

Three weeks later, I reread the manuscript -- version B, of course.  It lacks something.  The ideas I had made more complex seem now too complex.  They lack vigor.  Conversely, what I had simplified for version B now seems flat and cartoonish.  The new sentences are clumsy, the old ones better.  My first instincts had been right, my second thoughts poor.  I change everything back to the way it was, one piece at a time, thoughtfully.  Now I have version C -- word-for-word identical to version A.

To your eyes, version A and version C look the same, but I know them to be vastly different.  What was simplistic in version A is now, in version C, elegantly simple.  What I overlooked in version A, version C instead subtly finesses.  What was rough prose in version A is now artfully casual.  Every sentence of version C is deeper and more powerful than in version A.  A journal would rightly reject version A but rightly accept version C.[1, 2]


[1] If you're worried about the apparent conflict between this post and my Principle of Anticharity and my critique of obfuscatory philosophy, I see what you mean.  To address this issue, I engaged in several rounds of invisible revisions.  I expect you'll find it much better now.

[2]: Yes, fellow Borges enthusiasts, this piece was inspired by Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote".


Revised with updates from A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures, which is currently on sale in paper for about $15 at Amazon.

Apologies for the repost.  (It's eight years old, so I'm allowed, right?)  I'm deep into writing The Weirdness of the World, my forthcoming book from Princeton, and with a snow day Wednesday and various other sources of chaos I wasn't quite able to get my head together for a new post this week.

[image source]

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Realities ≤ Universes ≤ Worlds ≤ Cosmos

My new book project, The Weirdness of the World, engages big-picture metaphysics and cosmology. This has me thinking about solipsism and materialism (aka physicalism), among other things. According to solipsism, the only thing that exists is my own mind. According to materialism, the only things that exist are material things. These claims are ambiguous in scope. The only things that exist where?

Consider ordinary cases of implicitly restricted quantifiers. If I say, "there's no beer!" what I mean, presumbly, is that there's no beer in the fridge or that there's no beer in the house, not that there's no beer anywhere in the universe. What I'm saying, in quantificational logic, is that it is not the case that there exists an X such that X is a beer and (implicitly) X is in my fridge.

Now try solipsism. According to solipsism, "there's nothing but my own mind!" But this could mean any of a few different things. Presumably it's not restricted just to my house, since then solipsism (well, a cousin of it) would be true whenever I'm home alone. But it could be restricted just to my universe. According to solipsism, in this sense, my mind is the only thing that exists in the universe. But this leaves open the possibility that, if there are other universes, they might be full of things other than me. Call this universal solipsism. A stronger, bolder, more radical solipsism might commit to the view that no matter how many universes there are, not one of them contains anything apart from my own mind. We could call this still-lonelier view cosmic solipsism.

Parallel considerations apply to materialism. Universal materialism holds that everything that exists in this universe is material. Cosmic materialism holds that everything that exists in any universe, including other universes if there are any, is material.

Metaphysical idealism, denial of the existence of ghosts or gods, denial of emergent properties, supervenience views, reductionist views (i.e., X is "nothing but" Y), etc., all admit the same ambiguity. The general structure can be expressed as "It is not the case that there exists an X such that X is F and (implicitly) X is G, where G specifies some grand scope like "in this universe" or "anywhere in the entire cosmos".

There are lots of potential scope specifications grand enough to fit the grand ambitions of negative metaphysical and cosmological claims, such as "in any metaphysically possible world" or "in any region of the cosmos in which the same laws of nature obtain" or "in any region spatiotemporally continuous with ours" or "in any bubble universe arising from the same inflationary foam"....

However, there are four scope specifications that I'm finding useful in my own thinking, which I will semi-stipulatively call, in increasing scope, realities, universes, worlds, and the cosmos.

Let's start with universes. As far as I'm aware, there isn't one orthodox usage of "universe" across philosophy and physics -- a variety of precisifications of this idea will be useful for different purposes. One aspect of usage that I'd like to respect is that multiverse theories postulate the existence of multiple universes, entirely or almost entirely spatiotemporally or causally disconnected from each other and possibly instantiating different laws of nature or having different physical constants. So far, I haven't found a definition that makes this precise without running into troubles. I'm going to embrace one definition, note three concerns, then put a big asterisk on those concerns.

That said, a universe, in my intended sense, is a maximal spatiotemporally connected region and its contents, or similar. Everything spatiotemporally connected to us -- no matter how remote in time or space, possibly far beyond the edge of the "observable universe" -- is part of our universe in this sense.

Concern 1: What about universes that aren't spatiotemporal? I don't want to rule those out by definition. Maybe space and time are features of some universes but not others.

Concern 2: What about partial connection? Maybe one universe nucleates from another, out the backside of a black hole for example, with just the tiniest bit of spatiotemporal connectivity -- two giant lobes, perhaps, which share a tiny part in their past but otherwise remain unconnnected. Another tricky case might be a version of the "many worlds" view of quantum mechanics in which "worlds" (universes?) share a spatiotemporal past but become (mostly?) disconnected going forward after a splitting event.

Concern 3: If spatiality or spatiotemporality is a derivative or functional concept, this definition might wreak havoc with the distinction between universes and realities I will describe below.

I henceforth disregard all three concerns, hoping that the promissory "or similar" can address #1, that issue #2 can be left as a terminological decision with an admittedly vague boundary, and that the clarification of "realities" below can partly address #3.

Next: the cosmos. I reserve this term for the largest category of what exists. By definition, there cannot be more than one cosmos. It is everything in the strictest sense of everything.

Next: worlds. This word has highly variable usage. I've already mentioned the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics. In another sense, a planet can be a "world", or even just a society ("the world of ancient China"). In another sense, a "world" can be larger than a universe. That is my intended sense. Modal realism is the view that "possible worlds" really exist. A modal realist could, I think (contra David Lewis), hold that the actual world contains multiple spatiotemporally unconnected universes and that other possible worlds have either one or many spatiotemporally unconnected universes. Maybe, for example, in our world, muliple universes arise from inflationary foam, but also another world exists without the kind of laws or initial conditions that give rise to inflation. Maybe not, of course! But so as not to rule out the possibility by definition, it's useful to have a (possibly redundant) category between universes and the cosmos: There might be more than one world, and it might be the case that at least one of those worlds might contain more than one universe. Thus universes ≤ worlds ≤ cosmos.

Finally, realities. The intuitive notion here is that of a "virtual reality" or (not the same, but sharing some features) a simulation in Nick Bostrom's and David Chalmers's sense. Imagine someone living in The Matrix. Their biological body is stored motionless in a warehouse somewhere, but they experience a wide reality in which they do all sorts of things, coordinated with other people who experience the same reality -- like you're all in a big shared VR game. Underneath, the whole thing is managed by megacomputers. People in such a reality would be in the same physical universe as the computers who manage the reality. But their experiential reality would be quite different. The universe might contain many virtual realities, populated with entities who experience space and time very differently from how it runs outside of their realities. And some of these realities might be such that no matter how far you travel within them, or what you do, you can make no further independent contact with the universe beyond. The inhabitants are, so to speak, entirely enclosed within.

Thus, a universe could contain many virtual realities, or other enclosed pockets in which the experienced spatiotemporal manifold of the entities within it doesn't map well onto the spatiotemporal structure of the larger universe that contains them. (Depending on your metaphysics of space and time, this could raise concern #3 about the definition of "universe" above.)

Okay, so here is the most boring possible view: reality = universe = world = cosmos. There are no virtual realities or other pocket realities of the sort just described. There is only one universe. And that universe is the whole of the cosmos. This might be true. (Yawn.)

Here is the wildest possible view: reality < universe < world < cosmos. There are multiple realities in our universe (perhaps we ourselves are inside a simulation, instead of being at the "ground level" of our universe), multiple universes in our world, and muliple worlds in the cosmos.

Back to materialism, disambiguated with all the inequalities in place:

We might live in a reality that is wholly material (in the somewhat attenuated sense that what is empirically available to us is experienced as matter occurring in space and time and nothing more), while our universe is not material. (If this seems incoherent or inconceivable, check out my essay Kant Meets Cyberpunk.) Our universe might be wholly material, while our world contains other universes that are not. Our world might contain only material universes, but other worlds might contain universes that aren't wholly material. Or everything that exists in the every world in the cosmos might be wholly material. These are at least four different strengths of the materialist thesis. In fact, there are more strengths, given that is this only a rough pass at scope specification.

The reality-universe distinction will be tricky for solipsism, but apart from that it will look like the materialism case, if we're okay with the "or similar" clause on the definition of universes.

Now do it for ghosts and gods if you like. See? Kind of interesting, I hope -- at least if you're the kind of philosophy/cosmology nerd who would read to the end of a post like this!



Skepticism, Godzilla, and the Artificial Computerized Many-Branching You (Nov 15, 2013)

Duplicating the Universe (Apr 29, 2015)

Your Infinite Counterparts (May 1, 2020)

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

How to Count Public Philosophy in Faculty Evaluation Files: A Proposal to U.C. Riverside

The value of public philosophy is increasingly recognized by the profession. However, it's unclear how contributions to public philosophy should be evaluated in tenure, promotion, raises, and retentions. Current standards in most philosophy departments revolve around research, teaching, and service, traditionally construed. How does public philosophy fit in?

In consultation with a few other faculty at U.C. Riverside, I worked up a draft proposal, which I will present to my colleagues at tomorrow's faculty meeting, in hopes that the department will adopt it, perhaps with revisions.

I thought I'd share it here. Suggestions for revision welcome. I have crafted the proposal specifically for the situation at UCR, and I expect not all features of it will translate well to other departments.  However, please feel free to adapt any portion of it you find useful.

Please note: This proposal is not yet adopted and might never be. Myisha Cherry, John Fischer, Kim Frost, and Howard Wettstein also contributed to this document. As such documents ordinarily must, it represents a compromise among competing views.


Public Philosophy in Merit and Promotion Files

Public philosophy advances the university’s mission and can play an important role in Philosophy Department members’ cases for merit advances and promotions.

No philosophy department member is expected to have public philosophy contributions in their file.  However, department members with substantial contributions to public philosophy should earn appropriate recognition for those contributions.

Characterization of Public Philosophy

Public philosophy can include:

  • philosophical writings, oral presentations, and other communications of philosophical ideas aimed at non-academic audiences (e.g., an op-ed in the New York Times, a public talk at UCR Palm Desert, a blog or podcast with a broad audience, a presentation in a high school classroom or at a public “Night of Philosophy”, or a white paper shared with a regulatory body);
  • study of how the public engages with philosophy (e.g., examination of the role of Twitter in the uptake a philosophical ideas, discussion of how and why certain historical figures are or are not conceived of by the public as great philosophers);
  • application of philosophical ideas or approaches to issues of public interest (e.g., philosophical analysis of near-death experiences, Black Lives Matter, or the regulation of toxic substances).

Public philosophy need not be, and typically will not be, published in academic journals.

We note that historically influential philosophers, from Socrates through Dewey, have often directed much of their work toward a broad public.

Research, Service, and Teaching

Public philosophy can count as research or service, or occasionally as teaching.  Ideally, this should be by agreement between the faculty member and the department.

To count as research, public philosophy must constitute substantial knowledge creation and not just, for example, a summary of the work of others.  However, summaries of the work of others can count as public philosophy under the heading of service or teaching.

Given the nature of U.C. and faculty members’ expected roles in our PhD program, faculty members who contribute to public philosophy must also continue to regularly publish “technical/scholarly” work for academic audiences, advancing specialized knowledge in their subdiscipline.  For this reason, no more than half of the research expectations in a merit or promotion file can be satisfied by public philosophy aimed at non-academic rather than academic audiences.  For example, if the expectation for a two-year cycle is at least two substantial research articles, a faculty member with a strong public philosophy profile would still be expected to publish at least one substantial research article in addition to their public philosophy.

Some work aimed at policy makers or the general public can also constitute a substantial contribution to an academic subfield (for example Carl Cranor’s Legally Poisoned and Kate Manne’s Down Girl).  Such work (including some “trade” books and all “crossover” books) is not subject to the no-more-than-half rule.

If a faculty member’s specialized research for academic audiences already meets research expectations, the addition of a strong profile in public philosophy could potentially justify a claim of exceptional research accomplishment.


Evaluating Public Philosophy

Public philosophy contributions can vary enormously in quality, impact, form, substantial content, and time investment, and they are typically not peer reviewed.  Thus, they cannot be counted up in a simple way.  Department members’ contributions to public philosophy should normally be evaluated as an overall package.

For public philosophy counted as research, the following dimensions of the department member’s public philosophy profile should be considered:

  • quality of work (as evaluated by the department, possibly with reference to evaluations by others),
  • venue quality,
  • contribution to the advancement of knowledge,
  • reach (e.g., views, likes, engagement, citation),
  • impact (e.g., influence on policy, influence on the audience)

For public philosophy counted as service, it is sufficient to establish only that the contribution reflects substantial labor toward valuable service goals, such as communication and outreach.

[image source]

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories: Book Launch and Flash Fiction Contest!

Philosophy through Science Fiction Stories: Exploring the Boundaries of the Possible

ed. Helen De Cruz, Johan De Smedt, and Eric Schwitzgebel

Bloomsbury 2021

We are happy to announce the approaching publication of the anthology Philosophy through Science Fiction Stories. This volume brings together short stories by award-winning contemporary science fiction authors and philosophers, and covers a wide range of philosophical ideas from ethics, philosophy of religion, political philosophy, and metaphysics.

The book launch will include an on-the-spot flash fiction writing contest with a $100 prize and an opportunity to jump to the final round of consideration for publication at Flash Fiction Online.

After a brief introduction by the editors, the following contributors to the volume will read teasers or standalone flash fiction stories

  • David John Baker
  • Aliette de Bodard
  • Frances Howard-Snyder
  • Wendy Nikel
  • Christopher Rose
  • Sofia Samatar
  • Lisa Schoenberg
  • Mark Silcox

After the readings, audience members will have 30 minutes to ask questions of the authors and editors.

The launch will conclude with the prompt and submission instructions for the on-the-spot writing contest.

When: January 18, 2021, 2 PM - 3:30 PM Central Time.

The corresponding times in various time zones are:

  • 12 noon - 1:30 PM Pacific Time
  • 3:00 - 4:30 PM Eastern Time
  • 8 PM - 9:30 PM Greenwich Meridian Time
  • 9 PM - 10:30 PM Central European Time

How to register:

Registration for this event is free of charge but needs to be done in advance. To register, please send an email with subject line "registration philosophy through science fiction stories" to Helen.DeCruz at

You will receive a Zoom link to the email address you used to send your registration request.

Please register by January 17 2021. Any registration requests received after 18 January, 1:00 PM Central Time won't be considered anymore.

Details for the on-the-spot flash fiction contest:

Participants will have two hours to complete a flash fiction story of between 500 and 1000 words on the topic of the prompt, which will only be revealed at the end of the book launch event. Assuming the event concludes at 3:30 PM Central Time, contestants have until 5:30 PM (and equivalent times in their own time zone) to complete and submit the story. The two-hour submission window is a hard deadline. Registration for the book launch is also required for participation in this contest.

Though standard manuscript format (Shunn) is preferred, don't worry too much about formatting at this stage. You can send the story as an attachment in pdf, docx or doc format, so not in the body of the email. You need to send the story within 2 hours after the prompt has been given, to the email address we will reveal at the end of the book launch event.

We ask that there be only one entry per contestant (co-authorship counts as an entry) and no simultaneous entries (i.e., do not submit the story elsewhere while it is under consideration for the prize).

Award: The prize money is $100. Moreover, the winning story will jump to the final round of consideration for publication in Flash Fiction Online. We will announce a winner within 6 weeks of the date of the contest.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Writings of 2020

Every New Year's Day, I post a retrospect of the past year's writings. Here are the retrospects of 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

The pandemic has slowed me down somewhat -- as you'll see from the paucity of new circulating drafts below. Keeping up with existing projects proved to be plenty to manage.


If you like this blog, you'll probably enjoy A Theory of Jerks, since it is composed of 58 of my favorite blog posts and op-eds (among over a thousand I've published since 2006), revised and updated.

I'm also working on two books under contract:

    The Weirdness of the World with Princeton UP.
    As co-editor with Helen De Cruz and Rich Horton, a yet-to-be-titled anthology with MIT Press containing great classics of philosophical SF.

Full-length non-fiction essays

Appearing in print in 2020:

Finished and forthcoming:

In draft and circulating:
    "Inflate and explode". (I'm trying to decide whether to trunk this one or continue revising it.)

Shorter non-fiction

    "The jerks of academe", Chronicle of Higher Education, (Jan. 31). [A Longreads pick for best longform stories on the web.]

Science fiction stories

Some favorite blog posts

Reprints and Translations

"Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird" (originally published in Clarkesworld in 2019) is probably my best received story so far. In 2020 it was podcasted a second time and also translated into Chinese:

    translated into Chinese for Science Fiction World (probably the highest circulation SF magazine in the world), Aug 2020, 58-68.
(Also in 2020, the story rose fairly high on the Nebula Awards recommended reading list, though it was not among the six finalists.)

Also newly translated:

    "Reinstalling Eden" (with R. Scott Bakker, originally published in Nature in 2013), translated into German as "Paradies 2.0", Spektrum der Wissenschaft 9:20, 88-89.