Thursday, May 26, 2022

After a Taste-Bud Hiatus, Experiencing Candy Like a Six-Year-Old

I used to blog quite a bit about weird aspects of sensory experience, back when my central research interest concerned the vagaries of introspection and the strange things people say about their streams of experience. (See a few sample posts; some articles; two books.) I thought I'd share another today -- something striking to me -- though actually not that weird, I suppose.

About a month ago, I accidentally bit down hard on an unpopped popcorn kernel, "bruising" the teeth on the left side of my mouth. (Yes, that's a thing. My dentist tells me nothing is broken or cracked; it just needs time to heal.) It was remarkably painful to chew on that side, and for weeks I chewed entirely on the right side of my mouth, barely even letting food drift to the left side. Last week, I resumed gently chewing on the left again -- just soft things, carefully, experimentally. Having dessert one night, I was suddenly struck by how much sweeter the dessert tasted on the left side than on the right side. Remarkably sweeter. Different enough that the fact really jumped out at me, though I wasn't at all expecting or looking for it.

I was eating an "orange slice" candy. You know, one of these guys:

On the right side of my mouth, the candy was blandly sweet with a simple citrus flavor. On the left side, I experienced the candy as vividly sweet, zinging with orange. The contrast persisted as I moved the mass of candy around in my mouth. When I shifted the bulk to the right, it seemed to instantly lose flavor, like a piece of gum chewed too long. When I shifted it back to the left, the flavor brightened again.

I experimented with other candies over the next few days: lemon and lime slices, chocolate, peppermint sticks. I consistently found the left side sweeter than the right -- and not only sweeter, but also more vividly flavored in other ways. However, I found no similarly noticeable difference for savory flavors, or tea, or pure salt, straight lemon juice, or many of the other things I have eaten since. The effect was mostly or entirely limited to sweetness only, and the associated flavors of the sweet things.

I remember loving fruit slice candies when I was six. I would savor them for fifteen minutes, driving my parents nuts, who had to wait for me at the end of meals. (Now I tend to wolf down desserts: See my defense of dessert-wolfing.) The flavor of the orange slice resonated with my memories of youth. It was like my taste buds -- or the related sensory regions in my brain -- were six years old again. It seemed to me that the orange slice tasted to me now, on the left side of my mouth, in that amazing way it had tasted to me as a child, and then when I shifted it to the right side, it fell back into the blandness that I have since become accustomed to.

I'm not sure why the effect was limited to sweetness. In general, taste sensitivity declines with age, but the decline seems to be as strong for salty, savory, and bitter tastes as for sweet ones. My taste experience has probably dulled in multiple respects. Why sweetness only should rejuvenate, I have no idea -- even more confusingly, not simple sweetness only but the more complex flavors tangled up with sweetness, such as chocolate and sweet orange.

A week later, I find that the effect is still present, though diminishing. I want the vivid sweetness back! The experience acutely reminds me of how much of what we vividly experience recedes into a fog with ageing. A comparison point: I remember getting glasses as a teenager after years of slightly blurry vision and loving how sharp the world became. Now even the best prescription I can find will never make the world that sharp. I also feel that when I read fiction I don't quite as vividly imagine the scenes as I used to.

Middle age has its compensating advantages. I'm mellower, more settled. Even sensorily, things are open to me that weren't before: Presumably because of my diminished taste sensitivity, I can enjoy bitter coffee and sharp cheese. But the hiatus from left-side chewing, followed by some fleeting new candy raptures, has given a sharp new tang to my thoughts about sensory loss with age.

[image source]

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Our Infinite Predecessors: Flipping the Doomsday Argument on Its Head

The Doomsday Argument purports to show, probabilistically, that humanity will not endure for much longer: Likely, at least 5% of the humans who will ever live have already lived. If 60 billion have lived so far, then probably no more than 1.2 trillion humans will live, ever. (This gives us a maximum of about eight more millennia at the current birth rate of 140 million per year.) According to this argument, the odds that humanity colonizes the galaxy with many trillions of inhabitants are vanishingly small.

Why think we are doomed? The core idea, as developed by Brandon Carter (see p. 143), John Leslie, Richard Gott, and Nick Bostrom is this. It would be statistically surprising if we -- you and I and our currently living friends and relatives -- were very nearly the first human beings ever to live. Therefore, it's unlikely that we are in fact very nearly the first human beings ever to live. But if humanity continues on for many thousands of years, with many trillions of future humans, then we would in fact be very nearly the first human beings ever to live. Thus, we can infer, with high probability, that humanity is doomed before too much longer.

Consider two hypotheses: On one hypothesis, call it Endurance, humanity survives for many millions more years, and many, many trillions of people live and die. On the other, call it Doom, humanity survives for only another a few more centuries or millennia. On Endurance, we find ourselves in a surprising and unusual position in the cosmos -- very near the beginning of a very long run! This, arguably, would be as strange and un-Copernican as finding ourselves in some highly unusual spatial position, such as very near the center of the cosmos. The longer the run, the more surprisingly unusual our position. In contrast, Doom suggests that we are in a rather ordinary temporal position, roughly the middle of the pack. Thus, the reasoning goes, unless there's some independent reason to think Endurance to be much more plausible than Doom, we ought to conclude that Doom is likely.

Let me clarify by showing how Doomsday-style reasoning would work in a few more intuitive cases. But first, here's an inverted mushroom cloud to symbolize that I'll soon be flipping the argument over.

Imagine two lotteries. One has ten numbers, the other a hundred numbers. You don't know which one you've entered into, but you go ahead and draw a number. You discover that you have ticket #6. Upon finding this out, you ought to guess that you probably drew from the ten number lottery rather than the hundred number lottery, since #6 would be a surprisingly low draw in a hundred-number lottery. Not impossible, of course, just relatively unlikely. If your prior credence was split 50-50 between the two lotteries, you can use Bayesian inference to derive a posterior credence of about 91% that you are in the ten-number lottery, given that you see a number among the top ten. (Of course, if you have other evidence that makes it very likely that you were in the hundred-number lottery, then you can reasonably retain that belief even after drawing a relatively low number.)

Alternatively, imagine that you're one of a hundred people who have been blindfolded and imprisoned. You know that 90% of the prison cells are on the west side of town and 10% are on the east side. Your blindfold is removed, but you don't see anything that reveals which side of town you're on. Nonetheless, you ought to think it's likely you're on the west side of town.

Or imagine that you know that 10,000 people, including you, have been assigned in some order to view a newly discovered painting by Picasso, but you don't know in what order people actually viewed the painting. Exiting the museum, you should think it unlikely that you were either among the very first or very last.

The reasoning of the Doomsday argument is intended to be analogous: If you don't know where you're temporally located in the run of humans, you ought to assume it's unlikely that you're in the unusual position of being among the first 5% (or 1% or, amazingly, .001%).

Now various disputes and seeming paradoxes arise with respect to such probabilistic approaches to "self-location" (e.g., Sleeping Beauty), and a variety of objections have been raised to Doomsday Argument reasoning in particular (Leslie's book has a good discussion; see also here and here). But let's bracket those objections. Grant that the reasoning is sensible. Today I want to add a pair of observations that have the potential to flip the Doomsday Argument on its head, even if we accept the general style of reasoning.

Observation 1: The argument assumes that only about 60 billion humans have existed so far, rather than vastly many more. Of course this seems plausible, but as we will see there might be reason to reject it.

Observation 2: Standard physical theory appears to suggest that the universe will endure infinitely long, giving rise to infinitely many future people like us.

There isn't room here to get into depth on Observation 2. I am collaborating with a physicist on this issue now; draft hopefully available soon. But the main idea is this. There's no particular reason to think that the universe has a future temporal edge, i.e., that it will entirely cease. Instead, standard physical theory suggests that it will enter permanent "heat death", a state of thin, high-entropy chaos. However, there will from time to time be low-probability events in which people, or even much larger systems, spontaneously congeal from the chaos, by freak quantum or thermodynamical chance. There's no known cap on the size of such spontaneous fluctuations, which could even include whole galaxies full of evolving species, eventually containing all non-zero-probability life forms. (See the literature on Boltzmann brains.) Perhaps there will even be new cosmic inflations, for example, caused by black holes or spontaneous fluctuations. Vanilla cosmology thus appears to imply an infinite future containing infinitely many people like us, to any arbitrarily specified degree of similarity, perhaps in very large chance fluctuations or perhaps in newly nucleated "pocket universes".

Now if we accept this, then by reasoning similar to that of the Doomsday Argument, we ought to be very surprised to find ourselves among the first 60 billion people like us, or living in the first 14 billion years of an infinitely existing cosmos. We'd be among the first 60 billion out of infinity. A tiny chance indeed! On Doomsday-style reasoning, it would be much more reasonable, if we think the future is infinite, to think that the past must be infinite too. Something existed before the Big Bang, and that something contained observers like us. That would make us appropriately mediocre. Then, in accordance with the Copernican Principle, we'd be in an ordinary location in the cosmos, rather than the very special location of being within 14 billion years of the beginning of an infinite duration.

The situation can be expressed as follows. Doomsday reasoning implies the following conditional statement:

Conditional Doom: If only 60 billion humans, or alternatively human-like creatures, have existed so far, then it's unlikely that many trillions more will exist in the future.

If we take as a given that only 60 billion have existed so far, we can apply modus ponens (concluding Q from P and if P then Q) and conclude Doom.

But alternatively, if we take as a given that (at least) many trillions will exist in the future, we can apply modus tollens (concluding not-P from not-Q and if P then Q) and conclude that many more than 60 billion have already existed.

The modus ponens version is perhaps more plausible if we think in terms of our species, considered as a local group of genetically related animals on Earth. But if we think in terms of humanlike creatures instead specifically of our local species, and if we accept an infinite future likely containing many humanlike creatures, then the modus tollens version becomes more plausible, and we can conclude a long past as well as a long future, full of humanlike creatures extending infinitely forward and back.

Call this the Infinite Predecessors argument. From infinite successors and Doomsday-style self-location reasoning, we can conclude infinite predecessors.



Almost Everything You Do Causes Almost Everything (Mar 18, 2021)

My Boltzmann Continuants (Jun 6, 2013).

How Everything You Do Might Have Huge Cosmic Significance (Nov 29, 2016).

And Part 4 of A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.

[image adapted from here]

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Draft Good Practice Guide: Sexual Harassment, Caregivers, and Student-Staff Relationships

The Demographics in Philosophy project is seeking feedback on a proposed "Good Practice" guide. Help us make this document better!

[cross-posted at Daily Nous]

This is part one of several.


Good Practice Policy: Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can be carried out by persons of any gender, and persons of any gender may be victims. Although harassment of students by staff is often the focus of discussions, departments need to be aware that power differentials of this sort are not essential to sexual harassment. Sexual harassment may occur between any members of the department. Departments should attend equally seriously to harassment committed both by students and by staff, as both can have dramatically negative effects on particular individuals and on departmental culture. Departments should also be aware that sexual harassment may interact with and be modified by issues of race, ethnicity, religion, class and disability status.

There is good evidence that the proportion of incidents of sexual harassment that get reported, even informally, in philosophy departments is very low, and that this has created serious problems for some staff and students. We therefore urge even those staff who do not believe that harassment is a problem in their own departments to give serious consideration to the recommendations below.

The US defines ‘sexual harassment’ as unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:

Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment

Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting such individual

Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

Institutional definitions of ‘sexual harassment’ differ greatly from one another. Some institutional definitions focus solely on sexual conduct, while others include also include non-sexual harassment related to sex.

While departments need to attend to their institution’s definition of ‘sexual harassment’, and to make use of institutional procedures where appropriate, this is not the end of their responsibilities. Where sexist or sexual behavior is taking place that contributes to an unwelcoming environment for underrepresented groups, departments should act whether or not formal procedures are possible or appropriate.

We note that sexual harassment in philosophy can be present even when it does not meet the formal definitions above. Sexual harassment involves conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. This includes both harassment related to sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity (e.g. hostile and dismissive though not sexual comments about women, gay, lesbian, transgender, or nonbinary people) and harassment of a sexual nature. Note that sexual harassment is not limited to one-to-one interactions but may include, for example, general comments made in lectures or seminars that are not aimed at an individual.

General Suggestions

1. All members of the department—undergraduates, graduate students, academic and non-academic staff—should be made aware of the regulations that govern sexual harassment in their university.

a. In particular, they should know the university’s definition of ‘sexual harassment’ and who to contact in possible cases of sexual harassment.

b. They should also know who has standing to file a complaint (in general, and contrary to widespread belief, the complainant need not be the victim).

c. They should be made aware of both formal and informal measures available at their university.

d. Departments may wish to consider including this information in induction sessions for both students and staff, and in training for teaching assistants.

Where the University or Faculty has a list of Harassment Contacts (see e.g., all staff—including non-academic staff—and students should be made aware of it. If no such list exists, the department should consider suggesting this approach to the university. It is very important for department members to be able to seek advice outside their department.

2. All members of staff should read the advice given at on how to deal with individuals who approach them to discuss a particular incident.

3. All of the information listed above should be made permanently available to staff (including non-academic staff) and students, e.g. through a stable URL and/or staff and student handbooks, rather than only in the form of a one-off email communication.

4. The department head and others with managerial responsibilities (such as Directors of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies) should ensure that they have full knowledge of university procedures regarding sexual harassment.

Departmental Culture

1. Seriously consider the harms of an atmosphere rife with dismissive or sexualizing comments and behavior, and address these should they arise. (It is worth noting, however, that the right way to deal with this may vary.)

2. Cultivate—from the top down—an atmosphere in which maintaining a healthy climate for all department members, especially those from under-represented groups and including non-academic staff, is considered everyone’s responsibility. What this entails will vary from person to person and situation to situation. But at a minimum it includes a responsibility to reflect on the consequences (including unintended consequences) of one’s own behavior towards individuals from underrepresented groups. It may also include a responsibility to intervene, either formally or informally. (For more on the range of responses available, see Saul, op. cit.)

3. Ensure, as far as possible, that those raising concerns about sexual harassment are protected against retaliation.

4. Offer bystander training either to staff, or to staff and graduate students, if this is available or can be made available by the institution. This can help bystanders to feel comfortable intervening when they witness harassing behavior. (See the Good Practice website for more information.)


Good Practice Policy: Care Givers

Staff members and students with caregiving responsibilities—whether parental or other—face constraints on their time that others often do not. There are simple measures that departments can take to minimize the extent to which caregivers are disadvantaged.

General Suggestions

Departments should adopt an explicit policy concerning caregivers, which covers as many of the following points as is practically possible:

1. Schedule important events, as far as possible, between 9 and 5 (the hours when childcare is more readily available). When an event has to be scheduled outside of these hours, give plenty of advance notice so that caregivers can make the necessary arrangements. Consider using online scheduling polls to find times that work for as many as possible.

2. Seriously consider requests from staff of any background for part- time and flexible working. (This is largely, but not exclusively, an issue for caregivers—requests from non-caregivers should also be taken seriously.) Also be receptive, as far as possible, to requests for unpaid leave.

3. As far as possible, account for caregiving commitments when scheduling teaching responsibilities. 4. Be aware that students, not just staff, may have caregiving responsibilities. Have a staff contact person for students who are caregivers. Take student requests for caregiving accommodations seriously.

5. Ensure that students and staff are made fully aware of any university services for caregivers.

6. Ensure that staff have an adequate understanding of what caregiving involves. (E.g., don’t expect a PhD student to make lots of progress on dissertating while on parental leave.)

7. Ensure that parental leave funds provided by the university are actually used to cover for parental leave, rather than being absorbed into department or faculty budgets.

8. Those involved in performance evaluations should be fully informed about current policies regarding output reduction for caregivers and take caregiving responsibilities into account where possible.


Good Practice Policy: Staff-Student Relationships

Romantic or sexual relationships that occur in the student-teacher context or in the context of supervision, line management and evaluation present special problems. The difference in power and the respect and trust that are often present between a teacher and student, supervisor and subordinate, or senior and junior colleague in the same department or unit makes these relationships especially vulnerable to exploitation. They can also have unfortunate unintentional consequences.

Such relationships can also generate perceived, and sometimes real, inequalities that affect other members of the department, whether students or staff. For example, a relationship between a senior and junior member of staff may raise issues concerning promotion, granting of sabbatical leave, and allocation of teaching. This may happen even if no preferential treatment actually occurs, and even if the senior staff member in question is not directly responsible for such decisions. In the case of staff-student relationships, questions may arise concerning preferential treatment in seminar discussions, marking, decisions concerning graduate student funding, and so on. Again, these questions may well emerge and be of serious concern to other students even if no preferential treatment actually occurs.

At the same time, we recognise that such relationships do indeed occur, and that they need not be damaging, but may be both significant and long-lasting.

We suggest that departments adopt the following policy with respect to the behavior of members of staff at all levels, including graduate student instructors.

Please note that the recommendations below are not intended to be read legalistically. Individual institutions may have their own policies, and these will constitute formal requirements on staff and student behavior. The recommendations below are intended merely as departmental norms, and to be adopted only where not in conflict with institutional regulations.

General Suggestions

The department’s policy on relationships between staff and students (and between staff) should be clearly advertised to all staff and students in a permanent form, e.g. intranet or staff/student handbooks. The policy should include clear guidance about whom students or staff might consult in the first instance if problems (real or perceived) arise.

Undergraduate Students

1. Staff and graduate student teaching assistants should be informed that relationships between teaching staff and undergraduates are very strongly discouraged, for the reasons given above.

2. If such a relationship does occur, the member of staff in question should:

a. inform a senior member of the department—where possible, the department head—as soon as possible;

b. withdraw from all small-group teaching involving that student (in the case of teaching assistants, this may involve swapping tutorial groups with another TA), unless practically impossible;

c. withdraw from the assessment of that student, even if anonymous marking is used.

d. withdraw from writing references and recommendations for the student in question.

e. It should be made clear to staff and students that if an undergraduate student has entered into a relationship with a member of staff (including a TA), while the responsibility for taking the above steps lies with the member of staff concerned, the student is equally entitled to report their relationship to another member of staff (e.g. Head of Department, if appropriate), and to request that the above steps be taken.

Graduate Students

1. Staff and graduate students should be informed that relationships between academic members of teaching staff and graduate students are very strongly discouraged, especially between a supervisor and a graduate supervisee.

2. If such a relationship occurs between a member of staff and a graduate student, the member of staff should:

a. inform a senior member of staff—where possible, the department head—as soon as possible;

b. withdraw from supervising the student, writing letters of recommendation for them, and making any decisions (e.g. distribution of funding) where preferential treatment of the student could in principle occur;

c. in the case of graduate students, withdraw from all small-group teaching involving that student, unless practically impossible;

d. in the case of graduate students, withdraw from the assessment of that student, even if anonymous marking is used.

e. As much as possible, the Department should encourage a practice of full disclosure in the case of such relationships’ continuance. This avoids real or perceived conflicts of interest, as well as embarrassment for others.

Academic Staff

Between members of academic staff where there is a large disparity in seniority (e.g. Associate Professor/Lecturer; Head of Department/Assistant Professor):

1. Disclosure of any such relationship should be strongly encouraged, in order to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest.

2. Any potential for real or perceived conflicts of interest should be removed by, e.g., removal of the senior member of staff from relevant decision-making (e.g. promotions, appointment to permanent positions).

Friday, May 06, 2022

Everything Is Valuable

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a talk by Henry Shevlin titled "Which Animals Matter?" The apparent assumption behind the title is that some animals don't matter -- not intrinsically, at least. Not in their own right. Maybe jellyfish (with neurons but no brains) or sponges (without even neurons) matter to some extent, but if so it is only derivatively, for example because of what they contribute to ecosystems on which we rely. You have no direct moral obligation to a sponge.

Hearing this, I was reminded of a contrasting view expressed in a famous passage by the 16th century Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming:

[W]hen they see a child [about to] fall into a well, they cannot avoid having a mind of alarm and compassion for the child. This is because their benevolence forms one body with the child. Someone might object that this response is because the child belongs to the same species. But when they hear the anguished cries or see the frightened appearance of birds or beasts, they cannot avoid a sense of being unable to bear it. This is because their benevolence forms one body with birds and beasts. Someone might object that this response is because birds and beasts are sentient creatures. But when they see grass or trees uprooted and torn apart, they cannot avoid feeling a sense of sympathy and distress. This is because their benevolence forms one body with grass and trees. Someone might object that this response because grass and trees have life and vitality. But when they see tiles and stones broken and destroyed, they cannot avoid feeling a sense of concern and regret. This is because their benevolence forms one body with tiles and stones (in Tiwald and Van Norden, eds., 2014, p. 241-242).

My aim here isn't to discuss Wang Yangming interpretation, nor to critique Shevlin (whose view is more subtle than his title suggests), but rather to express a thought broadly in line with Wang Yangming and with which I find myself sympathetic: Everything is valuable. Nothing exists to which we don't owe some sort of moral consideration.

When thinking about value, one of my favorite exercises is to consider what I would hope for on a distant planet -- one on the far side of the galaxy, for example, blocked by the galactic core, which we will never see and never have any interaction with. What would be good to have going on over there?

What I'd hope for, and what I'd invite you to join me in hoping for, is that it not just be a sterile rock. I'd hope that it has life. That would be, in my view, a better planet -- richer, more interesting, more valuable. Microbial life would be cool, but even better would be multicellular life, weird little worms swimming in oceans. And even better than that would be social life -- honeybees and wolves and apes. And even better would be linguistic, technological, philosophical, artistic life, societies full of alien poets and singers, scientists and athletes, philosophers and cosmologists. Awesome!

This is part of my case for thinking that human beings are pretty special. We're central to what makes Earth an amazing planet, a planet as amazing as that other one I've just imagined. The world would be missing something important, something that makes it rich and wonderful, if we suddenly vanished.

Usually I build the thought experiment up to us at the pinnacle (that is, the pinnacle so far; maybe we'll have even more awesome descendants); but also I can strip it down, in the pattern of Wang Yangming. A distant planet without us but with wolves and honeybees would still be valuable. Without the wolves and honeybees but with the worms, it also would still be valuable. With only microbes, it would still have substantial value -- after all, it would have life. Let's not forget how intricately amazing life is.

But even if there's no life -- even if it's a sterile rock after all -- well, in my mind, that's better than pure vacuum. A rock can be beautiful, and beauty has value even if there's no one to see it. Alternatively, even if we're stingy about beauty and regard the rock as a neutral or even ugly thing, well, mere existence is something. It's better that there's something rather than nothing. A universe of things is better than mere void. Or so I'd say, and so I invite you also to think. (It's hard to know how to argue for this other than simply to state it with the right garden path of other ideas around it, hoping that some sympathetic readers agree.)

I now bring this thinking back to Earth. Looking at the pebbles on the roof below my office window, I find myself feeling that they matter. Earth is richer for their existence. The universe is richer for their existence. If they were replaced with vacuum, that would be a loss. (Not that there isn't something cool about vacuums, too, in their place.) Stones aren't high on my list of valuable things that I must treat with care, but neither do I feel that I should be utterly indifferent to their destruction. I'm not sure my "benevolence forms one body" with the stones, but I can get into the mood.

[image source]