Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Your Summer Reading, Sorted!

I've just finished a new version of my book in draft, The Weirdness of the World. This one includes a new chapter co-written with Jacob Barandes, on some of the bizarre consequence of spatiotemporal infinitude.

Draft available here.

I'm looking for comments and suggestions. Here's your chance to improve my book before it goes into print! Isn't that better than emailing me your insightful idea after it's too late for me to change anything?

Table of Contents

1. In Praise of Weirdness


Part One: Bizarreness and Dubiety

2. If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious

• Chapter Two Appendix: Six Objections

3. Universal Bizarreness and Universal Dubiety

4. 1% Skepticism

5. Kant Meets Cyberpunk


Part Two: The Size of the Universe

6. Experimental Evidence for the Existence of an External World

7. Almost Everything You Do Causes Almost Everything (Under Certain Not Wholly Implausible Assumptions); or Infinite Puppetry


Part Three: More Perplexities of Consciousness

8. An Innocent and Wonderful Definition of Consciousness

9. The Loose Friendship of Visual Experience and Reality

10. Is There Something It’s Like to Be a Garden Snail? Or: How Sparse or Abundant Is Consciousness in the Universe?

11. The Moral Status of Future Artificial Intelligence: Doubts and a Dilemma

12. Weirdness and Wonder

Friday, June 17, 2022

Dispositionalism vs. Representationalism -- What's the Core Disagreement?

I'm just back from a workshop on the nature of belief in Princeton. As usual, I defended my dispositional approach to belief (see here, here, and here), according to which to believe some proposition P (such as that there is beer in the fridge) is just to be disposed to act and react in the manner characteristic of a believer that P, as defined by a folk-psychologically available (alternatively, scientifically constructed) stereotype or dispositional profile for believers-that-P. The relevant dispositions can be behavioral (e.g., being disposed to go to the fridge if one wants a beer), phenomenal/experiential (e.g., being disposed to feel surprise should one open the fridge and find no beer), and cognitive (e.g., being ready to conclude that there is beer in the house). To believe that P is to be prone to act and think as a P-believer would.

To believe that P, on my dispositional account, is not just to be ready to sincerely say that P. It is broadly speaking to have a particular behavioral, experiential, and cognitive posture toward the world. To believe, for example, that all the races are intellectually equal is not just to be disposed to say so, but to actually live that way. This view is grounded in the pragmatist tradition in belief, back to Bain, Peirce, and James.

A prominent alternative account -- maybe the dominant approach among philosophers and cognitive scientists -- is representationalism. According to representationalism, to believe that P is to have a representation with the content "P" stored in one's cognitive architecture, ready to be retrived and deployed in relevant practical and theoretical reasoning. If asked whether there's beer in the fridge, you pull from your memory stores the representation "there's beer in the fridge", do a little bit of cognitive processing, and answer "yes".

These are somewhat simplified descriptions of the competing accounts. Dispositionalism, for example, typically treats the relevant dispositions as ceteris paribus (that is, all else being equal, or normal, or right) to deal with cases of faking, acting under duress, etc. Representationalism typically allows for tacit belief, where P itself isn't explicitly stored but instead is quickly derivable from some neighboring proposition that is stored (so that you don't need separately stored representations for "there's beer in the fridge", "there's Lucky Lager in the fridge", "there's Dan's favorite beer in the kitchen", etc.).

To get a sense of what this difference amounts to and why it matters, let me mention the two main reasons I prefer dispositionalism.

First, dispositionalism better captures what we care about in thinking about what people believe. A thought experiment: Space aliens arrive at Earth. We know nothing about their internal cognitive architecture, but it's nonetheless the case that they act and react exactly as creatures with belief. Alpha-1 is disposed to say there's beer in the fridge, to go to the fridge if they want a beer, to experience surprise if they open the fridge and find no beer, to think to themself in inner speech "there's beer in the fridge, yes!", etc., etc. This should be sufficient for us to regard Alpha-1 as a beer-in-the-fridge believer, regardless of what might or might not be true about the underlying cognitive architecture.

Second, I suspect that the representationalist architectural story is overly simple. The idea that we store and retrieve representations with simple ordinary-language contents like "there's beer in the fridge" seems to me likely to be merely a cartoon-sketch of a radically more complicated architecture (compare the complex, almost uninterpretable internal architectures of deep learning Artifical Intelligence systems). The explicit/tacit distinction mentioned above is likely the tip of an iceberg of dubious architectural commitments that follow from taking literally that acting on our beliefs requires storing and retrieving contents like "there's beer in the fridge".

Now, these two objections to representationalism operate at two different levels and therefore create two different types of contrast with representationalism. The first objection constitutes a commitment to what I call superficialism. What matters, or should matter, to our conception of whether someone has a belief, is what is happening at the dispositional "surface" rather than the deep architecture. By the surface, here, I don't just mean the behavioral surface but also the phenomenalogical/experiential surface and the cognitive surface -- such as what experiences the putative believer is disposed to have and what conclusions they are prone to draw.

Superficialism is compatible with thinking that there's a representational architecture underneath. You could be a superficialist and still hold that what explains why you act and react like a beer-in-the-fridge believer is that you have a stored representation with the content "there's beer in the fridge" that you're ready to deploy in your practical and theoretical reasoning. If so, there can be a partial reconciliation between dispositionalism and representationalism. There would still be a metaphysical difference: On dispositionalism, you're a beer-in-the-fridge believer in virtue of your dispositional structure, not in virtue of the cognitive architecture that underwrites that structure. On representationalism, the reverse would be true. But maybe this dispute is minor if we're primarily concerned with ordinary, real-world human cases where the dispositional and representational structures co-occur.

So it's possible to partially reconcile dispositionalism and representationalism. But that partial reconciliation concerns only the first of the two objections -- the a priori philosophical argument in favor of superficialism.

My second objection is more architectural and also more empirical. It's a guess or bet against a representationalist architecture according to which we literally store representational contents like "there's a beer in the fridge" and retrieve those contents when they are relevant to our reasoning.

Actually, there's a possibility of a partial reconciliation here, of a different sort. After all, what is it to literally have a stored representation with the content "there's a beer in the fridge"? Obviously, there's no literal slip of paper with that sentence written anywhere in the brain. Maybe a complex distributed process can count as literally storing that representation if certain other conditions are met.

Here, I think the representationalist faces a dilemma. On the one hand, the representationalist can be super liberal and say that there's a stored representation that "there's a beer in the fridge" whenever the system is such that it has the dispositional structure characteristic of a beer-in-the-fridge believer. In that case, there's no substantive empirical dispute between dispositionalism and representationalism: The so-called representationalist is really just a dispositionalist employing misleading language. On the other hand, the representationalist can make specific architectural commitments regarding how the cognitive system must be designed. The more specific, the riskier empirically, of course, and the closer to the simplistic cartoon sketch, and the less relevant to our superficialist interests as belief ascribers.

As participants in the Princeton workshop noticed, and as readers of the debate between Jake Quilty-Dunn, Eric Mandelbaum, and me (e.g., here) sometimes notice, although there's a bald top-line disagreement between dispositionalism and representationalism, a closer look suggests some paths toward reconciling the two views. However, I think a still closer look suggests that such apparent reconciliations can really only be partial. Understanding this back-and-forth helps us better understand the philosophical terrain and the real nature of the dispute.

Friday, June 10, 2022

The Continental/Analytic Divide Is Alive and Well in Philosophy: A Quantitative Analysis

A major sociological divide in recent Anglophone philosophy is the divide between philosophers who see themselves as working in the tradition of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida -- so-called "Continental" philosophers -- and those working in the tradition of Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, and Quine -- so-called "analytic philosophers". This division is reflected, in part, in journal citation patterns. You might wonder about this history of this. Was Philosophical Review always allergic to Nietzsche? Or is that a relatively recent phenomenon? And how extreme is the phenomenon? Do leading Continental figures get at least some play in the top analytic journals, or are they almost entirely excluded?

I first looked at this issue quantitatively ten years ago. Today's post is a reanalysis, with new and updated data.

The "big three" Anglophone philosophy journals -- all of which have been leading journals since the first decade of the 20th century -- are Philosophical Review, Mind, and Journal of Philosophy (formerly Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods). All currently lean heavily "analytic". Recent journal rankings also tend to classify Nous (founded 1967) as similarly prestigious. All are also indexed in JStor, along with a diverse group of 135 other philosophy journals, many of which are not as sociologically aligned with the analytic tradition.

What I've done is to look, decade by decade, at the rates at which the names of central analytic and Continental philosophers appear in these "big 4" journals compared to other journals.

Compare, first, Nietzsche and Frege -- foundational figures for both traditions, both born in the 1840s. The crucial measure is the percentage of articles in which each figure is mentioned in the big four vs. the percentage in which each is mentioned in the remainder. For methodological details see this note.[1] For a clearer view of the charts below, click them.

As you can see, through the 1940s or 1950s the Nietzsche lines stay more or less together and the Frege lines stay more or less together. This means that Nietzsche and Frege are mentioned about equally frequently in the big four (actually big three, back then) journals as in other journals -- Nietzsche in about 5% of articles throughout the period and Frege in about 2%.

Starting in the 1960s or 1970s, the dashed and solid lines are clearly separated -- a separation that increases through the 1990s. Since the 1990s, the separation has remained quite large. Note how often Frege is mentioned in the big four journals in the 1980s through 2010s -- in about 20% of all articles. Outside the big four, he's mentioned in about 6% of all articles. Also outside the big four, Nietzsche is mentioned about as often as Frege -- in about 5% of articles. But in the big four, he is mentioned in only about 1% of articles by the 2000s and 2010s.

In the period from 2000 to 2019, Nietzsche is mentioned only 20 times among 1760 articles in the big four. If you were to read every article published in the big four journals, you would see his name mentioned on average in only one article per year. That's remarkably infrequent for such a historically important figure!

A similar story holds for Heidegger and Wittgenstein -- leading early figures in the Continental and analytic traditions, respectively -- and both born in 1889. (Again, click chart for clarity.)

Starting in the 1950s, Wittgenstein is notably more favored in the big four than in the others, though the difference isn't extreme. Starting the 1940s, Heidegger is slightly disfavored by the big four relative to the others, with the difference getting large by the 1980s and continuing to increase up to the present. In the 2010s, Heidegger is mentioned in 0.7% of articles in the big four (5 times total in 764 articles) and in 6% of articles in the remaining journals (1474/26084).

Okay, how about the Continentals Sartre (b. 1905), Foucault (b. 1926), and Derrida (b. 1930) vs. the analytics Quine (b. 1908), Chisholm (b. 1916), and Putnam (b. 1926)? The graph is a little crowded but the following should be evident: The muted-color analytics show higher in the Big Three (solid lines) than in the remaining journals (dashed lines), while the bright-color Continentals show the reverse pattern -- and the spread is much more evident in the past few decades than it was mid-century. (There's a bit of false-positive noise for Foucault and Putnam, but not enough to mask the general trend. Russell I have chosen to exclude entirely due to false positives.)

Here's one way of thinking about it. In the bulk of JStor philosophy journals, representing a mix of journals with Continental vs. analytic vs. eclectic perspectives, these six figures are all broadly similar in importance in recent decades, as shown by the fact that the dashed lines end up all bunched in the middle range of about 2-7% in the most recent decades. But if we look at the big 4 analytic journals, the analytic figures loom large, especially Quine, while the Continentals are near the floor -- Derrida and Foucault in particular being almost 0% (each has 4 mentions total in the period from 2000-2019, i.e., about once in each journal across the whole period).

The effect is even clearer if we take averages of trend lines for the five Continentals versus the five analytics:

In the 2000s and the portion of the 2010s that has so far been indexed in JStor, the words Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida appeared in 48 articles total among 1760 big four journal articles (2.7%). Thus, the big four journals have included, on average, less than one article per journal per year that even passingly mentions any of these five authors.

Maybe an analysis of leading Continental journals would reveal a similar trend, with Nietzsche and Heidegger mentioned in a substantial percentage of articles and Frege and Wittgenstein hardly mentioned at all -- or maybe not. But even if not, the exclusion of leading Continental figures from the top analytic journals shows that the Continental/analytic divide remains sociologically important.

ETA, 12:05 p.m.

Could it be a result of the fact that the big four journals don't publish much ethics and some of the Continental figures mainly had their impact in ethics? I don't think so. If we look for ethics-specific journals among the top journals of philosophy "without regard to area" in Leiter's most recent poll (a bit dated), only Ethics and Philosophy and Public Affairs rank among the top 25. A disjunctive search for Nietzsche or Heidegger or Sartre or Foucault or Derrida shows only 38 hits total for the 17 year period from 2000-2016 -- again about one mention of any of these five authors per journal per year.

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[1] Names include a truncation symbol, e.g., "Nietzsche*", which includes "Nietzsche's" and "Nietzschean", except for "Putnam", to exclude false alarms for the publisher "Putnam's sons", and except for the disjunctive search described in the penultimate paragraph. Percentages are divided by a representative universe of articles including the search term "the". Only English-language articles are included. Reviews and minor documents are excluded by limiting the results to "articles" in JStor. Although the search terms run through 2019, JStor only covers through the mid-2010s for many journals, including the big four.

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Infinite Puppetry

About a year ago, I argued in a blog post that "Everything You Do Causes Almost Everything". If the universe is temporally infinite (as suggested by the current default theories in cosmology) and supports random fluctuations post-heat-death (as also suggested by the current default theories in cosmology), then every action you take will perturb some particles, which will perturb more particles, which will perturb more particles, in an infinite causal chain (a "ripple"), eventually perturbing some post-heat-death system in a way that results in any type of non-unique, non-zero-probability event that you care to specify. Wave your hand, and you will trigger a ripple of perturbances through the cosmos that will eventually cause a far-distant-future duplicate of Shakespeare to decide that Hamlet needs a happy ending.

Philosopher of physics Jacob Barandes and I have collaborated on a draft chapter developing the idea in more detail, for my forthcoming book with Princeton, The Weirdness of the World. I think you'll agree that the idea fits nicely with the book title!

The draft chapter more carefully articulates the physical assumptions required for the almost-everything-causes-almost-everything idea to work -- and then it adds some new thoughts, specifically the infinite puppetry idea.

Below I share the three final sections of the draft chapter, on infinite puppetry. (For more on almost-everything-causes-almost-everything see last year's blog post or the full chapter draft.) Thoughts and comments welcome as always!


Signaling Across the Vastness

The following will also almost certainly occur, given our assumptions so far: On some far distant post-heat-death counterpart of Earth will exist a counterpart of you – let’s call that person you-prime – with the following properties: You-prime will think “right hand” after the ripple from the act of your raising your right hand arrives at their world, and you-prime will not have thought “right hand” had that ripple not arrived at their world. Maybe the ripple initiates a process that affects the weather which causes a slightly different growing season for grapes, which causes small nutritional differences in you-prime’s diet, which causes one set of neurons to fire rather than another at some particular moment when you-prime happens to be thinking about their hands. Likewise, there’s a future you-prime who would have thought “A” if you, here on our Earth, had held up a sheet with that letter and not otherwise. Indeed, infinitely many future counterparts of you have that property. You can specify the message as precisely as you wish, within the bounds of what a counterpart of you could possibly think. Some you-prime will think, “Whoa! Infinite causation!” as a result of your having raised your hand and would not have done so otherwise.

These message recipients will mostly not believe that they have been signaled to. However, we can dispel their disbelief by choosing the fraction who, for whatever reason, are such that they believe they are receiving a signal if and only if they do in fact receive a signal. We can stipulate that we’re interested in you-primes who share the property that when your signal arrives they think not only the content of the signal but also “Ah, finally that signal I’ve been waiting for from my earlier counterpart.”[1]

There’s a question of whether one of your future counterparts could rationally think such a thought. But maybe they could, if they had the right network of surrounding beliefs, and if those beliefs were themselves reasonably arrived at. We’ll consider one such set of beliefs in the final section of this chapter.


Infinite Puppetry

You needn’t limit yourself to ordinary communicative signals. You can also control your future counterparts’ actions. Consider future counterparts with the following property: They will raise their right hand if you raise your right hand, and they will not raise their right hand if you do not. Exactly which counterparts have this feature will depend on exactly when you raise your hand and how, since that will affect which particles follow which trajectories when they are disturbed by your hand. But no matter. Whenever and however you raise your hand, such future counterparts exist.

Your counterparts’ actions can be arbitrarily complex. There is a future you-prime who will, if you raise your hand, write an essay word-for-word identical with the chapter you are now reading and who will otherwise write nothing at all. Maybe that you-prime is considering whether to write some fanciful philosophy of cosmology, as their last hurrah in a failing career as a philosopher. They’re leaning against. However, the arriving particle triggers a series of events that causes an internet outage that prevents them from pursuing an alternate plan, so they do write the essay after all. (A much greater proportion[2] of such future counterparts, of course, will write very different essays from this one, but we can focus on the tiny fraction of them who create word-for-word duplicates of this essay.)

Let’s call someone a puppet if they perform action A as a consequence of your having performed an action (such as raising your hand) with the intention of eventually causing a future person to perform action A. (Admittedly, you might need to agree with the assumptions of this chapter to be able to successfully form such an intention.) You can now wave your hand around with any of a variety of intentions for your future counterparts’ actions, and an infinite number of these future counterparts will act accordingly – puppets, in the just-defined sense.

We recommend that you intend for good things to happen. This might seem silly, since if the assumptions of this chapter are correct, almost every type of finitely probable, non-unique future event occurs, regardless of your benevolent or malevolent intent right now. Still, there is a type of good event that can occur as a result of your good intentions, which could not otherwise occur. That’s the event of a good thing happening in the far distant future as a consequence of your raising your hand with the intention of causing that future good event. So let’s choose benevolence, letting good future events be intentionally caused while bad future events are merely foreseen side effects.

A deeper kind of puppet mastery would involve influencing a person’s actions through a sequence of moves over time and with some robustness to variations in the details of execution. This might not be possible on the current set of assumptions. Raising your right hand, you can trigger arbitrarily long sequences of actions in some future you-prime. But if you then raise your left hand, there’s no guarantee that a ripple of particles from your left hand will also hit the same you-prime. Maybe all the ripples from your right hand head off toward regions A, B, and C of the future universe and all the ripples from your left hand head off toward regions D, E, and F. Similarly, if you raise your right hand like this, the ripples might head toward regions A, B, and C, and if you raise it instead like that, they head toward regions G, H, and I. So there might be no future counterparts of you who do what you intend if you raise your right hand now and then do what you intend when you raise your left hand later; and there might be no future counterparts who will do what you intend if you raise your right hand now, insensitively to the particular manner in which you raise it. In this way, there might be no sequencing and no implementational robustness to your puppetry.

Sequential and robust puppetry might only be reliably possible if we change one of the assumptions in this chapter. Suppose that although the universe endures infinitely in time, spatially it repeats – that is, it has a closed topology in the sense we described in Section 1 – so that any particle that travels far enough in one direction eventually returns to the spatial region from which it originated, as if traveling on the surface of a sphere. Suppose, further, that in this finite space, every ripple eventually intersects every other ripple infinitely often. Over the course of infinite time each ripple eventually traverses the whole of space infinitely many times; none get permanently stuck in regions or rhythms that prevent them from all repeatedly meeting each other. (If a few do get stuck, we can deal with them using the n^m strategy of Section 4. Also the rate of ripple stoppage would presumably increase with so much intersection, but hopefully again in a way that’s manageable with the n^m strategy.) When you raise your right hand, the ripples initially head toward regions A, B, and C; when you raise your left hand, they initially head toward regions D, E, and F; but eventually those ripples meet.

With these changed assumptions, we can now find future counterparts who raise their right hands as a result of your raising your right hand and who then afterward raise their left hand as a result of your afterward raising your left hand. We simply look at the infinite series of systems that are perturbed by both ripples. Eventually some will contain counterparts of you who raise their right hands, then their left, as a result of that joint perturbation. In a similar way, we can find implementationally robust puppets: counterparts living in systems that are perturbed by your actual raising of your right hand (via the ripple that initially traversed regions A, B, and C) and which are also such that they would have been perturbed had you, counterfactually, raised your hand in a somewhat different way (via the ripple that would have initially traversed regions G, H, and I). Multiplying the minuscule-but-finite upon the miniscule-but-finite, we can now find puppets whose behavioral matching to yours is long and implementationally robust, within reasonable error tolerances.


We Might All Be Puppets

So far, we have not assumed that anything existed before the Big Bang. But if the universe is infinite in duration, with infinitely many future sibling galaxies, it would be in a sense surprising if the Big Bang were the beginning. It would be surprising because it would make us amazingly special, in violation of the Copernican Principle of cosmology, which holds that our position in the cosmos is not special or unusual. We would be special in being so close to the beginning of the infinite cosmos. Within the first 14 billion years, out of infinity! It’s as though you had a lotto jar with infinitely many balls numbered 1, 2, 3… and you somehow managed to pull out a ball with the low, low number of 14 billion. If you don’t like a strictly infinite lotto, consider instead a Vast one. The odds of pulling a number as low as 14 billion in a fair lottery from one to a Vastness are far less than one in a googolplex.[3]

Cosmologists don’t ordinarily deny that there might have been something before the Big Bang. Plenty of theories posit that the Big Bang originated from something prior, though there’s no consensus on these theories.[4] If we assume that somehow the Big Bang was brought into existence by a prior process, and that process in turn had something prior to it, and so on, then the Copernican lottery problem disappears. We’re in the middle of a series, not at the beginning of one. Maybe Big Bangs can be seeded in one way or another. Heck, maybe the whole observable universe is a simulation nested in a whole different spatial reality (Chapters 4 and 5) or is itself a very large fluctuation from a prior heat-death state.

Suppose, then, that we are in the middle of an infinite series rather than at the beginning of one, the consqeuence of accepting both Copernican mediocrity and an infinite future. If so, and if we can trace chains of causation or contingency infinitely backward up the line, and if a few other assumptions hold, then eventually we ought to find our puppeteers – entities who act with the intention of causing people to do what we are now doing and whose intentions are effective in the sense that had they not performed those actions, we would not be here doing those things. Suppose you are knitting your brow right now. Somewhere in the infinite past, there is a near-duplicate counterpart of you with the following properties: They are knitting their brow. They are doing so with the intention of initiating ripples that cause later counterparts of them to knit their brows. And you are just such a later counterpart, because among the events that led up to your knitting your brow, absent which you wouldn’t have knit your brow, was a ripple from that past counterpart.

We the authors of this chapter – Eric and Jacob – can work ourselves into the mood of finding this probable. An infinite cosmos is simpler, more elegant, and more consistent with standard cosmological theory; if it’s infinite, it’s probably infinite in all directions; and if it’s truly infinite in all directions, there will be bizarre consequences of that infinitude. Puppetry is one such consequence. We would not be so special as to be only puppeteers and never puppet. It seems only fair to our future puppets to acknowledge this.

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[1] Compare this procedure with Sinhababu’s 2008 procedure for writing love letters between possible worlds. One advantage of our method over Sinhababu’s is that there actually is a causal connection.

[2] Here and throughout we bracket quibbles about ratios of infinitude by considering the limit of the ratio of counterparts with property A to counterparts with property B as the region of spacetime defined by your forward lightcone goes to infinity.

[3] Our reasoning here resembles the reasoning in the “Doomsday argument”, e.g., Gott 1993, according to which it’s highly unlikely that we’re very near the beginning of a huge run of cosmological observers. For a bit more detail, see Schwitzgebel 2022b. For another related perspective, see Huemer 2021.

[4] See notes 12 and 13 (in the full draft) for references. A note on terminology: “Prior” sounds kind of like “earlier” but is also more general in that there’s a sense in which one thing can be ontologically prior to another, or ground it, or give rise to it, even if they one doesn’t temporally precede the other (e.g., an object is prior to its features, or noumena are prior to phenomena [see Chapter 5 of the book draft]). Possibly, temporal priority is a relationship that only holds among events within our post-Big Bang universe while whatever gave rise to the Big Bang stands in some broader priority relationship to us.

[image source]