Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book: Cosmology, Skepticism, and Weird Minds

As I've mentioned several times, my next book will consist of selected revised blog posts and op-eds. I've narrowed it down to about 150 posts, in seven broad categories. I'd really appreciate your help in narrowing it down more!

Categories:

  • moral psychology
  • technology
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge
  • culture and humor
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds (live as of today)
  • consciousness
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week or so I'm posting a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. I've found the polls helpful in thinking about what has resonated with readers or been memorable for them. Many thanks to those of you who have responded!

    Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want. But there's no need to rate all of the listed posts! Even if you just remember one or two that you like, it would be useful for me to know that.

    Today's poll, 23 selected posts on cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds.

    [image source]

    Friday, April 13, 2018

    Why the Epistemology of Conscious Perception Needs a Theory of Consciousness

    On a certain type of classical "foundationalist" view in epistemology, knowledge of your sensory experience grounds knowledge of the outside world: Your knowledge that you're seeing a tree, for example, is based on or derived from your knowledge that you're having sensory experiences of greens and browns in a certain configuration in a certain part of your visual field. In earlier work, I've argued that this can't be right because our knowledge of external things (like trees) is much more certain and secure than our knowledge of our sensory experiences.

    Today I want to suggest that foundationalist or anti-foundationalist claims are difficult to evaluate without at least an implicit background theory of consciousness. Consider for example these three simple models of the relation between sensory experience, knowledge of sensory experience, and knowledge of external objects. The arrows below are intended to be simultaneously causal and epistemic, with the items on the left both causing and epistemically grounding the items on the right. (I've added small arrows to reflect that there are always also other causal processes that contribute to each phase.)

    [apologies for blurry type: click to enlarge and clarify]

    Model A is a type of classical foundationalist picture. In Model B, knowledge of external objects arises early in cognitive processing and informs our sensory experiences. In Model C, sensory experience and knowledge of external objects arise in parallel.

    Of course these models are far too simple! Possibly, the process looks more like this:

    How do we know which of the three models is closest to correct? This is, I think, very difficult to assess without a general theory of consciousness. We know that there's sensory experience, and we know that there's knowledge of sensory experience, and we know that there's knowledge of external objects, and that all of these things happen at around the same time in our minds; but what exactly is the causal relation among them? Which happens first, which second, which third, and to what extent do they rely on each other? These fine-grained questions about temporal ordering and causal influence are, I think, difficult to discern from introspection and thought experiments.

    Even if we allow that knowledge of external things informs our sense experience of those things, that can easily be incorporated in a version of the classical foundationalist model A, by allowing that the process is iterative: At time 1, input causes experience which causes knowledge of experience which causes knowledge of external things; then again at time 2; then again at time 3.... The outputs of earlier iterations could then be among the small-arrow inputs of later iterations, explaining whatever influence knowledge of outward things has on sensory experiences within a foundationalist picture.

    On some theories, consciousness arises relatively early in sensory processing -- for example, in theories where sensory experiences are conscious by virtue of their information's being available for processing by downstream cognitive systems (even if that availability isn't much taken advantage of). On other theories, sensory consciousness arises much later in cognition, only after substantial downstream processing (as in some versions of Global Workspace theory and Higher-Order theories). Although the relationship needn't be strict, it's easy to see how views according to which consciousness arises relatively early fit more naturally with foundationalist models than views according to which consciousness arises much later.

    The following magnificent work of art depicts me viewing a tree:

    [as always, click to enlarge and clarify]

    Light from the sun reflects off the tree, into my eye, back to primary visual cortex, then forward into associative cortex where it mixes with associative processes and other sensory processes. In my thought bubble you see my conscious experience of the tree. The question is, where in this process does this experience arise?

    Here are three possibilities:

    Until we know which of these approaches is closest to the truth, it's hard to see how we could be in a good position to settle questions about foundationalism or anti-foundationalism in the epistemology of conscious perception.

    (Yes, I know I've ignored embodied cognition in this post. Of course, throwing that into the mix makes matters even more complicated!)

    Tuesday, April 10, 2018

    Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book: Culture and Humor

    As I've mentioned, my next book will consist of selected revised blog posts and op-eds. I've narrowed it down to about 150 posts, in seven broad categories. I'd really appreciate your help in narrowing it down more.

  • moral psychology
  • technology
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge
  • culture and humor (live as of today)
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds
  • consciousness
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week or so I'll post a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. So far, I have found the polls helpful in thinking about what has resonated with readers or been memorable for them. Many thanks to those of you who have responded!

    Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want. But there's need to rate all of the listed posts! Even if you just remember one or two that you like, it would be useful for me to know that.

    Today's poll, 25 selected posts on culture, including some attempts at humor.

    [image source]

    Thursday, April 05, 2018

    The Experience of Reading: Empirical Evidence

    What do you experience while reading? Do you experience inner speech, as though you or the author are saying the words aloud? Do you experience visual imagery? Do you experience the black marks on the white page? All of these at once? Different ones at different times, depending on how you're engaging with the text?

    Although educators, cognitive psychologists, and literary critics often make claims about readers' typical experience, few researchers have bothered to ask readers, in any systematic way, these basic questions about their experience. [Note 1] So Alan Tonnies Moore and I decided to try doing that. Alan's work on this topic became his 2016 dissertation, and we have now have a paper forthcoming in Consciousness and Cognition (final submitted manuscript available here).

    In each of three experiments, we presented readers with several hundred words of text. In two of these experiments, a beep interrupted participants' reading. Immediately after the beep, readers were to report what was in their experience in the final split second before the beep. We collected both general free-response descriptions of their experience and yes/no/maybe reports about whether they were experiencing visual imagery, inner speech, and visual experience of the words on the page (all phrases defined beforehand). In all three experiments, we also collected readers' retrospective assessments of how frequently they experienced visual imagery, inner speech, and the words on the page while reading the passage we had presented.

    At the end of each experiment, participants answered several questions about the text they had just finished reading. Some questions we thought might relate to visual imagery (such as memory for visual detail), other questions we thought might relate to inner speech (such as memory for rhyme), and still other questions we thought might relate to visual experience of words on the page (such as memory of the font). We were curious whether performance on those questions would correlate with reported experience. Do visual imagers, for example, remember more visual detail?

    Here are the main things we found:

    (1.) People differ immensely in what types of experiences they report while reading. Some people report visual imagery all the time; others report it rarely or never; and still others (the majority) report visual imagery fairly often but not all of the time. Similarly for inner speech and words on the page.

    To see this, here are a couple of histograms [click to enlarge and clarify].

    Readers' retrospective reports in Experiment 2 (Experiments 1 and 3 are similar):

    Readers' yes/no/maybe reports immediately after the beep, also in Experiment 2:

    (2.) Inner speech is less commonly reported than many researchers suppose. This has also been emphasized in Russ Hurlburt's related work on the topic. Although some researchers claim or implicitly assume that inner speech is normally present while reading, we found it in a little more than half of the samples (see the histograms above). Visual imagery was more commonly reported than inner speech.

    (3.) Reported experience varies with passage type, but not by a lot. In Experiment 2, we presented readers with richly visually descriptive prose passages, rhyming poetry, and dramatic dialogue, thinking that readers might experience these types of passages differently. Differences were in the predicted directions, but weren't large. For example, visual imagery was reported in 78% of the beeped moments during richly descriptive prose passages vs 66% of the poetry passages and 69% of the dramatic dialogue (chi-square = 14.4, p = .006). Inner speech was reported in 65% of the beeped moments during dramatic dialogue passages vs 59% of the poetry passages and 53% of the descriptive prose (chi-square = 19.1, p = .001).

    (4.) There was little or no relationship between reported experience and seemingly related comprehension or skill tasks. For example, people who reported seeing the words of text on the page were not detectably more likely to remember the font used. People who reported visual imagery were not detectably more likely to remember the color of objects described in passages. People who reported inner speech were not more likely to disambiguate difficult-to-pronounce words by reference to the rhyme scheme. Although all of this is possibly disappointing, it fits with some of my previous work on the poor relationship between self-reported experience and performance at behavioral tasks.

    Alan and I believe that sampling studies will soon become an important tool in empirical aesthetics, and we hope that this study helps to lay some of the groundwork for that.

    Full version of our paper available here.

    ---------------------------------------------

    Note 1: One important exception to this generalization is Russ Hurlburt in his 2016 book with Marco Caracciolo and in his paper with several collaborators forthcoming in Journal of Consciousness Studies.)

    ---------------------------------------------

    Related Posts:

    What Do You Think About While Watching The Nutcracker? (Dec 17, 2007)

    The Experience of Reading (Nov 25, 2009).

    The Experience of Reading: Imagery, Inner Speech, and Seeing the Words on the Page (Aug 28, 2013).

    Waves of Mind Wandering During Live Performances (Jan 15, 2014)

    Thursday, March 29, 2018

    Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book: Belief, Desire, and Self-Knowledge

    As I've mentioned, MIT Press will be publishing a book of my selected blog posts and op-eds. I've narrowed it down to a mere (!) 150 posts, in seven broad categories, and I'd love your input in helping me narrow it down more.

  • moral psychology
  • technology
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge (live as of today)
  • culture and humor
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds
  • consciousness
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week I'll post a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. No need to rate all of the listed posts! Just rate any posts or op-eds you remember. Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want.

    It would be a great help if you could answer some of these polls -- if only just to click "a favorite" next to a few you remember fondly. I will take this input seriously in selecting what to include in the book.

    Today's poll, 11 selected posts on belief, desire, and self-knowledge.

    Although I've written more on self-knowledge and belief than any other topic, this is my shortest list among the seven categories -- maybe because so much of my work on this is already in longer papers? Or maybe because my positions on these issues were already well worked out before I started blogging, so I had less of an impulse to toss out new ideas about them? Hm.....

    [image source]

    Monday, March 26, 2018

    Tell Us How to Fix the Lack of Diversity in Philosophy Journals

    [cross-posted at the Blog of the APA]

    by Eric Schwitzgebel and Nicole Hassoun

    Philosophy departments in the U.S. and Britain are famously homogenous. You already know that. What you might not know is that mainstream Anglophone philosophy journals are even more homogenous. We at the Demographics in Philosophy Project aim to fix that. Come join us at the Pacific Division meeting to tell us how.

    First, some data:

    Women comprise about 20-25% of philosophy faculty in the U.S. and Britain (Beebe and Saul 2011; Paxton, Figdor, and Tiberius 2012; White et al. 2014) and about 27-33% of philosophy PhDs and new tenure-track hires (Schwitzgebel and Jennings 2017). However, among elite Anglophone philosophy journals (as measured by reputational polls), women are only about 12-16% of authors of research articles (Schwitzgebel and Jennings 2017; Wilhelm, Conklin, and Hassoun 2017.

    Black philosophers are even more scarce, comprising about 13% of the general U.S. population, but only about 2% U.S. of philosophy faculty and only about 0.5% of U.S. authors in elite philosophy journals (Bright 2016).

    In the most elite general Anglophone philosophy journals, there is almost no serious discussion of authors from other linguistic traditions, even in translation. In the only published study we are aware of on this topic, we examined 3556 citations from a sample of 93 articles from twelve elite journals (Schwitzgebel, Huang, Higgins, and Gonzalez-Cabrera forthcoming). Approximately 97% of citations were of sources originally written in English, 1% were of sources originally written in German, and less than 1% were of sources originally written in French, ancient Greek, Italian, or Latin. We found not a single citation of any source from any other linguistic tradition.

    We are not aware of any formal studies of the rates at which disabled authors or authors from lower Socio-Economic-Status family backgrounds publish in elite Anglophone philosophy journals, compared to non-disabled authors and authors from middle- to upper-SES family backgrounds, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they may also be substantially underrepresented relative to the general population and perhaps also relative to the population of philosophy professors as a whole. Other under-studied dimensions of diversity include (but are not limited to) sexual identity, political viewpoint, religion, topic of research focus, prestige of home institution or institution of graduate study, and other aspects of race or ethnicity.

    Why it is a problem:

    You might not think such homogeneity is a problem. We do think it is a problem.

    It is a problem for epistemic reasons. Philosophy, as a discipline, profits from hearing voices from a variety of different backgrounds, with a variety of different cultural perspectives and life experiences. If only a restricted range of voices enters the philosophical dialogue, we philosophers, as a community, risk drawing conclusions that would not survive the scrutiny of a broader range of people. We also risk disproportionate focus in our collective philosophical attention: over-emphasizing issues that especially matter to those with the dominant voices and under-emphasizing issues that matter more to those who are not participating as visibly.

    It is also a problem for reasons of social justice. Plausibly, individual and systemic patterns of prejudice or bias disproportionately favor philosophers who already belong to socially privileged groups. Unfair exclusionary practices, whether implicit or explicit, harm people’s lives by unjustly closing off career opportunities, advancement, and salary. If so, this is an injustice that deserves addressing.

    Since publication in elite journals is central to hiring, tenure, and promotion, it is unlikely that we will see much greater diversification among faculty until we repair the situation in the journals. Furthermore, it might be easier to change publication practices than it is to fix pipeline problems directly – and improving the diversity of authorship in elite journals might then naturally lead to more diversity in hiring, tenure, and promotion.

    Tell us how to fix it:

    We have some preliminary ideas about how to improve the situation. But we want to hear from you. We are interested in concrete suggestions for specific practices that can be implemented by journal editors to improve diversity without compromising their other goals. We are especially interested in hearing about practices that have been successfully implemented to good effect.

    Give us your suggestions. Raise objections and concerns. Comment this post. Email us. And, if you’re in the area at the time, please come to our session on this topic at the Pacific APA meeting in San Diego on March 29 (9a-12p). The session will start with a brief presentation on diversity in philosophy journals, but it will mostly consist of open discussion with a panel of editors from nineteen well-regarded philosophy journals, who will bring their experience to the question as well as, we suspect, in some cases, their strenuous disagreement.

    After the session, we hope to partner with journals to collect more data on what works to improve diversity and to develop a toolbox of helpful practices.

    Suggestions, objections, and contributions welcome at dataonwomen@gmail.com. More data on women in philosophy are available here.

    Follow us on Twitter @PhilosophyData and Facebook

    Session details:

    APA Committee Session: Diversity in Philosophy Journals

    Pacific APA, San Diego

    March 29, 2018, 9:00a-12:00p

    Sponsored by the Committee on Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies, the Committee on Inclusiveness in the Profession, the Committee on the Status and Future of the Profession, the Committee on the Status of Black Philosophers, the Committee on the Status of Women, the Committee on Hispanics, the Committee on LGBTQ People in the Profession, and MAP (Minorities And Philosophy).

    Chair:
    • Eric Schwitzgebel (University of California at Riverside)

    Speakers:
    • Liam Kofi Bright (Carnegie Mellon University)
    • Sherri Lynn Conklin (University of California at Santa Barbara)
    • Sally Haslanger (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
    • Nicole Hassoun (SUNY Binghamton and Cornell University)
    • Manyul Im (University of Bridgeport)
    • Meena Krishnamurthy (University of Michigan at Ann Arbor)
    • Anita Silvers (San Francisco State University)

    Panelists:
    • Bruce Barry (Vanderbilt University and editor in chief of Business Ethics Quarterly)
    • Christian Barry (Australian National University and co-editor of Journal of Political Philosophy)
    • David Boonin (University of Colorado at Boulder and editor of Public Affairs Quarterly)
    • Otavio Bueno (University of Miami and editor in chief of Synthese)
    • Stewart M. Cohen (University of Arizona and editor in chief of Philosophical Studies)
    • Graeme Forbes (University of Colorado at Boulder and editor in chief of Linguistics and Philosophy)
    • Peter J. Graham (University of California at Riverside and associate editor of Journal of the American Philosophical Association)
    • Stephen Hetherington (University of New South Wales and editor in chief of Australasian Journal of Philosophy)
    • Rebecca Kukla (Georgetown University and editor in chief of Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal)
    • Franklin Perkins (University of Hawai’i and editor in chief of Philosophy East and West)
    • Henry Richardson (Georgetown University and editor in chief of Ethics)
    • Achille Varzi (Columbia University and editor in chief of Journal of Philosophy)
    • Andrea Woody (University of Washington and editor in chief of Philosophy of Science)
    • Jack Zupko (University of Alberta and editor in chief of Journal of the History of Philosophy)
    • and representatives to be determined from Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Ergo, Hypatia, Philosophical Quarterly, and Philosophy and Public Affairs

    Thanks to Sherri Lynn Conklin for continuing help with this project.

    Friday, March 23, 2018

    Is Life Meaningful, or Is the World a Pointless Cesspool of Suffering and Death? New Scientific Evidence

    The poll results are in. With 1273 respondents to the SurveyMonkey version of my new Meaning Of Life Outcome Measure, we now have scientific evidence that life is meaningful!

    86% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement "There is value in living, either value that we can find if we search for it, or value that we ourselves can create" and only 6% disagreed or strongly disagreed. In contrast, only 31% of respondents agreed that "The world is a pointless cesspool of suffering and death" (49% disagreed). Interestingly, 24% of respondents agreed with both claims.

    Other results:

    Every moment, every breath, every success and every failure is a treasure to be cherished: 45% agree, 31% disagree.

    All the uses of this world are weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing: 24% agree, 57% disagree.

    Everything is just atoms bumping in the void, so nothing you do really matters: 46% agree, 37% disagree.

    It is better to have strived and struggled than never to have been: 68% agree, 15% disagree.

    On average, respondents reported being "moderately confident" of their answers, on a four-point scale from "not at all confident" to "highly confident" (mean 1.9 on 0-3 scale).

    Total Meaningfulness Score:

    To calculate a total Meaningfulness Score, each answer was assigned a score from -2 to +2. Respondents scored -2 for strongly agreeing with a negatively-valenced statement or strongly disagreeing with a positively-valenced statement, and they scored +2 for strongly agreeing with a positive statement or strongly disagreeing with a negative one. Across six questions, this gave a possible Meaningfulness Score of -12 to +12.

    Respondents were grouped into three categories:
    Life is meaningless (-12 to -2): 16%
    Meh (-1 to +1): 22%
    Life is meaningful (+2 to +12): 62%

    The average Meaningfulness Score was 2.7. This suggests that life is only slightly meaningful.

    Factor Analysis:

    After reverse-scoring the negatively-valenced items, an unrotated two-factor maximum likelihood exploratory factor analysis reveals a first factor (Life is Meaningful) explaining 32% of the variance, on which which all six questions loaded positively (.14 to .33), and a second factor (Acquiescence) explaining 10% of the variance, onto which the three positively-valenced questions loaded positively (.17, .26, and .46) and the negatively-valenced loaded negatively (-.14, -.28, -.28; since the latter are reverse-scored, this indicates agreement with the negatively-valenced statements). In a three-factor solution, the third variable explains only 6% of the variance, so a two-factor solution is preferred.

    Cronbach's alpha is .705, just above the standard acceptable threshold of .70, suggesting sufficient inter-item correlation for a useful psychometric scale that is aimed at a single underlying construct.

    In related news, God prefers spheres.

    Thursday, March 22, 2018

    The Meaning of Life Quiz as a Learning Outcomes Measure

    Somehow universities survived for centuries without any rigorous attempt to measure "learning outcomes". Fortunately, those days are over! Faculty must now prove to administrators that our students have learned something by taking our classes. And that means rigorous quantitative assessments of learning outcomes, with internal and external validity, test-retest reliability, and other desirable psychometric properties.

    The aim of philosophy is to discover the meaning of life. To properly assess whether students have in fact discovered the meaning of life by taking our classes, I propose a new Meaning Of Life Outcome Measure (MOLOM).

    [Update Mar 23: Poll results are in!] Please answer the following philosophical questions:

    1. Every moment, every breath, every success and every failure is a treasure to be cherished.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    2. The world is a pointless cesspool of suffering and death.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    3. There is value in living, either value that we can find if we search for it, or value that we ourselves can create.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    4. All the uses of this world are weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    5. Everything is just atoms bumping in the void, so nothing you do really matters.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    6. It is better to have strived and struggled than never to have been.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    7. How confident are you of your answers to the questions above?
    (not at all confident - slightly confident - moderately confident - highly confident)

    8. What is the meaning of life? (Or if life is meaningless, explain why.)
    (fill in the blank)

    Alternatively, take the SurveyMonkey version of the MOLOM.

    Your Meaningfulness Score:

    Score -2 to +2 points for strongly disagree to strongly agree on questions 1, 3, and 6.
    Score +2 to -2 points for strongly disagree to strongly agree on questions 2, 4, and 5.

    Interpreting your Meaningfulness Score (revised March 23):

    -12 to -2: Life is meaningless.
    -1 to +1: Meh.
    +2 to +12: Life is meaningful.

    Recommended Usage as an Outcome Measure:

    Administer the test at the beginning of philosophy instruction, then re-administer the test at the end of philosophy instruction.

    If a student's Meaningfulness Score rises, this shows that the student has discovered that life has meaning (or at least is not as meaningless as they had previously thought). If a student's Meaningfulness Score declines, this shows that the student has shed their foolish illusions (or at least that they have made progress toward shedding their illusions).

    If the student's confidence score rises, this shows that the student has solidified their understanding of the issues. If the student's confidence score declines, this shows that the student has begun to challenge their earlier presuppositions.

    If the answer in the text box changes, this shows that the student has come to a new understanding of these fundamental issues.

    Also examine the standard deviation of the scores (after first reverse scoring questions 2, 4, and 5). Compare the SD at the beginning of instruction with the SD at the end of instruction. If a student's standard deviation increases, conclude that the student has learned to see nuanced distinctions between these various claims. If a student's standard deviation decreases, conclude that the student has matured toward a more coherent worldview.

    The Meaning Of Life Outcome Measure is not yet fully validated, but I am optimistic that the MOLOM will prove to be the rigorously quantitative learning outcomes assessment tool that we need in philosophy.

    Tuesday, March 20, 2018

    Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book: Technology Posts

    As I mentioned last week, MIT Press will be publishing a book of my selected blog posts and op-eds. I've narrowed it down to a mere (!) 150 posts, in seven broad categories, and I'd love your input in helping me narrow it down more.

  • moral psychology (poll went live March 16)
  • technology (live as of today)
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge
  • culture and humor
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds
  • consciousness
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week I'll post a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. No need to rate all twenty! Just rate any posts or op-eds you remember. Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want.

    It would be a great help if you could answer some of these polls -- if only just to click "a favorite" next to a few you remember fondly. I will take this input seriously in selecting what to include in the book.

    Today's poll, 17 selected posts on philosophy of technology.

    Take the poll, and share widely!

    [image source]

    Friday, March 16, 2018

    Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book :-)

    As you might know, MIT Press will be publishing a book of my selected blog posts and op-eds. Of the 1100 posts and op-eds I've written since 2006, I've narrowed it down to about 150. I'd love your input in whittling it down some more.

    I can't ask you to rate all 150 pieces at one time -- too exhausting! So I'm splitting my posts into seven broad categories:

  • moral psychology (poll now live)
  • technology
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge
  • culture and humor
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds
  • consciousness
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week I'll post a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. No need to rate all twenty! Just rate any posts or op-eds you remember. Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want.

    It would be a great help if you could answer some of these polls -- if only just to click "a favorite" next to a few you remember fondly. I will take this input seriously in selecting what to include in the book.

    Here's the first poll, 23 selected posts on moral psychology.

    Take the poll, and share widely!

    [image source]

    Wednesday, March 14, 2018

    A New Measure of Life Satisfaction: The Riverside Life Satisfaction Scale

    Seth Margolis, Daniel Ozer, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and I have designed a new measure of overall life satisfaction. We believe that this measure improves on the most widely used multi-item measure of life satisfaction, Diener et al.'s Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985).

    Diener's SLWS consists of the following five questions, each answered on a 1-7 scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree":

    SWLS items:

  • In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
  • The conditions of my life are excellent.
  • I am satisfied with my life.
  • So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
  • If I could live my life over I would change almost nothing.
  • One often-noted feature of the SWLS is that the first four items are direct measures of current life satisfaction, whereas the fifth item concerns regret about the past. Accordingly, the fifth item generally has lower factor loadings onto the scale than the first four items, which are a more tightly clustered group that people tend to answer similarly. A more unified construct might cut the fifth item.

    However, we like the fifth item. Instead of cutting it, we think a good measure of life satisfaction should have more items like it, creating a broader target. To see why, consider a hypothetical respondent who answers the first four SWLS questions with "strongly agree" but who also feels intense envy of others' lives, is full of regrets, and wants to change their life path. Such a respondent, we think, should not be regarded as having maximum life satisfaction. Envy, regret, and desire to change are all either indirect signs of, or direct constituents of, dissatisfaction. A good measure of life satisfaction should include questions about them.

    It is this issue -- how should we conceptualize (and thus measure) life satisfaction -- that's my own central concern in this project. Readers familiar with my general approach to attitudes will be unsurprised to hear that I favor a broad, dispositional approach to overall life satisfaction. A person truly satisfied with their life is not just someone who is disposed to sincerely say "I'm satisfied" but someone who is also disposed to act and react generally in ways concordant with being satisfied, i.e., not desperately seeking to change their circumstances, not seething with envy at others' situations, etc.

    Also, in constructing a new measure, we wanted to have some reverse-scored, negatively-valenced items to mitigate acquiescence bias (that is, a tendency to say "yes" to most questions).

    Thus, we created a scale with three SWLS-like items and three reverse-scored, negatively-valenced items targeting envy, regret, and desire to change. The items are presented in random order and answered (like the SWLS) on a 1-7 scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree".

    RLSS items:

  • I like how my life is going.
  • If I could live my life over, I would change many things.
  • I am content with my life.
  • Those around me seem to be living better lives than my own.
  • I am satisfied with where I am in life right now.
  • I want to change the path my life is on.
  • To test this new measure, we ran three studies (all described in our final manuscript version). In Study 1, we selected the final six items above from a larger pool. Across the three studies, we examined inter-item correlations and factor loadings among our six selected items, and we correlated our new measure with the SWLS, the Big 5 personality traits, several demographic variables, measures of positive and negative emotions or affect, the Psychological Well-Being Scale, the Schwartz Values Survey, and a measure of socially desirable responding.

    The details are available in our paper, but a few highlights are:

    (1.) Despite our use of the three negatively-valenced indirect items targeting a broader underlying phenomenon, the SWLS and RLSS showed high and almost identical levels of internal consistency, suggesting that our addition of these items didn't harm the coherence and unity of the measure.

    (2.) The RLSS correlated highly with the SWLS (r = .88, .89), suggesting that most existing research relying on the SWLS would generate similar results had the RLSS been used instead. Thus, despite (we think) improvements, it is not targeting a radically different phenomenon.

    (3.) Finally, the RLSS consistently correlated slightly better than did the SWLS with measures of self-reported emotions, the Psychological Well Being Scale, and the Big 5 personality trait of Negative Emotionality. Thus, arguably, the RLSS is slightly more centrally located than the SWLS in this network of related psychological phenomena.

    [Thanks to Dan Haybron's Templeton grant for funding!]

    Thursday, March 08, 2018

    Engaging with Evil Art: Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors

    Last term, some grad students and I read Berys Gaut's book Art, Emotion, and Ethics. Gaut argues that although some morally noxious works of art have aesthetic merit, they never have aesthetic merit in virtue of their moral defects. If an ethically flawed work is aesthetically good, it is good despite that flaw, not because of the flaw.

    I find myself inclined to disagree. Sometimes art is more thought-provoking, or more challenging or horrifying, because of its moral defects -- thought-provoking, challenging, or horrifying in ways that make the work more engaging, giving the work a kind of aesthetic interest in virtue of its moral terribleness.

    Before I offer examples, two caveats:

    (1.) In praising the aesthetic merits that morally noxious artworks sometimes have in virtue of that very noxiousness, I don't commit to the view that being thought-provokingly morally awful outweighs other considerations. Some of these works should be overall condemned. Even just appreciating them aesthetically might be overall inappropriate, despite their merits. And the world might be better off had the works never been produced.

    (2.) I am (like Gaut) assuming pluralism about aesthetic value. Aesthetic value does not reduce entirely to beauty, for example. Being thought-provoking, challenging, or frightening can be (though it isn't always) as aesthetic merit in a work -- can be part of what makes a work aesthetically valuable.

    Two examples I've given some thought to are both films: Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors.

    Riefenstahl and Allen are of course both morally flawed people themselves: Riefenstahl a Nazi propagandist, Allen plausibly accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with minors, including in his own family. The moral noxiousness of their work might flow in part from their own personal ethical flaws -- but I don't want to rely on such biographical facts in evaluating the works. I discuss their work with considerable trepidation, because of the electricity of discussions of Nazism and of sexual abuse. Let me be clear that I will not be saying that their work is good despite its moral awfulness, as though we could simply bracket moral issues in aesthetic discussions. Instead, my view is that it is the moral awfulness itself that makes these otherwise not-so-great films interestingly distressing to contemplate.


    [image source]

    Consider Triumph of the Will. The film is fascinating, in part, because it is both (sometimes) beautiful and a work of Nazi propaganda. There's a horrifying tension between the beauty of the cinematography and the ugliness of the worldview it celebrates. It would not be nearly as horrifyingly fascinating if it didn't star Hitler -- my god, there he is, arguably the most evil man on Earth, being fawned over! -- if it were, say, a piece of Allied propaganda rather than Nazi propaganda.

    Furthermore, the fact that it is Nazi propaganda is not independent of the aesthetics of the film: It's not simply a beautiful film that happens (by sad chance) to be Nazi propaganda. The fascistic perspective is itself visible in some of its scenes -- for example, in the striking shots of masses of seemingly-identical troops standing in huge, almost inhuman formations, in the unity and uniformness of the crowds' mood and action, in the extreme deference to Hitler, in Hitler's superficially tempting sham-ethical perspective as he praises people who sacrifice and submit everything for the good of Germany and the new Reich.

    Triumph of the Will is fascinating not despite, but because of its moral horribleness. Proper viewing of it requires keeping that horribleness always in view at the same time one feels pulled into the beauty of a shot or feels sympathetically how an ordinary German of the period might be emotionally moved by Hitler's calls for self-sacrifice.

    Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is also, I think, fundamentally morally noxious, but in a different way. The film is clearly intended as a refutation of the idea of "immanent justice" of the sort one sees in Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky: the idea that crimes bring their own punishments naturally in their train. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, for example, the title character murders King Duncan, and this leads to other crimes, and torments of guilt, and fear, and ultimately a terrible death. In Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov commits a robbery, and it too leads to another crime (murder), and subsequent horrible guilt and fear; he never benefits, and he ends up driven to confess. Allen's plausible starting point is that the world doesn't reliably work this way. Often people commit horrible crimes, and get away with it, and don't feel too bad about it, and are better off in the end for having done so. As I've stated it so far, this isn't yet a claim about what one should do. It's just how the world happens to be, as portrayed in the film.

    The central ethical question of Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is how to approach life in light of the failure of immanent justice, that is, given that the wicked often flourish. Hypothetically, the message of the film could have been that you should act ethically anyway, even if you'll be worse off as a result, even if Shakespeare and the Bible and Dostoyevsky and children's tales are wrong, and crime does pay. That is presumably what Mengzi would say. But that is not, I think, the perspective conveyed in the film.

    In the perspective of the film, the lead character Judah, who murders his mistress so that she will not reveal their sexual affair to Judah's wife, proves to be the wisest character in the end. Wiser than the rabbi Ben, who thinks that you must have faith in God and trust in the moral order of the world, and wiser than Allen's own character Cliff who thinks that it would be unbearable to have an unconfessed murder on one's conscience. By the end of the film, Judah appears glad that he committed the murder in order to save his relationship with his wife. The implicit message of the film is that if morality conflicts with self-interest, sometimes the wisest course is to act unethically -- even to the point of murder to hide a sexual affair. As Judah's brother Jack says, "you only go around once." Don't let anyone else, or the demands of morality, ruin it for you.

    If this interpretation of the film is correct, then the film is morally noxious -- indeed, proudly so. (In its self-conscious rejection of morality, the film differs from Triumph of the Will.) This morally noxious message is central to the film's aesthetic interest: It is what makes it horrifying and dark, and a challenge to think through, and a lively criticism of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. If it didn't celebrate Judah's evil choice in a way that most of us would find morally odious, it would be a forgettable film.

    Contra Gaut, artworks that unapologetically celebrate evil, whether in full moral knowledge that they are doing so (Crimes and Misdemeanors) or without full moral knowledge (Triumph of the Will), can be aesthetically interesting exactly because of their moral noxiousness. They can be horrifyingly aesthetically fascinating, like a disaster that we loathe and condemn at the same time we can't look away -- but we needn't wish such disasters on the world or comfortably enjoy viewing them with a mouth full of popcorn.

    [revised 11:43 a.m.]

    March 9 ETA: I've been getting interesting pushback about my interpretation of Crimes and Misdemeanors (e.g., Taylor and Howard here. Let me say that the basis of my interpretation is primarily that, as I see it, Judah (the murderer) comes out looking wiser than any of the other characters. If the film were to be neutral between Judah's perspective and more moral perspectives, it would need, I think, a character who clearly recognizes the world's lack of moral order and yet chooses morality nonetheless. There is no such character.

    [Note: Somehow two different versions of this post went up. Slightly older version here.]

    Wednesday, March 07, 2018

    Engaging with Evil Art

    [Note: Somehow two different versions of this post went up. Slightly updated version here.] Last term, some grad students and I read Berys Gaut's book Art, Emotion, and Ethics. Gaut argues that although some morally noxious works of art have aesthetic merit, they never have aesthetic merit in virtue of their moral defects. If an ethically flawed work is aesthetically good, it is good despite that flaw, not because of the flaw.

    I find myself inclined to disagree. Sometimes art is more thought-provoking, or more challenging or horrifying, because of its moral defects -- thought-provoking, challenging, or horrifying in ways that make the work more engaging, giving the work a kind of aesthetic interest in virtue of its moral terribleness.

    Before I offer examples, two caveats:

    (1.) In praising the aesthetic merits that morally noxious artworks sometimes have in virtue of that very noxiousness, I don't commit to the view that being thought-provokingly morally awful outweighs other considerations. Some of these works should be overall condemned. Even just appreciating them aesthetically might be overall inappropriate, despite their merits. And the world might be better off had the works never been produced.

    (2.) I am (like Gaut) assuming pluralism about aesthetic value. Aesthetic value does not reduce entirely to beauty, for example. Being thought-provoking, challenging, or frightening can be (though it isn't always) as aesthetic merit in a work -- can be part of what makes a work aesthetically valuable.

    Two examples I've given some thought to are both films: Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors.

    Riefenstahl and Allen are of course both morally flawed people themselves: Riefenstahl a Nazi propagandist, Allen plausibly accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with minors, including in his own family. The moral noxiousness of their work might flow in part from their own personal ethical flaws -- but I don't want to rely on such biographical facts in evaluating the works. I discuss their work with considerable trepidation, because of the electricity of discussions of Nazism and of sexual abuse. Let me be clear that I will not be saying that their work is good despite its moral awfulness, as though we could simply bracket moral issues in aesthetic discussions. Instead, my view is that it is the moral awfulness itself that makes these otherwise not-so-great films interestingly distressing to contemplate.


    [image source]

    Consider Triumph of the Will. The film is fascinating, in part, because it is both (sometimes) beautiful and a work of Nazi propaganda. There's a horrifying tension between the beauty of the cinematography and the ugliness of the worldview it celebrates. It would not be nearly as horrifyingly fascinating if it didn't star Hitler -- my god, there he is, arguably the most evil man on Earth, being fawned over! -- if it were, say, a piece of Allied propaganda rather than Nazi propaganda.

    Furthermore, the fact that it is Nazi propaganda is not independent of the aesthetics of the film: It's not simply a beautiful film that happens (by sad chance) to be Nazi propaganda. The fascistic perspective is itself visible in some of its scenes -- for example, in the striking shots of masses of seemingly-identical troops standing in huge, almost inhuman formations, in the unity and uniformness of the crowds' mood and action, in the extreme deference to Hitler, in Hitler's superficially tempting sham-ethical perspective as he praises people who sacrifice and submit everything for the good of Germany and the new Reich.

    Triumph of the Will is fascinating not despite, but because of its moral horribleness. Proper viewing of it requires keeping that horribleness always in view at the same time one feels pulled into the beauty of a shot or feels sympathetically how an ordinary German of the period might be emotionally moved by Hitler's calls for self-sacrifice.

    Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is also, I think, fundamentally morally noxious, but in a different way. The film is clearly intended as a refutation of the idea of "immanent justice" of the sort one sees in Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky: the idea that crimes bring their own punishments naturally in their train. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, for example, the title character murders King Duncan, and this leads to other crimes, and torments of guilt, and fear, and ultimately a terrible death. In Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov commits a robbery, and it too leads to another crime (murder), and subsequent horrible guilt and fear; he never benefits, and he ends up driven to confess. Allen's plausible starting point is that the world doesn't reliably work this way. Often people commit horrible crimes, and get away with it, and don't feel too bad about it, and are better off in the end for having done so. As I've stated it so far, this isn't yet a claim about what one should do. It's just how the world happens to be, as portrayed in the film.

    The central ethical question of Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is how to approach life in light of the failure of immanent justice, that is, given that the wicked often flourish. Hypothetically, the message of the film could have been that you should act ethically anyway, even if you'll be worse off as a result, even if Shakespeare and the Bible and Dostoyevsky and children's tales are wrong, and crime does pay. That is presumably what Mengzi would say. But that is not, I think, the perspective conveyed in the film.

    In the perspective of the film, the lead character Judah, who murders his mistress so that she will not reveal their sexual affair to Judah's wife, proves to be the wisest character in the end. Wiser than the rabbi Ben, who thinks that you must have faith in God and trust in the moral order of the world, and wiser than Allen's own character Cliff who thinks that it would be unbearable to have an unconfessed murder on one's conscience. By the end of the film, Judah appears glad that he committed the murder in order to save his relationship with his wife. The implicit message of the film is that if morality conflicts with self-interest, sometimes the wisest course is to act unethically -- even to the point of murder. As Judah's brother Jack says, "you only go around once." Don't let anyone else, or the demands of morality, ruin it for you.

    If this interpretation of the film is correct, then the film is morally noxious -- indeed, proudly so. (In its self-conscious rejection of morality, the film differs from Triumph of the Will.) This morally noxious message is central to the film's aesthetic interest: It is what makes it horrifying and dark, and a challenge to think through, and a lively criticism of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. If it didn't celebrate Judah's evil choice in a way that most of us would find morally odious, it would be a forgettable film.

    Contra Gaut, artworks that unapologetically celebrate evil, whether in full moral knowledge that they are doing so (Crimes and Misdemeanors) or without full moral knowledge (Triumph of the Will), can be aesthetically interesting exactly because of their moral noxiousness. They can be horrifyingly aesthetically fascinating, like a beautiful horrible moral disaster that we loathe and condemn at the same time we can't look away.

    Or maybe you can look away, and should. For my moral psychological work on evil, I often need to read in detail about the Holocaust and Stalin's purges and other horrible episodes of human history; and maybe engaging with evil art is like that -- helping to fill out a perspective, but not something that anyone should feel obliged to do.

    March 9 ETA: I've been getting interesting pushback about my interpretation of Crimes and Misdemeanors (e.g., Taylor and Howard here. Let me say that the basis of my interpretation is primarily that, as I see it, Judah (the murderer) comes out looking wiser than any of the other characters. If the film were to be neutral between Judah's perspective and more moral perspectives, it would need, I think, a character who clearly recognizes the world's lack of moral order and yet chooses morality nonetheless. There is no such character.

    [revised 11:43 a.m.]

    Wednesday, February 28, 2018

    It's Not Just One Thing, to Believe There's a Gas Station on the Corner

    A couple of weekends ago, at the fabulous conference on the nature of belief at UC Santa Barbara, Elisabeth Camp said something that kind of bugged me. It wasn't her main point, and lots of philosophers say similar things, so I don't mean to criticize Camp specifically. Philosophers who say this sort of thing usually treat it as an obvious background assumption -- and in so doing, they reveal that they have a fundamentally different picture than I do of how the mind works.

    I'm not going to be able to quote Camp exactly, but the idea was roughly this: If you and I both believe that there's a gas station on the corner, then we believe exactly the same thing. That is, we believe that there is a gas station on the corner. Furthermore, this thing that we both believe is exactly the same thing that I convey to Nicholle when I then turn to her and say, while you nod, "There is a gas station on the corner."

    Of course, we might disagree about some related propositions. Maybe I think it's a Shell and you think it's a Chevron. Maybe I think that the corner is next to the freeway onramp and you think it's two blocks from the onramp. But still, we are in perfect agreement about the particular proposition that there is a gas station on the corner.

    Suppose that Nicholle is new to town and almost out of gas, and that's why the topic arose. Now, plausibly, I might almost as easily have said "There's a gas station over by the onramp" or "There's a Shell on the corner" or "There's a station -- maybe a Shell? -- just over that way [pointing]" or "I think you can get gas just down that road a bit" or.... Quite a few things, some of which you would have agreed with, some you would have disagreed with ("There's a Shell on the corner"), and still others that would have been awkward in your mouth but with which you might not have exactly disagreed (... "maybe a Shell"...).

    On one view of the mind and of communication -- the view that seems to me implicit in Camp's remark -- there's a fact of the matter exactly which propositions about this topic I believe and which I don't (and maybe which I have some intermediate credence in). All of the propositions that I might naturally have said (barring exaggeration, metaphor, misstep, etc.) are among the things I believe. Quite a large number! Somewhere on this large list is exactly the belief "there is a gas station on the corner"; and since that's what I ended up saying, that's the content I conveyed to Nicholle; and you, Nicholle, and I now share precisely this belief.

    One challenge for this picture, and maybe the first source of trouble, is determining which propositions should go on the "yes I believe it" list. It might have been inept of me, but not beyond the pale, to say "Probably there's either a Shell or a 76, like, near that big blue building and the colorful sign with the flowers or is it cactus, you know, after that underpass we took on the way into campus, I think, if you were with us then?" Is that among the propositions I believe? It gets even worse if we forget conversational pragmatics and focus simply on cognition or philosophy of mind. Do I believe that there's a gas station less than 1 mile away, and less than 1.1 miles away, and less than 1.2 miles away, and... closer than Los Angeles and closer than where Saul Kripke probably lives, and farther than the parking lot, and farther than where Brianna (or was it Jordy?) accidentally left her laptop.... It looks like the list of propositions that I believe might be infinite and difficult to determine the boundaries of.

    A second challenge is specifying the content of this proposition "there's a gas station on the corner" which you, Nicholle, and I supposedly all believe. Which states of affairs are such that this belief is true and which are such that it's false? What counts as a "gas station"? (What if there's a 7-11 with a single pump, or a single broken pump, or a single pump that is closed for construction, or a guy who illegally sells gas from a parked tanker truck?) Which possible layouts of nearby streets are such that "the corner" determinately refers to the corner on which the gas station is located? (What if one of us is wrong about the direction of the corner relative to us and the freeway? What if there are two gas stations and three corners?) If you, Nicholle, and I disagree about what would count as there being a gas station on the corner, do we not in fact have the same belief? Or do we still have exactly the same belief but we're somehow wrong in our understanding of its satisfaction conditions?

    A fine mess! Now I don't really mind messes. It's a messy world. But our messy world demands a messy philosophy of mind and a messy philosophy of language -- and the fundamental problem with the view I'm criticizing is that it demands cleanliness: You and I believe exactly these things and exactly not these others; belief contents are precise, and shared, and delivered in sentence-sized packages.

    So here's the alternative picture I prefer. You and I both have a wide range of dispositions to act, and reflect, and say things aloud to each other and silently to ourselves, concerning the presence or absence or location of that gas station or that Shell or whatever it is. For example, I'm disposed not to worry about whether it's possible to get gas nearby if the question arises; I feel like I know there's gas nearby. Also, I'm disposed to say "yes" if someone asks if there's a Shell around. If I wanted gas, I would drive a certain direction, and I'd feel surprise if it turned out badly. I'm disposed to form certain visual imagery if asked about nearby gas stations, etc., etc. You have a partially overlapping, partially divergent set of dispositions. Like me, you are disposed to drive roughly that direction if you want to get gas; unlike me, you'd be surprised by the Shell sign.

    Of course, I can't convey to Nicholle in three seconds this whole chaotic tangle which constitutes my belief state concerning that Shell station -- so I choose some simplification of it to put into words, pragmatically focused on what I think is the most relevant thing: "There's a gas station on the corner". This isn't *exactly* what I believe. Exactly what I believe is immensely complex, maybe infinitely so, and certainly beyond my ability to shape into a shareable linguistic package.

    You and I "share" the belief about the gas station in roughly the same way you and I might both share a personality trait. Maybe we're both extraverted. But of course the exact shape of our extraversion differs in detail: We'd say yes to a somewhat different range of party invitations, we'd be gregarious and talkative in somewhat different ranges of situations. To say we're both "extraverted" is blunt tool to get at a much more complex phenomenon beneath; but good enough for practical purposes, if we don't care about a high degree of precision.

    ETA 1:55 PM, Feb. 28:

    Elisabeth Camp and I had an email exchange about this post, which with her permission I've added to The Underblog here.

    ----------------------------------------

    Related:

    "A Dispositional Approach to Attitudes: Thinking Outside of the Belief Box", in N. Nottelmann, ed., New Essays on Belief (Palgrave, 2013).

    "A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief", Nous, 36 (2002) 249-275.

    [image source]

    Thursday, February 22, 2018

    Why Moral and Philosophical Disagreements Are Especially Fertile Grounds for Rationalization (with Jon Ellis)

    (with Jonathan E. Ellis; originally appeared at the Imperfect Cognitions blog)

    Last week we argued that your intelligence, vigilance, and academic expertise very likely doesn't do much to protect you from the normal human tendency towards rationalization – that is, from the tendency to engage in biased patterns of reasoning aimed at justifying conclusions to which you are attracted for selfish or other epistemically irrelevant reasons – and that, in fact, you may be more susceptible to rationalization than the rest of the population. This week we’ll argue that moral and philosophical topics are especially fertile grounds for rationalization.

    Here’s one way of thinking about it: Rationalization, like crime, requires a motive and an opportunity. Ethics and philosophy provide plenty of both.

    Regarding motive: Not everyone cares about every moral and philosophical issue of course. But we all have some moral and philosophical issues that are near to our hearts – for reasons of cultural or religious identity, or personal self-conception, or for self-serving reasons, or because it’s comfortable, exciting, or otherwise appealing to see the world in a certain way.

    On day one of their philosophy classes, students are often already attracted to certain types of views and repulsed by others. They like the traditional and conservative, or they prefer the rebellious and exploratory; they like confirmations of certainty and order, or they prefer the chaotic and skeptical; they like moderation and common sense, or they prefer the excitement of the radical and unintuitive. Some positions fit with their pre-existing cultural and political identities better than others. Some positions are favored by their teachers and elders – and that’s attractive to some, and provokes rebellious contrarianism in others. Some moral conclusions may be attractively convenient, while others might require unpleasant contrition or behavior change.

    The motive is there. So is the opportunity. Philosophical and moral questions rarely admit of straightforward proof or refutation, or a clear standard of correctness. Instead, they open into a complexity of considerations, which themselves do not admit of straightforward proof and which offer many loci for rationalization.

    These loci are so plentiful and diverse! Moral and philosophical arguments, for instance, often turn crucially on a “sense of plausibility” (Kornblith, 1999); or on one’s judgment of the force of a particular reason, or the significance of a consideration. Methodological judgments are likewise fundamental in philosophical and moral thinking: What argumentative tacks should you first explore? How much critical attention should you pay to your pre-theoretic beliefs, and their sources, and which ones, in which respects? How much should you trust your intuitive judgments versus more explicitly reasoned responses? Which other philosophers, and which scientists (if any), should you regard as authorities whose judgments carry weight with you, and on which topics, and how much?

    These questions are usually answered only implicitly, revealed in your choices about what to believe and what to doubt, what to read, what to take seriously and what to set aside. Even where they are answered explicitly, they lack a clear set of criteria by which to answer them definitively. And so, if people’s preferences can influence their perceptual judgments (including possibly of size, color, and distance: Balcetis and Dunning 2006, 2007, 2010) what is remembered (Kunda 1990; Mele 2001), what hypotheses are envisioned (Trope and Liberman 1997), what one attends to and for how long (Lord et al. 1979; Nickerson 1998) . . . it is no leap to assume that they can influence the myriad implicit judgments, intuitions, and choices involved in moral and philosophical reasoning.

    Furthermore, patterns of bias can compound across several questions, so that with many loci for bias to enter, the person who is only slightly biased in each of a variety of junctures in a line of reasoning can ultimately come to a very different conclusion than would someone who was not biased in the same way. Rationalization can operate by way of a series or network of “micro-instances” of motivated reasoning that together have a major amplificatory effect (synchronically, diachronically, or both), or by influencing you mightily at a crucial step (Ellis, manuscript).

    We believe that these considerations, taken together with the considerations we advanced last week about the likely inability of intelligence, vigilance, and expertise to effectively protect us against rationalization, support the following conclusion: Few if any of us should confidently maintain that our moral and philosophical reasoning is not substantially tainted by significant, epistemically troubling degrees of rationalization. This is of course one possible explanation of the seeming intractability of philosophical disagreement.

    Or perhaps we the authors of the post are the ones rationalizing; perhaps we are, for some reason, drawn toward a certain type of pessimism about the rationality of philosophers, and we have sought and evaluated evidence and arguments toward this conclusion in a badly biased manner? Um…. No way. We have reviewed our reasoning and are sure that we were not affected by our preferences....

    For our full-length paper on this topic, see here.

    Wednesday, February 21, 2018

    Rationalization: Why Your Intelligence, Vigilance and Expertise Probably Don't Protect You (with Jon Ellis)

    (with Jonathan E. Ellis; originally appeared at the Imperfect Cognitions blog)

    We’ve all been there. You’re arguing with someone – about politics, or a policy at work, or about whose turn it is to do the dishes – and they keep finding all kinds of self-serving justifications for their view. When one of their arguments is defeated, rather than rethinking their position they just leap to another argument, then maybe another. They’re rationalizing –coming up with convenient defenses for what they want to believe, rather than responding even-handedly to the points you're making. You try to point it out, but they deny it, and dig in more.

    More formally, in recent work we have defined rationalization as what occurs when a person favors a particular view as a result of some factor (such as self-interest) that is of little justificatory epistemic relevance, and then engages in a biased search for and evaluation of justifications that would seem to support that favored view.

    You, of course, never rationalize in this way! Or, rather, it doesn’t usually feel like you do. Stepping back, you’ll probably admit you do it sometimes. But maybe less than average? After all, you’re a philosopher, a psychologist, an expert in reasoning – or at least someone who reads blog posts about philosophy, psychology, and reasoning. You're especially committed to the promotion of critical thinking and fair-minded reasoning. You know about all sorts of common fallacies, and especially rationalization, and are on guard for them in your own thinking. Don't these facts about you make you less susceptible to rationalization than people with less academic intelligence, vigilance, and expertise?

    We argue that no. You’re probably just as susceptible to post-hoc rationalization, maybe even more, than the rest of the population, though the ways it manifests in your reasoning may be different. Vigilance, academic intelligence, and disciplinary expertise are not overall protective against rationalization. In some cases, they might even enhance one’s tendency to rationalize, or make rationalizations more severe when they occur.

    While some biases are less prevalent among those who score high on standard measures of academic intelligence, others appear to be no less frequent or powerful. Stanovich, West and Toplak (2013), reviewing several studies, find that the degree of myside bias is largely independent of measures of intelligence and cognitive ability. Dan Kahan finds that on several measures people who use more “System 2” type explicit reasoning show higher rates of motivated cognition rather than lower rates (2011, 2013, Kahan et al 2011). Thinkers who are more knowledgeable have more facts to choose from when constructing a line of motivated reasoning (Taber and Lodge 2006; Braman 2009).

    Nor does disciplinary expertise appear to be protective. For instance, Schwitzgebel and Cushman (2012, 2015) presented moral dilemma scenarios to professional philosophers and comparison groups of non-philosophers, followed by the opportunity to endorse or reject various moral principles. Professional philosophers were just as prone to irrational order effects and framing effects as were the other groups, and were also at least as likely to “rationalize” their manipulated scenario judgments by appealing to principles post-hoc in a way that would render those manipulated judgments rational.

    Furthermore, since the mechanisms responsible for rationalization are largely non-conscious, vigilant introspection is not liable to reveal to the introspector that rationalization has occured. This may be one reason for the “bias blind spot”: People tend to regard themselves as less biased than others, sometimes even exhibiting more bias by objective measures the less biased they believe themselves to be (Pronin, Gilovich and Ross 2004; Uhlmann and Cohen 2005). Indeed, efforts to reduce bias and be vigilant can amplify bias. You examine your reasoning for bias, find no bias because of your bias blind spot, and then inflate your confidence that your reasoning is not biased: “I really am being completely objective and reasonable!” (as suggested in Erhlinger, Gilovich and Ross 2005). People with high estimates of their objectivity might also be less likely to take protective measures against bias (Scopeletti et al 2015).

    Partisan reasoning can be invisible to vigilant introspection for another reason: it need not occur in one fell swoop, at a sole moment or a particular inference. Rather, it can be the result of a series or network of “micro-instances” of motivated reasoning (Ellis, manuscript). Celebrated cases of motivated reasoning typically involve a person whose evidence clearly points to one thing (that it’s their turn, not yours, to do the dishes) but who believes the very opposite (that it’s your turn). But motives can have much subtler consequences.

    Many judgments admit of degrees, and motives can have impacts of small degree. They can affect the likelihood you assign to an outcome, or the confidence you place in a belief, or the reliability you attribute to a source of information, or the threshold for cognitive action (e.g., what would trigger your pursuit of an objection). They can affect these things in large or very small ways.

    Such micro-instances (you might call it motivated reasoning lite) can have significant amplificatory effects. This can happen over time, in a linear fashion. Or it can happen synchronically, spread over lots of assumptions, presuppositions, and dispositions. Or both. If introspection doesn't reveal motivated reasoning that happens in one fell swoop, micro-instances are liable to be even more elusive.

    This is another reason for the sobering fact that well-meaning epistemic vigilance cannot be trusted to preempt or detect rationalization. Indeed, people who care most about reasoning, or who have a high “need for cognition”, or who attend to their cognitions most responsibly, may be the most impacted of all. Their learned ability to avoid the more obvious types of reasoning errors may naturally come with cognitive tools that enable more sophisticated, but still unnoticed, rationalization.

    Coming tomorrow: Why Moral and Philosophical Disagreements Are Especially Fertile Grounds for Rationalization.

    Full length article on the topic here.

    Wednesday, February 14, 2018

    Philosophy Relies on Those Double Majors

    Happy Valentine's Day! Because I love you, here are some statistics.

    Following a suggestion by Eric Winsberg, I decided to look at the IPEDS database from the National Center for Education Statistics to see how commonly Philosophy is chosen as a second major, compared to as a first major, among Bachelor's degree recipients in the United States.

    I examined data from all U.S. institutions in the database, over the three most recent available academic years (2013-2014, 2014-2015, and 2015-2016), sorting completed majors by the IPEDS top-level major categories (2010 CIP two-digit classification), except replacing 38 "Philosophy and Religious Studies" with 38.01 "Philosophy". Separately I downloaded the grand totals of completed first and second majors across the U.S.

    In all, across all institutions, 5,680,665 students completed a first major. Of these, 289,639 (4.9%) also completed a second major. Not many students earn second majors!

    However, the ratios vary greatly by discipline. In all, 24,542 students earned a Philosophy major, of which 5,015 (20.4%) earned it as a second major. At a minimum, then, 20% of Philosophy majors are double majors. If half of those double majors choose to list Philosophy as their first major, then 40% of Philosophy majors in the U.S. are double majors. Unfortunately, the NCES database doesn't allow us to see how many of the people with first majors in Philosophy also had second majors in something else. Forty percent might be too high an estimate, if double majors who have Philosophy as one of their majors disproportionately list Philosophy as their second major. But even if 30%, rather than 40%, of Philosophy majors carry Philosophy along with some other major, that is still a substantial proportion.

    Here's another way of looking at the data: 0.3% of students choose Philosophy as a first major, while among those who decide to take a second major, 1.7% choose Philosophy.

    Across all 37 top-level categories of major (excluding from analysis the top-level category Philosophy & Religious Studies), only two had a higher percentage of students completing the major as a second major: Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics (28.5%), and Area, Ethnic, Cultural, Gender and Group Studies (26.2%). Let's call this the Second Major Percentage. In this respect, Philosophy is quite different from two of the other big humanities majors with which Philosophy is often compared: English Language and Literature (7.2%) and History (9.3%). Interestingly, Mathematics, which is often regarded as a very different type of major, ranks fourth, with a Second Major Percentage of 14.4%.

    Here's a breakdown among all top-level majors with at least 10,000 completed degrees in the three-year period:


    [apologies for the blurry rendering; click to enlarge; correction: the second "Engineering Technologies" should be simply "Engineering"]

    Last fall, I presented data showing the precipitous decline in Philosophy majors in the past few years -- from 0.58% of all graduates to 0.39% of all graduates. One hypothesis, which I thought worth considering, is that Philosophy tends disproportionately to rely on double majors, and it is increasingly difficult for students to earn a second major. However, I now think that a decline in second majors can't be the primary explanation for the decline of the Philosophy major. First, although the percentage of students earning a second major has declined somewhat in the period -- from 5.4% in 2009-2010 to 5.1% in 2015-2016 -- that is small compared to the magnitude of the decline in Philosophy, where completions are down by 19% in absolute numbers and about a third in relative percentages. Second, we saw similar declines in English and History, and those disciplines don't appear to be as reliant on students' declaring a second major.

    That said, Philosophy does appear to rely heavily on double majors, so we might expect policies that reduce the likelihood of double majoring to disproportionately harm Philosophy programs. Such policies might include increasing the requirements for other popular majors, increasing general education requirements (apart from G.E. requirements in Philosophy, of course), and increasing pressure to complete the degree quickly.

    To further explore the question, I divided the colleges and universities into two categories: those with a high rate of double majoring (>= 10% of graduating students have two majors) vs those with a low-to-medium rate of double majoring (< 10%), excluding institutions with < 300 Bachelor's degree recipients over the three-year period. As expected, at institutions where students commonly complete second majors, about three times as high a percentage of students completed Philosophy degrees than at institutions where students less commonly complete second majors: 9240/935419 (1.0%) vs. 14876/4656563 (0.3%; p << .001).

    Direction of causation is of course hard to know. These groups of institutions will differ in many other respects too, and that is very likely to be part of the causal story, maybe most of the causal story. And yet, the following fact is suggestive: The four majors that differ most in percentage between the two groups of universities, as measured by the ratio of percentage of students completing the major at the high-double-major schools to the percentage completing the major at the low-double major schools, those are exactly the same four majors that have the highest rate of second majors in the overall dataset.

    That's a little abstractly put, so let me give you the breakdown for the highest-ratio majors, so you can see where this is coming from:

    Area, Ethnic, Cultural, Gender and Group Studies: 1.5% of majors at high-double-major schools vs. 0.4% at low-double-major schools, ratio 4.1.
    Philosophy: 1.0% vs. 0.3%, ratio 3.1
    Foreign Languages and Literatures: 3.2% vs. 1.1%, ratio 3.0
    Mathematics: 2.8% vs. 1.1%, ratio 2.7

    I need a good name for this ratio, but I can't think of one, so let's just call it The Ratio. Of course, the median Ratio is about 1.0. History and English both have Ratios of 1.9, which is substantially above 1.0, but not as high as these other four.

    In other words, perhaps unsurprisingly, the four majors that students are disproportionately most likely to declare as second majors are exactly the same four majors that show the greatest difference in completions between schools where lots of students have double majors and schools where few do.

    With a few exceptions, most notably Biology (a Second Major Percentage of only 2.7%, but a Ratio of 1.7), the relationship is reasonably tidy. The correlation between the natural log of each major's Ratio with each major's Second Major Percentage is r = .76 (p < .001; excluding majors with < 1000 completions in either group of universities; natural log to improve spread near zero). Here it is as a scatterplot:


    [click to enlarge]

    So although it seems unlikely that the recent sharp decline in Philosophy majors is due primarily to a decline in the overall proportion of students declaring two majors, it remains plausible that conditions that are good for double-majoring in general may be good for the Philosophy major in particular.

    Related posts:

    Sharp Declines in Philosophy, History, and Language Majors Since 2010 (Dec 14, 2017)

    Philosophy Undergraduate Majors Aren't Very Black, but Neither Are They as White as You Might Have Thought (Dec 21, 2017)

    Women Have Been Earning 30-34% of Philosophy BAs in the U.S. Since Approximately Forever* (Dec 8, 2017).

    Thursday, February 08, 2018

    Is Consciousness Sparse or Abundant? Five Dimensions of Analysis

    Consciousness -- that is, "phenomenal" consciousness, the stream of experience, subjective experience, "what-it's-like"-ness -- might be sparse, or it might be abundant. There might be lots of it, or there might be very little. This might be so along at least five different dimensions of analysis.

    Entity sparseness vs. entity abundance. Consciousness might be sparse in the sense that few entities in the universe possess it, or it might be abundant in the sense that many entities in the universe possess it. Someone who thinks that consciousness is entity-abundant might think that insects are conscious, and snails, maybe earthworms -- all kinds of entities with sensory systems. They might also think that computers could soon have conscious experiences, if designed in the right way. At the extreme, they might accept panpsychism -- the view that every entity in the universe is conscious, even isolated hydrogen ions in outer space. In contrast, someone who thinks that consciousness is entity-sparse is much more conservative, seeing consciousness on Earth as limited, for example, only to cognitively sophisticated mammals and birds, or in the extreme only to adult human beings with sophisticated self-reflective powers.

    State sparseness vs. state abundance. An entity who is conscious might be conscious all the time or only once in a while. Someone who thinks that consciousness is state abundant might think that even when we aren't in REM sleep we have dreams or dreamlike experiences or at least experiences of some sort. They might think that when we're driving absent-mindedly and can't remember a thing, we don't really blank out completely. In contrast, someone who thinks that consciousness is state sparse would hold that we are often not conscious at all. Consciousness might disappear entirely during long periods of dreamless sleep, or during habitual activity, or maybe during "flow" states of skillful activity. Someone who holds to extreme state sparseness might say that we are almost never actually phenomenally conscious, except in rare moments of explicit self-reflection.

    Modality sparseness vs. modality abundance. An entity who is currently state conscious might be conscious in lots of modalities at once or in only one or few modalities at a time. For example, a minute ago, as you were reading the previous paragraph, did you have visual experience of the computer screen? Did you also have auditory experience of the hum of the fan in your room (to which I assume you weren't attending)? Did you have tactile experience of your feet in your shoes? Did you hear the words of that paragraph in inner speech? Did you have relevant visual imagery? Were you also simultaneously having emotional experience, a lingering feeling of hunger, etc., etc.? Someone who accepts modality abundance thinks that we have many types or modalities of experience ongoing most of the time when we are conscious. In contrast, someone who accepts modality sparseness thinks that we have only one or a few modalities of experience at any one time -- for example, no experience at all of the feeling of your feet in your shoes when your attention is elsewhere.

    Modality width. Within a modality that is currently conscious in an entity at a time, the stream of experience might be broad or it might be narrow. Consider visual experience as you are reading. Do you have visual experience only of a few degrees of visual arc, whatever is near the center of your attention? Or do you have visual experience all the way out to the edge, including the rim of your computer screen, the rims of your glasses, the tip of your nose, almost 180 degrees of arc? Or somewhere in between -- maybe the whole computer screen and its rim, but little beyond that? Someone with a sparse view about visual modal width thinks that visual experience is usually (maybe until you think to attend to the periphery) only of a few degrees of arc. Someone with an abundant view might think that we basically experience the full 180 degrees of the visual field all the time when we have any visual experience at all. Analogous issues arise for other modalities. Do you have auditory experience only of the conversation to which you are attending, or also of the background noise? Is your visual imagery sketchily minimal or full of detail? Is your emotional experience a minimal valence and label or is it a very specifically embodied feeling?

    Property sparseness vs. property abundance. Consider visual experience again. You are looking at a tree. According to one view, all you visually experience are low-level properties like color, shape, and orientation. You know it's a tree, but the "treeness" of it isn't part of your visual experience. (Maybe you have a cognitive experience of thinking "tree!" but that's a different modality.) According to another view, your visual experience is not just of simple low-level properties but instead of a wealth of properties. It's part of your visual experience, for example, that it's a tree, and that it looks ancient, and that it invites climbing, and that the leaves look about ready to fall.

    Philosophers and consciousness scientists have recently been arguing in all kinds of interesting ways about various of these issues in isolation, but I can't recall seeing a good structuring of the landscape of options here which both captures the many different mix-and-match possibilities here, while also recognizing that all of the "abundant" views have something in common (consciousness is widespread and multifarious; it's easy to generate lots of types of it) and all of the "sparse" views have something in common (consciousness is rare and limited in its forms).

    [image source]