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

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....

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.

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]

Friday, February 02, 2018

Designing AI with Rights, Consciousness, Self-Respect, and Freedom (with Mara Garza)

New paper in draft!


We propose four policies of ethical design of human-grade Artificial Intelligence. Two of our policies are precautionary. Given substantial uncertainty both about ethical theory and about the conditions under which AI would have conscious experiences, we should be cautious in our handling of cases where different moral theories or different theories of consciousness would produce very different ethical recommendations. Two of our policies concern respect and freedom. If we design AI that deserves moral consideration equivalent to that of human beings, that AI should be designed with self-respect and with the freedom to explore values other than those we might selfishly impose. We are especially concerned about the temptation to create human-grade AI pre-installed with the desire to cheerfully sacrifice itself for its creators’ benefit.

Full version here. As always, comments and critical discussion welcome, either by email to me or as comments on this post.

[image source]

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Philosophical Overton Window?

It seems like I've been hearing a lot recently about the "Overton Window" in politics. The idea is that there's a range of normal policy positions (within the window), which a politician can be adopt without being regarded as radical or extreme; and then there are radical or extreme positions, outside of the window. Over time, what is within the window can change. Gay marriage, for example, was outside of the window in U.S. politics in the 1980s, then entered the window in the 1990s or early 2000s.

A common thought is that one way to move the window is to prominently voice a position so extreme that a somewhat less extreme position seems moderate in comparison, and perhaps enters the window. After Bernie Sanders starts saying "free college education for everyone!", maybe "only" offering $10,000 toward every student's tuition no longer seems extreme.

Before going further, a big heaping caveat. I figured I'd go back to the original Overton article to confirm that the picture in the popular press conforms to the scholarship. (Reports of the Dunning-Kruger effect, for example, which is also recently hot in blogs and op-eds, often do not.)

And... whoops. There is no Overton article! There is no scholarship. Not unless you count Glenn Beck. This Joseph P. Overton was a not-very-well-known libertarian think-tank guy who died in a plane crash before writing the idea up. As far as I can tell, this is as close as we get to the root scholarly source. (See also Laura Marsh's discussion.)

Still, the idea has some theoretical appeal. Might it capture some of the dynamics in philosophy?

For it to work, first we'd need some sense of what positions qualify as extreme and what positions qualify as moderate in a philosophical cultural context. Then we'd need some way of measuring (through citations?) the increasing visibility of an extreme position and see if that opens up "moderate" philosophers to positions that they might previously have regarded as too extreme.

Here's one possibility: Panpsychism is the view that everything in the universe is conscious, even elementary particles. Generally, it's regarded as an extreme position. However, it has recently been gaining visibility. If the Overton Window idea is correct, then we might expect some formerly "extreme" positions in that direction, but not as extreme as panpsychism, to come to seem less extreme or maybe even moderate.

Hmmmmm. I'm not sure it's so. A couple of obvious candidates are group consciousness and plant cognition. These would seem to be less extreme positions in the same direction as panpsychism, since instead of ascribing mind or consciousness to everything, they extend it to a only limited range of things that aren't usually regarded as having mental lives. If the Overton Window idea is right, then, given the increasing visibility of radical panpsychism, group consciousness and plant cognition will come to seem less extreme than they previously were.

Hard to tell if that's true. Both positions are probably more popular now than they were 15 years ago (in academic Anglophone philosophy), but they'd still probably be considered extreme.

Eh. You know what? My heart isn't in it. I'm too bummed about the Glenn Beck thing. I wanted this to be an idea with a more solid scholarly foundation.

[image source]

Thursday, January 25, 2018

On Not Blogging While Jetlagged

Okay, I was all set to put up a blog post today about whether we can aesthetically appreciate evil artworks like Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. But my head is spinning with jetlag, and it's such a difficult issue to talk about well that I want to be sure that I get it just right. So I think I'd better refrain on the final revisions of that post until my head feels less cloudy.

I'm also thinking about moral uncertainty and whether it makes sense to endorse a "precautionary principle" that recommends avoiding doing anything egregiously bad according to any moral principle or worldview that meets some criterion of reasonableness and wide acceptance, even if that's not a principle or worldview that you endorse. But I'm not ready to write about that yet either! (Some discussion is on my public Facebook feed here.)

Regular visitors to The Splintered Mind will know that I try to post at least one thing a week, but I guess I'll have to give this week a pass.

Greetings from Scotland!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Flying Free of the Deathbed, with Technological Help

Today marks the third year since the death of my father, Kirkland Gable. (Some memories of him here.) I now better understand than I once did why the ancient Confucian tradition recommends three years' mourning for one's parents. To my surprise -- since we had only been in contact about once a month before his death -- I find myself almost every day still thinking about his absence.

My father spent the final twenty years of his life severely disabled and often bedridden. Among his many maladies, he suffered from severe Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome in one foot, which meant that he was in constant pain which would be seriously aggravated, sometimes for weeks, from even mild exertion, such as ten minutes' walking, or jostling the foot too much during sleep or while in a wheelchair. It was, I believe, ultimately the CRiPS that killed him, through the side effects of long-term narcotics and the bodily harm from spending years almost immobile in bed.

I have often wished, during his final years, that we could have freed him from his horrible bed. I've tried this in imagination many times, attempting to write it up as a science fiction story. But the story never seems to come out right. Today, instead of the story I can't yet write, let me discuss a technological innovation that I think would be interesting for people who are bedridden.

The core idea is simple and would be easy to implement. Probably, it is already being implemented somewhere. (Links and info welcome!) Equip an able-bodied volunteer, the "Host", with a camera above each eye and a microphone by each ear. Equip the bedridden person, the "Rider", with VR gear that immersively presents these audiovisual stimuli to Rider's eyes and ears. Also equip Rider with a microphone to speak with Host, directly into Host's ear. Now send Host on a trip. During this trip, let Host be guided mainly by Rider's expressed desires, going where Rider wants, looking where Rider wants to look, stopping and listening where Rider wants to stop and listen. Unlike VR tours as they currently exist, Host can interact with and alter the environment in real time. Rider could have Host lift a flower and turn it in their hands, then cast the flower into a stream and watch it drift away. Host could purchase goods or services on Rider's behalf. Host could conduct a conversation through Rider, interacting with locals by having Rider speak Host's words verbatim.

(In the psychology literature, speaking the words of another immediately upon hearing them quietly projected into your ear is called "conversational shadowing". In his career as a psychologist, my father was involved in some early shadowing studies. Shadowing can be surprisingly fast and smooth once one gets the hang of it, with utterances almost simultaneous as the host half-anticipates the rider's next word.)

A more ambitious Host-Rider setup would employ VR gloves. As I imagine it, Rider and Host wear matching gloves. These gloves are synchronized to move in exactly the same way -- of course with quick escape overrides and perhaps with Rider's motions damped down to prevent overextension or bumping into unseen obstacles near the bed. This would take some excellent technological chicanery with good motion tracking (Nintendo Wii, improved) and some way of restricting or guiding the movements of the gloves on each end, perhaps using magnetic fields, so that when Rider wants to move a hand on vector W and Host wants to move it on vector V, the result is some compromise vector (barring safety override). An intuitive collaboration would be necessary between Rider and Host, and gentle, predictable movements. With practice, I think it would not be unfeasible, at least in safe and simple environments, for Rider to feel as though it is almost their hands that are moving in the virtual environment. This could be further enhanced with tactile feedback -- that is, if pressure sensors in Host's gloves communicated with actuators in Rider's gloves that exerted corresponding pressures in corresponding locations.

(Here, compare the Rubber Hand or Body Transfer Illusion. I have been a participant in some body transfer experiments and have informally conducted others at home with friends and family. It is amazing how flexible one's sense of one's bodily shape, position, and boundaries can be, given suggestive feedback!)

A final, expensive, risky, and much more conjectural step here -- probably a step too far -- would involve equipping Host and Rider with helmets with brain-imaging technology and the capacity for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (or some other ability to directly stimulate or suppress brain activity). For example, for a fuller tactile experience, activity in Host's primary somatosensory cortex could be tracked, and a vague, faint echo of it could be stimulated in matching areas in Rider's cortex. One wouldn't want too much synchrony, and anyhow brains differ somewhat in their organizational structure, even in fairly similarly structured regions like somatosensory cortex. Also, of course, you wouldn't want much motor signal going down through efferent nerves into the Rider's body, making Rider move around in the bed. Also, current brain imaging technologies, even if we imagine portable versions of them, wouldn't be spatiotemporally sharp enough to do a proper job of it. But still, a dim, vague signal might be very suggestive for an otherwise well-harmonized, collaborative Host and Rider, in a rich environmental context with very clear cues and expectations.

I won't conjecture about, say, attempting to match activity in emotional regions or associative cortex. Conjecturing about a high degree of match between different people's brains is both neurophysiologically unrealistic and possibly too threatening to the autonomy of Host and Rider -- though of course there are dark, interesting, far-future science-fictional possibilities there.

Let's bracket, then, this last conjectural step with brain imaging and brain stimulation, and focus just on the VR experience with audiovisual input, shadowing, and matching-motion gloves -- all in a positive, harmonious, and non-exploitative relationship with a host. I think that would be pretty cool, and near- to medium-term technologically achievable. If it plays out right, it might give some bedridden people a chance to explore the world beyond their bed in a much more vivid, engaging, and interactive manner.

My father was both a psychologist and an inventor. In 1995, when he was first diagnosed with cancer, he had been wanting to go to Hong Kong, and he had to cancel the trip to attempt a bone marrow transplant. He never did make it to Hong Kong. I wish I could bring him back, build some of this technology with him, then take him there.

[image source]

Friday, January 12, 2018

Grounds for a Sliver of Skepticism

Yesterday, Philosophy Bites released a brief podcast interview of me on skepticism. Listening to the interview now, I feel that I didn't frame my project as well as I might have, so I'll add a few remarks here.

I want to think about what grounds we might have for a non-trivial sliver of radically skeptical doubt.

There is, in my mind, an important difference between, for example, "brain-in-a-vat" skepticism and dream skepticism. Brain-in-a-vat skepticism asks you how you know that genius alien neuroscientists didn't remove your brain last night while you were sleeping, drop it into a vat, and start feeding it stimuli as though you were having a normal day. Dream skepticism asks how you know that you are not currently dreaming. The difference is this: There are no grounds for thinking that there's any but an extremely remote chance that you have been envatted, while there are some reasonable grounds for thinking there's a non-trivial sliver of a chance that you are presently dreaming.

It's crucial here to recognize the role played by theories that are probably wrong. It is, I think, probably wrong that people often have sensory experiences just like waking experiences when they sleep. Dreams are, in my view, always sketchy or even imagistic, rather than quasi-sensory with rich realistic detail. However, I'm hardly certain of this theory, and some prominent dream theorists argue that dream experiences are often highly realistic or even phenomenologically indistinguishable from waking life (e.g. Revonsuo 1995; Hobson, Pace-Schott & Stickgold 2000; Windt 2010). Contingently upon accepting that latter view, it seems to me that I ought to reasonably have some doubt about my current state. Maybe this now is one of those highly realistic dreams.

The idea here is that there are grounds for accepting, as a live possibility, a theoretical view from which it seems to follow that I might be radically wrong about my current situation. I don't prefer that theoretical view; but neither can I reject it with high certainty. It is thus reasonable for me to reserve a non-trivial sliver of doubt about my current wakefulness.

I would argue similarly with respect to two other skeptical possibilities: the idea that we are Artificial Intelligences living in a simulated world, and a somewhat less familiar form of skepticism I call "cosmological skepticism". In both cases, there are grounds, I think, for treating as a live possibility theories that, while probably not correct, would, if correct, imply that you might easily be radically wrong in many of your ordinary beliefs.

In concluding the interview, I also make an empirical conjecture: that seriously entertaining radically skeptical possibilities has the psychological effect of reducing dogmatic self-confidence and increasing tolerance, even regarding non-skeptical possibilities. I hope to more fully explore this in a future post.

Full interview here.

Related papers:

  • 1% Skepticism
  • The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind
  • Experimental Evidence for the Existence of an External World
  • Zhuangzi's Attitude Toward Language and His Skepticism
  • Friday, January 05, 2018

    Imagining Yourself in Another's Shoes Vs. Extending Your Love

    A favorite passage of mine from Mengzi (Mencius) is this one:

    That which people are capable of without learning is their genuine capability. That which they know without pondering is their genuine knowledge. Among babes in arms there are none that do not know to love their parents. When they grow older, there are non that do not know to revere their elder brothers. Treating one's parents as parents is benevolence. Revering one's elders is righteousness. There is nothing else to do but extend these to the world (7A15, Van Norden trans.)

    One thing I like about this passage is that it assumes love and reverence for one's family as a given, rather than as a special achievement, portraying moral development as a matter of extending that natural love and reverence to new targets.

    Similarly, in passage 1A7, Mengzi notes the kindness that the vicious ruler King Xuan exhibits in saving a frightened ox from slaughter, and he urges King Xuan to extend similar kindness to the people of his kingdom. Mengzi says that such extension is a matter of "weighing" things correctly -- a matter of treating similar things similarly and not overvaluing what merely happens to be nearby.

    Contrast this approach with "The Golden Rule": "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you". Contrast it also with the common advice to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes. Golden Rule / others' shoes advice assumes self-interest as the starting point. While Mengzian extension starts by assuming that people are already concerned about nearby others, and takes the developmental or cognitive challenge to be extending your concern beyond a narrow circle, The Golden Rule / others' shoes thinking starts by assuming egoistic self-interest, and takes the developmental or cognitive challenge to be generalizing beyond one's own self-interest.

    Maybe we can model Golden Rule / others' shoes thinking as follows:

    (1.) If I were in the situation of Person X, I would want to be treated according to Principle P.
    (2.) Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
    (3.) I will treat the person according to Principle P.

    In contrast, maybe we can model Mengzian extension as follows:

    (1.) I care about Person X and want to treat them well.
    (2.) Person Y, though perhaps more distant, is relevantly similar.
    (3.) Therefore, I should also treat Person Y well.

    There will be other more careful and detailed formulations, but this simple sketch captures, I hope, how radically different these two ways of modeling moral cognition are. Mengzian extension models general moral concern on the natural concern we already have for those nearby, while Golden Rule / others' shoes thinking models general moral concern on concern for oneself.

    I like Mengzian extension better, for three reasons.

    First, Mengzian extension is more psychologically plausible. People do, naturally, have concern for and compassion for others around them. Explicit exhortations aren't necessary to bring this about. This natural concern for and compassion for others is likely the main seed from which mature moral cognition grows. Our moral reactions to vivid, nearby cases become the bases for more general principles and policies.

    Second, Mengzian extension is less ambitious -- in a good way. The Golden Rule imagines a leap from self-interest to generalized good treatment of others. The Golden Rule is sometimes excellent and helpful advice, perhaps especially for people who are already concerned about others and thinking about how to implement that concern. But Mengzian extension has the advantage of starting the cognitive project much nearer the target, involving less of a leap, since it only moves from natural concern about nearby cases to similar treatment of relevantly similar but more distant cases.

    Third, Mengzian extension could arguably be turned back upon yourself, if you are one of those people who has trouble standing up for your own interests and rights. You would want to stand up for your loved ones and help them flourish. Applying Mengzian extension, extend the same kindness to yourself that you would give to give to others you care about. If you'd want your sister to be able to take a vacation, realize that you owe the same courtesy to yourself. [Thanks to Yvonne Tam for emphasizing this point in discussion with me. See also my post "Perils of the Sweetheart"]

    Although both Mengzi and Rousseau endorse the motto that "human nature is good", and have views that are similar in important ways (as I explore here), this is one difference between them. In both Emile and Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau emphasizes self-concern as the starting point, treating natural pity or compassion for others as secondary and derivative. He endorses the foundational importance of the Golden Rule, concluding that "Love of men derived from love of self is the principle of human justice" (Emile, trans. Bloom, p. 235).

    This difference between Mengzi and Rousseau does not, I think, reflect a general cultural difference between ancient China and the West. Kongzi (Confucius), for example, endorses something like the Golden Rule: "Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire" (15.24, Slingerland trans.) Mozi and Xunzi, also writing in period, imagine people acting mostly or entirely selfishly, until society artificially imposes regulations upon us, and so they cannot see Mengzian extension as the core of moral development. (However, also see Mozi's argument for impartial concern that starts by assuming that one is concerned for one's parents [ch. 16].) The extension approach is specifically Mengzian rather than generally Chinese.

    [image source]

    Monday, January 01, 2018

    Writings of 2017

    It's a tradition for me now, posting a retrospect of the past year's writings on New Year's Day. (Here are the retrospects of 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.)

    I'm proud of what I've managed to write in the past year. May 2018 be similarly fruitful!


    Full-length non-fiction essays appearing in print in 2017:

    Full-length non-fiction finished and forthcoming:
    Shorter non-fiction:
      "Consciousness, idealism, and skepticism: Reflections on Jay Garfield’s Engaging Buddhism", Sophia (forthcoming).
    Editing work:
      Oneness in philosophy, religion, and psychology (with P.J. Ivanhoe, O. Flanagan, R. Harrison, and H. Sarkissian), Columbia University Press (forthcoming).
    Non-fiction in draft and circulating:
    Science fiction stories:

        - translated into Vietnamese for TẠP CHÍ KHOA HỌC VIỄN TƯỞNG VIỆT NAM, issue 13, 37-60.
    Some favorite blog posts:
    Selected interviews:

    Saturday, December 30, 2017

    Some Universities Have About 20% Women Philosophy Majors and others About 40%, in Patterns Unlikely to Be Chance

    According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, about 32% of Philosophy Bachelor's degree recipients in the U.S. are women, a lower percentage than in almost any other discipline outside of engineering and the physical sciences. I would love to see that percentage rise. (I say this without committing to the dubious view that all majors should have gender proportions identical with that of the general population.)

    A case could be made for pessimism. Although academic philosophy has slowly been diversifying in race and ethnicity, the percentage of women receiving philosophy BAs, philosophy PhDs, and publishing in elite philosophy journals has remained virtually unchanged since the 1990s. It seems that we have reached a plateau. Could anything move the dial?

    I decided to look, institution-by-institution across the U.S., at the percentage of Philosophy B.A. recipients who are women. If there are some "outlier" institutions that have a much higher percentage of women philosophy majors than is typical, we could look more closely at those institutions. Such institutions might have policies or practices worth imitating.


    For this analysis, I downloaded Bachelor's degree completion data from all 7357 "U.S. institutions" in the NCES IPEDS database for the academic years 2009-2010 to 2015-2016. For each institution, I examined four variables: total Bachelor's degrees awarded (1st major), total Bachelor's degrees awarded to women (1st major), total Philosophy Bachelor's degrees awarded (1st or 2nd major, category 38.01), and total Philosophy Bachelor's degrees awarded to women (1st or 2nd major, category 38.01).

    To reduce the likelihood of high or low percentages due to chance, I limited my analysis to the 66 colleges and universities that had awarded at least 200 Bachelor's degrees in Philosophy over the period. Across these 66 institutions, there were 22150 completed Philosophy majors during the seven-year period, of which 7120 (32.1%) were women. (Across all institutions, 61963 Philosophy Bachelor's degrees were awarded (31.6% to women). So the 66 targeted institutions together awarded about 36% of the Philosophy Bachelor's degrees in the U.S.) I then arranged the institutions by percentages of Philosophy majors who were women. One would expect most of these institutions to be within a few percentage points of 32%. My interest is in the statistical outliers.

    [Raw data for all institutions here. Summary data for the targeted 66 here.]

    I wanted to be conservative in testing for outliers, so here is how I did it.

    First, I performed a two-tailed two-proportion z test, comparing the proportion of women Philosophy majors at each target institution to the proportion of women Philosophy majors in all the remaining institutions combined. To correct for multiple comparisons, I used a Bonferroni correction, lowering the threshold for statistical significance from the conventional p < .05 (representing a 5% chance that results at least as extreme would arise from random sampling error) to p < .0008. Ten of the 66 institutions had proportions significantly different from the overall proportion by this measure.

    However, some of those results might have been due to unusually large or small proportions of women in the overall undergraduate population of those institutions, so I performed a second test also. Overall, across all 66 institutions, 1.43% of men graduate with Philosophy majors, compared to 0.58% of women. Based on these numbers, I calculated an "expected" percentage of women Philosophy majors for each institution, based on the number of graduating men and graduating women at that institution: (total graduating women * .0058)/((total graduating men * .0143) + (total graduating women * .0058)). The resulting expected percentages ran from 25% (for Virginia Polytechnic, with a total graduating class of 45% women) to 43% (for Loyola Chicago, with a graduating class of 65% women). I then performed two-tailed one-proportion z-tests comparing the percentage of Philosophy majors who were women at each institution to this expected percentage of Philosophy majors at the same institution, using the same p < .0008 threshold to correct for multiple comparisons. Twelve institutions had gender ratios significantly different from chance by this measure.

    For my final list of outliers, I included only institutions significantly different from chance by both measures -- that is, schools that both had a significantly higher or lower percentage of women Philosophy majors than did the other institutions and that had a significantly higher or lower percentage of women Philosophy majors than would be expected given the overall gender composition of their undergraduate graduating body.


    Five of the 66 institutions were outliers by these criteria. Two were outliers on the low side:

  • University of St Thomas: Women were 9.7% of graduating Philosophy majors (32/329; vs 48% of Bachelor's degree recipients across all majors; two-prop p < .0001; one-prop p < .0001);
  • Franciscan University of Steubenville: 17.3% (43/249; vs 63%; < .0001, < .0001).

  • Five more institutions had fewer than 24% women Philosophy majors, with p values < .05 by both measures, but without meeting my stringent criteria for outliers. Due to the nature of multiple comparisons, some of these may appear on that list by chance.

    Three institutions were outliers on the high side:

  • University of Pennsylvania: Women 38.5% of Philosophy BA recipients (343/892; vs 51% among Bachelor's overall, p < .0001, p < .0001);
  • University of Scranton: 46.0% (108/235; < .0001, .0005);

  • and -- but I suspect there's something odd going on here --
  • University of Washington, Bothell: 72.8% (348/481; < .0001, < .0001).

  • UW Bothell doesn't appear to offer a straight Philosophy major; so I suspect these numbers are due to a potentially misleading decision to classify one of their popular interdisciplinary majors (Society, Ethics & Human Behavior?) as "Philosophy" (38.01 in the NCES classification). I'm looking into the matter. Meanwhile, let's bracket that campus.

    Between Penn and Scranton were several campuses with higher percentages of women among Philosophy majors, but smaller total numbers of Philosophy majors, and thus not crossing my stringent statistical threshold for outliers: University of Southern California (39.4%), University of Virginia Main Campus (39.4%), University of California Riverside (go team! 39.6%), CUNY Brooklyn (40.1%), Virginia Polytechnic (41.0%), Georgia State (41.1%), Boston University (41.3%), and Cal State Fresno (43.2%). None of these schools had strikingly high percentages of women BA recipients overall (45%-61%, compared to 57% women BA recipients in the US overall during this period and 54% in the 66 selected universities). Among these, U Virginia, UC Riverside, Virginia Polytechnic, and CSU Fresno all have p values < .05 by both measures. Again, due to the nature of multiple comparisons, some of these may appear on that list by chance.

    I draw the following conclusion:

    Some colleges and universities have unusually high or low percentages of women philosophy majors as a result of factors that are unlikely to be chance, across a range from about 10%-24% at the low end to about 38%-46% at the high end. If these differences are due to differences in policies or practices which differentially draw women and men into the Philosophy major, it might be possible for schools near the lower end of this range to increase their percentage of women Philosophy majors by imitating those at the higher end of the range.

    I don't know what explains the differences. It is striking that the two schools with the smallest percentage of Philosophy majors are both Catholic affiliated, so maybe that is a factor in some way. (ETA: Scranton, one of the high end outliers, is also Catholic affiliated!) Gender ratios among permanent faculty don't to be the primary determining factor. Judging from gender-typical names and photos on the Philosophy Department homepages, women are 5/24 (excl. 1) and 0/8 of permanent faculty at St Thomas and Fransiscan, vs 4/15 and 2/16 at Penn and Scranton.

    Thursday, December 21, 2017

    Philosophy Undergraduate Majors Aren't Very Black, but Neither Are They As White As You Might Have Thought

    Okay, I have some more data from the NCES database on Bachelor's degrees awarded in the U.S. A couple of weeks ago I noted that women have been earning 30-34% of philosophy BAs since the 1980s. Last week I noted the sharp decline in Philosophy, History, and English majors since 2010.

    Race and ethnicity data are a bit more complicated, since the coding categories change over time. Currently, NCES uses "American Indian or Alaska Native", "Asian", "Black or African American", "Hispanic or Latino", "Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander", "White", "Two or more races", "Race/ethnicity unknown", and "Nonresident alien". The last three of these categories are difficult to interpret, especially given changes over time; and "Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander" was included with Asian before 2010; so I will focus my analysis on the racial/ethnic categories Asian, Black, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, and White. [For more details, see this note.]

    Based on results from my analysis last year on PhDs in Philosophy, I had expected Philosophy majors to be overwhelmingly White. To my surprise, that's not what I found. Although recipients of Bachelor's degrees in Philosophy are somewhat more White than recipients of Bachelor's degrees overall, the difference is not large: 63% of BA recipients in Philosophy identified as White, compared to 60% of all graduating majors in the 2015-2016 academic year.

    In the NCES data, both Latino/Hispanic students and Asian students are approximately proportionately represented among Philosophy majors: 13% and 7% respectively, compared to 12% and 7% of graduating students overall. Of course Latino students are underrepresented among college graduates generally, compared to their prevalence in the U.S. as a whole (about 18% of the U.S. population overall). However, they don't appear to be more underrepresented among Philosophy majors than they are among Bachelor's degree recipients in general.

    Similarly -- though the numbers are very small -- Native Americans are about 0.4% of Philosophy degree recipients and about 0.5% of graduating students overall (and 1.3% in the general population).

    In contrast, Black students are substantially underrepresented: 5% in Philosophy compared to 10% overall (and 13% in the general population).

    Interestingly, these trends also appear to hold over time, back to the beginning of available data in the 1994-1995 academic year. White students are overrepresented in Philosophy by a few percentage points, Black students underrepresented by about as many percentage points, and the other groups are about proportionately represented. These trends persist throughout the broad decline in percentage of White students among Bachelor's recipients overall.

    Here's the graph for White students [update: corrected figure]:

    [click to enlarge and clarify]

    And here's Latino/Hispanic and Asian [update: corrected figure]:

    [click to enlarge and clarify]

    Native American is noisier due to small numbers, but roughly matches over the period:

    The most striking disparity is among students identifying as Black [update: corrected figure]:

    [click to enlarge and clarify]

    Looking at intersection with gender, 42% of Black Philosophy BA recipients in the most recent two years of data were women. (For comparison, 33% of Philosophy BAs overall were women, 57% of Bachelor's degree recipients overall were women, and 64% of Black Bachelor's recipients were women.)

    Evidently, the disproportionate Whiteness of Philosophy PhD recipients in the U.S. (recently in the mid-80%s, excluding nonresident alien and unknown) is not mostly explained by a similarly large disproportion among B.A. recipients, though the underrepresentation of Black students in the discipline does start at the undergraduate level.

    I'd be interested to hear what others make of these patterns.


    Note 1: I looked at all U.S. institutions in the IPEDS database, and I included both first and second majors in Philosophy. Before the 2000-2001 academic year, only first major is recorded. I used the major classification 38.01 specifically for Philosophy, excluding 38.00, 38.02, and 38.99. Only people who completed the degree are included in the data. Before the 2007-2008 academic year, the White and Black categories specify "non-Hispanic", and before 2010-2011, Pacific Islander is included with Asian. In the 2007-2008, "two or more races" is introduced as an option.

    Thursday, December 14, 2017

    Sharp Declines in Philosophy, History, and Language Majors Since 2010

    As I was gathering data for last week's post on the remarkably flat gender ratios in philosophy over time, I was struck by a pattern in the data that I hadn't anticipated: a sharp decline in Philosophy Bachelor's degrees awarded in the U.S. since 2010.

    In the 2009-2010 academic year, 9297 students received Bachelor's degrees in Philosophy in the U.S. In 2015-2016 (the most recent available year), the number was only 7507. In the same period, the total number of Bachelor's degrees increased from 1,597,740 (completing 1,684,011 majors, including double majors) to 1,922,705 (2,019,829 including doubles). In 2009-2010, 0.58% of graduating students majored in Philosophy. In 2015-2016, 0.39% did. [See Note 1 for methodological details.]

    Looking more closely at the year-by-year data, the decline in absolute numbers is entirely in the most recent three years, and quite precipitous:

    2010: 9297 philosophy BAs (0.58% of all graduates)
    2011: 9309 (0.56%)
    2012: 9376 (0.54%)
    2013: 9439 (0.53%)
    2014: 8837 (0.47%)
    2015: 8198 (0.43%)
    2016: 7507 (0.39%)

    As a fan of the Philosophy major, I am alarmed!

    A broader look at the data is partly reassuring, however: There was a similarly precipitous increase in the numbers and percentages of philosophy majors in the early 2000s, as displayed in the graph below. So maybe we're just seeing the pop of a philosophy bubble?

    [click to enlarge and clarify]

    For further context, I examined every other broad category of major with at least 100,000 graduating majors since the 2000-2001 academic year (27 broad majors total). Since 2010, only two other broad majors have declined in absolute number by at least 15%: History and English. Foreign language isn't far behind, with a 13% decline in absolute numbers. So Philosophy's decline seems to be part of a general decline in the main traditional humanities majors. (The three biggest gainers: Computer Science, Health Science, and Natural Resources.)

    I've graphed the data below. You'll need to click to expand it to see the whole thing legibly; apologies for my incompetence with the blog graphics. (I've thickened and brightened English, History, and Philosophy. Note also that the English line is mostly obscured by the Philosophy line in recent years.)

    [click to enlarge]

    I've put the raw numbers for all major categories in CSV here, if you'd like more detail.

    Finally, I looked at recent trends by institution type (Carnegie 2015 basic classification). As you can see from the chart below, the decline appears to occur across most or all institution types. (The top line, for four-year faith-related institutions, is jagged presumably due to noise, given low total numbers.)

    [click to enlarge]

    I'm not sure what to make of this. I suppose Wittgenstein, who reportedly advised aspiring students to major in anything but philosophy, would have approved. Thoughts (and corrections) welcome!

    ETA (9:55 a.m.): Several people have suggested that it relates to the Great Recession of 2008. I don't think that can be the entire explanation, since the recessions of the early 1990s and early 2000s don't correlate with sharp declines in the major. On Facebook, Todd Yampol offers this interesting analysis:

    In many states, business interests have put pressure on the state government to prepare students for the "jobs of the future". They complain that high school & college graduates don't have the specific skills that they're looking for. Also, there has been more and more emphasis on undergrads to finish in 4 years (for a 4-year degree). In California and many other states, there is a state-sponsored "finish in 4" initiative. They provide funding to the state universities for software & other projects that will help students finish in 4 years. They only way to do this, given all the crazy requirements these days, is to determine your major very early & stick with it. This is definitely the case at CSU. Not sure about UC. I believe this initiative started in CA around 2012. I've been working with CSU since 2014. I'm not saying that this is inherently a bad thing. It's just the environment we're living in. I come from a liberal arts background, and I see the value in being a well-rounded person.

    I think it comes down to the question "what is the purpose of a state university?" In some states like Wisconsin (where I grew up), there has been a lot of pressure from the (ultra-conservative) state government to dismantle the traditional approach to higher education & research, and turn the emphasis towards job training.

    Anyway, the pressure for job skills & to finish in 4 years makes it difficult for young people to explore and find their true interests. How many freshman / sophomores know that they're interested enough in philosophy / linguistics / history / etc to declare it that early? I didn't declare linguistics until my very last semester (long story).

    ETA2 (Dec 18): Some of the bump in the early 2000s is due to changes in NCES reporting. Starting in 2001, second majors are reported, as well as first majors. That accounts for that little jump from 2000 to 2001 (approx 0.40% to 0.48%) but not any of the increase from 2001 onward, after which the reporting remains the same.


    Note 1: Data from the NCES IPEDS database. I looked at all U.S. institutions in the IPEDS database, and I included both first and second majors. Before the 2000-2001 academic year, only first major is recorded. I used the major classification 38.01 specifically for Philosophy, excluding 38.00, 38.02, and 38.99. Only people who completed the degree are included in the data. Some majors have different classification titles and criteria over the period, so I needed to make a few coding/grouping decisions. The most important of these was disaggregating the History subfield from the "Social Sciences and History" category in the 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 data. Although there are some category and coding differences over time in the dataset, the 2011-2012 to 2015-2016 academic years appear to have used exactly the same coding criteria.

    Tuesday, December 12, 2017

    Dreidel: A seemingly foolish game that contains the moral world in miniature

    [Also appearing in today's LA Times. Happy first night of Hannukah!]

    Superficially, dreidel appears to be a simple game of luck, and a badly designed game at that. It lacks balance, clarity, and (apparently) meaningful strategic choice. From this perspective, its prominence in the modern Hannukah tradition is puzzling. Why encourage children to spend a holy evening gambling, of all things?

    This perspective misses the brilliance of dreidel. Dreidel's seeming flaws are exactly its virtues. Dreidel is the moral world in miniature.

    For readers unfamiliar with the game, here's a tutorial. You sit in a circle with friends or relatives and take turns spinning a wobbly top, the dreidel. In the center of the circle is a pot of several foil-wrapped chocolate coins, to which everyone has contributed from an initial stake of coins they keep in front of them. If, on your turn, the four-sided top lands on the Hebrew letter gimmel, you take the whole pot and everyone needs to contribute again. If it lands on hey, you take half the pot. If it lands on nun, nothing happens. If it lands on shin, you put one coin in. Then the next player takes a spin.

    It all sounds very straightforward, until you actually start to play the game.

    The first odd thing you might notice is that although some of the coins are big and others are little, they all count just as one coin in the rules of the game. This is unfair, since the big coins contain more chocolate, and you get to eat your stash at the end.

    To compound the unfairness, there is never just one dreidel — each player may bring her own — and the dreidels are often biased, favoring different outcomes. (To test this, a few years ago my daughter and I spun a sample of eight dreidels 40 times each, recording the outcomes. One particularly cursed dreidel landed on shin an incredible 27/40 spins.) It matters a lot which dreidel you spin.

    And the rules are a mess! No one agrees whether you should round up or round down with hey. No one agrees when the game should end or how low you should let the pot get before you all have to contribute again. No one agrees how many coins to start with or whether you should let someone borrow coins if he runs out. You could try to appeal to various authorities on the internet, but in my experience people prefer to argue and employ varying house rules. Some people hoard their coins and favorite dreidels. Others share dreidels but not coins. Some people slowly unwrap and eat their coins while playing, then beg and borrow from wealthy neighbors when their luck sours.

    Now you can, if you want, always push things to your advantage — always contribute the smallest coins in your stash, always withdraw the largest coins in the pot when you spin hey, insist on always using what seems to be the "best" dreidel, always argue for rule interpretations in your favor, eat your big coins and use that as a further excuse to contribute only little ones, et cetera. You could do all of this without ever breaking the rules, and you'd probably end up with the most chocolate as a result.

    But here's the twist, and what makes the game so brilliant: The chocolate isn't very good. After eating a few coins, the pleasure gained from further coins is minimal. As a result, almost all of the children learn that they would rather enjoy being kind and generous than hoarding up the most coins. The pleasure of the chocolate doesn't outweigh the yucky feeling of being a stingy, argumentative jerk. After a few turns of maybe pushing only small coins into the pot, you decide you should put a big coin in next time, just to be fair to others and to enjoy being perceived as fair by them.

    Of course, it also feels bad always to be the most generous one, always to put in big, take out small, always to let others win the rules arguments, and so forth, to play the sucker or self-sacrificing saint.

    Dreidel, then, is a practical lesson in discovering the value of fairness both to oneself and to others, in a context where the rules are unclear and where there are norm violations that aren't rules violations, and where both norms and rules are negotiable, varying from occasion to occasion. Just like life itself, only with mediocre chocolate at stake. I can imagine no better way to spend a holy evening.

    Friday, December 08, 2017

    Women Have Been Earning 30-34% of Philosophy BAs in the U.S. Since Approximately Forever*

    * for values of "forever" ≤ 30 years.

    The National Center for Education Statistics has data on the gender of virtually all Bachelor's degree recipients in the U.S. back into the 1980s, publicly available through the IPEDS database. For Philosophy, the earliest available data cover the 1986-1987 academic year. [For methodological details, see note 1].

    The percentage of Philosophy Bachelor's degrees awarded to women has been remarkably constant over time -- a pattern not characteristic of other majors, many of which have shown at least a modest increase in the percentage of women since 1987. In the 1986-1987 academic year, women received 33.6% of Philosophy BAs. In the most recent available year (preliminary data), 2015-2016, is was 33.7%. Throughout the period, the percentage never strays from the band between 29.9% and 33.7%.

    I have plotted the trends in the graph below, with Philosophy as the fat red line, including a few other disciplines for comparison: English, History, Psychology, the Biological Sciences, and the Physical Sciences. The fat black line represents all Bachelor's degrees awarded.

    [if blurry or small, click to enlarge]

    Philosophy is the lowest of these, unsurprisingly to those of us who have followed gender issues in the discipline. (It is not the lowest overall, however: Some of the physical science and engineering majors are as low or lower.) To me, more striking and newsworthy is the flatness of the line.

    I also thought it might be worth comparing high-prestige research universities (Carnegie classification: Doctoral Universities, Highest Research Activity) versus colleges with much more of a teaching focus (Carnegie classification: Baccalaureate's Colleges, Arts & Science focus or Diverse Fields).

    Women were a slightly lower percentage of Philosophy BA recipients in the research universities than in the teaching-focused colleges (30% vs. 35%; and yes, p < .001). However, the trends over time were still approximately flat:

    For kicks, I thought I'd also check if my home state of California was any different -- since we'll be seceding from the rest of the U.S. soon (JK!). Nope. Again, a flat line, with women overall 33% of graduating BAs in Philosophy.

    Presumably, if we went back to the 1960s or 1970s, a higher percentage of philosophy majors would be men. But whatever cultural changes there have been in U.S. society in general and in the discipline of philosophy in particular in the past 30 years haven't moved the dial much on the gender ratio of the philosophy major.

    [Thanks to Mike Williams at NCES for help in figuring out how to use the database.]


    Note 1: I looked at all U.S. institutions in the IPEDS database, and I included both first and second majors. Before the 2000-2001 academic year, only first major is recorded. I used the major classification 38.01 specifically for Philosophy, excluding 38.00, 38.02, and 38.99. Only people who complete the degree are included in the data. Although gender data are available back to 1980, Philosophy and Religious Studies majors are merged from 1980-1986.

    Friday, December 01, 2017

    Aiming for Moral Mediocrity

    I've been working on this essay off and on for years, "Aiming for Moral Mediocrity". I think I've finally pounded it into circulating shape and I'm ready for feedback.

    I have an empirical thesis and a normative thesis. The empirical thesis is that most people aim to be morally mediocre. They aim to be about as morally good as their peers, not especially better, not especially worse. This mediocrity has two aspects. It is peer-relative rather than absolute, and it is middling rather than extreme. We do not aim to be good, or non-bad, or to act permissibly rather than impermissibly, by fixed moral standards. Rather, we notice the typical behavior of people we regard as our peers and we aim to behave broadly within that range. We -- most of us -- look around, notice how others are acting, then calibrate toward so-so.

    This empirical thesis is, I think, plausible on the face of it. It also receives some support from two recent subliteratures in social psychology and behavioral economics.

    One is the literature on following the (im-)moral crowd. I'm thinking especially of the work of Robert B. Cialdini and Cristina Bicchieri. Cialdini argues that "injunctive norms" (that is, social or moral admonitions) most effectively promote norm-compliant behavior when they align with "descriptive norms" (that is, facts about how people actually behave). People are less likely to litter when they see others being neat, more likely to reuse their hotel towels when they learn that others also do so, and more likely to reduce their household energy consumption when they see that they are using more than their neighbors. Bicchieri argues that people are more likely to be selfish in "dictator games" when they are led to believe that earlier participants had mostly been selfish and that convincing communities to adopt new health practices like family planning and indoor toilet use typically requires persuading people that their neighbors will also comply. It appears that people are more likely to abide by social or moral norms if they believe that others are also doing so.

    The other relevant literature concerns moral self-licensing. A number of studies suggest that after having performed good acts, people are likely to behave less morally well than after performing a bad or neutral act. For example, after having done something good for the environment, people might tend to make more selfish choices in a dictator game. Even just recalling recent ethical behavior might reduce people's intentions to donate blood, money, and time. The idea is that people are more motivated to behave well when their previous bad behavior is salient and less motivated to behave well when their previous good behavior is salient. They appear to calibrate toward some middle state.

    One alternative hypothesis is that people aim not for mediocrity but rather for something better than that, though short of sainthood. Phenomenologically, that might be how it seems to people. Most people think that they are somewhat above average in moral traits like honesty and fairness (Tappin and McKay 2017); and maybe then people mostly think that they should more or less stay the course. An eminent ethicist once told me he was aiming for a moral "B+". However, I suspect that most of us who like to think of ourselves as aiming for substantially above-average moral goodness aren't really willing to put in the work and sacrifice required. A close examination of how we actually calibrate our behavior will reveal us wiggling and veering toward a lower target. (Compare the undergraduate who says they're "aiming for B+" in a class but who wouldn't be willing to put in more work if they received a C on the first exam. It's probably better to say that they are hoping for a B+ than that they are aiming for one.)

    My normative thesis is that it's morally mediocre to aim for moral mediocrity. Generally speaking, it's somewhat morally bad, but not terribly bad, to aim for the moral middle.

    In defending this view, I'm mostly concerned to rebut the charge that it's perfectly morally fine to aim for mediocrity. Two common excuses, which I think wither upon critical scrutiny, are the Happy Coincidence Defense and The-Most-You-Can-Do Sweet Spot. The Happy Coincidence Defense is an attractive rationalization strategy that attempts to justify doing what you prefer to do by arguing that it's also for the moral best -- for example, that taking this expensive vacation now is really the morally best choice because you owe it to you family, and it will refresh you for your very important work, and.... The Most-You-Can-Do Sweet Spot is a similarly attractive rationalization strategy that relies on the idea that if you tried to be any morally better than you in fact are, you would end up being morally worse -- because you would collapse along the way, maybe, or you would become sanctimonious and intolerant, or you would lose the energy and joie de vivre on which your good deeds depend, or.... Of course it can sometimes be true that by Happy Coincidence your preferences align with the moral best or that you are already precisely in The-Most-You-Can-Do Sweet Spot. But this reasoning is suspicious when deployed repeatedly to justify otherwise seemingly mediocre moral choices.

    Another normative objection is the Fairness Objection, which I discussed on the blog last month. Since (by stipulation) most of your peers aren't making the sacrifices necessary for peer-relative moral excellence, it's unfair for you to be blamed for also declining to make such sacrifices. If the average person in your financial condition gives X% to charity, for example, it would be unfair to blame you for not giving more. If your colleagues down the hall cheat, shirk, lie, and flake X amount of the time, it's only fair that you should get to do the same.

    The simplest response to the Fairness Objection is to appeal to absolute moral standards. Although some norms are peer-relative, so that they become morally optional if most of your peers fail to comply with them, other norms aren't like that. A Nazi death camp guard is wrong to kill Jews even if that is normal behavior among his peers. More moderately, sexism, racism, ableism, elitism, and so forth are wrong and blameworthy, even if they are common among your peers (though blame is probably also partly mitigated if you are less biased than average). If you're an insurance adjuster who denies or slow-walks important health benefits on shaky grounds because you guess the person won't sue, the fact that other insurance adjusters might do the same in your place is again at best only partly mitigating. It would likely be unfair to blame you more than your peers are blamed; but if you violate absolute moral standards you deserve some blame, regardless of your peers' behavior.


    Full length version of the paper here.

    As always, comments welcome either by email to me or in the comments field of this post. Please don't feel obliged to read the full paper before commenting, if you have thoughts based on the summary arguments in this post.

    [Note: Somehow my final round of revisions on this post was lost and an old version was posted. The current version has been revised in attempt to recover the lost changes.]