Wednesday, December 30, 2009

John Stuart Mill's Mother

... you wouldn't know he had one, from his Autobiography (which I just finished reading), other than that he mentions the presence of younger siblings and, in passing, his father's marriage. Pages containing the word "father" in the Autobiography: 127. Pages containing the word "mother": 1 (in reference to someone else's mother).

Biographers seem to conclude that Mill's mother had little influence on him (e.g., Wilson in the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Mill) -- but I don't think that follows at all. A Google search of Harriet Barrow Mill doesn't reveal much; she seems to be lost in the dust of time.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Worried about the University of California?

... this graph says it all. The blue line is below the yellow line because the blue line indicates the national average for all public higher education, including lower tier universities and two-year community colleges.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Professorial Product Placement

Viewing the latest Lady Gaga video, with its ten product placements, I'm inspired by the thought: Why don't professors do product placements, too?

Actually, this first occurred to me a couple years ago, when I noticed Andy Clark sipping a Monster energy drink while speaking before a large audience at a plenary session of the biennial Tucscon Toward a Science of Consciousness conference. Naturally -- I dare say inevitably -- I thought to myself: "Hey, Monster energy drinks must be cool if Andy Clark is drinking one. I should go out and buy one now! I wonder how much Monster would pay me to drink one at my plenary session?" (Admittedly, my experience at the moment was not sampled by a Hurlburt beeper, so my recollection may be slightly erroneous.)

There are many product placement opportunities for professors: We could display products like drinks or high fashion during classes and public lectures -- with all the respect we command from the high socio-economic status young adult demographic! We could mention products as examples in oral presentations and published articles. ("Suppose that a trolley is rolling out of control toward five people it will inevitably kill unless you push a heavy object over the tracks to stop it. The only available heavy object is a late-model Lexus RX10....") We could even link to them from our blogs.

However, the most dramatic impact would surely come from a tattoo on the face. Thus, I make the following standing offer: For $2,000,000 U.S., I will give over three inches square of real estate on my check, for an appropriately tasteful tattoo by a company that's not too evil. (Evil companies will have to pay a surcharge sufficient to bring the overall utilitarian considerations back into balance.) To preserve what's left of my dignity, I will immediately donate half the amount to Oxfam -- which should, conservatively, save at least ten people's lives. (That seems worth it, doesn't it? Would you want to face the ten people who died because you weren't willing to tattoo your face?)

Now admittedly, the U.C. Riverside / Schwitzgebel brand is probably not realistically worth enough to command that kind of money for an advertisement, but maybe an eminent professor at Harvard or Princeton could do so -- especially given the free press that would no doubt accompany the first professorial facial tattoo advertisement. Peter Singer seems like a natural choice given his high visibility, and with his attitudes toward famine and charity, how could he refuse the offer?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Map of the Analytic Philosopher's Brain

Back in the 1990s, Joe Cruz and I joked around about drawing up a "map of the analytic philosopher's brain" -- a kind of phrenological map, with the size of the labeled areas proportional to their importance to the discipline. Twin Earth would have a major lobe, while the meaning of life would have only a tiny nodule. (Twin Earth is a science fiction thought experiment about a planet just like Earth in all ways detectable to the inhabitants but with some chemical XYZ rather than H2O running in streams and clouds and faucets. The question is whether this would change the content or meaning of the inhabitants' thoughts and words.) Although Twin Earth discussion has died down a bit since the 1990s, I'd wager it still gets considerably more mentions in analytic philosophy articles than does the meaning of life.

(As a rough check of this, I just did a JStor search of occurrences, since 1990, of "twin earth" and "meaning of life" in the sixty JStor philosophy journals. Sure enough, "Twin Earth" wins 552 to 377. Looking just at the four most elite general analytic journals [J Phil, Mind, Nous, and Phil Review], the ratio is even more lopsided, 174 to 48.)

It occurs to me that the recent Chalmers/Bourget survey of the philosophical community is a kind of map of the analytic philosophers' brain, too. With feedback from a fair number of beta testers (including me), they developed a list of thirty questions to send around to a huge chunk of the Anglophone philosophical community (including almost all faculty at major departments) -- questions they felt would provide a kind of sociological snapshot of the profession's views on a wide range of key issues.

Below, then, are the thirty questions they selected. Notice that the meaning of life makes no appearance. But we do see questions about zombies, teletransporters, and runaway trolleys. That these were the questions chosen is as interesting a fact about the sociology of the profession, I think, as the particular distribution of the answers.

A priori knowledge: yes or no?

Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?

Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no?

Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

God: theism or atheism?

Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism?

Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism?

Laws of nature: Humean or non-Humean?

Logic: classical or non-classical?

Mental content: internalism or externalism?

Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?

Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism?

Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism?

Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism?

Moral motivation: internalism or externalism?

Newcomb's problem: one box or two boxes?

Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?

Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory?

Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view?

Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?

Proper names: Fregean or Millian?

Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism?

Teletransporter (new matter): survival or death?

Time: A-theory or B-theory?

Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don't switch?

Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic?

Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Do Ethicists Steal More Books?

... is now in print at Philosophical Psychology.


If explicit cognition about morality promotes moral behavior then one might expect ethics professors to behave particularly well. However, professional ethicists’ behavior has never been empirically studied. The present research examined the rates at which ethics books are missing from leading academic libraries, compared to other philosophy books similar in age and popularity. Study 1 found that relatively obscure, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were actually about 50% more likely to be missing than non-ethics books. Study 2 found that classic (pre-1900) ethics books were about twice as likely to be missing.

My favorite table (click to enlarge):

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Does the Majority of Philosophers Think that the External World Exists?

... and other poll results here. (These are, of course, the results from David Chalmers' and David Bourget's PhilPapers survey of thousands of philosophers.)

It turns out that 81.6% of philosophers are non-skeptical realists about the external world, thus confirming my hypothesis that there is greater philosophical consensus in favor of the Democratic party than about the existence of a mind-independent external world.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Lebensraum / Elbow Room

The Schoolhouse Rock video "Elbow Room", celebrating the westward expansion of the U.S., got considerable TV airplay back in the 1970s when I was a kid. It looks very different to me now. What I find most chilling is the gleeful -- I'm sure unintentional -- parallel to the Nazi idea of "Lebensraum" (living room), used to justify German expansion.

Here's the video:

We were so fortunate to have an empty continent all to ourselves, don't you think?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Experience of Reading

What kinds of imagistic or sensory experiences do you normally have when reading prose? Here are three possibilities, not exclusive:

(a.) Inner speech. You "hear" (or more accurately auditorially imagine) a voice -- maybe your own voice, or the voice of the author, or the voice of a character, or some other voice, saying the words you are reading.

(b.) Visual imagery. You experience visual images of the events described or hinted at in the text, or maybe images in other modalities (auditory images besides those of the words you are reading, maybe tactile images, olfactory images, motoric images).

(c.) Sensory experience of the text. You visually experience the text on the page, that is, the black and white of ink on paper or pixels on the computer screen.
I'm inclined to say, in my own case, that (a) and (c) are pretty much constant and (b) comes and goes. I also would have been inclined to think that (a) and (c) would be pretty universal for everybody and (b) highly variable between people. But it turns out that reports of (a) and (c) are also highly variable.

For example, the research participant "Melanie", interviewed in my 2007 book with Russ Hurlburt, says that normally when she reads she starts out in inner speech and then "takes off" into images, leaving the inner speech behind (comparable to the difference between an airplane taxiing and flying; p. 101). When she is asked to report on two particular moments of experience while reading (having been interrupted by a beeper), she comes pretty close to explicitly denying that she has any sensory experience of the text on the page (e.g., p. 100).

Julian Jaynes says to his readers "And as you read you are not conscious of the letters or even of the words or even of the syntax or the sentences and punctuation, but only of their meaning" (1976, p. 26-27) -- thus seeming to deny at least visual experience the text on the page, and probably auditory imagery or inner speech of the words as well.

In contrast, Bernard Baars seems to assume the near-universality of inner speech, writing: "Human beings talk to themselves every moment of the waking day. Most readers of this sentence are doing it now" (2003, p. 106).

Wittgenstein writes: "Certainly I read a story and don't give a hang about any system of language. I simply read, have impressions, see pictures in my mind's eye, etc. I make the story pass before me like pictures, like a cartoon story" (1967, p. 44e).

Charles Siewert writes, after quoting the Jaynes passage above: "[If] Jaynes is denying that we consciously see the book, the page, or anything printed on it, then it seems what we are asked to believe is this: typically when we read, we function with a kind of premium-grade blindsight.... I find this extreme denial of visual consciousness, once made plain, very strange, and just about as obviously false a remark as one could make about visual experience" (1998, p. 248-249).

Max Velmans, like Siewert, seems to find the visual experience of the text mandatory, inner speech more optional: "When consciously reading this sentence, for example, you become aware of the printed text on the page, accompanied, perhaps, by inner speech (phonemic imagery), and a feeling of understanding (or not)" (2002, p. 16).

Gavin and Susan Fairbairn, in a text intended to instruct college students in better reading, write: "In contrast to the experience of those who find that they are conscious of every word when they read fiction, many people find, especially but not exclusively when they are reading fiction, that when they 'get into' the text they seem to be aware of meanings, sounds and pictures, even smells and feelings, without any conscious awareness of the words used to convey them.... Hearing the sounds of words when you read can be a handicap" (2001, p. 25). This view seems rather close to Melanie's analogy to taxiing and flying.

Almost all these authors -- Melanie is of course an exception, and Wittgenstein may or may not be -- take these statements to describe the experience of reading in general, not just for themselves individually. Obviously, though, they reach very different conclusions. (Such is consciousness studies!) As far as I'm aware, however, no one has ever published a systematic study of the matter.

Quotes, descriptions of your own experience, etc., warmly welcomed in the comments section.

(Thanks to my student Alan Moore for some of the quotes above. His own interesting work on the experience of reading will hopefully be the topic of a future post.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Measuring People Twice

Lots of psychological studies involve measuring people twice. For example, in the imagery literature, there's a minor industry that seeks to relate self-reports about imagery to performance on cognitive tasks that seem to involve visual imagery, such visual memory tests or mental rotation tasks.

(A typical mental rotation task presents two line drawings of 3-D figures and asks if one is a simple rotation of the other, for example:Image from here.)

Participants in such studies thus receive two tests, the cognitive test in question and also a self-report imagery test of some sort, such as the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ), which asks people to form various visual images and then rate their vividness. Correlations will often -- though by no means always -- be found. This will be taken to show that people with better (e.g. more vivid) imagery do in fact have more skill at the cognitive task in question.

This drives me nuts.

Reactivity between measures is, I think, a huge deal in such cases. Let me clarify by developing the imagery example a little farther.

Suppose you’re a participant in an experiment on mental imagery – an undergraduate, say, volunteering to participate in some studies to fulfill psychology course requirements. First, you’re given the VVIQ, that is, you’re asked how vivid your visual imagery is. Then, immediately afterward, you’re given a test of your visual memory – for example, a test of how many objects you can correctly recall after staring for a couple of minutes at a complex visual display. Now if I were in such an experiment and I had rated myself as an especially good visualizer when given the VVIQ, I might, when presented with the memory test, think something like this: “Damn! This experimenter is trying to see whether my imaging ability is really as good as I said it was! It’ll be embarrassing if I bomb. I’d better try especially hard.” Conversely, if I say I’m a poor visualizer, I might not put too much energy into the memory task, so as to confirm my self-report or what I take to be the experimenter’s hypothesis. Reactivity can work the other way, too, if the subjective report task is given second. Say I bomb the memory (or some other) task, then I’m given the VVIQ. I might be inclined to think of myself as a poor visualizer in part because I know I bombed the first task.

In general, participants are not passive innocents. Any time you give them two different tests, you should expect their knowledge of the first test to affect their performance on the second. Exactly how subjects will react to the second test in light of the first may be difficult to predict, but the probability of such reactivity should lead us to anticipate that, even if measures like the VVIQ utterly fail as measures of real, experienced imagery vividness, some researchers should find correlations between the VVIQ and performance on cognitive tasks. Therefore the fact that some researchers do find such correlations is no evidence at all of the reality of the posited relationship, unless there's a pattern in the correlations that could not just as easily be explained by reactivity.

In the particular case at hand, actually, I think the overall pattern of data positively suggests that reactivity is the main driving force behind the correlations. For example, to the extent there is a pattern in the relationship between the VVIQ and memory performance, the tendency is for the correlations to be higher in free recall tasks than in recognition tasks. Free recall tasks (like trying to list items in a remembered display) generally require more effort and energy from the subject than recognition tests (like “did you see this, yes or no?”) and so might be expected to show more reactivity between the measures.

The problem of reactivity between measures will plague any psychological subliterature in which participants are generally aware of being measured twice -- including much happiness research, almost any area of consciousness studies that seeks to relate self-reported experience and cognitive skills, the vast majority of longitudinal psychological studies, almost all studies on the effectiveness of psychotherapy or training programs, etc. Rarely, however, is it even given passing mention as a source of concern by people publishing in those areas.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Perplexities of Consciousness, submitted draft

I have just submitted my new book manuscript, Perplexities of Consciousness, to MIT Press. The whole thing is now viewable from my homepage.

Comments still welcome -- more than welcome! -- either on this post or by email.

Now that this manuscript is in, I can focus on catching up with all those other things I should have been doing and didn't!

Monday, November 02, 2009

Winner's Way

... a novel written by my father, Kirk Gable (born Ralph Schwitzgebel), is now available at Amazon. I hear his voice on every page, glimpse some piece of his worldview, which so affected my own.

Here's the blurb:

In this inspiring coming-of-age novel, Mark, a young man who thinks his life is full of walls, obligations and dead-ends, comes to realize that there is something more. Mark is a freshman in college, studying business—a field that doesn’t interest him at all. Family obligations have turned him from his real interests. Boring classes and medical problems make him feel vulnerable and unable to make long-term decisions.

With the words, “You are not who you think you are,” a chance meeting with a mysterious man named Sensei shakes up Mark’s world-view and changes his life-course in ways he never imagined.

Winner’s Way received a Hewlett Foundation Grant for incorporating life enrichment skills in a novel. Although this engaging novel can be read for pleasure, the extensive author’s notes at the end contain information, humor and self-help resources. A Discussion Guide can be found at

Winner’s Way creates a new category of fiction where magical realism meets do-it-yourself. The ideas in this story and the author’s notes are wildly creative and yet as practical and useful as you are likely to find in any non-fiction book.”—Sandra Ryan, Literary Critic

“The hero, Mark, is everyman for all of us. His struggles typify what is true for so many of us—the groping for something exciting, inspiring, and meaningful. Mark’s eacher, Sensei, is the kind of teacher we all wish we had. Winner’s Way is a rare and wonderful treat for anyone in search of richer self-understanding, compassion, and substance.”—Timothy Zeddies, Ph.D. psychologist

Winner’s Way is an inspiring tale of life situations that readers can easily relate to. Although the story happens to be fictional, readers can take away many lessons and apply them to their own lives.”—Etienne Emanuel, Peace Corps Volunteer

Kirkland R. Gable has had three careers: As a psychologist at the Harvard Medical School and later California Lutheran University, he worked with serious criminal offenders; As a lawyer, his writings have been widely cited, including by the Supreme Court; With his twin brother, he developed the electronic monitoring bracelet for criminal offenders. A student challenged him to write about psychology in a more accessible fashion. Winner’s Way is the result.

Winner’s Way ISBN: 978-1-932842-32-6; LCCN: 2009921117; $17.95; 8.5 x 5.5; release date: May 18, 2009; available via Amazon, Star Cloud Press and Winner’s Way is published by Star Cloud Press of Scottsdale, Arizona. Contact for more information.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Very Simple Argument Against Any General Theory of Consciousness

Suspiciously simple, you might think. Here it goes:

(1.) No general theory of consciousness can be justified except on the grounds that it gets it right about certain facts known independently of that theory. Those facts include facts about the presence or absence of conscious experience in a wide variety of actual and possible beings that are unlike us in potentialy relevant respects -- beings like frogs, insects, weird sea life, computers and robots of various types, alien beings of various types, and collective superorganisms of various types.

(2.) Independently of a well-justified theory of consciousness, we cannot know, with regard to most such beings, whether consciousness is present or absent.

(3.) Therefore, no general theory of consciousness can be justified.

Are ants conscious? Block's Chinese Nation? Star Trek's shipboard computer? People will reach different intuitive judgments (as philosophical discussion amply shows) -- and there's no particular reason to think, anyway, that our intuitive judgments should track the truth about such matters. It seems that a well justified answer to these questions must lean on a well justified general theory of consciousness. But there are a lot of (actual and potential) general theories of consciousness, some of which imply that consciousness is very widespread, others of which imply that consciousness is relatively rare. We cannot choose among those theories without prior knowledge of how widespread consciousness in fact is -- the very knowledge that we cannot have without such a theory in hand.

It's a tight little vicious circle.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Curveball Illusion

I hadn't seen this curveball illusion before. Very striking and surprising. I haven't had a chance to look into the theory behind it yet, but it seems to me to suggest something strange about the mapping of visual input into peripheral space.

(Thanks to Paul Hoffman for the pointer.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Epistemic and Phenomenal Consciousness

The term "conscious" is ambiguous between an epistemic and a phenomenal sense (as I'll explain shortly). So is the term "awareness". And "appears". And (in certain strained uses at least) "seems". There's a pattern here, a suspicious pattern. What's behind it?

First, the phenomenon. "Appears" is the clearest case, so let's start there. Sometimes we use the phrase "it appears to me that _____" simply to express a judgment -- a hedged judgment of a sort -- with no phenomenological implications whatsoever, that is, no implications about what's going on in one's stream of experience. If I say, "It appears to me that the Democrats are headed for defeat", ordinarily I'm merely expressing my opinion about the Democrats' prospects. I'm not attributing to myself any particular kind of conscious experience. I'm not claiming to have an image, say, of defeated Democrats, or to hear the word "defeat" ringing in my head. In contrast, if I'm looking at an illusion in a vision science textbook and I say that the top line "appears" longer, I'm not expressing any sort of judgment about the line. I know perfectly well it's not longer. I'm making, instead, it seems, a claim about my phenomenology, my visual experience.

Similarly, although the primary use of "conscious" in contemporary Anglophone philosophy is phenomenological, pertaining to the stream of experience, there's a secondary use of "conscious" in ordinary language that is more epistemic in character, on which to be "conscious" of some fact is more or less just to know it. A child becomes "conscious" of her race, and hippies seek to "raise consciousness" primarily in this epistemic sense. I am epistemically conscious of the time when I'm in a rush, even if I'm not phenomenally conscious of the time during most of my rushing around -- that is, even if I don't often (or even at all) have phenomenally experienced conscious thoughts about the time.

"Awareness" trends the other direction, with the dominant sense being epistemic and the secondary sense phenomenal. If I am aware of something, in the dominant sense, I know it. However, people sometimes use the word "awareness" to refer to the stream of experience, as when Hurlburt asks "What was in your awareness?" as a way of asking about what was being experienced.

Finally, "seems" has an epistemic use very much like "appears", but philosophers sometimes speak of "seemings" with, evidently, the intention to pick out facts about phenomenology.

Not all terms referring to consciousness are ambiguous in this way, but enough are to justify a demand for explanation.

One possibility is that consciousness has an epistemic and phenomenal aspect and these two are intimately tied. Perhaps we are always (epistemically) conscious of our (phenomenal) consciousness (as suggested by Brentano, Rosenthal, Lycan, Kriegel, and others). This might account for the blurring of the two senses in ordinary and philosophical language. Yet it would do so, I think, not in quite the right way: The epistemic/phenomenal ambiguity is not an ambiguity between having experience and being aware of that experience, the two properties that Brentano and company think travel always together. Rather, it's an ambiguity between having experience and being aware of something else, something other than the experience itself, something in the outside world.

My preferred explanation takes "looks" as a clue. "Looks" is, in fact, another term arguably with both an epistemic and phenomenal sense. Blind people use "looks". I can say that it looks bad for the Democrats or that it looks like Helen will get tenure, with no visual implications whatsoever. But, perhaps unlike the other cases, a certain etymological story is very inviting. Here's the story: Because one of the main ways we know about the world is by looking at it, we extend the visual sense of "looks" to cover other cases in which we know about something -- though the explicit reference to how things "look" hints toward the fact that appearances are sometimes misleading. The metaphor then dries out and becomes literal or almost so.

The most salient and dominant form of consciousness is sensory consciousness -- visual experience, auditory experience, tactile experience, etc. -- and when we have sensory experience of something, we generally learn about that thing. I hypothesize that, as with "looks", we metaphorically extend terms referring to sensory consciousness to general epistemic uses, and then these metaphors dry out. We bridge back in the other direction too: Terms for knowledge can start to become terms for sensory consciousness, including in the etymology of "conscious" itself (from "con" together + "sci" knowing).

Philosophers and psychologists sometimes slide between the epistemic and phenomenal senses of these terms -- as, for example, when psychologists unselfconsciously leap from conclusions about awareness in the epistemic sense (can a subject report a stimulus) to conclusions about phenomenal consciousness (was a sensation of that stimulus part of the stream of experience). And those who accept Brentanian or higher-order theories of consciousness, theories that link epistemic awareness and phenomenal conscious tightly together, are cheating if they try to defend their theory by appeal to a dry (and in this case slightly misapplied) metaphor.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review of Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the British Journal for Philosophy of Science

Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most important works of 20th century philosophy, tranformative in the disciplines of history and philosophy of science. It had a huge impact, in fact, throughout the humanities and social sciences, especially in its use of the idea of scientific "paradigms" -- and probably the current use of "paradigm" in popular culture is at least in part traceable back to Kuhn. The book is also a delightful read. What more could one want as a reader or aspire to as an author?

With that in mind, I enjoyed this nearsighted review of the book in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, pointed out to me yesterday by a student. Some quotes:

On reading this book, one's first impression is of enthusiasm and vitality. The author clearly feels himself to be opening up a new world of appreciation and understanding. In the face of such force and charm, it seems mean to question the lasting value of the work; but it must be said that many of its features are already well established (Stopes-Roe, 1964, p. 158).

I would suggest, in fact, that if a reader wishes to bring out the real content of what Kuhn is saying, he may find it advantageous to try substituting ' basic theory' for every occurrence of 'paradigm' in the book. He will come across very few places where the sense suffers (many statements are made about legitimacy and rules, where the content is carried explicitly by an appropriate word); and a careful study of these will be more illuminating than the ubiquitous use of the odd word 'paradigm' (p. 159).
If your wonderful book isn't met at first with universal enthusiasm, take heart!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Applying to Graduate School in Philosophy

Yes, it's about that time. Here's a link to a series of posts in 2007 I wrote about applying to Ph.D. programs. All the same advice still applies. Several weeks ago, Robert Schwartz of Milwaukee wrote up this post on applying to M.A. programs.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Transparency of Warped Windows

Gilbert Harman famously wrote:

When Eloise sees a tree before her, the colors she experiences are all experienced as features of the tree and its surroundings. None of them are experienced as intrinsic features of her experience. Nor does she experience any features of anything as intrinsic features of her experiences. And that is true of you too. There is nothing special about Eloise’s visual experience. When you see a tree, you do not experience any features as intrinsic features of your experience. Look at a tree and try to turn your attention to intrinsic features of your visual experience. I predict you will find that the only features there to turn your attention to will be features of the presented tree (1990, p. 667).
Perceptual experience is, Harman says, "transparent": If you try to examine it or attend to it directly, your attention will pass right through it to the features of the outside world presented by that experience. You can attend to the green of the tree, but not to the visual experience of greenness that the light from the tree produces in you, to the cylindricality of its trunk, but not to your visual experience of that cylindricality. Michael Tye, Fred Dretske, Sydney Shoemaker, and others have recently said similar things, and the claim traces back to G.E. Moore (who did not, himself, entirely endorse it). Others, like Charles Siewert and Amy Kind, have challenged such strong claims of transparency.

I've been thinking about the transparency of warped windows. (I feel that I am lifting this analogy from someone, but I don't know who. Siewert? Kind? You? Reminders welcome.) When I look at a tree through a warped window, I might be interested in learning about the tree or I might instead be interested in learning about the window. Now perhaps I can't in a strict sense even see the window. It's not dusty, for example. If so, I can't attend to it visually in quite the same way I can visually attend to the tree; and yet I can in another sense attend to it, in part by attending to the tree. I can notice how warped the tree looks and in what parts, and how that warping changes as I move my head around. Since I know certain things about what trees are like, and especially that they don't noodle around systematically as a move my head, I can discern certain features of the window by looking at the tree. I can know, for example, where it's warped and how badly. Perceptual attention to the tree combines with general knowledge about trees, general knowledge about windows, and proprioceptive knowledge of my own movements and intentions to produce knowledge about the window. Was I, then, attending to the window? It seems to me quite natural to say that there's an important sense in which I was -- even perhaps a perceptual sense.

(Does the fact that general knowledge played into my judgments about the window make it merely "intellectual" attention or inference and not perceptual attention? That seems too strict a requirement on perceptual attention: General knowledge informs my perceptual judgment that the batter is making a run, and even that she's a batter; yet I can attend perceptually to the batter and to the fact that she is now making a run.)

Of course, the window doesn't need to be warped in any way for me to do all this: I might conclude that the window is a perfect, undistorting transmitter.

This perceptual knowledge of the window is in some ways mediated by my perceptual knowledge of the tree. But in other way, it's not mediated. Causally, in the transmission of light, the window is closer to me. I am reacting directly to input conditioned by the window and learning things perceptually about the window on the basis of that input. If the window were different and the tree the same, I would notice that difference; changes in my knowledge of it are not mediated by changes in the outward tree. Are they mediated by changes in my perceptual representation of the tree? Well, what exactly is that representation and where in the visual system? In some sense, I am representing, perceptually, the tree as constant and unchanging. Is there some representation, perhaps "earlier" in the visual system, of the tree as noodling around? Well, maybe -- but if we go early enough we might not have the category "tree" to apply, and there may be no sense in privileging the interpretation of the changing representations as representations of changes in the tree rather than changes in the medium through which light is being transmitted from the tree.

Introspective judgments about perceptual experience often, I think, work similarly and raise a similar tangle of issues. I see something green. I'm not so much interested in learning about the thing in the world as about my experience of it (since I'm a philosopher, or maybe a perceptual psychologist). General knowledge about the world (that there's a green thing there, that lighting conditions are normal) combines with knowledge about my perceptual system (I'm good at seeing green things), combined with proprioceptive knowledge and knowledge of my intentions (my eyes are open, I'm undistracted), to produce the judgment, at least partly perceptual, that I'm having a visual experience of greenness. I look out at night and notice the starburst of light from the lamps; I notice how the lamps' starbursts change when I squint and tilt my head, and can tell in that way that it's a perceptual distortion due to something in me. But that's not all there is to it: There's a responsiveness to my experience that does not depend on what's going on with the lamps. The experience itself, like the window (but even "closer in", as it were) has a direct effect on my judgments about it. It's not purely a matter of perceiving something out there (perhaps erroneously) and then making some abstract inferences.

Or so it seems to me today.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Second Consciousness Online Conference

... call for papers here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Visual Imagery of Sensory Impossibilities

There was a time when I could visualize the obverse, and then the reverse. Now I see them simultaneously. This is not as though the Zahir were crystal, because it is not a matter of one face being superimposed upon another; rather, it is as though my eyesight were spherical, with the Zahir in the center.

– Jorge Luis Borges (1949/1962)

My mental field of vision is larger than the normal one. In the former I appear to see everything from some commanding point of view, which at once embraces every object and all sides of every object.

– a questionnaire respondent in Galton (1880)

In conversation, a couple people have told me that they can visually imagine four spatial dimensions -- a hypercube, for example. (Probably someone has said this in print, too, but I can't recall any instances. Pointers welcome.)

I find this rather hard to imagine, and (I confess) believe. But maybe that's just my own narrowness? If there are or could be four actual, physical spatial dimensions, then presumably there are or could be aliens who could see (and thus presumably visually imagine) in all those dimensions. The unpicturability of such imagery by me doesn't imply its impossibility. Maybe the dimensionality of some people's visual imagining outruns the dimensionality of their vision. (I assume here that no human being can actually outwardly see in four dimensions or with such apparently impossible points of view. At least I've heard no such reports.)

Such impossibilities of visual perspective, if they are possible in visual imagination, appear to strain against two common claims about imagery. One is Hume's "faint perceptions" view, according to which images are just faint copies of ordinary sensory impressions. (One needn't of course be a fully orthodox Humean on this point -- even Hume probably wasn't -- to think that visual imagery is very structurally similar, experientially, to visual sensation.) Another is Stephen Kosslyn's view, related to Hume's, that imagery differs from perception mainly in being the activation of visual brain areas and visual representational forms by central cognitive causes rather than from peripheral sensory stimulation. The visual image, Kosslyn says, is a "simulation" or "emulation" of what we visually perceive. Though not perhaps impossible, it would be odd, on such a view, if the imagistic simulation could have radically different perspectival and spatial properties from the perceptions simulated.

So probably: Either visual imagery of such sensory impossibilities is itself impossible, despite some people's reports, or Hume and Kosslyn (and lots of other people) are wrong. Is there a way to go about settling this?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

One Reason I'm Worried About My Concept of Consciousness

Consciousness must, it seems, be a vague phenomenon. The newly formed zygote has no conscious experience; the two-year-old child has conscious experience. I find it hard to believe that consciousness suddenly pops in, in a quantum leap. Even if it emerges fairly suddenly, it must still spread out across some stretch of time (a day, a second, a hundred milliseconds?) such that at a narrow enough temporal resolution it is gradual. Actually, I suspect the transitional period is fairly long: I know of no sudden neural or behavioral change (even at birth) that suggests anything other than an extended gradualism. In the transitional period, by definition, it will be a vague matter whether the organism is conscious, such that it's not quite right simply to say it's conscious and not quite right to say it's not, except perhaps as governed by flexible practical norms. (Compare going bald.)

The same considerations apply phylogenetically: Humans clearly have consciousness. Viruses clearly do not (unless you go panpsychist and say that everything is conscious -- that would clear up the zygote problem too -- but I assume we don't want to do that!). Why think there will be a sharp line across the phylogenetic tree? The only plausible place, it seems, for a sharp line would be between human beings and all others. But then evolutionary history becomes a problem: Modern humans, early homo sapiens, homo erectus, homo habilis, australopithecus, etc., which of these have conscious experience?

And yet I can't get my head around this vagueness. I can imagine what it is like for it to be a vague matter whether one is bald; I can picture the gradual transition. I can imagine what it is for it to be a vague matter whether a bottle is in a backpack (perhaps the bottle is partly melted or hanging half out). But how can it be a vague matter whether a particular being has conscious experience or whether a particular state is conscious?

Consider visual experience: I can imagine a very small speck of visual experience, with the visual field limited to one second of arc. But that's still straightforwardly a case of conscious experience, even if it's very limited. It wouldn't be a matter of convention or pragmatics whether to regard such a case as qualifying as conscious experience. I can imagine a very hazy visual experience, or a gappy experience, or one fading out toward medium gray; but all these too are straightforwardly cases of experience, however impoverished that experience is. They are discretely different in kind from lacking visual experience. So what then would it be to be partway between having visual experience and lacking it, so that it's a vague matter, so that it would be a pragmatic decision like with baldness or the water bottle half hanging out of the pack? As soon as there's the itsiest bit of visual consciousness, there's visual consciousness, end of story -- right?

You might point to cases of organisms with barely any sensory capacities as plausibly having perceptual consciousness so limited that it would be a vague case. But what would those organisms be? Not snails or ants, surely, who have complex sensory systems; the most extremely limited perceptual manifold must belong to the simplest of the mutlicellular animals, maybe even single celled organisms. That seems rather far down the phylogenetic tree to find vague cases of consciousness, doesn't it? And if such simple organisms are conscious, why not also the personal computer you're viewing this post on, or the nation in which you live, which is in some ways as complicated in its reactions? If simple reactivity to the environment is sufficient for consciousness, why not go wholly panpsychist? If it takes more than simple reactivity, then there will be organisms with complex perceptual manifolds but for which it is transitional, vague, indeterminate, a pragmatic decision about the application of terms, whether they are conscious. So there would be complex perceptual not-quite-experience-not-quite-non-experience. Huh?

Theoretically, it seems to me that there must be vague cases, and that those cases must be reasonably far along the developmental and phylogenetic spectrum, to the point where the organism's reactivity is fairly richly structured. But I cannot imagine such vague cases. I can't make sense of them. I can't understand what they would be like.

And that seems to indicate that there's something fundamentally flawed in my concept of consciousness.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Applying to MA Programs in Philosophy

by guest blogger Robert Schwartz, Department of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee


Although I will try to speak in generalities, my knowledge of MA programs is based primarily on my experience as chair of admissions at UWM. Thus some of my remarks may not generalize. For example, the criteria our admissions committee uses in evaluating applicants may not be the same as that of other schools.

Kinds of Programs

There are essentially three types of MA programs:

1. Those that are part of PhD programs

Comment- Unless they indicate otherwise, by and large these programs do not focus on placing students in PhD programs, including their own.

2. Those that are geared mainly toward awarding terminal degrees in philosophy

Comment- These schools are not appropriate for someone wishing to go on for a PhD in philosophy.

3. Those that focus on placing students in PhD programs

Comment- These schools are appropriate, and my remarks will be limited to such programs.

Who should apply to these MA programs?

The commitment and reasons for pursuing an MA degree are not necessarily the same as those for pursuing a PhD. With few exceptions those seeking PhD’s in philosophy wish to have academic careers. At UWM almost all of our students have such plans, but not all do. Some intend to apply to law school, some are unsure of their career plans and wish to determine whether philosophy and teaching are what they really want, some may not want to pursue a research career but hope to teach philosophy in high schools, etc.

I would advise anyone who is determined to pursue a career in academia to look at the applying to PhD programs post. This site provides a thoughtful and forthright assessment of the difficulties achieving this goal. I might add that although ES is right to stress the advantages of attending a “top ranked” or “prestigious” PhD program, I think the picture he paints of the alternatives may be overly bleak.

MA program as opposed to a PhD program

Students have various reasons/strategies for applying to MA programs.

1. They do not have sufficient background in philosophy to gain direct admission to a PhD program or to a PhD program that suits their needs.

Comment- Some, including very good, PhD programs will consider non-philosophy majors if they have strong undergraduate records and have background in areas related to philosophy, for example, math, linguistics or psychology. However, even if a PhD program is willing to consider such students, it is often difficult for them to evaluate the student’s philosophical abilities from their undergrad records, letters, etc.

In general, I think it most advisable for students who fall into this first category to consider seriously the MA route. MA programs will be much more willing to take a “gamble” on such students. Attending an MA program will mean that you will not be eliminated by PhD programs on the grounds that you do not have sufficient background in philosophy. Preparation in an MA program may also make it less likely you will feel in over your head or behind your fellow students. Indeed, you have a good chance of being better prepared than others admitted to the program.

2. As a safety school in case they do not get into a PhD program.

Comment- Given the vagaries and long odds of being accepted at one’s first choice(s), it is a good policy to apply to safety schools when applying to either MA or PhD programs. Students, though, should consider in advance if the safety schools are ones they would actually accept if they do not get into a program of their choice. Students should also take into account that admissions into a MA program may be more competitive than at many PhD programs -- more competitive not only in terms of number of applicants but in terms of the strength of records of the applicants. Students who fail to gain admissions into our MA program are often successful in being admitted to PhD programs.

3. To improve their chances of being accepted at better PhD programs.

Comment- This strategy makes sense in some cases, but is not to be relied on. First, MA programs do not get students into PhD programs. A student’s ability, work habits, performance in the program, GRE scores, etc. do. MA programs do help better prepare a student for PhD work and can help with the application process. Second, the top schools are so competitive that one’s chances of being admitted are slim no matter how good a student’s record is. Third, students who apply and are accepted into PhD programs should consider seriously whether it is wise to give up a bird in the hand for the possibility of doing better after attending an MA program.

Before making such a decision I advise students to ask themselves the following: Although the PhD program is not one of your preferred schools, does it look as if it will be able to fulfill your academic needs? Will you have regrets or keep second-guessing your decision to attend the less than “ideal” PhD program? Will you feel the other students in the program are not on your level and thus holding back your education and job prospects? Suppose you attend an MA program and in the end are not admitted to a PhD program better than the one you turned down, will you feel your MA studies were a waste of your time?

PhD programs' views of applicants with MA’s

Until MA programs were developed that focused specifically on preparing students for PhD programs students who took MA’s rather than applying to PhD programs after their undergraduate degree were often looked upon with some skepticism. Things have changed now, but not everywhere. Some PhD programs seem to continue with old assumptions. From my experience at UWM, for example, there are several schools that have not admitted our students no matter how good they are. We have had students who have gotten into many/all of the very top PhD programs and are turned down (not even put on a waiting list) by schools that are ranked lower or much lower. Also some PhD programs are skittish/reluctant to admit students who do not come from a prestigious undergraduate school. Completing a good MA program can reduce their concerns, but the “glow” factor that results from having an undergraduate degree from a prestigious university often does have an influence.

In sum, attending a good MA program will improve your philosophical skills, background and for many students their confidence. Not having PhD students, an MA program can provide much one-on-one attention. This enables the program to better tailor its courses and a student’s course of study to fit his or her individual needs. Moreover, MA programs have a lot of experience guiding students through the admissions process. At UWM the department as a whole, not merely a student’s advisor, plays a role helping students decide where to apply, balancing their application list in terms of admission probabilities, advising them on the choice of writing sample to submit and counseling them in their acceptance decisions. We also provide a good deal of personalized guidance walking a student through the application/admissions process and keeping an eye on problems that may develop along the way.

As the placement records of many MA programs show, students from MA programs are increasingly being admitted to top schools. In the case of UWM the talent and accomplishments of students we have sent to schools has often led these schools to look favorably on our graduates. I think a similar advantage would hold for students attending other MA programs.

MA Completion and Placement Records

Students should try to get information about the program’s completion record; these do vary from program to program. Student should also check the placement records of the MA program, especially how they have performed in recent years. Comparing this data is not always easy as the schools use different methods of counting and provide different information. Some do not break the data down by year; so the record will reflect many years of placement, not the performance in any particular year. Some may be selective in reporting or list not only the school's students attend but all acceptances. Hence if one student was admitted to numerous very good schools it can skew the data.

As mentioned earlier MA programs do not get students into PhD programs; they prepare them to apply. Thus placement records reflect the quality of the students enrolled in the program, and this can vary from year to year. UWM’s success in placing students at top programs is largely due to the strength of the students in the program. Many who apply to UWM do so in the hope that it will enable them to be admitted to a better program. They probably could and some in fact have been admitted to pretty good PhD programs. I have indicated above my thoughts on the pros and cons of gambling that they will be admitted to a better school.

MA Applications and Admissions

Much information is likely to be found on a program’s web site concerning the application process, requirements, the nature of the program and the faculty. Check this for suitability to your needs. At UWM our primary criterion for selecting students is our assessment of the student’s potential for work in philosophy. We do not require students be philosophy majors or have even taken philosophy courses. A good number of students who have been most successful in gaining admission to top PhD programs fall into this category.

Our admission decisions are most influenced by the writing sample and letters of recommendation. The student’s statement of purpose is important, too, in that it provides background information that can help us assess the student’s overall record, as well as determine if the student’s goals, interests and areas of study fit our program. We have no set standards for GRE scores and grades. They play a role only after our overall assessment of a student’s talents. GRE’s tend to play a much greater role in PhD admissions. We urge student who do not have very good GRE’s to retake them before applying to PhD programs. There are, however, quite good US, Canadian and UK schools that do not require GRE scores.

At UWM we do not give much weight per se to the undergraduate school the student has attended, but as in the case of PhD programs it does play some role in assessment. Attending a high-powered school usually means a student has a long standing record of high achievement and her or his general abilities have to some extent been “prescreened”. A school’s status can also affect how letters of recommendation and other materials are evaluated. For example, if a letter writer says the student is in the top 10% of recent graduates it can be harder to evaluate the significance of the fact when the letter comes from a school with little track record as opposed to a school that consistently produces strong philosophy majors. It is also likely members of the admissions committee will know more about the background and standards of the person writing the letter if the person is from a well-known program.


The better the writer knows you and your work and will take the time to spell it out, the more useful the letter. Since many of our applicants have little formal training in philosophy we recognize that not all the letters may come from philosophers. Informative letters from non-philosophers are reviewed like any others but there often are two problems evaluating them. 1. At times the letters are from a professor who had you in a course that is not readily related to philosophy. 2. The course work is on a more philosophical topic, but the instructor has little background in philosophy and evaluates your work in terms of that are not very informative about your philosophical talents.

Also if a student has, say, had only one philosophy course the letter or the student’s statement of purpose should spell out how this minimal background has led the student to undertake the study of philosophy at the graduate level.

Writing Sample

It is hard to evaluate a student’s philosophical potential if the paper submitted is only tangentially on a philosophical topic or examined from a non-philosophical perspective. Most of the papers submitted to our program were written originally for a course. Do not assume that the paper that received the best grade is the best to send. Grading varies from instructor to instructor and that paper may not best informatively reflect your potential. Speak to your instructor and your undergraduate advisor about the paper you intend to submit and what you may want to do to improve it.

Papers that although good are mainly repeats of course content or simply follow the readings give less indication of the student’s talents than one that shows independent research and an attempt to say something of your own. Similarly papers that largely lay out A’s and B’s position and declare a winner in the debate tend not to make the best case for the student’s philosophical research skills.

Admissions Decisions

Below are the Council of Graduate School guidelines for decision dates that most, but not all, MA and PhD programs go by:

Acceptance of an offer of financial support (such as a graduate scholarship, fellowship, traineeship, or assistantship) for the next academic year by a prospective or enrolled graduate student completes an agreement that both student and graduate school expect to honor. In that context, the conditions affecting such offers and their acceptance must be defined carefully and understood by all parties.

Students are under no obligation to respond to offers of financial support prior to April 15; earlier deadlines for acceptance of such offers violate the intent of this Resolution. In those instances in which a student accepts an offer before April 15, and subsequently desires to withdraw that acceptance, the student may submit in writing a resignation of the appointment at any time through April 15. However, an acceptance given or left in force after April 15 commits the student not to accept another offer without first obtaining a written release from the institution to which a commitment has been made. Similarly, an offer by an institution after April 15 is conditional on presentation by the student of the written release from any previously accepted offer. It is further agreed by the institutions and organizations subscribing to the above Resolution that a copy of this Resolution should accompany every scholarship, fellowship, traineeship, and assistantship offer.
Waiting to hear about admission decisions can be very stressful and not all MA and PhD programs do much to alleviate the pressure. To some extent though students frequently expect more or more definite information before a department really knows what to tell the student. Different MA and PhD programs operate on different time schedules. Once a department accepts and offers to support a student she or he has until April 15 to respond. Naturally the student does not want to make a decision until all the facts are in. So if the student is still in the running for a place at a school she or he would prefer they can and most frequently do delay until April 15.

It is also the case that schools have different policies concerning waiting lists. Usually no school gets acceptances from all those admitted. Some admit more than they want assuming that in the end they will have about as many acceptances as they aim for. Other universities only admit the number of students they are aiming for and put others who they think have a good chance of being accepted on a waiting list. Schools also adopt different policies as to the number of students they put on their waiting lists. This may be determined by their past experience as to how far they have usually gone down their list before filling the class. Some MA and PhD programs less certain of the likely percent of acceptances or not wanting to take chances put a very large number of applicants on their waiting list. And they may not let those on the list know their fate or even where they stand until they actually fill the class. In any case departments often do not know how far they will actually go down their waiting list until quite late, since many students do not make their decisions until April 15.


There are a number of student blogs that provide useful information about a school’s practices, acceptance policies and also attempt to keep track of who has been accepted, rejected or put on waiting lists. One must be careful depending on this information, as it is not always accurate.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Confessional Philosophy

Usually, philosophy is advocacy. Sometimes it's disruption without a positive position in mind. More rarely, it's confession.

The aim of the confessional philosopher is not the same as that of someone who confesses to a spouse or priest, nor quite the same (though perhaps closer) as that of the confessional poet. It is rather this: To display oneself as a model of a certain sort of thinking, while not necessarily endorsing that style of thinking or the conclusions that flow from it. Confessional philosophy tends to center on skepticism and sin.

Consider, in Augustine's Confessions, the famous discussion of stealing pears, wherein Augustine displays the sinful pattern of his youthful mind. Augustine's aim is not so much, it seems to me, to advocate a certain position (such as that sinful thoughts tend to take such-and-such a form) as to offer the episode for contemplation by others, with no prepackaged conclusion, and perhaps also to induce humility in both the reader and himself. He offers an analysis of his motives -- that he was he was trying to simulate freedom by getting away with something forbidden (which would fit with his general theory of sin, that it involves trying to possess something that can only be given by God) -- but then he undercuts that analysis when he notes that he would definitely not have stolen the pears alone. Was it, then, that he valued the camraderie of his sinful friends? He rejects that explanation also -- "that gang-mentality too was a nothing" -- and after waffling over various possibilities he concludes "It was a seduction of the mind hard to understand.... Who can unravel this most snarled, knotty tangle?" (4th c. CE/1997, p. 72-73).

Descartes's Meditations, especially the first two, are presented as confessional -- perhaps partly to display an actual pattern in his (past) thinking, but perhaps also partly as a pose. Here we see, or seem to see, the struggles and confusions of a man bent of finding a secure foundation for his thought. Hume's skeptical conclusion to Book 1 of the Treatise seems to me more genuinely confessional, when he asks how he can dare to "venture upon such bold enterprizes, when beside those numberless infirmities peculiar to myself, I find so many which are common to human nature?" (1739/1978, p. 265). "The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning.... I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour's amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther" (p. 268-269). We see how the skeptic writhes. Hume displays his pattern of skeptical thought, but offers no way out, nor chooses between embracing his skeptical arguments and rejecting them. Nonetheless, in Books II and III, he's back in the business of philosophical argumentation.

Generally, it's better to offer a tight, polished exposition or argument than to display one's thoughts, errors, and uncertainties. That partly explains the rarity of confessional philosophy. But sometimes, no model of error or uncertainty will serve better than oneself.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Why All the Children -- I Mean Philosophers -- Are Above Average

You probably -- like most people -- think your intelligence is above average, that you're a better-than-average driver, and that your children are the rockingest. Part of your disagreement about this with other people (that is, those who think you're a reckless idiot with rotten kids) may be your different standards. The home improvement contractor and the absent-minded professor don't agree about what "intelligence" is. People who use and don't use turn signals differ about the importance of turn signals. We come to esteem the domains of our children's success. I wouldn't -- far from it! -- deny that there's considerable illusion and self-deception in all this, but to some extent it can be perfectly rational. People can legitimately disagree in their standards of intelligence, skillful driving, and child behavior, and it shouldn't be surprising if those legitimate differences lead them to shape themselves (and their children) to reflect their standards. We could all perfectly rationally believe we are above average.

It seems to me that this applies especially to philosophy, the one academic field where virtually everything is contentious (even, I'll admit, this very statement). Philosophers can perfectly rationally disagree, and disagree radically, in their views of at least:

* what counts as an important topic,
* what is a good method to address a particular topic,
* the truth of almost any philosophical conclusion,
* the quality of almost any philosophical argument.
Those of them with any sense will then choose, in their own research, to focus on the most important topics, using the best approaches and arguments, wisely defending the truth. By their own standards -- and quite reasonably so -- their work will be the best stuff out there, with the exception probably of a few acknowledged heroes after whom they mold themselves.

Almost inevitably then, almost everyone who does philosophical research will feel that their work is undervalued and underappreciated by the rest of the community (who for their part very reasonably have different standards). Aggravating this will be the usual self-serving biases and positive self-illusions of non-depressed people, and various cognitive and situational facts somewhere between self-deceptive and rational. To exemplify the last point: One's own work is more salient and better remembered than that of others, and so more noticeably missing from reference lists. Positive feedback is more likely to be conveyed than negative feedback, especially as one's power and prestige increase. Like-minded philosophers tend to aggregate in departments, in conferences, in journals, in reference lists -- making those with the highest opinion of you and the most similar values the ones you are most likely to interact with.

Odds are, you're about an order of magnitude worse a philosopher than you think you are. Or, put differently: Sure, you're well above average, by your own reasonable standards, but so is everybody.

Update Sept. 10: Let me add that I think the dynamics for students are a bit different, with a substantial proportion suffering from underconfidence. Or actually, I think more commonly among top students (including in my own case when I was a student), there's a weird, irrational blend of underconfidence and inflated arrogance.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

What Is It Like to Feel Sleepy?

Here are three types of conscious experience, or "phenomenology", that it's difficult to deny:

(1.) sensory experience (like the experience of redness produced by looking at a red object, like the taste of saltiness in one's mouth),
(2.) imagery experience (like a picture in one's mind's eye of the Taj Mahal, or a tune or sentence running silently through one's head), and
(3.) emotional experience (the rush of anger, the shock of sudden fear).

Some scholars think one or more of these reduces to or is a variant of another (maybe emotional experience is just sensory experience of the body [as William James says], maybe imagery experience is just a faint version of sensory experience [as David Hume says]). But clearly we have all three types of experience.

It's sometimes argued that we also have other types of experience, but there has never been a consensus on what the other types are. Imageless thought or "cognitive phenomenology" is one suggestion, which has been getting a lot of attention recently (e.g., by Charles Siewert, David Pitt, and Russ Hurlburt) -- the supposed experience we have of thinking something which is not just a matter of having images or emotional experiences of a certain sort, but which has its own irreducible phenomenology. Early in the 20th century, E.B. Titchener argued against the existence of such cognitive phenomenology, suggesting that it mostly reduces to visual images, inner speech (both forms of imagery), and the like. More recently, William Robinson and Jesse Prinz have argued similarly against it.

How about the experience of feeling sleepy? I can't recall any good discussions of this in the philosophical or psychological literature. (If I've missed something, please let me know!) Is that reducible to one or more of those three types of experience?

Maybe it's a type of sensory experience? To think clearly about this, we need first to think about what other kinds of experiences are sensory -- for the categories above are clearly incomplete unless we have a fairly broad notion of "sensory", such that pains count as sensory experiences and feelings of muscular tension and limb position and feelings of fullness or discomfort in the alimentary canal. Is feeling sleepy sensory in the same way these other experiences are -- a matter of experiencing how things are going in your body?

As it happens, I'm sleepy right now. (Hence the inspiration for this post.) This slight headache, this feeling that I'm tempted to describe as a heaviness near my eyes -- those seem like sensory experiences. But there's more to sleepiness than that. A lassitude in my limbs? Is that sensory? But could I have this very same heaviness and lassitude and not feel sleepy? Or feel sleepy without this heaviness and lassitude? My guess is -- but it's only a guess -- that there's something more.

Also: Sleepiness is as much a state one one's brain as of one's body. I can understand how detecting the condition of one's body is, in an appropriately broad sense, sensory; but is detecting the condition of one's brain also sensory? That doesn't seem right. The brain does all kinds of self-monitoring and engages in all kinds of feedback loops; would those, too, be "sensory"?

So maybe sleepiness is, experientially, an emotion? It has a valence, like emotion (negative, usually), and perhaps a typical facial posture. But it doesn't appear on most psychologists' lists of emotional states (sadness, happiness, fear, anger, surprise...). It doesn't seem to arise, usually, as a reaction to how things are going for you and those you care about, for example in response to a change for better or worse in one's condition, as emotions typically do. But maybe not all emotions are like that? (Is surprise even like that?) What is an emotion, exactly? Well, we won't solve that question today.

Or is the experience of sleepiness sui generis, just its own unique sort of thing? And if so, then the feeling of being well-rested, too? And who knows what all else? Feeling energetic? Competent? Lusty? Healthy? The boxes in which we're supposed to fit things, the categories of experience -- their borders seem no longer clear, or they won't stand still....

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Reconstructive Memory (vs. Storage and Retrieval) and "Experience Sampling"

In both cognitive science and folk psychology, the dominant metaphor for memory – a metaphor that both reflects and reinforces a certain way of thinking about it – is the metaphor of storage and retrieval (often with a search in the middle). There’s one particular aspect of this metaphor I want to highlight in this post: On the storage-and-retrieval picture, memory is a process that, once initiated, can and typically should operate largely independently of other cognitive processes. Other processes like inferring, imagining, and perceiving interfere with pure remembering. To the extent those processes influence one’s final judgment about some remembered fact or event, one isn’t really quite remembering it.

This isn’t to say, of course, that on such a model inferring, imagining, or perceiving couldn’t sometimes be helpful. When something is difficult to recall, they might help one recall it, perhaps by giving clues about where to look in one’s memory stores. (If the clue is specific enough, they might even turn a recall task into a recognition task.) They might appropriately increase or decrease one’s confidence in the results of the retrieval process. But if one’s aim is as purely and cleanly as possible simply to remember, there’s something problematic in allowing such processes to play anything but a secondary role. And one might worry that they’re as likely, perhaps more likely, to distort and corrupt the memory as to enable it.

Bartlett (1932), Neisser (1967), and Roediger (1980) have ably described the various infelicities of this storage-and-retrieval picture. When the task is to remember a complex event or a complex passage (as in Bartlett’s seminal research) the core problem with the retrieval metaphor is more evident than when the task is to recall, say, a list of numbers or nonsense syllables. If I tell you a story about a cricket match and ask you to recall it later, you will not reproduce the story verbatim. Nor will you reproduce gappy but verbatim pieces of the story. Rather, you will produce a new version of the story, in light of your general background knowledge of cricket. This half-inventive process is especially revealed by your plausible mistakes and interpolations, but there’s no reason to suppose that it would only be the mistakes and interpolations that show the heavy influence of background knowledge. Someone, for example, without that background knowledge would not do nearly so well remembering overall (even if certain mistakes are more likely). Nor is this simply a matter of a cricket-knowledgeable person encoding the story better in the first hearing and thus “storing” it differently (though no doubt hearing the story knowledgeably is very important to remembering it well later). Knowledge of cricket is also used to construct or reconstruct the story at the time of recall. If, in the intervening time, new knowledge of cricket is acquired, that will affect the reconstruction, probably for the better if the match was real and typical. (In my own case, I have particularly noticed the profound effect of new knowledge on my reconstructive memory of philosophical works I read as an undergraduate.)

Bartlett writes:

Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude toward a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience, and to a little outstanding detail which commonly appears in image or in language form. It is thus hardly even really exact, even in the most rudimentary cases of role recapitulation, and it is not at all important that it should be so (1932, p. 213).
From the fact that memory is reconstructive in this way – necessarily reconstructive, at least for complex events – it follows that imagination, inference, the application of pre-existing schemata, and other cognitive processes are not separable from the process of remembering but rather an integral part of it. They are not interfering or aiding forces from which an act of “pure” remembering could be isolated.

Let's apply this to an example, from "experience sampling" -- a topic close to my heart.

An event transpires in your stream of experience – an image of warplanes in flight, say – and then a randomly generated beep occurs, signaling that you are to try your best to recall that moment of experience, which is to say the last undisturbed moment of experience before the sampling beep. Russ Hurlburt (or someone else) will interview you about it later, trying to discover in this way the truth about randomly sampled moments of your everyday, lived experience. (Now that's pretty cool, don't you think?) Okay, so what's going to happen?

First, let's note the obvious: That target event is now gone. Furthermore, there’s no reason to think your brain would have stored a detailed and enduring record of that event as it was ongoing. As change blindness experiments have shown, as well as experiments about the forgetting of mundane everyday details (even details frequently seen like the layout of a penny), we almost instantly forget many, perhaps most, major features of the environment (Sanford 1917/1982; Nickerson and Adams 1979; Rensink, O’Regan, and Clark 1997, 2000; Simons and Levin 1998). You may try to retain that image of warplanes over the duration of the beep and the post-beep reflection, using that retained image as a model for the image as it existed the moment before the beep; but surely it’s plausible to suppose that the image might be transformed, elaborated, rendered artificial in the course of retention, and it may be very difficult to detect such changes reliably, accurately accounting for and subtracting them when reaching judgments about the target experience at the moment of the beep.

Or you may try to recreate the image, if it was momentarily lost, which would appear to invite all the same risks if not more.

Or you may try to recall the image without retaining or recreating it (perhaps purely linguistically?), but this too will be a constructive or reconstructive act, involving (for example) one’s knowledge of warplanes, how you take them generally to look, knowledge of the outward event that inspired the image (a passage in a book, say), and probably also one’s general opinions about imagery. It will not be the simple retrieval of a recorded trace, in high or low pixilation, but rather elaborative, constructive, and plausibility- and schemata-grounded, like Bartlett’s subjects’ recollections stories and passages of text.

Then, hours later, you are interviewed, and the reconstructive process begins again, with the target event less fresh, but – perhaps compensatingly – with more available bases for the reconstruction: all the general knowledge (or opinions), schemata, and skills that were available (except literal retention) in the first instance of recollection after the beep; plus also one’s knowledge of, or best recollection of, the judgments and other processes that occurred after the beep; plus one’s written notes; plus cues (maybe subtle) from the interviewer; plus one’s knowledge of the intervening beeps and interviews. From this confluence of forces issues an utterance, “they’re jet planes with a tapered nose and that kind of dark gray steel with a…”, which the interviewer interprets in accord with his own system of schemata and prejudices.

This, I think, is the cognitive process underlying interviews about sampled experiences – both in Hurlburt’s method and in related methods like Petitmengin's. You see, then, why I think there’s plenty of room for error.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Unreliability of Naive Introspection

... Chapter 7 of my book in draft (provisionally titled Perplexities of Consciousness) is now up on my website. The chapter is independently readable -- a slightly revised version of my 2008 article of the same title -- and it's the argumentative core of the book. Comments and feedback more than welcome.

With this posting, a working draft of the entire book (except preface and references) is now available. Over the next couple of months (hopefully not too much longer) I will be tweaking and revising in light of further reflections, further reading, and the comments and criticisms that many people have kindly given.

Here's an abstract of the chapter:

We are prone to gross error, even in favorable circumstances of extended reflection, about our own ongoing conscious experience, our current phenomenology. Even in this apparently privileged domain, our self-knowledge is faulty and untrustworthy. We are not simply fallible at the margins but broadly inept. Examples highlighted in this chapter include: emotional experience (for example, is it entirely bodily; does joy have a common, distinctive phenomenological core?), peripheral vision (how broad and stable is the region of visual clarity?), and the phenomenology of thought (does it have a distinctive phenomenology, beyond just imagery and feelings?). Cartesian skeptical scenarios undermine knowledge of ongoing conscious experience as well as knowledge of the outside world. Infallible judgments about ongoing mental states are simply banal cases of self-fulfillment. Philosophical foundationalism supposing that we infer an external world from secure knowledge of our own consciousness is almost exactly backward.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A New Experimental Philosophy Page

with links to many articles in the area, is up here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Philosophers' Honesty in Responding to Questionnaires

Last week, and in various previous posts, I've discussed a questionnaire Josh Rust and I sent to several hundred ethicists and non-ethicist professors (both inside and outside philosophy), soliticiting self-reports of their moral attitudes and moral behavior on a variety of issues, such as vegetarianism and voting. Our guiding question: Do ethicists behave any better, or any more in accord with their espoused principles, than do non-ethicists? Based on our analyses so far, it doesn't look like ethicists' behavior is any better.

You might wonder, though -- as I do -- how honestly our survey respondents are answering our questions. Are those who have behaved (at least by their own lights) less than ideally well really going to report that fact, even in an anonymous survey like ours? Maybe ethicists really do behave better than non-ethicists but don't look that way because they respond more honestly. Josh and I tried to get a handle on this, in part, by asking a few questions whose answers we could verify. Respondents' honesty on these questions might help us estimate the honesty of their responses overall. Since honesty, of course, is also a moral behavior, it merits examination in its own right.

We asked one question whose answer we could directly verify for all philosophy professors: whether they were dues-paying members of the American Philosophical Association. (The APA publishes an annual list of members, which includes people up to 10 months late with their dues.) Among the philosopher respondents, 138 non-ethicists and 128 ethicists were listed by the APA as members. Of the remaining 59 non-ethicist respondents -- that is, those not on the APA membership list -- 23 (39.0%) claimed to be members. Of the remaining 61 ethicist respondents, 27 (44.3%) claimed to be members. In other words, nearly half of the respondents with the arguably immoral behavior (free-riding by not belonging to the APA) denied that behavior.

The APA's list is not perfect, I'm sure, and people's memories are sometimes fallible for reasons entirely innocent, but it seems plausible to me that much of the effect here is due to culpable inaccuracies -- even if not deliberate lying, a blameworthy bias toward misremembering and misportraying oneself in a positive light. (More attributable, probably, to purely innocent error, either by the respondents or the APA, are the 4% of respondents -- 7 ethicists and 8 non-ethicists -- who were on the APA's lists but did not claim to be members.)

Of course, it's disputable whether philosophy professors should, morally speaking, belong to the APA. In the attitudinal part of the survey, a majority of philosophers (64.7%) said it was morally good to "regularly [pay] membership dues to support one's main academic disciplinary society (the APA, the MLA, etc., as appropriate)", but that left a substantial minority who said it was morally neutral (very few said it was bad). Non-members who claimed to be members may have been somewhat more likely to say it is morally good to support the APA through one's membership dues than were the non-members who truly stated that they were non-members, but if so, the trend was modest (62.0% vs. 52.9%), and not statistically significant, given our relatively small sample of APA non-members.

So the answer to our question about how accurately philosophers portrayed their negative behavior in our survey appears to be: not very accurately at all. Nor do ethicists seem any more honest; in fact the trend (not statistically significant) was toward less honesty. This also fits with professors' evident exaggeration, in our survey, of their responsiveness to undergraduate emails (with ethicists appearing just as prone to such exaggeration). Josh and I have some other tests of honesty, too, not all analyzed, which I'll discuss later.

Incidentally, near the the end of the questionnaire we asked about the morality of "responding dishonestly to survey questions such as the ones presented here" and also "Were you dishonest in your answers to any previous questions?" Those who appear to have falsely claimed APA membership trended, if anything, toward being more likely than those who truly stated their non-membership to say it is bad to respond to such questions dishonestly (93.2% vs. 85.3%, chi-square p = .17). Also, 2 of 49 in the first group (4.1%) and 3 of 65 in the second group (4.6%) admitted having answered a survey question dishonestly.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Chapter 4 of Perplexities: Human Echolocation

As you may know, I'm writing a book about the inaccuracy (in my view) of people's judgments about their stream of conscious experience (tentative title: Perplexities of Consciousness). Last winter and spring I posted drafts of six of the eight chapters (available from my academic homepage). In early summer, I got distracted with a trip to Australia and a few other things, but now I'm back in the saddle. So here's Chapter 4, "Human Echolocation", co-authored with psychologist Michael S. Gordon.


Most people, when asked explicitly, will deny that they can detect the properties of silent objects, such as shape, texture, and distance, using echoic information about how sound is reflected or otherwise modified by those objects. They'll deny, that is, that they can echolocate. It turns out, however, that people are surprisingly good at echolocation (if not as good as bats or dolphins). We are mistaken not just about our sensory capacities but also about our sensory experiences. There's "something it's like" to echolocate; echolocation has a kind of auditory phenomenology. You can hear, for example, the proximity of a wall as you approach it eyes closed; you can hear the wadded softness of a blanket as you speak into it; and, generally speaking, though they tend to deny it, people have a pervasive auditory echoic phenomenology of their environments and objects nearby.

Radio Interview: Are Ethicists Ethical?

By Australia's ABC national radio, featuring Simon Longstaff and me, here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In Recruiting Members, the APA Doesn't Appeal As Effectively to Self-Interest As Do Other Academic Disciplinary Societies

Or so it seems, from the data I'm looking at here.

As discussed on this blog several times previously, last spring Josh Rust and I conducted a survey of the moral attitudes and moral behavior of philosophers (including ethicists) and other professors. Part I of the survey solicited attitudes about the morality or immorality of various actions -- eating meat, donating to charity, etc. -- using a nine-point scale from "very morally bad" to "very morally good", with "morally neutral" in the middle. Part II asked respondents to report their own behavior in such matters.

We asked two questions about membership in academic societies. In Part I, we asked about the morality or immorality of "regularly paying membership dues to support one's main academic disciplinary society (the APA, the MLA, etc., as appropriate)". In Part II, we asked "Are you currently a dues-paying member of your discipline's main academic society?

Philosophers' attitudes toward the American Philosophical Association seemed about the same as other professors' attitudes. Philosophers were just as likely as non-philosophers to say it was good to pay membership dues to support their main academic disciplinary society, with 67.7% rating that action somewhere on the "morally good" side of the scale, compared to 64.7% of non-philosophers, a difference well within the range of the survey's sampling error (chi-squared, p = .48).

(I should mention, as a caveat, that among respondents who rated membership as morally good, philosophers rated it, on average, less good than did non-philosophers -- 6.89 vs. 7.53 on the 9-point scale [t-test, p < .001]. However, I believe this simply reflects philosophers' greater tendency to avoid the extreme ends of the scale. For every single one of the nine rated actions, philosophers' responses, when they were not neutral, were closer to neutral than were non-philosophers' responses -- an occupational hazard, perhaps, of philosophers' frequent reflection on unusual and extreme cases.)

However, philosophers were less likely than were other professors to report being members of their disciplinary societies: 78.0% of philosopher respondents were members, vs. 86.7% of the respondents from other disciplines (chi-square, p = .02). The difference is almost entirely driven by respondents who expressed the view that membership is morally neutral. Among those who said that membership was morally good, philosophers and non-philosophers differed little in their membership rates (82.6% vs. 87.9%, within chance, chi-square p = .21). But among professors who said they saw membership in their discipline's main society as morally neutral -- professors presumably motivated mainly by self-interest in their decision whether or not to be members -- philosophers' membership rates were considerably lower (68.0% vs. 84.5%, p = .02).

Put a bit differently, non-philosophers' membership rates hardly differed between those who saw membership as morally good and those who did not, suggesting that there are excellent prudential reasons for most professors in other disciplines to be members, while this was is not as true for philosophers.

Perhaps the APA should take note.

(Incidentally, ethicists and non-ethicist philosophers didn't appear to differ in any of these respects, which is why I've combined them in the analyses here.)

Now I should say that all this concerns self-reported membership only. For the philosophers, I happen to have data about the actual membership rates of our survey respondents -- which, as you might expect, are somewhat lower than self-reported membership rates. I'll get to this in the next post. Unfortunately, for the comparison to non-philosophers, self-report is all we have to go on.