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: