Monday, June 30, 2014

SpaceTimeMind Podcasts: Alien and Machine Minds, Death and Logic

A couple of months ago, I had some great fun chatting with Richard Brown and Pete Mandik at SpaceTimeMind. Pete has now edited our conversation into two podcasts in their engaging, energetic style:

Part One: Death and Logic

Part Two: Alien and Machine Minds

The episodes are free-standing, so if the topic of Part Two interests you more, feel free to skip straight to it. There will be a few quick references back to our Part One discussion of modality and hypotheticals, but nothing essential.

Although I think Part Two is a very interesting conversation, I do have one regret about it: It took me so long to gather Richard's view about alien consciousness that I didn't manage to articulate very well my reasons for disagreeing. Something early in the conversation led me to think that Richard was allowing that probably there are (somewhere in the wide, wide universe) aliens constructed very differently from us, without brains, who have highly sophisticated behavior -- behavior as sophisticated as our own -- and that his view is that such beings have no conscious experience. By the end of the episode, it became clear to me that his view, instead, is that there probably aren't such beings (but if there were, we would have good reason to regard them as conscious). He offered empirical evidence for this conclusion: that all beings on Earth that are capable of highly sophisticated behavior have brains like ours.

If I had understood his view earlier in the conversation, I might have offered him something like this reply:

(1.) Another possible explanation for the fact that all (or most?) highly intelligent Earthlings have brains structured like ours is that we share ancestry. It remains open that in a very different evolutionary context, drawing upon different phylogenetic resources, a very different set of structures might be able to ground highly intelligent (e.g. sophisticated linguistic, technology-building) behavior.

(2.) Empirical evidence on Earth suggests that at least moderately complicated systems can be designed with very different material structures (e.g., gas vs. battery cars, magnetic tape drives vs. laser drives; insect locomotion vs. human locomotion). I see no reason not to extrapolate such potential diversity to more complex cognitive systems.

(3.) If the universe is vast enough -- maybe even infinite, as many cosmologists now think -- then even extremely low probability events and systems will be actualized somewhere.

Anyhow, Richard and Pete's podcasts have a great energy and humor, and they dive fearlessly into big-picture issues in philosophy of mind. I highly recommend their podcasts.

(For Splintered Mind readers more interested in moral psychology, I recommend the similarly fun and fearless Very Bad Wizards podcast with David Pizarro and (former Splintered Mind guest blogger) Tamler Sommers.)

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Calibration View of Moral Reflection

Oh, when the saints go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
Lord, I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in.
No. No you don't, Louis. Not really.

If you want to be a saint, dear reader, or the secular equivalent, then you know what to do: Abandon those selfish pleasures, give your life over to the best cause you know (or if not a single great cause then a multitude of small ones) -- all your money, all your time. Maybe you'll misfire, but at least we'll see you trying. But I don't think we see you trying.

Closer to you what you really want, I suspect, is this: Grab whatever pleasures you can here on Earth consistent with just squeaking through the pearly gates. More secularly: Be good enough to meet some threshold, but not better, not a full-on saint, not at the cost of your cappuccino and car and easy Sundays. Aim to be just a little bit better, maybe, in your own estimation, than your neighbor.

Here's where philosophical moral reflection can come in very handy!

As regular readers will know, Joshua Rust and I have done a number of studies -- eighteen different measures in all -- consistently finding that professors of ethics behave no morally better than do socially similar comparison groups. These findings create a challenge for what we call the booster view of philosophical moral reflection. On the booster view, philosophical moral reflection reveals moral truths, which the person is then motivated to act on, thereby becoming a better person. Versions of the booster view were common in both the Eastern and the Western philosophical traditions until the 19th century, at least as a normative aim for the discipline: From Confucius and Socrates through at least Wang Yangming and Kant, philosophy done right was held to be morally improving.

Now, there are a variety of ways to duck this conclusion: Maybe philosophical ethics neither does nor should have any practical relevance to the philosophers expert in it; or maybe most ethics professors are actually philosophizing badly; or.... But what I'll call the calibration view is, I think, among the more interesting possibilities. On the calibration view, the proper role of philosophical moral theorizing is not moral self-improvement but rather more precisely targeting the (possibly quite mediocre) moral level you're aiming for. This could often involve consciously deciding to act morally worse.

Consider moral licensing in social psychology and behavioral economics. When people do a good deed, they then seem to behave worse in follow-up measures than people who had no opportunity to do a good deed first. One possible explanation is something like calibration: You want to be only so good and not more. A unusually good deed inflates you past your moral target; you can adjust back down by acting a bit jerkishly later.

Why engage in philosophical moral reflection, then? To see if you're on target. Are you acting more jerkishly than you'd like? Seems worth figuring out. Or maybe, instead, are you really behaving too much like a sweetheart/sucker/do-gooder and really you would feel okay taking more goodies for yourself? That could be worth figuring out, too. Do I really need to give X amount to charity to be the not-too-bad person I'd like to think I am? Could I maybe even give less? Do I really need to serve again on such-and-such worthwhile-but-boring committee, or to be a vegetarian, or do such-and-such chore rather than pushing it off on my wife? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. When the answer is no, my applied philosophical moral insight will lead me to behave morally worse than I otherwise would have, in full knowledge that this is what I'm doing -- not because I'm a skeptic about morality but because I have a clear-eyed vision of how to achieve exactly my own low moral standards and nothing more.

If this is right, then two further things might follow.

First, if calibration is relative to peers rather than absolute, then embracing more stringent moral norms might not lead to improvements in moral behavior in line with those more stringent norms. If one's peers aren't living up to those standards, one is no worse relative to them if one also declines to do so. This could explain the cheeseburger ethicist phenomenon -- the phenomenon of ethicists tending to embrace stringent moral norms (such as that eating meat is morally bad) while not being especially prone to act in accord with those stringent norms.

Second, if one is skilled at self-serving rationalization, then attempts at calibration might tend to misfire toward the low side, leading one on average away from morality. The motivated, toxic rationalizer can deploy her philosophical tools to falsely convince herself that although X would be morally good (e.g., not blowing off responsibilities, lending a helping hand) it's really not required to meet the mediocre standards she sets herself and the mediocre behavior she sees in her peers. But in fact, she's fooling herself and going even lower than she thinks. When professional ethicists behave in crappy ways, such mis-aimed low-calibration rationalizing is, I suspect, often exactly what's going on.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Against Those Year-End Faculty Meetings to Discuss the Graduate Students

Every year's end at UC Riverside, the philosophy faculty meet for three hours "to discuss the graduate students". Back in the 1990s when I was a grad student, I seem to recall the Berkeley faculty doing the same thing. The practice appears to be fairly widespread. After years of feeling somewhat uncomfortable with it, I've tentatively decided I'm opposed. I'd be interested to hear from others with positive or negative views about it.

Now, there are some good things about these year-end meetings. Let's start with those.

At UCR, the formal purpose of the meeting is to give general faculty input to the graduate advisor, who can use that input to help her advising. The idea is that if the faculty as a whole think that a student is doing well and on track, the graduate advisor can communicate that encouraging news to the student; and also, when there are opportunities for awards and fellowships, the graduate advisor can consider those highly regarded students as candidates. And if the faculty as a whole think that a student is struggling, the faculty can diagnose the student's weaknesses and help the graduate advisor give the student advice that might help the student improve. Hypothetical examples (not direct quotes): "Some faculty were concerned about your inconsistent attendance at seminar meetings." "The sense of the faculty is that while you have considerable promise, your writing would be improved if you were more charitable toward the views of philosophers you disagree with."

Other benefits are these: It helps the faculty gain a sense of the various graduate students and how they are doing, presumably a good thing. If a student has struggled in one of your classes but seems to be well regarded by other faculty, that can help you see the student in a better light. It's an opportunity to correct misapprehensions. In the rare case of a student with very serious problems (e.g., mental health issues), it can sometimes be useful for the faculty as a whole to be aware of those issues.

But in my mind, all of those advantages are outweighed by the tendency of these discussions to create a culture in which there's a generally accepted consensus opinion about which students are doing well and which students are not doing so well. I would prefer, and I think for good reason, to look at the graduate students in my seminar the first day, or to look at a graduate student who asks me to be on her dissertation committee, without the burden of knowing what the other faculty think about her. It's widely accepted in educational psychology that teachers' initial impressions about which students are likely to succeed and fail have a substantial influence on student performance (the Pygmalion Effect). I want each student to meet each professor with a chance to make a new first impression. Sometimes students struggle early but then end up doing a terrific job. Within reason, we should do what we can to give students the chance to leave early poor performance behind them, rather than reiterate and generally communicate a negative perception (especially if that negative perception might partly be grounded in implicit bias or in vague impressions about who "seems smart"). Also, some students will have conflicts with some of their professors, either due to personality differences or due to differences in philosophical style or interests, and it's somewhat unfair to such students for a professor to have a platform to communicate a negative opinion without the student's having a similar platform.

I don't want to give the impression that these faculty meetings are about bad-mouthing students. At UCR, the opposite is closer to the truth. Faculty are eager to pipe in with praise for the students who have done well in their courses, and negative remarks are usually couched very carefully and moderately. We like our students and we want them to do well! The UCR Philosophy Department has a reputation for being good to its graduate students -- a reputation which is, in my biased view, well deserved. (This makes me somewhat hesitant to express my concerns about these year-end meetings, out of fear that my remarks will be misinterpreted.) But despite the faculty's evident well-meaning concern for, and praise of, and only muted criticism of, our graduate students in these year-end meetings, I retain my concerns. I imagine the situation is considerably worse, and maybe even seriously morally problematic, at departments with toxic faculty-student relations.

What's to be done instead?

One possibility is that the graduate advisor get input privately from the other faculty (either face to face or by email), in light of which she can give feedback to her advisees. In fact, private communication might be epistemically better, since communicating opinions independently, rather than in a group context, will presumably reduce the problematic human tendency toward groupthink -- though there's also the disadvantage that private input is less subject to correction, and perhaps (depending on the interpersonal dynamics) less likely to be thoughtfully restrained, than comments made in a faculty meeting.

Another possibility is to drop the goal of having the faculty attempt an overall summary assessment of the quality of the students. For awards and fellowships, early-career students can be assessed based on grades and timely completion of requirements. And advanced students can be nominated for awards and fellowships directly by their supervising faculty without the filter of impressions that other faculty might have of that student based on the student's coursework from years ago. And students can, and presumably do, hear feedback from individual faculty separately, a practice that can be further encouraged.

As I mentioned, my opinion is only tentative and I'd be interested to hear others' impressions. Please, however, no comments that reveal the identity of particular people.

[image source]

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Philosopher's Carnival #164

The Philosophers' Carnival, as you probably know, posts links to selected posts from around the blogosphere, chosen and hosted by a different blogger every month. Since philosophers are basically just children in grown-up bodies (as a Gopnik student, I intend this as flattery), I use a playground theme.

The Philosophy of Mind Sandpit:
I charge into the sandpit. There's David Papineau with his cricket bat staring at me, incredibly focused -- but why does a batter need to be focused if batting is just reflex responsiveness? There must be something more. But we don't know what it is, says R. Scott Bakker, most of whose Three Pound Brain is, he admits, a mystery to him. We're all blind (to the machinery of our cognitive activity) but we're blind to this blindness, and so invent dualist ontologies. Why am I digging here, then? I don't know. Why do I believe he might be wrong? I don't know that either! Scott agrees: I have no idea why I believe he might be wrong. But at least, says Wolfgang Schwarz, my disbelief is very fine-grained, you know, like this sand right here.

The Curving Tunnel of Logic and Language:
Into the darkness we go, with Jason Zarri's fuzzy argument for crisp negation. I seem to be turned around, in a half-true circle! Worse still, I seem to be stuck with a correspondence theory of truth, since Tristan Haze is telling me that my projective-based skepticism about facts is itself a projective-fallacy. Oy, this is dizzier than a whirligig! I try to get out of the tunnel, but here comes Eli Sennesh with two boxes and a nearly-omniscient demon and he's trying to get me the million dollars instead of the thousand I thought I knew I was rationally doomed to.

The Epistemic Slide:
Hi, Richard Chappell! Would you like to play this little non-normative game with me, called "seeking the truth"? No? You say that my continued attachment to such a game is arbitrary by my own lights? Wah! Good thing I don't believe that your criticism has any objective normative merit. La-la-la. Meanwhile, Ralph Wedgwood from Certain Doubts is trying to get things -- pieces of knowledge, or is it gum? -- to adhere to me, as long as they adhere in the sense that if and only if the case were sufficiently similar with respect to what makes it rational for me to believe P1 in C1 would I also believe P2 in C2. Good thing Richard Pettigrew has given me a metric for determining how inaccurate my total doxastic state is!

The Moral Teeter-Totter:
Look over there! Jonny Pugh is bouncing up and down, tip, don't tip, tip, don't tip -- I think he might tip right over on the question of whether new technologies that make the option to tip more salient will and should change the culture of tipping. Stacey Goguen at Feminist Philosophers has a nice compilation of recent reflections on the ups and downs of "trigger warnings" in the classroom. And now here's Alexander Pruss telling me that intentionally making babies is morally wrong because I can't have any specific baby's good in mind and I shouldn't make a baby for reasons that don't include the specific baby's own good. Fine with me! Making babies is gross. And if some of us kids do it anyway, it was only by accident, when we were playing doctor.

The Philosophy of Science Picnic Table:
Ah, there's Scott Aaronson, looking skeptically at the consciousness sandwich Guilio Tononi gave him. Evidently, Guilio told him the moon is made of peanut butter. But Dick Dorkins at Genotopia isn't worried. In fact, he's pleased that he finally has really scientifically solid evidence, that the scientists themselves (but not the Wall Street Journal) are too wimpy to embrace, that his British marmite-and-lard is superior to the tawnier sandwiches of people from more southerly continents or subcontinents or whatever they are. (Do I see his tongue in his cheek?)

The Historical Jungle Gym:
Lunch is over. Time to climb around and get sick! Barry Stocker at NewAPPS is on top of the jungle gym, wondering why more people aren't thinking about the ancient skeptic Sextus Empiricus as a virtue ethicist. I don't know! A dubious proposition. But I'm at peace with that.

Fingerpainting Aesthetics on the Playground Walls:
See that familiar avian aesthetician over there, drawing pictures of Christopher Nolan's cinematic femmes fatales? They might not be what they seem! Wait, does that woman have two faces?

Metaphilosophical/Issues-in-the-Profession Party Poopers:
Look, I just want to pick a side, say something that makes sense, and stop, okay John Holbo. All this thinking is too hard. So don't try to diagnose why all the kids around here are such bad philosophical writers. It's because Aunt Flo can't buy me enough electric blue Gogurt on minimum wage. And here is Eric Schliesser, criticizing poor Slavoj Zizek just for telling his students "if you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you get an A". Slavoj wants to be nice. He really does. Really, really, he does. And he would be nice if he weren't always surrounded by stupid, incompetent jerks unlike himself.

The next carnival will be hosted in a month at Siris. You may submit suggestions for inclusion in the next carnival (from your own blog or favorite posts from others' blogs) at the Philosopher's Carnival homepage.

[Revised 2:22 pm.]

Monday, June 09, 2014

Comic Schadenfreude and the Schadenfreude of Grace (by Jason Gray and Eric Schwitzgebel)

There isn't a lot of philosophical (or even psychological) work on schadenfreude -- the pleasure people sometimes feel at witnessing or hearing about (but not personally causing) the suffering of others. But the most prominent analyses treat it as a type of pleasure one feels seeing someone get their comeuppance. John Portman calls schadenfreude "an emotional corollary of justice" (2000, p. 197*). Aaron Ben-Ze'ev suggests that a typical feature is that the sufferer deserves the misfortune (1992, p. 41). Frans de Waal suggests that schadenfreude "derives from a sense of fairness" (1996, p. 85).

We could define schadenfreude as involving just deserts, for the sake of philosophical analysis. But doing so misses, we think, central cases that should be within the term's scope and which give it its uncomfortable moral coloring.

Consider that staple of "America's Funniest Videos", the groin shot:

And the trampoline accident:

It doesn't seem that these are instances of justice delivered. We are laughing at -- seemingly enjoying -- pain, indifferent to whether it is deserved. If we stipulate that schadenfreude requires desert, we would need a different name for this interesting phenomenon. But rather than do that, let's acknowledge that there are at least two different types of schadenfreude: just-deserts schadenfreude, when the bad guy finally gets what's coming to him, and the comic schadenfreude of America's Funniest Videos and FailBlog. Comic schadenfreude seems to require not justice but rather a kind of absurdity involving pain as an integral component. And unlike the schadenfreude of just deserts, where pleasure can sometimes be found when inexpiable wrongdoing is met with severe pain, comic schadenfreude might require that the injury (or pain) not be too serious.

Still another species of the genus seems to involve neither comic absurdity nor justice: the schadenfreude of grace.

Here's Lucretius:

Sweet it is, when on the great sea the winds are buffeting the waters, to gaze from the land on another's great struggles; not because it is pleasure or joy that any one should be distressed, but because it is sweet to perceive from what misfortune you yourself are free. Sweet is it too, to behold great contests of war in full array over the plains, when you have no part in the danger (On the Nature of Things, Book II.1ff., Bailey trans.).
And Hobbes:
from what passion proceedeth it, that men take pleasure to behold from the shore the danger of them that are at sea in a tempest, or in fight, or from a safe castle to behold two armies charge one another in the field? It is certainly in the whole sum joy, else men would never flock to such a spectacle. Nevertheless there is in it both joy and grief. For as there is a novelty and remembrance of own security present, which is delight; so is there also pity, which is grief. But the delight is so far predominant, that men usually are content in such a case to be spectators of the misery of their friends (Human Nature, IX.19).

Evidently, people throughout the ages have found great pleasure standing atop the bluff in a storm, watching sailors below die on the rocks. Lucretius and Hobbes suggest, plausibly we think, that for many viewers an important part of the the pleasure derives from how salient another’s suffering makes your own safety by comparison. Similarly, perhaps, reading a history of war and genocide can put into perspective one's own complaints about the erroneous telephone bill and the journal rejections.

Indeed, the very fact that the suffering of the others is undeserved lends the schadenfreude of grace its particular bittersweet flavor. If the sailors or soldiers were fools or villains then it's maybe just harsh justice to see them die from their bad choices, and we have something closer to the schadenfreude of just deserts; but if they did nothing wrong or foolish and it could just as easily have been you, then it's both more a shame for them (the bitter) and also more vividly pleasing how lucky you yourself are (the sweet): There but for undeserved grace go I.

The schadenfreude of just deserts, comic schadenfreude, and the schadenfreude of grace do not exhaust the list of schadenfreudes, we think. There are at least two more: the schadenfreude of envy, and pathological forms of erotic schadenfreude (not to be confused with consensual play-acting sadism). We also suspect that these different types of schadenfreude can sometimes merge into a single complex emotion.

Probably no unified analysis of the psychological mechanisms suffices to cover all types, and they differ substantially in what they reveal about the moral character of the person who is moved by them. Comeuppance is only the start of it.


* Though comeuppance seems to be Portman's take-home message, his overall view is nuanced and anticipates some of the points of this post.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

A Theory of Jerks

My theory of the jerk is out in Aeon.

From the intro:

Picture the world through the eyes of the jerk. The line of people in the post office is a mass of unimportant fools; it’s a felt injustice that you must wait while they bumble with their requests. The flight attendant is not a potentially interesting person with her own cares and struggles but instead the most available face of a corporation that stupidly insists you shut your phone. Custodians and secretaries are lazy complainers who rightly get the scut work. The person who disagrees with you at the staff meeting is a dunce* to be shot down. Entering a subway is an exercise in nudging past the dumb schmoes.

We need a theory of jerks. We need such a theory because, first, it can help us achieve a calm, clinical understanding when confronting such a creature in the wild. Imagine the nature-documentary voice-over: ‘Here we see the jerk in his natural environment. Notice how he subtly adjusts his dominance display to the Italian restaurant situation…’ And second – well, I don’t want to say what the second reason is quite yet.



* Instead of "dunce" the original piece uses "idiot". In light of Shelley Tremain's remarks to me about the history of that word, I'm wondering whether I should have avoided it. In my mind, it is exactly the sort of word the jerk is prone to use, and how he is prone to think of people, so there's a conflict here between my desire to capture the worldview of the jerk with phenomenological accuracy and my newly heightened sensitivity to the historical associations of that particular word.

[illustration by Paul Blow]

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Okay, I Need This Shirt

It might help convince the audience of my seriousness if I wear it at my next public lecture.

Order here.

Two Million Pageviews

The stats aren't totally straightforward, since I switched counters a few years ago, but it looks like The Splintered Mind has had more than two million pageviews since I launched it in 2006.

That's about how many views this video gets in 16 hours:

Which is, you know, actually way better than I would have guessed.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Aaronson vs. Tononi on the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness

Here. A sample:

Personally, I give Giulio enormous credit for having the intellectual courage to follow his theory wherever it leads. When the critics point out, “if your theory were true, then the Moon would be made of peanut butter,” he doesn’t try to wiggle out of the prediction, but proudly replies, “yes, chunky peanut butter—and you forgot to add that the Earth is made of Nutella!”
(And I thought I played rough.)