Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Orange on the Seder Plate

... and celebrating the death of children?

"Does it matter if the story of the escape from Egypt is historically true?" Rabbi Suzanne Singer asked us, her congregants, on Saturday, at the Passover Seder dinner at Temple Beth El in Riverside.

We're a liberal Reform Judaism congregation. Everyone except me seemed to be shaking their heads, no, it doesn't matter. I was nodding, however. Yes, it does matter.

Rabbi Singer walked over to me with the microphone, "Okay, Eric, why does it matter?"

I say "we" are a Reform Judaism congregation, but let me be clear: I am not Jewish. My wife Pauline is. My teenage son Davy is. Davy even teaches at the religious school. My nine-year-old daughter Kate, adopted from China at age one, recently described herself as "half Jewish". We're members. We volunteer, attend some of the services. Sometimes I try to chant the chants, sometimes I don't. I always feel a little... ambiguous.

I hadn't been expecting to speak. I came out with some version of the following thought. If the story of Passover is literally true, then there's a miracle-working God. And it would matter if there were such a God. I don't think I would like the moral character of that God, a God who kills so many innocent Egyptians. I'm glad it's not literally true. It matters.

I find it interesting, I added, that we ("we"?) have this celebratory holiday about the death of children, contrary to the values of most of us now. It's interesting how we struggle to deal with that change in values while keeping the traditions of the holiday.

Passover, as you probably know, celebrates a story from Exodus. The Jews are slaves in Egypt. Moses and Aaron approach the Pharaoh and demand the release of their people. The Pharaoh refuses and God sends disaster after disaster upon the Egyptians. In the tenth and final plague, God sweeps through Egypt killing the firstborn son in every house, except the houses marked with the lamb's blood of the Jewish "Passover" sacrifice. In the traditional Haggadahs (i.e. scripts of how the ceremony is to be conducted), God's destruction of the Egyptians seems to be enthusiastically relished, the general tone being one of overflowing celebration for all the good things God (or G-d) has bestowed upon us: He didn't need to plague and torment our enemies and kill their firstborns, but he did, hooray!

(One does remove a bit of wine from one's glass for each of the ten plagues, which has been explained to me as reducing one's joy to recognize the Egyptians' suffering; but not all traditional haggadahs offer that explanation and the overall tone is cheery about the plagues.)

Temple Beth El uses a Reconstructionist Haggadah which is more reflective about the Egyptians' suffering and emphasizes the plight of the enslaved and oppressed everywhere throughout world history. The holiday is no longer understood as it once was. But still, we sing the happy songs.

Others in Temple Beth El spoke up in response to my comment: values change, ancient war sadly and necessarily involved the death of children too, we're really celebrating the struggle for freedom.... The rabbi asked if this answered my question, or if I had anything more to say. Davy whispered, "Dad, you don't have anything more to say." I took his cue and shut my trap.

The caterers arrived late. I was pleased to see that they put oranges upon the Seder plates this year. (It seems to be on and off in our congregation.) The traditional Seder plate has no orange: two bitter herbs (for the bitterness of slavery), charoset (sweet fruit and nuts as mortar for the storehouses of Egypt), parsley (dipped into salt water representing the tears of slavery), a roasted lamb bone (for the Passover sacrifice), and a hard boiled egg.

The first time I saw an orange on the Seder plate, I was told this story about it: A woman was studying to become a rabbi. An orthodox rabbi told her that a woman belongs on the bima (pulpit) like an orange belongs on the Seder plate! When she became a rabbi, she put an orange on the plate.

A wonderful story! The orange on the Seder plate is wild, defiant, overturning the rules, the beginning of a new tradition to celebrate gender equality.

Does it matter if it's true?

The true story is more complicated. Dartmouth Jewish Studies professor Susannah Heschel was speaking to a Jewish group at Oberlin College. The students had written a story in which a young girl asks a rabbi what room there is for lesbians in Judaism, and the rabbi rises in anger, shouting, "There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate!" Heschel, inspired by the story, but not wanting to put anything as unkosher as leavened bread on the Seder plate, put an orange on her family's Seder plate the next year.

In the second story, the orange is not a wild act of defiance but already a compromise. The shouting rabbi is not an actual person but only an imagined, simplified foe.

It matters that it's not true. From the two stories of the orange, we learn what I regard as the central lesson of Reform Judiasm, that myths are cultural inventions built to suit the values of their day, idealizations and simplifications, that they change as our values change, but also that there's only so much change that is possible in a tradition-governed institution, which is necessarily a compromise between past and present. An orange can be considered, but not a crust of bread.

My daughter and I -- active in the temple but not quite Jewish, we too are oranges on the Seder plate, a new sort of thing in a congregation, without a marked place, welcomed this year, unsure how much we belong or want to belong, at risk of rolling off.

In the car on the way home, my son scolded me: "How could you have said that, Dad? There are people in the congregation who take the Torah literally, very seriously. You should have seen how they were looking at you, with so much anger. If you'd said more, they would practically have been ready to lynch you."

Due to the seating arrangement, I had been facing away from most of the congregation, while Davy had been facing toward most of the congregation. I didn't see those faces. Was Davy telling me the truth on the way home that night? Or was he creating a simplified myth of me?

Today I celebrate the orange, that unstable mix of truth and myth, tradition and change.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Possible Cognitive and Cultural Effects of Video Lifelogging

Last week science fiction writer Ted Chiang came to Riverside to talk about the possible cognitive effects of video lifelogging. He also explores these issues in his 2013 story The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling. It was an interesting talk! Chiang focused, as he also does in the story, on the transformative effects video lifelogging might have on our memories, including the possible decline of our ability to remember life events unaided if we can instead just easily call up results from a lifelog.

Lifelogging is a movement aimed at recording and monitoring the details of your everyday life. Video lifelogging, which is just starting to become feasible, involves video-recording every moment of your waking day.

Good search technology will be crucial. Imagine subvocalizing "the name of that book Emmeline[1] recommended at dinner last week" or "that time Taimur cracked a raw egg on his head", then having the relevant audiovisual results show up on your palm or your Google glass. The eventual effects on our minds, Chiang suggests, would be comparable to the transformative effects of literacy. In his talk, Chiang emphasized the decline of unaided memory and the ability to hold ourselves to higher standards of truthfulness about past deeds (what did you really say in that argument last week?).

Just as early Chinese calligraphers could not have predicted quantitative textual analysis or the internet, I think we can assume that if video lifelogging is integrated deeply into our daily lives, it will change us in ways we can't fully anticipate. I'd like to suggest two possible effects that Chiang didn't mention.

First: It is much easier to record audio and video than other sensory modalities. The recording and recreation of taste, smell, touch, and somatic sensation are much more speculative and remote. Most people already tend to privilege sight and hearing, but lifelogging could amplify that dominance -- perhaps so much that the other senses almost seem like a forgettable, buzzing distraction. Your memories of sex, for example, might focus much more on the audiovisual parts of the experience, if those are what you can easily revisit and recall (esp. with decreases in unaided memory, as Chiang suggests would be likely) -- and that in turn might lead you to focus more on those senses than on other senses in your future encounters, which in turn might substantially alter the cultural structures and expectations around sex. Similarly, perhaps, for the pleasures of eating.

Second: Chiang had explicitly set aside privacy issues, and I will also do so (maybe Cory Doctorow will address these when he comes next fall), but intentional sharing raises interesting possibilities, especially if it's possible in real-time. Suppose we can't all afford to go to the concert -- but if we pool our funds, you can go, and we can all watch your lifelog in real-time (perhaps in immersive virtual reality), which will then be saved in our lifelogs. If our cognition and culture have shifted more toward the audiovisual, then it might seem closer to actually being there than it would seem to people now, and if our autobiographical memories have become dominated by lifelog results, then later it might feel more like a real memory of having been there than an analogous experience would seem to people now. Pushed to the extreme, an emphasis on shared real-time and remembered experiences might begin to blur the boundaries of the experienced self, including reducing how much we care about whether it was our own bodies that did something or someone else's.

Just for starters.

[image source]

Friday, April 15, 2016

New Essay in Draft: Phenomenal Consciousness, Defined and Defended as Innocently as I Can Manage

Commentary on Keith Frankish (forthcoming), "Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness".

I don't see Keith's paper publicly available, but you can get a general sense of his view from his 2012 paper Quining Diet Qualia; and in any case I've written the essay to be comprehensible without prior knowledge of Frankish's work.

Phenomenal consciousness can be conceptualized innocently enough that its existence should be accepted even by philosophers who wish to avoid dubious epistemic and metaphysical commitments such as dualism, infallibilism, privacy, inexplicability, or intrinsic simplicity. Definition by example allows us this innocence. Positive examples include sensory experiences, imagery experiences, vivid emotions, and dreams. Negative examples include growth hormone release, dispositional knowledge, standing intentions, and sensory reactivity to masked visual displays. Phenomenal consciousness is the most folk psychologically obvious thing or feature that the positive examples possess and that the negative examples lack, and which preserves our ability to wonder, at least temporarily, about antecedently unclear issues such as consciousness without attention and consciousness in simpler animals. As long as this concept is not empty, or broken, or a hodgepodge, we can be phenomenal realists without committing to dubious philosophical positions.

This paper further develops ideas from my similarly titled blog post on Feb 18. Many thanks for the helpful comments on that post!

Full paper here. As always, questions, comments, and objections are welcome, either as comments on this post or by email.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Paraphenomenal Experience: Conscious Experience Uncorrelated with Cognition and Behavior

My student Alan T. Moore defends his dissertation today. (Good thing we proved he exists!) One striking idea from his dissertation is that much of our consciousness might be, in his terminology, paraphenomenal. A conscious experience is paraphenomenal to the extent it is uncorrelated with cognitive and behavioral processes. (That's my own tweaking of his formulation, not quite how Alan phrases it himself.)

Complete paraphenomenality is a possibility so bizarre and skeptical that I'm unaware of any philosopher who has seriously contemplated it. (It seems likely, though, that someone has, so I welcome references!) Complete paraphenomenality would mean having a stream of experience that was entirely uncorrelated with any functional, cognitive, or sensory input and entirely uncorrelated with any functional, cognitive, or behavioral output (including introspective self-report). Imagine laying the stream of William James's conscious experience atop the behavior and cognitive life of Moctezuma II, or atop a stone -- simply no relationship between the non-phenomenal aspects of one's cognitive life and one's outward behavior (or lack of it) and the stream of lived experience. Or imagine taking the philosophical zombie scenario and instead of denying the zombies any experience, randomly scramble which body has which set of experiences, while holding all the physical and behavioral stuff constant in each body.

Paraphenomenal is not the same as epiphenomenal. Epiphenomenalism about consciousness is the view that conscious experience has no causal influence, the view that consciousness is a causal dead-end. But most epiphenomenalists believe, indeed emphasize, that conscious experience still correlates with causally efficacious brain processes. On paraphenomenalism, in contrast, there aren't even correlations.

Complete paraphenomenalism is about as implausible a philosophical view as one is likely to find. However, partial paraphenomenalism has some plausibility as an interpretation of recent empirical evidence, from Moore and others. Partial paraphenomenalism is the view that the correlations between conscious experiences and cognitive processes are weaker and more limited than one might otherwise expect -- that, for example, presence or absence of the conscious experience of visual imagery is largely irrelevant to performance on the types of cognitive tasks that are ordinarily thought to be aided by imagery. If so, this would be one way to explain empirical results suggesting that self-reported visual imagery abilities are largely uncorrelated with performance on "imagery" tasks like mental rotation and mental folding. (See my discussion here and in Ch. 3 of my 2011 book.)

Especially strikingly to me are the vast differences in the experiences that people report in Russell T. Hurlburt's Descriptive Experience Sampling (e.g., here, here, here, here). Hurlburt "beeps" people at random moments throughout their day. When the beep sounds, their task is to recall their last moment of experience immediately before the beep. Hurlburt then later interviews them about details of the targeted experience. Some of Hurlburt's participants report conscious sensory experiences in almost all of their samples, while others almost never report sensory experiences. Some of Hurlburt's participants report inner speech in almost all of their samples, while others almost never report inner speech. Similarly for emotional feelings, imageless or "unsymbolized" thinking, and visual imagery -- some participants report these things in almost every sample, others never or almost never. Huge, huge differences in the general reported arc of experience! When functional cognitive capacities vary that much between people, it's immediately obvious (e.g., blind people vs. sighted people). But no such radical differences are evident among most of Hurlburt's participants. Participants often even surprise themselves. For example, it's not uncommon for people to initially say, before starting the sampling process, that they experience a stream of constant inner speech, but then report few or no instances of it when actually sampled.

In his dissertation, Moore finds very large differences in people's reported experiences while reading (some of the preliminary data were reported here), but those reported experiential differences don't seem to predict performance in plausibly related cognitive tasks like recall of visual details from the story (for people reporting high visual imagery), rhyme disambiguation (for people reporting hearing the text in inner speech), or recall of details of the visual layout of the text (for people reporting visually experiencing the words on the page in front of them).

When faced with radical differences in experiential report that are largely uncorrelated with the expected outward behavior or cognitive skills, we seem to have three interpretative choices:

1. We could decide that the assumed functional relationship shouldn't have been expected in the first place. For example, in the imagery literature, some researchers decided that it was a mistake to have expected mental rotation ability to correlate with conscious visual imagery. Conscious visual imagery plays an important causal functional role in cognition, just not that role.

2. We could challenge the accuracy of the subjective reports. This has tended to be my approach in the past. Maybe people who deny having visual sensory experience of the scene before them in Hurlburt's and Moore's data really do have sensory experience but either forget that experience or fail to understand exactly what is being asked.

3. We could adopt partial paraphenomenalism about the experience. Maybe people really are radically different in their streams of experience while reading, or while going about their daily life, but those differences have little systematic relationship to the remainder of their cognition or behavior (apart from their ability to generate reports). I wouldn't initially have been much attracted to this idea, but I now think it's an important option to keep explicitly on the table. Alan Moore's dissertation builds an interesting case!

[image source]

Friday, April 08, 2016

Awesome New SF Story about the Problem of Consciousness and Scientific Rationalization

by University of Michigan philosopher and science fiction writer David John Baker, in leading SF podcast Escape Pod:

The Hunter Captain.


This is exactly the kind of interaction between philosophy and speculative fiction that I would like to see more of. The philosophical issues drive the story, giving the story depth and interest; at the same time, the vivid character and narrative in the story bring the philosophical issue to life.

[See also: Philosophical SF: Recommendations from 41 Philosophers]

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Some Pragmatic Considerations Against Intellectualism about Belief

Consider cases in which a person sincerely endorses some proposition ("women are just as smart as men", "family is more important than work", "the working poor deserve as much respect as the financially well off"), but often behaves in ways that fail to fit with that sincerely endorsed proposition (typically treats individual women as dumb, consistently prioritizes work time over family, sees nothing wrong in his or others' disrespectful behavior toward the working poor). Call such cases "dissonant cases" of belief. Intellectualism is the view that in dissonant cases the person genuinely believes the sincerely endorsed proposition, even if she fails to live accordingly. Broad-based views, in contrast, treat belief as a matter of how you steer your way through the world generally.

Dissonant cases of belief are, I think, "antecedently unclear cases" of the sort I discussed in this post on pragmatic metaphysics. The philosophical concept of belief is sufficiently vague or open-textured that we can choose whether to embrace an account of belief that counts dissonant cases as cases of belief, as intellectualism would do, or whether instead to embrace an account that counts them as cases of failure to believe or as in-between cases that aren't quite classifiable either as believing or as failing to believe.

I offer the following pragmatic grounds for rejecting intellectualism in favor of a broad-based view. My argument has a trunk and three branches.


The trunk argument.

Belief is one of the most central and important concepts in all of philosophy. It is central to philosophy of mind: Belief is the most commonly discussed of the "propositional attitudes". It is central to philosophy of action, where it's standard to regard actions as arising from the interaction of beliefs, desires, and intentions. It is central to epistemology, much of which concerns the conditions under which beliefs are justified or count as knowledge. A concept this important to philosophical thinking should be reserved for the most important thing in the vicinity that can plausibly answer to it. The most important thing in the vicinity is not our patterns of intellectual endorsement. It is our overall patterns of action and reaction. What we say matters, but what we do in general, how we live our lives through the world -- that matters even more.

Consider a case of implicit classism. Daniel, for example, sincerely says that the working poor deserve equal respect, but in fact for the most part he treats them disrespectfully and doesn't find it jarring when others do so. If we, as philosophers, choose describe Daniel as believing what he intellectually endorses, then we implicitly convey the idea that Daniel's patterns of intellectual endorsement are what matter most to philosophy: Daniel has the attitude that stands at the center of so much of epistemology, philosophy of action, and philosophy of mind. If we instead describe Daniel as a mixed-up, in-betweenish, or even failing to believe what he intellectually endorses, we do not implicitly convey that intellectualist idea.

Branch 1.

Too intellectualist a view invites us to adopt noxiously comfortable opinions about ourselves. Suppose our implicit classist Daniel asks himself, "Do I believe that the working poor deserve equal respect?" He notices that he is inclined sincerely to judge that they deserve equal respect. Embracing intellectualism about belief, he concludes that he does believe they deserve equal respect. He can say to himself, then, that he has the attitude that philosophers care about most – belief. Maybe he lacks something else. He lacks "alief" maybe, or the right habits, or something. But based on how philosophers usually talk, you'd think that's kind of secondary. Daniel can comfortably assume that he has the most important thing straightened out. But of course he doesn't.

Intellectualist philosophers can deny that Daniel does have the most important thing straightened out. They can say that how Daniel treats people matters more than what he intellectually endorses. But if so, their choice of language mismatches their priorities. If they want to say that the central issue of concern in philosophy is, or should be, how you act in general, then the most effective way to encourage others to join them in that thought is to build the importance of one's general patterns of action right into the foundational terms of the discipline.

Branch 2.

Too intellectualist a view hides our splintering dispositions. Here's another, maybe deeper, reason Daniel might find himself too comfortable: He might not even think to look at his overall patterns of behavior in evaluating what his attitude is toward the working poor. In Branch 1, I assumed that Daniel knew that his spontaneous reactions were out of line, and he only devalued those spontaneous reactions, not thinking of them as central to the question of whether he believed. But how would he come to know that his spontaneous reactions are out of line? If he's a somewhat reflective, self-critical person, he might just happen to notice that fact about himself. But an intellectualist view of the attitudes doesn’t encourage him to notice that about himself. It encourages Daniel, instead, to determine what his belief is by introspection of or reflection upon what he is disposed to sincerely say or accept.

In contrast, a broad-based view of belief encourages Daniel to cast his eye more widely in thinking about what he believes. In doing so, he might learn something important. The broad-based approach brings our non-intellectual side forward into view while the intellectualist approach tends to hide that non-intellectual side. Or at least it does so to the extent we are talking specifically about belief -- which is of course a large part of what philosophers do in fact actually talk about in philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, and epistemology.

Another way in which intellectualism hides our splintering dispositions is this: Suppose Suleyma has the same intellectual inclinations as Daniel but unlike Daniel her whole dispositional structure is egalitarian. She really does, and quite thoroughly, have as much respect for the custodian as for the wealthy business-owner. An intellectualist approach treats Daniel and Suleyma as the same in any domain where what matters is what one believes. They both count as believers, so now let's talk about how belief couples with desire to beget intentions, let's talk about whether their beliefs are justified, let's talk about what set of worlds makes their beliefs true -- for all these purposes, they are modeled in the same way. The difference between them is obscured, unless additional effort is made to bring it to light.

You might think Daniel's and Suleyma's differences don't matter too much. They're worth hiding or eliding away or disregarding unless for some reason those differences become important. If that's your view, then an intellectualist approach to belief is for you. If on the other hand, you think their differences are crucially important in a way that ought to disallow treating them as equivalent in matters of belief, then an intellectualist view is not for you. Of course, the differences matter for some purposes and not so much for other purposes. The question is whether on balance it's better to put those differences in the foreground or to tuck them away as a nuance.

Branch 3.

Too intellectualist a view risks downgrading our responsibility. It's a common idea in philosophy that we are responsible for our beliefs. We don't choose our beliefs in any straightforward way, but if our beliefs don't align with the best evidence available to us we are epistemically blameworthy for that failure of alignment. In contrast, our habits, spontaneous reactions, that sort of thing -- those are not in our control, at least not directly, and we are less blameworthy for them. My true self, my "real" attitude, the being I most fundamentally am, the locus of my freedom and responsibility -- that's constituted by the aspects of myself that I consciously endorse upon reflection. You can see how the intellectualist view of belief fits nicely with this.

I think that view is almost exactly backwards. Our intellectual endorsements, when they don't align with our lived behavior, count for little. They still count for something, but what matters more is how we spontaneously live our way through the world, how we actually treat the people we are with, the actual practical choices we make. That is the "real" us. And if Daniel says, however sincerely, that he is an egalitarian, but he doesn't live that way, I don't want to call him a straight-up egalitarian. I don't want to excuse him by saying that his inegalitarian reactions are mere uncontrollable habit and not the real him. It's easy to talk. It's hard to change your life. I don't want to let you off the hook for it in that way, and I don't want to let myself off the hook. I don't want to say that I really believe and I am somehow kind of alienated from all my unlovely habits and reactions. It's more appropriately condemnatory to say that my attitude, my belief state, is actually pretty mixed up.

It's hard to live up to all the wonderful values and aspirations we intellectually endorse. I am stunned by the breadth and diversity of our failures. What we sincerely say we believe about ourselves and the people around us and how we actually spontaneously react to people and what we actually choose and do -- so often they are so far out of line with each other! So I think we've got to have quite a lot of forgiveness and sympathy for our failures. My empirical, normative, pragmatic conjecture is this: In an appropriate context of forgiveness and sympathy, the best way to frankly confront our regular failure to live up to our verbally espoused attitudes is to avoid placing intellectual endorsements too close to the center of philosophy.

[image source]