Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Happy Coincidence Defense and The-Most-I-Can-Do Sweet Spot

Here are four things I care intensely about: being a good father, being a good philosopher, being a good teacher, and being a morally good person. It would be lovely if there were never any tradeoffs among these four aims.

Explicitly acknowledging such tradeoffs is unpleasant -- sufficiently unpleasant that it's tempting to try to rationalize them away. It's distinctly uncomfortable to me, for example, to acknowledge that I would probably be better as a father if I traveled less for work. (I am writing this post from a hotel room in England.) Similarly uncomfortable is the thought that the money I'll be spending on a family trip to Iceland this summer could probably save a few people from death due to poverty-related causes, if given to the right charity.

Today I'll share two of my favorite techniques for rationalizing the unpleasantness away. Maybe you'll find these techniques useful too!

The Happy Coincidence Defense. Consider travel for work. I don't have to travel around the world, giving talks and meeting people. It's not part of my job description. No one will fire me if I don't do it, and some of my colleagues do it considerably less than I do. On the face of it, I seem to be prioritizing my research career at the cost of being a somewhat less good father, teacher, and global moral citizen (given the luxurious use of resources and the pollution of air travel).

The Happy Coincidence Defense says, no, in fact I am not sacrificing these other goals at all! Although I am away from my children, I am a better father for it. I am a role model of career success for them, and I can tell them stories about my travels. I have enriched my life, and then I can mingle that richness into theirs. I am a more globally aware, wiser father! Similarly, although I might cancel a class or two and de-prioritize my background reading and lecture preparation, since research travel improves me as a philosopher, it improves my teaching in the long run. And my philosophical work, isn't that an important contribution to society? Maybe it's important enough to morally justify the expense, pollution, and waste: I do more good for the world traveling around discussing philosophy than I could do leading a more modest lifestyle at home, donating more money to charities, and working within my own community.

After enough reflection of this sort, it can come to seem that I am not making any tradeoffs at all among these four things I care intensely about. Instead, I am maximizing them all! This trip to England is the best thing I can do, all things considered, as a philosopher and as a father and as a teacher and as a citizen of the moral community. Yay!

Now that might be true. If so, that would be a happy coincidence. Sometimes there really are such happy coincidences. But the pattern of reasoning is, I think you'll agree, suspicious. Life is full of tradeoffs among important things. One cannot, realistically, always avoid hard choices. Happy Coincidence reasoning has the odor of rationalization. It seems likely that I am illegitimately convincing oneself that something I want to be true really is true.

The-Most-I-Can-Do Sweet Spot. Sometimes people try so hard at something that they end up doing worse as a result. For example, trying too hard to be a good father might make you in a father who is overbearing, who hovers too much, who doesn't give his children sufficient distance and independence. Teaching sometimes goes better when you don't overprepare. And sometimes, maybe, moral idealists push themselves so hard in pursuit of their ideals that they would have been better off pursuing a more moderate, sustainable course. For example, someone moved by the arguments for vegetarianism who immediately attempts the very strictest veganism might be more likely to revert to cheeseburger eating after a few months than someone who sets their sights a bit lower.

The-Most-I-Can-Do Sweet Spot reasoning harnesses these ideas for convenient self-defense: Whatever I'm doing right now is the most I can realistically, sustainably do! Were I to try any harder to be a good father, I would end up being a worse father. Were I to spend any more time reading and writing philosophy than I actually do, I would only exhaust myself. If I gave any more to charity, or sacrificed any more for the well-being of others in my community, then I would... I would... I don't know, collapse from charity-fatigue? Or seethe so much with resentment at how more awesomely moral I am than everyone else that I'd be grumpy and end up doing some terrible thing?

As with Happy Coincidence reasoning, The-Most-I-Can-Do Sweet Spot reasoning can sometimes be right. Sometimes you really are doing the most you can do about everything you care intensely about. But it would be kind of amazing if this were reliably the case. It wouldn't be that hard for me to be a somewhat better father, or to give somewhat more to my students -- with or without trading off other things. If I reliably think that wherever I happen to be in such matters, that's the Sweet Spot, I am probably rationalizing.

Having cute names for these patterns of rationalization better helps me spot them as they are happening, I think -- both in myself and sometimes, I admit, somewhat uncharitably, also in others.

Rather than think of something clever to say as the kicker for this post, I think I'll give my family a call.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Common Sense, Science Fiction, and Weird, Uncharitable History of Philosophy

Philosophers have three broad methods for settling disputes: appeal to "common sense" or culturally common presuppositions, appeal to scientific evidence, and appeal to theoretical virtues like simplicity, coherence, fruitfulness, and pragmatic value. Some of the most interesting disputes are disputes in which all three of these broad methods are problematic and seemingly indecisive.

One of my aims as a philosopher is to intervene on common sense. "Common sense" is inherently conservative. Common sense used to tell us that the Earth didn't move, that humans didn't descend from ape-like ancestors, that certain races were superior to others, that the world was created by a god or gods of one sort or another. Common sense is a product of biological and cultural evolution, plus the cognitive and social development of people in a limited range of environments. Common sense only has to get things right enough, for practical purposes, to help us manage the range of environments to which we are accustomed. Common sense is under no obligation to get it right about the early universe, the microstructure of matter, the history of the species, future technologies, or the consciousness of weird hypothetical systems we have never encountered.

The conservativism and limited vision of common sense leads us to dismiss as "crazy" some philosophical and scientific views that might in fact be true. I've argued that this is especially so regarding theories of consciousness, about which something crazy must be true. For example: literal group consciousness, panpsychism, and/or the failure of pain to supervene locally. Although I don't believe that existing arguments decisively favor any of those possibilities, I do think that we ought to restrain our impulse to dismiss such views out of hand. Fit with common sense is one important factor in evaluating philosophical claims, especially when direct scientific evidence and considerations of general theoretical virtue are indecisive, but it is only one factor. We ought to be ready to accept that in some philosophical domains, our commonsense intuitions cannot be entirely preserved.

Toward this end, I want to broaden our intuitive sense of the possible. The two best techniques I know are science fiction and cross-cultural philosophy.

The philosophical value of science fiction consists not only in the potential of science fictional speculations to describe possible futures that we might actually encounter. Historically, science fiction has not been a great predictor of the future. The primary philosophical value of science fiction might rather consist in its ability to flex our minds and disrupt commonsense conservatism. After reading far-out stories about weird utopias, uploading into simulated realities, bizarrely constructed intelligent aliens, body switching, Matrioshka Brains, and alternative universes, philosophical speculations about panpsychism and group consciousness no longer seem quite so intolerably weird. At least that's my (empirically falsifiable) conjecture.

Similarly, brain-flexing is an important part of the value of reading the history of philosophy -- especially work from traditions other than those with which you are already familiar. Here it's especially important not to be too "charitable" (i.e. assimilative). Relish the weirdness -- "weird" from your perspective! -- of radical Buddhist metaphysics, of medieval Chinese neo-Confucianism, of neo-Platonism in late antiquity, of 19th century Hegelianism and neo-Hegelianism.

If something that seems crazy must be true about the metaphysics of consciousness, or about the nature of objects and causes, or about the nature of moral value -- as extended philosophical discussions of these topics suggest probably is the case -- then to evaluate the possibilities without excess conservatism, we need to get used to bending our minds out of their usual ruts.

This is my new favorite excuse for reading Ted Chiang, cyberpunk, and Zhuangzi.

[image source]

Friday, April 14, 2017

We Who Write Blogs Recommend... Blogs!

Here's The 20% Statistician, Daniel Lakens, on why blogs have better science than Science.

Lakens observes that blogs (usually) have open data, sources, and materials; open peer review; no eminence filter; easy error correction; and open access.

I would add that blogs are designed to fit human cognitive capacities. To reach a broad audience, they are written to be broadly comprehensible -- and as it turns out, that's a good thing for science (and philosophy), since it reduces the tendency to hide behind jargon, technical obscurities, and dubious shared subdisciplinary assumptions. The length of a typical substantive blog post (500-1500 words) is also, I think, a good size for human cognition: long enough to have some meat and detail, but short enough that the reader can keep the entire argument in view. These features make blog posts much easier to critique, enabling better evaluation by specialists and non-specialists alike.

Someone will soon point out, for public benefit, the one-sidedness of Lakens' and my arguments here.

[HT Wesley Buckwalter]

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Does It Matter If the Passover Story Is Literally True?

My opinion piece in today's LA Times.

You probably already know the Passover story: How Moses asked Pharoah to let his enslaved people leave Egypt, and how Moses’ god punished Pharaoh — bringing about the death of the Egyptians’ firstborn sons even as he passed over Jewish households. You might even know the ancillary tale of the Passover orange. How much truth is there in these stories? At synagogues this time of year, myth collides with fact, tradition with changing values. Negotiating this collision is the puzzle of modern religion.

Passover is a holiday of debate, reflection, and conversation. Last Passover, as my family and I and the rest of the congregation waited for the feast at our Reform Jewish temple, our rabbi prompted us: “Does it matter if the story of Passover isn’t literally true?”

Most people seemed to shake their heads. No, it doesn’t matter.

I was imagining the Egyptians’ sons. I am an outsider to the temple. My wife and teenage son are Jewish, but I am not. My 10-year-old daughter, adopted from China at age 1, describes herself as “half Jewish.”

I nodded my head. Yes, it does matter if the Passover story is literally true.

“Okay, Eric, why does it matter?” Rabbi Suzanne Singer handed me the microphone.

I hadn’t planned to speak. “It matters,” I said, “because if the story is literally true, then a god who works miracles really exists. It matters if there is such a god or not. I don’t think I would like the moral character of that god, who kills innocent Egyptians. I’m glad there is no such god.”

“It is odd,” I added, “that we have this holiday that celebrates the death of children, so contrary to our values now.”

The microphone went around, others in the temple responding to me. Values change, they said. Ancient war sadly and necessarily involved the death of children. We’re really celebrating the struggle for freedom for everyone....

Rabbi Singer asked if I had more to say in response. My son leaned toward me. “Dad, you don’t have anything more to say.” I took his cue and shut my mouth.

Then the Seder plates arrived with the oranges on them.

Seder plates have six labeled spots: two bitter herbs, charoset (fruit and nuts), parsley, a lamb bone, a boiled egg, each with symbolic value. There is no labeled spot for an orange.

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

A wonderful story — a modern, liberal story. More comfortable than the original Passover story for a liberal Reform Judaism congregation like ours, proud of our woman rabbi. The orange is an act of defiance, a symbol of a new tradition that celebrates gender equality.

Does it matter if it’s true?

Here’s what actually happened. Dartmouth Jewish Studies professor Susannah Heschel was speaking to a Jewish group at Oberlin College in Ohio. The students had written a story in which a girl asks a rabbi if there is room 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 students but reluctant to put anything as unkosher as leavened bread on the Seder plate, used a tangerine instead.

The orange, then, is not a wild act of defiance, but already a compromise and modification. The shouting rabbi is not an actual person but an imagined, simplified foe.

It matters that it’s not true. From the two stories of the orange, we learn the central lesson of Reform Judaism: that myths are cultural inventions built to suit the values of their day, idealizations and simplifications, changing as our values change — but also that only limited change is possible in a tradition-governed institution. An orange, but not a crust of bread.

In a way, my daughter and I are also oranges: a new type of presence in a Jewish congregation, without a marked place, welcomed this year, unsure we 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. I hadn’t seen those faces. Were they really so outraged? Was my son telling me the truth on the way home that night? Or was he creating a simplified myth of me?

In belonging to an old religion, we honor values that are no longer entirely ours. We celebrate events that no longer quite make sense. We can’t change the basic tale of Passover. But we can add liberal commentary to better recognize Egyptian suffering, and we can add a new celebration of equality.

Although the new celebration, the orange, is an unstable thing atop an older structure that resists change, we can work to ensure that it remains. It will remain only if we can speak the story of it compellingly enough to give our new values too the power of myth.


Revised and condensed from my blogpost Orange on the Seder Plate (Apr 27, 2016).

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Only 4% of Editorial Board Members of Top-Ranked Anglophone Philosophy Journals Are from Non-Anglophone Countries

If you're an academic aiming to reach a broad international audience, it is increasingly the case that you must publish in English. Philosophy is no exception. This trend gives native English speakers an academic advantage: They can more easily reach a broad international audience without having to write in a foreign language.

A related question is the extent to which people who make their academic home in Anglophone countries control the English-language journals in which so much of our scholarly communication takes place. One could imagine the situation either way: Maybe the most influential academic journals in English are almost exclusively housed in Anglophone countries and have editorial boards almost exclusively composed of people in those same countries; or maybe English-language journals are a much more international affair, led by scholars from a diverse range of countries.

To examine this question, I looked at the editorial boards of the top 15 ranked journals in Brian Leiter's 2013 poll of "top philosophy journals without regard to area". I noted the primary institution of every board member. (For methodological notes see the supplement at the end.)

In all, 564 editorial board members were included in the analysis. Of these, 540 (96%) had their primary academic affiliation with an institution in an Anglophone country. Only 4% of editorial board members had their primary academic affiliation in a non-Anglophone country.

The following Anglophone countries were represented:

USA: 377 philosophers (67% of total)
UK: 119 (21%)
Australia: 26 (5%)
Canada: 13 (2%)
New Zealand: 5 (1%)

The following non-Anglophone countries were represented:

Germany: 6 (1%)
Sweden: 5 (1%)
Netherlands: 3 (1%)
China (incl. Hong Kong): 2 (<1%)
France: 2 (<1%)
Belgium: 1 (<1%)
Denmark: 1 (<1%)
Finland: 1 (<1%)
Israel: 1 (<1%)
Singapore: 1 (<1%) [N.B.: English is one of four official languages]
Spain: 1 (<1%)

Worth noting: Synthese showed much more international participation than any of the other journals, with 13/31 (42%) of its editorial board from non-Anglophone countries.

It seems to me that if English is to continue in its role as the de facto lingua franca of philosophy (ironic foreign-language use intended!), then the editorial boards of the most influential journals ought to reflect substantially more international participation than this.


Related Posts:

How Often Do Mainstream Anglophone Philosophers Cite Non-Anglophone Sources? (Sep 8, 2016)

SEP Citation Analysis Continued: Jewish, Non-Anglophone, Queer, and Disabled Philosophers (Aug 14, 2014)


Methodological Notes:

The 15 journals were Philosophical Review, Journal of Philosophy, Nous, Mind, Philosophy & Phenomenological Research, Ethics, Philosophical Studies, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Philosopher's Imprint, Analysis, Philosophical Quarterly, Philosophy & Public Affairs, Philosophy of Science, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, and Synthese. Some of these journals are "in house" or have a regional focus in their editorial boards. I did not exclude them on those grounds. It is relevant to the situation that the two top-ranked journals on this list are edited by the faculty at Cornell and Columbia respectively.

I excluded editorial assistants and managers without without full-time permanent academic appointments (which are typically grad students or publishing or secretarial staff). I included editorial board members, managers, consultants, and staff with full-time permanent academic appointments, including emeritus.

I used the institutional affiliation listed at the journal's "editorial board" website when that was available (even in a few cases where I knew the information to be no longer current), otherwise I used personal knowledge or a web search. In each case, I tried to determine the individual's primary institutional affiliation or most recent primary affiliation for emeritus professors. In a few cases where two institutions were about equally primary, I used the first-listed institution either on the journal's page or on a biographical or academic source page that ranked highly in a Google search for the philosopher.

I am sure I have made some mistakes! I've made the raw data available here. I welcome corrections. However, I will only make corrections in accord with the method above. For example, it is not part of my method to update inaccurate affiliations on the journals' websites. Trying to do so would be unsystematic, disproportionately influenced by blog readers and people in my social circle.

A few mistakes are inevitable in projects of this sort and shouldn't have a large impact on the general findings.


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