12/31/12

12 in 12

Great things I discovered in 2012 (possibly after everyone else)--
  1. The state of California.
  2. Trees (the fall issue of The Philosophers' Magazine contains my paean to trees).
  3. Bjork--esp. Homogenic and Biophilia. Can't get enough of Joga and Cosmogony.
  4. Joanna Newsom--daughter turned me into a total fan in the past 24 hours!  Try The Book of Right On.
  5. The problem of personal identity. It used to be one of my least favorite philosophy problems, but no more.
  6. Philosophy books: Eric Olson's books on animalism (The Human Animal and What Are We?).  Also  Zoopolis by Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson
  7. Magnolia, the Paul Thomas Anderson movie. Favorite 2012 movie:  Argo.
  8. Magnolia soundtrack, featuring songs by Aimee Mann (here she is singing Save Me at the White House).
  9. Melancholia--wonderfully strange Lars von Trier movie.
  10. Fort Davis-Marfa area of west Texas. Wonderfully far from everything else and great for nature, history, art, astronomy.
  11. Twitter--when news is breaking, there's no better way to find out how people are reacting (e.g. during the presidential debates).  Then again, distraction, distraction, distraction.  May have to pull the plug in 2013.
  12. Barack Obama. During the campaign the case he made for himself turned me into a bigger fan than I'd been before.  Runner up: Hillary Clinton.  The champagne is already in the fridge for 2016. 
And one thing I'm really tired of--
  1. Watching the brawl over feminism in the atheist community. The tendency to brawl is the problem, not feminism. Few seem to see that.  I hope to pay much less attention in 2013.
Happy New Year!

12/30/12

West Texas

You must, if you live in Texas, visit the Fort Davis area.  Who knew there were so many riches a mere (ahem) 10 hours' drive from Dallas?  Most of the drive is either boring or hideous, but there's something pretty neat about seeing bumps, and then hills, and then high mountains rise out of the plain. By the time you get to the far west end of the state, the landscape has become truly beautiful, in a stark sort of a way (that I adore). You're also hundreds of miles from the nearest Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, or Panera--how refreshing!  You'll be at the mercy of the locals for food, coffee, and books, but you won't be deprived.

Night One--attend a star party at the McDonald Observatory. Do make reservations ahead of time, and try to schedule your trip when there's no full moon.  We went the day after Christmas, which made the crowd pretty reasonable ("just" 400 people, compared to 1000 a few nights later!).  Even with the full moon, we had some amazing views: Jupiter plus four moons, the orion nebula, and (of course) the moon in all its glory. Plus assorted star clusters. There's a cafe on the premises where you can have dinner and warm up with hot chocolate.

We stayed in tiny Fort Davis at the oldest hotel in West Texas (according to the proprietor)--a very charming B&B called The Veranda.  Another option would be staying in Fort Davis state park a few miles from town. At least from the outside the Indian lodge looks delightful.



Day One--The Fort itself has been restored to its former glory, so you can see how officers lived at the end of the 19th century. You can also see the hospital, complete with instruments and explanations of medical procedures.  Behind the fort there are trails up to a bluff with splendid views. Then drive back for the afternoon tour at the observatory--you'll get to see the biggest telescopes up close and learn about the research going on there (exoplanets...dark energy...wow).


Day Two--Marfa, 20 miles away, is another dust mote of a town, but (believe it or not) it's a major art mecca.  Make reservations ahead of time to tour the collection of the Chinati foundation, which houses major works by Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and 10 others, in abandoned military buildings.  You can't see the collection without a tour, and never fear--the tour guides maintain a low profile. They mainly just guide you around the premises and give basic information.

The town accommodates the art crowd with an appropriately elegant book store, restaurants, and the smallest NPR radio station in the country. Remember: dust mote.  Marfa ain't Santa Fe. But in a way, it's better.  Talk about totally quirky and unexpected. 


Alpine is the third point on the Fort Davis-Marfa-Alpine triangle. It's worth the trip for the bookstore, museum, and a few restaurants, but mainly because the drive is dramatically beautiful. Another beautiful 20 miles takes you back to Fort Davis. The Bistro is a pretty little restaurant with good food (even a vegetarian special!).  Mexican food is down the road--with chile rellenos to die for.

Day Three--Now you have to visit the Chihuahua desert center, which has some lovely trails--one into a canyon, and another to a hilltop with a terrific geology exhibit.

Next question--should we open our own little bookstore in Fort Davis, since it doesn't have one? Can we? Can we? The family says No, which means we'll just have to plan another visit. There's actually much more to do--more hikes, drives, more astronomy, more art, and even more in the way of performing arts. I hear Grizzly Bear performed at The Ballroom in Marfa last year. I'm already starting to plot and scheme .... there must be a trip #2.

12/22/12

A Nation of Idiots

Idiot #1 - Wayne La Pierre
I knew yesterday's announcement would be depressing, but underestimated the man. Armed guards. That's the way to prevent another Newtown.  Let the bad guys keep their guns, and give more guns to the good guys. He wants trained volunteers to guard our schools.  Now--I would not reject that idea entirely. If off-duty police officers wanted to guard our neighborhood elementary school, I'd think--"can't hurt!" But anybody can see that's not a complete solution -- not even close.  The kids come out of the school at regular intervals.  Anyone with an appropriate weapon could easily slaughter them as they leave at the end of the day and congregate in front of the school. They come out for recess. They come out to board buses that take them to another school to participate in a talented and gifted program.   Even when kids are inside the school, sitting in classrooms, it's not obvious that an armed guard could stop an intruder. The element of surprise, plus having the right weapons, would give the next killer a huge advantage.  Which is not to say security guards are completely useless--they're just (obviously) not the whole answer. 

Idiot #2 - Charlotte Allen
This completely boggles the mind.  She says the problem at Newtown was the "feminized" environment.  All the employees at the school were female. Not good, she says, because
a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak — but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel. Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza.
Passivity?  But several of these teachers bravely confronted the shooter and paid the ultimate price. One of them died -- Victoria Soto -- by staying in her classroom to misdirect the shooter away from the children.  In the face of this sort of bravery, Ms. Allen thinks 12 year old boys would have been more effective?  What a grotesque insult to the memory of these courageous teachers.  And besides, it's bullshit.  For one, there actually were two male employees at the school. For another, men probably wouldn't have helped. At Aurora there were lots of men in the movie theater, and yet the shooter killed dozens of people. The men mostly did what the female teachers did--they shielded their loved ones and died in the process. At Virginia Tech there were plenty of male students and they died like the female students. What people like Allen can't admit to themselves is that lethal weapons make everyone powerless, whether male or female.  It's the assault weapons that makes the death toll so high in these situations, not the gender of the victims.   

Idiot #3 - Mike Huckabee
Every time I turn on the car radio, there's Mike Huckabee, proposing yet another ludicrous way of not saying guns are to blame for the Newtown massacre.  What's to blame is not enough prayer in the schools.  On another day, what's to blame is that parents aren't using enough corporal punishment on their kids. Kids don't have enough respect for their elders.  The funny thing about his reasoning is that he allows himself any speculation on earth, so long as it doesn't involve guns.  When guns comes up, suddenly he's a tough-minded critical thinker.  He wants proof, proof, proof!  As far as I know, that proof is easy to find (lots of good facts and links from Massimo Pigliucci, here), but it's never enough. And then he's back to the prayer issue, and respect, and video games, and of course no evidence is needed!

Idiot #4 -- The Liberal Ideologue
This will be an unnamed idiot because I have in mind various and sundry people, not one specific voice.  The liberal ideologue is as adamant as the conservative about what needs to be taken off the table.  We must not talk about mental illness, since we have compassion for the mentally ill and legitimate concerns about their rights.  We must not talk about violent video games, because we care so much about having a free and open entertainment industry.  We must not talk about ...  Well, basically we must not talk about anything but guns.  For the liberal ideologue it's not enough to view weapons as a central part of the problem. It's got to be the whole problem.

***

In the face of such a horrendous, heart-breaking event--the brutal murder of all those little kids and their teachers--you'd think people would be willing to set aside biases and ideologies.   Hopefully the idiots are on the fringes of the post-Newtown debate, and they're not going to prevail. 

12/18/12

All I want for Christmas is ... life and death

So ... I'm being ridiculed by my family just because three items on my holiday wishlist include the words "life" and "death" --
  • Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
  • Jill Lepore, The Mansion of Happiness:  A History of Life and Death
  • Bernd Heinrich, Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death
Gloomy, me? Oh come on. I also asked for the book Capital, by John Lanchester, which looks downright fun, not to mention Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan.

Just to prove I am not overly angst-ridden, I shall not be asking  for the "Sisyphus" watch I found at the Nation's online store.  It certainly is tempting though ....

12/17/12

Law and Order (and the vigil)

New York Times
Our political leaders need to reinstitute the assault weapons ban that lapsed in 2004.  This might really be possible, in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, especially if gun control advocates sell the idea in the right way. When President Clinton signed the assault weapons ban in 1994, he was something new and different--a "law and order" Democrat.  In addition to signing the assault weapons ban, he also took other crime prevention measures, like increasing the size of the police force in major cities. I think Democrats today ought to take note.  We want the assault weapons ban not because we're against personal rights and liberties, but because we're for law and order.  Say what you're for folks.  Don't stress what you're against, stress what you're for.

But as to the costs -- I do think the NRA has gotten away with a whole lot of bullshit about rights and liberties.  The second amendment, unfortunately, is right there after the first amendment. That makes it easy to suppose that the right to bear arms is something like the right to assemble or worship or speak out: i.e it's a virtually absolute right, outweighed by other considerations in very few instances.  But no, the right to bear arms is subject to far more restrictions than rights of conscience. We obviously don't get to arm our "militias" (what militias?!) by keeping rocket grenade launchers in our backyards or nuclear weapons in our driveways. I can't buy myself a cannon and point it toward my neighbor across the creek (who does have too many loud parties).  Why not? Because my right to have such weapons is trumped by the community's need for "law and order".  (Let's use that phrase as often as possible!  It's really good...)

The assault weapons owner, even if perfectly law-biding, cannot perfectly control who uses the weapons. Nancy Lanza, who was murdered by her son with her own weapons, put her whole community at risk by having them in her possession. Her right to have these weapons, whether she wanted them for self-defense or recreation, should have been balanced against the security needs of the community.  Not because her rights don't matter at all, but because law and order takes priority.  We Democrats need to make that our rallying cry--LAW AND ORDER!-- instead of spending too much time laughing at and decrying gun nuts.

****

The Newtown vigil last night got me thinking about religion and its alternatives.  I don't fault anyone for approaching grief in any way that "works" for them. This isn't the time to ask whether there are really ... angels, and the like.  If I were suffering the devastation of the Newtown families, I could be believing in angels right now too. Or ... or maybe not.  It seems unfortunate that no one got up at the vigil and spoke words of comfort in a secular key.  I'm just about sure some of the bereaved were unable to connect with all the religious talk, as "inter-faith" as it was. I meet people all the time, and not just in philosophy settings, who don't think about life in those terms.

As an alternative to the Jew, Methodist, Catholic, Muslim, and Bahai who spoke, what comes to mind is ... what?  An atheist?  A God-denier?  That's not helpful. There's no more reason to ask a God-denier to comfort the bereaved than to ask a Jesus-denier or an angel-denier.  We need people to get up and talk about loss in terms of what they do believe, not in terms of what they don't believe. The naturalistic alternative is ... what?  Not atheistm, but (I suppose) secular humanism. Perhaps we non-believers should be doing more to make that positive outlook a part of the national landscape, and thus part of an occasion like this. I say that not in a "we have rights too!" spirit, but only because, in all honesty, I think secular language is needed to meet the needs of some grievers. 

12/15/12

Light

Last night the rabbi spoke about light in a time of darkness as people lit hundreds of menorahs in our temple's lovely sanctuary. It's hard to hold onto a feeling of life's basic goodness in the face of yesterday's massacre of completely vulnerable little children and their teachers. I can't think of anything insightful to say except the obvious:  gun control, now.

12/14/12

Losing My Religion

It's Friday, so let's have a song. This, from The Sandy Relief concert on 12-12-12, was amazing.

12/13/12

Must Philosophers Be Parents?

Philosopher Justin E. H. Smith rebels against pressure to be a parent here. He resents the fact that philosophers are always telling him there are things he just can't know, because he's childless.

All the hyperventilation about parenthood can be excessive, but how can it not be the case that parenthood gives people special experiences and insights?   For example, parenthood makes you think about values and priorities. That's because your own agenda may be altered to accommodate children and because, in raising children, you're constantly forced to make up your mind about what will make a child's life go better (or worse). Should you focus on happiness? Achievement? Autonomy? Whatever the child happens to want? Also, parenthood gives you first-hand experience with a certain type of love. Without first hand experience of parenthood, I don't think Harry Frankfurt could have written the book The Reasons of Love (to give just one example).

Now, non-parents have more time for other things.  So they may also be able to claim special opportunities for insight and reflection too. Surely being an adventurous traveler gives people unique experiences and insights, as does being a musician, or flying airplanes, or whatever.  And non-parents have more time for such things, as well as for ... philosophy! So there are plenty of advantages to having no children.  But Smith isn't content to defend non-parenthood in that manner. Not only is parenthood not needed for philosophical insight, on his view; it's actually harmful to the philosophical way of life!  Maybe he's only semi-serious, but he does expound on this idea.  Nietzsche, he says, found pictures of domesticity comical--
Thus he tells us what he things about the domestic life in The Genealogy of Morality:
Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer– they were not married, and, further, one cannot imagine them as married. A married philosopher belongs to comedy, that is my rule.
Married philosophers are funny, married with children--HILARIOUS!  Granted, Nietzsche wasn't quite the best role model, Smith admits, but he's still got a point--

Now Nietzsche was of course a raving and sorry case, who precisely failed to implement philosophy as a practice of the good life. But his historical point is unassailable, and the truth of it helps us to bring into relief the exceptional situation of current academic philosophy. The life of the philosopher was traditionally something akin to life in a monastic order; it placed an extremely high demand on its initiates, and forced them to choose between different and competing fundamental goods.

This is particularly clear in the Indian tradition, where the choice was explicit between being a ‘householder’ and being a ‘world-renouncer’, as the two ways of expressing Hindu devotion. It was also explicit that the former figure would necessarily be prevented from advancing as far as the latter in matters of illumination. Philosophy was an askesis, and as such was incompatible with the domestic life.Of course these days the fashion is to reconceptualize domesticity so as to fit whatever image we prefer to maintain of ourselves, so that, for example, when a new mother has to cut back on her yoga sessions, she can announce that she is now engaged in ‘the yoga of being a mom’. I have read PataƱjali’s Yoga Sutras, and I have not found anything about that.

Nor have I found any convincing evidence that the figure of the philosopher can be transplanted from the cloister to the household without serious deformation, let alone any evidence that –again, as I’ve been told three times over the past year– one cannot fully realize one’s potential as a philosopher unless one is a parent.
"Serious deformation."  I'd like to know what the "serious deformation" consists in, apart from the fact that philosopher-parents don't fit the stereotype of the guru or yogi or monk. I have no idea, because after making the deformation point, Smith goes on to make a different point.  He says philosophers have written perceptively about childhood by just recalling their own childhoods. Since we all used to be children, everyone's on an equal footing--parents and the childless.

Ahhhh, but that doesn't work. The insight we get by having children isn't necessarily about what it is to be a child. As I said above, it's (partly) about values, and about love, and this crucially involves bring up a child, not just recollecting being a child.  In any event, it does jog the memory about childhood to watch a child grow up.  I remember being a teenager much more vividly now than I did 10 years ago.  That's because I have two teenagers, and I'm continually being brought back to that time of my own life by watching them grow up.

I'm against a certain sort of over-zealous egalitarianism about value, where you can't recognize the unique value of doing X if it's inevitably the case that some people don't do X.  I think that's politically correct but not truthful.  Parenthood is one of those things with special value, but which (for a whole host of reasons), not everyone will experience or even want to experience.

12/12/12

12 X 6 = Time for ... What?

It's just about 12:12:12 on 12/12/12, so it's an auspicious time to ... what? That's the the only problem. I can't figure out how to use this obviously precious moment!

12/11/12

The Metaphysics of Corpses

Continuing to explore whether I was ever a zygote (or embryo, or fetus) ....

Current favorite picture of things:  I am an organism, essentially (so: Animalism). But must I think I began to exist as a zygote? Maybe not. First there was a zygote, which developed and grew into an embryo, and then a fetus (etc.) and at some point the fetus became me.  There's a lot to say about why that picture is attractive, and why it might also be unattractive ... but I want to focus on just one issue here: does it makes sense to suppose that a zygote becomes a mature organism, without being identical to it? Can A become B, in the absence of an underlying entity C, such that A=C and B=C?  Or to put it another way, does it make sense to think of A becoming B, when it's also the case that A goes out of existence?

One indication that this might make sense involves monozygotic twinning.  Suppose a zygote Z becomes two embryos, E1 and E2.  Z can't be identical to either of the successor embryos (since they're not identical to each other), so Z goes out of existence.  Nevertheless, it's fair to say that Z becomes E1 and Z becomes E2. This is becoming without identity. There's no underlying entity that persists, as Z becomes E1 (and also E2). Jeff McMahan points out that this sort of going out of existence via division isn't problematic in The Ethics of Killing:
There does not, however, seem to be anything problematic about the claim that, if an organism begins to exist at conception and twinning occurs, the organism simply ceases to exist. Ceasing to exist through division is not the same kind of event as death and does not leave dead remains behind. Thus, for example, when an amoeba divides, it ceases to exist though it does not die. While living entities may cease to exist by dying, some may also cease to exist in another way, by dividing. (p. 27)
Could it be the case that even without twinning, a zygote/fetus goes out of existence when it becomes a baby? If "ceasing to exist through division" is a possibility, why not also "ceasing to exist through transformation"? This, again, would be the sort of ceasing to exist that doesn't leave remains behind.  When there's radical transformation, you might say, A becomes B, but A also goes out of existence.  There's no underlying entity, C, that endures "underneath" the transformation.

In fact, isn't this exactly how we think about death (or at least could think about it)?  There is a living organism--A.  It dies, and there are so many radical transformations involved that the corpse, B, is something new.  A both goes out of existence and becomes B.  Surprisingly (to me, anyway), McMahan thinks if you take A as essentially an organism, you can't make out the idea that it goes out of existence when death occurs. Since that's absurd, you shouldn't (on his view) take A to be essentially an organism.

But why can't you think of a living organism as ceasing to exist, when death produces a corpse?  He writes,
 If, however, an organism ceases to exist when it dies, what exactly is the corpse and where does it come from? Merely labeling it the 'remains' of the organism is unilluminating (p. 20).

He comes up with four possibilities: (1) The corpse is "an entirely new entity, one that springs into existence in the area of space that the organism previously occupied immediately upon the organism's death." (p. 20) His assessment: No, of course not, that's silly. (2) The corpse was there all along, a second entity in addition to the living organism, A. His assessment: Also silly! (3) The living organism, A, is just a phase in the existence of a longer-lasting entity, and the corpse is another phase. So the organism goes out of existence in the same sense that a child goes out of existence when she becomes an adult.  His assessment: This is inconsistent with thinking that A is essentially an organism, so it's ruled out too. (4) Upon death, the organism, A, basically disintegrates, leaving behind no further entity, B.  In a nutshell: there are no corpses. Again: Silly.

But isn't there another option?  Let's call it (1A), since it's close to (1).

(1A)  The corpse is a new entity, but not "entirely new". Most of the molecules in the corpse come from the intial living body. Much of the organization of the corpse is owing to things that happened to the prior living body. The living body becomes the corpse, but also goes out of existence, since the transformation is too great to sustain identity.

If division of Z into two embryos is a way for Z to go out of existence, and we shouldn't think of twins E1 and E2 as "entirely new" in some mysterious or absurd way, then why not also think of ordinary death as a way for a living organism to go out of existence, though also becoming a corpse? So: becoming without identity, in both instances. And then, why not use the notion of becoming without identity to understand us and our origins? Zygotes become you and me, but we're not identical to them.

When all is said and done, I fear there may be more than one coherent way to think about these things.  All I say (so far) is that this might be one of them.

12/10/12

More Kerfuffling

Let us not kerfuffle endlessly, especially during winter break, when all good academics get vast amounts of work done (right?).  But I can't resist noting that Jerry Coyne weighs in here on the topic du jour.  If I'm reading between the lines correctly (I'm not betting large sums on that), he thinks Rebecca Watson is too rough on evolutionary psychology.* I'm prepared to believe what he says on that score, but it would have been nice for him to also say two other things--(1) Her main goal was to talk about how bad science is picked up and propagated by the media and thus puts women under stereotype threat (that's what I said here and she says here). So while she did excoriate EP quite generally, her main contentions were about other matters.  And they were supported by some great examples. (2) The kind of thing she was doing--feminist science criticism--has been supported by Coyne in the past. So he is not in the camp that dismisses all feminist inspired responses to science.  There are a bunch of people with that anti-feminist stance making a lot of noise these days in skeptic/atheist circles, so it seems worth pointing out that he isn't one of them. 

* Update: He says over there that he never even saw her talk and so his post is not about it at all.

12/8/12

Feminist Science Criticism, 300 BC


Yesterday I happened to be reading Aristotle's account of reproduction, and came upon a nice example where having a feminist science critic on the scene would have been helpful.  Let us imagine one Kallista, (imaginary) champion of women from 300 BC, responding to this passage from Generation of Animals (Book I, ch. 21, trans. Platt) --

Aristotle says here that a female is passive and a male is active.  Thus, the matter of an embryo comes from the female, but the form comes from the male.  The semen doesn't wind up being a part of the offspring.  The male rather gives form to the matter supplied by the female--he is like the carpenter, and she merely supplies the wood. The form, function, and essence of the embryo, and later the baby, are therefore generated by the male.

Now Kallista, let's suppose, is sensitive to a woman's role in Athenian society.  She knows that women lived in veritable purdah in Aristotle's time, playing no role in the public affairs of the city. So the male-active, female-passive story sounds suspicious to her. That's just how we're supposed to live, says this society, not necessarily how things really are. She also notes that Aristotle buys into female inferiority in a big way. For example, later in Generation of Animals he says "For the female is as it were a male deformed, and the menses are seed but not pure seed; for it lacks one thing only, the source of the soul." (Balme trans., in A new Aristotle Reader).

Only the male is the source of the soul, says that passage. That's a very big deal. There are multiple souls, for Aristotle. Without ensoulment there can be no growth, nourishment, perception, or thought. Unensouled entities are not even alive, let alone human. So Aristotle's giving the male virtually all the credit for our nature.

Kallista suspects Aristotle is biased--he's got a deeply ingrained notion about the role of women, and he's projecting it onto nature.  That's step one in her thinking.

The second step is to take the suspicion and run with it, searching for actual errors in Aristotle's science. She scratches her head .... How is it that the male's role in reproduction is anything like a carpenter's role? How can that really be?  How (on earth) could depositing semen inside the female be anything at all like what happens when a carpenter imposes form on a block of wood?  The carpenter thinks about the form and function he's after. How could the semen do anything of the kind? What--does semen think? Her feminist suspicions lead her to some very reasonable doubts about Aristotle's account.

The third step is to produce a better theory. Now Kallista  shouldn't be dogmatic.  She shouldn't presume to know more than she really does.  It would be more egalitarian if the female and male both contributed the same amount of matter to the embryo (and fetus and baby), but it's obvious that they don't. (This amusing editorial by Greg Kamikian estimates that males have contributed 1 pound to the mass of humanity, over the whole history of homo sapiens reproduction--107 billion babies thus far.  If females contributed just the same--1 pound--we'd be missing another 800 billion pounds!)

It would be more egalitarian if males and females contributed equally to the ensoulment and the form, function, and essence of the embryo/baby, but she shouldn't fully commit herself to that a priori. She has legitimate doubt about Aristotle's view, but not a replacement.

Still, feminist science criticism does move things forward.  It creates reasonable suspicion that Aristotle's just projecting male and female social roles. It puts his details under heightened scrutiny, helping us see problems with the idea that semen plays the role of carpenter, with women providing the wood.

So much for defending FSC.  It seems like skeptics about it (I've run into some recently) really have to be doctrinaire anti-feminists. It just can't be that Kallista's reaction to Aristotle wouldn't be a good thing--good both for science and for women.

12/7/12

Feels Like We Only Go Backwards

It's Friday, so time for a great song...and great video!  Makes me think about John Lennon. Finder's credit: RAG

12/6/12

Becoming

Was I ever a a fetus? I continue to read and think about this.  So far I'm inclined to go along with Eric Olson's animalism, which says that the entity I am right now did start to exist as a fetus, way back when.  I think there are some excellent arguments for that view in his two books. But it does make me a bit queasy.  It seems odd to suppose that I was once a millimeter long. The oddity is enough to make me take a very close look at the competing views.  (There are also worries about defending abortion, but I'm going to make a concerted effort to set them aside. It's a good general principle that we should not let ethics steer metaphysics, but vice versa.)

The Constitution View, the view defended by Lynne Rudder Baker in Persons and Bodies, avoids the oddity by saying that I am a person merely constituted by an organism. The organism is one thing, and it did begin to exist as a fetus.  But the person is another, and it began to exist only at the point when self-awareness emerged. I am a person, not an organism, and I never existed as a fetus.  The problem is, I find aspects of that view completely unintelligible, as I explain here.

How else can we avoid saying I was once a millimeter long? I think maybe this is what I thought, before I really thought a lot about it--  I started to exist as a baby, or maybe as a late-term fetus.  That would have been roughly in the month of March, since I was born in May. I didn't exist in February, January, December, etc., but of course "my" early term fetus did. So what did I used to think about the connection between my early term fetus (F1) and my late term fetus (F2)? I used to think F1 became F2, of course.  Duh!

This, then, raises a question of logic:  If F1 becomes F2, must there be an underlying entity that endures, first as F1 and then as F2? In other words, must it be the case that F1=F2? If that is the case, and I think I did exist as F2, then I'm forced to think I existed even earlier, as F1.  In other words, my old way of thinking about this is untenable. I can't say I started to exist as a baby, and deny ever having been a fetus.

So... what is the logic of becoming? Is it really true that if A becomes B, then there's some underlying, enduring entity, so that in fact A=B?  Well, it's at least often true.  When a child becomes a teenager, the identity holds: the teenager is the child.  When caterpillar Charlie becomes butterfly Bob, Bob is Charlie. Is there any such thing as a case of becoming, where A becomes B, so there's a very intimate connection between A and B, yet it's not true that A=B?

Don't say "a frog becoming a prince" if you mean the frog disappears and a prince takes his place.  Because that's not the sort of "becoming" that's involved when an early term fetus becomes a late term fetus.  We need a very intimate relation, where the properties of F1 are pretty continuous with the properties of F2, yet there's some coherent reason to acknowledge two separate entities.  Is becoming ever that way--a transition from one entity to a bonafide second entity? If you can think of an example like that, pray tell.

12/4/12

Feminist Science Criticism

Update 12/6: Here's a vastly more exhaustive response to Watson and Clint than mine. Great stuff.

For your viewing pleasure, I give you a controversial talk by feminist skeptic Rebecca Watson:




A lot of people seem to be impressed with this excoriation of Watson, by one Ed Clint, but I'm not so impressed. In fact, I'm amazed.  If Watson's talk amounts to "science denialism" then there are piles of books and articles that belong in the trash with the classic instances of denialism--holocaust denialism, climate change denialism, and evolution denialism.   If Watson is a denialist, so is Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of Gender --  Fine also subjects a huge pile of science to a withering critique.  If Watson is a denier, so is Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of The Woman that Never Evolved--she also critiques existing science for being biased by prevailing gender norms.

A denialist cheerleader is going to be Jerry Coyne, who writes  "I am a fan of 'feminist science criticism': the idea that women can sometimes point out male biases in research strategies and in the interpretation of scientific results" in a post supporting Slate writers Emily Yoffe and Amanda Schaffer, who had trashed a science article on rape.  And let's not forget people who have critiqued science for its racist biases--if feminist critics of science are denialist, we'd better call Stephen Jay Gould a denialist too. That's a lot of denialists!

Right. None of them are denialists.  Rebecca Watson is not a science denialist.  She's simply engaging in feminist science criticism, with a focus on how media and business interests stoke the fires of sexism. It's a separate question whether she's doing what she's doing well, but the kind of thing she's doing is perfectly legitimate, and in fact valuable.

The other objection we get early in Ed Clint's post is that she has the wrong credentials. "Watson is known for her blog website, as co-host of a popular skeptic podcast, and for speaking at secular and skeptic conferences. But Watson holds no scientific training or experience." (Holds?  Whatever!)  Again, you have to be consistent. If it's a problem that Watson has insufficient science credentials, it's got to be a problem that Emily Yoffe and Amanda Shaffer aren't scientists, and neither are my favorite science journalists, like Robert Wright, Matt Ridley, and Natalie Angier.  Many people make excellent pundits and popularizers, without first getting degrees in the relevant subject. No--come on!--Watson's lack of science training isn't really an appropriate basis for complaint.

I'm afraid I lost interest in the post soon after the bits about denialism and Watson's credentials, so can't tell you what I think about the 50 billion errors Clint claims to have found in the talk. Listen for yourself. It's fun and interesting, and you simply have to love the way Watson's hair and top match the lectern.

12/1/12

Taking Persons too Seriously

In Persons and Bodies Lynne Rudder Baker says the Constitution View takes persons seriously, and other accounts of what we are don't take them seriously enough. I would say, rather, that the Constitution View takes persons too seriously. On the Constitution View, persons (like us) are persons essentially.

What makes a person a person, Baker contends, is having a first person perspective (FPP). When a human organism starts having an FPP, something that's a person essentially starts to exist.  The organism doesn't have personhood essentially; rather it starts to constitute a distinct entity, an entity that is essentially a person.  I am such an entity and you are too. Non-human animals aren't persons, fetuses aren't persons, and at the end of life, if our FPP is extinguished before death, we go out of existence before organic death.

Now you could quarrel with the science here. Maybe some non-human animals do have FPPs. But let's not go there--let's suppose Baker is right about human uniqueness. Even granting that, I'm out of synch with her eagerness to intensify that difference, to make it "ontological"--
My claim is this: However the first-person perspective came about, it is unique and unlike anything else in nature, and it makes possible much of what matters to us. If even makes possible our conceiving of things as mattering to us. The first-person perspective -- without which there would be no inner lives, no moral agency, no rational agency -- is so unlike anything else in nature that it sets apart the beings that have it from all other beings. The appearance of a first-person perspective makes an ontological differences in the universe. (p. 163)
She's not satisfied with the thought that humans and dogs are dramatically different.  It's not enough to simply say "normal, mature humans have an FPP and dogs don't." That, to her, doesn't do justice to the difference.  We must be in an entirely different ontological category from dogs. I suspect she would actually like to be able to consider us immaterial, to make the difference even more dramatic, but she settles for our essential personhood, because she's a materialist. The idea is not only that you should be able to look at your dog and see something in a different ontological category, though that's important to her. You must also be able to say that you were never an entity in that category, and you will never become an entity in that category.

I personally feel perfectly satisfied with merely factual differences between myself and dogs.  I have an FPP and probably they don't.  I don't need to ontologize the difference and make it starker (this makes me think of Instagram filters, for some reason!). If at the end of life my FPP fades, and very old JK starts seeing the world as a dog does, I don't think that will prevent that individual from being me. If baby JK once saw the world as a dog does, that fact doesn't make me think "that wasn't me."  Baker seems to be guided by some sort of moral imperative to draw the sharpest possible lines between persons and non-persons, but I think there are moral costs to doing so.  The heavy duty line drawing would surely undermine fellow feeling between ourselves and animals, our future elderly selves, our elderly parents, people with severe cognitive disabilities, etc.

It seems to me we've given enough significance to personhood if we just say that human beings are a kind of creature the normal, mature members of which are persons throughout a major stage of their lives. It's part of my humanity that, if all goes well, I'll spend a lot of my life with the characteristics of personhood. That strikes me as a more accurate representation of the facts than saying that I am essentially a person--that my very existence hinges on retaining the properties associated with personhood.

**

And now for a more technical objection. Baker thinks persons are constituted by animal bodies, but not identical to them.  Persons have some of their properties derivatively--on account of the properties of their animal bodies. We have our weights, for example, derivatively.  On the other hand, she thinks persons also have some of their properties non-derivatively or independently. Our FPPs and the abilities associated with them are non-derivative. In fact, she thinks, I have an FPP independently, and the organism that constitutes me has it derivatively. This is taking persons very, very seriously--as having their own independent causal powers.
The Constitution View allows that many of our causal powers are independent of the causal powers of our bodies (i.e., are independent of the causal powers that our bodies would have if they did not constitute persons). Dean Jones [the person] has the power to cut the departmental budget; twenty-one-year-old Smith has the power to buy beer; I have the power to send e-mail from home (p. 218)
Imagine the development of a human being over time. At some time or other, the baby crosses the Rubicon. At t minus 1, there was no FPP. At t there is an FPP.  There's a change in causal powers. The baby's not cutting budgets, buying beer, or sending e-mail, but what?  Well, maybe reacting to a mirror differently. Suddenly, a person is on the scene, merely constituted by the baby-organism, says Baker. And (Baker says) these new causal powers belong to the new person independently; they are not derived from the constituting body.

Why not derived? I think the gloss in the parentheses makes very little sense. The new causal powers are independent (she says) because they are "independent of the causal powers that our bodies would have if they did not constitute persons," she writes.  They're independent (period) because they're independent of a certain portion of our bodily causal powers. Which ones? The "animal" ones, the ones we'd have if we didn't constitute persons.  I would have thought they could only be independent (period) if they're independent of all of our bodily causal powers, including those associated with the abilities that make us persons.

The whole story here starts to fall apart, when you think about that moment when a person comes into existence. The baby must surely have some new brain activity for the FPP to emerge. This, says Baker, makes another entity come into being, an entity that's essentially a person. But the FPP emerges in the brain. It's got to be true that the baby-organism has that FPP, even if the new entity, the person that's essentially a person, does as well.  Why does having a certain brain property that generates an FPP not just generate the further property in the baby of being a person, as opposed to inducing the existence of another entity? You can say it's more intuitive to suppose a person exists, since that allows for essential personhood (which the organism lacks) but that doesn't make it so.

Favorite Philosophers

Philosophy Bites asked a lot of philosophers "Who's your favorite philosopher?"  Most of then chuckled first and then said ...

Hume
Aristotle
None
Montaigne & Nietzsche
Sartre, None
Aristotle
Carnap
MacKinnon
Hume
Descartes
Nietzsche
Frege
Kant
Hobbes, Rousseau
Aristotle
Aristotle
Thucydides
Socrates
Hume
Wittgenstein
Hybrid of Wittgenstein, Marx, Mill
Hybrid of Armstrong, Smart, Lewis
Aristotle
Nietzsche
Hume
Wittgenstein
Plato
Fred (Fred Nietzsche)
Fodor (for his wit!)
Hume
Descartes
The last woman I talked to, whoever she is
Socrates, Wittgenstein
Nietzsche
Parfit
Ramsey
Mill
Hume, Bentham
Hume, Wittgensetin
Kant
Russell
Kant
Mill (because he'd be interested in talking to a woman)
Kant
Hobbes
Hume (for many reasons, but for one: he was a good cook)
Arendt
Hume
Kant (he was so damned good)
Hume
Hume, Williams
Hegel
Bentham
Sidgwick
Dummett, Hume, Wittgenstein, Chomsky (Hume #1)
None
Panetius ( a late Stoic), Gandhi
Locke
None
Hegel
Kant (triggers salivation)
Kant
Mill
Rousseau
Hume
Aristotle
Hume


Have fun guessing who said whom.  Where did I go wrong? Everyone loves Hume. I find him boring. I'll go for ..... Aristotle. No, Plato. Agh. Just not Hume.

11/29/12

Survey on the Good and Meaningful Life (Results)

My class on the meaning of life did something novel this semester--we collected the public's responses to a set of 21 questions about the good and/or meaningful life.  First, an explanation of what the point was. Then I'll tell you the results.

THE POINT
Primarily, the idea was to "problematize" the appeal to intuitions in our readings.  Here's how it goes. An author is defending an account of what makes a life good or meaningful.  The claim entails that a person in a certain scenario would (or wouldn't) have a good life (or a meaningful life, etc.). The author says "we think" the entailed fact is true.  But do we?

We flagged points like this in the literature covered in the course--on the good life and the meaningful life--and tested out whether survey-takers shared the "authorized" (so to speak) intuition -- i.e. the one the author both has and surmises that we all share. Below, I'll be using the phrase "authorized intuition" in just this artificial sense.

The results gave us a basis for discussing the following questions:
  1. If it's important what we think, should philosophers do experiments to find out what we think? Are they qualified to do these experiments?
  2. If philosophers should do experiments, what is the appropriate study population? Should subjects have any particular education or training, to make their intuitions "count"?
  3. Should philosophers appeal less to intuitions about scenarios?
  4. Should they limit themselves to stating their own intuitions, instead of saying "we think ..."?
  5. What attributes made a difference to how survey-takers answered the questions? How did philosophy background factor into it? Religion? Gender?
  6. What does the impact of those various factors tell us about questions 1-4?
There was also a secondary goal. The series on the experience machine was designed to test out a hypothesis offered by experimental philosopher Felipe DeBrigard, in response to Robert Nozick's famous argument against hedonism.

Here are some things we weren't trying to do by means of the survey--
  1. We weren't attempting to answer philosophical questions about the good life or the meaningful life.
  2. We weren't trying to support or refute the philosophers we had read. It was up for discussion and debate whether the results had any bearing on the truth of their theories.   
  3. We weren't trying to comprehensively diagnose how each individual survey-taker looks at the good life or the meaningful life. For that purpose, we would have needed both more questions and different questions.
METHOD
Over the course of the semester, scenarios were derived from the literature we read. Often the scenario in the survey was exactly as stated in the literature. Sometimes it was tweaked a bit for various reasons. Questions were kept as short as possible so people would read them in their entirety and complete the survey.

Answer options were limited to two or three, with no option of "not sure" or the like. This was because my teaching experience tells me people do usually lean in one direction or another, but will avoid commitment if given the chance. Since I worried we'd have very few survey-takers (I was wrong about that!), I wanted to avoid this sort of non-result.

We used multiple "collector" links so we could differentiate groups.  The first link I used was disseminated here, at Twitter, and on Facebook. It would up (not by request) at the very popular atheist blog Pharyngula.  That link yielded 4,912 responses.

Students disseminated another link via Facebook, email, and so on. That link yielded 136 responses.  A couple of other links were used to attract philosophers and we had some international students who attracted a few Indian and Chinese responses.

In addition to disseminating the survey, students also interviewed someone of their choice about their answers and reported to the class on their findings. This gave us an additional source of information about various answers and patterns.

Because of the influx from Pharyngula (presumably), our total sample was heavily male (71.3%) and unreligious (93.1%). The link used by students generated the opposite balance--it was heavily female and religious.  When we sorted the answers by gender and religion we did see some differences in responses.

Our sample was large enough to be informative, even if the population we're trying to represent is very large. (All people? Everywhere? Just all internet users? I'm not sure how we should think about that.) However, the sampling was by no means random.  I wouldn't take the exact statistics too seriously, but there are suggestive patterns. Some claims about "what we think" were strongly confirmed and some were strongly disconfirmed.

Again--the point was to "problematize" the role of intuitions and to raise questions about whether (or not!) philosophers should become experimentalists. The idea was not to settle any philosophical disputes by letting "the people" take a vote.

RESULTS
I'll discuss the results question by question, but if you don't have the patience for that, you can take a look at them all yourself.

All answers
Broken down by religiosity
Broken down by gender
Broken down by amount of background in philosophy

QUESTIONS 1-3 -- NECESSITIES
These questions are based on scenarios in chapter 5 of The Weight of Things--my book on what it is to live a good life.  I offer what's known as an "objective list" account of the good life, and use these scenarios (among many other bits of evidence and arguments) to support putting autonomy (the Bella scenario), self (the Norbert scenario), and progress (the Constance scenario) on my list. My account says the items on the list are not just contributors of good (so interchangeable), but necessities. So a paucity of even one item on the list would mean someone's life was flawed.

We toyed with various ways of stating the answer options, to capture the notion of a life being flawed for lack of one ingredient. I thought "flawed" sounded too harsh, taken out of the context of the book. So we settled on asking whether the person's life could be "going entirely well."

By a wide margin, survey-takers rejected the "authorized" intuition (recall from above--that's the one the author both has and surmises that most people would have).  This is especially so in the Constance scenario. Only 6.2 had the "authorized" intuition!

It's interesting that on the other two questions, there's some correlation between philosophy background and sharing the "authorized" intuition. On the Bella question (about autonomy), 32.1% of philosophers agree with me, whereas 21.3% do, overall.  On the Norbert question (about self), 62.5% of philosophers agree with me, and just 30.3% do overall.

QUESTIONS 4-6 - SOURCES OF HAPPINESS
The two Maggie questions are also about scenarios in chapter 5 of The Weight of Things. The issue there is whether it matters whether a person's happiness comes from valuable or non-valuable sources. I maintain that one item on the list of necessities is having some happiness that comes from valuable sources.  In the two scenarios, none of Maggie's happiness comes from a source that could be seen as valuable. The "authorized" intuition is that her life is therefore flawed--"couldn't be going entirely well."  Overall, 41.4% agreed with the "authorized" view about Maggie on Magic Drug, and 49.3% agreed with the "authorized" view of Maggie the Gambler. Women were more likely than men to have the "authorized" intuition on both of these questions.

The question about the peeping Tom concerned whether or not it's true that happiness adds to life wherever it comes from.  This is again from chapter 5 of The Weight of Things. The "authorized" view is that the immorality of Tom's behavior detracts from his life, but the enjoyment he gets from it does add. So there are two separate impacts here that both affect how his life is going.

About half the responders agreed that the enjoyment does add (whether a little or a lot).  Here gender made a difference.  44.8% of males said his enjoyment added to his life "not at all" but 53.8% of females said his enjoyment added to his life "not at all".

QUESTION 7 - DISABILITY
The question about Carlos is from chapter 6 of The Weight of Things.  Phew, finally some strong support for the "authorized" intuition.  82% agree that Carlos's life could be going entirely well.  In that chapter I argue that different objective lists pertain to different people, depending on their capacities. So the absence of morality in his life doesn't create any flaw.

QUESTIONS 8-10 - ACHIEVEMENT, KNOWLEDGE
These questions were derived from the book The Best Things in Life by Thomas Hurka. He also has an objective list view about the good life, but doesn't think of the items on his list as "necessities".  They merely add goodness to a life, but can be interchanged with other goods.  Question 8 is a scenario the class devised to see whether survey-takers agree with Hurka about the value of achievement, and especially the value of playing games.

Again, the "authorized" intuition doesn't meet with popular support.  Only 19.2% thought the better chess player has a life going "a little better" than the mediocre chess player. But philosophers were more impressed with achievement than others.  The more background, the more likely that you'd find value in being a better chess player.



The Angela scenario in questions 9 and 10 was inspired by a discussion in Hurka's book (chapter 5, pp. 88-9) about the value of knowing your place.  He says 
Being positively mistaken about where you are or how you relate to people near you is an important good; the mismatch is a greater evil than the match is a good. Earlier I argued that pain is more evil than pleasure is good, and there's a similar asymmetry here. Being wrong about some truths in our second category [knowing your place] is more evil than knowing them is good; with these truths it's more important to avoid the evil of error than to achieve any good in getting them right. (p. 89)
To get the idea across, he describes a scenario in which you are lying in a hospital bed, in pain, nearing the end of life. He asks: Is it worth the pain to acquire some new knowledge of your place (e.g. where you are, what your co-workers think of you, or the like)?  And is it worth the pain to overcome some mistake?  He says there's an asymmetry: it's worth more to overcome the mistake than to acquire new knowledge. The Angela scenario is meant to assess whether survey-takers agree about this asymmetry.

We changed some of the details. It seemed to stack the decks against knowledge having any value to imagine someone so close to the end of life. Instead, we made Angela someone recovering from surgery and in pain.  It also seemed to stack the decks to suppose the topic is what co-workers think of you or whether your spouse is faithful. That sort of knowledge/error has a huge impact on happiness.

The topic in our question is literally knowing your place--knowing where you are. The mistake is Angela thinking she's on Mars. The knowledge she could obtain is that she's in the hospital.  We tried to remove the issue of happiness from the equation by saying her sedative keeps her from suffering or being anxious.

If Hurka's asymmetry hypothesis meets with popular approval, what should we find?  We should find that, of those who say yes to 9 (yes, it's worth a 5% increase in pain to stop thinking she's on Mars), most go on to say no to 10 (no, it's not worth another 5% increase in pain in order to come to know she's in the hospital).  Here's how the yessers on 9 (52.6% overall) answered 10:



89% of those who think it's worth a 5% pain increase to avoid Angela's Mars-error also think it's worth a 5% pain increase to acquire knowledge that she's in the hospital.  There's not much agreement with the "authorized" intuition.

QUESTIONS 11-15 - THE MEANING OF LIFE
Now we have a series of questions derived from Richard Taylor's lovely article "The Meaning of Life." These scenarios are taken directly from the article, except the last, which has been fortified with some concepts from Harry Frankfurt's book The Reasons of Love.

Taylor holds that the myth of Sisyphus offers the definitive case of a meaningless life, and holds clues to what "meaningful" and "meaningless" mean.  A meaningful life must have some significant and lasting result.  Do "the people" agree with Taylor that Sisyphus lives a meaningless life (question 11)? Most do--70.2%.

Question 12 proposes a variant on the Sisyphus myth--one suggested by Taylor.  Suppose Sisyphus intensely wants to push those rocks up the hill.  Taylor says this doesn't make his life meaningful.  His life is still objectively meaningless, but it's subjectively meaningful.  "The people" agree, by a narrow margin (52.3% agree).

Question 13 contrasts two ways the gods could help out Sisyphus--these are Taylor's scenarios. In one, the gods inject him with a drug, so he wants to push the rock up a hill. In the other, he pushes rocks up the hill and builds a beautiful temple. (We changed "temple" to "castle" to avoid the religious connotations of "temple".) The "authorized" answer is that the gods are more benevolent if they inject Sisyphus with the drug. Sadly, "the people" disagree. 78.6% say letting him build the castle is more benevolent.  Philosophers are a little more inclined to agree with Taylor (69.6% say "castle").

Question 14 adds a Frankfurtian twist. Taylor just affirms the value of doing things we want to do. In The Reasons of Love, Frankfurt has an elaborate account of the mental states involved in living meaningfully. They involve not just wanting to do X, but "higher order" mental states--wanting to want to do X.  We live meaningfully when we identify with our desires. 71.7% think those Frankfurtian elements are crucial; without them, doing what you want to do isn't actually good for you.

Question 15 assesses whether "the people" agree with Taylor about the meaninglessness of repetitive, cyclical animal lives.  63.8% disagree and think the glow worms don't have meaningless lives.

QUESTION 16 - PRIORITY OF MORALITY
This question was about being guided in one's career choices by a moral ideal and being guided by a non-moral ideal, like becoming a master chef.  It was inspired by Frankfurt, and also by the book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, by Susan Wolf. They both challenge a view that's dominant among philosophers--that morality has some sort of superlative importance in our lives.  The scenario was devised by a student and then collectively revised.  The survey shows more support for the view that morality is preeminent.



QUESTIONS 17-20 - THE EXPERIENCE MACHINE
These questions were taken from Robert Nozick's famous discussion of "the experience machine" and a challenge to it from philosopher Felipe DeBrigard.

Nozick claims that people want not merely happiness, but contact with reality, as evidenced by the fact that they wouldn't plug into an experience machine that provided them with a simulated, but fantastically happy, life.  Question 17 confirms that most wouldn't plug in--70.8% say No.

DeBrigard hypothesized that not wanting to plug in isn't actually due to a desire for contact with reality. He tried to confirm this experimentally by telling subjects they were already plugged into an experience machine and had the option of staying there or unplugging. He found that most wanted to remain plugged in--if they were told certain things about the real world they'd be returning to. He surmised that people refuse the two "jumps" in the diagram below for the same reason--out of status quo bias. They're averse to losing whatever good they have in their present situation.


Questions 18 and 19 are meant to test out DeBrigard's theory. In question 18, you are told you are already in the experience machine, and asked if you want to unplug, assuming that reality may or may not be as you remember it. This is about the same as the way DeBrigard stated the question. He told participants that the real world would be "different".

The important question is how people answer 18, if they already said No on 17--no they didn't want to plug in. If someone says No to the first jump and No to the second jump, this shows what's driving them is status quo bias, not a desire for contact with reality--or so DeBrigard says.  We didn't find the "No, No" pattern though. Those who said No to plugging in on 17 mostly said Yes to unplugging on 18--86.3%. They want to be in both blue zones of the above diagram!

Just in case people did say No to plugging in and No to unplugging, we wanted to explore why. Was it necessarily because of status quo bias in both cases? It seems to me that DeBrigard doesn't do enough to make other things equal, and thus we can't draw that conclusion. The experience machine is very enticing--you get exactly the life you would want (experientially) if you plug in. The reality you have the option of returning to is unenticing--you're just told it's "different." If people prefer reality in the first case, and the experience machine in the second, you can't conclude it's for the same reason. They may be avoiding the unknown in the second case (status quo bias), but not in the first.

The scenario in question 19 is supposed to eliminate this problem.  Reality, post experience machine, is made much more controllable and enticing, just like the experience machine in Nozick's original thought experiment. If people had answered 18 as DeBrigard predicted they would, it would have been interesting to see if they answered 19 in the same way. No on 17 and 19 would convince me it really is all about status quo bias.

Of those who said No on 17 (only those are represented in the table below), 93.6% said Yes on 19.  They would unplug from the experience machine. Again, folks seem to want to be in both blue zones of the diagram.



Question 20 is one more attempt to find out if people desire contact with reality. Do people want the real trip to Antarctica or the simulated trip? The point here was to offer alternatives that wouldn't trigger status quo bias. It's a short trip, and you'll confront "the unknown" equally, whichever option you choose. It would be hard to construe the preference for the real trip as being due to anything but desire for contact with reality. In fact, most people did choose the real trip--82.2%.

On the experience machine questions, it was interesting to compare religions and non-religious responders. Fewer religious people (19.2%) wanted to plug in to the experience machine than unreligious people (29.9%) (question 17).

QUESTION 21 - RELATIVISM
Finally, a question from chapter 2 of The Weight of Things.  My intuition is that Simeon Stylites lived a bad life, and I use that as part of my argument that we can make judgments about different lives, and shouldn't simply defer to cultural standards. 58.9% had the "authorized" intuition about his life, whereas 34.7% said we shouldn't judge.  Only 14.3% of the professional philosophers said we shouldn't judge.

DISCUSSION
This survey showed that "authorized intuitions" are often shared by the public but are also often not.  The "not" cases could be because of problems with the way some of the questions were worded. Class discussion generated ideas about how to restate the Constance question (1), the chessplayer question (8), and a few others. But even with rewording, some intuitions would probably still have only minority support. Should a philosopher be seriously concerned?

The more I think about it, the more I think not. An intuition about a scenario seems analogous to a simple, theory-free perception ("the sky looks blue"), but actually isn't.  The way you understand and respond to a scenario is a complicated matter having to do with education, training, background assumptions, adaptation to an author's various assumptions, being convinced of prior arguments, etc.  You respond to a scenario differently depending on whether you did or didn't read what the author said on the previous 100 pages, did or didn't read other books and articles, etc.

For example, Hurka invites readers to share his intuitions about knowing your place (questions 9 and 10) and achievement (8) only after chapters of his book arguing that happiness is not the only thing that matters, and that contact with reality does matter, and that knowing your place and achievement essentially involve contact.  Lifting scenarios out of that context stops readers from being exposed to the arguments that might lead them to share his intuitions about Angela and the chess-players.  

Likewise, in chapter 5 of my book, I invite readers to share intuitions about cases (like in questions 1-3), but only in the context of many other arguments about the values in question. Furthermore, chapter 5 comes after chapters that try to convince readers of many relevant things: we can judge other people's lives, happiness is not the only thing that matters, the desire fulfillment account of the good life is wrong, etc.  I'm hoping people will share my intuitions after exposure to all of that, not independently of exposure to all of of that. (Or so I am more inclined to say, after the experience of creating this survey!)

Students had various different thoughts about what we gained by doing this survey. I'll end with a few of their reflections--
"I'm not sure I see much to be gained from this survey, except for those responses that came from people who have studied philosophy, preferably extensively....We cannot trust the public's intuitions because they are exactly that: intuitions. They are not necessarily sound judgments that come from critical thought, which is the whole point of philosophy as a field of study. Nevertheless, it is interesting data to have in order to spark further discussion about what we stand to gain from philosophy by comparing the answers of philosophers to those of the rest of the respondents." (JH)
"I believe that the amount of similarity between the 'lay' public's responses and the philosophers' responses casts doubt on the idea that training and expertise are necessary for one's responses to a scenario to be meaningful. I believe that, in many cases, a non-philosopher may use his intuition to arrive at the same conclusion that a philosopher might achieve through deliberate reasoning." (KD)
 "I think that this experiment taught us that the public's intuition does follow, for the most part, the beliefs of philosophers. In areas where the intuition differs, I think we should look extra carefully to examine whether these philosophical ideas really hold merit. Other that that this experiment was just a really fun way to see what the public really thinks about certain situations." (TL)
"I think we learned that to survey people's intuitions about philosophical topics, the questions must be extremely clear. To us, the questions made sense, but when giving it to people who had not been studying these topics and discussing them in class, there were people who were confused by the questions." (PF)
"I think we did learn from this survey and its results. The public's intuitions do mostly match with the intuitions of the professional philosopher. However, religion does play a major role in determining the values people place on different matters. For the next survey I'll do, I will have a more precise and well-worded survey. I believe wording also changes the question's interpretation." (NA)
For more discussion of experimental philosophy, pro and con, see this forum. I also recommend Joshua Alexander's book Experimental Philosophy: An Introduction.

11/26/12

Evil Achievements

Gwen Bradford's article on evil achievements (also available online) is just one of the goodies in the latest issue of tpm.  The issue includes a forum on disagreement with articles by Catherine Elgin, Russ Shafer Landau, Graham Oppy, Cain Todd, and Jennifer Lackey.  To pick out just a few more tasty items: Jennifer Saul has an article on women in philosophy, there's an interview with Frank Jackson. Books reviewed are Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist? (Massimo Pigliucci), Eric Marcus's Rational Causation (Clayton Littlejohn), two new books on what money can't buy (James Stacey Taylor), David Benatar's The Second Sexism (Anne Jacobson), and Martha Nussbaum's The New Religious Intolerance (Russell Blackford).  What, you don't subscribe?  You can do so here.  tpm is also carried by Barnes and Noble (many stores, anyway) and other booksellers.

Entification

Over Thanksgiving I got to thinking a lot about entification, for a lack of a better word. We take a lot of long walks when we're in Central Pennsylvania, and what's a long walk for but to get some things figured out? Plus, you have a captive audience.  In this case, mostly my son, who has an amazing tolerance for discussing strange things.

So, entification. I've been reading The Metaphysics of Gender, by Charlotte Witt, and she builds on the ontology in Lynne Rudder Baker's book Persons and Bodies. Here's what they'd both have us believe: a human organism is conceived, develops, gets born, and develops a first-person perspective. At that point, a second entity emerges--a person. The person is constituted by the original organism but not identical to it. Because of the constitution relation, the person weighs just what the organism weighs. Because of the non-identity, though, there can be a difference in the properties of persons and organisms. In particular, they can differ in their modal properties. The organism could exist without having a first-person perspective--it did, early on, and may once again in senescence. But the person has a first-person perspective essentially. It couldn't exist without it.

Witt builds on this by proposing another turning point. The person starts to be responsive to and evaluable in terms of social norms. Thus is born a social individual, an individual who is essentially governed by social norms.  So we are trinities of three individuals--organism, person, social individual. The latter two are constituted by the organism, but not identical to it. (Perhaps another day I'll blog about why Witt is motivated to postulate a social individual, and what it has to do with gender.)

The virtue of this constitution talk is that you get to affirm multiple, seemingly incompatible, intuitions. It's essential to us to have a first-person perspective, but it's also not. Differentiate the person and the organism, and you can say both things. It's essential to us to be responsive to social norms and it's also not.  Differentiate the social individual and the person, and you can say both things.

Wonderful. But how does all this entification really work? I'm tempted to think (at the moment) that it doesn't work.  Think about this over time.  A fetus starts developing, becomes fully developed, and comes to have a first-person perspective at time t (some time after birth).  Prior to t, there's just an organism. At t there's an organism with a first-person perspective. The organism doesn't have the FPP essentially. It existed without it prior to t. It just has it, but not essentially.  We are to believe that, also at t, a new entity comes into existence--one with different modal properties from the organism.  But--why?  Something (the organism) comes to have a new property, and has it inessentially.  That's the whole "trigger" for entification (so to speak). From what I can tell, there's just nothing here to account for the "birth" of a new entity, with different modal properties from the old one.

If entification is that easy, it's going on all the time, everywhere.  First you have a mere pumpkin. You then carve it into a Jack-O-Lantern and put it in front of your house, so that it plays a role in the Halloween tradition. It beckons children to knock on your door and say "trick or treat".  The moment all that is true is (I guess!) a moment of entification. The pumpkin doesn't just acquire the property of being a Jack-O-Lantern, but a new thing comes into being--a thing that is essentially a Jack-O-Lantern.  There is now a Jack-O-Lantern constituted by a pumpkin, not just a pumpkin.

But no (come on!) that story really makes no sense. All that happened is that the pumpkin got some new properties--it got hollowed out, acquired a face, got put outside, beckoned some trick-or-treaters. How can a thing acquiring some properties (inessentially) generate a whole new entity? And how could that new entity be one that has the new set of properties essentially?

Now, granted--if I am looking at a Jack-O-Lantern, I find it intelligible to describe it either way. I can focus on the mere pumpkin and say the face, candle, role in trick-or-treating, etc., are all inessential. I can focus on the carved pumpkin, on the other hand, and say that the package of Jack-O-Lantern features are essential. But I can't explain how can it can be that you start with a mere pumpkin (JOL features inessential), give it the JOL features, and wind up with a new entity that has the JOL features essentially.  If I take the initial entity seriously, as what really exists, I just cannot understand the recipe that gets you (out there, in reality!) from the mere pumpkin to the pumpkin that's a Jack-O-Lantern essentially -- the Jack-O-Lantern* (where an A* is an A that's essentially an A).

***


Now, constitutionalists are very happy with lumps of clay that start constituting statues* (things that are essentially statues, unlike lumps of clay), so I suppose they are going to be happy with pumpkins that start constituting Jack-O-Lanterns* (things that are essentially Jack-O-Lanterns, unlike pumpkins). But I wonder if they are really happy with all of this, as opposed to liking constitutionalism about organisms and persons, and therefore getting on board with the rest.  There may be reasons to like this story about us, beyond the reasons to like it (or dislike it) in general.

Consider the alternative (or, one alternative).  The human organism develops over time, and has the property of being a person during a certain phase of its existence, but never essentially.   Of course, on that view there are still persons.  There are just no persons*--things that are persons essentially. The property of being a person is like the property of being a child, an adult, a parent, a citizen, etc.--it can be acquired and lost during the career of a single individual.  If there are just human organisms, it's hard to avoid thinking that my organism started to exist very early on--before I was born, and maybe even very early in my mother's pregnancy. If "I" referred to a person* defined in terms of a first-person perspective, then "I was once an inch long" is false. If "I" refers to an organism, then "I was once an inch long" is true. To get the sentence to come out false, you might think it's good to separate persons and organisms.

I think the totality of linguistic data does not, however, all invite a distinction between persons and organisms.  Charlotte Witt invites us to agree that her adopted daughter Anna, who was born in Vietnam, would have been a different person if she'd been born in America. Conversely, I suppose, she thinks this is true: "I would have been a different person, if I'd been born in Vietnam."  This is naturally construed as being about a certain organism, so "I" refers to the organism involving my DNA.  For the sentence to be true, "being a person" has to be a predicate like "being poor." It says something about the attributes "my organism" would have had, if I'd been born in Vietnam, not about which entity I would be. If you thought "I" referred to a certain person*, it's at least harder to understand what the sentence is saying and how it could be true.

Then again, I'm loath to lean too much on "what we would say", since we say many very odd things about who we are or would be, under various circumstances.  A recent New York Times editorial invited us to trace our pasts back before the moment of conception. "Think about your own history. Your life as an egg actually started in your mother’s developing ovary, before she was born; you were wrapped in your mother’s fetal body as it developed within your grandmother."  We will inevitably have to throw out a lot of what we would say, if we're going to make sense of what we are.

***

Anyhow. What I want to know is how (on earth) you start with a pumpkin, just add Jack-O-Lantern properties, which are inessential to pumpkins, and wind up with a Jack-O-Lantern*. You can lay down some necessary and sufficient conditions that entail that yes indeed, it happens, but that's not necessarily an explanation. Explaining how Jack-O-Lanterns* come into existence seems impossible, really, as the supposed precipitating event--a pumpkin getting some inessential properties--just does not seem like the right sort of thing to generate the very same properties being instantiated by a new entity essentially.

11/20/12

Save me

I've become obsessed with the movie Magnolia, the soundtrack, and this song by Aimee Mann.  Enjoy!


11/17/12

Are we more than animals?

I am overwhelmingly unconvinced by an argument in Lynne Rudder Baker's book Persons and Bodies, to the effect that we are not just animals. She writes--

The argument seems to be:  (1) A human organism is just a survival machine.  In fact, all organisms are mere survival machines, "if evolutionary biology is correct" (p. 12).  But (2) a  person is more than a survival machine. Most importantly, a person has a first-person perspective--a capacity for self-awareness (etc.). So, (C) persons are not identical to human organisms.  She proposes the relationship is not identity but constitution.  I am a person constituted by an animal, like a statue is constituted by a lump of clay. Biology, then, is demoted--

Update 5:20 pm--Having now reread chapter 1 three times, I'm increasingly uncertain what the argument is. Baker says human organisms are "merely 'survival machines'" and persons are "more". What's this "more" that persons have and organisms lack? I thought it was a first person perspective.  But on second and third reading, it's not so clear what contrast she has in mind and peeking ahead in the book, I see my first interpretation may not hold up. To be continued, after I've read more of the book....

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