Friday, October 21, 2016

Storytelling in Philosophy Class

One of my regular TAs, Chris McVey, uses a lot of storytelling in his teaching. About once a week, he'll spend ten minutes sharing a personal story from his life, relevant to the class material. He'll talk about a family crisis or about his time in the U.S. Navy, connecting it back to the readings from the class.

At last weekend's meeting of the Minorities And Philosophy group at Princeton, I was thinking about what teaching techniques philosophers might use to appeal to a broader diversity of students, and "storytime with Chris" came to mind. The more I think about it, the more I find to like about it.

Here are some thoughts.

* Students are hungry for stories, and rightly so. Philosophy class is usually abstract and impersonal, or when not abstract focused on toy examples or remote issues of public policy. A good story, especially one that is personally meaningful to the teacher, leaps out and captures attention. People in general love stories and are especially ready for them after long dry abstractions and policy discussions. So why not harness that? But furthermore, storytelling gives shape and flesh to the abstract stick figures of philosophical abstraction. Most abstract principles only get their full meaning when we see how they play out in real cases. Kant might say "act on that maxim that you can will to be a universal law" or Mengzi might say "human nature is good" -- but what do such claims really amount to? Students rightly feel at sea unless they are pulled away from toy examples and into the complexity of real life. Although it's tempting to think that the real philosophical force is in the abstract principles and that storytelling is just needless frill and packaging, I think that the reverse might be closer to the truth: The heart of philosophy is in how we engage our minds when given real, messy examples, and the abstractions we derive from cases always partly miss the point.

* Personal stories vividly display the relevance of philosophy. Many -- maybe most -- students are understandably turned off by philosophy because it seems so remote from anything of practical value. What's the point, they wonder, in discussing Locke's view of primary and secondary qualities, or semi-comical far-fetched problems about runaway trolleys, or under what conditions you "know" something is a barn in Fake Barn Country? It takes a certain kind of beautiful, nerdy, impractical mind to love these questions for their own sake. Too much focus on such issues can mislead students into thinking that philosophy is irrelevant to their lives. However (I hope you'll agree), nothing is more relevant to our lives than philosophy. Every choice we make expresses our values. Every controversial opinion we form depends upon our general worldview and our implicit or explicit sense of what people or institutions or methods deserve our trust. Most students will understandably fail to see the connection between academic philosophy and the philosophy they personally live through their choices and opinions unless we vividly show how these are connected. Through storytelling, you model your struggle with Kant's hard line against lying, or with how far to trust purported scientific experts, or with your fading faith in an immaterial soul -- and students can see that philosophy is not just a Glass Bead Game.

* Personal stories shift the locus of academic capital. We might think of "academic capital" as the resources students bring to class which help them succeed. In philosophy class, important capital includes skill at reading and evaluating abstract arguments and, in class discussion, skill at working up passable pro and con arguments on the spot. Academic capital of this sort also includes knowledge of the philosophical tradition, comfort in a classroom environment, confidence that one knows how this game is played. These are terrific skills to have of course; and some students have more of them than others, or at least believe they do. Those students tend to dominate class discussion. If you tell a personally meaningful story, however, you can make a different set of skills and experiences suddenly important. Students who might have had similar stories from their own lives now have something unique to contribute. Students who are good at storytelling, students who have the social and emotional intelligence to evaluate what might have really happened in your family fight, students with cultural knowledge of the kind of situation you describe -- they now have some of the capital. And they might be a very different group from the ones who are so good at the argumentative pro-and-con. In my experience, good philosophical storytelling engages and draws out discussion from a larger and more diverse group of students than does abstract argument and toy example.

If philosophers were more serious about engaged, personal storytelling in class, we would I think have a different and broader range of students who loved our courses and appreciated the importance and interest of our discipline.

[image source]

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

My Daughter's Rented Eyes

(inspired by a conversation with Cory Doctorow about how a kid's high-tech rented eyes might be turned toward favored products in the cereal aisle)

At two million dollars outright, of course I couldn't afford to buy eyes for my four-year-old daughter Eva. So, like everyone else whose kids had been blinded by the GuGuBoo Toy company's defective dolls (may its executives rot in bankruptcy Hell), I rented the eyes. What else could I possibly do?

Unlike some parents, I actually read the Eye & Ear Company's contract. So I knew part of what we were in for. If we didn't make the monthly payments, her eyes would shut off. We agreed to binding arbitration. We agreed to a debt-priority clause, to financial liability for eye extraction, to automatic updates. We agreed that from time to time the saccade patterns of her eyes would be subtly adjusted so that her gaze would linger over advertisements from companies that partnered with Eye & Ear Co. We agreed that in the supermarket, Eva's eyes would be gently maneuvered toward the Froot Loops and the M&Ms.

When the updates came in, we always had the legal right to refuse them. We could, hypothetically, turn off Eva's eyes, then have them surgically removed and returned to Eye & Ear Co. Each new rental contract was thus technically voluntary.

When Eva was seven, the new updater threatened shutoff unless we transferred $1000 into a debit account. Her updated eyes contained new software to detect any copyrighted text or images she might see. Instead of buying copyrighted works in the usual way, we agreed to have a small fee deducted from our account for each work Eva viewed. Instead of paying $4.99 for the digital copy of a Dr Seuss book, Eye & Ear would deduct $0.50 each time she read the book. Video games might be free with ads, or $0.05 per play, or $0.10, or even $1.00. Since our finances were tight, we set up parental controls: Eva's eyes required parental permission for any charge over $0.99 or any cumulative charges over $5.00 in a day -- and of course they also blocked any "adult" material. Until we granted approval, blocked or unpaid material was blurred and indecipherable, even if she was just peeking over someone's shoulder at a book or walking past a television in a dentist's lobby.

When Eva was ten, the updater overlaid advertisements in her visual field. It helped keep the rental costs down. (We could have bought out of the ads for an extra $6,000 a year.) The ads never interfered much with Eva's vision -- they just kind of scrolled across the top of her visual field sometimes, Eva told us, or printed themselves onto clouds and the sides of buildings.

By the time Eva was thirteen, I'd finally risen to a managerial position at work, and we could afford the new luxury eyes for her. By adjusting the settings, Eva could see infrared at night. She could zoom in on distant objects. She could bug out her eyes and point them in different directions like some sort of weird animal, to take in a broader field of view. She could also take snapshots and later retrieve them with a subvocalization -- which gave her a great advantage at school over her normal-eyed and cheaper-eyed peers. Installed software could text-search through stored snapshots, solve mathematical equations, and pull relevant information from the internet. When teachers tried to ban such enhancements from the classroom, Eye & Ear fought back, arguing that the technology had become so integral to the children's lives that it couldn't be removed without disabling them. Eye & Ear refused to develop the technology to turn off the enhancement features, and no teacher could realistically prevent a kid from blinking and subvocalizing.

By the time Eva was seventeen it looked like she and the two other kids at her high school with luxury eye rentals would more or less have their choice among elite universities. I refused to believe the rumors about parents intentionally blinding their children so that they too could rent eyes.

When Eva turned twenty, all the updates -- not just the cheap ones -- required that you accept the "acceleration" technology. Companies contracted with Eye & Ear to privilege their messages and materials for faster visual processing. Pepsi paid a hundred million dollars a year so that users' eyes would prioritize resolving Pepsi cans and Pepsi symbols in the visual scene. Coca Cola cans and symbols were "deprioritized" and stayed blurry unless you focused on them for a few seconds. Loading stored images worked similarly. A remembered scene with a Pepsi bottle in it would load almost instantly. One with a Coke bottle would take longer and might start out fuzzy or fragmented.

Eye & Ear started to make glasses for the rest of us, which imitated some of the functions of the implants. Of course they were incredibly useful. Who wouldn't want to take snapshots, see in the dark, zoom into the distance, get internet search and tagging? We all rented whatever versions we could afford, signed the annual terms and conditions, received the updates. We wore them pretty much all day, even in the shower. The glasses beeped alarmingly whenever you took them off, unless you went through a complex shutdown sequence.

When the "Johnson for President" campaign bought an acceleration, the issue went all the way to the Supreme Court. Johnson's campaign had paid Eye & Ear to prioritize the perception of his face and deprioritize the perception of his opponent's face, prioritize the visual resolution and recall of his ads, deprioritize the resolution and recall of his opponent's ads. Eva was now a high-powered lawyer in a New York firm, on the fast track toward partner. She worked for the Johnson campaign, though I wouldn't have thought it was like her. Johnson was so authoritarian, shrill, and right-wing -- or at least it seemed so to me, when I took my glasses off.

Johnson favored immigration restrictions, and his opponent claimed (but never proved) that Eye & Ear implemented an algorithm that highlighted people's differences in skin tone -- making the lights a little lighter, the darks a little darker, the East Asians a bit yellow. Johnson won narrowly, before his opponent's suit about the acceleration had made it through the appeals process. It didn't hit the high court until a month after Johnson's inauguration. Eva helped prepare Johnson's defense. Eight of the nine justices were over eighty years old. They lived stretched lives with enhanced longevity and of course all the best implants. They heard the case through the very best ears.


Related post:

Possible Cognitive and Cultural Effects of Video Lifelogging (Apr 21, 2016)


Image source:

Photo: HAL 9000 resurrected by Ram Yoga, doubled.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

French, German, Greek, Latin, but Not Arabic, Chinese, or Sanskrit?

[cross-posted at the Blog of the APA]

When I was graduate student in Berkeley in the 1990s, philosophy PhD students were required to pass exams in two of the following four languages: French, German, Greek, or Latin. I already knew German. I argued that Spanish should count (I had read Unamuno in the original as an undergrad), but my petition was denied since I didn’t plan to do further work in Spanish. I argued that a psychological methods course would be more useful than a second foreign language, given that my dissertation was in philosophy of psychology, but that was not treated as a serious suggestion. I'd learned some classical Chinese, but I thought it would be pointless to attempt 600 characters in two hours as required (much more daunting than 600 words in a European language). So I crammed French for a few weeks and passed the exam.

I have recently become interested in mainstream Anglophone philosophers’ tendency to privilege certain languages and traditions in the history of philosophy. If we think globally, considering large, robust traditions of written work treating recognizably philosophical topics with argumentative sophistication and scholarly detail, it seems clear that at least Arabic, classical Chinese, and Sanskrit merit inclusion alongside French, German, Greek, and Latin as languages of major philosophical importance.

The exclusion of Arabic, Chinese, and Sanskrit from Berkeley’s standard language requirements could not, I think, have been mere ignorance. Rather, the focus on French, German, Greek, and Latin appeared to express a value judgment: that these four languages are more central to philosophy as it ought to be studied.

The language requirements of philosophy PhD programs have loosened over the years, but French, German, Latin, and Greek still form the core language requirements in departments that have language requirements. Students therefore continue to receive the message that these languages are the most important ones for philosophers to know.

I examined the language requirements of a sample of PhD programs in the United States. Because of their sociological importance in the discipline, I started with the top twelve ranked programs in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. I then expanded the sample by considering a group of strong PhD programs that are not as sociologically central to the discipline – the programs ranked 40-50 in the U.S.

Among the top twelve programs (corrections welcome):

* Four appeared to have no foreign language requirement (Michigan, NYU, Rutgers, Stanford).

* Seven (Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, Pitt, UCLA, USC, Yale) had some version of a language requirement, requiring one of French, German, Greek or Latin -- always exactly that list. Some programs explicitly allowed another language and/or another relevant research skill by petition or consultation.

* Only Princeton had a language requirement that did not appear to privilege French, German, Greek, and Latin. Princeton only requires a language “relevant to the student’s proposed course of study” (or alternatively “a unit of advanced work in another department” or “completion of an additional unit of work in any area of philosophy”).

You might think that, practically speaking, Arabic or classical Chinese would be a fine language to choose. Students can always petition; maybe such petitions are almost always granted. This response, however, ignores the fact that something is communicated by other languages’ non-inclusion on the privileged list. For a tendentious comparison – maybe too tendentious! – consider an admissions form that said “we admit men, but also women by petition”. One thing is treated as a norm and the other as an exception.

Interestingly, the PhD programs ranked less highly by the Philosophical Gourmet had more relaxed language requirements overall. In the 40-50 group, only two of the eleven mentioned a language requirement or list of languages. Still, the privileged languages were from the same set: “French, German, or other” at Saint Louis University, and optional certification in French, German, Greek, or Latin at Rochester.

I do not believe that we should be sending students the message that French, German, Greek, and Latin are more important than other languages in which there is a body of interesting philosophical work. It is too Eurocentric a vision of the history of philosophy. Let’s change this.


Related Op-Eds:

What’s missing in college philosophy classes? Chinese philosophers (Schwitzgebel, Los Angeles Times, Sep 11, 2015)

If philosophy won’t diversify, let’s call it what it really is (Garfield and Van Norden, New York Times, May 11, 2016)

And on the opposite side:

Not all things wise and good are philosophy (Tampio, Aeon, Sep 13, 2016)

The image is, of course, from the Epic Rap Battle, Eastern vs Western Philosophers!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

New Essay in Draft: The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief

Available here.

As always, comments and criticisms welcome, either by email to my address or in the comments section on this post.


Suppose someone intellectually assents to a proposition but fails to act and react generally as though that proposition is true. Does she believe the proposition? Intellectualist approaches will say she does believe it. They align belief with sincere, reflective judgment, downplaying the importance of habitual, spontaneous reaction and unreflective assumption. Broad-based approaches, which do not privilege the intellectual and reflective over the spontaneous and habitual in matters of belief, will refrain from ascribing belief or treat it as an intermediate case. Both views are viable, so it is open to us to choose which view to prefer on pragmatic grounds. I argue that since “belief” is a term of central importance in philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, and epistemology, we should use it to label most important phenomenon in the vicinity that can plausibly answer to it. The most important phenomenon in the vicinity is not our patterns of intellectual endorsement but rather our overall lived patterns of action and reaction. Too intellectualist a view risks hiding the importance of lived behavior, especially when that behavior does not match our ideals and self-conception, inviting us to noxiously comfortable views of ourselves.

The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief (in draft)

(I'll be giving a version of this paper as talk at USC on Friday, by the way.)

Related Posts:

On Being Blameworthy for Unwelcome Thoughts, Reactions, and Biases (Mar 19, 2015)

Against Intellectualism about Belief (Jul 31, 2015)

Pragmatic Metaphysics (Feb 11, 2016)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Cory Doctorow Speaking at UC Riverside: "1998 Called, and It Wants Its Stupid Internet Laws Back"

Come one, come all! (Well, for certain smallish values of "all".)

Cory Doctorow

"1998 Called, and It Wants Its Stupid Internet Laws Back"

Wednesday, September 28, 2016
INTS 1113

The topic will be digital rights management and companies' increasing tendency not to give us full control over the devices that matter to us, so that the the devices can "legitimately" (?) thwart us when we give them orders contrary to the manufacturers' interests.

The Jerk Quiz: New York City Edition

Now that my Jerk Quiz has been picked up by The Sun and The Daily Mail, I've finally hit the big time! I'm definitely listing these as "reprints" on my c.v.

Philosopher James DiGiovanna suggested to me that the existing Jerk Quiz might not be valid in New York City, so I suggested he draw up a NYC version. Here's the result!

New York City Jerk Test

by James DiGiovanna

1. You have a fifteen-minute break from work, a desperate need for a cigarette, and a seven-minute-each-way walk to the bank on a very crowded sidewalk. Do you:
(a) Calmly walk the 14-minute round-trip handling the cigarette cravings by reminding yourself that you only have a scant 7 more hours of work, a 49-minute commute on the crowded and probably non-functional F train, and then a brief walk through throngs of NYU students before you can reach your undersized apartment for a pleasant 4 minutes of smoking.
(b) Curse the existence of each probably mindless drone who stands between you and your goal.
(c) Find a narrow space just off the main thoroughfare and enjoy 5 quick drags meant to burn your entire cigarette down to the filter in under 30 seconds.
(d) Light up a cigarette as you walk, unconsciously assuming that others can dodge the flaming end and/or enjoy the smoking effluvia as they see fit, if indeed they have minds that can see anything at all.

2. You are waiting at the bodega to buy one measly cup of coffee, one of the few pleasures allowed to you in a world where the last tree is dying somewhere in what was probably a forest before Reagan was elected. However, there is a long line, including someone directly in front of you who is preparing to write a check in spite of the fact that this is the 21st century. You accidentally step on this person’s toe, causing him or her to move to the side yelping in pain. Do you:
(a) Apologize profusely.
(b) Offer the standard, “pardon me!” while wondering why check-writers were allowed to reproduce and create check-writing offspring at this late point in history.
(c) Say nothing, holding your precious place in line against the unhygienic swarm of lower lifeforms.
(d) Consider this foe vanquished and proceed to take his or her place as you march relentlessly towards the cashier.

3. You are in hell (midtown near Times Square) where an Eastern Hemisphere tourist unknowingly drops a wallet, and an elderly woman wanders out in front of a runaway hot dog stand, risking severe cholesterol and death. Do you:
(a) Shout to the Foreign Person while rushing to rescue the elderly woman.
(b) Ignore the neocolonialist tourist and his or her justifiable loss of money earned by exploiting the third world and attempt to save the woman because, my God, that could be you and/or your non-gender-specific life partner someday.
(c) Continue on your way because you have things to do.
(d) Yell so that others will see that there is a woman about to be hotdog-carted, assuming this will distract the crowd from the dropped wallet, making it easier for you to take it and run.

4. You have been waiting for the A train for 300 New York Minutes (i.e. five minutes in flyover state time.) Finally, it arrives, far too crowded to accept even a single additional passenger. Do you:
(a) Step out of the way so others can exit, and allow those on the platform in front of you to enter the train, and then, if and only if there is ample room to enter without compressing other persons, do you board the train.
(b) Wait calmly, because when his happens, 9 times out of 10 an empty train is 1 minute behind.
(c) Mindlessly join the throngs of demi-humans desperately hoping to push their way into the car.
(d) Slide along the outside of the car to the spot just adjacent the door, then slip in the narrow space made when a person who is clearly intending to get back in the car stepped off to make way for someone who was disembarking to pass.

5. It is a typical winter day in New York, meaning at the end of each sidewalk is a semi-frozen slush puddle of indeterminate depth. Perhaps it is barely deep enough to wet your boots, perhaps it drains directly into a C.H.U.D. settlement. You see a family, the father carrying a map and wearing a fanny pack, the mother holding a guide which say “Fodors New York för Nordmen,” the blindingly white children staring for the first time at buildings that are not part of a system of social welfare and frost. They absentlly march towards the end of the sidewalk, eyes raised towards New York’s imposing architecture, about to step into what could be their final ice bath. Do you:
(a) Yell at them to stop while you check the depth of the puddle for them.
(b) Block their passage and point to a shallower point of egress.
(c) Watch in amusement as they test the puddle depth for you.
(d) Push them into the puddle and use their frozen bodies as a bridge to freedom.


(I interpret James's quiz as a commentary on how difficult it is, even for characterological non-jerks, to avoid jerk-like behaviors or thoughts in that kind of urban context.)

For more on Jerks see:

A Theory of Jerks

How to Tell If You're A Jerk

Friday, September 23, 2016

Call for Abstracts: Workshop in Graz on Dissonance and Implicit Bias

I'll be presenting at the following workshop. There's a call for abstracts. Submit something and let's chat!

4th Fragmentation Workshop: Dissonance and Implicit Bias

Graz, 25-26 May 2017

The 4th Fragmentation Workshop: Dissonance and Implicit Bias is organized by the research project The Fragmented Mind and will take place at the University of Graz, Austria, on May 25-26, 2017. We welcome submissions of anonymized abstracts of 500–1000 words for 45 minutes presentations on any of the workshop topics — see below — made by December 15, 2016 at

Keynote speakers:
• Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside)
• Jules Holroyd (Sheffield)

It is highly disputed what the psychological underpinnings of assertion-behavior dissonance and implicit bias are. Under some interpretations, these are special cases of belief fragmentation, i.e., the view that a single agent has various separate systems of belief, which need not make for a consistent and deductively closed overall system. Under other interpretations, dissonance does not represent a state of fragmentation nor does implicit bias involve the presence of conflicting beliefs.

The objective of this workshop is to explore the adequacy and limitations of the notion of fragmentation (as advanced, for example, by Davidson, Lewis, Stalnaker, and Rayo), when applied to cases of dissonance and implicit bias.

(Non-exhaustive) list of topics:
• What are the psychological underpinnings of assertion-behavior dissonance?
• What are the psychological underpinnings of implicit bias?
• Are dissonance and implicit bias overlapping phenomena?
• Does fragmentation help explaining cases of assertion-behavior dissonance?
• Does fragmentation help explaining implicit bias?

Submission format:
Submissions of anonymous abstracts of 500-1000 words (excluding bibliography), prepared for anonymous peer-review, should be sent to by December 15, 2016. Abstracts should be submitted in pdf format, in English.

Authors will be notified of decisions by January 31, 2017. Please indicate the title of your paper in your email.

Some support for travel and accommodation might be available.

Organizers: Cristina Borgoni, Dirk Kindermann, Andrea Onofri


Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Jerk Quiz

Take this simple quiz to figure out if you're a jerk!

(George Musser and the folks at Nautilus thought it would be fun to have a quiz alongside my essay "How To Tell If You're a Jerk", but we didn't quite pull it off before release of the issue.)

The Jerk Quiz

1. You're waiting in a line at the pharmacy. What are you thinking?
(a) Did I forget anything on my shopping list?
(b) Should I get ibuprofen or acetaminophen? I never can keep them straight.
(c) Oh no, I'm so sorry, I didn’t mean to bump you.
(d) These people are so damned incompetent! Why do I have to waste my time with these fools?

2. At the staff meeting, Peter says that your proposal probably won't work. You think:
(a) Hm, good point but I bet I could fix that.
(b) Oh, Loretta is smiling at Peter again. I guess she agrees with him and not me, darn it. But I still think my proposal is probably better than his.
(c) Shoot, Peter's right. I should have thought of that!
(d) Peter the big flaming ass. He's playing for the raise. And all the other idiots here are just eating it up!

3. You see a thirty-year-old guy walking down the street with steampunk goggles, pink hair, dirty sneakers, and badly applied red lipstick. You think:
(a) Different strokes for different folks!
(b) Hey, is that a new donut shop on the corner?
(c) I wish I were that brave. I bet he knows how to have fun.
(d) Get a job already. And at least learn how to apply the frickin lipstick.

4. At a stop sign, a pedestrian is crossing slowly in front of your car. You think:
(a) Wow, this tune on my radio has a fun little beat!
(b) My boss will have my hide if I'm late again. Why did I hit snooze three times?
(c) She looks like she's seen a few hard knocks. I bet she has a story or two to tell.
(d) Can't this bozo walk any faster? What a lazy slob!

5. The server at the restaurant forgets that you ordered the hamburger with chili. There's the burger on the table before you, with no chili. You think:
(a) Whatever. I'll get the chili next time. Fewer calories anyway.
(b) Shoot, no chili. I really love chili on a burger! Argh, let's get this fixed. I'm hungry!
(c) Wow, how crowded this place is. She looks totally slammed. I'll try catch her to fix the order next time she swings by.
(d) You know, there's a reason that people like her are stuck in loser jobs like this. If I was running this place I'd fire her so fast you'd hear the sonic boom two miles down the street.

How many times did you answer (d)?

0: Sorry, I don't believe you.

1-2: Yeah, fair enough. Same with the rest of us.

3-4: Ouch. Is this really how you see things most of the time? I hope you're just being too hard on yourself.

5: Yes, you are being too hard on yourself. Either that, or please step forward for the true-blue jerk gold medal!

(As my scoring system suggests, this quiz is for entertainment and illustration purposes only. I don't take it seriously as a diagnostic measure!)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

How to Tell If You're a Jerk

[excerpted from my new essay in Nautilus]

Here’s something you probably didn’t do this morning: Look in the mirror and ask, am I a jerk?

It seems like a reasonable question. There are, presumably, genuine jerks in the world. And many of those jerks, presumably, have a pretty high moral opinion of themselves, or at least a moderate opinion of themselves. They don’t think of themselves as jerks, because jerk self-knowledge is hard to come by.

Psychologist Simine Vazire at the University of California, Davis argues that we tend to have good self-knowledge of our own traits when those traits are both evaluatively neutral (in the sense that it’s not especially good or bad to have those traits), and straightforwardly observable.

For example, people tend to know whether they are talkative. It’s more or less okay to be talkative and more or less okay to be quiet, and in any case your degree of talkativeness is pretty much out there for everyone to see. Self-ratings of talkativeness tend to correlate fairly well with peer ratings and objective measures. Creativity, on the other hand, is a much more evaluatively loaded trait—who doesn’t want to think of themselves as creative?—and much less straightforward to assess. In keeping with Vazire’s model, we find poor correlations among self-ratings, peer ratings, and psychologists’ attempts at objective measures of creativity.

The question “am I really, truly a self-important jerk?” is highly evaluatively loaded, so you will be highly motivated to reach a favored answer: “No, of course not!” Being a jerk is also not straightforwardly observable, so you will have plenty of room to reinterpret evidence to suit: “Sure, maybe I was a little grumpy with that cashier, but she deserved it for forgetting to put my double shot in a tall cup.”

Academically intelligent people, by the way, aren’t immune to motivated reasoning. On the contrary, recent research by Dan M. Kahan of Yale University suggests that reflective and educated people might be especially skilled at rationalizing their preexisting beliefs—for example, interpreting complicated evidence about gun control in a manner that fits their political preferences.

I suspect there is a zero correlation between people’s self-opinion about their degree of jerkitude and their true overall degree of jerkitude. Some recalcitrant jerks might recognize that they are so, but others might think themselves quite dandy. Some genuine sweethearts might fully recognize how sweet they are, while others might have far too low an opinion of their own moral character.

There’s another obstacle to jerk self-knowledge, too: We don’t yet have a good understanding of the essence of jerkitude—not yet, at least. There is no official scientific designation that matches the full range of ordinary application of the term “jerk” to the guy who rudely cuts you off in line, the teacher who casually humiliates the students, and the co-worker who turns every staff meeting into a battle.

The scientifically recognized personality categories closest to “jerk” are the “dark triad” of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathic personality. Narcissists regard themselves as more important than the people around them, which jerks also implicitly or explicitly do. And yet narcissism is not quite jerkitude, since it also involves a desire to be the center of attention, a desire that jerks don’t always have. Machiavellian personalities tend to treat people as tools they can exploit for their own ends, which jerks also do. And yet this too is not quite jerkitude, since Machivellianism involves self-conscious cynicism, while jerks can often be ignorant of their self-serving tendencies. People with psychopathic personalities are selfish and callous, as is the jerk, but they also incline toward impulsive risk-taking, while jerks can be calculating and risk-averse.

Another related concept is the concept of the asshole, as explored recently by the philosopher Aaron James of the University of California, Irvine. On James’s theory, assholes are people who allow themselves to enjoy special advantages over others out of an entrenched sense of entitlement. Although this is closely related to jerkitude, again it’s not quite the same thing. One can be a jerk through arrogant and insulting behavior even if one helps oneself to no special advantages.

Given the many roadblocks standing in the way, what is a potential jerk interested in self-evaluation to do?

Find out what to do by continuing here.


Coming soon: The Jerk Quiz!

Related essay: A Theory of Jerks (Aeon Magazine, Jun 4, 2014).

[image source: Paul Sableman, creative commons]

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Momentary Man

Momentary Man has all the moral virtues. He is a man of exceptional character! He is courageous, kind, fair, open-minded, creative, honest, generous, wise, sympathetic, a good listener. He is gently self-deprecating, witty, a pleasure to be around. He has an egalitarian spirit, free of racist, sexist, classist, and ableist inclinations; he is ready to see and appreciate people for who they are in all their wondrous individuality.

He exists for exactly two seconds.

He was created by a magical act of God, or as a briefly existing future artificial intelligence, or through freak quantum accident. He thinks to himself, "Wow, it's great to be alive!" and then, as suddenly as he came into existence, he is swallowed by void.

What is it to be courageous, after all? Arguably, it's not a matter of actually doing courageous things all the time but rather a matter of being disposed or ready to do courageous things, if the situation calls for it. If danger presented itself, the courageous person would be undaunted, take the risk, face down her fears. To be courageous is not to always be acting courageously; rather it is to be prepared to act courageously if necessary. Of course we all have sufficiently complex lives that courageous action is sometimes required, and then our courage (or lack thereof) manifests itself. But the trait of being courageous, or not, was there or not there in the background of our personalities all along.

Arguably, kindness too, and open-mindedness, and all the rest, are dispositional traits. Virtues concern how you would tend in general to act in the relevant range of circumstances. If so, then Momentary Man can have all the traits I've ascribed to him, even if no situation ever arises in his life that draws out the associated actions.

Two questions:

First, does this merely dispositional approach to virtue seem right? Or do virtuous personality traits require actual manifestation in concrete action to be present in someone? Part of me wants to insist that some concrete action is required for the genuine presence of virtue. One cannot be an extravert on a desert island, no matter how much one would be the life of the party if only there were a party. Momentary Man has no virtues. But then "dispositional" approaches to personality (of the sort I favor) require clarification or modification.

A different part of me wants to say no, Momentary Man does have all these virtues; it's just a shame he cannot exist longer to manifest them.

Second, suppose that Momentary Man does indeed have all these virtues. Is the universe better for Momentary Man's having briefly existed? Is there some intrinsic value in the presence of even unexercised virtue? Or would the world have been just as good without him, or with a vicious version of him (cruel, obnoxious, greedy) who had the same two seconds of conscious experience before blinking out?

Here my inclination is to think the world is richer and better for Momentary Man's having existed. There's something wonderful about his configuration, his potentiality, even if none of his virtues are ever exercised. And if he is brief, well, so are we all.

[Cropped image from from image source]

Friday, September 09, 2016

Whirlwind Tour of New York City in October

Since I'm on vacation -- um, I mean sabbatical -- this term, I'm planning to relax by going to New York in October.

  • Oct 13, Columbia University, Society for Comparative Philosophy: "Death and Self in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi"
  • Oct 14-15, New York University, Conference on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence: "The Rights of Artificial Intelligences" (with Mara Garza)
  • Oct 16, Princeton University, Minorities And Philosophy mini-conference: "Encouraging Diversity in the Philosophy Classroom"
  • Oct 17-18 New York University and City University of New York guest visits to classes, one on belief and one on science fiction and philosophy
  • Maybe I can see some of you at one or more of these events. The Comparative Philosophy and Ethics of AI events are open to the public; probably also the Princeton MAP conference (though check); presumably the classes are not open. The Ethics of AI conference promises to be fairly large, with advance registration if you pay (free registration if you're willing to risk not getting a seat).

    Yes, talking about Chinese philosophy, robot rights, implicit bias in the classroom, science fiction, and the nature of mental states is what I want to do on my vacation.

    (Where I'm not going for my vacation.)

    Also this fall:

  • Sep 16, Florida State: "The Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors"
  • Sep 30, USC: "The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief"
  • Oct 25, UCLA, Marschak Colloquium: "The Rights of Artificial Intelligences" (with Mara Garza)
  • Nov 2, Occidental College: "Death and Self in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi"
  • [image source]

    Thursday, September 08, 2016

    How Often Do Mainstream Anglophone Philosophers Cite Non-Anglophone Sources?

    Spoiler Alert: Not much!

    I estimate that 97% of citations in the most prestigious English-language philosophy journals are to works originally written in English. In other words, the entire history of philosophy not written in English (Plato, Confucius, Ibn Rushd, Descartes, Wang Yangming, Kant, Frege, Wittgenstein, Foucault, etc., on into the 21st century) is referenced in only 3% of the citations in leading Anglophone philosophy journals.

    Let me walk you through the process by which I came to these numbers, then give you some breakdowns.

    I examined the latest available issue of twelve highly regarded Anglophone philosophy journals (the top 12 from Brian Leiter's 2013 poll results). [Note 1] From each issue, I analyzed only the main research articles in that issue (not reviews, discussion notes, comments, symposia, etc.). This generated a target list of 93 articles -- hopefully enough to constitute a fair representation of citation practices.

    I then downloaded the reference section of each of those 93 articles, or for articles with footnotes instead of a reference section, I hand-coded the footnotes. I included only actual references to specific works. For example, the word "Kantian" would not qualify as a reference to Kant unless a specific work of Kant's is cited. For each cited work I noted its original publication year and original publication language. [Note 2]

    This generated a list of 3566 total citations to examine.

    Of the 3566 citations included in my analysis, only 90 (3%) were citations of works not originally written in English. Sixty-eight of the 93 analyzed articles (73%) cited no works that had not originally been written in English. Eleven (12%) cited exactly one non-English work, either in its original language or in English translation. Fourteen (15%) cited at least two works originally published in a language other than English. The only source languages other than English were ancient Greek, Latin, German, French, and Italian. No African, Arabic, Chinese, Indian, or Spanish-language works were cited in this sample.

    Sometime after World War Two, English became the common language of most scholarship intended for an international audience, even when the writer's native language is not English. English-language articles citing only recent sources might therefore be expected to cite almost exclusively English-language sources. With this idea in mind, I divided the data into four time periods: ancient through 1849, 1850-1945, 1946-1999, and 2000-present.

    The breakdown:

  • Ancient through 1849: 51/63 (81%) non-English
  • 1850-1945: 30/91 (33%) non-English
  • 1946-1999: 8/1236 (1%) non-English
  • 2000-present: 1/2166 (0%) non-English
  • Obviously, there's a huge skew toward more recent work -- but even in the 1850-1945 category two-thirds of the citations in this sample are to works originally written in English.

    In my own writing, I also cite mostly English-language works. It's the tradition I operate in, and although I have some reading practice in French, Spanish, German, and classical Chinese, untranslated works are always a struggle. I don't intend to be too judgmental or blaming. But it does seem likely that the Anglophone philosophical tradition would benefit from more engagement with works not originally written in English.


    Note 1: The 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, and Philosophy & Public Affairs. This list has surface plausibility as a list of the best-regarded journals in mainstream Anglophone philosophy. Philosophers Imprint publishes rarely and sporadically, so I just used all of 2016 up to Sep 7.

    Note 2: In some cases only the date of a recent edition was listed. In these cases I estimated publication year based on my knowledge of the history of philosophy. In some cases, only the English-language title was given -- and again I estimated the original language based on my knowledge of the history of philosophy. It is possible that I misclassified a few works in this way. However, for the estimate to rise to 3.5%, I would have to have misclassified 35 non-English works as English, which I believe is unlikely. (By the way, for these purposes, Web of Science is full of relevant mistakes. This more labor-intensive approach yields much cleaner results.)


    Related Posts:

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

    The Ghettoization of Nietzsche (Aug 23, 2012)


    [image source]

    Tuesday, August 30, 2016

    Direction and Misdirection in the First Sentence of a Story

    Story writers love first sentences. Probably more time goes into crafting first sentences than any other sentence, even the last. Already in the first few words the author is conveying tone, style, and mood, and usually also making a start on character, setting, and theme. That's a lot to do! The reader is already absorbing all of these things. Of course one must start on the right path.

    What about plot? You might think plot is the one major story element the first sentence doesn't need to establish. Plot is necessarily spread across the story -- a matter of how things change away from what is established the first sentence. Except in unusual cases, you might think, the outcome of the story isn't already there to be seen in the first sentence.

    Aliette de Bodard, Ann Leckie, Cati Porter, Rachel Swirsky, and I decided to try an experiment: Guess the plots of five new stories based on the first sentence alone. We chose the stories from July’s issue of Lightspeed Magazine. Although it seems impossible to fully guess the plot from the first sentence (else where would the suspense be?), to the extent the first sentence already sets up the plot, our guesses might not be entirely off target.

    Here are the five stories and their first sentences:

    1. "Magnifica Angelica Superable" by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz:

    A woman from the street came in laughing from the cold.

    2. "The One Who Isn't" by Ted Kosmatka:

    It starts with light.

    3. "Some Pebbles in the Palm" by Kenneth Schneyer:

    Once upon a time, there was a man who was born, who lived, and who died.

    4. "5x5" by Jilly Dreadful:

    Sugarloaf Fine Sciences Summer Camp
    Bunk Note: Cabin Lamarr

    Dear Scully,
    I should've been suspicious of the girl in the lab coat offering me psychic ice cream.

    5. "The Child Support of Cromdor the Condemned" by Spencer Ellsworth:

    Cromdor the Caldernian, thrice-condemned, (I've forgotten the rest, but believe you me, there is thrice more) had nearly finished his tale when the traveler slipped in.

    The details of our guesses are here, here, here, here, and here.

    At the end of the exercise, I was struck by three main things about these first sentences.

    First: As expected, all the first sentences do set up a tone, style, and mood (1 is spunky, 2 is serious and straight, 3 is metafictional and preachy, 4 and 5 are lighthearted and funny). Character, setting, and theme are also off to a clear start in most. In 1, 4, and 5, Angelica, the girl in the lab coat, and Cromdor are starting to take shape. In 2, 4, and 5, we begin to see the lit but undefined space, the summer camp, the epic fantasy world. Sentences 1, 2, and 3 open the themes of responding to adversity, of beginnings, of life cycles. Most have hooks: The "psychic ice cream" of 4 is a great tease. In 5, the author has so efficiently sketched setting and character that already by the end of the first sentence, I'm wondering how the traveler will disrupt things. In 3, I'm intrigued by the strange abstractness.

    Second: Somewhat to my surprise we actually weren't too bad at guessing plot. That doesn't mean we were good, but usually at least one of the five of us seemed already to have been able to guess something of the arc of the story. Story 2 would be a creation story with metaphysical themes and a dark ending. Story 4 would focus on the deepening relationship of the narrator and Scully. Story 5 would be about an old warrior's past family catching up with him.

    Third: Most of these stories also have a bit of misdirection in the first sentence. This is clearest in Story 4: We all thought the "psychic ice cream" would be important to the plot -- but it wasn't. It launches us, and it works great for hook, tone, character, and setting, but the plot doesn't turn on it. In Story 5, we thought the three condemnations of Cromdor would be important, but again though it helps efficiently set character, setting, and tone, it doesn't matter to plot in the way we had guessed. In Story 1, where Angelica came in to doesn't matter as much as we'd thought.

    So I wonder about this misdirection. It is a feature or a bug?

    I want to say feature. These are good stories, in a top magazine. I liked them all, and they all stood up to close rereading. Why would the author misdirect us? Maybe it prevents us from too fully guessing what's coming, keeping the surprise, keeping us on our toes. Maybe it also makes the worlds richer, suggesting elements unmentioned or unexplored, pointing outside the frame of a story that might otherwise be too tidy.

    So now I'm curious -- do famous, classic SF stories also tend to have this oblique entry or partial misdirection in the first sentence? I've arbitrarily chosen four personal favorites that are widely celebrated. Before this exercise, and up to this point in writing this post, I had no memory of exactly how these four stories began. As of now, the outcome is as much a mystery to me as to you.

    So... here goes:

    "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes:

    Progris riport 1 -- martch 5 1965

    Mr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing that happins to me from now on.

    "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin:

    With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea.

    "The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu:

    One of my earliest memories starts with me sobbing.

    "Bloodchild" by Octavia Butler:

    My last night of childhood began with a visit home.

    Hm! I'd say almost no misdirection in these first sentences. "Flowers for Algernon" is of course the tragic story of a psychological experiment in which a man with low IQ is given an intelligence enhancement. "Omelas" is the story of people refusing to live in a beautiful city built on a terrible crime. "Paper Menagerie" is the sad story of a boy alienated from his mother's culture, failing to appreciate her magic. "Bloodchild" is about a parasitic alien species using human boys as hosts. The first sentences of these famous stories are tightly focused on theme, setting, and entry into the plot, taking us right there without misdirection.

    The sample is too small. I am going to have to read more, with this issue in mind. Of course, there is more than one way for a story to work. Maybe I've chosen stories with a driving philosophical point, rather than with looser arcs, just because that is my taste....

    ETA: As Ann Leckie suggests, another possibility is that the misdirection is less obvious to me in the four classic stories because I already knew how they would go and wasn't on the hook for a first guess.

    [image source]

    Wednesday, August 24, 2016

    How to Diversify Philosophy: Two Thoughts and a Plea for More Suggestions

    Academic philosophy in the U.S. has diversity problem.

    On October 16 I'll be speaking about this at a MAP (Minorities And Philosophy) conference in Princeton. I'd like to toss some thoughts out there and solicit your suggestions.

    Most of my previous work on these issues has focused on documenting disproportion. Compared to other academic disciplines in the U.S., philosophy is disproportionately white, male, and Anglophone. Plausibly, but not as well documented, its students are also disproportionately upper- and upper-middle class. Disabled people might also be underrepresented in philosophy compared to other fields (as well as compared to the population as a whole).

    For October's talk, I want to discuss remedies. I'd like to suggest a few specific, concrete things that university philosophy instructors can do; and I'd like those specific, concrete things to target the situation in academic philosophy in particular.

    Here are my two favorite ideas so far:

    (1.) Encourage very-small-group discussion in the middle of class. (This sounds boring, but humor me for a few hundred words, because really it's magic!) Here's how to do it. Pause for 5-10 minutes in the middle of class. Have the students divide into groups of exactly 3 or 4 (not 2, not 5), and have them discuss one particular question from the lecture. To motivate discussion, require them to produce a simple written document, to be graded pass/fail. (For example, have each group produce what they think is the best consideration in favor of position P and the best consideration against position P.) Wander around during these 5-10 minutes, prodding groups that don't seem to be on task. Finally, reconvene and then have groups summarize the conclusions they came to.

    I find that this exercise produces a pleasantly loud classroom, and that afterward a much broader range of people are willing to contribute to class discussion. Quiet people have finally got their mouths moving, and they probably found that what they said was respected by the 2-3 people they mentioned it to. This emboldens them to try it on the class as a whole. Also, the instructor can draw out normally quiet people by asking what their group thought. Individual students aren't as personally on the hook, since they can attribute the view to "the group", and they have already rehearsed the answer by talking it over with the group. If all else fails they can read what they've written down. This broadening of the range of people discussing philosophy in the classroom persists for the remainder of the period, often longer.

    Here's why I think this exercise improves diversity: Philosophy classroom discussion is normally dominated by people with high academic/cultural capital. In the U.S. this means: rich, white, male, non-disabled, self-confident, parents with high educational attainment, fluent in highbrow English speaking styles. These are the students mostly likely to have the boldness to announce, in the second week of class, in front of their peers and professor, confident opinions about why Kant is wrong, or relativism is really the correct meta-ethical theory, or David Lewis's metaphysics is objectively better than Hilary Putnam's. (For an uncharitable version of the phenomenon, see this penetrating article.) Others need to be drawn into the conversation. Very-small-group discussion, in this above format, is the best way I know how.

    (2.) Choose one non-white philosophical tradition to learn enough about so that you truly appreciate the range of positions and arguments in that tradition. (For me this is the ancient Chinese tradition.) This will take some time. But it needn't be unpleasant and you needn't aim to develop sufficient expertise to publish articles addressing that tradition. It's neither important nor achievable to have a global understanding of every tradition, and a superficial sampler approach risks misrepresenting and oversimplifying other traditions. What is important is that you have a moderately deep understanding of at least one other tradition, whose contributions you can discuss, with knowledge and enthusiasm, alongside the contributions of the currently dominant white European-derived tradition.

    Interesting philosophy has emerged in every cultural tradition. How could it be otherwise? Philosophical issues are fundamental to one's worldview. In every culture, there will be thoughtful people who have reflected insightfully on such issues. Students know this. If we present the history of philosophy as the history of what white guys have thought about the fundamental issues of the human condition, then students will understandably regard philosophy in their university as an "area studies" program of white-guy thought. Even white students might forgivably be annoyed by this.

    My hunch is this sort of cross-cultural engagement conveys a general message that encourages diversity of all sorts -- the message that you do not see philosophical value only in the words of people of high cultural power in your own tradition.


    I offer these as concrete ideas for diversifying philosophy that individual philosophy professors can realistically implement. I'm interested in further thoughts and suggestions!

    Monday, August 22, 2016

    Network Map of SF Writers That Philosophers Love

    Andrew Higgins has created another of his fascinating network analysis maps -- this time of the science fiction / speculative fiction authors appearing on my updated Philosophical SF list, which consists of 10 SF recommendations each from 48 professional philosophers.

    Higgins writes:

    Each recommendation was treated as a connection (edge) between a scifi author and a philosopher who recommended that writer. These connections pull authors closer together insofar as they're recommended by the same people. One way to see this similarity is the physical locations of the authors relative to each other, but the color of the nodes is a more accurate indicator of similarity (based on modularity measure groupings, resolution = 1.7). The size of the circles reflects the number of recommendations for each author (weighted degree), and the size of the author's name was determined by network centrality (PageRank).

    Or, in the common tongue, "Ooooh... pretty!"

    [click on picture to enlarge]

    Thanks, Andrew!

    Interview on Crazyism

    Julia Galef at Rationally Speaking interviews me about the idea that something that seems "crazy" must be true in ethics and the metaphysics of mind.

    Along the way, we discuss, among other things, Solar-System-sized orgasm machines, the possibility that the U.S. literally has conscious experience over and above the experiences of the individual people composing it, and the awesomeness of Jorge Luis Borges.

    The interview is about an hour long. Listen during your commute or workout!

    The written transcript is also available in PDF and DOCX.

    Monday, August 15, 2016

    Philosophical SF: Updated Master List and 30 More Recommendations

    We might think of fictions as extended thought experiments: What might it be like if...? Ordinary fiction confines itself to hypotheticals in the ordinary run of human affairs (though sometimes momentous, exotic, or exaggerated). In contrast, speculative fiction considers remoter hypotheticals. Although much speculative fiction considers hypotheticals of future technology (and thus is science fiction), speculative fiction also includes fantasy, horror, alternative history, and utopia/dystopia. (The abbreviation "SF" can be read either as meaning science fiction specifically or speculative fiction more broadly.)

    Speculative fiction is often of philosophical interest: SF writers think through some of the same hypotheticals that philosophers do -- for example about personal identity, artificial intelligence, and possible future societies. Good SF writers think through these hypotheticals with considerable insight. I would like to see more interaction between philosophers and SF writers.

    Since 2014, I have been collecting professional philosophers' recommendations of "personal favorite" works of philosophically-interesting science fiction or speculative fiction. Each contributor has given me a list of 10 works, each with brief "pitch" pointing toward the work's philosophical interest. So far, I have 48 sets of recommendations -- almost five hundred recommendations total!

    Since the master list is huge, I have organized it in two ways: by contributor and by author recommended. The by-contributor list consists of each list of ten works, in alphabetical order by contributor. The by-author list lists the authors (or movie directors) in order of how frequently their work was recommended. For example, the single most recommended author was Ursula K. Le Guin. The list begins with her, gathering together the Le Guin recommendations from all of the contributors. Next come Ted Chiang and Philip K. Dick, so that you can see what work of theirs has been recommended and why; then Greg Egan, then... well, I don't want to spoil your surprise!

    * Stable URL for both Master Lists and other "Philosophical SF" project links.

    * Master List by Contributor as of Aug 15, 2016.

    * Master List by Recommended Author as of Aug 15, 2016.

    Below are the three most recent sets of recommendations.


    New Contributions:

    List from Lucy Allais (Professor of Philosophy, University of Witwatersrand and University of California at San Diego):

    Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (novel, 1974). Surely the reasons for this are well known enough; amazing exploration of political and social possibilities.

    Alastair Reynolds, trilogy starting with Blue Remembered Earth (novels, 2012-2015). Fun trilogy in which Africa leads the space race, with different forms of consciousness and intelligence including elephants and machines.

    Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves and The End of Eternity (novels, 1972 and 1955). By far his most interesting and imaginative work I think. Though my favourite is The Gods Themselves, for philosophical interest The End of Eternity is great as it’s about time travel.

    David Brin, Kiln People (novel, 2002). I also found Brin’s uplift trilogy a lot of fun but this one is more philosophical in ideas about personal identity.

    Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (novel, 2009). Bangkok in dystopian post climate apocalypse future, interesting ideas about modifying humans.

    Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake trilogy (novels, 2003-2013). Also post climate collapse, many ideas about current social and technological trends taken to extremes.

    Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (novel, 1968; short story 1966). So many Philip K. Dick works to choose from!

    Vernor Vinge, trilogy starting with A Fire Upon the Deep (novels, 1992-2011). Amazingly fun different forms of consciousness, including collective consciousness.

    Octavia Butler, Earthseed/Parable series (novels 1993-1998). Interesting ideas about post climate collapse, societal collapse and about religion.

    Ann Leckie, Ancillary trilogy (novels, 2013-2015). Awesome story and cool ideas about AI and collective consciousness.


    List from Melanie Rosen (Lecturer in Philosophy, Macquarie University):

    Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). **spoiler warning** Although the lives of the protagonists are at the forefront, the story raises ethical issues regarding cloning for organ donation and the status of clones. What is a person?

    Kurt Vonnegut, Sirens of Titan (novel, 1959). Questions the meaning of life- or lack thereof and free will. A character who is swept up by fate suffers, loves, finds happiness, dies. Social critique and the pointlessness of war.

    Neal Stephenson, Anathem (novel, 2008). Discusses many philosophical topics including parallel worlds, discussion of metaphysics. Describes a world in which modern philosophy is highly valued.

    Phillip K. Dick, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (short story, 1966). Philosophy of memory, what does it mean for something to be my experience?

    Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (novel, 1985). Ethical issues of a world where fertility is declining, feminist critique of the value of women in society.

    Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife (novel, 2003). Time travel! Can you change the past? When our timelines are determined, what differences do our choices make?

    Frank Herbert, Dune (novel, 1965). Questions the meaning of life, ethics, utilitarianism, and the treatment of indigenous populations. Discusses issues of fate and being able to see the future, suggests at the perils of AI.

    Edwin Abbott, Flatland (novel, 1884). Description of life in a 2 dimensional world, social critique of the arbitrariness of social standing and the class system, references Plato’s cave allegory.

    Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (novel, 1979). Discussion of the meaning of life (or lack thereof), critique of how indigenous or rural populations are treated, discussion of determinism regarding the end of the universe and time travel.

    Grant Naylor, Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (novel, 1989). Last human in existence scenario, discusses the meaning of life, AI, consciousness downloading, time travel, and how to be your own father among other themes. Hilarious.


    List from Craig Callender (Professor of Philosophy, University of California at San Diego):

    Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (novel, 2010). Only 93 percent of the laws of physics were installed in this universe. People time travel, but mostly in sad desperate attempts to change the past. Yu, the narrator and character in the book, is a low level technician whose job is to stop them. Cool send-up of time travel books, but very human story.

    Philip K. Dick, Counter-clock World (novel, 1967). OMG this one is stupid! It’s the opposite of Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow in terms of depth, meaning, writing, sophistication and coherence – but fun and philosophical and right up my alley. In 1986 time arrow flips: people start calling from their graves to be let out, un-smoking stubs to clean their lungs…and don’t think about eating and excreting.

    Fred Hoyle, Black Cloud (novel, 1957). I’m excited to see others suggest this and also that it got a new release in 2015. Great for epistemology and philosophy of mind. One of the best sci fi books I’ve read.

    Greg Egan, Axiomatic (short story collection, 1995). This collection contains many of my favorite stories ever, including “Hundred Light Year Diary” (bouncing signals off a time-reversed galaxy gets you answers before you sent questions…fate, fatalism, free will, time) “Learning to Be Me” (functionalism, personal identity). I’ve used three of the stories in philosophy courses.

    Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (novel, 2009). Capitalism, genetic engineering and global warming all run amok…the world portrayed is massively original. For more stress on the American West, water and environmental ethics (or lack thereof), read Bacigaluipi’s The Water Knife.

    Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest (novel 2008, trans. 2015). This is the second installment after The Three Body Problem. Good for game theory? After learning what the title refers to (a theory), you’ll never be in favor of the SETI program.

    Battlestar Galactica 2 (television series, 2005-present). My favorite scifi TV series. Hard to think of topics in philosophy not thoughtfully done here. Just fantastic.

    Stanislaw Lem, Solaris (novel 1961, trans. 1970). Seems wrong not to mention this classic. Great for epistemology and philosophy of science.

    Hugh Howey, Wool (short story series, 2011-2013). Not great writing, but fun, fast and original. Plato in the Cave themes, trolley problem dilemmas.

    M.R. Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts (novel, 2014). The book jacket says, “Kazuo Ishiguro meets The Walking Dead.” That seems right. Good moral tensions.


    Further contributions welcome!

    To qualify as a contributor, you must either be a professional philosopher (PhD or full-time permanent research/teaching post in philosophy) or a professional SF writer (generating a livable income or comparable degree of critical acclaim) who has done graduate work in philosophy.

    [image source]

    Thursday, August 11, 2016

    My 1000th Post. Whoa!

    This is my 1000th post at The Splintered Mind.

    Ten years. 500,000 words. Four million pageviews. Gadzooks!

    I think a toast is in order:

    What keeps me going? Three things, I suspect:

    I love the discipline of it. At least once a week, I must take some weird thought, or some philosophical or psychological or science fictional idea, and give it shape. It has to be novel enough that specialists won't find it boring. It has to be clearly enough articulated that educated non-philosophers can make sense of it and see why it might be interesting. Every week, I need to find something new that meets these criteria. What an exercise for the mind!

    I love the directness and lack of filter. I can write whatever I want here! It doesn't have to go through editors. It doesn't have to please referees. I don't have to wait two years to see it in print. It's not behind a paywall or buried in section three of a twenty-page journal article, beribboned with caveats. I can put it here, and you can see it, and I can link to it, and you can link to it, and we can argue about it in the comments section, and there need be no one between us.

    I want to engage with a broad audience. Since the topics that interest me also sometimes interest people outside of my corner of the academy, I want to be able to reach those people, have discussions with them, possibly influence them and be influenced by them. Although insular debates among specialists have an important role in philosophy, and sometimes even have an awesomely nerdy beauty, I think philosophy fails if it doesn't also regularly reach out beyond the academy -- and in a way that involves genuinely working out one's ideas in public (as opposed to presenting simplified digests for a public from whom one does not expect to learn anything).

    The result has been a hundred posts a year for ten years.

    All this blogging has, I believe, changed me as a philosopher. It has solidified my commitment to an ideal of philosophical writing that is as clear and accessible as possible without oversimplifying, my commitment to always seeking what is humanly interesting in philosophical questions, and my commitment to thinking of philosophy as an activity in which everyone engages and to which everyone brings some valuable wisdom rather than as a specialists' exercise to be conducted behind a wall of jargon.

    Even if you have never linked or commented, the very notion of your presence has influenced my work, pressuring me always to write more vividly, interestingly, and defensibly. I imagine you reading this post and I am inspired to think through and write each idea as well as I can.

    Thank you.

    [image source]

    Monday, August 08, 2016

    Forty New Philosophical SF Recommendations

    Since 2014, I've been collecting professional philosophers' recommendations of personal favorite "philosophically interesting" SF -- where "SF" is meant to include not only science fiction but also "speculative fiction" more broadly construed. Each philosopher recommends ten works, along with a brief "pitch" pointing toward the philosophical interest of those works.

    The results as of last summer are here (41 philosophers' recommendations). Last week, I nudged some of my friends and got another seven sets of recommendations. Below are the first four. Next week, I'll post the next three (and any others that arrive in the meantime) and I'll update the overall list.

    I welcome further contributions to the list (as well as revisions by earlier contributors). To qualify as a contributor, you must meet one of two criteria: (1) You are a "professional philosopher" in the sense that you either have a PhD in philosophy or have a full-time permanent teaching or research post in philosophy; or (2) you are a professional SF writer who has done substantial graduate work in philosophy even if you haven't completed a PhD (where a "professional SF writer" is someone who either generates a livable income from writing SF or who has a level of critical recognition similar to those who generate livable incomes).


    List from Paul Prescott (Part-time Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Syracuse University, and Lecturer in Bioethics and Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University):

    Edwin Abbott, Flatland (novel, 1884). The original mind-bender.

    Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (novel, 1818). The original bioethical cautionary tale.

    Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (novel, 1932). A critique of contemporary social-political philosophy that still rings true today.

    Stanisław Lem, Solaris (novel, 1961). What would it mean to meet a truly alien intelligence?

    Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (novel, 1974). Another critique of contemporary social-political philosophy … sure to be relevant for some time to come.

    C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (novel, 1946). A powerful Christian Platonist vision.

    Walter Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (novel, 1959). A challenging vision of one all-too-possible future.

    Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). A contemporary bioethical cautionary tale.

    Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (novel, 2003). A challenging vision of another all-too-possible future.

    Cormac McCarthy, The Road (novel, 2006). A brilliant, albeit dark, meditation on the nature of the good.


    List from Helen Daly (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Colorado College):

    Ted Chiang, The Lifecycle of Software Objects (novel, 2010). Could an AI have moral rights, even if it’s just software? It is hard to imagine drumming up sympathy for the characters in your computer games, but this novel succeeds in pushing us to consider even bodyless software blips as objects of moral concern.

    Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (movie, 1982). Based on a Philip K. Dick novel, but with more philosophical depth than the book. It sparks at least these two great philosophical questions: Could androids be people? and What would you ask or say to your creator, if you were really angry about the human condition?

    Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild” (short story, 1995). Some questions raised by this short story are: How would it feel to be a farm animal? What exactly is sexual consent? Is the survival of our species worth any price?

    Ted Chiang, “Hell Is the Absence of God,” “Seventy-Two Letters,” and “Story of Your Life” (short stories, 1998-2001). Each of these is a fully envisioned reality that offers a new way of seeing our own. They are each mind-blowing in a distinctive, inventive way. Ted Chiang is a genius.

    Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (novel, 1953). What would it mean for people living now if we knew the human race were about to “evolve” out of existence?

    Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). The narrative perspective of the novel is one of its chief strengths. We discover the plot along with the narrator, so we spend much of the book wondering what’s going on. A key question raised: Do human clones deserve the same rights as other humans? The novel strongly suggests that they do.

    Duncan Jones, Moon (movie, 2009). Like Never Let Me Go, this is a horrifying look at how we might treat someone (again, a clone) whose humanity we question. The pace is extremely slow, so it might not be appropriate for undergraduates.

    Greg Egan, “Learning to Be Me” (short story, 1990). This may be the best short, fictional introduction to questions of personal identity and consciousness. There are many great ones, but this is chilling and delightful.

    Andrew Niccol, Gattaca (movie, 1997). If genetic diseases were all readily discoverable, would genetic discrimination be permissible? The movie is heavy-handed in its opposition to genetic discrimination, but it never gives great reasons for that. A devil’s advocate could easily disagree.

    Paul Verhoeven, Total Recall (movie, 1990). Based on a Philip K. Dick story, this raises skeptical concerns about memories. It is also a fun Schwarzenegger action movie.


    List from John Holbo (Associate Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore):

    Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (short stories, 1990-2002). Many others have recommended Chiang and this is absolutely, utterly justified. His stories are far more sophisticated than those of most other sf authors. He is a ‘new’ author, relatively. But he is up there with the best of the classic authors, deservedly. I teach eight Chiang stories every semester and, at most, two by any other author.

    The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, Arthur B. Evans et al., eds. (anthology, 2010). When I was first planning to teach SF and Philosophy I fretted long and fruitlessly about which anthology to make into the spine of my syllabus. There are an awful lot of choices—new and old, cheap and expensive. Many of them are very good. Still, I had a perfectionist temptation to make my own from scratch. But it’s better to give the kids some one published collection they can have and hold. I decided the Wesleyan was best of the lot. My personal dissents from the editors’ selections could be turned from bugs into teaching features as we went along. (You’re never going to be perfectly happy with someone else’s anthology about a subject close to your heart, when it comes to teaching that subject. It’s like using someone else’s toothbrush. Well, deal with it.) Some of my choices below are how-to-fix the Wesleyan tips (by my lights). One fix too big for any top-10 list: the Wesleyan is Anglophone—i.e. mostly Americans and Brits. That is a defensible editorial focus, and is tolerably clear from the Table of Contents, if not the cover. You can’t be everything to everyone, plus everywhere at once. (If you want something more international, the very new The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by the Vandermeers, looks a solid option.)

    Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (novel, 1818). So standard you might fail to try it. Try it! I’m a historicist, so I bounce off Brian Aldiss’ well-known Frankenstein-is-first critical line. A nice teaching trick: ask the kids to tell the story of Frankenstein before they read the novel for the first time. So what’s the philosophical difference between what we know is going to be there, and what actually turns out to be there? Also, this is maybe the single most often adapted work of sf, in a broad sense. (So many artificial beings constructed, so unwisely, since Shelley’s day.)

    Greg Bear, The Wind From A Burning Woman (short stories, 1978-1983). Bear is first and foremost a novelist, and many of his novels are philosophically fantastic and would be eminently teachable. But in the classroom there is a limit on the number of novels you can assign. Short stories are the way to go. I pick Wind, rather than, say, Tangents, because it contains “Petra”, about the day the laws of nature change. Very grue. But medieval, if that’s your cup of after time-t and/or you want to get Goodman and the Good God of Augustine out of the way at the same time. I list Bear to compensate for his unjust omission from the Wesleyan. I think their picks from the 1980’s are non-representative. (I have not actually assigned Bear in my own class but am planning to do “Petra” this coming semester.) Bear deserves to be higher on the list of recommended authors than he currently stands.

    David Brin, Kiln People (novel, 2002). Another hard-sf ‘Killer B’ (like Bear—see also: Benford) from the 80’s who didn’t make the Wesleyan cut. Brin is not so strong in the short story department (so his exclusion from a short story collection is pardonable.) Kiln People is a novel from 2002, but I rate it philosophically higher than his better-known Uplift books. Kiln came in second for, like, every prize. It coulda’ been a contender for classic novel status! If you are teaching personal identity stuff and you want Derek Parfit’s Reason and Persons, but a murder mystery, this is for you. Brin is on my list twice, not because he’s so great as all that, just because if I assign essays or criticism from fiction writers, I like to sample their actual fiction as well. And I assign Brin’s criticism. See the next entry. This semester I’m planning to recommend (not require) Kiln.

    Star Wars On Trial, David Brin et al. (non-fiction anthology, 2006) Resolved: Stars Wars is crap and the cause of the ever-increasing crapification of sf. That’s pretty much it. Then the various authors line up and go at it, hammer and tongs, pro and con. This book is fun, available in a cheap Kindle edition (as of this writing) and extremely helpful for teaching-by-example a particular style of writing: informal, opinionated, argumentative (in all senses) personal essays. This is also a good book for bridging the literary-vs-film gap, if you need something to help you over that hump; and to help address the historically huge phenomenon of Stars Wars—something curiously invisible if you are just using, say, the Wesleyan anthology. At a certain point sf became mostly not on paper. So is that good, bad or indifferent?

    Jonathan Lethem, Gun, With Occasional Music (novel, 1994). Lethem takes up the Philip K. Dick mantle in about as stylish and sophisticated a way as anyone ever has. PKD is a giant, of course, and I assume you are teaching some. (What are you? A fool?) So maybe you want to talk about the literary legacy of that line? Gun, With Occasional Music. It’s got an Ubik-y, VALIS-y, Scanner Darkly-y paranoid noir-vibe. In a weird way it would go great with Brin’s Kiln People (see #5). Or his Uplift novels, come to think of it. (That kangaroo!) A murder mystery that is really an exploration of personal identity, only in this case the technical novum is not qualitative duplication of selves but deliberate (often pharmaceutical) self-design. Yet Lethem is stylistically the antipodes of Brin. So hereby you get at that no-nonsense hard-sf thing that goes back to Campbell and Gernsback, vs. the literary New Wave that starts in the 60’s. You can’t teach the history of sf without touching on that, I say.

    James Tiptree, Jr., anything from Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (besides “And I Awoke and Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side”) (short stories, 1969-1980). Alice Sheldon, a.k.a. James Tiptree, Jr. is the best female sf author who isn’t named Ursula. Or maybe she’s just the best. But the Wesleyan editors, in their wisdom, include what I regard as one of her most ‘meh’ stories. No accounting for taste, but I would recommend her other stories, and every sf and philosophy class should include one from Tiptree. (Also, I suppose Her Smoke Rose Up Forever goes well, in a titular sense, with Bear’s The Wind From A Burning Woman. Not that I recommend being pyromaniacal about it. But maybe you have a St. Joan thing?)

    Fritz Lang, Metropolis and William Cameron Menzies and H.G. Wells, Things To Come (movies, 1927 and 1936). They go together. If you are teaching SF film you have to teach Lang’s Metropolis. It’s the first special effects blockbuster, which failed (it lost money). It’s the first glossy triumph of sexy style over philosophical substance (that is trying to be philosophical, despite succumbing to its own sexy siren song of style.) It’s the first blockbuster dystopia. It’s dumb (which might trick you into thinking you can skip it, but you would be an idiot to do that, at least if you seek any kind of history angle on the subject.) Less well-known: you have to Teach Menzies’ (H.G. Wells scripted) Things To Come, which was a deliberate, blockbuster response to Lang’s failed blockbuster—which also failed and lost money. Things is highly utopian and rationalistic in spirit, which plays very weird onscreen. It’s a study in how not to make Star Wars (for example). The students will dislike it. Then you ask them: list everything this film does wrong, by contemporary Hollywood standards. Might it be that Wells was trying to write a philosophy of technology? (Alas, an sf screenplay cannot be a philosophy of technology.) This is an excellent via negativa exercise.

    The online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute et al., eds. (non-fiction encyclopedia, 1979-present). Weirdly, students often seem not to find this when they are looking for stuff. You really ought to point them to it. It’s not itself fiction, nor (primarily) philosophical, but it’s scholarly enough. And it’s huge. Why don’t more people know of it? Why isn’t it higher in the Google ranks? I don’t know. I really don’t.


    List from Ethan Mills (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga):

    Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light (novel, 1967). In the far future humans use technology to become gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon, until a Buddhist challenger arrives. Not entirely accurate, nor easy to understand, but always fun.

    Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune (novel, 1981). The most philosophical of a philosophical series. Aside from Herbert’s usual ruminations on politics, ecology, and what it means to be human when some are more human than human, it asks: What would you do with the whole human race?

    Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (novels, 1993 and 1998). During a chillingly realistic slide into dystopia paired with meditations on race, gender, empathy, and nationalism, a quasi-religion, Earthseed, is founded by the main character and later questioned by her daughter. Should we make space travel a long term organizing goal rather than war, economic gain, or political domination?

    C. S. Friedman, This Alien Shore (novel, 1999). A bit of Dune, a bit of cyberbunk, and deep science fictional meditations on the value of diversity in which physiological diversity is paired with cognitive diversity.

    Amy Thomson, The Color of Distance (novel, 1995). A scientist is marooned on a planet with amphibian aliens. Exploration of issues in feminist ethics and philosophy of science: Should we abide by abstract rules and sanitized observation or should we also rely on lived experience, particular judgments, and direct interaction?

    Liu Cixin, The Three Body Problem (novel, Chinese original 2008, English translation by Ken Liu 2014). Begins during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and follows a First Contact story and a video game that features Mozi and Leibniz and introduces a world where the laws of nature aren’t uniform.

    Jo Walton, The Just City (novel, 2015). Time traveling goddess Athena tries to set up Plato’s Republic in the pre-Homeric Mediterranean world. Socrates shows up. Hijinks and philosophical ruminations ensue.

    Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (novel, 2015). A beautiful, melancholic work of hard scientific speculation and philosophical inquiries on artificial intelligence, narrative theories of personal identity, and whether it’s ecologically plausible or ethically desirable to colonize other solar systems. The ship is one of my all time favorite characters.

    Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon (novel, 2014). Aliens first contact a giant swordfish and then encounter various humans of Lagos, Nigeria. Science fiction doesn’t have to be Eurocentric or even anthropocentric.

    Carolyn Ives Gilman, Dark Orbit (novel, 2015). An expedition to a planet where the inhabitants are mostly blind. Interrogates whether the senses, especially in the modality of vision, and empirical scientific methodologies are giving us the full picture of the universe.

    ETA: Ethan welcomes further discussion on his blog here.


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