Back to the Grind & Meta-Metaethics

So, I am back from the Yale/UConn conference (semi-summary here), which was a huge success! A very well organized and interesting conference. Hats off to all involved! Things have not changed much since I left in 2003…it is still cold as ever (but it was nice to see some familiar faces)

I have a little time today before I have to re-work the final chapter of my dissertation (and avoid playing Manhunt 2) so I figured I figured I would report on the conference…but first…

The Importance of Graduate Conferences

It’s funny because I know a certain UConn alum who is famous for arguing that graduate conferences are a wast of time. His point is that when you are on the job market no one cares about your presentations at graduate conferences. All that matters to search committees is your presentations at ‘real’ conferences.  I must say that I was convinced by this for a while, but I think I have come to change my mind a little about the overall importance of graduate conferences.

For one, they are often far more competitive than regular conferences. They are usually only one day, with no concurrent sessions, which means far fewer slots. So, for instance, their were only 8 papers accepted out of hundreds submitted (I am assuming this from my experience with the CUNY grad conference). This makes for something like a 4% acceptance rate. Also, each paper has a large audience, say 20-30 people, and will usually include some well known philosophers (in this case Paul Horwich and Austen Clark); an audience like that at a regular conference is unusual (unless the person is well known). Not only that, but with fewer papers presented there is the opportunity to actually have a semi-significant amount of time for discussion. Whereas I have been to many regular conferences where there is five minutes for discussion, which in my opinion is something like absurd! Lastly, we were all treated to dinner, courtesy of the organizers!

So, why aren’t hiring committees more interested in graduate conferences?

A Brief Summary

Sadly, I showed up two seconds before the session I was commenting in began; It was a bit dramatic. Jeff was arguing that there is something right about the Korsgaardian strategy of arguing for a constructivist metaethic based on the success of constructivism as a normative theory. Any one who is interested can see my comments here. The jist is simple. I argued that 1. Either constructivism is not a distinctive metaethical position or it is just a version of relativism 2. The success of the normative claim that the constructivist makes is not evidence for any metaethical view. Any metaethical view is compatible with any normative view. 3. The success of the normative claim is not evidence against the semantic claim that the realist makes. Imagine that there were a group of people who were taught the Platonic semantics for ‘good’ and ‘right’. They were told that the word ‘good’ stood for some mind-independent property and that the role of the word in a sentence was to predicate that property of some object (ditto for ‘right’). It seems to me that these people would eventually start using those words to talk about the things that they value (i.e. constructed properties). If this is true then the fact that people use these predicates to talk about constructed properties (if they in fact do) can’t be evidence against the claim that the realist makes.

After this session, Austen Clark gave his talk on modeling sensory awareness. His was trying to answer the question ‘how could we build a creature that could have an experience of purple?’ During the course of this he presented the evidence ofr what is called ‘proto-objects’. A proto-object is a term for what happens at the early stages of visual processing. The idea is that the brain processes information about the ‘basic features’ of objects (info about shape, orientation, color, etc) and then stores this info without putting the basic features together. So, the proto-object is ‘a shapeless bundle of features’. It is not until selective attention is focused on the proto-objects that they are arranged into the shape that the stimulus has. During discussion I asked why we should think that there are proto-objects. It seems to me that what is likely going on here is that the stimulus produces a representational state in the perceiver which is a representation the fully formed object and  that the reason why subjects are unable to report accurately is due to the fashion which their higher-order state is representing the first-order representation (of the fully formed stimulus). Austen responded that this is unlikely because we don’t see the ‘pop-out effect’ in these experiments. But how do we know that. So, I tried to think of an experiment that might show something one way or the other. This is what I came up with. We take the standard pop-out effect stimulus and present it subliminally, so that the subjects cannot consciously detect its presnce. We then put soem markers up on the screen (one of which is at the location where the attention would have been drawn had the subject consciously saw the stimulus). We then force the subject to pick a marker by saying ‘I know you did not see anything, but if you had to pick a marker, which one would you pick?’. If they picked the one that marked the pop-out location then we could conclude that there was unconscious pop-out and so conclude against proto-objects.

Shesh! That’s a lot!! And I still have the second day to talk about…I guess I’ll do that some other time.

How the Categorical Imperative Entails that we cannot Treat Animals as Means Only

It is often thought that utilitarianism is the only moral theory that recognizes that non-rational animals matter morally. This view is usually contrasted with some deontological view (typically Kant) that claims that animals in no way matter. But this is actually mistaken.

Kant’s first formulation of the Categorical Imerpative ‘Act on the maxim which you can will as a universal law of nature’ straightforwardly leads to his second formulation ‘act so as to treat the humanity in a person as an end only and never as a means only’. This is because I cannot consistently will a maxim that lets rational agents be treated as means only, as that would mean that I, a rational agent, could be treated as a means only which contradicts the natural desire of rational agents to govern themselves. Exactly parralell reasoning will get you another formulation of the categorical imperative which is something like ‘act so as to treat sentient creatures as an end only and never as a means only’; for consider a world in which sentient creatures were treated as a means only (used for food, hunted for pleasure, etc) in such a world it would be OK to treat you as a means to an end, (you are after all a sentient being), but this contradicts a sentient being’s natural desire not to be used in such ways.

Perhaps one may object that they could will a maxim which was limited to non-rational sentient beings. But then you have the usual problems with infants, the mentally infirm, and senile senior citizens. Perhaps we could limit it to non-human sentient beings? But this is to make an exception to a universal rule, which is the very indication that one is acting contrary to the Categorical Imperative!

Explaining Subjective Differences in Color Perception

Via Tanasije I found Michael Tye’s paper The Puzzle of True Blue where he considers the problem posed by the well known fact that people’s color discriminations vary widely from person to person. So you and I could both be looking at some particular color and I might think that it is true blue, not at all greenish while you might think that it is not true blue (a little bit greeninsh). Tye considers some standard answers to the puzzle before presenting his own. I will skip the standard ones and go straight to Tye’s.

 He suggests that the visual system evolved to respond to the general color categories and that the particular shade of the general color is unimportant and so a sort of ‘”guess” on the part of the visual system. But there is yet another alternative account. It may be the case that you and I have the same first order mental states of the determinate shade and different higher-order representations of that first-order state. The same sort of story could be told…In order to determine which is right we would have to present the colors to the subjects subliminally, record the brain activity, present the colors to the subject superliminally, record the brain activity and note the differences… 

Empirical Support for the Higher-Order Theory of Consciousness

I think that the Higher-Order theory of consciousness is a well worked out naturalistic theory of consciousness that has a decent shot at actually being true. This is not to say that I actually think it is true, or which version of it is, but it seems to me that it has the advantage over every other kind of theory out there. The best part about higher-order theories, though, is that they are worked out in enough detail so that we can begin to evalutate it for empirical adequacy. I have previously argued that there is empirical evidence that points in this way (On Hallucinating Pain, HOT Block, Swimming Vegetables? Fish, Pain, and Consciousness)

Via David Rosenthal my attention was brought to a recent NY Times article, Go Ahead, Rationalize. Monkeys Do It, Too where they discuss research that suggests that rationalizing ones choices is an unconscious, automatic process. The research on animals is fascinating, but perhaps the most convincing is the data on amnesiacs. These people showed the same rationalizing patterns as control subjects even though they did not remember choosing the object (which they now rated higher). This suggests that there are unconscious mental states at play in the amnesiac’s rationalization process. Furthermore, given that people tend to confabulate when asked why they made the rankings that they did this suggests that we are conscious of the process in a way that differs from the actual nature of the (then) unconscious mental state. How else could this be explained if not by a theory of consciousness that depends on the transitivity principle?

A Counter-Example to the Cogito?

Descartes famously argued that the one undoubtable truth is that when he is thinking he exists. This idea, I think therefore I am, is clear and distinct, which are the marks of self-evident necessary truths. Descartes’ idea still has a lot of pull, but isn’t there an obvious kind of counter-example to it?

Couldn’t it be the case that the Evil Demon has multiple personality disorder and that I (or you) am a figment of this fragmented consciousness? Couldn’t it be the case that the Evil Demon has made me up in the telling of some story to ease his boredom? Or maybe the Evil Demon is a Solipsist. In reality He is the only thing that exists and all of us are just a backdrop his all-powerful mind has concocted…It would then be the case that I wonder whether I exist and yet I do not exist…aren’t these kinds of things  counter-examples to the Cogito?

One response that might be made is that, while it is the case that I do not technically exist as I thought I did (as a mind-independent entity), I still exist (as a fictional mind-dependant entity). So, I still exist, just not in the way that I thought I did. This would allow us to keep the general truth that whenever there is some thinking there has to be a thinker (it would just be the Evil Demon himself who is actually doing the thinking), but it does seem to do violence to clearness and distinctness as a criterion of self-evident necessary truths.

Does anyone know if this kind of objection is ever dealt with by Descartes or any of his objectors/commentators?