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Eric Schwitzgebel
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Eric, I really appreciate your pushing me more on this, and please send the papers. I'm embarrassed to confess that I hadn't realized you've written about Boltzmann brains! I have a blog post about the extent to which the BB hypothesis undermines itself on the Splintered Mind here: http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2014/02/might-i-be-cosmic-freak.html I think that credences over 50% in the BB hypothesis are epistemically untenable, but I don't think that the same instability objection undercuts small credences. And it would be an odd result, in my view, to think that one is compelled to assign a zero credence to being a BB, since it *doesn't* seem like something I can know for sure (maybe .01% is far too high, but is 1/10^100 clearly too high?). But I'll be interested to see your reasoning on this it your papers. On your point about demons: (1.) Why are you confident that demons wouldn't include demons in their deception? I might think they *probably* wouldn't -- but if I see demons, the probability of deceiving demons shoots up so much that whatever reduction I give it on the assumption that demons probably wouldn't show me demons might not put me back to my pre-demon-seeing Cartesian demon credence. And (2.) I would deny that p(E/D) = p(E/-D) for all E. It depends, in part, on demon psychology! Demon psychology is of course a very speculative topic, but we've already expressed some tentative opinions about it in our discussion of whether demons who wanted to punk me would want to let me experience a world containing demons. Now I don't think demon doubt gets much traction now -- compared, maybe, to a culture in which serious belief in demons might give me a decent credence in their existence and some sensible credence distribution on their psychology if they exist. So it's pretty much groundless doubt, to which I would assign a negligible credence compared to dream skepticism and simulation skepticism (far below 1/10,000). But for dream and simulation skepticism I can start to give structure to conditional credences in ways that violate independence. For example if F is "succeed in having an experience of flying if I do something that feels like flapping my arms", then p(F/dream) > p(F/-dream) -- the topic of my very first NewAPPS post!
GFA and Silvia: Thanks for the pointers on this. I am familiar with a bit of the philosophy of science literature on these issues, but it's been long enough since I looked at it that I didn't think to draw the (in retrospect obvious) connection to the content of the post. (I actually did one of my qualifying exam questions on the problem of old evidence.) So I appreciate the pointers! I agree that there's some analogy, but also disanalogy, as GFA indicates. Silvia, yes, I'd be interested to see that paper. I should get my head back into this literature a bit.
Eric Winsberg: We seem to be starting pretty far apart, but here goes. On demons: I was thinking primarily of real, observable demons who cast evil spells and the like. It seems reasonable to me to suppose that credence of the average Anglophone philosopher today in the existence of such demons should reasonably be less than the credence of the average Western philosopher in Descartes' day. And I think that if such demons are real it's more reasonable to give a little credence space to an amped-up Cartesian demon than if such demons are not real. On the assumption that your perceptions are "in some way veridical": I think here of Wittgensteinian "framework assumptions". Are you thinking of something similar? I suppose I'm more of a Quinean here: Anything can be challenged, even core things, with enough evidence. Add a bit of Bayesianism to that and you'll want to avoid p's of 1 or 0. So then the question arises, what p's should I give to these framework things? I agree with Wittgenstein that it's silly to doubt (at any more than a negligibly tiny p) without grounds for doubt. But I do think I have grounds, for at least some slender doubt, regarding dream skepticism, simulation skepticism, and cosmological skepticism. This post adds the thought that there are meta-level grounds for wildcard skepticism.
Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful comments, folks! Anon 23 July: Thanks for the pointer to Kierkegaard. Is there a particular part of his corpus where you think he is especially clear about this? The way you put it sounds like a radical rejection of probabilistic thinking. But I'm inclined to think we're stuck with probabilistic thinking, like it or not, explicit or only implicit, as soon as we make choices. Do I drink this apparent coffee, or not? Do I try to fly as I'm walking across campus, or not? These choices reveal my subjective credences. They might be a problematic lot, but I'll need to make the best of them or become a vegetable -- although even the latter is a kind of choice.
Might there be excellent reasons to embrace radical skepticism, of which we are entirely unaware? You know brain-in-a-vat skepticism -- the view that maybe last night while I was sleeping, alien superscientists removed my brain, envatted it, and are now stimulating it to create the false impression that I'm still... Continue reading
Eric Kaplan, who overlapped with me in grad school at Berkeley but who is now much more famous as a comedy writer for Big Bang Theory, Futurama, and several other shows, has been cooking up weird philosophical-comical blog posts since March at his Wordpress blog here. Check it out! Continue reading
Grad student: I really appreciate your sharing your perspective on this. I think faculty need to hear about this downside potential of these meetings and do their utmost to avoid creating that type of situation or even the perception of that type of situation, either by not having such year-end meetings or by being acutely aware of these issues if the meetings do continue to be held.
Christopher, I think I can appreciate that perspective. Perhaps it would be especially hard to be formulaic if one of the considerations is using all the GAships on offer. At UCR, denials of funding most commonly result from too many incompletes and can occur during any of the three quarters of the year (as incompletes accumulate and turn into Fs). These cases are generally worked out case-by-case by the grad advisor in consultation with the relevant faculty and the administrators in the graduate division of the college, rather than at the year-end department meeting. That also seems to me a reasonable approach, and it has the advantage of not burdening the remaining faculty with negative expectations regarding that student's future performance.
Christopher: I agree that these meetings have the potential to give a voice to faculty who aren't socially well-connected with other faculty. I'm happy to put that factor in the plus column. I also agree that students who are denied funding should be given a warning letter first. But my inclination is to think that a measure as serious as denial of funding should be based not on the faculty's qualitative impressions shared at a meeting but rather based on clearer metrics such as GPA, unresolved incompletes, and failure to complete requirements on time. If Student A and Student B are identical in their transcripts and their requirement completion, it seems potentially problematic, to me, to deny Student A funding while granting it to Student B based upon impressions about general promise or seeming smart. In these matters, one wants to be as clear, objective, and transparent as possible, minimizing the role of faculty's subjective impressions. (I assume here that denial of funding is a relatively uncommon occurrence. If every year a substantial proportion of students are denied funding on grounds of insufficient promise, and this is generally known to be part of a weed-out culture in the department, that might be a different matter, with different dynamics.) On the other hand, though, the meeting does give an opportunity for faculty to all be made aware of the student's situation, so that they can mention extenuating circumstances or other considerations if they know of any; and maybe that would be somewhat less likely in an email-based process.
Pavlos: I guess I'm not totally clear on the value of being judged by committees in this particular way. At the dissertation phase, the student is primarily judged by the people who read the dissertation (and maybe one or two other letter-writers) but not by the department as a whole. For awards and fellowships in earlier years, there can be nominations for particular awards, judged by departmental or university-wide committees based on whatever input sources they like (e.g., letters, grades); and there can be a grad advisor's judgment based on general faculty input as well as factors like grades and timely completion of requirements. I do think there are *some* advantages to the group process, as I describe in my post, but I suppose I continue to think that those advantages are outweighed by the costs.
Anon Grad: Interesting point. So one question is whether this would be mitigated if feedback to the grad advisor were made private or if nominations for awards were made directly by advisors. It's not clear to me. Maybe it would, to some extent, if part of the mechanism is that this professor is pushy at these meetings, resulting in other professors yielding in a way they would not yield if the process weren't meeting-centered. On the other hand, maybe this professor's disproportionate enthusiasm (plus pushiness?) would manifest equally strongly in other arrangements.
Pavlos, maybe UCR isn't a very gossipy place, or maybe I'm pretty low on in the gossip hierarchy, but normally I don't hear professors talking very much about the quality of students, except for vague, positive remarks once in a while. ("That first-year student X seems pretty good!" or "Y's dissertation is shaping up great. I think she'll do well on the market".) If it's the case in some particular department that there's lots of negative gossip running around about students, then I think you're absolutely right that it's probably good to have a meeting where that gossip is made semi-public and possibly corrected. But that doesn't match my own experience at all.
Every year's end at UC Riverside, the philosophy faculty meet for three hours "to discuss the graduate students". Back in the 1990s when I was a grad student, I seem to recall the Berkeley faculty doing the same thing. The practice appears to be fairly widespread. After years of feeling... Continue reading
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[new version with typo corrected] Another brilliant takedown here: http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1858 This is just some of the most irresponsible science reporting I've ever seen. It's like I replaced the 60 mph sticker on my speedometer with a sticker that says "the speed of light", took my car for a spin up the 101, and the next day's headline read "Speed of Light Exceeded for the First Time".
Richard: "Boob" isn't really in my normal productive vocabulary, nor do I hear it much in my usual social circles, though certainly I am familiar with that usage. Not sure about the sexual connotation. I hear the sexual stuff nearer the surface of "that's guy's such a boob" than I do for "that guy's such a jerk" -- but that might be idiosyncratic. It would be interesting to do some work some time on the sexual dimension of insults. I don't really know much about it, but I bet there's some pretty interesting work on it out there!
Cool, Charles R. I think of one of my favorite moral psychologists, Mengzi, who says that shame is the sprout which -- if we notice and reflect on it -- grows into grows into the virtue of being righteous (yi). Bryan Van Norden: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF02856995#page-1
Thanks jdkbrown. "Bonehead" also strikes me as potentially useful in this context.
Jamie, I see some merits in that term, for the lack of sexual connotations. However, Aaron James already has "asshole": http://www.amazon.com/Assholes-A-Theory-Aaron-James/dp/0385535651 James's theory of assholes is interesting, and rather than compete for the term, I think there's room for a few related terms. Also, "asshole" isn't really part of my active vocabulary, so I'm not entirely comfortable exploring its nuances. Though it might seem quaint, I retain a certain prudish aversion to words that were censored from U.S. television when I was growing up. I actually think that retaining an aversion to them adds a dimension of power to the language, as I discuss in this old post: http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2007/09/forbidding-fuck-and-shit-to-save-them.html
Too many Erics around! Surely there are infinitely many provable mathematical propositions, so I guess the question is whether they would be sufficiently interesting to the eternal mathematician. That seems like a pretty tough question to evaluate. I'd agree that Williams doesn't adequately make the case; but it's hard to see how to make the case on the other side, either, without either (1) getting serious about the architecture and motivations of an infinite intellect or (2) assuming that the intellect is finite and thus will loop around in finite cycles (perhaps with variations) which turns the question into a question about the duration of the looping cycle vs. the duration of sustainable interest (and allows us to cut the knot, as it were, by making the amnesic loops short enough). It does seem plausible to me that the length of a sustainable non-boring cycle can be substantially extended through the invention of new concepts, as you suggest.
Thanks again, Shelley. Let me just mention that I hadn't yet seen your reply to Richard when I composed my own reply.
Eric W: Thanks. I agree with both of your points. Pretty much every commonly used insult does have an unsavory history of some sort. So part of the question is how unsavory and how close to the surface for the audience. And I also agree that mentioning the term in a critical context is not ordinarily a problem, while using it uncritically is a problem -- my piece is perhaps an intermediate case, since I'm not quite doing either of those things but rather putting the term in the voice of someone who is supposed to be viewed as an unappealing character in part because of his use of that very term. There are certain words that I would be very cautious doing this with, and so the question is whether "idiot" should be among them. On sexual associations: As I mentioned in my reply to Richard, I tend to dislike insults that reinforce negative associations with sex and genitalia -- and some people seem to hear "jerk" that way, even in its noun usage. In my mind, that is a downside of the term. But I wanted a high-use term that was not regarded as obscene and had a (comparatively!) unproblematic history, and I didn't want to wrestle with Aaron James over "asshole" -- so "jerk" seemed like the best compromise.
Richard: Tremain pointed me to her "Educating Jouy" and to "Metaphorically Speaking" in the Disability Studies Quarterly. Both have brief discussions of "idiot", but not a lot of detail. I also recall discussion in Gould's Mismeasure of Man, which convinced me years ago to abandon "moron" which was specifically and recently invented as an oppressive category. I also consciously avoided "moron" in the Aeon piece, because it seemed like other terms would do well enough. Perhaps "idiot's" history is sufficiently similarly offensive to merit similar treatment -- but I do need to put some words in the mouth of the jerk, and as Eric W. says pretty much every offensive term has a problematic history of some sort. A friend of mine in disability studies who knows quite a lot about the history of these things, has pointed out to me that "dumb" and "fool" also have problematic histories (maybe not as bad as "idiot") and suggests "f*ckwit" as a perhaps the safest choice -- but it's hard for me to see going entirely there, partly since the f-word isn't my cup of tea (both because of its perception as one of the most obscene words in the language and also because it reinforces negative associations with sex) and partly because it requires some, I think, phenomenological distortion to make that the term of choice of the archetypical jerk. I'm still uncertain about these issues. I do think that I would have written the piece a little differently if I were starting it fresh today.
I have a new theory of the jerk, just out in Aeon. The piece uses the term "idiot" in several places to characterize how the jerk sees the world: "I'm important, and I'm surrounded by idiots!" In light of Shelley Tremain's remarks to me about the history of the word... Continue reading
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Eric W: Yes, that sounds reasonable! What you're doing, which seems like the proper way for this literature to go, is to think about what the possible cognitive architectures of the immortal mind would be, and what the desirability of immortality would be under the various possible architectures.
Anon: I agree, it is interesting, and fishy -- probably a motivated belief -- how attracted people seem to be to the boredom hypothesis. I agree that variations on a theme can be interesting -- probably a sweet-spot for interest in many cases, actually. Music is another good case. I do still suspect, though, that some of the goldfish-pool forgetting inevitable in a finite mind is helpful, or maybe even practically necessary: However much I love Monty Python's dead parrot skit, it might get tiresome after 10^100 remembered repetitions.