Archive for the ‘Academe’ Category

David Chalmers – “On the Limits of Philosophical Progress”

February 14, 2013 1 comment

David Chalmers – “On the Limits of Philosophical Progress”

David Chalmers elucidates his glass-half-full approach to progress in philosophy, originally delivered at the 2011Harvard-Australia conference on Philosophical Progress. He writes:

In particular, one might have hoped that philosophical argument would have the power to produce widespread philosophical agreement. But in practice, while we can recognize powerful philosophical arguments when we see them, these arguments produce less agreement than one might have expected. Typically, the arguments simply force opponents to elaborate their positions, ruling out some versions of a view and lead to more development of other versions. Some areas of philosophical space get ruled out this way, but usually a lot is left open on both sides of a major issue. Even through continued fractal elimination of regions of space, the area that is left has something of the character of the Mandelbrot set, with large areas of infinite possibility all over the map. This leads to a rich and fascinating philosophical culture. But one could reasonably hope for more.


Undergrad CFP: Ephemeris 2013

October 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Ephemeris, the online undergraduate journal through Union College, has issued a Call For Papers for the upcoming 2013 edition. The submission deadline is February 11th, 2013. If you or your students are interested, see the site for details about submission protocol  and also to check out the 2012 accepted works.

Also, for those interested in getting regular updates in various areas of philosophy, you should consider joining the e-mail list PHILOSOP. As a note, I have no professional affiliation with PHILOSOP, but it’s a great resource for keeping up to date with different CFPs, conferences, and interviews.

Categories: Academe, Philosophy

The Reproducibility Project

April 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Check out this post at Mind Hacks that discusses a new group which will be attempting to replicate a slew of cognitive science studies from 2008. Below is an excerpt from the Chronicles of Higher Education article the post is reporting on:

If you’re a psychologist, the news has to make you a little nervous—particularly if you’re a psychologist who published an article in 2008 in any of these three journals:Psychological Science, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,or the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.

Because, if you did, someone is going to check your work. A group of researchers have already begun what they’ve dubbed the Reproducibility Project, which aims to replicate every study from those three journals for that one year. The project is part of Open Science Framework, a group interested in scientific values, and its stated mission is to “estimate the reproducibility of a sample of studies from the scientific literature.” This is a more polite way of saying “We want to see how much of what gets published turns out to be bunk.”

Heard of a study whose findings are now in question? Leave a link in the comment section!

Science, Philosophy, and Freedom

September 14, 2011 1 comment

Having but a lowly undergraduate’s degree from a SLAC, I recognize all too often that my knowledge of many philosophical topics is limited in both breadth and depth, even in those topics in which I feel most read. Despite this, I am no stranger to some of the more developed arguments for and against freedom of the will, and I have recently taken an interest in neurophilosophy and neuroscience. As some readers may note, I offered an extended treatment of the Soon et al. study, and elsewhere I have tried to use studies of this type to argue that emergentist and similar agency theories have significant hurdles to overcome if they are to maintain and prove the conclusions they draw regarding the role of conscious deliberation in human action.

Recently over at Flickers of Freedom, a piece from Nature was featured that allowed a rare rebuttal from some in the philosophy community in response to a 2007 study almost identical in scope and findings to the Soon et al. study. There is still a lively and interesting discussion going on in the comment section of that post that is well worth checking out.

 Despite my depressing lack of knowledge in many of these fields, especially the fact that I have not attended graduate school for philosophy, there still seem to be far more vestiges of agency theory left in the community than I would have thought. I am not such a dyed-in-the-wool determinist that I am not open to re-evaluating how we define freedom; on the contrary, I believe we must reconcile what we know from reason and science with how we perceive the world and the behavior of its inhabitants. That being said, some of the approaches offered by titans like Daniel Dennett (expanding our conception of the self to include our biology) do little, as far as I can understand, for solving the key issue posed by studies like Soon, Libet, and the most recent: how does deliberation enter the picture if predictive antecedent brain activity exists, and even once it has entered the picture, how can it play a causal role without being determined?

In my senior thesis I examined Timothy O’Connor’s theory of emergent agent causation, in particular his claim that emergentism eliminated the problem of interaction. By using Jaegwon Kim’s supervenience argument I demonstrated that O’Connor’s particular theory of emergent downward causation (a form of nonreductive physicalism) results in overdetermination. O’Connor also posits that emergent agent causation is a much simpler explanation for the behavior of human beings than complicated physicalist laws, but I call this into question as well. All of this is to say that, before we even begin to discuss deliberation and the participation of consciousness in our actions, agency theorists must recognize, and reconcile, the findings of studies like these with their theories of agency. Though I clearly cannot claim to know the vast body of O’Connor’s cogent and thought-provoking works, in my research I did not find a response from O’Connor to neurostudies like these. It is well-reasoned  (though flawed) monist and physicalist agency theories like these, not dualist approaches (which surely must have fallen far out of vogue by now) that also must reconcile their positions with these studies. The piece in Nature paints too simplistic of a picture of how these studies can be brushed aside if you are not a mind/body dualist, and I sincerely wonder what theories exist that would prompt statements like: “Nowadays, says Mele, the majority of philosophers are comfortable with the idea that people can make rational decisions in a deterministic universe.” Rational, sure – but free?

I look forward to reading more by folks like Kathleen Vohs, Al Mele (thanks, Nick!), and Adina Roskies in an attempt to better understand exactly which determinist elements are being affirmed and what reason they each give for simultaneously not being surprised by such findings and also urging that clearly free will is not threatened by them. I must have missed the memo!

For what it is worth, below are some concession and postulations about the limitation of current neurostudies as well as what ought to be realistically acceptable for philosophers to begin taking neurostudies seriously rather than treating them like elements of an intellectual turf war. Details of the study can be found in my aformentioned post.


Depending on which camp one falls into, the 60% predictability is either impressive or lackluster. Given that, at least in the Soon studies (details can be found here), the choice is between left and right, we automatically expect the probability to hover around 50%, and so a 10% increase is noteworthy, but to some it is not by much.

It ought to go without saying that an increase in the predictive capability of the study would increase the persuasive power of its conclusions regarding free will. But what many often lose sight of is not only the massive gains made by the most recent studies but also the sheer weight of the implications of the concrete facts of the study. For example, in Libet’s studies in the 1980’s there was no way to predict choices – now there is, and such predictions are accurate more than half the time. To reiterate, a computer is connected to an fMRI machine and literally watches and measures human brain activity and uses such activity to predict future actions. I may be on the stodgy side, but given that it was only 25 years ago that we could not predict and we could not map or record rain activity, the technology and the studies have grown by leaps and bounds. Given this, I am confident that as technology improves, so too will the predictive capacity of these studies. The Nature article cited above describes several studies currently in the works or in the stages of publication that seek to mitigate concerns over the role of the subject in the study, timing, scope of measurement, etc. I am particularly excited about the study that seeks to remove the subjective element of the test subject becoming conscious of choice through using a video game set up.

Scope of Claims

I do agree with the spirit of the Nature article and some of the sentiments therein: these studies do not unequivocally disprove the existence of free will as traditionally conceived. Clearly these studies are artificial in nature (as all experiments are) and the nature of choice and subjective human experience as we understand it makes such studies very difficult to parse. For who, except the subject, can tell whether true deliberation took place? Who, if anyone, can say whether the 40% of the time the computer strikes out represents true freedom or a limitation in our technology?

All of this is not to discount the role philosophers have and have not had in this process. Though I do not doubt that some have risen to the occasion and addressed these studies proactively and head-on (or conducted them!) there remains an underlying impression that any engagement is reluctant and occurs only once science has ‘overstepped its bounds’ as it were. We are at a point in our development as a species that science and philosophy can no longer avoid one another. Social contract theory is threatened by evolutionary evidence that our ancestors were always social creatures. Religion and faith are under assault be scientific evidence that many evolutionary triggers explain the mass appeal of religious belief. So, too, is the traditional conception of ourselves as wholly free agents under attack by scientific evidence that our brains do more behind the scenes than we previously thought. The rise in neurophilosophy gives me hope that more and more thinkers are becoming willing to incorporate these findings in their philosophical considerations, though I do wonder about the ‘old-guard.’ Are we witnessing a backlash against science’s role in the intellectual and philosophical world, or do the sentiments in the Nature article represent genuine and appropriate hesitation to read too much into these studies, or to explain away the complicated workings of the human brain? Time will elucidate this question, but I wonder if it will it ever provide an answer.

Allan Bloom on Mick Jagger

August 6, 2011 Leave a comment

I thought some lighter fare might be in order, and so I bring you Allan Bloom’s view of Mick Jagger from The Closing of the American Mind, circa 1986:

In the last couple of years, Jagger has begun to fade. whether Michael Jackson, Prince or Boy George can take his place is uncertain. They are even weirder than he is, and one wonders what new strata of taste they have discovered. Although each differs from the others, the essential character of musical entertainment is not changing. There is only a constant search for variations on the theme. And this gutter phenomenon is apparently the fulfillment of the promise made by so much psychology and literature that our weak and exhausted Western civiliation would find refreshment in the true source, the unconscious, which appeared to the late romantic imagination to be idential to Africa, the dark and unexplored continent. Now all has been explored; light has been cast everywhere; the unconscious has been made conscious the repressed expressed. And what have we found? Not creative devils, but show business glitz. Mick Jagger tarting it up on the stage is all that we brought back from the voyage to the underworld.”


May 17, 2011 Leave a comment

I just wanted to let readers know that I am currently in the middle of a big move and so updates for the next two weeks or so will be infrequent, if not short. I appreciate everyone’s patience and hope to get back to blogging soon!

Categories: Academe

Site Traffic and Plagiarism

May 8, 2011 4 comments

It has come to my attention, thanks to the Site Stats feature offered by WordPress, that no small number of views coming to my blog stem from Google searches for papers, with the most popular being Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Thucydides, and Tribalism. I can only assume these searches are coming from undergraduates.

This post is a not-so-friendly reminder that all written work featured on this blog, unless otherwise noted or cited, is my sole intellectual property and therefore copyrighted. Astute readers will see that this copyright is noted at the bottom of the page. Any use of my writing without my express written consent or valid citation is a violation of this copyright and constitutes plagiarism.

Further, plagiarism is not simply morally wrong; it is incredibly unintelligent. For those who may or may not be utilizing my ideas directly or indirectly for their own coursework, you rob yourselves of the great experience of reading and learning on your own, and creating your own views and opinions on the great works of our philosophical ancestors. You do a disservice first to yourselves by denying yourself the opportunity of truly earning an education. Next, you do a disservice to the author from whom you plagiarize by not giving credit where credit is due. Following this, you do a disservice to your classmates and your professors by failing to appropriately  participate in the academic community. Take ownership of your ideas, and respect the work of others.

Categories: Academe