Wednesday, December 30, 2009

APA Eastern Division: Final Day

Last day today. Typically, I overslept -- read "I turned the alarm off and rolled over" -- and missed the first morning session. Which is unfortunate, as it looked interesting, but oh well.

In any event, did the whole getting up, getting ready to go down to Times Square thing. Coloured this time by the joys of packing up as much of my stuff as I wasn't going to need before flying back to good ol' TO.

I haven't really said much about the NYC subway system, so let me pause to sing its praises. It runs all night, you never wait more than 5 minutes for a train, and it costs less than the TTC. Oh, and, your fares are all loaded on a card with a magnetic stripe which you swipe to unlock and walk through the turnstiles. You can pretty much go anywhere on this system. Very, very well done. Why don't we have anything like this in Canada? Vancouver is the only city that comes close, and that's pushing it. Montreal and Toronto's systems are sad jokes.

In Times Square, they were starting to set up for the New Year's Eve thing. Very glad I'm not anywhere near that; Times Square is bad enough on a regular day, but tomorrow night you wouldn't be able to move. There was, apparently, some sort of a bomb scare in Times Square today (see here, for example), but I really didn't see anything. It's actually not surprising that a van could sit in Times Square for days and no one would notice: you're so busy dodging people that you barely have time to notice the lights and the buildings, let alone the vehicles (of which there are so many that, again, one little van wouldn't really register). Saw a number of reporters around, but I assumed that was a New Year's Eve thing, shooting for the evening news.

Saw a number of folks standing around the Mariott Marquis with luggage in hand. Given that I hadn't seen that many before, either the hotel was clearing out to avoid the jacking-up of prices for New Year's, or philosophers were trying to grab early flights.

The session I ended up in was called "Duties to Others", which can really mean anything. Turns out it was about what sorts of health-related obligations we have to the global poor (first paper), and how to resolve a logical puzzle about obligation to future generations (second paper). If I had to pick, I'd say the second was more interesting, as the first was -- overtly and deliberately -- utilitarian. But both were interesting discussions.

I will say, though, that I'm not a fan of the "colloquium" set up. The APA has, basically, four kinds of sessions. First are invited papers, and I didn't go to any of those. They were in larger rooms, IIRC, and so I expect they'd be more like formal presentations. Second are symposia, which was what I went to yesterday. Smaller rooms, but still relatively formal; papers are presented in about 40 minutes or so, with 15 or so minutes of questions and discussion. Third are colloquia, which was what I went to today. Even smaller rooms, and much more informal; papers are presented in about 20 minutes, with a response from a commentator (10 minutes), followed by a reply from the presenter (5 minutes), and then some time for discussion. And, fourth, there are group meetings, and I didn't go to any of those. Group meetings are put on by various groups affiliated with the APA -- the Society for Philosphy and Psychology, for example -- and are conducted under their rules. So, I imagine there's a fair bit of variation there.

As said, I don't really like the colloquium set up, for two reasons. I think the 20 minute rule is insane. Philosophical papers have a nasty tendency towards minutiae anyway, and reducing the time of presentation exaggerates this propensity. Both papers today avoided this problem, but they skated pretty close to the line. I also don't like the whole presentation/commentator/reply thing. I get the logic of it -- it's a way to try to get the discussion going, without the danger of the room just going dead because no one wants to talk -- but I don't think it's effective in achieving that goal. A more effective method, I suspect, would be to make papers available some time before the APA, so everyone would have time to consider the arguments and come up with things to say in advance. In practice, the commentary/reply thing becomes little more than a somewhat forced extension of the paper's own dialectic -- better to just give those extra 15 or 20 minutes to the presenter.

First paper was "The Moral Basis of Global Health Aid", by Christopher Lowry and Udo Schüklenk, both of Queen's University. Well, Lowry was of Queen's, but he defended his dissertation and got a job at the Chinese University of Hong Kong -- and hence wasn't able to make the presentation. This left Udo to fly solo, apparently at the last minute. Have to say, he acquitted himself admirably. Very good presentation, very interesting argument.

Here's the gist. There are, according to Lowry and Schüklenk, two approaches to the issue of whether we are morally obligated to provide health aid to the global poor. One they called either the "institutional" or the "political" approach. This derives from work by, e.g., Thomas Pogge, and holds that we are morally obligated to provide aid on a compensatory rationale. That is, national and transnational institutions have created the conditions of global povery and affluence, and thus affluence is due to the existence of poverty elsewhere. Given that the affluent have caused poverty, the affluent are obligated to alleviate poverty. When it comes to health aid, then, insofar as we healthy folks in the West make people elsewhere less healthy (more prone to disease, shorter life expectancy, higher infant mortality, and so on), to just that extent we are obligated to aid those poor. The other approach they called either the "humanitarian" or, probably more accurately, the "utilitarian" approach. This derives from work by, e.g., Peter Singer, and holds that we are morally obligated to provide aid on a reduction of suffering ratoinale. That is, suffering is a moral bad. Insofar as someone can alleviate suffering, they are obligated to do so, as long as the costs sustained in alleviating the suffering are not too great. Given that it would not be too burdensome to give up some of our luxuries in order to ensure that the global poor experience less suffering, we should do so. When it comes to health aid, then, insofar as we healthy folks in the West could, without much cost, do something to make people elsewhere more healthy, thus reducing their suffering, we should do so.

Straightforward enough. Here's the twist. According to Lowry and Schüklenk, the institutional approach has a serious problem with prioritizing who should receive health aid. It's unquestionably true that national institutions have a direct and obvious causal impact on the health of citizens of that state. It's also unquestionably true that measuring the extent of the causal impact on the health of citizens outside the state is very difficult. So, more often than not, a compensatory rationale for aid will entail focusing on domestic health aid rather than international. Improving domestic health aid is not a bad thing, of course. But, often, it doesn't seem as morally pressing or weighty as international health aid, and so the institutional approach is often going to give us the wrong answer.

When it comes to the utilitarian approach, however, with a little modification, it can work quite admirably. We need modification because the undiluted utilitarian approach would give us no way of distinguishing between aiding a needy country with an open, responsive government and aiding a needy country with a dictatorial, corrupt government or currently in a state of civil war. Clearly, if we have to choose between these two countries, we should choose the former, but it's not clear on a pure utilitarian approach why this is justified. Lowry and Schüklenk's suggestion is that we should always prioritize efficiency of aid over need, whenever need is already particularly severe. (So, we shouldn't prioritize efficiency when choosing between a country that needs very little and one that needs very much, but we should prioritize efficiency when choosing between two countries that are both suffering significantly.)

Fair enough, right? Putting aside general worries about utilitarianism, it seems like a tight little argument. I do have one concern, though: namely that the rejection of the institutional rationale seems to turn on a bit of an elision. Institutional rationales are available for harms imposed by national and transnational institutions -- so, national governments and global institutions like the IMF and multinational coporations. The objection on the basis of priority, though, only applies to national institutions. The objection is that institutional rationales will prioritize domestic health over international health, because the causal impact on citizens is easier to measure, and just more obvious, than the causal impact on non-citizens. But transnational institutions have no citizens, by definition. So, why can't they solve the prioritization problem?

One move at this point is to repeat a point raised by, IIRC, Mathias Risse (sorry if that's a misattribution; I'm working off memory here), namely that many poverty-stricken countries can't be helped on a compensatory rationale, because their problems simply aren't caused by affluent nations -- except on some very tortured appeal to "the system", à la Naomi Klein's (laughable) "Shock Doctrine". They aren't integrated into global markets, so no harms are done, so no compensation is owed. As an argument, it's a fine one, but I have no reason to believe that Lowry and Schüklenk would endorse it.

Another move is to suggest that there's some analogue to citizens available when talking about transnational institutions. National institutions have citizens, transnational institutions have members, so transnational institutions are going to favour the needs of their members over the needs of non-members. This is not a bad argument, but it's substantially weaker than the one advanced in the national case. Many transnational institutions have hundreds of member countries, including many of the poorest nations on Earth: examples include the UN, obviously, but also the dreaded IMF. Indeed, the IMF is a telling example, as it (arguably) has directly caused harms which have led to the impoverishment -- and thus poor health states -- of many member countries. So, I suspect the institutional account of the prioritization problem is much stronger than Lowry and Schüklenk have allowed, and more needs to be said about transnational institutions and the compensatory rationale for global health aid. (FWIW, it gets worse if we include multinational corporations in our set of transnational institutions, for participation in the global markets can, arguably, cause harms for which the affluent owe compensation to the poor. I say "arguably" here, BTW, because participation in global markets may actually help more than it hurts.)

Good paper, though. I enjoyed it.

Next was David DeGrazia of George Washington University on "Obligations to Future Generations". Here's the gist of this argument. Basically, it's a logical problem: we have competing intuitions about what makes certain kinds of conduct towards future generations wrong, and it's difficult to find a way to make them gel together.

Intuitively, we have obligations towards future generations. DeGrazia considered environmental stewardship, but we could pick many different sorts of cases. The important point is that we do some morally obligated in certain ways towards future generations. And this includes not only those people who currently exist and will be part of the "future generations" (so, children, infants, etc.) but also people who don't exist yet. But, there's a problem with people who don't exist yet. Drawing off Derek Parfit, this is called the "non-identity problem".

Suppose we don't adopt any policy to reverse environmental damage. Environmental damage occurs, and people who live in the future -- say, 200 years in the future -- live in a degraded environmental state. They don't lead bad lives, their lives are still worth living, but they do face some problems. They should have reason to resent us, and believe we have done something morally wrong. But, suppose that the policy we could take would actually cause at least some of these people to not exist. That is, in one scenario, the policy is not adopted, damage occurs, and some group of people come into existence, who resent and blame us for our failure. In the other scenario, the policy is adopted, damage does not occur -- and other things change as a consequence -- and a different group of people come into existence. What, then, is the basis -- maybe there isn't a basis -- for the resentment and blame towards us of the people in the first scenario?

One possible basis is harm. But it's hard to make that work. The alternative to the first scenario, ex hypothesi, is the second scenario. Living a decent life in a degraded world is not a harm when compared to non-existence. DeGrazia worked through a few definitions of harm in order to make this point.

Another possible basis is rights violation. Again, though, it's hard to make that work. The problem here is identifying a plausible, non-waived right which has been violated for the future generations. It can't be a right to exist in a non-compromised environment, because no one has a right to exist at all. It can't be a right to have a non-compromised environment, because that would likely be waived in order to exist at all. It can't be a right to, if one exists, exist in a non-compromised environment, for that right can be satisfied both by existence in a non-compromised environment and by non-existence (in other words, we lose the wrong completely). And there aren't any other obvious candidates.

What DeGrazia turned to instead, then, was an idea of negligence. Part of what is wrong about damaging the environment so it affects future generations is that we have failed to be certain kinds of people: concerned, interested, careful, and so on. Which gets part of the idea, but DeGrazia notes that there still seems to be some sort of harm-like thing involved here. There is negligence, that is, but it's not just negligence; there's a moral difference, that is, between just leaving the stove on and leaving the stove on and burning the apartment building down. So, DeGrazia invokes Parfit's idea of impersonal harm, but within limits. Personal harm -- harm done to someone by someone/something -- is our usual idea of harm, and applies in most cases. But, in non-identity cases, we need an impersonal view of harm, which views harm as producing a state of affairs that is worse off than it otherwise would be.

Thus, our obligations to future generations are grounded on our negligence in failing to perform certain actions, and in impersonal harm to the state of affairs that would exist given what we have done or failed to do.

I have two concerns with DeGrazia's account -- while appreciating how ridiculously careful and tight the argument is. The first is with regard to the metaphysics of impersonal harm. I can understand how there is personal harm -- we take something away from someone that they had (diachronic view) or that they would have had (counterfactual view). The metaphysics of the former is unmysterious -- the thing was theirs and now it is not -- and the metaphysics of the latter is unmysterious insofar as the metaphysics of counterfactuals is unmysterious. But how can there be impersonal harm? Well, I suppose we're going to have to import the diachronic and counterfactual notions and simply relate them to states of affairs. But this is when it gets weird, because the harm done to persons is based on taking away something that they had. The notion of "having" (which is at least quasi-ownership, if not ownership outright; think of the case of theft as a diachronic harm) is doing some work here. In the impersonal case, nothing "has" the state of affairs that is lost (diachronically) or failed to obtain (counterfactually). All we have, then, is difference -- so, what's the basis, metaphysically, for calling one state of affairs a harm and the other not a harm?

The second is with regards to the appeal to negligence. While I understand and accept that negligence is a matter of virtue, in the sense that negligence displays a kind of character defect -- lack of sufficient concern or some such -- I don't know how to unpack the notion of "lack of sufficient concern" without appealing to harm. A lack of sufficient concern seems to me to be measured in terms of whether I am concerned about the harms I do or might do. If I don't care about the interests of others and how my actions affect them, then I am not sufficiently concerned, and am negligent. I suppose we could go Aristotelian and appeal to the idea of a mean, and "lack of sufficient concern" is considered a deficiency, somehow falling short of a threshold point of interest in others. But that doesn't really help, for how do we fix the point of sufficient concern without making reference to harm? How can I say that this much concern is enough without claiming that it's the point at which I am interested in how my actions affect others' interests, i.e., the extent to which I harm them? So, the appeal to negligence might turn out to be vacuous, and this account really works out to being based on harm. And then the worries about impersonal harm come to the fore.

Enjoyed this paper, too, but I think the session was going a bit long at this point. Not a lot of questions, and everyone seemed ready to go. Too bad, as I think DeGrazia's paper was conceptually quite rich.

Overall, this has been a mixed bag for me. I still think this conference was organized in a way that was basically punitive towards graduate students, and mildly abusive towards junior faculty, for that matter. The job services are terrible, and the job market itself is awful. It really wouldn't have killed anyone to go out of their way to be a little friendlier to grad students, in light of the extra burdens we're being expected to bear. Instead, the attitude was generally quite unfriendly. For example, I saw a faculty member who is rather prominent in my academic history (not naming names) who walked right by me. Possibly I don't look the way I used to, but I suspect I was deliberately ignored.

But, the sessions I did manage to go to, although not particularly friendly, were at least interesting and entertaining and got me thinking about various issues I maybe hadn't thought that much about before. So, to that extent, it was fruitful. I think I need to get in to some of the smaller philosophical groups, though, so that I might have a better chance of getting into some informal conversations with people. That might also cure the unfriendliness I sensed at this, rather large and impersonal, conference.

Too perfect to not share.

At Rate Your Students, a post on the importance of not being an interchangeable drone when on the job market. It's about MLA, not APA, but the principle applies, I think.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

APA Eastern Division: Day 3

[EDITS: Minor typo, added a section.]

Before getting into today's recollections, I need to say a few words in response to an email correspondent. I won't post the email or the emailer's name (unless I'm really provoked, that is). But, in essence, my correspondent raised a worry about my blogging about the APA. (There were a number of other issues raised as well, which I am treating with generalized bemusement, for reasons I won't go into here.) The basic concern was that a hiring committee, or philosophers in general, might look askance at what I am saying, or the manner in which I am saying it. So, let me address this, before turning to today's events.

I've talked about the tone thing before on the blog. I've lost track of where the post is, and I don't see a handy search function to find it for me. I have offline archives which I could search with Windows' search, but they're not accessible to me right now. The basic idea is that complaints about "tone" are, in my view, usually complaints about content, but wearing silly hats and false mustaches. Actual complaints about content I take seriously, but dolling them up in nonsense is unimpressive. So, putting that aside, let's talk about content.

If folks who stumble across this blog just looking for information on who I am when I'm not at work, then they're free to peruse the archives. Indeed, if they ask, I'll make some recommendations for things I think are interesting, illustrative, or just plain fun. That kind of approach is fine with me, because it's just expressive of curiosity. There's nothing sinister or malicious about being curious. I like people who are curious.

On the other hand, if they're looking for dirt -- i.e., reasons not to interview or not to hire me, or reasons not to publish me, or reasons to treat me badly in person -- then I'd rather they didn't bother. Because -- and this is a general rule of mine -- I have no interest in associating with someone who thinks like that. I mean, think about it. Why would I? Why would anyone? Why associate with someone who's always looking for reasons to despise or reject you? I may not have the world's greatest social skills, but I at least understand this much: when you meet someone and you're trying to build any kind of relationship, personal, professional, or what have you, you start by looking for the good things. Okay, maybe you don't like the jokes this person tells. But at least they're telling jokes: they're trying to amuse you. Steer them over to things you find more entertaining. Maybe you don't like the way this person dresses. Unless you're a fashion-plate, though, are you really in a position to criticize? And, who knows: if you become a good friend, maybe you could help. They won't stop talking about their kids? Smile, look interested, try to change the subject over to something mutually compelling. Looking for negative things is a deliberate attempt to destroy a relationship before it even starts. You can't win with someone like that, no matter what you do, so I don't propose to try. (And I strongly advise readers not to bother, either.)

It's also important to note that this is a blog, and a public one with a diverse readership at that. The role I play as the author of this is distinct from the role I play as an instructor or as a philosophical writer. (There are overlaps, of course; they're all still me.) I had hoped that most adults understood this simple point. There's actually a commerical on right now, for Iams cat food, if I recall correctly, which makes the point. A young man is lying on his porch, playing with his cat -- scratching its chin, calling it pet names, and so on. A cleared throat interrupts them; the guy sits up, and his buddy stands there with a perturbed look on his face, then comments that they're about to miss their tee time. Cut to product shot and tagline. It's funny (insofar as it's funny) because of the role collision: how the guy behaves with his cat is distinct from how he behaves with his buddy. But everyone knows that everyone is like this. So, anyone who stumbles across this blog and thinks it's any kind of a guide to how I would be as an instructor, a researcher, and/or a colleague would have to be either ignorant of, or deliberately neglecting, one of the most basic aspects of human social interaction. Goes back to the previous point: this is an attempt to destroy a relationship before it starts, and I don't propose to play along.

Basically, acknowledge the context. Some comments I make on the blog are jokes for everyone. Some things I write for my own amusement. Some are meant quite seriously. And not everything wears a neon sign around its neck, saying what it is. That's all appropriate, given it's a blog. It wouldn't be appropriate at an APA presentation, or in an article for submission, or in front of a class, but so what? It also wouldn't be appropriate for me to speak to my wife the same way I speak to my mailman (or vice versa). Context matters.

"But," I hear the objection start, "it's a highly competitive job market this year, even moreso than normal. Do you really want to give a hiring committee reasons not to hire you?"

This objection is founded on a seriously mistaken assumption, namely that success or failure on the job market (and I speak of the philosophical job market, but it applies mutatis mutandis to the academy broadly and, I suspect, the job market per se) are due to personal successes or failings, respectively. This is mistaken -- by which I mean, of course, false -- because the criteria by which people are selected for interviews, campus visits, and job offers have at least as much to do with factors related to the hiring committee or person as they do those related to the job seeker. In the most likely scenario, you didn't get an interview, a campus visit and/or a job because the market's so ridiculously tight that every candidate was perfectly capable and qualified. The selection could not be made on grounds that have anything to do with the position or the candidate. So, the decision was made on grounds that are entirely outside the candidate's control.

I've been on the other side of the table a few times, in non-academic circumstances. Trust me: if you get interviewed, you qualify. No one wastes their time interviewing unqualified people. The process of being interviewed -- and, in the academy, of the campus visit -- are to see if they like you. And that's not always within your control. Sometimes people just don't get along. It's not that anyone involved is a bad or unlikable person, but that these people just don't like each other.

These decisions are often blamed on the candidate, of course: "we couldn't hire that weird guy", "he didn't know anything about Kant's letter to his landlord of March 13th, 1768", "he's never taught Derrida to nursing students", and so on. But that's a matter of making hiring committees refusing to own their decisions. (Note: not "failing"; not owning a decision is itself a decision.) You can see this expressed as well in the bizarre tendency to write rejection letters in the passive voice. Not all universities do this, of course. I've received some very cordial rejections which I have no objection to -- except the obvious "they were rejections!" thing. But, seriously, the following is barely a parody:
Dear (candidate),

Your application will not be pursued further at this time. Many applications were received, and yours did not qualify.


(some guy)
Key here is that these sorts of rejection letters are instances of the tendency to pretend that no agents are involved in hiring decisions. And this, I suspect, is an attempt to evade responsibility for the decision. It's not necessarily motivated by malice, of course. It's hard to say no to hiring someone in circumstances such as these, when not hiring someone might mean they never get the job they've worked years to earn. That's an awful burden to bear. But, honestly people: bear it. Avoiding the responsibility doesn't mean that you haven't (potentially) killed someone's dream. It means you don't want to accept it.

This applies at all levels of the process; you see it again and again and again. Large institutions like universities are good at diffusing responsibility to the point where no one is responsible. The application was rejected -- not that someone decided it wasn't good enough. The market's bad -- not that people have made decisions which made the market bad. The funding didn't come through -- not that someone in the upper administration decided to pull the funding. It's all nonsense. Someone, somewhere, made a decision, and needs to bear the responsibility for that decision. If you can't bear it, maybe you should make a different decision?

I don't mean to say that it's impossible to shoot yourself in the foot professionally. Personal factors that the individual can control do matter. You can misspell someone's name in your cover letter, forget to send in a CV, and so on. It makes sense to worry about things like this; but these are broad issues. Minor issues -- such as having a low-traffic blog where you occasionally make snide jokes about your professional association -- if they ever come up, come up because you are otherwise qualified and the committee is fishing for some arbitrary ground on which to base their decision. It's not any less arbitrary because it's rationalized in this way or that. If I closed up this blog, or changed everything to sweetness and light, those who didn't want to hire me would still find some factor that they could blame it on. Again: evasion of responsibility for killing someone's dream because, basically, you just didn't like them.

I want to emphasize I understand why hiring committees might want to avoid this responsibility -- because it is quite a heavy burden -- and I understand why hiring committees might not want to admit the reason for their decisions. I don't accept either as good reasons, but I do see what the reasons are.

[Added] Another objection: "But what will you do if you don't get a tenure-track job in philosophy?"

[Added] What the thousands of others who don't get TT jobs in philosophy do (or should do, rather than clinging on as adjuncts): move on. The market's been terrible for years, and that's not changing any time soon. Indeed, it's going to get worse. I'm not kidding when I say that we're looking at the end of the humanities in American universities. Counting on a TT job is insanity. It'd be a nice job to have, a job I think I could do and would very much enjoy doing. I think I could make important contributions to a department, to students' intellectual growth, and to the philosophical literature. But I'm not fooling myself into thinking it's even remotely likely that I will get a TT job. There just ain't enough jobs. (And, given that, it makes even less sense to make personal compromises in order to get such a job.) If it doesn't happen, then I accept the dream is dead, and find another dream.

So, that's done. Moving on with Day 3.

Up not terribly early today, as I didn't have a session I wanted to go to until 1:15. When I got down to Times Square, it was really friggin' cold. I'm not looking forward to going out to get dinner tonight. Ick. Wind was like a friggin' knife, coiling through the spaces in between all those huge buildings. (Yeah, yeah, mixed metaphor, "coiled knife". Whatever.) Got to the Marriott, and there seemed to be something else going on, too. The Marriott contains the Marquis theatre, which is currently showing Irving Berlin's White Christmas: The Musical. I suspect there was a matinee today, hence why there were lots of tourists wandering around, and Christmas music playing in the lobby. (Which you could hear pretty much everywhere in the hotel -- it might even have been piped through the PA, I'm not sure.) Bah, humbug, says I.

Got to the session on "Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mind" -- which was a weird title, and I'm not entirely sure who came up with it. "Evolution and the Mind" might have been more appropriate, as the first talk didn't really talk about Darwin or Darwinism, and the second was in part about distinguishing Darwin, Darwinism and evolution. But, whatever. Interesting talks, both.

First was from Karen Neander of Duke University, called "An Argument for Biosemantics". Here's the gist. Biosemantics is the view that the content of mental representations ("mental content") ontologically depends on features of biology. In particular, the view Neander was defending was that mental content is explained by normative biological functions. Normative biological functions were unpacked as biological functions which allow for the possibility of malfunction (that's the normativity). And the argument turned on rejecting the claim that physiological study proceeds without relying on such normative functions, established on the basis of a quick quasi-sociological examination of physiological practice, and an a priori argument about the impossibility of doing physiology without normative functions. The examination was of titles and abstracts of papers in physiological journals, intended to establish that physiologists do frequently rely on these sorts of normative functions, in the most casual and commonplace sort of way. And the a priori argument noted that, given the tremendous range of variation in complex living systems such as human beings, it was very unlikely that we would be able to present token-level causal analyses of the functions of these systems, and would thus have to appeal to more general functions, which would necessarily be normative. (For going general requires abstracting away from the actual functioning of any particular system, and thus requires that we capture both the well- and poorly-functioning system.) There was a lot more, but that's the basics.

Neander pointed out that this is a condensed version of two chapters of a book, and I really want to read the book now. I've been getting more and more interested in the biological underpinnings of normative notions, and a robustly worked-out semantics based on biology could, I think, provide some useful lessons for areas of practical philosophy, including philosophy of action, ethics, and politics.

One thing I do wonder about, though, is whether there's a presumed scientism underneath the argument, which bears a lot of the logical burden. (That's not necessarily a bad thing, I just wonder if it's there.) That is, Neander seems to be assuming that philosophical theorizing needs to follow scientific practice, and thus we can't, in philosophy, concoct an understanding of mental content which is at odds with how science is done. I'm not sure what argument supports this claim, though, as opposed to a broad and presumptive committment to a certain limited sort of naturalism. Even the a priori argument seems to have this problem, in that it actually doesn't rule out the possibility that the limit here is epistemological rather than ontological, i.e., that the problem with providing a causal analysis of the functions of a complex system is not that there must be normative biological functions, but that we must presume normative biological functions, given our failings as knowers. It's possible, of course, that Neander would be sympathetic to this move, as it's rather like Dennett's intentional stance. But I'm not sure.

(See, this is my problem about conferences: I come up with good questions a few hours after the paper's been delivered! Hey, APA: how 'bout making it mandatory that papers be made available beforehand?)

Decent question and answer session, but I think Neander made a tactical error -- one I've made many, many times (you'd think I'd learn) -- in that she mentioned a particular way that she would take the theory of biosemantics beyond this stage. That is, Neander believes that the normative biological functions in question are "teleo-functions", i.e., the phenotypes of the system that were selected for. This is apparently controversial as a theory of content (I'm not up on that debate), and the first questions seemed to fix on that point, rather than on whether she'd established the very idea of biosemantics or not. One interesting question -- couldn't see questioner's nametag from where I was, unfortunately -- noted that other sciences, besides physiology, seem to get along without invoking normative functions, instead relying on a set of paradigm cases which are theoretically useful, and variations from these paradigms. That is, rather than using the ideas of normal and abnormal function, a science like ecology might point to cases which are paradigms and theoretically useful (heuristics, if you like), and cases which differ from the paradigms. Neander allowed that different sciences may have different needs here, which is an odd move to my way of thinking. It seems to me that her notion of normativity is no different from this notion of paradigms and divergence: to be normal/well-functioning vs. abnormal/malfunctioning seems the same as the idea of paradigm cases and cases that differ. Perhaps the idea was that there could be cases in physiology wherein the normal case is actually rather rare, possibly due to the spread of some disease throughout a population. But nothing about the notion of a paradigm requires that the case be typical or common; a paradigm is just a useful set of generalizations which can be used as a baseline. So, maybe the idea was that this is too epistemological a take, and insufficiently ontological? But that goes back to my previous worry.

Five minute break, wherein I rushed across the floor to the other washroom, thus avoiding the line at the one close to the meeting room, and came back for the next talk. I missed the title, unfortunately; I think it was something like "Darwinism and Multigenomic Variation", but it's possible I cobbled that together from some concepts mentioned in the talk. This one was from John Dupré of Exeter University.

Dupré basically had two aims. First to upset the idea that Darwinist/neo-Darwinist ideas were good, contemporary evolutionary biology. Second to point out that if we want to understand the evolution of the mind, we need to walk away from neo-Darwinian approaches like evolutionary psychology. This was a talk with some pretty hardcore biology, so I was scrambling just to keep up. Here's the sense I got from it. Darwin was an important historical figure to science, who made many amazing contributions. However, neo-Darwinism, the way of doing biology which emerged from his thinking, has really had its day. Neo-Darwinism's problems are basically two. First, it makes erroneous claims about how biological variations enter a population. Second, it overlooks the importance of cooperation in addition to competition. And, third, it leads us to make morally bad claims about human nature.

With regards to the first, Dupré made a number of claims about interesting cases in biology. Way too many for me to note down. The basic thought is that genetic change doesn't work in the way neo-Darwinists think it does; and that genetic change is not the only mechanism of biological change. So, for example, Dupré discussed the well-known image of the "tree of life" (see here, for example), so-called because all species "branch" out from a more fundamental "limb", all leading back to a common "trunk". As far as Dupré was concerned, this works, but only to a point, because it focuses too much attention on eukaryotes, and ignores other forms of life, such as viruses. Viruses, he claimed, transfer a lot of their genetic material laterally, not by branching. That is, in effect, viruses intermingle and interbreed, thus sharing genetic material in ways not captured by neo-Darwinism. He also claimed that other creatures, such as ducks, have been known to do this, too.

He also made the obvious point that the process of change doesn't have to be genetic, as such. Again, many examples were brought up. If I understood the example right, apparently mother rats can change the sex of their babies depending on how they raise them. This is an environmental mechanism of biological change, rather than a genetic one. The idea of cultural evolution was also discussed, as a possible modern-day version of Lamarckianism.

When it comes to cooperation and competition, neo-Darwinism does leave a role for cooperation. But it's supplementary to competition: we cooperate, according to neo-Darwinian understandings, in order to compete more successfully. Cooperation plays a much broader role than this, according to Dupré. He noted, for example, that we can find vast numbers of cooperating creatures, many, many more than would make sense from a neo-Darwinian perspective. Apparently, there is a colony of ants on the coast of southern Europe that stretches for about 3,600 miles (not a typo) and contains billions of members, who are genetically quite diverse. Neo-Darwinian theories can't explain this, only suggest that it will prove to be unstable -- which really amounts to saying that they can't explain it.

How does this relate to the mind? Well, there is a neo-Darwinian story to be told here, under the rubric of evolutionary psychology. Dupré pointed out the following basic argument, as a crude gloss on what evolutionary psychologists have to say: evolution is selection for genes; genes make brains; and brains cause behaviour. Hence, if we want to understand behaviour, we need to understand how evolution made our genetic code into what it is. Dupré attacked this on a number of grounds, some of which simply followed from what I've summarized above. (e.g., this assumes that genetic change is the only mechanism of biological change.) Interestingly new and different, though, was the point that this view of human nature -- mind and behaviour -- is actually morally bad. That is, the neo-Darwinian gloss on psychology leads us to attribute our current thoughts and actions to distant historical causes which having nothing to do with the actions of institutions or individuals. This becomes alienating, disempowering, and fundamentally conservative.

As I say, this was a heavy, heavy talk, with lots of biological hardware involved that I didn't fully understand. I really enjoyed it, though: Dupré is a hell of a speaker, and he clearly knows his stuff. (Not that Neander was bad, just that, IMHO, Dupré was better.) You can tell he spends more time talking to scientists than philosophers, as he didn't read his paper, and made heavy use of PowerPoint. (He even thanked the sponsors of his research institute at Exeter!) I didn't stick around for the questions as I was concerned they might confuse me even further on the details of the science.

I have the same sort of worry about Dupré's approach as I did about Neander's, though. It's not clear to me why we're deferring to the science to this extent. Maybe neo-Darwinism doesn't work as a model of biology, but how does it follow from that that it fails as a model of the mind? While this might have bad moral consequences, it's equally possible it'll have good ones, in that it'll eliminate our presumption that we have power over areas where we don't.

I am sympathetic to both Dupré's and Neander's projects -- hence why I want to read Neander's book, and I want to find out if Dupré has one -- but I'm worried about the arguments they're marshalling for them. It's a sort of naturalism that I really don't have a lot of truck with; it takes science as the arbiter of what is or is not natural, overlooking the fact that "natural" is itself a contested concept which can only be analyzed by stepping outside disciplines, like science, which presume a certain conception of it. That doesn't necessarily mean philosophy, but it could, and I would really like to know more about the view of nature which underlies Neander's and Dupré's views.

Not adding the tweets for today as, except for some sarcastic shout-outs to hypothetical hiring committees, they don't really say much more than I've said here. Note to mysterious correspondent left unnamed at the top of this post: if hiring committees are looking at my series on the APA, and they only read the material you claim to be concerned about, overlooking the plethora of other material in today's post, should I be more or less inclined to try to conform to their expectations?

[Added] Boo and, indeed, ya.

Monday, December 28, 2009

APA Eastern Division: Day 2

Today didn't start terribly well. Didn't go well overall, really. I didn't sleep much last night, for some reason, and was operating on about four hours sleep when I got up. But get up I did, and headed off to first session -- left about 8:20, to make a 9:00 session.

Times Square was less crazy than last night, at least in terms of pedestrians. Still a ridiculous number of cars, and all those lights are still on. Lunacy!

Got to the Marriott Marquis on time. And the place was pretty much deserted. I did run into Alice MacLachlan as she was heading out to grab some breakfast before meeting up, I presume, with York folks who have interviews. I don't begrudge that, BTW: it makes perfect sense. I'm just reporting what I figured she was doing. She suggested that I might want to go to the Society for Women in Philosophy session, which is who's awarding Lorraine Code the Distinguished Woman Philosopher of 2009 (looked up the name this time). I'm pretty confident no one missed me.

When I got upstairs, there were a few latecomers at the registration windows, but everyone else seemed to be having a late morning. Or, more likely, everyone was busy mingling with folks they already knew. I'm pretty sure the cafe/atrium area was largely taken over by philosophers, but philosophers sitting in departmental groups. Remember that scene in Mean Girls where Lizzy Caplan is explaining all the various cliques in the cafeteria? I could have done that. "You got your perpetual grad students, desperate postdocs, well-funded postdocs, burned-out postdocs, tenured profs who haven't published in decades, tenured profs who haven't had a good idea in decades, tenure-track profs at 2-year colleges bitching about research institutions..." (See, it's not funny 'cause it's true.)

In any event, not what you'd call a lot of opportunities to get to know people. So, I went to the Placement Service. For those out of the know: the Placement Service is a complete misnomer. It is, in fact, no such thing. A genuine "placement service" would coordinate applications and job ads, provide job search support services, and generally help to get you employed.

This Placement Service has two bulletin boards set up, one for listing where the universities that are interviewing are interviewing, and one for listing any new jobs (grand total: 2; welcome to the end of the humanities in North American universities). It also has a series of boxes -- y'know, banker's boxes -- with numbered manila folders. When you register, you get assigned one of those folders. In the folders: two "interview request" forms and one "information" form. The info form is basically name, affiliation and contact info, in case anyone wants to contact you for a late interview (insert hollow laughter). The interview request forms are if you're either (a) too stupid to have applied to jobs before the convention or (b) applying to any of the jobs that have just appeared at the convention. If you want to do so, you fill in the form, attach a CV (which you have to provide -- no printers or photocopiers available), and drop it in a plastic container reserved for the purpose. If universities bother to reply to you, they'll return the form to your manila folder in the banker's box.

Oh, and, there's a bunch of chairs where you can collapse and wonder why the fates have cursed you with curiosity and intelligence. I'd put up a picture of the room, but it's pretty depressing, frankly. At least the APA staff manning the registration table seemed to be enjoying themselves. Someone should be, eh?

After that, I found the room where there was one session I wanted to go to -- the Society for Empirical Ethics meeting, talking about virtue and moral development, from both philosophical and psychological perspectives -- but it had already begun and, frankly, looked clique-y. Again. I checked the schedule, realized I didn't really care about the rest of the sessions, and left. The whole setup is weird, BTW. Sessions are spread across multiple floors, and meeting rooms are all on the edges of the floors -- there's this open section in the middle running all the way up the building, where the elevators are. It has to be a couple hundred feet from side to side of the floors. (NB: I tend to be very, very bad at estimating size and distance. So, "a couple of hundred feet" works out "takes probably 20 seconds to walk from one side to the other". However big that is.) And, except for the rooms, and the registration windows on the fifth floor, there's nothing in between. Carpet, walls, a few chairs. No signage. Nothing cool to look at. No one standing around. No staff, except occasional hotel staff. Very, very weird. Barren.

There's supposed to be some sort of gathering this evening. Officially, it's a "reception". Unofficially, it's called the "smoker", harkening back to the days when the ballroom would slowly fill with smoke as the evening progressed. Cash bar, as far as I know. No food, again as far as I know. And, yet again, everyone gathers around their little clique-y groups -- either old cronies or departmental colleagues. That's not just me being paranoid; that's actually how it's set up. Departments and groups reserve tables at the reception, and everyone gathers at their own little table. Occasionally, ingratiating suck-ups try to talk up famous philosophers who have deigned to show their faces; given how shitty the job market is, I suspect famous philosophers will skip it for fear that the sucking up will never end.

It's been suggested that I show up and stick my head in the room, just to see what it's like, but to hell with it: I don't see any reason to show up just to hang out with the few other York folks that are here. As a grad student with no publications, no one else is going to be remotely interested in talking to me. (And most of the York folks that are here have interviews, so they have their own problems to deal with.) No, I'm not going to have a drink and try to strike up conversations with people. First, the smoker, from what I know, is an opportunity for job candidates to try to firm up the impression they made in interview, and for everyone else to meet up with people they haven't seen for a while. Neither applies to me, and it's not fun being the only guy in the choir who doesn't know the words. Second, I don't drink, so "social lubricants" aren't able to help me.

It's pretty clear to me that this thing was organized by tenured philosophy professors, for tenured philosophy professors. It caters to their interests, almost exclusively. Lots of opportunities for them to collect together and talk, in a big expensive hotel in a big expensive city. Very few opportunities, if you're not already well-connected, to do pretty much anything. Unless you happen to be highly gregarious and personable; but, really, neither you nor I has much by way of advanced social skills, right? (I'm an academic writing a blog... and you're reading it.)

If it was organized for the interests of everyone, there'd be some sort of actual reception, with food, wherein folks would be strongly encouraged to mingle with people they didn't already know. (A sit-down banquet would guarantee that, but I suspect that might be a bit out of the APA's price range.) It'd be somewhere reasonably priced, so everyone can stay at the same hotel and get into informal meetings and discussions. There'd be services that actually helped with things like planning your trip, getting a job, getting published, and so on. (And, yes, if I ran the world, everyone would get a pony.)

I'm pretty down on the profession right now, in case you haven't entirely figured it out. I find the problems of philosophy interesting, but I don't find the process of publishing interesting at all, and "big conferences" like this one are coming off as quite alienating and intimidating. So, yeah. Not sure where to go with this career path.

Will try it all again tomorrow. This time, I'll be sure to stick around and float through the book publishers' exhibits -- maybe that would trigger some conversations? -- and see if I can find a less clique-y meeting. Something on the Main Program rather than the Group Program might be a better idea. Still, we'll see. For now, I'm trying to hammer out a dissertation chapter.

Oh, pictures from today (the links are repeated below, in the Tweets section): - Interview room (sorry for the blur). Note how small it is -- you can see the back and both sides of the room. Usually, I'm told, the room can hold about 150 tables. There's maybe half that number this year, and most were unoccupied when I stopped by. - A safety pin. ROFL. Shows you how badly planned this really is. Seriously, folks, you can get plastic sleeves for these badges which have metal clips attached -- clips which don't require putting holes in your clothes. They can't be that much more than buying the safety pins, and taking the time to shove them through the sleeves.


Maybe I need to start my own association? Might solve the not knowing anyone/not being interested in sessions problem. #APA #APAEastern about 7 hours ago from TweetDeck - Interview room (sorry for blur). about 7 hours ago from TwitPic

Yeah, I'm calling it a day. Maybe I can bang out a chapter this afternoon/evening. #APA #APAEastern about 8 hours ago from txt

Two things learned about myself: I really don't miss going to classes; and I really stink at meeting new people. #APA #APAEastern about 9 hours ago from txt

Not sure what to do. Missed first half of really only interesting session today. Second half may not work. #APA #APAEastern about 9 hours ago from txt

Two things, neither of which should surprise me, but: this is a very unfriendly conference. And philosophers dress badly. #APA #APAEastern about 9 hours ago from txt

Placement area is filling up. Depressing to see folks worrying who HAVE interviews. #APA #APAEastern about 9 hours ago from txt

Really can't shake the feeling I don't belong here. #APA #APAEastern about 9 hours ago from txt

That was the nearly deserted interview room, BTW. Think I'm skipping first session and looking for breakfast. about 10 hours ago from txt

I know I promised pictures of desperate job-seekers, but no-one's here. Two new job ads, neither worth the effort. #APA #APAEastern about 10 hours ago from txt

First things first: registering in the placement room. #APA #APAEastern about 10 hours ago from txt

At the Marriott. Times Square less people. Still crazy lights. Ran into first York person I've seen (Alice MacLachlan). #APA #APAEastern about 10 hours ago from txt - A safety pin. ROFL #APA #APAEastern about 11 hours ago from TwitPic

Off to morning session. #APA #APAEastern about 11 hours ago from txt

Sunday, December 27, 2009

APA Eastern Division: Day 1

Typical. I was just about to tweet from the APA Eastern today, only to have my phone's battery run out. So, here's today's events, from my fortunately inimitable perspective.

Took the train in from Queens to Times Square at about 4:30 or so. Times Square was a zoo. You could barely move for people. I don't know if that's usual or not, not being a New Yorker, but imagine the busiest day you've ever seen in Toronto or Vancouver -- so, probably New Year's Eve. It was like that, and it was just regular traffic. Insane.

Got through that and wound up at the hotel, the Marriott Marquis on Broadway. Nice hotel. Big, well-appointed. Way out of my price range, hence why I'm coming in from Queens. Up to the fifth floor for registration, which was, frankly, out of control. Two windows and two lines, one for pre-registered people to pick up their materials -- conference badge plus program -- and one for people registering at the convention (like me!). There had to be a hundred people in the registration line. The wait was about 45 minutes.

There were a couple of tables set up with various bits of literature -- calls for papers, announcements of other upcoming meetings, etc. Nothing even remotely interesting; it struck me that the tables were there for the no-hopers and cranks. The Ayn Rand Society, for example, and something about the philosophical significance of the Batman mythos. The one useful thing was an announcement of something I already knew, that Lorraine Code was receiving an award for, I think (I may get this name wrong), Woman Philosopher of the Year.

I also got talked to by some guy from, if I recall correctly, Edwin Merrell Press. He claimed to be the editor of the press, and he was handing out pamphlets -- which, if it were twenty years ago, I would refer to as "mimeographed" -- of their alleged publications. He started soliciting some girl in front of me, who was from U Notre Dame, trying to get her contact info and convince her to publish her dissertation with them. He offered me the pamphlet, too, but I think he got the "fuck off" vibe pretty clearly and didn't try too hard to sell it.

Interestingly, he also didn't try to sell it to anyone else in line. I guess we both gave off a "grad student" aura, and she looked more vulnerable, hence he homed in on her. She was actually trembling slightly, I thought. I won't give out her name, but I've checked her academic webpage, and I think she's on the job market this year, too. Enlightened despair is an acquired attitude, and fear/panic much more natural.

Back to the story. Basically, the guy was a scammer. If you've never heard of a press, it's academically useless. The only reason to go with it is if you want to sell lots of books -- academic presses aren't always good at getting books sold, and some commercial publishers are not well-known, but are nonetheless capable of shifting significant amounts of books. But that kind of publisher would lead with sales information, not with "hey, we publish dissertations!" Publishing dissertations is bullshit vanity publishing that does jack for your academic reputation, and less for your impact on the wider world. You may as well self-publish it -- at least then you'd retain the copyright. So, yeah. Not impressive that he was there -- and, indeed, not impressive that he had an official-looking badge. (But, given he was just wandering around the registration lines, it's possible he made that himself.)

[Okay, just looked it up. It's not a scam, as far as I can tell, so that's not a fair way to characterize the guy. He could also be easily taken as a hustler, trying too hard to sell too little. Here's the Wikipedia page: it's Edwin Mellen Press. And down at the bottom of this page, we find something relatively salacious, which seems to confirm my dubious impression:
Warren St. John deems Edwin Mellen Press a vanity publisher capitalizing on the desperation of credential-hungry academics. St. John also finds that the Press's offshore adjunct, Mellen University, is little more than a diploma mill. After the exposé, Mellen chief Herbert Richardson, a former University of Toronto religion professor, accuses LF of libel and sues for $15 million. He loses. In September 1994, St. Michael's College, where Richardson holds tenure, dismisses him for "gross misconduct."

Anyway. Got that out of my system. Felt bad for the girl, but she needs to learn -- and, besides, she's at U Notre Dame, they'll take good care of her. (Unlike other universities I could name, *coff*splutter*York*hack*wheeze*. Seriously, why do I have to do everything myself and on my own?)

After I got registered, which was thankfully easy -- I had worried they didn't get my membership renewal, as I hadn't gotten any sort of confirmation -- and looked around for something to do. And... there wasn't anything. There was only one set of sessions tonight, and nothing in them that looked particularly interesting. One might have been okay, but it also might have gone into neuroscience/cognitive science hell. (Not that I object to those areas, but they're a hell of a lot easier to deal with when written, so you can review them repeatedly, rather than when spoken.) I suppose I could have registered with the job placement service, but I figure I can do that tomorrow morning, as well as go and take a look around the real book publishers, who are supposed to be set up tomorrow.

So, I came back, around 7:45. Had Mickey Dees. Kinda diggin' Queens, incidentally; reminds me of East Van, where I used to live. And also liked, except for the hookers on the corners. Not that they were bad people or anything, but they didn't attract a good crowd. No obvious hookers around here -- note I did say "obvious". Oh, and, the fact that the building I lived in was a firetrap. Seriously: a fuse blew once, and we took the panel off 'cause we thought we saw smoke, and the whole thing behind was fused. I'll tell y'all sometime about the time we had a flood, too. This hotel is pretty decent -- two-star, so safe, warm, decent bed, city accessible by transit.

Plan for tomorrow: go out early, register for placement, see what's going on with the Society for Empirical Ethics, look at books. I'd never heard of the society before, incidentally, but they look like they do things I'd be really into, and they have two sessions tomorrow. So, could be good. Or, could be one of those things where you feel like a third wheel 'cause everyone knows everyone else. Whatever. I can always come back here and write. Haven't yet decided if I'm going to the infamous smoker or not. It seems to be only useful if you're going to meet people, or if you've been interviewed and want to be available to your interviewers. Neither applies to me.

Famous people seen (not met or spoken to, of course) today:

Trying to work out how I could post things to twitpic for tomorrow....

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Live-blogging the APA Eastern Division.

Well, live-tweeting, anyway.

The American Philosophical Association Eastern Division meeting gets underway tomorrow evening, running until Wednesday afternoon. And guess who's sitting in a hotel in Queens, getting ready to go to it tomorrow? If you're interested, you can see the conference website here:

I'll be tweeting as things occur to me, over at I'll post the interesting/salient stuff here on the blog at the end of each day. This may be an incredibly fascinating window into the truly weird world of academic philosophy, or a series of whinges about how bored I am. Possibly both. Such is the life I've chosen.

(Oh, and, for those not in the know: Eastern is the meeting where, usually, US schools interview junior candidates, such as myself, for tenure-track jobs. Given the ongoing economic meltdown in the US, though, that's all gotten a bit cock-eyed. There's fewer positions, positions are being cancelled, schools aren't interviewing at the APA... it's a mess. So, the meeting could be rather sparsely attended, or attended largely by horrifically desperate job candidates. I may be able to get pictures of grown men bursting into tears from the stress of it all.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Weekend metal-blogging.

The Haunted, "All Against All"

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Weekend metal-blogging

Belphegor, "Hell's Ambassador"

You can tell that the budget here consisted of a couple of paperclips and not much else. But, good tune.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Weekend metal-blogging.

Austrian Death Machine, "I Need Your Clothes, Your Boots, and Your Motorcycle"

Silly? Yes. Brutal? Yes.