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.