Monday, February 20, 2006

Science and Common Sense

Scott Sehon, Teleological Realism: Mind, Agency, and Explanation, MIT Press, 2005.

Based on this review by Sarah Worley, Sehon’s book appears to be one of the latest installments in anti-naturalist philosophy of mind.

From Kant to McDowell and beyond, there is a long tradition of philosophers who maintain that the mind as such cannot be understood by science. In alternative to science, a favorite of contemporary anti-naturalist analytic philosophers is “common sense.”

I always wonder what anti-naturalists think of the work of Freud, Skinner, Piaget, Chomsky, Miller, Newell and Simon, and thousands of other alleged scientists of the mind. Sheds no light? Haven’t gotten around to reading it yet? They rarely pronounce themselves on the matter, and when they do, in my experience they don’t exhibit a satisfactory understanding of science.

To support his case, apparently Sehon argues that common sense psychology is not proto-science. For if common sense psychology was proto-science, then it should be either reducible to scientific psychology or replaced by it, which means it cannot be an alternative to it.

I’m not sure what proto-science is. To know that, I would need to understand what science is--independently of common sense--and what a proto-X is. But as far as I can tell, science is common sense, though refined and regimented through self-conscious reflection and criticism. I don’t think this is a radical idea, or even a new one. At any rate, I think it’s better than any account of science proposed by anti-naturalist philosophers. I have defended a special version of it for the use of introspective reports in the sciences of mind (J. Consciousness Studies, 2003). Of course, if science is just refined common sense, any claim that common sense is an alternative to science is misguided.

How to Make Wise Decisions

How do you choose wisely? Do you try to figure it all out at once, by consciously considering the pros and cons of every aspect of every option, or do you relax and patiently wait for the decision to pop into your head, already made by your unconscious mind? There is now scientific evidence that the former strategy leads to better decisions on simple matters, where there are few degrees of freedom, while the latter strategy leads to better decisions on complicated matters, like which house to buy or where to go to school. Hopefully, you now feel vindicated in your decision making strategies.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Dining Philosophers

Did you know of the dining philosophers’ problem? It’s a classic problem in computer science, where it is used to study the sharing of scarce resources among different processes.

Five philosophers sit around the table, where they think and eat. (Isn’t that what philosophers do?) There is a fork between each philosopher, but each philosopher needs two forks to eat. Forks are picked up one at a time. The problem is to find a way for all philosophers to avoid deadlock (every philosopher has one fork but no one can eat) and consequent starvation. Starvation may also occur without deadlock if one or more philosophers never get to pick up two forks. Don’t you find it reassuring that computer scientists are busy keeping us philosophers alive and thinking?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Miracle in the Italian Philosophy Job Market

I've been told that a foreign candidate has been hired for a junior philosophy job at the University of Parma. The job offer was advertised a few months ago, in English, in an international philosophy listserv. To my knowledge, this is the first time this has happened in recent years.

In Italy, there are very few academic jobs. The jobs usually go to the Italian candidates who are best connected to the local hiring committees. The candidates' accomplishments play a role, but it is a secondary role to their ability to lobby hiring committees through their academic sponsors. Ability to lobby committees is built over the years by working closely with influential Italian academics. Seniority plays a role too: the longer you've been building your connections, the more your sponsors feel obligated to lobby in your favor--regardless of whether you've been publishing in the meantime. One consequence is that to have a successful academic career in Italy, networking with local academics is far more important than publishing good work. Another consequence is that foreign candidates, or even Italian candidates who have spent long periods abroad without tending to their Italian connections, have no chance of being hired. Jobs are not even advertised in international venues.

In this case, things went differently. Marco Santambrogio, one of Italy's most distinguished Italian philosophers (he is the only philosopher working in Italy that I know of who published an article in J. Phil.), took the initiative to advertise the position, in English, in international venues. Foreign candidates applied and the hiring committee ignored the pressures coming from the sponsors of local candidates. A foreigner was hired! It looks like he was hired because of his scholarly accomplishments! (Unfortunately, I don't know his name.)

From my point of view, this is an extremely positive and welcome development. Kudos to Santambrogio and the Parma hiring committee. It remains to be seen whether others will follow their lead or whether the hire of a foreigner, based on accomplishments rather than connections, will upset Italy's philosophers to the point that they will work even harder to prevent anything like this from happening in the future.

(I have no personal axe to gind: I have never sought employment in Italian academia, and I am not planning to seek it.)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Italians and Fascism

Amos Elon, “A Shrine to Mussolini,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 53, N. 3.

Relevant personal background: I was born and raised in Italy but moved to the U.S. in 1996. Amos Elon is an Austrian Jew who immigrated to Palestine in 1933, became a major Israeli journalist and intellectual, and then moved to Italy after 1986. Independently of “A Shrine of Mussolini,” he has interesting things to say about Israel.

“A Shrine of Mussolini” is a review of the newly translated book The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini’s Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy, by Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto. The review is an excuse for Elon to investigate the baffling nostalgia some Italians feel for Mussolini: “That [Mussolini] sill finds a small number of admirers more than sixty years after his death is not easy to explain.” In fact, Elon offers no explanation.

Elon’s essay is insightful, stimulating, and mostly accurate. The main inaccuracy is revealing. Elon describes Gianfranco Fini, Italy’s current foreign minister and deputy prime minister, as someone who “announced his conversion to democracy in 1995.” This and other statements by Elon express a misunderstanding of Italian politics that is quite common among foreigners.

Fini is the leader of Alleanza Nazionale (AN). What actually happened in 1995 is that the members of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), led by Fini, dissolved MSI and founded AN instead. MSI, in turn, was the heir of Mussolini’s Fascist Party. In the face of this lineage, many non-Italians are suspicious of AN. I’ve heard Americans refer to AN as “fascists.” (Amos uses “neo-fascist” to describe MSI, though not AN.)

Fascism may be defined as “a system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism”. None of this is advocated by AN. None of it was advocated by MSI. A partial exception is “stringent socioeconomic control,” provided that by this we mean “law and order.” But “law and order” is hardly synonymous with “fascism.”

By 1995, MSI had been a full-time participant in Italian democracy for decades. Although it was politically isolated and not welcome by other parties to participate in national governments, it participated in local administrations and had many representatives in parliament. It had no plan to overthrow Italian institutions or establish a dictatorship.

True, the founding of AN was accompanied by a new name, an emphatic public commitment to democracy, and the explicit rejection of dictatorship and racism. But this was mostly PR, intended to express values already held by members of MSI and convince (and lure) skeptics outside the party. Those MSI members who complained about the change were not proposing a return to fascism. They simply felt that the public display of good will was unnecessarily humiliating—as if they had anything to hide before.

Foreigners are not the only ones who have misconceptions about Italians and fascism. Italians have their own. There is a popular “myth of the resistance,” believed by many Italians, which goes something like this. Italians, for the most part, had nothing to do with fascism. Fascism was a movement of a few crazies who hijacked the country for a couple of decades. Since fascists imposed their rule with violence, others had little choice but to wait for a better time. Finally, during WWII, Italians took arms against fascism (and Nazism) and re-established democracy, with some help from their British and American allies. Thus the republic was born.

I, for one, came to believe something like this story when I was a kid. I probably got it from a mixture of public discourse and history textbooks.

But it turns out, as Elon correctly notes, that Mussolini was very popular during most of the twenty years he ruled the country. To be sure, Mussolini’s popularity had to do with the nationalist propaganda that he was so good at spreading. But it also had to do with the relative efficiency and stability of his government. As some Italians say, “trains arrived on time then.” Here we have a simple and straightforward explanation of the longing that a few still feel: compared with the unstable, inept, and corrupt governments that succeeded him, Mussolini seems to some Italians a strong, effective, and honest leader. But those who invoke his name—and I am certainly not one of them—are not yearning for tyranny—only for good government.

Other aspects of the myth of the resistance are incorrect. Resistance to fascism, before and during WWII, was limited to a small minority of Italians. Many of them were communists, who opposed democracy as much as they opposed Mussolini. The Italian resistance played a limited military role compared to that of the British and American armies. In 1943, with Italy partly occupied by British and American forces, the king officially fired Mussolini and Italy officially switched sides. Nevertheless, many Italians remained faithful to Mussolini and fought side by side with the Nazis. Italians repudiated fascism en masse only after Mussolini was killed in April 1945 and WWII was over. (Message to Iraqis: executing Saddam soon might help deal with the insurgency.)

People do not like to admit their mistakes. It is only natural that Italians do not like to admit they created fascism and generally supported it for twenty years. But if Italians could be more open about acknowledging their fascist past, they might see another legacy of fascism—a legacy that runs much deeper than the minute minority who still idolize Mussolini.

To control Italy, Mussolini eliminated the separation of powers. Every institution was an instrument of his rule. Besides controlling the militias, police, and army, the Fascist Party controlled the legislature, judiciary, media, schools, and professional organizations. There was even a fascist union-like organization to defend workers’ interests. Mussolini personally forged an alliance with the Catholic Church. All institutions were intertwined with the Fascist Party, and hence with each other.

After Italy returned to democracy in 1945, officially it restored a separation between executive, legislature, and judiciary. But in fact, Italy’s new leaders never created true checks and balances.

Part of the reason might have been that Italy’s democratic leaders inherited the political culture of their fascist predecessors. That was how the country worked.

Another part of the reason was a paradoxical effect of the recoil from fascism: the writers of the Italian constitution created a feeble executive with the explicit purpose of preventing a return to fascism. The president is appointed by the parliament and has virtually no power. The executive must be approved by the parliament and can be revoked by the parliament at any time. These and other clauses made the executive extremely weak, paving the way for the interminable series of short-lived administrations (average length: one year) that characterized Italy for the subsequent 50 years. It also ensured that there was little mutual control between executive and legislature, since the former had no legitimacy independent of the latter.

A related problem was the increasing strength of the Communist Party, which for decades was the second largest. Communists built an extensive political and social network, which included the largest Italian union, media, publishing houses, and many affiliated organizations reaching into every aspect of Italian society. The original aim was the communist revolution, though the Communist Party (like MSI) progressively evolved to accept democracy. In response, other parties—most notably, the Christian Democrats—created their own counter-networks, aimed at keeping Italians in the Western (and Christian) block.

When I grew up, the deep reach of political parties was felt in every Italian institution: universities, media, unions, you name it. Even judges and prosecutors were organized into “correnti,” which were groups with political affiliations. The Corte Costituzionale (the equivalent of the Supreme Court) acted as the jealous defender of the interests of the powers that be.

Here is a simple example that I am familiar with. I was in high school in the late 1980s. Each year, my high school elected four student representatives. Traditionally, two reps belonged to the local Christian student group, which was loosely affiliated with the Christian Democrats. The other two reps belonged to the local Communist student group, which was explicitly affiliated with the Communist Party. Fostering student organizations was a way for national parties to recruit voters and future leaders among high school kids. I was so annoyed by this state of affairs that in my last year, I founded an independent student group. In 1988—the year before the Berlin wall fell—I was elected along with one Christian and two Communist students. As far as I know, during my high school years I was the only student rep who was not directly or indirectly affiliated with either the Christian Democrats or the Communist Party.

Christian Democrats, who were the main ruling party between 1948 and 1994, were in an especially bad position to move away from Mussolini’s embrace of the Church. In fact, they did just the opposite. They subsidized the Church with taxpayers’ money, they hired Catholic priests to teach religion in public schools, and they let the Church influence a wide range of policies. The Church reciprocated by becoming an active propaganda machine. As a result, Italy has not enjoyed a true separation of Church and State since the days before Mussolini. Even after the fall of the Christian Democrats in the 1990s, the influence of the Church on Italian affairs has not decreased. When I left Italy in 1996, it looked like most political parties were racing to obtain the Church’s approval.

After 1989, some things began to change. The old Communist Party collapsed along with the Soviet Union, eliminating the greatest anomaly in Italian politics. The Christian Democrats collapsed under the weight of corruption investigations. Meanwhile, a grass-roots coalition proposed to reform the system for electing members of congress to make it closer to the British and American, winner-take-all system. The proposal, strongly opposed by the ruling elite, became a ballot measure that won overwhelmingly. The resulting institutional change forced Italian parties old and new to form two broad coalitions, one on the right and one on the left. This clarified the messy political scene somewhat, and helped make administrations more durable.

Still, as far as I can tell, Italy remains miles away from a liberal democracy in the sense of the term that Americans understand. Checks and balances are shaky at best. Political parties reach deep into society, especially the media. (The current prime minister owns the largest Italian private media conglomerate.) Prosecutors use the judiciary to engage in political battles. And the Church is engrained in politics.

I came to the U.S. thinking I was coming to a true liberal democracy. Since 2000, though, I’m worried that the U.S. is turning into an unwitting Italy copycat.

Acknowledgement: The above remarks are influenced by conversations I had in the early 1990s with Marco Pannella, an Italian leader who played a critical role in most of the positive institutional changes that occurred in Italy over the last several decades.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Graduate Student Publishing

Thom Brooks, The Postgraduate’s Guide to Getting Published.

This is a very helpful guide to getting published as a graduate student. For some commentary on it, see Leiter Reports.

Students should also be cautioned not to publish too much too early. If they publish lousy work, it will haunt them for the rest of their career. Even good work is going to count in their favor only if it's published in the right places. Ideally, if a piece is good, it should be published, and it shouldn’t matter where. But things are not so simple. For readers don't have the resources to determine the quality of every article. Hence, they often decide what to read and cite based on where it is published, especially when the name of the author is otherwise unknown.

Students should be aware that where they publish is at least as important as whether they do, especially if they aspire to a job in a research institution. In my experience, search committee members pay a lot of attention to journal (and press) names. Articles in good journals are big plusses and articles in decent journals are plusses, but articles in journals that are not considered “good enough” are minuses. Students should be aware of this when deciding where to submit.

Unfortunately, the solution is not to inundate J. Phil. and Phil. Review with submissions. Most of those will be rejected, probably without an explanation. Students need to search for journals that are right for their work.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Revonsuo's Inner Presence

Antti Revonsuo, Inner Presence: Consciousness as a Biological Phenomenon, MIT Press, 2006.

If you are wondering who Revonsuo is, he is a neuroscientist from Finland. I haven't read his new book but from the table of contents, it looks like a serious reflection on consciousness from a cognitive neuroscience and neurophysiology perspective. Just what we need.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

On the Philosophy Job Market

For the first time, this winter I observed the job market as a member of a search committee. Here are some things I wish someone had told me when I was a job candidate, or even better, when I was a beginning graduate student. Of course, they must be taken with a grain of salt: every search committee operates slightly differently.

  1. Unless you are already in the final list of candidates for a job, your writing sample will rarely be read. Few people have the time, expertise, and confidence to judge the quality of your work on their own. Instead, they will rely on other sources of information (see below).
  2. The rank of your institution and department counts more than you might think. Examples: “Princeton” evokes the warmest feelings because both the university and the department are good. “University of Pittsburgh” impresses philosophers because the department is good, though non-philosophers and administrators will be less moved. Even though Harvard hasn’t had one of the best philosophy departments for a while, “Harvard” is so engrained in the brains of American academics that it commands people’s attention. Conversely, if your program is not highly ranked, that counts against you regardless of whether you’ve published in J. Phil.
  3. Virtually no one will read your published work, so they will judge it by where it’s published. J. Phil., Phil. Review, and other good journals attract people’s favorable attention. Conversely, publishing in obscure journals counts against you in any research-oriented department. Mutatis mutandis for journals in between. You should learn early on the ranking of philosophy journals and submit accordingly.
  4. If you haven’t published anything and you still aspire to a job in a research institution, you should be from Princeton or Harvard or have extremely strong letters of recommendation from famous people.
  5. The fame of your advisor and letter writers count for more than your might think. The bigger the name, the more meaningful the letter is assumed to be.
  6. Letters from people outside your institution help, though not a lot.
  7. Having more than the required three letters of recommendation helps, though not a lot.
  8. Presenting at conferences (especially selective ones, like the APA and PSA) helps a bit more, though still not a lot.
  9. Your cover letter doesn’t count in your favor if it’s good, but it can count against you if it’s sloppy. You should address all job requirements and say something about why you want that particular job.
  10. The rest of your CV (honors, service, courses taken, teaching experience, etc.) counts against you if it's lacking, but does almost nothing positive for you, at least at research institutions. (E.g., no teaching experience is usually a negative.)
  11. When you are interviewed at the APA, you are not judged on a par with the other interviewees. Search committees arrive at the APA with a more or less firmly established ranking of candidates. This ranking is based on the above considerations plus the needs of the department and the inclinations of the committee members. The best you can do in your interview, and the most likely outcome, is to confirm your place in the existing ranking. In exceptional cases, you might move upwards slightly (mostly because someone above you in the ranking did really bad). Of course, if you make a really bad impression, you will move downwards, but it's unlikely. Mostly, interviews confirm the existing ranking of candidates. So it's perfectly normal to do splendidly at your interviews but not be considered any further, simply because everyone else above you did about as well.
  12. If you want to be competitive for jobs in teaching institutions, the rules are reversed. You shouldn’t come from a highly ranked program and you shouldn’t publish before hitting the job market. Otherwise, people will think you are too research–oriented for them. Given how many philosophers go on the job market each year, this leads to the paradox that some job candidates are not considered good enough by research institutions but are considered too good by teaching institutions. As a result, they don’t get a job. Obviously, they shouldn’t give up: they should fine tune their CV and try again next year.

Update [3/5/06]: I wrote a follow-up here.

Upcoming Conference Deadlines

Some calls for papers of interest to philosophers of mind, psychology, and neuroscience:

February 15 Eastern APA

March 1 Society for Philosophy and Psychology

March 15 International Society for Research on Emotions

2006 Computing and Philosophy conferences

European-CAP 2006 Conference
22-24 June, 2006
****February 3, 2006*** Submission of extended abstracts
Hosted by the Dragvoll campus of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)
Trondheim, Norway

North American-CAP 2006 Conference
10-12 August, 2006
Submission deadline: ****February 28, 2006***
Hosted by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)
Troy, NY

Asia-Pacific-CAP 2006 Conference
27-29 October, 2006
Submission deadline: ****June 30, 2006***
Hosted by The Australian National University
Canberra, Australia