Sunday, April 30, 2006

Online Philosophy Conference Opens

The first ever Online Philosophy Conference (OPC 2006) has begun here.

There are seven papers with commentary posted for this week, to be followed by 8-9 papers per week the next three weeks.

Anyone can read the papers and post comments. It's a great opportunity, especially for students and other people who have few opportunities to attend traditional conferences.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Splitting Concepts

A widespread assumption in the literature on concepts is that concepts form a unified, or singular, natural kind, as opposed to a set of different natural kinds. That is, advocates of different accounts disagree on which kind of thing constitutes concepts, but they agree that there is only one such kind of thing (with different instances for each category).

In recent years, two young philosophers, Dan Weiskopf and Edouard Machery, have completed Ph.D. dissertations questioning this assumption, independently of each other. Dan graduated from Washington University in St. Louis roughly at the time I went there for my PNP postdoc (2003). I met him and learned about his work.

In the fall 2004, I co-taught a course on concepts with Sam Scott, who at the time was the other Wash U PNP postdoc. Sam did some ground-breaking empirical work on non-referring concepts, so he knows a lot more than I did about the psychological literature on concepts.

I wanted to learn more about Dan’s work and discuss it in class, so I asked Dan for a copy of his paper in progress, which is now available on his website. Unfortunately, the paper may not have been ready at the time. At any rate, he didn’t send it to me. But during the course, Sam and I discovered Edouard’s paper, Concepts Are Not a Natural Kind, which at the time was forthcoming in Philosophy of Science (it is now published).

Since we didn’t have Dan’s paper, we decided to read and discuss Edouard’s paper instead. We were not entirely satisfied with Edouard’s argument, but we liked the conclusion—concepts split into different natural kinds—and we thought we could find better arguments. So we wrote a paper of our own.

Our paper, entitled “Splitting Concepts”, is now officially forthcoming in Philosophy of Science.

In our paper, the argument I most care about is what we call the “argument from language”. Its conclusion is that there are at least two different kinds of concept, which may be called linguistic concepts (those that explain linguistic abilities) and non-linguistic concepts (those that explain cognitive abilities we have in common with non-linguistic animals and babies). I think this conclusion may have some appealing philosophical payoff:

Many philosophers like to point out that there are dramatic cognitive differences between linguistic and non-linguistic creatures. Language seems to carry with it a lot of cognitive power. If you combine this observation with the two common assumptions that linguistic abilities are explained by concepts and that concepts are a singular natural kind, you face a dilemma. Either non-linguistic animals and babies have concepts or they don’t. If they do, you should explain why they are not as smart as we are even though they have concepts. If they don’t, you should explain why they are as smart as they are even though they have no concepts. Either way, you need a different theory of cognition for non-linguistic animals and babies as you do for linguistically competent human beings. Needless to say, philosophers have explored both options, but I’ve never been satisfied with either of them. Alternatively, you could try to downplay the cognitive differences between linguistic and non-linguistic creatures, but that doesn't sound very appealing either. Now there is a better way out: reject the assumption that concepts are a singular natural kind. Animals and babies have one kind of conceptual mental representations. Then, babies develop a new kind of conceptual representation—linguistic representations. Once linguistic representations are in place, humans are well on their way to surpassing the intelligence and inferential power of other animal species.

Of course, this is little more than a slogan at this point. Perhaps some day it will turn into a theory.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Can a Candidate with a non-English Ph.D. get a Philosophy Job in the U.S.?

I occasionally receive queries on how to get a job in the U.S. Here is my best guess on the matter. Further comments and suggestions are welcome.

The U.S. probably has the largest number of academic jobs of any country in the world, or at least the largest number of desirable academic jobs. So it is natural that some scholars with foreign Ph.D.’s consider applying for American academic jobs. What are the chances that they’ll get one, at least in philosophy?

If their Ph.D. is from the U.K., Canada, or Australia, their chances are roughly the same as people with equivalent American Ph.D.’s. Otherwise, their chances are relatively few. For one thing, few people know enough about non-English Ph.D.’s to assess their value relative to American Ph.D.’s.

The philosophy job market is competitive. Search committees are naturally risk averse, and candidates with a non-English Ph.D. are risky. Here are some possible concerns: Was their training rigorous enough? Is their research good enough? Can they relate successfully to their American colleagues? Can they teach well? Can they teach in English? Can they satisfy the constantly evolving demands and sensitivities of American undergraduates?

Even so, there are things such candidates can do to improve their chances.

1. If you are willing, consider getting a (good) Ph.D. in the U.S., U.K., Canada, or Australia, even if it’s your second Ph.D.

2. Publish in English, in well respected journals or with well respected publishing houses. (Publications in foreign languages are unlikely to help you get a job in the U.S.)

3. Go to meetings that include philosophers based in English-speaking countries (preferably U.S.) and make friends.

4. Try to get invited to visit departments in English-speaking countries (preferably U.S.), teach some courses there, and get good student evaluations. If you live in the U.S., get a temporary teaching job somewhere (even at a community college) and start accumulating good student evaluations. Perhaps invite one of your local faculty friends to observe what a good job you do while you teach, so they can write about it in their letter of recommendation.

5. Get letters of recommendation from people who know the American system, preferably people who work in English-speaking institutions. Make sure they explain why you are such an outstanding (i) scholar, (ii) teacher, and (iii) colleague (fun to talk to, person with integrity, etc.). Make sure they also explain anything that might appear weak from an American perspective (e.g., your knowledge of English).

6. Distinguish between research and teaching institutions and write different cover letters for each. Research institutions are looking for people with proven publication records in English in prestigious journals, and care a bit less about how well you teach. They might be turned off if you explain in too much detail how much you love teaching. Teaching institutions are just the opposite. They’d like to hear that your mission in life is teaching, and want to see less interest in research. They might be turned off if you stress your publications too much, because they might worry that you are not really committed to teaching.

7. Your cover letter should be as brief as possible—no longer than one page. It should explain the following: who you are, what your main achievements are, and why you are qualified for the position. Address everything in the job advertisement. E.g.: if they need you to teach Nepalese Philosophy, explain why you are qualified to do that. Also, address anything about you that might appear weird. E.g.: if you are a senior candidate applying for a junior position, explain whether you are prepared to be demoted in order to get the job.

8. In the dossier, give the best evidence you have that you can teach successfully in English. (Make sure some of the people who write you letters of recommendation address that.)

9. Writing sample: the best writing sample is a paper forthcoming in the best journal (or at least, a good journal) in your field. Next best is either a paper from the last couple of years in a good journal or a new (unpublished) but polished piece. Single-authored papers are much preferable than co-authored ones.

10. For research institutions, make sure it's clear that you are productive and have projects you are working on. On your CV, list the titles of your works "in progress".

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Atom by Atom Simulation of a Virus

My student Ken Johnson made the following interesting comment. It is especially relevant to those philosophers who like to casually write that in principle, everything can be computationally simulated based on the laws of physics. Notice that there is no reason to expect that Moore's law will hold up for more than a few decades:

"The article linked here refers to a study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where researchers simulated a small virus on a large super-computer by simulating each of about a million atoms that composed the virtual virus and some surrounding virtual water. The simulation lasted about 50 nanoseconds in simulated time. (For those not metricly inclined, 1/20,000,000th of a second). If this could be scaled by about 20 orders of magnitude, then we could simulate a human atom by atom. And let's add about 10 more orders of magnitude so we can have a useful amount of time for a thought or two. If Moore's law holds up that will only be about 150 years of technology improvement -- I won't hold my breath waiting."

Monday, April 10, 2006

Will Robots Change Our Identity?

Last week I had my first radio interview, thanks to a referral by Ron Munson. I was on a program (together with another guest) by Nevada Public Radio on whether robots are changing our identity and related issues, such as whether robots are likely to take over the world (as several people have predicted). I think we don't have positive reasons to think they will--at least not yet. The mp3 file is here.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

My Talk at Tucson 2006

I'm in Tucson, AZ, at the conference Towards a Science of Consciousness 2006.

There are a lot more people than I expected. It's about as large as an APA meeting, I would say.

I gave my talk yesterday, arguing that conceivability arguments like the zombie conceivability argument are unsound. The zombie conceivabity argument--most prominently defended by David Chalmers--says that zombies (creatures physically identical to us but with no conscious states) are conceivable, hence possible, and hence consciousness is not physical. Most physicalists, i.e. defenders of the view that consciousness is physical, argue that zombies are not possible, and there is a large debate about what it conceivable and whether conceivability entails possibility.

As I hinted before, I am unsatisfied with this debate. I think it would be dialectically more effective for physicalists to accept the possibility of zombies but question whether that possibility is accessible to our world, in the sense of accessibility standardly used in possible world semantics. In my talk, I pointed out that the zombie conceivability argument is committed to the accessibility of zombie worlds. But, I argued, assuming without argument that zombie worlds are accessible begs the question of physicalism. I also argued that the currently standard definition of physicalism is too strong, and should be relaxed to accomodate the fact that some zombie worlds are possible but inaccessible. Finally, I argued that when the issue is properly formulated, property dualism is no less vulnerable to conceivability arguments than physicalism is. Hence, this type of conceivability argument is not going to help settle the question of physicalism.

The line of thinking presented in this paper goes in a direction quite different from all the debates I've seen in the literature. So before presenting it, I honestly wondered whether I was missing something. For instance, would Chalmers be able to easily show me that I missed the point?

David Chalmers was nice enough to attend my talk, and I am grateful to him for being there. We had a lively exchange during the discussion period. Nothing that he said made me think that I had missed anything. So I'll work more on my paper this summer, while I attend the Mind and Metaphysics NEH Seminar at Wash U. Does anyone know who else is going to attend?

Robot Nurse

Looking for a nurse that won't get crabby? Try this.