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Roger White on Origins of Life

Roger White has a very interesting paper on origins of life research in Nous from a couple years ago, which I only just got around to reading.  I think he makes some very good points about the general reasons why apparent coincidences often shouldn’t be taken as evidence against a chance hypothesis.  He makes these arguments in order to suggest that origins of life research rests on a mistake – in particular, he suggests that we have no positive reason to believe that the initial appearance of life in the universe was anything other than chance.  However, I think his argument for this claim fails. Continue reading “Roger White on Origins of Life”

Gender Balance in Philosophy Departments Across the World

There have been a lot of discussions why the gender ratios in academic philosophy remain so abysmal these days. Prominent recent posts include:

  • Jenny Saul at Feminist Philosophers (one, two)
  • Louise Anthony at Feminist Philosophers (here)
  • Dana at Edge of the American West (here)
  • Evelyn Brister at Knowledge and Experience (one, two, three)
  • Richard Zach and LogBlog (one, two)

There’s a very big question about why philosophy is doing such a bad job at getting women into senior roles. I suspect that such a debate will be helped by thinking about just where things are going wrong. For someone to become a full professor of philosophy, they typically have to go through a number of stages. Here are four particularly prominent ones:

  1. Enrolling in an intro philosophy course
  2. Applying to graduate school
  3. Getting an entry-level job
  4. Being promoted to full professor

There might be other ways of dividing up the typical career path that are more helpful, but I find it useful to think about these four steps.

We know that the numbers at step 4 are terrible. What we don’t know, in general, are what the numbers are at the other three steps.

We do know a little. We know in Australia, for instance, that the majority of intro philosophy students are women, 57% in fact. That’s what the big AAP report found out. We also know that in Australia, there’s near gender parity in the Honours year, with 47% women. (That’s an extra year of philosophy study, after the requirements for the undergrad degree are completed, and practically essential for graduate study. It’s much like a 1 year coursework Masters.) We also know in Australia there are somewhat fewer (proportionally) women graduate students than Honours students (39% vs 47%), though I don’t think we know whether that happens at the application stage or later. There are about the same percentage of junior faculty as PhD students (40%), and then a cliff dive in getting to full professorship (6%).

Now some of the drop off from junior to senior professorship comes in because the numbers of junior professors was lower in recent years. But I doubt that’s all of the explanation. Still, it’s nice to see numbers like this. Imagine what it would be like in the U.S. if 47% of honours majors were women!

One reason for thinking hard about where the drop off is occuring is that it rules in or out certain hypotheses for why there are proportionally fewer women.

For instance, it’s hard to square the Australian data with a particularly strong version of the claim that philosophy is offputting to women because of its aggressiveness. You know a fair bit about what philosophy is like before starting Honours. You know a lot more by the time you end Honours and start a PhD. It’s hard to explain any drop off in numbers beyond that as due to agressiveness I think.

For similar reasons, it’s also hard to square the Australian data with a claim that the subject matter is just not something appealing to women. You don’t sign up for an Honours year if you don’t like the subject.

And it’s somewhat hard to square the Australian data with the hypothesis put forward by Regan Penaluna (via Leiter’s Blog) that women are put off by the all-male canon. After all, the canon is pretty male in Australia as well. To be sure, an intro philosophy student taking the courses I took (and later taught) could well come away with the impression that Judith Jarvis Thomson is the most important philosopher of the last 50 years given the amount of time we spent on trolleys and violinists. But I still think this explanation is hard to make consistent with the Australian data.

Indeed, it’s hard to see how these three explanations (aggressiveness, subject matter, maleness of canon) could together account for more than a few percent of the ‘missing’ women in non-Australian philosophy programs, given that all of the features are present in Australia.

Now it’s true that there is attrition, from 57% in intro classes, to 47% in Honours, to 39/40% in junior faculty. And that attrition might be explained by agressiveness/dislike of the material/maleness of the canon. But beyond that we need a different explanation.

As several of the posts quoted at the top suggest, I suspect the right explanation will have more to do with conscious or unconscious biases, or with network effects that create institutional biases. I’d guess, though this is something that would need to be checked against the facts, that the small size of the philosophical community in Australia makes it less likely that all-male subcommunities will have time and space to develop, and that might ameliorate the kind of network effects that, e.g, Dana discusses. But more work is needed here.

Of course, the Australia data is just Australian. Things may look very different in other countries. I don’t know if there’s much data about what’s happening in Britain. I’ve heard it suggested that there’s a much bigger dropoff between undergraduate numbers and graduate numbers than we see in Australia, but I don’t know whether that’s something that’s been measured. I have seen, thanks to some excellent bloggers, some data about America!

Richard Zach and Evelyn Brister have been posting about the percentage of women among philosophy BA’s in the United States. As Prof Brister points out, the number got to around 30% fifteen years ago, and hasn’t moved much since. It’s striking how much lower this is than the Australian numbers. It’s also striking that it isn’t that different to the percentage we see of women in graduate programs, amongst junior faculty and so on.

And that puts more constraints on what can count as a good explanation of the numbers. We need to explain not just why the U.S.A. numbers are so low, but why they are so low compared to other countries.

Here it would be nice to know just where things are going wrong in the U.S. system. Is it that 50% of students in intro classes are women, but a much higher percentage of men are going on to further classes? Is it that we start at 30% and never get better? Or is it somewhere in between?

My anecdotal observation is that the last is true. We don’t have female majorities in our big intro classes – far from it. But the gender balance in intro is better than it is in 300/400 level courses, especially in metaphysics, epistemology, language and logic. If that’s right (and it would be nice to know if it is) then two things are going wrong: we’re not attracting enough women to intro courses, and we’re not giving them enough reason to stay in philosophy.

I’ll end with one very speculative hypothesis. Word of mouth seems to play a much bigger role in course selection in American universities than it (seems) to play in Australian universities. Australian universities typically feature very small numbers of students living on campus, with the vast majority commuting. (Just about everyone I knew as an undergrad commuted, with the exception of a few who lived walking distance from campus.) Perhaps philosophy is getting a bad reputation through the word-of-mouth networks, and that’s feeding into fewer women taking intro courses.

Perhaps. Any better explanations would be very gratefully received.

“How Many Lives has the Higgs Boson?”

The New York Times is running an article about one quirky explanation for why we haven’t found a Higgs boson yet.

A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists [Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya] have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.

The picture should be familiar enough from Lewis’s discussion of time travel. What would happen in a time travel world if someone tried to go back in time to kill their grandfather? They’d fail. They might fail in surprising ways. At this point of the story banana peels start to play a prominent role, leading to one of the better paper titles of our time.

But as Nielsen acknowledges in the article, it isn’t quite so clear why creating the Higgs boson would be akin to killing one’s grandfather. And at this point the analogy with time travel starts to look strained.

If we’re doing speculative physics on the basis of Lewisian philosophy, I think we should be looking not at Lewis on time travel, but Lewis on QM. In How Many Lives has Schrödinger’s Cat?, Lewis discusses what it feels like to be the inhabitant of a world where the Everett Hypothesis is true. And his conclusion is that inhabitants of such a world will appear to have, from their perspective, a surprising number of near-death experiences.

The picture is that whenever we get near to death, there’s a possible evolution of the world in which we don’t die. (That tumour quantum tunnels its way out of the patient’s body, etc.) Now from an external perspective, such bizarre possibilities are generally ignorable quirks. But from the perspective of the agent nearing death, things look quite different. They don’t experience anything after they die. So all of the possibilities in which they keep experiencing are ones in which they survive. So if the only way to survive a time period t is through a series of events that are incredibly improbable, all of the agent’s future experiences will be in worlds where those events happen. So despite the improbability, the agent should expect those events to happen, in the sense that those events will probably be part of the only future the agent knows.

Now suppose that creating a Higgs boson (or more precisely isolating one) will lead to the instantaneous destruction of the universe. (Actually we just need that it leads to the death of everyone on earth.) And suppose the Everett hypothesis is true. Then unless the creation of a Higgs boson has probability 1, there are some really existing futures in which the Higgs is not created. And we should expect (with probability 1) that we’ll find ourselves in one of them. So we should expect (with probability 1) that the attempt to create a Higgs boson will appear to fail.

If future attempts to create a Higgs boson fail in more and more unlikely ways, I think we’ll have to start taking this hypothesis seriously. So far we’ve had two attempts to create the Higgs boson fail in mildly surprising ways. I think we need to get to more like 8-10 failures before we start worrying about the hypotheses sketched here, but if the improbable failures start accumulating, the lessons of How Many Lives has Schrödinger’s Cat? start to look more and more pressing.

Hopefully they’ll get the LHC back working soon and we can put crazy ideas like these to bed!

Gender Balance in Intro Philosophy Reading Lists

This interesting announcement was recently posted at Feminist Philosophers.

We are seeking suggestions for papers to include in a database of women-authored papers that would be suitable for undergraduate teaching. The database is intended to facilitate the selection of texts written by women to be included in philosophy undergraduate teaching. The database will be freely accessible online, and is intended to be up and running by mid-2010. We aim for a pilot version to be ready by the end of 2009.

This project is funded by a Macquarie University Competitive Learning and Teaching Grant, awarded to a team from the Philosophy Department. We are happy to provide more information if that should be useful. Thanks in advance for your assistance,

Cynthia Townley, Albert Atkin, Mitch Parsell and Swantje Lorrimer

This sounds like a great project, and I encourage people to contribute any suggestions they have.

Quite coincidentally, I had the idea the other day of putting together a syllabus for an intro philosophy class that only featured female authors. I’ve seen several such classes with all male reading lists, but I’d never seen an all female one. I’m interested in why so many intro classes in philosophy have an uneven gender balance, and one hypothesis is that (some) women are put off by all-male reading lists.

So I went to a few prominent anthologies used in intro teaching, and thought I’d start making lists of all the papers by women I found in them. I’m really bad at telling which papers will work in intro classes, so I use those big anthologies a lot as a guide to what I can get away with teaching. But I quit fairly soon after I started down that road, because it clearly wasn’t going to help.

All the anthologies I looked at had not a single paper by a woman that wasn’t on ethics. Admittedly I only looked at a handful of readers, and if I’d kept searching I would have found one or two papers by women on areas other than ethics that had been included in the standard readers. But still, I think this is a bit terrible, especially in readers with 100 or so articles.

So instead I started thinking about what an intro ethics course with only female authors would look like. And since there are lots of readers designed just for ethics courses, I thought they would be a better place to get started. But this wasn’t much better. Most of the big ethics readers still had 75% or more male-authored articles. If I wanted to stick to articles in prominent readers, I could have scraped together a course that talked about the difference between Deontological and Virtue theoretic approaches to ethics (the consequentialist sections of readers were inevitably all-male), and then some applied sections on abortion and pornography.

Now it’s probably not true that the ideal course would have only women on the reading list, any more than the ideal course would have only men on the reading list. But I would like to see what difference it makes to enrollments to have a more gender-balanced (and more racially-balanced) reading list. And having a few more gender balanced readers wouldn’t be a terrible way to start towards that. Neither would the database that Prof Townley and her collaborators are putting together.

Arché Methodology Mini-Course

One of the innovations at Arché that I’ll quite excited about is that we’ll be running ‘mini-courses’ on a number of different topics over the upcoming months and years. The first big plan is for a workshop and mini-course on expressivism. The details are at:

The speakers so far include Stephen Barker, Alan Gibbard, Mark Richard, Mark Schroeder and Seth Yalcin, and there may be more added. Registration is now open, and if past Arché events are anything to go by, it will fill up quickly.

Lots of Links

The New York Times had a short article on women in philosophy. I’ve heard a lot of speculation about why this might be so. Indeed, I’ve participated in such speculation. But a lot of that speculation isn’t linked up to empirical facts, such as the facts in the Australasian Association of Philosophy’s studies on women in philosophy in Australia. Here are two key graphs.

The AAP’s study (authored by Eliza Goddard) included four reports:

I’d really like it if a similar study was run in America, though I suspect that wouldn’t be cheap.

Here are two links to Scottish Philosophy:

I’ve in the past quoted a lot of citation counts from Google Scholar. Language Log suggests that data is too muddled to be relied on.

There will be a cross-disciplinary Online Compass conference happening shortly. The conference begins October 19, and you can register for free here.

We’ve published a lot of new articles in Philosophy Compass recently. These include:

And we’ve also published some free to download teaching and learning guide. These include:

‘Sure’ and Questions

I suspect that everything I say here is well known, but I hadn’t realised any of it until recently, and so it might be news to some readers as well. Most of the good ideas are from conversations with Will Starr and Ishani Maitra. The subject is sentences where ‘sure’ is followed by an embedded question. Here are three interesting properties about such constructions.

‘Sure + wh-’ is a very strong NPI
What is your reaction to the following purported sentences?

(1) John is sure who killed JFK.
(2) John isn’t sure who killed JFK.
(3) Is John sure who killed JFK?
(4) Anyone who is sure who killed JFK is excessively credulous.

If you’re like me, (1) is clearly defective, (2) is perfectly well-formed, and (3) and (4) are fairly questionable. (Right now I think (3) isn’t quite as bad as (4), though I go back and forth on that.) If that’s right, ‘sure+wh-’ is not only a negative polarity item, it is a very strong one, requiring something like overt negation to be fully licenced. Back in the day, there used to be several idiomatic constructions with this property. But over the years those phrases have either fallen out of usage (e.g., ‘give a red cent’) or have ceased to be NPIs (e.g., ‘give a damn’). I was surprised to discover that contemporary English has an NPI so strong as to prefer overt negation, and that it is not an idiom.

This came up because Will Starr has been doing some really fascinating work on the relationship between conditionals and questions. (I suspect some of that work will start getting a lot of attention soon, since it’s got the potential to revolutionise the way we think about conditionals; but that’s for another post.) One aspect of that connection is that ‘if’-clauses can be embedded questions. For instance, (5) means roughly the same thing as (6).

(5) Does Bob know if John will be at the party?
(6) Does Bob know whether John will be at the party?

But these two don’t quite mean the same thing, because ‘knows whether’ is not an NPI, while ‘knows if’ is. (Or at least it is in the idiolects of a few people I’ve spoken to.) Compare (7), (8), (9) and (10)

(7) Bob knows if John will be at the party.
(8) Bob knows whether John will be at the party.
(9) Bob doesn’t know if John will be at the party.
(10) Bob doesn’t know whether John will be at the party.

I think (7) is, every so slightly, worse than (8) through (10). So I think ‘knows if’ is a, very weak, NPI.

I said earlier that I was surprised that contemporary English contains as strong an NPI as ‘sure+wh-’. I knew such strong NPIs used to exist, but I thought they had gone extinct in recent decades. But I don’t think I ever knew there was an NPI as weak as ‘knows if’. If I’ve classified it correctly, it’s a very strange creature. But I’m not sure whether I have classified it correctly.

Attitudes, Factivity and Embedding
One constraint on theories of the semantics of attitude verbs and embedded questions is that they have to explain why (11) is well-formed, while (12) isn’t.

(11) John knows who killed JFK.
(12) John believes who killed JFK.

In the past I’ve been most impressed by theories that explained this asymmetry in terms of the fact that ‘knows’ is factive while ‘believes’ is not. But that can’t be what’s central, since ‘sure’ isn’t factive, but ‘sure’ takes embedded questions as complements. Admittedly, ‘sure’ only takes embedded questions as complements in negated contexts, but still, if you’re classifying sentences, it seems (13) has to go with (14), and not with (15).

(13) John isn’t sure who killed JFK.
(14) John doesn’t know who killed JFK.
(15) John doesn’t believe who killed JFK.

Whatever explains why (15) doesn’t work, it can’t be (or at least it can’t just be) the non-factivity of ‘believes’. There must be something else going on, and I’m not sure what it could be.

Denotation of Embedded Questions
When we think about ‘knows+wh-’ constructions, it is tempting to say that the denotation of an embedded question is the true answer to that question. After all, (11) is true iff there is a p such that p is the true answer to the question “Who killed JFK?” and John knows p. The simplest way to get that to turn out correct is that “who killed JFK” in (11) simply denotes the true answer to the question “Who killed JFK?”.

Obviously this theory has to be qualified to some extent to explain the fact that (12) and (15) are not well-formed. Thinking about ‘sure’ shows that it needs to be qualified even further.

Suppose that Bill is sure Fidel Castro killed JFK. And suppose that he’s wrong; it has Lee Harvey Oswald. Then (16) is intuitively false.

(16) Bill isn’t sure who killed JFK.

Bill is sure; he’s just wrong. But on the view in question, “who killed JFK” denotes the proposition that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK. Then (16) should be equivalent to (17).

(17) Bill isn’t sure that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK.

But (17) is true, Bill isn’t sure of this. To be sure, (17) is misleading, since it implicates that Bill takes Lee Harvey Oswald’s guilt to be a live option. But I think once we distinguish truth from assertability, it is clear that (17) is true. So the simple hypothesis about the denotation of “who killed JFK” can’t be right.

It seems like what we need to say is that the sentence S Vs Q, where Vs is an attitude verb, and Q is a question, is true iff for some p, p is a (possibly false) answer to the question Q, and S Vs p. That’s why it’s false to say (16). There is an answer to the question “Who killed JFK?” that Bill is sure of. It’s a false answer, but it’s an answer. The reason that S knows Q requires knowing the true answer isn’t something that follows from the semantics of embedded questions, but something that follows from the factivity of ‘knows’. But I’m not sure what kind of compositional theory could deliver these truth conditions.

Disaster Relief

As I’m sure you all know, the South Pacific and parts of South-East Asia have been struck by several disasters this week, as earthquakes and tsunamis have left at least a thousand dead, and many more injured or homeless. There are many organisations that have been active in response, including Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, the World Food Program and many others. Now would be a good time to donate some money to some of these organisations.