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Panabstractism crashes xphi (maybe)

Richard Marshall interviews Bryony Pierce.

Bryony Pierce doesn’t see xphi as groovy but as common sense. That’s groovy! She was once a philosopher in waiting, but now she aint waiting no more. She’s always thinking about consciousness and freewill, the Knobe effect and panabstractism which makes her kind of wild.

3:AM: You are a relatively new philosopher. Can you say whether you have always been interested in the various big questions of philosophy? Has this been something that has developed over time? Can you think of anything that influenced you to get into philosophy?

BP: Yes, I do have a longstanding interest in philosophical questions, going back at least as far as I can remember, but I saw that more as a facet of my personality than a possible career path, when deciding what to study as an undergraduate in the late seventies, and chose Modern Languages. It was only after attending the LSE’s Annual Darwin Lecture, in 1998, that I started to look into studying philosophy, with a view to doing research into the ethics of genetic engineering. You could say that I was influenced, amongst other things, by Dolly the sheep.

I was looking for a fresh source of intellectual stimulation at that time. Another factor, I’m sure, was a realisation at that lecture, or at least a suspicion, that philosophy events were attended by people with whom I might have a lot in common. I used to think I was pedantic, obsessive, argumentative and full of outlandish ideas, but it turned out I was just an unwitting philosopher-in-waiting. I was finally able to combine doing an MA in Philosophy with my other commitments when the Open University started its online MA programme in 2002.

3:AM: You presented a paper, Why X Phi?’ in 2010. You are identified as part of that Josh Knobe tribe of philosophers. For many of us this is a fantastically groovy approach to philosophy. Can you say what experimental philosophy means to you and why you think it’s important for philosophers to take it seriously?

BP: Experimental philosophy, to me, is a natural consequence of the situation in which many philosophers found themselves. Some had noticed a discrepancy between their own intuitions about thought experiments and those anticipated or assumed to be the norm, some lacked relevant empirical data to decide between competing hypotheses, some wanted to be directly involved in testing hypotheses, rather than to try to find existing experiments that might support or refute their particular claims, and some were despondent about existing methodologies and interested in exploring different approaches for their own sake.

Most of these things applied in my case, but the deciding factor was that I needed empirical data that was unavailable in the existing literature. In my PhD research proposal, long before I’d heard of experimental philosophy, I proposed conducting surveys to get data I hoped would support my claims about free will. It made sense to design the experiments myself, so that they would address my specific research question. When I came across the x-phi movement, I was sympathetic to experimental philosophers’ aims, having felt the need to use empirical data on folk concepts, and having believed from the start that philosophical claims should be at least consistent with empirical data. I see no reason for philosophers to fail to take the idea of empirically informed philosophy seriously, and that is what I take x-phi to be, primarily, although others may see it differently.

I don’t see x-phi as a groovy, new, alternative way of doing philosophy, necessitating armchair conflagration or hostile attacks on other approaches, but as a common-sense solution to the problem of unavailability of suitable data to test or support certain philosophical hypotheses. Experiments can sometimes demonstrate that a claim is false, and that is worth knowing, too. The results are not always conclusive, but even if they are open to different interpretations, further experiments can be done, more data collected and the wealth of empirical data in a given area increased. Surprising results can also lead to new insights, but having said that, results that surprise one set of people may come as no surprise to another. One thing that has emerged is that people’s intuitions diverge, with factors such as culture, sex and extent of philosophical training apparently affecting our intuitions.

3:AM: You are based in Bristol where there is an experimental philosophy group. And there’s now an experimental philosophy group of UK as well, so it seems to be a growing movement within philosophy. Is that right? It seems that experimental philosophers work in a very distinctive way. It seems far more dialogic, group-orientated. There seems to be a lot of collaboration and sharing and a general feeling that work should be done in a team spirit. Is this your perception of the phenomenon and is it something that seems different from how philosophy is generally done? And is the UK group different from its American counterpart?

BP: The bulk of the published work in this area has come from the US, where x-phi is well established, but yes, there is a growing x-phi community in the UK. X-phi events and projects are now receiving funding here, x-phi papers are being presented increasingly often at mainstream events, and our group, Experimental Philosophy Group UK , has hundreds of members, though not all based in the UK.

Experimental philosophers can work collaboratively or independently, but I think most recognise that there is much to be gained from collaborative ventures, involving other experimental philosophers or researchers from different disciplines. The atmosphere at our X-Phi UK workshops reflects this and is sufficiently different from that at other Philosophy events for a number of delegates to have commented on it. Some sessions are set up specifically as collaborative activities, where a proposal for a study is made and delegates discuss possible ways of conducting the investigation.

I think our group shares the broad aims of its American counterpart, but like that group, it is made up of individuals who together lend the group its distinctive character. We created the group to perform a specific function, which included a commitment to provide a forum for discussion and collaboration, online and at regular x-phi events in the UK, co-organised, at the moment, by James Andow (Nottingham), Robin Scaife (Sheffield) and me. The third workshop will be held in Nottingham, on 8-9 September 2012. Our keynote speakers have included Stephen Stich, a fellow Founder Member of the Group, David Papineau, Finn Spicer, Paulo Sousa and Josh Knobe.

3:AM: Talking of Josh Knobe, your research is about the Knobe Effect and the concept of freewill. Can you say what you take the Knobe effect to be and what experiments you have been involved with or brooding on?

BP: My current research is primarily on the role of consciousness in action, but the 2003 paper by Josh Knobe ,‘Intentional Action and Side Effects in Ordinary Language’, caught my attention and prompted me to conduct a study of my own in 2008. The Knobe effect is an asymmetry found in judgments about whether side-effects of actions are intentional. The moral status of the side-effect was found apparently to affect responses, with the production of a morally bad side-effect significantly more likely to be judged intentional than that of a morally good one.

I was concerned that the two vignettes presented introduced an extraneous variable, the matter of whether the production of the side-effects in question appeared to be psychologically consistent with the chairman’s attitude in the two cases. We hear about a chairman making a decision that will result in harm (or help) to the environment, who says he doesn’t care about the side-effect, only maximising profits, and we presumably make some basic assumptions about him. When he harms the environment, this fits psychologically with his attitude of not caring, bearing in mind that not caring is a typical cause of (harmful) negligence. When he helps the environment, this seems inconsistent with his uncaring attitude and to happen despite rather than as a consequence of his attitude. I ran a version of the experiment that attempted to control for the variable of psychological consistency, to test this hypothesis, but the asymmetry remained, possibly because my vignette was still too similar to the original. I have no plans to continue the investigation myself at present, but I may come back to it one day.

3:AM: You’re a philosopher of consciousness and the causal processes that produce action. And from this you deny free will – both libertarian and compatibilist accounts. Can you tell the sharp but not necessarily philosophically trained readers here at 3am what these accounts say, and why you say they’re wrong.

BP: There are various versions of libertarian and compatibilist accounts and it would take a long time to describe them or to list all my objections and arguments, so I’ll simplify things and give a fairly quick and inevitably sketchy account of some features of my personal view.

I think that the term ‘free will’, if used at all in philosophy, should be used in such a way that the primary meaning it has in the English language, i.e. the meaning of the relevant folk concept, is retained. I am inclined to take the folk concept to be a libertarian concept of free will in which we are free to choose what to decide/how to act and the outcome of the decision-making process is not determined. This is a bit problematic, because a study I conducted a few years ago showed that the folk use the term loosely, sometimes even taking it to mean that a person has a right to freedom of some kind or finding themselves unable to say what it means, but I believe there is an underlying concept at work to which the term applies when used correctly (in the linguistic sense) and that philosophers should use the term correctly or not at all. It is this concept that I aim to investigate in my experiments.

According to a libertarian view we could have acted otherwise, even if all the events leading up to a decision and the circumstances we found ourselves in had been exactly the same, and furthermore this is not merely a hypothetical ‘could have’. This would give us contra-causal free will – the power to override or operate independently of the ‘laws of physics’ (appeals to quantum theory can account for some indeterminism, but fail to explain how there could be voluntary control of action). The libertarian view has never seemed plausible to me, outside of fiction, and when I introspect I find no illusion of free will, just an impression of a combination of internal and external causal factors that seem to interact to determine my thoughts, feelings and reactions. I view all action as a kind of reaction.

Compatibilists about free will believe that freedom of the will is compatible with determinism, so even if determinism were true and all our decisions and actions were caused to be a certain way and could not be any other way, we could be said to exercise free will in some circumstances, such as when there is an absence of external constraint or when our actions are in accordance with our desires. Their view is that this is what is meant by ‘free will’. I resist this view, because I don’t think this account corresponds to what is meant in the English language by the phrase ‘free will’, when used to refer to the relevant concept. I also reject the idea that there can be anything that can legitimately be considered an absence of external constraint, as well as the idea that our actions can fail to be in accordance with our desires, all things considered and allowing that there will be errors.

3:AM: Can you describe experiments that you have developed or that x-phi colleagues have done that you have based your arguments on?

BP: Yes, but I will start with a series of experiments that support a different conclusion , which were the basis for some of my experimental work on free will. Nahmias, Morris, Nadelhoffer and Turner’s paper, ‘Is Incompatibilism Intuitive?’, challenges the claim that the folk (in the sense of those with little or no knowledge of philosophy) believe free will to be incompatible with determinism. Their experiments presented people with scenarios in which acts were committed in a deterministic universe (described in a number of ways, but without explicitly mentioning ‘determinism’) and judgments were elicited from participants regarding the free will and moral responsibility of the agents. The results suggest that the folk have a compatibilist concept of free will, as the majority attributed free will and moral responsibility, despite having been asked to imagine the events happening in a deterministic universe. I could have abandoned my hypothesis and accepted this conclusion (that’s a merely hypothetical ‘could have’, of course), but I wasn’t convinced by their results.

I conducted three surveys. The first asked an open question about free will, to find out more about the folk concept, looking especially at the terms used – the most frequently occurring were to do with choices and decisions. The second used vignettes similar to those presented by Nahmias et al, but I preferred to make them forward-looking instead of retrospective (i.e. asking whether someone about to act could do otherwise rather than asking whether they had acted freely when the outcome was a fait accompli). I included additional questions about whether participants thought the deterministic universe described possible, in principle, at least, and about participants’ views on whether their own actions were free.

The results of the first survey were ambiguous with regard to whether participants were compatibilists, but the results of the second, larger survey (of 321 participants, 147 of whom were folk participants), lent a little more support to my claim that the folk concept of free will is libertarian – perhaps so libertarian it looks compatibilist, as my hypothesis is that folk participants reject the idea of determinism, even in principle, and give their responses without taking the deterministic nature of the scenarios properly into account. This isn’t the only way to interpret the results, of course, and further studies are needed to confirm my hypothesis.

Participants in the second survey are asked to imagine that it is the next century and that human behaviour (or that of alien citizens on another planet) has been discovered to be caused by factors governed entirely by the laws of nature. There is also a supercomputer that can scan the current state of the universe and predict exactly what will be happening on our planet (or the distant planet) at any future time, including citizens’ thoughts and actions, and events that might appear to occur randomly. They are asked to suppose that it is 100% accurate.

Scenario A describes Jeremy, a human, about to rob a bank, as predicted by the supercomputer decades earlier. Scenario 1 describes Ymerej, an alien, in the same way. When asked whether Jeremy (or Ymerej) is able to decide freely whether to rob the bank, 75% (72% in the case of Ymerej) of folk participants said he was. That looks compatibilist, but 78% also denied that human behavior could be predicted by a supercomputer like the one described, even in principle.

Maybe the question of whether the folk consider free will to be possible in a deterministic world is the wrong way of going about finding out whether the folk are compatibilists, and we should ask instead whether they think determinism possible in a world in which people believe they have free will?

In response to a subsequent question about a real-life person called Jeremy about to rob a bank (no deterministic conditions stipulated, but his upbringing, environment and circumstances are strong influences), 55% say that he can do otherwise and that “people are always free to choose differently” and 66% say that if he goes ahead his action will have been caused by his having “chosen freely to go ahead, despite having the genuine option of walking away”, with only 14% selecting the compatibilist response (free choice, but no other option) and 19% saying that his upbringing, environment and circumstances had left him with no other option. When asked about their own choices, 62% responded “I can choose freely between the options open to me and my choices are entirely up to me”. (This figure may have been reduced slightly by participants’ having just read about real-life Jeremy.)

In a third survey probing folk views of what it is to have free will 73% responded that it was necessary to have ‘multiple possibilities open to us when we make a choice or decision, any of which we are able to select’.

3:AM: A question you ask in one of your papers is ‘What if the folk concept of free will is incoherent?’ Now to some philosophers this question will strike them as being absurd. Of course the folk will be incoherent. That’s why we need the specially trained minds of philosophers to set them straight. You don’t think much of that kind of response do you? Can you say what you’d say about this?

BP: I think a lot of folk thinking is incoherent, and experiments show that philosophers are often inconsistent, too – equipping people with philosophical skills doesn’t guarantee coherence across the board or even within their own area of specialism. Having taken the view that a version of the folk concept is what is meant by the term, the word ‘folk’ in my question is superfluous. My real target was the concept of free will. The reason I asked the question in that form was partly because the debate I had become involved in seemed to be all about whether the folk concept was libertarian or compatibilist, rather than whether any of these concepts stood up to examination.

My claim, which can’t be defended here in a few words, is that all theories that rely on the existence of some kind of free must fail. I have not yet found an account of freedom of action that does not either beg the question or lead ultimately to some contradiction arising from the alleged freedom and/or to an inability to differentiate satisfactorily between the free and unfree. I know it’s frustrating to make controversial claims like this without backing them up, but this is an interview, not a paper, and I will present my arguments at a later date, internal and external constraints permitting.

3:AM: Some people might read that you don’t think we have free will and get depressed because they feel that if that’s right something special and important about themselves has just been proved an illusion. What do you say to these kinds of reflections?

BP: People are remarkably resistant to arguments for claims they don’t want to believe, especially when their own experience is in conflict with the conclusions. But if they were convinced by what I say, some people might indeed be devastated by the idea of not having free will, and also by other people’s not having it. Some would worry that this would eliminate morality, and with it all that they value, e.g. courage; integrity; generosity; love. They might fear that punishment would no longer be justifiable, that a lack of deep moral responsibility would be an incontestable excuse for despicable behaviour, and that anarchy would break out as soon as people found out the truth.

The thing is, it wouldn’t be a case of having free will one day then losing it overnight. If they don’t have it, they never did, and yet they were seemingly able to behave as though they did, from their own perspectives. If they had an illusion of free will, the illusion would probably persist for quite some time, while they adjusted to the idea. Perhaps that process has already started. People are increasingly aware of the influence of genes; parenting; peer pressure; advertising; religious indoctrination; and so on. Derren Brown has demonstrated on television how external factors can be manipulated to control people’s actions in surprising ways – getting normally law-abiding members of the public to attempt armed robbery or an innocent person to confess to a murder, for example.

I would tell disillusioned people that most of what they value, if not all, might remain unaffected, in practical terms, because they could think about things differently without losing the things that matter most – it’s not the fact that people do certain things freely and voluntarily that’s important, but the fact that they want to do them and do. Punishment needn’t be retributive; it can be a deterrent or a precaution and a factor in determining behaviour. Interaction with others could continue to be responsive to how well (or badly) they treated us and how much we valued them. Expressing approval or appreciation could replace praise and gratitude. We could give up on things like guilt, regret, blame and vengeance. Would that really be so depressing?

3:AM: You wrote about a thing called ‘panabstractism’. Is this the sort of phenomenon that made Adam Melinn ask, ‘What’s it like to be a baseball bat?’ So what’s this and what’s your view? And what are the experiments you know about that test out whether this is something folk actually hold in some cases?

BP: If I remember correctly, Adam’s view is a version of panpsychism. Panabstractism doesn’t claim that consciousness pervades physical matter, as panpsychism does, but draws on the fact that abstract relations are a fundamental feature of the physical world. Panpsychism, physicalism, idealism, and substance or property dualism make a distinction between the mental and physical, leading to the problem of how the mental, or consciousness, could arise out of physical matter. This distinction is orthogonal to another distinction: the distinction between the concrete and the abstract.

Panabstractism makes the ontological claim that what there is consists of physical stuff and the abstract relations that are a constitutive part of its being what it is. It makes the metaphysical claim that the abstract and the concrete are interdependent. Being a particular physical object or type of physical matter involves certain abstract relations without which existence, as that object, would be impossible. More controversially, I claim that abstract relations, even between abstract concepts, must ultimately depend on something physical. Some might wish to exclude some types of abstract relation, such as mathematical relations, here, but even if I were to accept that and make only the weaker claim that the existence of physical objects depends on abstract relations, we still get an alternative approach to the naturalisation of conscious experience to theories that require it to emerge as a distinct natural kind from physical matter alone at a late stage in evolution or to have existed all along in some previously unrecognisable form.

Panabstractism doesn’t posit anything outrageous or ridiculous, but it does have implications for the study of consciousness. Consciousness has traditionally been viewed as either reducible to the physical or irreducible and potentially inexplicable. Panabstractism side-steps the mental/physical dichotomy by looking at what there is in a different way. Attempting to explain consciousness in terms of abstract relations inherent in physical matter, progressing through some sort of physical representation of the concrete and abstract, leading to higher-order abstract relations and representations thereof, seems to me a promising way of developing a more satisfactory theory of consciousness. But it’s still a work in progress.

I haven’t conducted any experiments connected with panabstractism yet and am not sure experimental philosophy would be the most appropriate methodology to advance my work in this area at this stage, although it could be worth probing people’s intuitions on the plausibility of the basic premises, in view of the fact that I want to say that it is relatively uncontroversial. I waver between thinking it’s so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning and too likely to be counterintuitive to everyone except me to be worth bothering with, but I still want to pursue this line of research for my own satisfaction. I’ve had more positive feedback than criticism so far, but that may all change now.

3:AM: One of the questions that many philosophers of consciousness brood on is quite what’s the purpose of consciousness. So Dave Chalmers can imagine a world exactly like ours except we’re all zombies. Everything functions as now but there is no awareness, no consciousness anywhere. And that makes him wonder what consciousness is for? Now Chalmers is interesting because he is a dualist. Most philosophers these days tend to run non-dualist arguments. You’ve been thinking about the function of consciousness recently. So, what do you think? What’s it for? Is there cool experimental data supporting your arguments?

BP: My view is that it has the function of acting as an interface between cognitive and affective processes, enabling goal-directed action that is sensitive to both needs and opportunities, and grounding reasons. Practical rationality requires interaction between two things: means-end reasoning (cognition), and affective responses (in a loose sense that encompasses all feelings and sensations with motivational force).

Emotion and sensation provide information about physiological states and needs, whereas cognitive processing deals with information about opportunities in the external world. Needs are continually changing, as are opportunities to satisfy those needs, so interaction between the systems responsible for monitoring bodily states and the environment is needed if our bodies are to be able to coordinate the two. This requires a common currency, which consciousness provides.

I mentioned the grounding of reasons, too. Affective responses provide that grounding – the way we feel about anticipated outcomes is sufficient to convince us that we have reason to pursue certain courses of action. Without affective responses, we get an infinite regress of ‘why’s – there would be no reason to prefer one state of affairs to another.

You ask about ‘cool experimental data’ in support of interface theory. When I first discussed these ideas with my supervisor, Susan Hurley, she had just been sent a draft paper by Tony Dickinson, a Professor of Psychology at Cambridge (and now my external supervisor), which made exactly the same claim. His view, which overlaps to a great extent with mine, is called ‘Hedonic Interface Theory’ (HIT), and he and Bernard Balleine have tested a number of hypotheses in experiments on rats, the results of which support HIT’s conclusion – that the function of consciousness is to act as an interface between cognition and affect.

Dickinson and Balleine first tested the hypothesis that phenomenal consciousness was necessary for the updating of values. Rats were given a novel sugar solution and a mild toxin causing gastric malaise, a latent aversion being activated when they tasted the solution again. The rats pressed levers to obtain the solution when given the opportunity, but once they tasted it and experienced it as disgusting, they stopped pressing the levers. Those that had already experienced the taste of the solution anew avoided pressing the levers when given the opportunity.

The experiments were repeated, but an anti-emetic was administered before re-tasting, which reduced avoidance of the solution, as predicted. A third set of experiments tested the hypothesis that cognitive control of behaviour would be unaffected by the anti-emetic – rats that had already learnt to avoid the solution continued to avoid it, although the anti-emetic would have attenuated any nausea. These results confirmed the hypothesis that intentional actions can be independent of the affective responses that ground goals, in that there is no need for a concurrent, phenomenally conscious representation of the goal.

Phenomenal experience of affective reactions (e.g. pleasure or disgust) seems to allow rats to assign appropriate incentive values to commodities, according to their current physiological states and needs. A rat that has been deprived of salt will attach value to a salty liquid, shown by responses such as paw licking and mouth movements, although the same liquid might normally produce a negative response. But the rat won’t adjust its lever pressing behaviour to gain a commodity until it has tasted it, experienced an affective reaction to it and updated its goals and values.

There are also some experiments by Cabanac on human subjects asked to taste a glucose solution at regular intervals and rate how much they liked it. There were two groups, each tasting 50 ml of the solution at intervals of three minutes. One group was asked to swallow the solution and the other to spit it out. Those who spat the solution out continued to give high pleasure ratings, but after consumption of 1000 ml of the solution the other group’s ratings changed from ‘highly pleasant’ to ‘highly unpleasant’. This change was attributed to increasing satiation. As with the rats, the incentive value was reduced as affective responses reflected changes in physiological needs.

Dickinson claims that consciousness, or some functional equivalent, is necessary for goal-directed action. Because of the need to ground reasons for action in conscious experience, I make the stronger claim that consciousness is necessary.

3:AM: There’s much discussion about the under-representation of women in philosophy. Is this a concern that perhaps x-phi’s new way of doing philosophy might help address? Is this an issue that you have noticed? If so, is there anything in the experiments done by X Phi to help illuminate the issue?

BP: It’s quite hard to comment on the under-representation of women in philosophy without advancing hypotheses or making generalisations based on sexual stereotyping, which is something I want to avoid doing. I don’t see being a woman as being a disadvantage in philosophy, but it’s possible that philosophical methods and practice are less appealing to men and women with certain characteristics and that those characteristics are statistically more likely to be found in women. Research in experimental philosophy, such as Stephen Stich and Wesley Buckwalter’s work on gender and intuitions, showing that women are more likely to have intuitions that diverge from the standard view, may shed light on this or even lead to changes that encourage more women to pursue careers in philosophy, but I wouldn’t advocate abandoning or revising current ways of conducting philosophy specifically in order to try to achieve that end. If some methods have less merit than had been supposed and experimental philosophy can demonstrate that, then that would be a reason to make changes. Whether any of those improvements would make a difference to the under-representation of women is very difficult to predict.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend to the smart readers at 3am to help them get to grips with this groovy world of X-Phi?

BP: I think I’d recommend either fewer or more than five, and recent papers on topics of particular interest to individual readers as a supplement to books . They could start with Experimental Philosophy by Josh Knobe and Shaun Nichols, 2008, which starts with an informative ‘Experimental Philosophy Manifesto’ and contains a number of interesting papers, or for an overview, Joshua Alexander’s Experimental Philosophy: An Introduction. Then I’d advise people to follow their own inclinations after that, perhaps seeking inspiration from the books featured on the Experimental Philosophy blog.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 19th, 2012.