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X-phi is here to stay

Chris Weigel interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Chris Weigel is a groovy philosophical firebrand who burns her armchair alongside xphi’s pyromaniac Josh Knobe. She defends the X-phi jive at all levels and thinks critics are not really engaging with the diversity within. She used to be a music freak and is down with Shenker and serialism. She’s now at ease with the wild funk of freedom and determinism. Which makes her jive most definately cool.

3:AM: You are a philosopher but your first degree was in music performance. So what happened? How did you become a philosopher? Was there some event that happened or was it that you realised that you’d always been pondering the big ideas?

Chris Weigel: Philosophy and musical theory go hand in hand for me. As an undergraduate, I studied Schenkerian analysis with Alan Gimbel. Schenker thought that tonal music is structured hierarchically, with various structures mirroring each other at different levels in order to generate an organic whole. (Schenker was influenced by Hegel.) I found that fascinating. I wanted to understand whether these structures were objective properties of the pieces and how composers could generate pieces that give rise to these beautiful analyses without having any explicit knowledge of Schenker. I also had the good fortune of studying with Howard Niblock, a talented oboist and wonderful human being. Whereas many musicians might claim to need philosophy of music like birds need ornithology (to co-opt a phrase), Howard was the opposite. He has been such a great role model in terms of intellectual curiosity and the liberal arts ideal. He was also a generous and patient advisor, as he worked with me on a senior project on Lehrdahl and Jackendoff’s Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Of course, my philosophical development might have ended there, but I ended up taking philosophy classes from Tom Ryckman. He’s such an excellent teacher. He’s encouraged a ton of students to pursue PhDs in philosophy. I’d be shocked if he weren’t a record holder for how many students of his went on in philosophy, especially considering the size of school (Lawrence University had about 1200 when I was there).

3:AM: By 2009 you were enthusiastically supporting X-phi. You wrote a paper ‘Experimental Philosophy Is here To Stay’. Why did you write that? Was there a feeling at the time that the approach needed defending?

CW: Yes, it did need defending and explaining and sometimes still does. In 2009, I bumped into someone at a conference who said, “Oh, you’re doing that? That’s too bad. I read a paper that refutes it.” And my thought was, “Which ‘it’ are we talking about? The projects are really diverse, and it seems unlikely that one argument could refute all of them at once.” Over time, that person and the field in general has become much more sympathetic. Writing the paper was a way not so much of defending but of explaining experimental philosophy systematically. After attending the phenomenal Experimental Philosophy summer workshop directed by Ron Mallon and Shaun Nichols, I wanted to try to explain experimental philosophy to a wide audience.

3:AM: When talking about this approach to philosophy Josh Knobe, Shaun Nichols and others give the impression that it is a more collaborative approach than the traditional, armchair variety. Have you found this to be the case in your own experience? It seems very cool and unstuffy. Josh Knobe in his interview said he feared ending up as being just an academic stuck being read by a couple of other academics. X-phi seems to be a way of escaping this fear. Is this something that you relate to?

CW: Yes, and if you look at how so many of the major papers have co-authors, you’ll see that experimental philosophers tend to work collaboratively. I’ve also had many more opportunities for collaboration since starting in experimental philosophy. And I think you’re right about that the research tends to be, as you say, cool and unstuffy. I think of it like this: When my daughter was fifteen months old, I took her to a pumpkin patch, and she was so excited, she started uttering—screaming, really—her first sentence while pointing all around: “Look at that! Look at that! Look at that!” Experimental philosophy presentations have much the same feel. They offer a pumpkin patch full of philosophically rich ideas just waiting to be explored.

3:AM: In talking to some leading philosophers like Hilde Lindemann and reading reports on Brian Leiter’s blog and the Feminist Philosophy blog its clear that there are some problems in philosophy for women. As a professor of philosophy you are clearly a success story but is this an issue that you have noticed? How do you assess this situation?

CW: Molly Paxton, Carrie Figdor, and Valerie Tiberius have a great article I heard presented last summer, out now in Hypatia, on the topic of women in philosophy. One of their findings is that the major attrition for women happens after the first philosophy course. This is unfortunate, but I’m optimistic that things can change for the better. Take for example the case of computer science: Harvey Mudd is able to boast that 40% of their computer science majors are women (as opposed to the 18% nation wide), simply by re-designing their introductory class. Of course, numbers aren’t our only problem, but some of the pressures for women would be alleviated if the male/female ratio was more balanced in undergraduate and graduate programs. And of course, it is important to note that gender cannot be understood in isolation from issues with race, ability, sexual orientation, class and so on. I’m not an expert on these sorts of questions, but I do want to enthusiastically voice my support for those working on them.

3:AM: You are currently arguing a very fascinating position within experimental philosophy and the argument about whether free will is compatible with a deterministic universe or not. Before explaining your position, could you give our readers an overview of the two disputing positions that face each other on this issue and the cool experiments that they’ve used to support their positions?

CW: One of the major questions about free will is whether it is compatible with causal determinism. Roughly speaking, the question is whether we can act freely if everything happens the way that it has to happen given the past and the laws of nature. Philosophers often rely on the ordinary conception of free will as their target. The thinking is that you might be able to develop some conception of free will that gives you an answer to the compatibility question, but we aren’t interested in just any old conception. We’re interested in the conception that people use when they praise or blame themselves or others for freely willed actions. So the idea is that in order to answer this question about compatibility, we need to know what we are targeting when we talk about free will. Experimental philosophers have done experiments to see whether the ordinary conception of free will is compatible with causal determinism. They’ve found that different ways of asking the question yield different results. For example, Nichols and Knobe find that if you ask the question about free will in the abstract, you find that people overwhelmingly say that free will and determinism are incompatible. But if you present a concrete case of someone committing a crime and ask whether that could be a free action if determinism is true, people say yes. They argue that the most likely explanation is that our emotions are distorting our underlying understanding of free will and that people really don’t think that free will is compatible with determinism. Nahmias and his colleagues, on the other hand, argue for the opposite conclusion, that we really do think that free will is compatible with determinism. It’s just that when we think about the question in the abstract, we are led to make a mistake about what determinism means. The mistake is to forget that our conscious states are involved in the causal chains.

3:AM: So you are coming in between these two positions and saying that actually they’re making a common mistake by assuming that there is a single folk intuition about free will. Can you explain your argument and also say what evidence you have to say this about the folk?

CW: Both of these major positions involve the idea that we have one underlying genuine answer to the compatibility question. The two positions disagree about what that answer is, but they both say that when we stray from our genuine answer, we are making an error. It seems like there is something right about each of them: if emotions cloud our thinking, we’d discount those conclusions, and if abstraction makes us exaggerate what determinism involves, we’d discount those conclusions too. My research adds to this research by changing the questions a bit: what if in addition it turned out that there was a useful psychological mechanism, one that in general doesn’t cloud or distort our thinking, and what if that mechanism also shifted our thinking about the compatibility question? That’s what I want to look at.

The mechanism is psychological distance. Psychologists have catalogued a whole slew of ways in which thinking of something as distant from your self changes the way you think about it. If you think of things as far from you spatially or temporally, for example, you’re going to focus on the more core, abstract features. If you think of that same thing in the here and now, you’ll focus on the more fine-grained, concrete features. If you’re shown a picture of some kids on a playground, then if you think of the kids as psychologically distant, you’re more likely to describe the activity as “having fun,” but if you think of it as psychologically near, you’re more likely to describe the activity as “shooting free throws.” Neither one of those descriptions is an error; they just suit different purposes.

I wondered if psychological distance would also affect the way we think about the compatibility question. Experimental philosophy lets me explore age-old questions of free will with ideas and concepts from social psychology. I have an experiment that asks people to assume that causal determinism is true and then asks them whether a particular action is done freely under that assumption. People are divided into two conditions, and the only difference between the conditions is that in the first condition, people are told that all this talk about free will takes place during a lecture that they will hear in a few days, and they should think about what their answers will be in a few days; and in the second condition, people are told that the lecture and their answers are coming in a few years. That’s the only difference.

The description of determinism is the same, the question about free will is the same, and so on. The upshot is that when you think about free will in the near future, you’re more likely to think that it is compatible with determinism. If you think that all this talk about free will is going take place in the distant future, you think that if causal determinism is true, we can’t have free will. I think the difference comes about because we think concretely about the near future but abstractly about the distant future. So you can’t just ask “what is the folk intuition about free will” without also linking it to how abstractly people are thinking. Even if sometimes our intuitions about free will are the products of an error, I don’t think that all the variance in our intuitions can be the product of an error.

If you want to see how we don’t have a single intuition about free will, I have a forthcoming paper that I think makes the case even more clearly. The idea is that the “is compatible with” relation is symmetrical: the key is compatible with the lock if and only if the lock is compatible with the key. So if we have a single intuition about free will, you’d get the same answer to the question “is free will compatible with determinism” as you get to the question “is determinism compatible with free will.” I found, however, that one way of asking the question yields a “no” answer and the other way does not. Look at that!

3:AM: Your argument might be taken to suggest that the questions that experimental philosophers ask about folk intuitions about free will are pointless. Some more armchair-orientated philosophers will argue that in the end you need to settle down into the armchair and work out what the experiments mean. And that’s what you’re doing. So in the end experimental philosophy becomes armchair philosophy. But you say that this is absolutely not the case. Can you explain why you think experimental philosophy’s approach is important?

CW: Well, there are a lot of considerations that speak to the question of why experimental philosophy’s approach is important, but here’s just one. Sometimes you’ll hear people say that experimental philosophy might produce interesting results, but it doesn’t speak to core philosophical questions. I think that’s wrong and that the experiments can speak directly to philosophical theories, but not from the position of the armchair. There’s a theory about free will known as revisionism. Manuel Vargas is the biggest advocate. He says that what we do think about free will and what we should think about it can come apart. The philosophical account doesn’t have to be tied to ordinary intuitions. Most theories run counter to revisionism, saying that our best theory of free will explains the ordinary conception. But if you’re a revisionist, you can say that the truth about free will may seem deeply puzzling. The fact that a particular solution entails that you have to change what you’ve previously thought doesn’t speak against the solution.

The fact that we have inconsistent intuitions gives empirical evidence for revisionism. If people really give different answers to “is free will compatible with determinism” and “is determinism compatible with free will,” then that’s an argument for saying that what we should think about free will conflicts with at least some of what we do think about free will. When you hear a solution to the compatibility question, you shouldn’t expect everything to feel like “ah, mystery solved, that all makes sense.” You should expect to still feel deeply puzzled, even if you have the right solution.

I think that there are great non-experimental arguments that lead to revisionism, but I also think that experimental philosophy can also give evidence for revisionism. So if you dismiss experimental philosophy from the outset, you’re going to miss considerations that speak directly to the original philosophical questions. And even though there is, as you point out, a process of figuring out what the experimental findings mean, the focus on empirical evidence keeps experimental philosophers from ever settling too deeply in the armchair.

3:AM: The book Living Ethics that you produced with your philosophic colleague Michael Minch is a fascinating mixture of multi-disciplinary texts and resources for thinking about and doing ethics. Looking at your profile and Michael Minch’s, there’s not a great deal of overlap. Was the pleasure of the book again working with interests other than your own?

CW: We produced that book because we have a unique course at Utah Valley University called Ethics and Values. It’s an interdisciplinary course grounded in philosophy, and it has theoretical and applied components. We wanted a textbook that would draw on lots of different disciplines. That’s why it was really helpful that my research interests don’t overlap with Michael’s that much. We could get a much wider range of material that way. I also want to emphasise that our colleagues helped a tonne, suggesting readings and really helping shape the direction of the book.

3:AM: So finally, have their been novels, films, art and music that have been inspirational or enlightening for you as you have made your philosophical progress. I guess as a musician your music is still something that you find important. So what is on your iPod? And your reading list?

CW: The best novels I have read in the last few years, the ones I have loved the most as a philosopher are Murakami’s 1Q84 and Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances. I’m always surprised when I meet someone who loves Borges but hasn’t read these (well, less surprised about the Murakami since it is long and it has only recently been translated into English). I recently read all of the novelists on the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list and discovered some new favourite authors, especially Nicole Krauss, Nell Freudenberger, Achimboga, and Joshua Ferris, Tea Obreht and Gary Shteyngart.

As for music, Janacek’s Sinfonietta plays an important role in 1Q84, and I’ve been listening to it again. I’ve also been listening to Magnetic Fields, Hot Chip, Animal Collective, Of Monsters and Men, Maps and Atlases and Julia Holter. I’m really looking forward to the new Dirty Projectors album. ‘Temecula Sunrise’ is one of my favorite songs.

3:AM: And finally, finally, for the smart readership here at 3:AM Magazine, what are your top five recommended reads that will give us insights into the new philosophical horizons that you and your fellow philosophers are investigating?

CW: I’ll tell you what’s on my list, where I’m hoping to get insights. Let’s see, what’s on my desk right now? I’m going to read McKenna’s Conversation and Responsibility, Sommers’s Relative Justice, Nelkin’s Making Sense of Freedom and Responsibility, Kitcher’s The Ethical Project and Kelly’s Yuck!


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 26th, 2012.