Saturday, July 16, 2011

What I'd like to see from XPhi

I've talked about the (de)merits of XPhi here. I mentioned that there are potential philosophically important uses of X-Phi. Here's two relevant questions I'd like to see it answer and I think are of important philosophical relevance.

From what I argued in my previous posts (see here and here) about the knowledge argument, I'd like to see an experiment comparing survey responses of two linguistic groups: a group composed of native language speakers of a language that does not recognize the color red as a unique primary color but a shade of some supercolor such as "dark." The other group does recognize red as a primary color such as native English speakers. The speakers of the language that doesn't recognize red should be from a group that also has not had much influence from western culture or any cultures that partitions the color spectrum in a different way.

Of course that will be hard and in practice no culture is so discrete from the linguistic and cultural influence of others but there still are some cultures that are relatively isolated. Many speakers of the Trans-New Guinea languages are so isolated even today. They would be a good group to sample because as I've mentioned, they only recognize two basic primary colors (dark and light). They would serve as a good comparison group with Native English speakers, e.g. To test their intuitions on the knowledge argument compared to the control group of native English speakers would be a good way, in my view, to see if there is anything substantive and sound about it. Let's say that the non control group doesn't think that Mary learns anything new once she sees the apple for the first time, that would go in some ways in showing that it is conceivable Mary learns nothing new when she sees red for the first time. The knowledge argument, like many arguments in metaphysics and especially the philosophy of mind, are based on conceivability constraints. By showing that our own intuitions are culturally/linguistically biased, it may go in some way to show that it is conceivable that Mary did not learn anything new contra the early Jackson and his supporters.

Alternatively, I also am interested in some of the debate in the notion of civility. The concept and role of civility has taken on some popularity among moral philosophers in the last 20 years.

Brian Leiter has a nice short paper on role of civility in democracy. He argues that civility, or at least the demand for it from all parties in society, though important and justified in many social circumstances, can sometimes get in the way of democratically important process. I share this view. There is something deeply suspect about those who focus on and demand civility in the face of deeper and more important issues. I call these people the "Tone Nazis" or "Tone police" for their preoccupation with the tone of one's message instead of the content. I always felt that, in some sense, these people that demand unconditional civility to all parties, even the most irrational and dogmatic ones, were complicit in processes detrimental for a democratic society. They may also be, despite their good intentions, complicit in furthering some loathsome views by (unintentionally) giving them and their supporters respect they are not due.

Civility is not owed to many people who are obstinately ignorant in the face of reason. We sometimes think that everyone is owed some bear minimum civility but no one has really questioned if this is really the case. Many of us already have intuitions that civility is not owed to certain persons such as Nazis or rabid racists but why should it end there? Certainly there are lots of people that are as obstinately ignorant as Nazis and not owed any civility. Many people in society are probably not owed civility in all circumstances. A demand for civility toward those individuals holding intractable and unreasonable views either by them or those who may disagree but still think those opinions and those who hold them deserve some "respect" may hinder such fundamentally important democratic processes such as sincere and reasoned public discourse. If you take a look at many of the religious right or political rightwing fundies, they are almost without exception, incapable of responding to rational debate. I think that this common belief that we should have "respect" for completely unreasonable people and views even when they are held in the face of overwhelming counter evidence is a sign of a harmful postmodern influence in our society. Not all opinions are worthy of our epistemic esteem. Not all people are worthy of respect especially if those people hold on to their unreasonable opinions in the face of overwhelming counter evidence.

Leiter argues that for people like these, there is no obligation to be civil to them. The question that follows is whether it makes sense from a consequentialist perspective to be uncivil to them. That is, whether or not it will help them to change their ways by being uncivil to them. If it doesn't help them in making them more reasonable people (either not changing them or even making them less reasonable) then despite the fact that we don't owe them any civility, it may not make sense to be uncivil to them. But if it can be shown empirically that being uncivil actually works better in making them more tractable and reasonable, then it follows that we should act in uncivil ways towards them (since we are not obligated to treat them with civility).

I would like to see an experiment testing if uncivil (and there may be lots of indexes that measure uncivil behavior) behavior is more efficacious in getting unreasonable people to change their views in the face of overwhelming counter evidence. There are some studies already done showing that, for example, conservatives actually tend to hold on to their demonstrably false beliefs even more strongly when they have been disabused with the light of reality. See here. In these studies, the evidence is presented in a dispassionate way to test subjects. But if it is presented in a more passionate, direct, and perhaps what some would consider an uncivil medium, I wonder if conservatives would react the same way (that is, with an increased conviction in their original views instead of changing or updating their previous views to accommodate the new evidence). To what degree of uncivil behavior would change their views? Are all kinds of uncivil behavior equally efficacious or equally ineffective?

I suspect that for the most part, in cases where there is one person delivering the strongly or "uncivilly" worded counter argument, it will tend to be slightly more effective than dispassionate or respectfully worded messages of the same content in getting the intractable and unreasonable test subjects to come to their senses. There already some evidence to support this. This may be especially true if the message is repeated in the same tone. I also suspect that if there is a second party, a confederate of the deliverer of the message who explicitly backs up the message in equally a harsh tone, the test subject will be even more likely to change her views in the face of that message (in fact, I think she will be far more likely here than when there is just one person delivering the message). I don't know if any additional confederate beyond two will substantially make it more likely the test subject will change but I suspect that if it does it won't be as much as the increase from one to two. I also predict that this "bandwagon affect" is more pronounced in self-described conservatives than in liberals and that conservatives are more likely to change their views when the message is presented uncivilly than in more moderate or dispassionate tones than liberals.

Some of these last predictions are based on my personal experience so are quite speculative, obviously. I would really like to see if there's any truth to them.