Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Personhood, AI, and my agnosticism about other minds

Philosophy of mind has never been a branch I've done much with, and I only did the most basic epistemology as an undergrad. But I've become more interested in Theory of Mind, especially the practical business of how children develop it and when, as I've watched the process occurring in my daughter. It's a fascinating process, and some moments really stick out as "wow" moments. I remember very clearly the day I managed to teach my daughter her name (because I have shamelessly documented her life, I even have a video of it!). Sshe was in the bathtub, and I pointed to her, and said "Gweni", pointed to me, and said "mommy", and pointed to the livingroom (where dad was) and said "daddy". After a few repetitions, she started pointing to herself and shrieking "Genni, Genni!" This happened on a Tuesday or Wednesday -- and on Saturday the word "mine" entered into her vocabulary. It was like having a name was the catalyst for differentiating herself (from me? from the rest of the world? I'm not sure) and now there was something differentiate to which things could belong. Fascinating. She'll be five in November, and has been meeting all the false-belief/Sally-Ann milestones appropriately along the way. I was gone for two weeks in July, and a few weeks later she was trying to tell me that the park near our house could be reached by turning down a particular street. This wasn't true, and I was trying to gently point out that I didn't think she was right, and she promptly squashed me, "You don't know! I went with dad! You weren't there! You don't know!" So she clearly can differentiate what I know from what she knows.

Watching the process by which a child becomes a person is strange in that I can see it happening but it's hard to point out what it is that is happening: What, exactly, is my evidence, other than little anecdotes like the above, that she is indeed developing a mind, a mind distinct from my own? The more I think about it, the more I've come to the conclusion that my personal stance towards the existence of other minds is party agnostic and partly pragmatic: I don't have any evidence that they don't exist, but I also don't have any evidence that they do. However, life goes much smoother if I act as if other humans are in fact persons; it's a convenient fiction to adopt.

But then this makes me think: What if that is what "having a mind" really is -- people acting as if you do? If everyone is adopting this practical fiction, then does it make a difference whether other minds (or even our own minds) exist? That other people are persons too? What happens, then, if we extend this from human persons to non-human persons? I was recently co-writing a paper with a friend on concepts of 'rationality' as it appears in AI, cognitive science, game theory, and philosophy. He's on the AI side of things, and a lot of our skype conversations consisted of me throwing up my hands and wailing "But what is it they think they're doing? How can they know if they've succeeded if they haven't even defined their success conditions?" It frustrated me to no end that it seemed to me, as an outsider, that AI people don't even know how to identify if they've succeeded. But perhaps that doesn't actually matter: Maybe AIs achieve personhood/acquire a mind at the point in which we treat them as if they have achieved personhood/acquired a mind. I was in Prague last year for a one-day workshop, and had a free day which I spent wandering the city. I spent a good twenty minutes at one of the castle gardens watching a small robotic lawn mower. It was operating according to a pretty crude algorithm, in that it would go straight forward until it bumped into a wall or tree or other obstacle, then it would back up a few feet, rotate a set number of degrees, and continue forward. At one point, it had gotten boxed in between two corner walls of the garden and a tree. All it needed to do was shift a very slight amount and then it could've gotten out around the tree. But instead, it kept shifting by too large an angle, and then running into one of the obstacles. I watched as a growing crowd of people gathered to watch it, and then they started offering it encouragement. "Come on, little guy, you can do it! Keep trying! Oooh, so close! Try again!" It was really bizarre how easily they personified it. I was reminded of this encounter yesterday when I saw the headline "People will lie to robots to avoid 'hurting their feelings'". Does it matter if the robot has feelings that can be hurt? Or is what matters that we treat it as if it does? Does it matter if other humans have feelings that can be hurt? Or is what matters that we treat them as if they do?

Maybe there's nothing more to being human than being anthropormorphised by other humans.

Logic textbooks written by women

A conversation on twitter yesterday made me realize I couldn't name a single logic textbook written by a woman (other than my own draft book), where by "logic textbook" I intended to capture "book I could use as a primary text for an intro logic or advance logic course". Twitter to the rescue, I got lots of suggestions. So I've decided to collate them here. If there are any missing, please share in the comments.

I also received a couple suggestions for linguistics books:

Finally, someone else mentioned this, which isn't quite logic, but since it's logic-adjacent I'll happily include it:

(Last updated 07 April 17).

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

What is fanfic, and why should philosophers care about it?

As an undergrad, I double majored in English and philosophy. While I ended up swerving firmly towards philosophy by the end (I discovered that I enjoy reading books way more than I enjoy writing about them, and ended up doing only the bare minimum to get the English degree, as opposed to philosophy where I took more than double the required number of credits), philosophy of fiction was a natural place for my two sets of interests to overlap. I went into grad school planning to do something on possible worlds and fictional discourse, before logic captured me and took me away for more than a decade. One of the things I love about teaching undergrad courses is that it has allowed me to get back to those interests and rekindle them.

Unfortunately, if you look at philosophy of fiction rather cursorily (and from a distinctly philosophy of language view, which is the route I come into it from), it's hard to tell how it differs much from the general problem of the semantics of non-denoting words/names/phrases or the problem of nonexistent objects. There seems to be a disproportionate amount of time and pages spent on these topics, and I've become increasingly convinced of the utility of rooting out aspects of fiction that have been overlooked or ignored. In particular, I think there is a lot to be gained at looking at the practices of fiction, by which I mean the production and consumption of it. How do people interact with fiction(s)? Can our philosophical theories, whether specifically aimed at fiction or whether more general, explain what underpins these practices? If that is too much to ask, are these theories at least consistent with our practices?

Now, I don't want to make it seem like no one else has asked any of these questions. One good example of an area of philosophy of fiction that takes seriously our practices w.r.t. fiction is the paradox of fictional emotion. [1] What I am saying is I want more! More like this, more things that go beyond discussion of Santa Claus and Sherlock Holmes, Pegasus and phlogiston. Don't ask merely "how can we say meaningful things about fictional objects?", go one step further and ask "how can we say meaningful things in fictional languages?" [2] Don't ask merely "How does the operator 'truth in the story' work?" but rather "How does the operator "true in the story" work when there is more than one story?" And that brings me to an aspect of philosophical practice which has to date been almost wholly ignored by philosophers: fanfiction. [3]

So, what is fanfiction, and why should philosophers care about it? As Thomas defines it:

The term fanfiction (sometimes abbreviated as fanfic) refers to stories produced by fans based on plot lines and characters from either a single source text or else a 'canon' of works; these fan-created narratives often take the pre-existing storyworld in a new, sometimes bizarre, direction. [4]

The largest repository of text-based fanfic is available online at, and when people refer to 'fanfic' it is usually in reference to this sort of production. However, as we'll see below, some of the interesting philosophical questions surround precisely what counts as fanfic and how it should be defined.

But let's take this definition and start picking out topics that are of philosophical interest in connection with it. Whenever my students are struggling to come up with good paper or thesis topics, my advice to them is to pick something interesting, whether it is philosophical or not, and (a) see how it intersects with a particular philosophical theory or topic or (b) start asking the big questions (What are the building blocks at play? How do we have epistemological access to them? How can we speak meaningfully about them? How can we reason about them? What are the grounds on which we can discriminate one answer to these questions from the others?). When you do this with fanfic, you get a plethora of interesting questions. I recently wrote about some of them, namely the nature of the relationship between the source text and the fanfic, and what the relationship to the stories therein is, whether fanfic should be seen as derivative or constitutive. <- This post contains rather nascent ideas, which I have since developed into a more fully-fledged investigation [5] which was directed at question of type (a): How do two different possible worlds accounts of fiction, Lewis's and Kripke's, account for or explain fanfiction? During writing, I found myself continually coming up with questions I wanted to address but couldn't within a limit of 6500 words. The first group stem around how to define fanfic in the first place:

  • How are we to define fanfic? Should it be defined so that it only encompasses text-based works, or should it include things like comic books and films?
  • What is the relationship between fanfic and fandom more generally?
  • Is vidding ("an art in which clips from television shows and movies are set to music to make an argument or tell a story" [6]) fanfic? Is cosplay? (On the topic of cosplay, what are the cosplay contexts in which counterfactual accounts can be expanatory?)
  • Where does LARPing fit into this?
  • Historical fanfic: Is Paradise Lost Bible fanfic? What about the various Irish mythological tales?

A central notion in discussions of fanfic is the notion of 'canon', a standard of measure against which the newly created stories are measured; the existence of canon is "particularly important for the creators of fan texts because they are judged on how well they stick to or depart from canon" [7], and this brings with it a plethora of questions too:

  • How much canon can you violate and still tell a legitimate story?
  • How does something move from noncanon into canon?
  • Can something go the other way?
  • Who has the authority to say what is canon and what is not?
  • Where does that authority come from?
  • What is fanon, and what is its relationship to canon?

Many people writing on the sociological and anthropological aspects of fanfic stress the transformative, and often subversive, nature of fanfic, which are closely tied to the questions of canon and authority. Without authority, there is nothing to subvert; without canon, there is no way to say that one story is a transformation of another. And this leads us to questions that focus on the created stories and characters themselves:

  • How do we identify characters across fictions? Is the Sherlock Holmes of Conan Doyle the same as Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock? (These are questions already discussed in philosophy under the heading of 'intensional identity') How about Adam Smith's Batman and Christian Bale's?
  • How does "interfictional carry-over" [8] work?
  • In what are The Taming of the Shrew and "10 Things I Hate About You" the same story? Is the latter fanfic of the former? Or is it just an adaptation? Are adaptation and transformation different things?
  • How do we understand the metaphysics of cross-over fiction (which takes characters from one story and transplants them into another)?

Some people reading these questions might object that I've betrayed my principles and swerved from philosophy back into English, and that these are questions literary theorists, rather than philosophers, should be answering. I disagree. I think that many of these questions can probably benefit from engaging with the literary, sociological, and anthropological work that's been done on fanfic already, but that philosophers bring with them a special way of asking and answering questions that, when applied to fanfic, can provide material both of interest to other philosophers and of relevance and interest to not only people in other academic disciplines but outside academia altogether. (Most of my FB friends who asked to read my draft [5] were writers (both of fanfic and of other work) or readers (of fanfic or sci/fantasy more generally), rather than philosophers. Who wouldn't want to write philosophically robust material that is actually of interest to the general public? Besides, writing on these topics means I get to watch and rewatch all the versions of Pride and Prejudice and call it research!)

This post barely scratches the surface, but I hope I've whetted at least a few appetites, and would love to see some work on these questions forthcoming in coming years!


[1] Cf. Colin Radford, “How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 49 (1975): 67-80; Kendall L. Walton, “Fearing Fictions”, Journal of Philosophy, 75, no. 1 (1978): 5-27. Also, one of my students, Andrew Thomas, is writing his master's thesis on a fictional realist solution to the paradox.

[2] Sara L. Uckelman and Phoebe Chan, "Against Truth-Conditional Theories of Meaning: Three Lessons from the Language(s) of Fiction", Res Philosophica 93, no. 2 (2016): 1-19.

[3] At least, as far as I have been able to find. The only discussion I've found is Roy T. Cook, "Canonicity and Normativity in Massive, Serialized, Collaborative Fiction", Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 71, no. 3 (2013): 271-276. If you know of any other philosophical work that discusses any aspect of fanfiction, please leave a comment!

[4] Bronwen Thomas, "What is Fanfiction and Why are People Saying Such Nice Things About It?", Story Worlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies 3 (2011), p. 1; cf. Rebecca W. Black, "Fanfiction Writing and the Construction of Space", E-Learning 4, no. 4 (2007), p. 385.

[5] Sara L. Uckelman, "Fanfiction, Canon, and Possible Worlds", in preparation. Email or comment if you'd like to read a draft.

[6] Francesca Coppa, "A Fannish Taxonomy of Hotness", Cinema Journal 48, no. 4 (2009), p. 108.

[7] Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson, eds. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006), p. 10.

[8] David Lewis, "Truth in Fiction", American Philosophical Quarterly 15, no. 1 (1978), p. 45.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Developing a Philosophical Skills undergraduate course

I was recently handed a very interesting project, and one that aligns nicely with my pedagogical interests. Durham has a fantastically diverse syllabus for its philosophy programme, but one consequence of having such a diversity of topics, approaches, and methods is that one can sometimes lose sight of the forest for the trees. Or, to put it another one, we sometimes run the risk of teaching philosophy rather than teaching how to be a philosopher. So I've been tasked to develop a new 1st-year course on "Philosophical Skills" which focuses on the latter rather than the former. Topics covered will include things like:

  • Reading philosophical articles.
  • Writing analytically.
  • Coming up with paper/thesis topics.
  • Giving a philosophical presentation (of either your own or someone else's work).
  • What is plagiarism?
  • Finding and identifying appropriate scholarly resources.
  • Implicit bias, stereotype threat, good seminar dynamics, etc.
  • Writing essays for philosophy exams.
  • Collaborating on written and oral work.

Ideally we'd like something that is writing intensive (because the best way to learn how to become a philosopher is to practice!), with clearly identifiable assignments that don't require that much effort to grade. Though one person will be the main course coordinator, the different topics (and perhaps the different assignments that go with the topics) will be handled by different lecturers, hopefully both spreading out the work and allowing 1st-year students to get to meet many more of the staff than they would just taking the basic courses.

Building a course like this from scratch -- and making it a good one -- is going to be a lot of work. I would love to know of other courses similar to this -- if you know of any, can you share syllabi? topics covered? what worked well and what didn't? Even if you don't have a course like this, what would you want to see in such a course? What did you wish you'd been explicitly taught about how to be a philosopher as an undergrad? What do you want your students to know about being a philosopher that you aren't able to teach them in a course with dedicated content?