Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Perils of Reading “Too much” in Grad School?

As a grad student in philosophy, I often run across a curious piece of advice: too much reading is a bad thing! As someone who has learned almost everything I know through reading, this notion surprised me when I first heard it. I had always thought philosophers should strive to read as much as possible to expand the breadth of their knowledge. When was the last time you walked into a full professors office and saw a tiny little bookshelf? Often, books are spilling out of their offices! But given I keep hearing this advice about reading “too much”, is there something to it?

There are at least three types of warnings I’ve heard about the “dangers” of reading too much. The first worry is that by reading too much you will never have the chance to write and publish. The worry I guess is that if you spend your whole graduate career trying to read everything under the sun but never write anything, then inevitably you will not complete the dissertation. Call this the “neverending lit review” problem.

The second warning about reading too much is that it’s better to engage in face-to-face philosophical discussions, what some philosophers like to think as where “real” philosophy happens. I am in agreement, to a point. I love discussing philosophy, and will go all night. But reading a book is equivalent to having a one-sided conversation. And if the author is a genius, then reading their books is equivalent to having a conversation with a genius. How is that not valuable? The written words allows for the transmission of thought, and thoughts are meaningful whether they are spoken or not. Besides, how else are we going to learn from history? Dead people still have insightful things to tell us.

The third warning concerns the drying up of creative juices by letting others do your thinking for you. The worry is that by reading too much you become a kind of philosophical puppet. Here philosophers like to quote authorities to support their contention:

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. ~ Albert Einstein

Reading is merely a surrogate for thinking for yourself; it means letting someone else direct your thoughts. ~Schopenhauer

I take it this last concern is that by reading too much, you dilute your mind with other people’s opinions instead of coming up with “your own” view. However, grad students who say these things in practice end up in a worse predicament than adopting the views of people they read: adopting the view of just one person: their adviser! Realistically, what are the chances that a single person at a single institution has all the answers? Slim to none. Better to seek the opinion of many experts, not just one, otherwise you risk philosophical myopia.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I would fall into the “reading too much” category. I devour books and never get full.  But I daresay that my drive to read everything under the sun has not hampered my writing productivity, prevented me from publishing, or hampered my philosophical creativity. Quite the contrary as readers of this blog might guess. As for the point about letting others do my thinking, how could this be true if I often find myself silently shouting “No!” when I read something I disagree with? Reading can be a way to figure out where people stand on issues, and thus, a way to orient yourself in the conceptual landscape. It is possible to critically engage with a book, to highlight points of both alignment and contention.

I take all this advice about reading too much to be a point about tradeoffs. You shouldn’t read all the time and never write your thoughts down and vice versa. You will fail as an academic (esp. a philosopher) if you never write anything down, but you will also fail if you never read anything. The flipside of “reading too much” is of course “reading too little”. The worry here is that if you don’t read extensively you take the very likely risk of reinventing the wheel, a great way to get banished to the sidelines of philosophical discourse.

In conclusion, my advice would be to maximize reading, writing, and thinking. Ceteris paribus, you should read as much as humanly possible without sacrificing writing and thinking. The ceteris clause is in there because there is a hint of truth in the advice about reading too much. If all you do is read, that is probably bad. But if you can also write and think while you read excessively, then wouldn’t that be better? Isn’t it a compliment for academics to say of someone else that “They are well read”? I would never take that as an insult.


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Quote of the Day – The Problematical Quest for Expertise

In any normal domain of expertise, even the most knowledgeable of specialists can’t come close to knowing everything about the domain. The breadth of knowledge that one would need to assimilate in order to be an expert in every nook and cranny is so cast that setting oneself such a goal makes no sense. And of course the idea of being an expert ‘in every nook and cranny’ is itself problematical, since when one uses a magnifying glass, every domain shatters into yet further subdomains.

~ Douglas Hofstadter & Emmanuel Sander, Surfaces and Essences: Analogies as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking, p. 245

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Has social psychology “proved” the unconscious-thought theory? And more importantly, does it need to? Thoughts on the recent “crisis” in social psychology

Making its way around the internet is a news piece in Nature covering the latest “blowback” to social psychology due to replication failure. The researchers attempted to replicate a series of experiments purporting to show “intelligence priming” i.e. merely thinking about a professor as opposed to a thug will make you perform better on some task. Studies like these are of course a dime a dozen in social psychology circles  e.g. reading words associated with oldness like “Florida” make you walk slower, or finding a dime in phone booth increases your odds of donating to a charity. Such findings inspired hordes of experimentalists to try and produce similar results, and by and large they have succeeded in doing so across a variety of domains. Of course, these kinds of effects are typically small, sometimes measured in minute difference in reaction times.

Taken as a whole, the literature seems convincing. But take each study individually and skepticism  rears its head about task validity, sample sizes, weak effects, and of course replication. This skepticism has been building to point that journalists and science writers now entertain  words like “crisis” to describe the scientific respectability of social psychology, especially after the recent series of high-profile fraud by leaders of the field. Reflecting broader intellectual moods, the author of the Nature piece then says this:

The theory holds that behaviour can be influenced, or ‘primed’, by thoughts or motives triggered unconsciously — in the case of intelligence priming, by the stereotype of a clever professor or a stupid hooligan. Most psychologists accept that such priming can occur consciously, but many, including Shanks, are unconvinced by claims of unconscious effects.

Notice how the last line is “unconscious effects” in general not “these particular unconscious effects of intelligence priming”. Whether or not this is Shanks view or simple journalistic distortion, the author implies that there is a heated empirical controversy about the actual existence of “genuine” unconscious activity, and that it’s still an open question whether there the unconscious “has effects” at all. Although I do not specifically endorse the recent (2006) version of “unconscious-thought theory” proposed by Dijksterhuis (imo, a classic case of reinventing the wheel), in this post I want to convince you that there is no empirical controversy at all about the existence of unconscious effects in general, and that the great causal efficacy and intelligence of the unconscious mind should understood as a theoretical axiom to be taken for granted, not a hypothesis in need of empirical “proof”.

Obviously any scientific theory must be stated in terms that are meaningful, otherwise we cannot make sense of what the theory claims to be true about the world. Accordingly, a theory that calls itself the “unconscious thought theory” should provide an operational definition of “conscious” because the claim is meant to be contrastive: whatever consciousness is, thoughts can happen without it. Thus, to understand the unconscious thought theory we must have a sense of what it means to be conscious. (We need to also have an operational definition of “thought”, but I will set this aside).

As theoreticians, we have unlimited freedom in defining the specialized theoretical terms we use in our theories so long as we can convince our colleagues that these are coherent and useful. Suppose you defined consciousness to be synonymous with what is understood to be uniquely human, reflective, introspective consciousness, what theorists sometimes call “System II processing” or what laypersons might think of as “self-consciousness”. If this is how the term consciousness is defined, then it follows axiomatically that all (or most) nonhuman animals are “unconscious”, or as I like to say, “nonconscious”. And clearly nonconscious animal minds are capable of producing a continual stream of intelligent and brilliantly adaptive behaviors. Thus, it is clearly unnecessary to go into a social psych lab to “prove” that the unconscious “has effects”. We plainly see the varied effects of the unconscious in nonhuman animal behavior all around us.

When psychologists throw around terms like “unconscious” they often fail to unambiguously specify the precise operational meaning of the contrasting term “conscious”. As a result, the folk psychological associations of the term as synonymous with “incoming sensory awareness” makes it sounds so cruel and mean to deny nonhuman animals consciousness. Upon reading the above paragraph, many people would immediately say how ghastly it is to deny animals experience, sentience, or a mental life. But it would be an anthropocentric delusion to suppose that human reflection alone bestows mentality upon an otherwise mindless nonconscious system. It is quite the reverse, in fact. It is the buzzing humming activity of the nonconscious system that bestows meaning and mindfulness upon the conscious system. Clearly, if you are an animal and lack reflective consciousness you are not thereby deprived of experience. I am doubtful that the terms “experience” or “awareness” can be given operational precision, but pretheoretically it is quite plain what it means to say that an animal is aware but unreflective; they can process information on-the-fly to produce intelligent, adaptive behavior but cannot “step back” and engage in sophisticated reflection.

In conclusion, I hope to have shown that the unconscious-thought theory is not a hypothesis that can be empirically proved or disproved. When a lab fails to produce priming effects, this has zero bearing on the claim that most of our mental activity is unconscious. That idea falls out of the definition of consciousness as the rarified act of reflective consciousness. It is a theoretical axiom, a guideline for hypothesis generation and research.

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Quote of the Day – A Reasonable View on What Human Freewill Is and How It’s Compatible with Determinism

The idea of free will can be re-stated in a way that will be more palatable to all but the most rigid determinists. To enable human beings to participate in culture, evolution gave us the ability to override our initial responses, choose among different options, and let behavior be guided by meanings (including rational analysis, abstract rules, and long-term planning). In addition to programming some of our tendencies and reactions, evolution created us to be able to re-program ourselves. It gave us controlled processed, self-regulation, and lifelong behavioral plasticity. It enabled us to use the results of complex, logical reasoning (occasionally!) to alter our behavior.

~Roy Baumeister, The Cultural Animal, p. 274


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Yes, a million times: The need for critical science journalism

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Quote of the Day – Geoffrey Miller on Small-minded Theorizing in Evolutionary Psychology

The view of the mind as a pragmatic, problem-solving survivalist has also inhibited research on the evolution of human creativity, morality, and language. Some primate researchers have suggested that human creative intelligence evolved as nothing more than a way to invent Machiavellian tricks to deceive and manipulate others. Human morality has been reduced to a tit-for-tat accountant that keeps track of who owes what to whom. Theories of language evolution have neglected human story-telling, poetry, wit, and song. You have probably read accounts of evolutionary psychology in the popular press, and felt the same unease that it is missing something important. Theories based on the survival of the fittest can nibble away at the edges of human nature, but they do not take us to the heart of the mind.

~Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind

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Mini-Book Review: Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?

I like to think of Ian Hacking as the “Oliver Sacks” of phil. science. Hacking – never a bore – makes reading and thinking about the history of science positively fun (and controversial!). Hacking’s writing is usually stocked with interesting facts, details, and stories. The Social Construction of What? is no exception. In this short collection of essays, Hacking dives into the Science Wars , sometimes called the “Culture Wars”, using a different “case study” per chapter. If you finish the book, you will have a better appreciation for  the myriad complexities in making sense of what people mean when they say “X is socially constructed” (the range and diversity of entities/predicates claimed to be constructed is phenomenal). Ambiguity is King in the Science Wars, but Hacking extracts the signal from the noise and states the relevant interpretations in an amicably clear fashion. Hacking makes a compelling case that these Wars represent “sticking points” of differing philosophical temperaments with a long and distinguished history e.g. the ancient debate between what Hacking calls nominalism and inherent-structuralism.

Hacking’s contributions to these debates involves clearing up a mess of conceptual confusions about what the debate amounts to, what the relevant terms mean and don’t mean, and how to resolve (or dissolve) the tension. Hacking seems to think that the term “social construction” is practically useless given the inevitable ambiguities and myriad meanings associated with the term. Ever ecumenical, Hacking nevertheless argues that both the realists and constructionists have a point worth making, and diagnoses the debates partially as a result of each side talking past each other with an ample dose of pamphleteering on both sides. Once a scientific question is well-posed, realists are right to insist there are determinate answers independent of what anyone thinks. But constructionists are right to point out that contingent personal, social, and cultural factors influence what questions are asked, as well as the standards and methods used to evaluate the answers to the questions. Thus, Hacking concludes that although the “content” of science is realist enough to warrant the term, the “form” of science is not.5/5 stars.

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Book Notice: Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God

I rarely read fiction, but when I do, I hope it’s as interestingly intelligent as Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Part of the appeal, to me at least, is that Goldstein fills her fictional world with intellectuals and academics from elite East Coast universities who are continuously having conversations peppered with high-level concepts ranging from philosophy, science, to game theory and beyond. I’m a sucker for novels of this sort in part because it lowers my feelings of guilt for indulging in fiction. The book has some bad reviews on amazon I’m guessing because of the protagonist (a “famous” atheist), the intellectual content, and the target audience. Knowing the academic buzzwords will probably go a long way towards rendering Goldstein’s work enjoyable, but I imagine for many it will still come off as pretentious. I never got that feeling, but then again, as an academic atheist philosopher interested in the psychology of religion, I probably instantiate the Platonic form of Goldstein’s target audience. For a novel that revolves around New Atheism, I was pleasantly surprised that the theological discussions were always at a respectably high level of sophistication and the arguments for and against God’s existence were never dumbed down (quite the opposite!). The protagonist is often described as an “atheist with a soul”, and accordingly I think the book itself deserves a similar description: Intelligent Fiction for the Atheist’s Soul.

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