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Surveying Loose Talk

(Note: This post began its life as a comment to Josh's recent post on Justin and Edouard's paper last night. Since a technical glitch prevented publishing it, I wrote a full blog post on Ethics Etc, where I occasionally blog. However, since I suspect there isn't much overlap in the readership, I asked Thomas if I could cross-post here as well for my target audience, and he graciously invited me to do so. Justin and Edouard – sorry for accentuating the negative. -A)

This is the first in a series of posts about recent work in
experimental philosophy. I will be examining some persistent general
issues with the different experimental approaches by way of looking at
particular papers in some detail. I’ll begin with ‘Two Conceptions of
Subjective Experience
’ by Justin Sytsma and Edouard Machery. The
problem that the study highlights is that everyday language is often
vague, ambiguous, or just spoken loosely, so that we can’t draw
conclusions about people’s concepts just by looking at what they say in
response to prompts. We first need to tease out just what people mean,
and this can’t be done in a survey that doesn’t allow for a
back-and-forth between the researcher and the subject. This would be a
problem even if experimentalists solved all the other problems raised
by myself and others.

Here’s how the abstract of the paper begins:

Do philosophers and ordinary people conceive of
subjective experience in the same way? In this article, we argue that
they do not and that the philosophical concept of phenomenal
consciousness does not coincide with the folk conception. We first
offer experimental support for the hypothesis that philosophers and
ordinary people conceive of subjective experience in markedly different

There’s more in the paper, but since my focus is going to be on the
alleged experimental support, I will not discuss the rest of the paper.

Sytsma and Machery’s (S&M) thesis is that while philosophers
conceive of perceptual experience and bodily sensations as belonging in
the same category of subjective experience, unified by the fact that
there something that it’s like to be in the relevant states, the folk
don’t do so. Their evidence for this comes from the following online
study. Both philosophers and non-philosophers were presented with the
following prompts about a robot (and corresponding ones about a normal

Jimmy is a relatively simple robot built at a state
university. He has a video camera for eyes, wheels for moving about,
and two grasping arms with touch sensors that he can move objects with.
As part of a psychological experiment, he was put in a room that was
empty except for one blue box, one red box, and one green box (the boxes were identical
in all respects except color). An instruction was then transmitted to
Jimmy. It read: “Put the red box in front of the door.” Jimmy did this with no noticeable difficulty. Did Jimmy see red?

Jimmy is a relatively simple robot built at a state
university. He has a video camera for eyes, wheels for moving about,
and two grasping arms with touch sensors that he can move objects with.
As part of a psychological experiment, he was put in a room that was
empty except for one blue box, one red box, and one green box (the
boxes were identical in all respects except color). An instruction was
then transmitted to Jimmy. It read: “Put the red box in front of the door.” When Jimmy
grasped the red box, however, it gave him a strong electric shock. He
let go of the box and moved away from it. He did not try to move the
box again. Did Jimmy feel pain when he was shocked?

When it came to the normal human case, there was no significant
difference between philosophers and the folk: most agreed that the
person saw red and felt pain. But in the case of the robot, most
philosophers answered that the robot neither saw red nor felt pain,
while most non-philosophers answered negatively to the pain question
but positively to the seeing red question. S&M conclude:

On average, the folk (but not philosophers) are willing to ascribe the
perceptual state of seeing red to a simple robot. Given the
illustrative centrality of the example of the redness of red to the
philosophical concept of phenomenal consciousness, our results indicate
that philosophers’ concept of phenomenal consciousness is not how the
folk understand subjective experience. (p. 13)

Now, there is a pretty obvious response to this: maybe ’seeing’ is
ambiguous between differential responsiveness to the visible features
of the environment and such sensitivity + phenomenal experience, or,
better yet, the first of these concepts gets triggered in loose talk.
It’s not that the folk and philosophers have a different concept:
rather, the ordinary term can express either, and the folk latch on to
the former in the context of the study. Consequently, there is no
one-to-one correspondence between language and thought, and we can’t
draw any conclusions about the latter by looking at the former before
we’ve established one by resolving ambiguities, taming vagueness, or
tightening loose talk.

I raised the issue in a Q&A a couple of years ago (as did a
number of commenters on the Experimental Philosophy blog when the study
was posted there recently), and it turned out, unsurprisingly, that
this was not a new concern to the authors. Given that the response is
so frequent, S&M address it in the paper. As they nicely put it,
according to it ’seeing red’ has both informational and phenomenal
readings, and the folk select the former, unlike the philosophers. So
what, according to them, is wrong with this natural thought?

Their first response is that the distinction between the two
readings is ‘ad hoc’. This is a strange thing to say. Roughly speaking,
a distinction is ad hoc if the only use it has is to respond to a
criticism. But the fact that ’seeing’ and other sensing verbs have an
informational reading should be obvious anyway, and it would be
shocking if nobody had pointed it out before in the literature. After
all, we talk like this all the time: the baby alarm ‘hears’ the baby
cry, and alerts the parents, the missile ’senses’ the heat pattern and
redirects itself, and so on. Ambiguity is probably too strong a term to
describe this – as I’ll suggest, there’s some reason to think that this
is just loose talk, a convenient shorthand that we (the folk) recognize
as strictly speaking false. Compare this to the loose use of ‘knows’ –
we use ‘know’ for accidentally true belief all the time, but are
willing to withdraw the claim if some literalist busybody pushes us.
Surely (please tell me) nobody would parade a survey showing this as a
discovery about the folk concept of knowledge and its divergence from
the philosophers’ one.

What triggers one reading rather than another is a separate issue. I
don’t think the burden of proof on why the folk pick out one rather
than another reading is on the ambiguity/loose talk theorist, who might
not be particularly interested in theorizing about people’s actual use
of words. You wouldn’t demand that of other ambiguity claims, would
you? But if I had to guess, I’d say most people are being charitable
and choosing the least demanding reading – “Ummm…. if the robot didn’t
see the box was red, it couldn’t choose the right one”. If S&M were
serious about testing for this, they would run a study using prompts in
which the ambiguity or looseness is naturally resolved one way or
another, and compare the results. I wonder what simply adding
“literally/strictly speaking see red” would do? (If that made a
difference, it would support the loose talk interpretation.) Or “did
Jimmy a) exhibit sensitivity to different wavelengths of light/visual
information, b) exhibit sensitivity to redness, c) see red (tick as
many boxes as you think apply)”. Sure, this is not trivial – but it’s
not that hard either (waiving for the moment general problems with
surveys as a tool for getting at people’s concepts).

Second, S&M claim that the pattern of findings about the folk
doesn’t support the ambiguity interpretation, because in that case,
they claim, “we would expect that a reasonable proportion of the folk
would answer negatively to the question “Did Jimmy see red?”—as
philosophers do—while the remainder would answer positively” (p. 16). Now, why would we expect
this? Suppose the folk note that the robot is sensitive to colour and
charitably pick the informational reading when answering the question.
What pattern of responses would you expect, when everybody is in the
same context? You’d expect the vast majority to pick the same sense.
And that’s just what we find. Only in a different context where the
phenomenal reading was made salient would you expect ‘a reasonable
proportion’ of the folk answering negatively. Maybe tell a story about
a blind person, who is able to detect red surfaces with the help of a
super-duper scanner. Would the folk think this person was seeing red? I
doubt it. Then a completely parallel story with Jimmy. My hunch is that
you’d get a reasonable proportion of not seeing red – especially if
alternative responses were available.

Finally, S&M claim that the comments the minority who say the
robot doesn’t see red don’t suggest they make use of a phenomenal
reading. But again, the most natural reading of the comments is that
the subjects are indeed groping toward the phenomenal reading. S&M
relate that they say things like “I’m not sure how color is understood
by robots and computers”; “seeing is a human attribute”; “seeing is
something which animals do.” Now, if they weren’t restricted by the
survey method, they could have asked them “What do you mean by ‘a human
attribute’? What’s the relevant difference between humans and
machines?”, and so on. Alas, the dogma of experimental philosophy, I’m
afraid, says that this is contaminating the data, or something. So we
don’t know what they were getting at. But it’s pretty reasonable, I
think, to assume on the basis of such responses that the people who
didn’t think the robot literally saw red figured that you need to be a
creature that has conscious experiences.

So, in short, the three responses S&M offer to the ambiguity or
loose talk criticism are extremely weak – if anything, the evidence
they appeal to supports that interpretation. Is it a surprise that
people with a philosophical training gravitate toward a narrow, literal
interpretation of a term, while people without such training prefer a
loose usage that works well for practical purposes? Not in the least.
Why not, then, accept this simple and general hypothesis about the
entirely predictable set of data, rather than reach for a story that
attributes massive error to generations of really, really smart members
of the folk whose curiosity about these matters led them to reflect on
them professionally? And why not properly test for the obvious
competing hypothesis, when at least the first steps would be very easy
to take, even within the constraints of a survey methodology?

Posted in General.