Using Experimental Philosophy to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats
Using Experimental Philosophy to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats
Jonathon Keats introduces his workshop by listing the following five rules for looking at the world like an experimental philosopher:
1. Ask naive questions,
2. invert perceptions,
3. combine incompatible ideas,
4. remix metaphors,
5. and pursue paradox.
Ask Naive Questions to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats
Jonathon Keats says growing out of childhood was "probably the worst thing that ever happened to us, certainly the most traumatic." Even we re-enter states of naivete and wonder, our impulse as adults is to hide that precociousness from the outside work lest our peers interpreted it as immaturity or denseness. In this video, Keats explains why asking questions from this perspective helps us gain a new approach in solving the problems in our lives.
For example, Keats walks us through one of his most famous experiments, the Honeybee Ballet, which began as a simple naive question: "Could I choreograph a ballet for another species?" Keats then built from his absurd starting point, eventually exploring the not-so-absurd topic of "how we live within a world that is as complex as ours in harmony with other species."
"It's Pretty Weird When You See a Plant Enjoying a Gourmet Meal."
In an example of turning an absurd inquiry into a philosophical exploration, Jonathon Keats once opened a restaurant for plants so that they could experience their own sort of five-course meal. The way he did it was by altering the ways the plants were exposed to nutrient-granting colors of light. By splitting the spectrum over time, Keats was able to "surprise" plants in the process of feeding them.
While no one would ever confuse Keats for Julia Child, he does offer a unique perspective on the joy of "cooking" for plants. His naive question (How can we let plants experience the excitement of good cuisine?) transformed into an exploration of the nature of humanity's relationship with food as well as the overall question of what makes us human. Keats says this is just one example of how we can shift our perspective to tackle bigger philosophical questions.
Combine Incompatible Ideas to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats
Keats explains how a thought experiment in which he attempts to genetically engineer God allowed him to create a situation in which science and religion become compatible. The experiment further opened up an exploration of where the two seemingly irreconcilable elements can be made to merge.
Remix Metaphors to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats
When Jonathon Keats got married, he wanted to find a way to do it that was deeper than whatever sort of legal framework could be thrown his way by the United States government. He wanted to instead be married by a law of nature which, as he explains, is possible today thanks to advances in quantum physics.
As Keats explores this thought experiment, he explains the value of interpreting metaphors literally. Doing this, he says, will open up your mind to the workings of thought and language while shifting your perspective on myriad social normalities.
Pursue Paradox to Shift Perspective, with Jonathon Keats
"String theory is fascinating," says experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, "for the fact that it reconciles quantum mechanics and general relativity, the two greatest explanations that we have of the fundamental forces of nature in the universe for the first time arguably, but with certain caveats." He explains how string theory, by nature, is somewhat speculative. Also speculative is the real estate market, in particular the booming market where Keats lives in San Francisco. In this video, Keats explains a thought experiment in which he combined the two concepts to explore the ways in which paradoxical elements interact. Part of what he found was that, even though paradoxes feel like dead ends, there are ways to navigate out of them and perhaps even carve a new path of thought through them.
A study tantalizingly promises a possible location for new elementary particles called axions, which may also constitute the elusive dark matter. A team led by a theoretical physicist from the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has pinpointed axions as the potential source of the high-energy X-rays coming out of a cluster of neutron stars called the Magnificent Seven.
Axions were first theorized as fundamental particles as far back as the 1970s but have yet to be directly observed. In a fun fact, the idea for the name "axion" came to the theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek from a laundry detergent brand. If they exist, they'd be produced in the core of stars, converting into photons (particles of light) upon encountering electromagnetic fields. Axions would likely have small masses and come into contact with other matter quite rarely and in a way that's hard to detect.
They may also be responsible for dark matter, which could comprise about 85% of the known universe but is also yet to be seen. We think we know about it from its gravitational effects. If axions are real, they could account for this "missing" mass of the universe. Astronomical observations tell us that visible matter, including all the galaxies with their stars, planets, and everything else we can conceive of in space is still less than one sixth of the total mass of all of the universe's matter. Dark matter is thought to be making up the rest. So finding it and finding axions could be transformative for our understanding of how the universe really works.
The new paper from Berkeley Lab proposes that the Magnificent Seven, a group of neutron stars that's hundreds of light-years away (but relatively not so far), may be a perfect candidate for locating the axions. These stars, coming into existence as the collapsed cores of massive supergiant stars, have very strong magnetic fields and feature an abundance of X-rays. They are also not pulsars, which give off radiation at varying wavelengths and would likely obscure the X-ray signature the researchers spotted.
The study utilized data from the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton and NASA's Chandra X-ray telescopes to discover high levels of X-ray emissions from the neutron stars.
Benjamin Safdi, from the Berkeley Lab Physics Division theory group which led the study, said they aren't saying yet they found the axions but are feeling confident the Magnificent Seven X-rays are a fruitful place to look.
"We are pretty confident this excess exists, and very confident there's something new among this excess," Safdi said. "If we were 100% sure that what we are seeing is a new particle, that would be huge. That would be revolutionary in physics."
Are Axions Dark Matter?
Postdoctoral researcher Raymond Co from the University of Minnesota, who was also involved in the study, confirmed that "It is an exciting discovery of the excess in the X-ray photons, and it's an exciting possibility that's already consistent with our interpretation of axions."
Building upon this research, the scientists also plan to use space telescopes like NuStar to focus on the X-ray excesses as well as to examine white dwarf stars, which also have strong magnetic fields, making them another possible location for the axions. "This starts to be pretty compelling that this is something beyond the Standard Model if we see an X-ray excess there, too," said Safdi.
Besides Berkeley Lab, the current study also involved support from the University of Michigan, the National Science Foundation, the Mainz Institute for Theoretical Physics, the Munich Institute for Astro- and Particle Physics (MIAPP), and the CERN Theory department.
Check out the study published in Physical Review Letters.
In the film adaptation of "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963), Dick Van Dyke sings to a dour Janet Leigh to simply put on a happy face. "Wipe off that 'full of doubt' look, / Slap on a happy grin! / And spread sunshine all over the place[…]." This classic—if admittedly hokey—ditty it seems has become the mantra of our "service with a smile" corporate culture. And it may actually be good advice.
New research suggests that putting on a happy face reduces fatigue at work and improves our relationships, but only if we employ "deep acting" strategies over "surface acting" ones to regulate those emotions.
What is deep acting?
Arlie Russell Hochschild (pictured) laid out the concept of emotional labor in her 1983 book, "The Managed Heart."
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Deep and surface acting are the principal components of emotional labor, a buzz phrase you have likely seen flitting about the Twittersphere. Today, "emotional labor" has been adopted by groups as diverse as family counselors, academic feminists, and corporate CEOs, and each has redefined it with a patented spin. But while the phrase has splintered into a smorgasbord of pop-psychological arguments, its initial usage was more specific.
First coined by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her 1983 book, "The Managed Heart," emotional labor describes the work we do to regulate our emotions on the job. Hochschild's go-to example is the flight attendant, who is tasked with being "nicer than natural" to enhance the customer experience. While at work, flight attendants are expected to smile and be exceedingly helpful even if they are wrestling with personal issues, the passengers are rude, and that one kid just upchucked down the center aisle. Hochschild's counterpart to the flight attendant is the bill collector, who must instead be "nastier than natural."
Such personas may serve an organization's mission or commercial interests, but if they cause emotional dissonance, they can potentially lead to high emotional costs for the employee—bringing us back to deep and surface acting.
Deep acting is the process by which people modify their emotions to match their expected role. Deep actors still encounter the negative emotions, but they devise ways to regulate those emotions and return to the desired state. Flight attendants may modify their internal state by talking through harsh emotions (say, with a coworker), focusing on life's benefits (next stop Paris!), physically expressing their desired emotion (smiling and deep breaths), or recontextualizing an inauspicious situation (not the kid's fault he got sick).
Conversely, surface acting occurs when employees display ersatz emotions to match those expected by their role. These actors are the waiters who smile despite being crushed by the stress of a dinner rush. They are the CEOs who wear a confident swagger despite feelings of inauthenticity. And they are the bouncers who must maintain a steely edge despite humming show tunes in their heart of hearts.
As we'll see in the research, surface acting can degrade our mental well-being. This deterioration can be especially true of people who must contend with negative emotions or situations inside while displaying an elated mood outside. Hochschild argues such emotional labor can lead to exhaustion and self-estrangement—that is, surface actors erect a bulwark against anger, fear, and stress, but that disconnect estranges them from the emotions that allow them to connect with others and live fulfilling lives.
Don't fake it till you make it
Most studies on emotional labor have focused on customer service for the obvious reason that such jobs prescribe emotional states—service with a smile or, if you're in the bouncing business, a scowl. But Allison Gabriel, associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management, wanted to explore how employees used emotional labor strategies in their intra-office interactions and which strategies proved most beneficial.
"What we wanted to know is whether people choose to engage in emotion regulation when interacting with their co-workers, why they choose to regulate their emotions if there is no formal rule requiring them to do so, and what benefits, if any, they get out of this effort," Gabriel said in a press release.
Across three studies, she and her colleagues surveyed more than 2,500 full-time employees on their emotional regulation with coworkers. The survey asked participants to agree or disagree with statements such as "I try to experience the emotions that I show to my coworkers" or "I fake a good mood when interacting with my coworkers." Other statements gauged the outcomes of such strategies—for example, "I feel emotionally drained at work." Participants were drawn from industries as varied as education, engineering, and financial services.
The results, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, revealed four different emotional strategies. "Deep actors" engaged in high levels of deep acting; "low actors" leaned more heavily on surface acting. Meanwhile, "non-actors" engaged in negligible amounts of emotional labor, while "regulators" switched between both. The survey also revealed two drivers for such strategies: prosocial and impression management motives. The former aimed to cultivate positive relationships, the latter to present a positive front.
The researchers found deep actors were driven by prosocial motives and enjoyed advantages from their strategy of choice. These actors reported lower levels of fatigue, fewer feelings of inauthenticity, improved coworker trust, and advanced progress toward career goals.
As Gabriel told PsyPost in an interview: "So, it's a win-win-win in terms of feeling good, performing well, and having positive coworker interactions."
Non-actors did not report the emotional exhaustion of their low-actor peers, but they also didn't enjoy the social gains of the deep actors. Finally, the regulators showed that the flip-flopping between surface and deep acting drained emotional reserves and strained office relationships.
"I think the 'fake it until you make it' idea suggests a survival tactic at work," Gabriel noted. "Maybe plastering on a smile to simply get out of an interaction is easier in the short run, but long term, it will undermine efforts to improve your health and the relationships you have at work.
"It all boils down to, 'Let's be nice to each other.' Not only will people feel better, but people's performance and social relationships can also improve."
You'll be glad ya' decided to smile
But as with any research that relies on self-reported data, there are confounders here to untangle. Even during anonymous studies, participants may select socially acceptable answers over honest ones. They may further interpret their goal progress and coworker interactions more favorably than is accurate. And certain work conditions may not produce the same effects, such as toxic work environments or those that require employees to project negative emotions.
There also remains the question of the causal mechanism. If surface acting—or switching between surface and deep acting—is more mentally taxing than genuinely feeling an emotion, then what physiological process causes this fatigue? One study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience measured hemoglobin density in participants' brains using an fNIRS while they expressed emotions facially. The researchers found no significant difference in energy consumed in the prefrontal cortex by those asked to deep act or surface act (though, this study too is limited by a lack of real-life task).
With that said, Gabriel's studies reinforce much of the current research on emotional labor. A 2011 meta-analysis found that "discordant emotional labor states" (read: surface acting) were associated with harmful effects on well-being and performance. The analysis found no such consequences for deep acting. Another meta-analysis found an association between surface acting and impaired well-being, job attitudes, and performance outcomes. Conversely, deep acting was associated with improved emotional performance.
So, although there's still much to learn on the emotional labor front, it seems Van Dyke's advice to a Leigh was half correct. We should put on a happy face, but it will only help if we can feel it.
- Archaeologists find a cave painting of a wild pig that is at least 45,500 years old.
- The painting is the earliest known work of representational art.
- The discovery was made in a remote valley on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
A recently-found picture of a wild pig that was made over 45,500 years ago is the world's oldest known cave painting, according to archaeologists. The painting, which may also be the world's oldest representational or figurative artwork, was discovered on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, hidden away in a remote Leang Tedongnge cave.
If you're wondering, the now-second world's oldest dated painting of 43,900 years of age was previously found in the same Sulawesi area by the same team. That one pictured a group of part-human, part-animal hybrid figures on the hunt. The scientists also point out that these dates are minimum ages, determined from analyzing buildups of mineral deposits on the cave art. The paintings could be as old as 60,000 to 65,000 years. By comparison, the cave paintings in the Lascaux cave complex in France are "just" 17,000 years old.
The discovery was made inside the Leang Tedongnge cave by the archaeologist Basran Burhan, a doctoral student and co-author of the study. He's part of a team which involves researchers from Griffith University in Australia and Indonesia's leading archaeological research centre, Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (ARKENAS).
"Humans have hunted Sulawesi warty pigs for tens of thousands of years," said Burhan, adding "These pigs were the most commonly portrayed animal in the ice age rock art of the island, suggesting they have long been valued both as food and a focus of creative thinking and artistic expression".
The Sulawesi warty pig was painted using dark red ochre pigment and is about 53 by 21 inches in size. It features some upright hair and horn-like warts on the face that the adults of this species are known for. Another two partially-preserved pigs face the main animal.
Oldest Cave Art Found in Sulawesi
Two hand prints, most probably left by Homo sapiens rather than other human ancestors like the Denisovans, can be seen by the pig's hindquarters. The scientists are looking to extract DNA samples from the prints.
The cave with the painting is in a valley of limestone cliffs, an hour's walk away from any road. You can only access it during dry season because of flooding during the rainy season. Previously it was only known to members of the isolated Bugis community.
The site has the oldest evidence of human presence on the islands of Indonesia, known as "Wallacea," and is likely linked to the group of people who were migrating to Australia.
Read the new study in Science Advances.
If the heavens vanished, they wondered, would time continue to pass? If existence were distinct from essence, would that mean that existence itself must exist? Can God turn your household servant into a horse, so that you come back home to find it has urinated all over your books?
But the most famous is the so-called 'flying man' thought experiment, devised by the most influential philosopher of the Islamic world, Avicenna (in Arabic, Ibn Sīnā, who lived from 980 to 1037 CE). Imagine, he says, that a person is created by God in mid-air, in good condition but with his sight veiled and his limbs outstretched so that he is touching nothing, not even his own body. This person has no memories, having only just been created. Will his mind be a blank, devoid as it is of past or present sensory experience? No, says Avicenna. He will be aware of his own existence.
Three questions immediately arise. First, when Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1978), imagined a whale popping into existence in mid-air above an alien planet, had he been reading Avicenna? I have no idea, but I like to think so.
Second, is Avicenna right that the 'flying man' would be self-aware? Well, it's important to realise that Avicenna does not attempt to argue that the flying man would know that he exists. Rather, he takes it as obvious. In one version, he even tells readers that we should imagine ourselves being so created. If we put ourselves in the flying man's dangling shoes, we should just see that we would be self-aware. Indeed, this turns out to be a fundamental idea in Avicenna's philosophy. He thinks that we are all always self-aware, even when we're asleep or focusing hard on something other than ourselves. Paradoxically, we're often not aware of being self-aware: it is the non-interruptive background music of human psychology, something we notice only when our attention is called to it, a pre-reflective awareness of self. The flying man thought experiment is itself one way to call attention to this self-awareness: Avicenna calls it a tanbīh, meaning a 'pointer' to something.
Our self-awareness is a foundation for our first-person perspective on things. It's a sign of this that when I see, imagine or think something, I can immediately apprehend that I am seeing, imagining or thinking about that thing. Any other form of cognition – any awareness of other things – presupposes awareness of oneself.
Incidentally, you might object that the flying man would have certain forms of bodily awareness despite his lack of vision, hearing and so on. Wouldn't he at least sense the location of his limbs by another form of sensation, namely proprioception? Imagine you are in total darkness and your arm is not resting on anything: proprioception is the sense that tells you where it is. This is indeed a problem for the thought experiment as Avicenna sets it up, but it isn't really philosophically decisive. One can just modify the scenario by adding that God blocks the man's ability to use proprioception, or that the flying man's proprioceptive faculty happens to be defective. Avicenna's claim will then be that, even under these circumstances, the flying man would be aware of himself.
Now for the third, and hardest, question: what does the flying man thought experiment prove? Avicenna draws a surprising conclusion: it shows that we are not identical with our bodies. Just consider. The flying man is aware of himself; he knows that he exists. But he is not aware of his body; he doesn't know that his body exists, nor indeed that any body exists. And if I am aware of one thing but not another, how can those two things be identical?
This sounds pretty persuasive, until you reflect that one can be conscious of a thing without being conscious of everything about it. You, for example, have been aware of reading this article for the past few minutes, but you haven't been aware of reading something written while Dixieland jazz was playing. It would be a mistake to conclude from this that the article is not something written with Dixieland jazz playing. In fact, that is exactly what it is. To put it another way, the flying man could be aware of his self without realising that his self is a body. Contemporary philosophers would say that Avicenna is mistakenly moving from a 'transparent' to an 'opaque' context, which is basically a fancy way of saying what I just said.
Efforts have been made to spare Avicenna from this mistake. One possible way to rescue the argument would go like this. Avicenna is trying to criticise another way of thinking about the soul, one that goes back to Aristotle. According to the theory he rejects, the soul is so closely associated with the body that it can only be understood as an aspect or organising principle of the body, which Aristotle called the body's 'form'. The thought experiment is designed to show that this is wrong. It does so by calling to our attention that we have a means of access to our souls apart from bodily sensation, namely self-awareness.
How would this refute Aristotle? Well, consider again just why it is that the flying man is not aware of his body. It is because he is not currently using his senses and has never done so (he only just started existing, remember), and sense perception is, Avicenna assumes, the only way to become aware of any body. If this is right, then anything that the flying man grasps without using sense perception is not a body, not material. Since he does grasp his soul without using sense perception, his soul is therefore not a body.
On this reading, Avicenna would be helping himself to a pretty big assumption, which is that bodies can be discovered only by the senses. You can see, hear, touch, taste or smell them, but otherwise you can never so much as know that they exist. Since for Aristotle the soul was a form of the body, if you couldn't experience the body, you would not, on his account, have access to the soul; and yet, Avicenna claims, the falling man would have access to his soul.
I suspect this is (at least in part) what he had in mind in creating this thought experiment. But that's not to say that I'm convinced. All Avicenna has really done is to throw down a challenge to his materialist opponents: show me how a body could be aware of itself without using sensation to do so.
Philosophy in the Islamic World by Peter Adamson is out now through Oxford University Press.
- While today's computers—referred to as classical computers—continue to become more and more powerful, there is a ceiling to their advancement due to the physical limits of the materials used to make them. Quantum computing allows physicists and researchers to exponentially increase computation power, harnessing potential parallel realities to do so.
- Quantum computer chips are astoundingly small, about the size of a fingernail. Scientists have to not only build the computer itself but also the ultra-protected environment in which they operate. Total isolation is required to eliminate vibrations and other external influences on synchronized atoms; if the atoms become 'decoherent' the quantum computer cannot function.
- "You need to create a very quiet, clean, cold environment for these chips to work in," says quantum computing expert Vern Brownell. The coldest temperature possible in physics is -273.15 degrees C. The rooms required for quantum computing are -273.14 degrees C, which is 150 times colder than outer space. It is complex and mind-boggling work, but the potential for computation that harnesses the power of parallel universes is worth the chase.