A Conversation with Bill Fish

Bill Fish

Interviewed by
Will Cailes, Thomas Spiteri,
Jack Hawke, Jessica Sophia Ralph

Over October and November 2021, Will Cailes, Thomas Spiteri, Jack Hawke and Jessica Sophia Ralph interviewed Bill Fish for UPJA’s Conversations from the Region, a series of discussions that invites philosophers from or based in Australasia to share their student and academic experiences. The segment looks into what inspires people to study philosophy, how they pursue their philosophical interests, and gives our audiences a better idea of philosophy as an undergraduate.

Will: Could you introduce yourself; what are your philosophical interests and what are you working on at the moment?

Bill Fish

My primary philosophical interest is in the philosophy of perception. In previous work, I have defended a view known as naïve realism about visual perception – the idea that, when we see the world, we are acquainted with/consciously connected with the objects (and their properties) in the external, mind-independent world. (This connection is strong – the idea is that the redness of my experience of an apple is identical with the redness of the apple itself – so it is more than just saying that “seeing” is a success verb and that, when we see, there is therefore something that we see.) The idea is that the external world literally “shapes the contours of our conscious experiences” (Mike Martin’s words), where “shaping” is understood constitutively, rather than causally.

Of course, if you hold such a view, then you’re going to need to say something about visual experiences that don’t appear to connect us to the world in this way – cases such as dreams, illusions and hallucinations – and providing a naïve realist theory of such cases was the subject of my first book. When you look at it this way, naïve realism is really a theory of consciousness – it just happens to have been developed as a theory of the very specific case of visual consciousness.

This raises an interesting question: could this approach be extended to cover all instances of what we think of as conscious experience? So, for example, could it be extended from the case of vision to cover other examples of sensory consciousness, such as hearing, touch, smell, taste and (maybe) pain? And if it can be extended to become a theory of sensory consciousness more broadly, can it be extended again to cover non-sensory cases of consciousness – cases that don’t involve the awareness of anything particular – such as memory, imagination, conscious thought, emotions and moods? This is the project I am working on at the moment.

Will: What initially drew you to study philosophy?

When I started at university in the UK, I was a physics student. In the UK system, this gave me the option of having just two elective papers in my first year (and, indeed, the physics department offered a range of specialist physics papers for us to take as electives). But I didn’t want to study only physics, so I went to the “elective fair” to try and find something. I couldn’t find anything that particularly grabbed me, and I ended up doing philosophy papers primarily because I had no idea at that stage what philosophy even was. The papers I took were taught by Bob Kirk and Greg McCulloch (on philosophy of mind/epistemology type questions), and they blew my mind.

I remember particularly thinking two things: that I had thought about questions like these all my life, but had never realised that they were legitimate questions, and that I couldn’t believe you could actually study them at a university. (Weirdly, when I announced to my parents that I was changing my degree, my Dad told me that he had a philosophy degree – somehow we’d never talked about it before so I had no idea – and that I had been named William James (Fish) after the Harvard philosopher/psychologist).

Will: What was the philosophical culture like as a student? Tell us about your most memorable class – has anything changed since then?

The system in the UK is pretty different to the one here in NZ. In the English system (Scotland is different), you actually have to apply to, and be accepted to, a particular university to study a particular course. This means that, when you turn up on your first day, you are with a group of people who are all studying the same subject as you. In addition, you take more of your papers in that subject. For example in first year philosophy, the other students in my cohort took a total of 12 papers, but at least 10 of them had to be in philosophy – so over the course of a (single subject) degree, you would end up taking 85-90% of your papers in that subject. When it comes to the philosophical culture, this means that there is quite a strong cohort effect – you are with the same group of students over the course of your degree, and although you don’t all take the same papers, you will always know lots of people in your courses, particularly as you go into the higher years. I didn’t start as a philosophy student, so things were a little different for me – I only did a couple of papers in my first year, but then pretty much every paper in second and third year was in philosophy, save for one psychology paper.

When it comes to my most memorable classes, those first year classes that opened my eyes to philosophy as a subject definitely stand out. Not only were they intrinsically interesting, but the teachers were fantastic and very engaging – such a difference from the physics lecturers who would just talk and write on a white board. I suspect these papers are why I am still a philosopher of mind to this day. The other paper I would mention is a third year paper on the early philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. This introduced me to a completely different style of philosophy, and reading Being and Nothingness was eye opening – and while the work I currently do is most definitely analytic in style, I do think of it as in some ways an analytic take on some Sartrean ideas.

It also helped that the Sartre paper was taught by the late Greg McCulloch. Greg was an excellent teacher, who later became a good friend, and I owe him a lot for repeatedly insisting that I not take certain things for granted. For example, in my early philosophy classes, I remember that the ‘brain-in-a-vat’ thought experiment was presented almost as though it was fact – that if you hooked a brain up to a supercomputer and replicated its inputs, it just would have conscious experiences like yours or mine – and that because of this, I thought that this was something that we knew. But Greg insisted that I needed to dig deeper and ask why we think this. And when I did, I realised that the reasons for thinking that brains-in-vats would have conscious experiences are not nearly as strong as I thought they were. This was an important moment for my personal philosophical development, as it made me realise that naïve realism was not the philosophical non-starter (remember Hume describes it as “soon destroyed by the slightest philosophy”) that I had always taken it to be.

Thomas: As an undergraduate, what perception did you have of philosophy as a field, and what did you most struggle with? Do you have any advice for students?

As I studied more areas of philosophy as an undergraduate, I remember being surprised by its breadth – you could almost put “philosophy of …” in front of anything and it would be a legitimate thing to study. I also didn’t realise as an undergraduate how lucky I was to have the teachers I had. At least in my early undergraduate years, I didn’t really realise that philosophy lecturers were also philosophers – I only later realised the extent to which the people who were teaching me also contributed to producing high quality philosophy. In hindsight, I don’t know why I didn’t realise that, but I guess coming from a school where teachers were typically people who had teaching qualifications, rather than subject qualifications, I guess I just assumed that was what happened at university too.

What did I most struggle with? In terms of simply struggling with the difficulty of the subject matter, I remember finding Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in second year really hard going. In terms of struggling with a subject more broadly, I always found ethics difficult as it often felt like, at base, disagreements came down to disagreements about whether or not a premise is plausible, and that these cannot often be resolved philosophically, but were more a matter of taste. (As I’ve got older, however, I’ve come to realise that a lot of philosophy is like this, including much of the philosophy that I do). I also always hated exams – putting somebody in a room under time pressure with no ability to read or talk about a subject always seemed to me to be almost precisely the wrong way of assessing whether somebody is good at philosophy.

When it comes to advice for students, one big thing is to not worry if you don’t feel like you completely get something the first time around. I’m still finding new ideas in things I have read many times before, so don’t feel like you’re not succeeding if you feel there are things you don’t fully understand. Probably the most important thing, though, is just to enjoy it – when you study philosophy, you get to think about a range of really interesting things. Find the fun in that, and try not to let it feel like a chore (even though I know that’s tough when essay deadlines are looming). And talk to people – not only your classmates, but also your lecturers and philosophers at other universities. As an undergraduate, I remember going to seminars where I could engage with the people who taught me on the same level, rather than as a student to their teacher, and realising that they’re real people who are not that dissimilar to me made me feel that I could possibly be a philosopher too.

“…at heart, critical thinking is a mindset – it’s a willingness to try to understand other perspectives and to critically explore the things we (both as individuals and as larger groups) take for granted or think are just plain ‘common sense’… “

Thomas: You’ve done a lot of work encouraging the development of critical thinking skills with high school students and first-years uni students – do you think there has been any change in the quality of critical thinking skills new students are bringing into universities today?

I’ve really enjoyed the time I have spent teaching philosophy in schools. As to whether there has been a change over the years in general critical thinking skills in school leavers, it’s difficult to say. Some first year students certainly find it more natural than others, but it’s difficult to know whether this is a matter of things they learned at school or of their individual disposition. So I’d be hesitant to critique high schools for not doing enough teaching of critical thinking skills because, at heart, critical thinking is a mindset – it’s a willingness to try to understand other perspectives and to critically explore the things we (both as individuals and as larger groups) take for granted or think are just plain “common sense” – and this open, inquisitive mindset really needs to be developed and encouraged from Year 1 up. 

In trying to develop this kind of mindset in school-age students, the approach I preferred was to use what is known as a “concept game”. Here, a session focuses on a key concept – such as fairness, say – that the students are all familiar with, and then asks them to consider a series of scenarios and decide whether the situation described falls under the concept (e.g. is fair) or not and why. The scenarios are then designed to begin from relatively clear cases and then probe more liminal cases as a way of encouraging students to explore the corners of a concept. I think it was valuable – in part because the students all seemed to enjoy it, but mostly because it was a way of encouraging them to realise that not every question has an obvious right answer. Some students found this quite challenging – they really wanted to know what “the” answer to each scenario was – and I think it was really valuable to be able to show that, sometimes, things aren’t so neat and tidy. I think this also helps the students to develop the ability to challenge things that are taken for granted, in ways that lead to their academic growth and development.

Thomas: How critical are critical thinking skills to society more broadly? Couldn’t we instead just muddle along with say, a lot of good will?

This is why teaching critical thinking is challenging – because while you can deliver a set of skills, you ideally also need to develop the mindset to want to use them (I’m tempted to say “use them for good”!) It’s an interesting question whether, in the absence of critical thinking skills, we could instead muddle along with a lot of good will. I actually think that good will and critical thinking skills are equally important. It’s too easy, when you find somebody that disagrees with you, to just think that they’re ignorant, or self-interested, or morally compromised, so what we need is to try and understand one another (this is why, when we think about good will from the perspective of critical thinking, we call it “employing a principle of charity”). To do this, we need to try and see the world from the other person’s perspective, in order to understand why they might disagree with you, and this requires both critical thinking skills and a dose of good will. So although both critical thinking skills and good will are useful in isolation, when they are present together – that’s when the magic happens.

Bill as a first year student

Jessica: Do you find that Australasian universities still have that traditional Antipodean habit of venerating English and North American trained academics, or the Northern Hemisphere graduate study experience?

It’s difficult for me to speak to Australian universities, but I do think over here in New Zealand the veneration of the Northern Hemisphere is declining. Going back to the idea of perspective-taking from my previous answer, I think we’re starting to realise that New Zealand has a unique perspective that we can bring to philosophy and the problems we study. And my sense is that this isn’t just an Antipodean thing, but that different cultures around the world are exploring their own ways of doing philosophy, and that philosophy as a whole is richer for this.

Jessica: Why do you think there is still a high degree of underrepresentation of some groups in philosophy, and do you think this is changing?

When I was an undergraduate, the faculty at my university were all male, and almost all white. Even then, I remember that most of my lecturers all sounded alike (i.e. they all had broadly RP/received pronunciation). But thankfully there were a couple of lecturers who had regional British accents – like me – which was actually really significant in my eventually becoming a philosopher, because even then I remember thinking: wow, people like me can be philosophy lecturers! If that was how I felt as a white guy who just had a different accent, I can only imagine how women, or non-white students might have felt – I can well imagine that it would have been hard to see yourself becoming one of the faculty.

Another thing that I have learned from being here in Aotearoa is that the way I was trained to do philosophy embodies a particular (white, Western) way of thinking, which we nevertheless can present as though it is “the” right way to think. I am sure this can also be quite challenging and even alienating for people who come from different backgrounds. Do I think it’s changing? I certainly hope so, and I at least think there is a greater awareness of the need for diversity in faculty, but I think we also need more diversity in our curricula too.

Jessica: What is the biggest misconception people have about being a philosopher?

It’s actually quite a tricky question, this one. I think maybe it would be that we have minimal real-world value because some of the things we think about can be quite esoteric, when I think that a philosophical approach is fundamental to addressing real-world issues and challenges.

Jack: Philosophers have increasingly been trying to engage with empirical fields, such as cognitive science and AI, in their studies of consciousness, intentionality, and intelligence. Some worry that this will render the role of philosophy obsolete. What do you see as the future of philosophy?

I’ve actually been thinking about the relationship between philosophy and empirical science quite a lot recently, but I don’t worry that philosophy may become obsolete. There may be times when it takes a back seat, but it will always be there. If you think about it in terms of Kuhnian paradigms in the philosophy of science, when we have a dominant paradigm/are in a period of “normal science”, we just take for granted the core assumptions of the paradigm (assumptions that may not, themselves, be empirically testable). But when this theory starts to face problems, or an alternative theory comes along, the issues become philosophical – although empirical results continue to play an important role at such times, different paradigms will interpret them in different ways and draw different consequences from them. So discussions about which theory is supported by these findings can start to look more like the philosophical debates we’re all familiar with – with different theories being more or less successful in accounting for different aspects of a problem, yet trying to develop to accommodate problematic cases/findings – than something that can be resolved by designing an experiment. And even the process of coming up with an alternative theory/paradigm is a fundamentally philosophical process. 

So where we have a subject matter – such as the mind – that is approached by both philosophy and empirical science, I think both approaches will continue to be important but I don’t think philosophy will ever become obsolete: just as most philosophers of mind these days will be grounded in the empirical literature – it would be really unusual these days to find a philosopher of mind who proceeded in complete isolation from empirical science – a good psychologist will also be aware of the assumptions that underlie their empirical approaches and, to my mind, should recognise that they take for granted certain things that they may be unable to prove. Now that’s not a bad thing in and of itself – I think there are always background assumptions that underlie any study (that’s kind of why there’s philosophy in the first place) – but I do think it is unfortunate when it’s not recognised, and one particular approach is thereby assumed to be “the” right way to approach a problem or subject matter, with anybody who has a different perspective being assumed to be just wrong or ignorant.

Bill graduating with his PhD

Jack: Can you tell us about a book or paper that had a particularly profound effect on your intellectual development?

I’m afraid it has to be two papers – I hope that’s OK! In the preface to Perception, Hallucination and Illusion, I talk about an afternoon – about half-way through my PhD – in which I read two papers: John McDowell’s “Singular Thought and the Extent of Inner Space” and Mike Martin’s “The Transparency of Experience”. Prior to this, I had always been dissatisfied by traditional approaches to perception, but couldn’t see how to resolve these concerns. In particular, I could never quite convince myself that, if the experience I have when I am perceiving could be had if I was dreaming/hallucinating/a brain-in-a-vat, then such an experience could nonetheless put me in touch with the world in the way it seems I am in perception. However – in part, I think, because of the way the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment was taught to me (if you replicated the electrical inputs to the brain it would replicate the experiences) – I just couldn’t see an alternative to the antecedent.

Over the years, I had some quite forthright discussions with Greg McCulloch about this, which eventually led me to reading these two papers. This was a revelation: these papers opened my eyes to the possibility of a disjunctive approach to perception, which enables us to claim that perceptual and hallucinatory experiences can be different, yet indistinguishable from one another. This in turn means that we can offer a theory of perceptual experience in which the things we see are literally constituents of the experiences, and thereby revitalise the idea that visual experience is a way of being in conscious contact with our environment. This caused me to completely re-evaluate my PhD (which looking back actually ended up feeling a bit like it changes topic halfway through because of this) but those ideas that started to take root in the second half of the PhD eventually developed into my first book. 

Jack: What is the most controversial philosophical stance you hold?

I’m sorry for my answer to the very last question being boring, but I think this – naïve realism – is probably the most controversial philosophical stance I hold.

Thank you, Professor Bill Fish!

You can see more of Bill Fish’s work here