Consciousness is (Probably) a Biological Phenomenon

In light of the very interesting interview with Dave Chalmers in the Opinionator I thought I would revisit some of my objections to the notion of artificial consciousness (AC). I am somewhat of a skeptic about artificial consciousness in a way that I am not about AGI (artificial general intelligence). My suspicion is that intelligence and consciousness are indeed dissociable and so we could end up with artificial systems that were intelligent in the sense of being able to solve problems, but which would not be conscious (nothing that it is like for them to solve problems or ‘think’ about them). In the past I have called the view I am interested in Biologism about consciousness but then I became aware of the problematic history of that word and I have not come up with something better…Biologicalism maybe? Or just go with Searle’s Biological Naturalism? Here I’ll just call it the Biological view. Below is a draft I wrote a while ago exploring the case against the biological view…I still think it is pretty good and so would appreciate any feedback. (by the way, just to be clear I am open to being convinced that the biological view is wrong, it may just be my last common sense prejudice about consciousness refusing to succumb to good arguments, if so what are these good arguments?)

Whatever you call it, the issue is whether consciousness is fundamentally a biological phenomenon or whether it is an ‘organizational invariant,’ (Chalmers 1995; Chalmers 1996), or is ‘substrate independent’ (Bostrom 2003). On one side of the debate are those who affirm that this is so and thus hold that a properly organized computer program could in fact be conscious in just the way that you or I ordinarily are. Because of this I will call this view computationalisma bout consciousness. On the other side of the debate are those that hold that consciousness is a distinctively biological phenomenon and that a maximally specific computer simulation of those biological processes would not result in consciousness.

The debate over computationalism is independent of the debate between the physicalist and non-physicalist. A non-physicalist may hold that a suitably programmed computer would come to instantiate non-physical qualia (as David Chalmers (1996) has suggested). All that would be required is that there be fundamental laws of nature that relate the computational states to non-physical qualia. While a physicalist may hold that the implemented program itself is conscious. Physicalists who endorse computationalism usually do so by endorsing some kind of (computational) functionalism whereas physicalists who endorse biological view usually do so by endorsing some kind of type identity theory.

Though there are those that defend the biological view (Searle 2004, Block 2009) the dominant view is computationalism. This is perhaps in part due to the popularity of functionalist views. However it is very rarely argued for. It is much more common to hear remarks to the effect that ‘neurons aren’t magic’. That is not an argument. It is also not enough to cite arguments for functionalism either. For instance the argument from multiple realizability at most suggests that there may be other biological configurations that may be conscious.  It is quite another thing to suggest that non-biological systems could be conscious. 

Of course one might invoke the conceivability of non-biological creatures that are conscious. But doing so begs the question. It may be the case that when we imagine that there is a silicon system that is conscious, a commander Data type robot, we imagine something that is the equivalent of xyz. Given that we know that water is essentially H2O we know that the xyz is not a candidate to be our world. Our world could not have been the xyz world. If the biological view is true then the same is true for the commander Data world. It is conceivable but it is not a way our world could have been. Given this what we need is an independent argument for computationalism. 

Perhaps the best (only?) argument for computationalism is David Chalmers’ Dancing Qualia and Fading Qualia arguments. Recently Chalmers (2010) has come to change his mind on the strength of the dancing qualia argument. His change of heart was motivated by empirical findings from cognitive neuroscience, and in particular change blindness. Here I will argue that we have further empirical findings that motivate a questioning of the strength of the fading qualia argument. What this shows is that one can reasonably think that the biological view is true. And absent any reasons to think that it isn’t true it should probably be the default view.  Before introducing the empirical results I first turn to looking at the original arguments and the reasons that Chalmers has given for his change of heart on their relative strength. In section three I introduce the empirical results from the partial report experiments. The upshot is that the original dancing and fading qualia arguments look less plausible and so the biological view of consciousness is more than likely true after all. 

II. Flip-Flopping on Dancing and Fading Qualia

These arguments both have roughly the same form. We start with a fully biological creature that is fully conscious. For vividness we can imagine that they are having an intense headache, a migraine say, while watching a movie and eating a box of sour patch kids. We then replace one of their neurons with a functionally identical computer chip. We can even imagine that we are able to do so in such a way that the subject is unaware that it is happening (the wonders of nanotechnology being what there are and all). We then imagine a series of replacements like this, with the second in the line having two neurons replaced, the third 3 neurons, etc. until we reach the other end where we have completely replaced the brain with computer chips. At each stage in the series the subject we end up with is functionally identical to me, or you. Given this there will be no way that the subject’s behavior can change in any way. As the neurons are being replaced the subject continues to complain of the headache, asking for the volume to be tuned down and remarking that the taste of the sour patch kids helps to distract from the migraine, etc. If we assume that computationalism is false then in the fading qualia case we would have to imagine that as we replace the neurons with silicon our conscious experience fades as a light on a dimmer switch would even though our behavior continues to be the same through out. In the dancing qualia case we imagine that we have a switch that activates and deactivates the group of silicon chips that has replaced the neural circuitry that is responsible for a certain conscious experience. As we flip the switch our conscious experience is blinking in and out of existence yet, again, your behavior continues to be the same through out. 

So, if we assume that computationalism is false, then in each case we end up with subjects that are radically out of touch with their own conscious experiences. They say that they have an intense headache but that isn’t true. In one case the headache is dim and in the other it is blinking in and out of existence. In our world we typically do not find ourselves in this kind of position. It seems plausible that we are not radically out of touch with our own conscious experience. So it is much more plausible to think that, while these scenarios are possible in some sense, they do not describe the actual world with its actual laws. In other words, it is safe to assume that in our actual world the complete silicon brain would be conscious in just the way that the biological creature originally was. 

These arguments are not presented as strict reductios but are rather offered to show how strange the biological view is and the consequences of the view. If the biological view is true then we can have systems that are radically out of touch with their own conscious experience and, for all we know, it could be happening right now! Since this seems prima facie implausible we have a prima facie case against the biological view and for computationalism. 

Originally Chalmers argued that the dancing qualia argument was stronger than the fading qualia argument. But in what sense is the one argument supposed to be stronger than the other? In his original paper on this (Chalmers 1995) he seems to suggest that the absent qualia argument is stronger because it has a stronger conclusion. The fading qualia argument, if successful, establishes only that the property of being conscious is an organizational invariant. So if it works it shows that there will be something that it is like for my silicon isomorph, but it does not show that our conscious experiences will be the same. For all the fading qualia argument shows when I and my silicon isomorph are in the same computational state I may be consciously experiencing red while the isomorph experiences blue, or even some color that is completely alien to me. The dancing qualia argument, on the other hand, is supposed to suggest the stronger conclusion that the silicon isomorph is not only conscious but that their experience is exactly the same as my conscious experience (given that we are in computationally identical states). 

In his 1996 book The Conscious Mindhe indicates another sense of strength. In this second sense the dancing qualia argument is thought to lead to an intuitively more bizarre outcome and so is much harder to accept. The subject is having a very vivid conscious experience blink in and out of existence; how could they fail to notice that? He suggests that one might be able to bite the bullet on fading qualia but dancing qualia are just too strange to be real (Chalmers 1996 p 270).

Chalmers has since come to reverse this decision based on considerations of change blindness. Here is what he says in a footnote in his recent book The Character of Consciousness(Chalmers 2010), which I reproduce in its entirety,

I still find this [dancing qualia] hypothesis very odd, but I am now inclined to think it is something less than a reductio. Work on change blindness has gotten us used to the idea that large changes in consciousness can go unnoticed. Admittedly, those changes are made outside of attention, and unnoticed changes in the contents of attention would be much stranger, but it is perhaps not so strange as to be ruled out in all circumstances. Russellian monism…also provides a natural model in which such changes could occur. In The Conscious MindI suggested that this “dancing qualia” argument was somewhat stronger than the “fading qualia” argument given there; I would now reverse that judgment (page 24 note 7)

In what sense, then, are we to take the reversal of strength that Chalmers indicates in the above footnote? It seems implausible that it should be the first notion. It can’t be the case that now the fading qualia argument establishes that computational isomorphs have the same kind of conscious experience as I do. So it must be the case that Chalmers now finds the fading qualia scenario to be more intuitively bizarre than the dancing qualia scenario. 

This, in turn, suggests that it is not such a high cost for those attracted to the biological view to bite this bullet. If this is right then Chalmers will have to back off of the claim that the computational isomorph’s experience is just like mine but he can fall back on the fading qualia argument and insist that the cost is too high to bite the bullet on that argument. If so then consciousness itself –that is, the property of their being something that it is like for the system— may still be an organizational invariant and so a more modest form of computationalism may still be true. 

It is striking that empirical results have such a dramatic effect on our intuitions about strangeness. What can seem intuitively bizarre from the armchair can turn out to empirically be verified. One might think that the mere fact that change blindness shows us how wrong we can be in our intuitive assessment of these kinds of thought experiments would give us pause in endorsing the strength of the fading qualia case. I think that this all by itself is a prima facie reason to doubt the fading qualia argument but even if one resists this somewhat empirically jaded suspicion there are further empirical results that should cause us to re-assess the fading qualia argument as well. 

III. Partial Report and Fading Qualia

In this section I will present a brief sketch of the partial report paradigm and the inattentional inflation results. The interpretation of the results is something that is currently hotly debated in the literature (Kourider 2010, Block 2012, Lau & Rosenthal 2012, Brown 2012, Lau & Brown 2019). The argument I will present does not rely on any one specific interpretation turning out to be correct. As I will show, the argument relies on only the most general interpretation of the experimental results. In fact the interpretation is so general that all of the relevant parties agree on this. 

In these experiments subjects are presented with an array of letters or objects that arranged in some particular fashion (e.g. in a city-block grid, or in clock face circular arrangement). After a brief presentation subjects are asked to freely report as to the identity of the objects they saw. Subjects, overall, cannot report the identities of all of the objects or letters.  However, if a subject is cued, by a tone say, to recall a specific row or item they do very well. The debate has centered on whether subjects consciously experience all of the letters or objects or if they instead represent them in some sparse or generic way. Once side of the debate holds that consciousness is rich and that there is more in our conscious experience than we able to report, while the other side holds that consciousness is sparse and that we experience less than we think we do (at least consciously). This debate, while interesting, does not concern us here. 

All parties to this debate agree that there are these generic representations involved. Experimental results have shown that subjects can correctly report only 3-4 out of 12 objects. Further calculations suggest that at least 10.4 of the letters must be represented in sufficient detail so as to allow identification. This suggests that subjects may have some partial or degraded conscious representations, as that would explain why they are not able to name those letters. Of course it may also be the case that they do consciously experience them but just forget their identities. To test this experimenters have replaced some of the letters in the display with things that are not letters (an upside down ‘r’ or an ‘@’ sign) and subjects failed to report anything abnormal, and when asked, said that there were only letters present. 

So while all parties agree that some of the objects are represented in a partial or indeterminate way, the question has been whether only the 3-4 the subjects get right are represented in full detail (consciously but not accessed) with all of the others being partial or degraded representations or whether instead it is only a few of the representations that are degraded with the majority being represented in full detail. Even those who believe that phenomenal consciousness overflows access are committed to there being at least some degraded or partial representations in these situations. But these subjects believe that they see all of the letters or objects. 

Thus we seem to have ended up showing that normal subjects can in fact have partially degraded experiences and yet be unaware of it. This provides us with motivation to question the fading qualia argument. Now, it is true that in that kind of case we are considering something which is much, much more radical than what is happening in the partial report cases. In that case the subject has some partially degraded experience and thinks it is non-degraded. In the fading qualia case the subject thinks it is having an intense headache even though the actual intensity of the headache consists in just a few bits. But what these kinds of considerations suggest is that it is not such a drastic scenario after al. 

Chalmers does consider one kind of empirical evidence in his original article. He considers the case of someone who denies that they are blind. In that kind of case, he argues, it is plausible that the subject is rationally defective. The have no visual information and yet they believe that they do. Because of this non-standard way that their experience and their beliefs are connected this doesn’t give us any reason to change our minds. However in the case that we have been considering here we do not have this problem. Subjects are not suffering from any kind of irrationality in these paradigms. They are simply asked to look at a bunch of objects that are briefly presented on the screen and then to report on what they had seen. It is true that the objects in question are presented relatively briefly and subjects do not get to look at the stimuli for an extended time, as we would in ordinary life. 

To be sure, this is not as radical as the kind of case imagined in the fading qualia scenario, where one’s conscious experience is severely degraded, but it does suggest that it is not as strange as one might have thought. It is basically a very severe case of what is going on in our everyday conscious lives, exactly parallel to the change blindness case for dancing qualia.  The partial report paradigm is just one of several new empirical findings that seem to vindicate fading qualia. For reasons of space I cannot go into other finding from so-called ‘inattentional inflation’ where subjects overestimate the visibility of stimuli outside of where they are attending.

IV. Conclusion

The fading and dancing qualia thought experiments were never offered as strict reductios of the biological view but were instead aimed at showing that it was unlikely to be true because it entailed some unlikely or implausible consequences about the relationship between our conscious experience and our knowledge of that conscious experience. However, as we have seen, we have good empirical reason to think that these results are a good deal less implausible than they appear to be from the armchair. Of course this doesn’t show that the biological view is true. Rather, it shows that there is not much cost in biting the bullet in both cases and so one can reasonably hold that it is true and admit that there might be cases of dancing and fading qualia. Science has shown us that the world is far stranger than any of us could have ever imagined. 

The Curious Case of my Interview/Discussion with Ruth Millikan

I started my YouTube interview/discussion series Consciousness Live! last summer and scheduled Ruth Millikan as the second guest. We tried to livestream our conversation July 4th 2018 and we spent hours trying to get the Google Hangouts Live to work. When it didn’t I tried to record a video call and failed horribly (though I did record a summary of some of the main points as I remembered them).

Ruth agreed to do the interview again and so we tried to livestream it Friday June 6th 2019, almost a year after our first attempt (and since which I did many of these with almost no problems). We couldn’t get Google Hangouts to work (again!) but I had heard you could now record Skype calls so we tried that. We got about 35 minutes in and the internet went out (I put the clips up here).

Amazingly Ruth agreed to try again and so we met the morning of Monday June 10th. I had a fancy setup ready to go. I had our Skype call running through Open Broadcast Studios and was using that to stream live to my YouTube Channel. It worked for about half an hour and then something went screwy. After that I decided to just record the Skype call the way we had ended up doing the previous Friday. The call dropped 3 times but we kept going. Below is an edited version of the various calls we made on Monday June 10th.

Anyone who knows Ruth personally will not be surprised. She is well known for being generous with her time and her love of philosophical discussion. My thanks to Ruth for such an enjoyable series of conversations and I hope viewing it is almost as much fun!

12 years!

I just realized that I recently passed the 12 year mark of blogging here at Philosophy Sucks! The top-5 most viewed post haven’t changed all that much from my 10 year reflections. Philosophy blogging isn’t what it used to be (which is both good and bad I would say) but this blog continues to be what it always has: A great way for me to work out ideas, jot down notes, and get excellent feedback really quickly (that isn’t facebook). Thanks to everyone who has contributed over these 12 years!

The five most viewed posts written since the ten year anniversary are below. 

5. Prefrontal Cortex, Consciousness, and….the Central Sulcus?

4. Do we live in a Westworld World?

3. Consciousness and Category Theory

2. Integrated Information Theory is not a Theory of Consciousness

  1. My issues with Dan Dennett 


Among the Dead

I don’t usually write too much about veganism/vegetarianism since it is a deeply personal issue (but see here, and here, and here). However, I have been trying to write more about deeply personal issues and I recently revisited one of my favorite albums from way back in the late ’80’s. The album was Symphonies of Sickness by Carcass. I think it holds up really well and is still (I think) the best from early Carcass. It also made me revisit some of my younger self’s thoughts on vegetarianism.

For the record I was raised vegetarian. I was taught by my mom to believe in what I will call The Fundamental Equivalence of Flesh. For my mom animals were to be thought of as akin to children in terms of their mental lives. And the role of Human Beings was either to stay out of the way and let the animals live their lives, to offer help if and when one encountered an animal in distress, and to care for companion animals (in a way appropriate to their nature) as if they were furry siblings.

I was also kept home until I entered 1st Grade and so did not fully realize that the way things were in my house was not the way things were generally. We had lots of animals wherever we lived. Dogs, cats, mice, rats, ducks, chickens, a turkey, horses, a goat, a ferret, various birds. Not all at the same time of course! But we would take in stray animals and we would also volunteer at a local animal sanctuary. My mom and my sister liked to ride horses and we couldn’t really afford it so volunteering was a way to earn horse privileges for them and to help the animals (for the record, I preferred reading and video games to riding horses). Because of the constant contact with all kinds of animals I could see how they were individuals. The ducks all had their own unique personalities, which each differed in ways from the chickens.

Of course I found out pretty quickly how things really were, and to be honest I was not the most passive grade-school vegetarian in the world. My first day of school I refused to eat my hamburger (and I vaguely remember making mooing noises as my classmates ate their hamburgers in the school cafeteria). They had to call my mom, who sided with me. Another time we were at a Salvation Army eating (free) food when I found a hotdog in my beans. I stood up on the table and yelled ‘we don’t eat this!’ I could tell a million stories about growing up vegetarian (and how things have changed over time) but here I am focusing on how I felt(/still feel) coming from this background into the way our society actually views animals.

To make a long story short, I was pretty traumatized by the casual way that people treat dead animals. I felt surrounded by the dead. Putting a dead animal on the table and eating it seemed so bizarre to me. That is a person there! I have muscle, they have muscle. I have bone and blood as do they. I remember, much later when I was a teenager, being in a big room filled with people eating ribs. The cacophony of rending flesh, grunting, and lip smacking together with the macabre and gruesomely smeared faces of the people in that room haunted my dreams for sometime afterwards. I seemed to be surrounded by creatures who were fueled by death. Their every action made possible by the suffering of innocent creatures.

And these creatures felt bad for me! They thought I was missing out on some experience (the taste of flesh) that they could not imagine living without. That was the most mind-f*&king part of the whole experience. Everywhere I looked there were dead animals. In the store, at school, on the buss, in the street, at my friends houses, on tv, in movies, everywhere. When I see a cooking show I see brutality and terror where other people see ‘surf and turf’. On Thanksgiving I feel numb inside thinking about the number of turkeys killed and making an appearance on family tables, where there are kids!

These people were eating my friends and they felt bad for me! I remember wondering about the turkey on Thanksgiving at my grandparents house. I had had a pet turkey and I wondered what this one was like. Shy, timid, aggressive, cocky, curious? Watching people smile and tear apart something you think of as a friend is a terrifying experience.

I understand that in the Grand Scheme of Things I have had a fairly privileged life and, while it is true that growing up the way I did required that we go hungry at various points rather than eat meat, it is also true that being able to live a vegetarian (now vegan) life is expensive and not possible for everyone who wants to do it, but I am mostly trying to talk about how I felt as a young man growing up vegetarian. So now we come to Carcass. As someone with this background, and who worked in fast food restaurants I viewed Carcass as an embodied (and awesomely aggressive) argument for vegetarianism. Their very album cover presents animal and human bodies on a par forcing one to come to grips with the facts at hand: meat is meat and we are all made of meat.

When they describe revolting subjects like an ‘edible autopsy’ or ‘exhume to consume’ people are (rightly) shocked. They are used to hearing, seeing, etc, animal bodies talked about in this way but not human bodies. It was always hard to communicate how brutalized I felt by meat and how weird it was for people to tell me to ‘pick off’ the meat from my pizza or to take out the hamburger and still eat the bun and vegetables. Would they do that if there were a human thumb on the pizza? For me there was no difference between the two cases. So, yes, I love(d) Cannibal Corpse and Carcass (and Napalm Death) but that was because (I liked the music and) it pressed the case for the Fundamental Equivalence of Flesh, which was for my younger self the primary reason for being vegetarian.

As a final note let me just say that my views have somewhat changed over time but I still feel fundamentally alienated by this. One thing that has not changed is that I am not trying to suggest that human lives are less important than animal lives. I was always the first to admit that I would not starve to death with a hamburger on a deserted island. I would (probably) eat the hamburger at some point when I was hungry enough and my survival was on the line (I assume I would do this based on what I know about human psychology). I think that is a Red Herring in this debate. I know there are many terrible things happening to humans and I cry over those things as well. still, I can’t help but think that if our attitudes towards animals changed we would all be better off.

Theories of Perception and Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness: An Analogy

I recently came across a draft of a post that I thought I had actually posted a while ago…on re-reading it I don’t think I entirely agree with the way I put things back then but I still kind of like it


When one looks at philosophical theories of perception one can see three broad classes of theoretical approaches. These are sometimes known as ‘relationalism’ and ‘representationalism’ (and ‘disjunctivism’). According to relationalism (sometimes known as naive realism) perception is a relation between the perceiver and the object they perceive. So when I see a red apple, on this view, there is the redness of the apple and then I come to be related to those things in the right way and that counts as perceiving. Often a ‘window’ analogy is invoked. Perception is like a window through which we can look out into the world and in so doing come to be acquainted with the ways that the objects in the world are. Representationalism on the other hand holds that perception involves, well, representing the world to be be some way or other, and this may diverge from the way the world is outside of perception.

I think a similar kind of debate has been occurring within the differing camps of higher-order theories of consciousness. In this debate the first-order state, which represents properties, objects, and events in the physical environment of the animal, takes the place of the physical object in the debates about perception. If one takes that perspective then one can see that we have versions of relationalism and representationalism in higher-order theories. Relationalists take the first-order state, and it’s properties, to be revealed in the act of becoming aware of it. Representationalists think that we represent the object as having various properties and that the experiences we have when we dream or hallucinate are literally the same ones we are aware of in ordinary experience. This is the famous argument from hallucination.

I think that the misrepresentation argument against higher-order theories of consciousness is actually akin to the argument from hallucination, and shows roughly the same thing, viz. that the relationalist version of higher-order theory is not in a position to explain what it is that is in common between “veridical” higher-order states and empty higher-order states. As long as one accepts that these cases are phenomenologically the same, and some versions of higher-order theory commit you to that claim, then it seems to me that you must say that we are aware of the same thing in each case. In the perception debate representationalists tend to say that what we are ware of in each case are properties. So take my experience of a red ripe tomato and my “perfect” hallucination as of a red ripe tomato. In one case I am aware of an actual object, the tomato, and in the other case I am not aware of any object (it is a hallucination). But in both cases I am aware of the redness of the tomato and the roundness of it, etc, in the good case these properties are instantiated in the tomato and in the bad case the are uninstantiated but they are there in both cases. The representationalist can thus explain why they two cases are phenomenologically the same: in each case we represent the same properties as being present.

I think the representational version of higher-order theories of consciousness have to similarly commit to what it is that is in common between veridical higher-order states and empty ones which none the less are phenomenologically indistinguishable. In one case we are aware of a first-order mental state (the one the higher-order state is about) and in the other case we are not (the state we represent ourselves as being in is one we are not actually in, thus the higher-order state is empty). So it must be the properties of the mental states that we are aware of in both cases. So if I am consciously seeing a red ripe tomato then I am in a first-order state which represents the tomato’s redness and roundness, etc and I am representing that these properties are present and that there is a tomato present, etc (this state can occur unconsciously but we are considering its conscious occurrence). To consciously experience the redness of the tomato I need to have a higher-order state representing me as seeing a tomato. And what this means is that I have a higher-order state representing myself as being in a first-order visual state with such and such properties. The ‘such-and-such properties’ bit is filled in by one’s theory of what kinds of properties first-order mental states employ to represent properties in the environment. Suppose that, like Rosenthal, one thinks they do so by having a kind of qualitative (i.e. non-conceptual, non-intentional) property that represents these properties. On Rosenthal’s view he posits ‘mental red’ as the way in which we represent the physical property objects have when they are red. He calls this red* and says that red* represents physical red in a distinctive non-conceptual non-intentional way.

This is not a necessary feature of higher-order theories but it gives us a way to talk about the issues in a definite way. So the upshot of this discussion is that it is these properties which are common between veridical and hallucinatory higher-order states. When one has a conscious experience of seeing a red ripe tomato but there is not a first-order visual representation of the tomato or its redness, etc, one represents oneself as being in first-order states which represent the redness and roundness of the tomato, one is aware of the same properties one would be in the veridical case but these properties are uninstantiated.


Shombies vs Zombies (my interview from 3:AM magazine)

It is too bad that 3:AM magazine is now offline (for who knows how long)…just in case it doesn’t come back I found an archived version of my interview from back in 2012


Richard Marshall is moving all of his interviews with philosophers to this new site.


Shombies vs Zombies

Richard Brown interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Richard Brown is a funkybodacious philosopher of consciousness and leader of the Shombie universe. He’s asked why 1+1 has to equal 2, presented a short argument proving that there is no God, shown what’s wrong with eating meat, discussed both the delayed choice quantum eraser and pain asymbolia whils’t he flies his freak flag to Alan Turing. He denies Skynet forced him to co-write Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back Therefore I Am but has never been known to sleep. He’s another renegade philosophical musical doo bee doo from the legendary NYC bands who brought you 8-bit fusion higher-order thoughts about vegan unicorn meat with experimental breakbeats. Jammin’.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher – you had a tricky youth and clearly you had options to become a drummer in a band! Was it that philosophy rocks?

Richard Brown: Aristotle famously claimed that all people by nature desire to know. I am not so optimistic and would say merely that at least some people by nature desire to know. I count myself lucky to be among that group. As early as 5th grade I was interested in nuclear physics; having grown up near the controversial Diablo Canyon Nuclear power plant had a big influence. We had regular get-under-the-desk or get-on-a-bus-and-drive-a-safe-distance drills at the elementary school I attended and so I went out to the power plant and took a tour and spent a lot of time in the library reading about nuclear physics. I was literally horrified when I found out that they were splitting the atom to generate heat to boil water to create steam to turn a turbine. Nuclear power turned out to be just a fancy way of boiling water??!?

In general I was always very interested in highly theoretical endeavors and not so much in the implementation or practical import of those theories. I used to joke saying that I didn’t want to learn how to boil water. If there were any practical implications at all then I wasn’t interested. I looked into chemistry and biology, and was interested in genetics and molecular biology, and of course computers were just invented and by the seventh grade I was very interested in programming and learned basic and some other programming languages, but what really captured my interest was mathematical physics. By the ninth grade I was reading books on relativity physics and trying to come to grips with the idea that there is no absolute simultaneity. I had joined the speech team and I really enjoyed going to speech competitions. I competed in the Original Oratory event (and a couple of others, but this was my favorite). In this competition one delivered a pre-written 10-minute speech on something factual. In mine I made the argument that relativity physics allowed for the actual possibility of time travel.

At the same time that I was discovering physics my mother was discovering religion. She experimented with several different kinds of Christian and non-Christian beliefs, including Baptist, Pentecostal, Church of the Nazarene, and even a version of Buddhism, before eventually becoming affiliated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses (who she met because of their door-to-door witnessing). From the beginning of these interactions I found myself very skeptical of religious beliefs. The person they were describing seemed to be an insolent child who demanded attention lest they smite you with overwhelming force. I simply could not believe that there was some supremely powerful all-loving being who had created us, endowed us with reason and free will, and then demanded that we subjugate that will and reason to theirs or else suffer eternal punishment. Add to this the overwhelming amount of suffering in the world (I was reading about both World Wars and the Holocaust as well as Jack the Ripper at that time as well) and the fact that this Being was hidden and chose to reveal itself to a select few who we were all supposed to just trust (who all suspiciously lived a long time ago) and I found the whole thing extremely suspicious.

This became more and more of an issue as my mom became more involved with the Witnesses, eventually getting baptized and formally joining them, while I was getting more and more interested in physics and naturalistic explanations (we had other issues as well, but I’ll leave those aside here). Mid-way through my freshman year in high school things came to a head. My mom declared that if I were to live under her roof then I would be a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and be baptized. I ran away from home shortly after that. I continued going to school and my after school job for a couple of weeks until I eventually ended up stealing a motorcycle (it was sitting there with the keys in it and I wanted to visit the bigger county library 30 or so miles up the highway), getting caught (the motorcycle was too big for me and I could not get it out of third gear so I was easy to spot), and spending the rest of my time before turning 18 going from juvenile hall to various group homes (and vice versa).

All in all it was about four years and seven or eight different group homes before I was released in Fresno CA on my 18th birthday. It was in juvenile hall that I became aware of string theory via an article in the Smithsonian. I was instantly fascinated with it and after that I spent my time teaching myself calculus in order to try to understand the equations in the article. At that time I still thought I wanted to be a theoretical physicist and I had dreams of going to Cal Tech or Harvey Mudd College. I graduated high school early and started at a local community college taking physics and calculus.

After getting out of the system I spent the next few years trying to make a living and staying out of the system. When I had been “on the inside” a guard once told me that I was nothing but a statistic now. He said that once you were in the system you never got out of the system, and that made a big impact on me. At the time I remember thinking “yeah, but even if I do get out of the system I will still be a statistic, dumbass!” but nonetheless I resolved that I would not go down that road. I wanted my freedom. Education and my aspirations necessarily took a back seat. I did not end up going back to college until I was 24. A lot of stuff happened in between that time but I ended up working at a Burger King as the night manager (I had been working in fast food places off and on since I was 13) and playing drums in a death metal band.

One day the owner of the Burger King said, casually in conversation, that I had been doing very well and that some day I would own my own Burger King. I suddenly realized that he was right and that this was not what I wanted. Around that time I found out that I could get some help re-enrolling in the local community college though a program run by a group known as the Private Industry Council.

And so I did (along the way I ended up working at a mortuary, but that is also another story!). My first semester I had an introduction to philosophy course and I instantly knew I had found what I wanted to spend my time doing. Physics was interesting but what had always really interested me, it turns out, were the metaphysical questions. I was interested in understanding the nature of space and time and the place of human beings in a purely naturalistic world.

Once I knew that there was a long history of a conversation about this stuff dating back to Thales and other ancient Greeks, I knew that I wanted to be a part of that conversation. When I found out that in order to do philosophy professionally one usually needed to teach I thought, “ok, so I can do this and eventually get a job that let’s me do this? I am in!” (Of course at that time I was wholly ignorant of how the academic job market actually works or what it actually means to do philosophy professionally, but that is another another story!)

So, I sort of feel like I have been in training for this my whole life. It’s funny because when I was 14 I used to think that I would have my PhD in theoretical physics before I was 30. The plan was to graduate high school at 18, Bachelor’s degree by 22, 6-8 years for the PhD. No one in my family had ever been to college (neither of my parents even graduated from high school) and I was at the time incarcerated but that didn’t seem to bother me. The most surprising thing to me now is that despite the massive derailment of being locked up for four years it turns out I wasn’t that far off. I earned my PhD in Philosophy and Cognitive Science when I was 36 (in 2008), ultimately fulfilling my desire to do something with no practical application at the highest level of theoretical abstraction possible! I even managed to get a job doing it, but that is a….well you get the idea…

3:AM: So you’re interested in philosophy of mind, of consciousness and so on. You are trying to explain consciousness giving a higher order explanation of consciousness. This kind of explanation contrasts with those philosophers like Jesse Prinz who want to analyse it in terms of brain states. You say this pitches the explanation at the wrong level. Can you say something about this contrast? You don’t want a neural-philosophical account do you but you do want a naturalistic one don’t you? And how come this approach isn’t viciously circular in its explanation if consciousness appears as part of the explanation? (I know that philosophers substitute other terms for consciousness, such as ‘awareness’ in Ned Block’s case, but surely that’s just cheating.)

RB: Yeah, the issue that really caught my attention was how consciousness, and the mind more generally, fit into the picture of the world as described by our fundamental physics. I found dualism plausible as an undergraduate (I was after all a scrawny-asthmatic-math-obsessed nerd and so naturally mostly identified with my rational/mental side as against my body) but I became convinced that it was wrong shortly afterwards mostly because of causal closure. Every physical event has a complete explanation in terms of fundamental physics. If you accept that my mental states are caused by and in turn cause physical events then mental states must be physical. In addition to this we don’t seem to have a theoretical need for non-physical substances or properties when we explain behavior.

At this point it seems entirely possible to account for all animal behaviors in terms of brain activity. I don’t think that this conclusively demonstrates that consciousness is physical but it does show that it is highly desirable to have an account of consciousness that makes it part of the world described by physics.

In general I am interested merely in trying to show that it is possible that consciousness is physical in the sense of being wholly and exhaustively constituted by neurons doing what neurons do; which is ultimately collections of fundamental particles/strings/whatever doing what they do. This is the thesis of physicalism: that everything that exists is ultimately composed of nothing but the kinds of things that a completed physics talks about (notice that there is no commitment to our physics being true as it is. Rather the idea is that someday 5,000 years from now we may have a complete understanding of physics and neurons are made out of that stuff). Neurons are physical precisely because they can be completely described in the language of fundamental physics (at least in principle). But again, I never say that this is true or that I know that it is true, or even that I believe that it is true. Rather I am merely trying to say that we do not know that it is false and that we have reasons maybe even good reasons, to think that it could be true.

So yes, I do want a naturalistic account of consciousness and I am cautiously optimistic that physicalism is true as a matter of fact. And if that is so then that means that consciousness just is something neural. But the brain is just a physical object like any other. Of course, it is vastly more complicated than any other physical object, but it is physical through and through. If we don’t have some idea of what we are looking for, telling someone that this and that is happening in the brain is not going to help. It is only because we think that sensations, say, are states that represent features of objects in our environments, and that such and such activity is how the brain represents those features that we are justified in concluding that sensations just are such and such brain activity. In short what we need is a theory of the mind that is pitched at the psychological level.

Here is another way to make the point. Suppose that someone tried to give you a circuit-based explanation of what a computer is. They tell you that this resistor is connected to that capacitor and so on and so on. But none of that will enable you to understand what a computer is unless you come to understand how those circuits represent, store, and manipulate information and that requires a theory pitched at a different level.

This is what higher-order theories of consciousness try to do. It is part and parcel of our everyday experience that we have unconscious mental states. You may believe something without being aware that you believe it, you may have desires that you are unaware of, or intentions, etc. It is natural to say that the belief is unconscious when you are in no way aware of yourself as having that belief, and it is conscious when you are aware of yourself as believing it. Here we are talking about consciousness in psychological terms, in terms of being aware or unaware of being in certain other kinds of mental states. This will allow us to look into the brain and interpret the activity that we see in a meaningful way.

This is not circular because we are appealing to different things. On the one hand we are talking about mental states such as thoughts, desires, fears, pains, itches, seeings of red, etc. As noted above it looks like these states can occur consciously as well as unconsciously. Now, when they occur unconsciously they nonetheless represent, carry the same information, or however you want to put it. We understand that kind of awareness independently of our notion of consciousness. We understand it in terms of representing. We might say, as Jerry Fodor says, that the thought “I’m hungry” is like a sentence in the mind, not a sentence of any natural language but a sentence in the language of thought. We can understand the thought as somehow being about the speaker and attributing to that speaker a certain state. If you say it, it refers to you, if I say it to me. When I believe that I am hungry, on this theory, I have this sentence playing a certain functional role. It is connected to my other thoughts, and my behavior, in a certain way. So, we have an independent understanding of these things (and I use the language of thought hypothesis just as an example of how you could have an independent understanding).

When that state is conscious, as opposed to unconscious, it is, on the present account, because I am aware of myself as being in that state. This kind of awareness is the same kind as the other kinds of awareness in the mind. There is nothing special about it, except that instead of making me aware of some thing in the world, this state makes me aware of myself as being in some mental state. So the consciousness of the mental state is explained in terms of something that we understand in an independent way, and so there is no circularity.

I tend to think that even Jesse’s view is really doing this. Why does attention lead to consciousness? This would be totally mysterious unless one is thinking that attention is a general way of our becoming aware of our own mental states. Interpreted in this way Jesse is interested in giving a neuronal account of how these psychological states are realized in the brain, but that is not a neuro-philosophical theory of consciousness. The theory of consciousness is again at the psychological level and cashed out in terms of awareness. Interestingly, I once asked Jesse if he thought that by attending to something we thereby became aware of that thing, and he said yes. Maybe he would take it back now.

3:AM: Doesn’t your approach end up proposing that we can be unconsciously conscious? I guess having unconscious beliefs and desires doesn’t seem strange in these post-Freudian times, and everyone goes on automatic from time to time, but isn’t there a problem with something like a pain. How can we have a pain that doesn’t hurt? Is this what you’re discussing in your recent paper with Hakwan Lau?

RB: You are right to point this out as a consequence of the higher-order approach. According to the theory the conscious experience of pain, the painfulness and awfulness of pain, consist in my being aware of myself as being in pain and not just in my actually being in a pain state. And yes this does mean that there must be pains that don’t (consciously) hurt. We do have some commonsense reasons for thinking this is the case. We might have a pain in our knee for the whole day and yet there may be times when we are not aware of the pain, perhaps because engaged in lively discussion of some topic. So at that moment I don’t experience any painfulness. My focus is on the discussion, or whatever. Yet, if I am still limping slightly and wincing, etc., doesn’t it make sense to say that the pain is still there? It is having effects on my behavior! But if it doesn’t seem to me as though I am in pain why should we call it a conscious pain?

But we can also give an empirical argument that pain and painfulness come apart. There is a condition called Pain Asymbolia, which challenges our preconceptions about pain. Pain Asymbolics claim that they experience pain but that it does not hurt. You can poke them with a pin, burn their hand, or apply pressure and they can tell you what kind of pain and how intense it is yet they do not find it unpleasant and even smile when poked and burned! What this suggests is that pain as a sensory state is distinct from the painfulness and awfulness of the pain. The sensory component of pain tells us about bodily tissue damage and we can be aware of that sensory component as something awful and hurting or not.

This is backed up in a case that I first heard about from David Rosenthal called Dental Fear. In cases of Dental Fear dental patients that have been anesthetized complain of experiencing pain. When the doctor explains that they cannot be experiencing pain because the nerves have been blocked the patient no longer experiences pain. What is going on in this case? One plausible explanation is that the patient is experiencing vibrations from the drilling and pressure from the dentist pushing the drill into the tooth. But since the patient is afraid they interpret the pressure and vibration as pain. That is, they are aware of those states as being painful and awful when they are in fact not.

But you are right that this means that we need some way to talk about what a pain is independently of how we are conscious of it, just as with thoughts and beliefs that we were just talking about. That is, what we need is some way to say what an unconscious pain is that does not appeal to the way it appears to us. There are different ways to do this and the details get tricky but the basic idea is that a state is a pain (whether conscious or not) when it plays the right kind of role in our mental life. This means that it has certain kinds of causes and effects as well as certain characteristic relations to other kinds of pains states. A pain, whether conscious or not, will be manifest in behavior. One will still limp even if one has an unconscious pain.

Once when I was very young I noticed that my sister was limping as we were walking (barefooted) down the sidewalk. I asked here why she was limping and she said she wasn’t limping. I laughed and said she was. She looked at her foot and saw that she had stepped on a bee and its stinger was stuck into the bottom of her foot. At that point she started screaming in pain. While she was walking, and limping, it seems natural to say that my sister had a pain and that she just was not aware of being in pain. When she became aware of it, it became painful for her. This seems like a normal common sense description of what is going on in this kind of case, and if so then unconscious pains don’t seem all that strange to me.

This is related to the brief discussion of overflow in the paper with Hakwan Lau, but it is not our main focus. There we are more interested in trying to argue that there is good empirical reason to think that some kind of higher-order theory could be true, but one of the things we address is Ned Block’s argument that there is more in our conscious experience that we can cognitively access. There is a very interesting empirical issue here, which is what Ned has called ‘the methodological problem’. What kind of evidence could we have that there is consciousness that we are not able to access (at any given moment)? We agree with Ned that we want to look at how the proposals make sense of the widest swath of empirical evidence, and we argue that leans towards the higher-order approach and against overflow. But there are also more general issues with the idea of overflow. It is not at all clear what it would even mean to say that there is a mental state, a pain say, that is conscious in any sense but which the subject denies having (at that moment). How could it possibly be painful if the subject was in no way aware of being in it? On the other hand, to the extent that one thinks that one must be aware of the pain in order for it to be consciously painful for one, then the higher-order kind of awareness seems like the best candidate.

Before I started working with Hakwan I was a lot more cautious about this stuff. I used to say that the higher-order theory “was not obviously false,” meaning that there is no blatant contradiction in the theory (it is not circular, etc), but now I have clicked it up a notch to “it could be true”. This is mostly because I think there is pretty decent experimental evidence that something like a higher-order theory is true. There seem to be cases where we have conscious experience without activity in the sensory (lower) areas of the brain and we have evidence that selectively interfering with areas in the frontal (higher) part of the brain induces lower confidence in judgments about seeing or not seeing something while not affecting the ability of subjects to actually detect those things.

Notice, though, that I would be just as happy if it turned out to be false. As I said I am optimistic about the chances for physicalism, at the moment I think the higher-order theory has the best chance of being true, but it could be that Jesse is right, or some other naturalistic theory could turn out to be true. In general this is what makes me an optimist about physicalism. There may be many ways that consciousness could be physical, so let’s explore those ways.

I happened to study with David Rosenthal, who is a well-known defender of a certain version of this kind of theory, and so I know a lot about it. It also happens to be wrongly maligned by some who only engage with straw versions of the theory, so yes I defend it, but I don’t advocate it to the exclusion of other naturalistic candidates. I advocate a proliferation of theories. It is only with well-developed theories tested against our best empirical evidence that we will move forward on these debates. So these are very interesting times!

3:AM: One of the things you are passionate to defend is the reality of phenomenal consciousness. For you there are three kinds of consciousness. There’s state, transitive consciousness and phenomenal consciousness. Can you say a little about each of these and why this third element, phenomenal consciousness, is not to everyone’s taste?

RB: ‘Phenomenal consciousness’ is a fancy term to name a simple idea. We all know that we have conscious experience. This has evolved into a technical term for the properties of our experience in virtue of which there is something that it is like for us to have the experience. It is totally and completely obvious that I have conscious experiences of sounds, colors, shapes, thoughts, desires, etc. What is less obvious is that my experiences have properties that represent the way things are. One way to see this is to engage in something like Cartesian Doubt. Here I am sitting in my room typing away on my computer. I see various shapes and hear various sounds as I try to express my various thoughts. But yet I can coherently imagine that all this is happening in some dream or computer simulation.

Now compare that to what is going on in a fancy digital camera. Both the camera and I could be pointed towards the same visual stimulus, an orange, say. We are both exposed to the same wavelength of light, and we both capture that light and perform some computations as a result. Yet in me there is a conscious experience of the color orange while in the camera, presumably, there is not. It seems quite natural to put this, as Thomas Nagel once did, by saying that there is something that it is like for me to see the orange but yet there is nothing that it is like for the camera. Or to take Nagel’s own example, consider the bat. Surely the bat is conscious and there is something that it is like for the bat to perceive objects in its environment by echolocation but since we don’t perceive that way we can’t know what it is like for the bat. Phenomenal consciousness just is the idea that our mental life is like something for us. We are not computers that merely process information in the dark, we have an inner life and it is replete with sounds, colors, shapes, emotions, thoughts, judgments, pains, itches, tickles, dizziness, nausea, the list goes on and on.

Put in this way I do not think that there is anyone who could deny that phenomenal consciousness exists. There is some temptation to say, with Descartes, that it is the thing we are the most certain of in the entire world. Even if I am living in a computer simulation, which I take to be a possibility, I am conscious.

Others dislike the term ‘phenomenal consciousness’ because it is a technical term introduced into the literature by Ned Block and so comes with certain theoretical baggage. If the term implicitly carries with it the implication that consciousness is a property of states that they must have even when the subject is in no way aware of themselves as being in the sate then one will be pre-disposed to think of consciousness in a way that is not favorable to certain theoretical outlooks, for instance the higher-order approach. I whole-heartedly agree with this. We should not build any major theoretical commitments into the notion of phenomenal consciousness. It is simply that, whatever it is, which I could have even if this were a dream or if I were living in the Matrix. It is important that we start off the investigation into the nature of consciousness with a neutral conception of what it is. All parties should be able to agree on what the target for explanation is. What we want to understand is consciousness. Saying that there is no consciousness may be provocative but it is really just a non-starter.

3:AM: You part company with Dan Dennett and others on qualia don’t you? Denying this is this something you find scandalous. I’d have thought as a mad dog philosopher of mind you’d have been cool about any counter-intuitive stuff. Why is it so important to you (and others like Searle) even though so many others in your field are happy to Quine the Qualia?

RB: I am all for counter-intuitive stuff (given that there is compelling reasons to accept it) but denying that there is consciousness is just crazy! I am not often tempted to say that I know something but I am tempted to say that I know that I am conscious. When Dennett says that he wants to Quine Qualia he really means that he wants to do away with some particular conception of conscious experience. So if you define Qualia as being intrinsic, ineffable, and private features of experience then you might want to say that there are no such properties, or if you define qualia as non-physical properties of experience, then you might want to deny that there are any such properties. So in that sense, the sense in which Dennett is attacking a highly theoretical notion that is far-removed from our day-to-day conscious lives, then I am happy to be on his side.

But surely even Dennett consciously experiences pains, the sounds of music, the taste of food, the exhilarating highs of intellectual achievements, etc. You mention Searle and I remember once as an undergraduate in San Francisco being at one of Searle’s talks and him talking about Consciousness Explained.

He said, “What do I have to do? Pinch myself and publish the results in the Journal of Philosophy?” and I thought “hell yeah, that’s the way you do it!” As someone who is optimistic about physicalism we should not give up the game right off the bat. We want consciousness, the same stuff the dualist is talking about, and we want that to be physical, to depend on the brain in a way that we can understand within the confines of our fundamental physical theory. We don’t want to say that consciousness doesn’t exist or that we have something that is somehow less than what the dualists are talking about. We have got to be talking about the same thing here! They think that thing isn’t physical, I think it could be physical but we agree on the target.

3:AM: You use an example about the taste of whisky and the concept of oaky to argue that concepts change phenomenal states. Is that right? Does this mean that if I have a concept and just apply it to something it wouldn’t normally be applied to I’d produce some new phenomenal conscious state?

RB: This is an adaptation of an argument of David Rosenthal’s. The idea is that it is part of or ordinary experience that acquiring concepts in this way can change what it is like for us to have the experience. But how could acquiring a concept make that difference? One plausible way this could happen is that acquiring the concept allows us to be aware of a difference in the original state that we were not able to be aware of previously. The mental state that is the taste of the whiskey is the same as it was before, but you are now aware of it in a different way. You come to be aware of it in respect of the oakiness and being aware of it in that way changes what it is like for you to have the experience. This suggests that the higher-order approach is at least a possible explanation of how pains come to be painful for us.

Critics of this argument usually respond that it may be the case that acquiring the concept comes to change the first order state itself. So, perhaps the oakiness component of the taste was not present unconsciously, perhaps it was created by the concept. That is, perhaps applying the concept actually changed the state which was the ‘taste of whiskey’. But this would be very strange! How could acquiring a concept bring about this change in the other mental state? It is not like what happens when we expect something and this causes a first-order state, as when an initiate expects to be burned and so experiences a burning kind of pain when an ice cube is applied to their skin while blindfolded. Here there is no expectation that the whiskey taste a certain way. Rather you learn a new word and that changes the way the experience seems to you. I think this is a strong argument that points towards higher-order awareness being crucially involved in phenomenal consciousness.

3:AM: You’re famous for your Shombies. So in the movie, Shombie vs Zombie and Swamp Mary, why does the Shombie win? What does this show? Why does Dave Chalmers object and how would he rewrite the ending?

RB: Haha, I wouldn’t say famous! Shombies for me were the product of an argument I had on my blog Philosophy Sucks! with Richard Chappell, who was then a graduate student at Princeton. The zombie argument goes, roughly, as follows. It seems conceivable that there be a physical duplicate of me that lacked conscious experience. If so, then it is possible for our world to have been that way and so physicalism is false.

My problem with this well known argument was that people just assert that they really can conceive of these philosophical zombies. I am willing to admit that it is plausible that if something is conceivable in the right way then that thing is a real possibility for how our actual world might be (for the sake of argument). But why should we think that zombies are really conceivable? It seems like a real possibility that we are not conceiving what we think we are. We may, for instance, be conceiving of a world that is very physically similar to ours but which lacks consciousness. It may, for instance, be a world where there are creatures like us but with no higher-order awareness, and so no consciousness.

How do we rule this out unless we already know that the higher-order theory of consciousness is wrong? Simply asserting that they had successfully done this was massively question begging. At most we are entitled to say that it seems to a particular person that zombies are conceivable and so the conclusion would have to be that it seems to them that physicalism is false, not that it actually is. As a way to try to get them to see how frustrating this argument against physicalism was and to try to show them how they sounded to me when they said they could do this I said that I could conceive of a physical duplicate with consciousness, and I think I can. In fact, I think many people can. That is a shombie.

Afterwards I found out that Keith Frankish, Kati Balog, Gualtiero Piccinini, and others had made this basic move already. Keith calls these beings ‘anti-zombies’ but the basic argument is exactly the same. Keith and I had a discussion about this on Philosophy TV that was very interesting, and as a result I think there are some issues there that separate us.

For instance, Keith denies that there is any neutral conception of consciousness (though I gather that he used to believe there was). But if this is right then there is the question of what he means when he says that he is conceiving of anti-zombies. It seems like he might be conceiving of a creature with the kind of ‘consciousness’ that Dennett would be happy with. If so, and if that is different from the ordinary notion of consciousness that I and others are working with, then it looks like he is not really conceiving of the same thing that I am when I think about shombies. Shombies, as I said, have consciousness in the way that the dualists, and I, think we have consciousness right now; it is just that their consciousness is exhaustively physical. That is conceivable, and so possible.

Swamp Mary would actually be on the side of shombies! Swamp Mary is Pete Mandik’s thought experiment where we imagine the famous neuroscientist locked in a black and white room known as Mary after she has seen red. We imagine a complete duplicate of her springs into existence and falls into a deep slumber. This Swamp Mary knows what it is like to see red but has never actually seen it. Mandik’s challenge is to try to explain why Mary inside the room, before she has seen red, is in any way different from Swamp Mary. His strategy is to try and force the physicalist to admit that Mary could know what it was like to see red from within her room. I am certainly sympathetic to that view, though I am not entirely happy with the Swamp Mary argument for it.

As for who wins, that is a tricky question. My initial strategy was to try and show that these kind of a priori arguments were actually just showing us which theories we already accepted. So, if you have an intuition that zombies are possible then rather than showing that physicalism is false this really shows that the person in question is a dualist, or a physicalist who denied the connection between conceivability and possibility. If one thinks that intuitions are the product of internalized theories then we won’t know which intuition is right until we know which theories are true. This in turn shows that we should put these a priori arguments on the back burner, so to speak, and focus on empirically testing our best theories. This is why in my recent work I have been paying attention to the question of what kind of empirical support there is for higher-order theories of consciousness. If there is convincing evidence that this is way that consciousness is produced in the brain then that would show that shombies are really the conceivable ones as opposed to zombies. Either way, though, it seems to me that for us, at least, these kinds of a priori arguments will only be relevant once they are no longer relevant.

How would Dave write the ending? I think he takes these kinds of intuitions more seriously than I would. It is an appealing kind of view to have. I think that his view is that it is zombies that are really conceivable and that shows that shombies are not really conceivable. But in so far as I am inclined to accept that intuitions can really be a guide to reality I just find that shombies are much more conceivable than zombies. And once we reach this point the real issue arises. What explains the fact that some people find shombies conceivable and others find zombies conceivable? The most reasonable answer, it seems to me, is that these intuitions are the result of internalized theory.

3:AM: How rational can anyone be in theorising about the mind? So Frank Jackson thinks that Mary in her black and white world with total knowledge of physics doesn’t know what its like to see red, Paul Churchland disagrees, Dan Dennett finds the discussion damaging, Michael Tye comes up with a PANIC theory, Jackson changes his mind, Dave Chalmers responds to Ned Block and Robert Stalnaker’s response, and you say Qualia and Mandik responds and Frankish responds to you responding and on it goes. Yet all of these guys are pretty much at the same level of super-smartness and know the same stuff as each other. They are genuinely peers. Isn’t it rational to concede in this situation that my own theory is no more likely to be true than the others and so I should lose confidence in my own? Continuing the debate by disagreeing and defending one’s own position is therefore irrational isn’t it?

RB: This is a very good question! I think there are two ways of answering it. One is personal and the other is not.

From the personal perspective, one might think that what matters in philosophy is one’s own self coming to understand certain issues with greater clarity. This is in some way related to Socrates’ view about philosophy and his famous interpretation of the command to Know Thyself. In this sense philosophy is a personal obligation of each and every person to investigate their own beliefs and make sure that they are true, or at least have some kind of plausible justification.

The other way to answer it is from the perspective of the field. I think philosophers should think of our job as canvassing the theoretical landscape. We want to know every possible permutation and every possible interrelation between every possible theory. We can think of philosophers as a kind of explorers of logical space. We have been working on this grand unified map of possibilities for some time now and this constitutes progress in philosophy, at least of a sort. If so then it doesn’t really matter who is right about how things actually are, what matters is exploring logical space.

But I do have some sympathy with your main point. Look, we have all these smart people and they can’t even agree on whether there is such a thing as phenomenal consciousness, so what’s the point? I think this is interesting, and a very hard problem. On of my professors, Saul Kripke, famously pointed out a certain paradox in this area. If one really has knowledge, and so knows some fact, call it P, then one should ignore evidence that would contradict P. So, to take astrology as an example, we know that astrology is B.S. and so we feel justified in ignoring any evidence that would seem to support its claims (say, you find out all of your best friends are the signs that the astrologists say are most compatible with your sign). The puzzle, for Kripke, is when is this allowed, and when isn’t it?

I take a different lesson from this puzzle. It seems to me that it is always a bad idea ignore evidence. Evidence can be over-ridden or defeated but it shouldn’t be ignored until it has been defeated. This suggests that it is a bad idea to think that one has knowledge in the first place. This is my interpretation of the Socratic idea that one needs to embrace that one does not know before one can start the journey towards knowledge. Socrates claimed that he knew only that he did not know and this made him wiser than those who did not know but that thought they did. I would not be so bold; I don’t even know that I don’t know!

But seriously, I am very cautious when it comes to knowledge. And really I think a bit of humility is required here. If you look at the course of human history, then you see that we have only really been doing what we do now, living in society, reading, writing, etc, for around 5,000 years or so (by contrast Homo Sapiens appear to have evolved almost 200,000 years ago).

Modern science has only been around for 400 years, give or take, and particle physics and quantum field theory for even less. If we assume that we don’t kill ourselves off or die from some other catastrophic event (asteroid, zombie apocalypse, etc) then it is very hard to say what the science 5,000, 10,000, or 100,000 years from now will look like. Our physics may seem very advanced to us, but so did Aristotle’s physics to the people of his day, and it was disastrously wrong (e.g. in assuming that heavier objects would fall faster than lighter objects). What will the science that makes ours look as simplistic as Aristotle’s look like? We can’t say.

3:AM: One thing you say about why consciousness seems a mystery is that theories start with it as a whole thing whereas you think if we build up to it step by step the explanation seems more plausible. Is that right? But if intuitions are what Frank Jackson says, kind of implicit theories, then this isn’t going to help someone if you are someone who whose theory assumes consciousness, the target phenomenon, can’t be something broken down ?

RB: Yes, I think this is right. This was a point that David Rosenthal emphasized in his classic paper ‘Two Concepts of Consciousness’. If one defines consciousness as a mysterious non-reducible thing then it is no mystery why it turns out to be mysterious and non-reducible. The higher-order approach has a ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategy to explaining consciousness. The first step, as mentioned earlier, is to separate mental properties from consciousness. We have good reason to think that thoughts and sensations occur unconsciously and have various causal connections and it is reasonable to assume that the mental properties that have these causal connections are the same when they occur unconsciously.

So, if a pain sensation is a certain kind of mental state that is supposed to represent bodily damage, and if it does so by having a certain qualitative character, then we should expect that very same qualitative character to be present when the state occurs unconsciously. But, since we have separated consciousness from qualitative character, there will nothing that it is like for someone to have this unconscious pain. The conscious experience of pain results from one being aware of oneself as being in the pain state and this gives us a way to explain what consciousness is.

3:AM: In your paper ‘Deprioritizing The A Priori Arguments Against Physicalism’ you conclude not only are there any a priori reasons against physicalism but there aren’t any against dualism either. This might surprise many who for years have been told by Dennett and co that Dualism was a non-starter. So is Cartesianism still alive? Is this where the idea of ‘Overflow’ comes in?

RB: I do think that dualism has received somewhat of a bad rap and I don’t think that Dennett is especially fair to dualism. As I have already said, I don’t think we can prove that physicalism is true. At best, I think, we can prove that it is possibly true, and maybe get to the point where it is reasonable to believe that it is true, but not to the point where we can say that we know that it is true.

The most powerful argument for physicalism, at least from my point of view, has always been the argument from the causal closure of the physical world together with the obviousness of mental causation, and this is the argument that Dennett also endorses. But what are we to make of causal closure? Is it an empirical truth or something that can be known a priori? Well, we seem to have discovered the conservation of mass and energy empirically and in so far as that is evidence for causal closure then it looks like that was an empirical discovery for us as well. But if so, then it could be false.

On the other hand if it is something that could, in principle, be known a priori, it doesn’t conclusively rule out dualism since (some) physical events may be over-determined (an event is over-determined when there are two things each of which would bring about the effect but only one of which does, e.g. if you and I both throw rocks at a window at the same time then the window’s breaking is over-determined). This is to say that perhaps there is a physical cause of my bodily motions, but there may also be an over-determining mental cause.

Also, it is possible to accept causal closure and reject the idea of mental causation, resulting in epiphenomenalism. This view seems to me highly undesirable, but that doesn’t show that it is false.

Finally, there is the response that some interpretations of quantum mechanics allow dualism. Chalmers has argued that on the view that the collapse of the wave function requires a conscious observer fits nicely with dualism, and I think that this is right. This is why I think the two views are on a par a priori-wise. The battle has to be fought on the empirical level.

Another wrinkle here, and one I haven’t talked about yet, is the possibility of what Chalmers has called Type-F Monism. This view is roughly inspired by Kant and holds that physics as we know it describes the relational properties of reality but leaves out the intrinsic fundamental nature of reality. So, one might wonder, what is it that has mass and charge and spin? Perhaps there are some fundamental properties that we are cut off from.

One could view this as a kind of dualism. Since if there are properties in reality that transcend our physics there are things which are not physical in the strict sense. But on the other hand one could view this as a kind of physicalism. If the physics of the future is expanded to include these more basic features then in a way we can say that these things are physical. In a way this has happened already. It is a familiar story that modern physics as we know it today only developed because of the addition of a fundamentally new kind of thing, the field. So in a way this view preserves what the physicalist wants but it also preserves the spirit of dualism. This is an extremely interesting theory that is just now being developed in detail, so it will be interesting to see what happens as a result.

This is different from the idea of overflow, which is the idea that we experience more than we can cognitive access at any given moment. We are arguing that our conscious experience of the world may be a lot less detailed than we think that it is. That is an issue which is independent of the debate between the physicalist and the dualist.

3:AM: You’ve wondered whether Moogles and Final Fantasy creatures could exist. What if we found a creature that seemed to fit the Chocobo? You say Kripke no less would say NO! What do you say?

RB: I think that given the way our world is (or the way I think it is), then it is impossible for there to be a Chocobo in real life, but a Fool’s Chocobo would be good enough for me!

3:AM: I asked Pete Mandik and he had no worries if he turned out to be the guy who led to Skynet and The Terminator. (He thought it would lead to concessions that would protect him!) But what you worry about is that pesky ‘the’. You think it makes everything ambiguous. What’s the issue? Would ‘Terminator’ beat ‘The Terminator’?

RB: Haha, well I don’t really worry about it! As graduate student in the Bay Area I found out about the pop culture and philosophy books and had the Simpsons and Philosophy and Seinfeld and philosophy books when they came out. One of the very first critical thinking classes I ever taught was done with the Simpsons and Philosophy book. I liked the books but wished there was more current topics in philosophy dealt with. Where were the chapters on Kripke, Dennett, Searle, etc?

When I got the chance to edit that book I figured a lot of people would send in articles on mind-related issues, and I had had the chance to study with some really good philosophers of language (Kent Bach, Michael Devitt, Saul Kripke, Ruth Millikan) and I really wanted to bring some of that debate out of the ivory tower and down to main street. The series editor did not like my paper because he thought it had no practical import and I was pushed to come up with some kind of practical import for the debate (hence the lame bit about the name of the movies).

There isn’t really one, though, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting! This is a part of the world that we want to understand, and that is valuable in its own right. Of course, there are some consequences for one’s view of the mind, or how it connects to the world depending on how you go so it is not as though there are no practical implications of the debate.

The issue is over whether the word ‘the’ is ambiguous, like the word ‘bank’ or not. Usually one is told that the word ‘the’ is used, in English, to indicate uniqueness. It is usually held to be equivalent to ‘the one and only’. But there are many instances where we use the word ‘the’ in such a way that strictly interpreting it as meaning ‘the one and only’ would make the sentence false. So, if I say ‘the dog is hungry,’ while looking at my dog looking at me, it seems I say something true. The dog is hungry, just look at it! But, my dog is not the only dog, so the ‘the’ in that sentence must mean something different from the standard ‘the one and only’. That is the ambiguity claim.

The other side thinks that the sentence, strictly speaking, does mean ‘the one and only dog is hungry’ and that the speaker uses that (false) sentence as a way to communicate to someone that this particular dog is hungry (which is true). That is, a speaker can use a false sentence to communicate something true. This seems like something we do all the time, as when I say ‘I feel like a burrito’ in response to someone asking me what I want to eat. What I mean to communicate is that I feel like eating a burrito, but what I say is that I feel like one, which I don’t. If I felt like a burrito then I would feel like beans and cheese and rice in a tortilla, which is not how I feel at all!


3:AM: It seems inevitable that to think about thinking you have to engage with metametaphysical ideas? Can you say what metametaphysicalism is, and perhaps outline an important contemporary issue in it, the discussion of two-dimensional semantics between Ned Block and David Chalmers.

RB: Metametaphysical questions are questions about the status of metaphysical questions. So, for instance, take two metaphysical theories about ordinary objects and their properties. On one view, roughly Plato’s view, we have objects, like a red ball, but we also have abstract objects like redness, which is red itself apart from any red object. On another view we just have red objects and no abstract redness. Red, on this view, is just the set of all red objects. This view is sometimes called nominalism. These, as I said, are metaphysical theories. They are theories about the ultimate nature of reality. Metametaphysical questions then deal with the status of these kinds of debates. Is there really an answer to the question of which of these is true? If there is really an answer then how do arrive at it?

There are a lot of facets to the disagreement between Ned and Dave but the one that most interests me is over how reduction in the sciences works. On Dave’s view identities like ‘water=H2O’ are the product of a priori reasoning. So, we start with something like ‘water is the wet, clear, liquid that falls from the sky, fills lakes, etc’ and then we find out that the wet, clear, liquid that falls from the sky is composed of H2O and so we can deduce that water is H2O.

On the view that Ned has we can’t do this kind of thing. Rather identity statements are postulated because of the explanatory power we get from the identity. It is because we identify water and H2O that we can explain the behavior of water in terms of the properties of H2O.

My own sympathies tend to go with Dave here but I wouldn’t be too surprised to find out that Ned’s way of doing things was right. This is the metametaphysical question. What would count as evidence for or against these views? One strategy has been to argue that there is something deeply unsettling about the idea that identities are brute –that they just are and have no explanation for why they are, but, then again, if they are brute, then they are brute.

3:AM: You’re a Kantian of sorts, which is an odd mix given the naturalist company you keep philosophically. You recently brooded in a Kantian way on Kant’s views on suicide and started to rethink your views about the status of his theory. You’d thought it was some sort of natural law theory Kant was advancing against suicide but changed your mind. So where do you stand on suicide now?

RB: Yeah, the difference between Kant and Kantians is that Kantians are not committed to endorsing all of Kant’s ideas but just the most basic tenets of the theory and I have never agreed with Kant about suicide. My views on suicide have always been the same. I think that in some cases it is cowardly and in other cases it is noble. Overall I find nothing objectionable about suicide. In my case my drive to live is very strong and I do not want to die but if someone else did and was of sound mind then that is their right.

3:AM: And to pick up on that naturalism and Kant issue, isn’t there an inherent contradiction that we see vividly when we contrast, say Christine Korsgaard‘s approach to ethics with Pat Churchland‘s? How do you square that circle?

RB: This is a very interesting question. It is true that I feel pulled from both ends, as it were. As I have said already, rationalism is an attractive view and I admit to being influenced in that direction. But at the same time on reflection we seem to have reasons to be skeptical of the claims that rationalists make. Something that seems impossible and contradictory at one time may at a later date be shown to be actually possible.

History shows us that this has happened time and time again (for instance, like the possibility of non-Euclidean geometry). What I take this to show is that if we do come to know eternal and necessary truths about reality via reason then it can seem to us that we have them even when we don’t, and that should give us pause when we come across something that seems intuitively obvious.

On top of that it seems plausible that creatures like us that evolved in a world with the physics that our world has would come to have “built into them” certain basic truths about the world as tracked by successful ancestors. In fact we could imagine that they do so even though those basic truths were merely regularities and not necessarily true. If so then we would have creatures that are in the same epistemic position as we are but who are not tracking necessary truths. This seems to me to be an extension of Hume’s basic argument, and is the main reason I am reluctant to give in to rationalism.

As an added worry, for any given purported necessary fact I think we can imagine that it be false. Even such basic facts as that an object is necessarily self-identical, or that the number seven exists, or is odd, can be imagined to be false. None of this shows that rationalism is false, but I think it does show that the burden of proof is on their side. We have a relatively well-understood notion of how we could acquire empirical knowledge, but we have no clue of what to say about how we would acquire the kind of knowledge that the rationalist is talking about.

But even so, the basic logical axioms seem to be true. That is, even if I am hesitant to say that we know that they are necessarily true, I am not at all hesitant to say that they are actually true. Take a basic logical rule such universal instantiation. This rule says that if we know that, for some range of things, something is true of all of them then it is true of any given one. Thus if we know that all dogs are mammals then we know that any given dog, say my dog, is a mammal.

This kind of thing certainly seems to be true, and what’s more is the kind of thing that you couldn’t teach to someone. Any attempt to teach this rule would depend on the rule itself (this is a point that Kripke makes, which is similar to the well-known point about Modus Ponens. How could you convince someone who denied “if p then q, p, therefore q”? Any way you would try to do so would involve using modus ponens (or, some argument that depended on it)). So is this a necessary truth about reality or just the way we evolved? I don’t know. ‘An evolved innate truth’ seems more plausible to me, but ‘necessary truth about reality known by reason’ seems sexier. But none of this stops me from saying that it is true (or that it is known, by us, through reason).

How does this apply to ethics? Well, I think that both utilitarianism and Kantianism as typically understood ultimately rely on an instance of the above logical rule. Take utilitarianism. In its most basic form it says that an action is right in so far as it produces the greatest amount of pleasure and least amount of pains among sentient beings. This depends, ultimately, on accepting that pleasure is intrinsically good. But why should I care about your pleasures? Bentham, the modern founder of utilitarianism, said that his theory could be summed up by saying that “each should count as one and none for more than one”. We can take this to mean that your pleasure is just as valuable as mine is.

How do we get this conclusion? We recognize that pleasure in our own case is valuable. We seek it out, and we avoid pain. But if pleasure is valuable in our own case then it must also be valuable when it appears in your consciousness. That is, we have to apply an instance of universal instantiation. All pleasures are good, yours is a pleasure, so yours is good. Thus if I am to consistently value my own pleasure I must accord it the same level of value wherever it occurs; Whether in you, a stranger, my own mother, or a goat. By way of an analogy it is just the same as if I were to conclude the diamond that I own is valuable and then I find out that you have a similar diamond. I would be forced to conclude that your diamond is as valuable as mine is. Of course, it isn’t valuable to me, but to you.

The Kantian story is a bit different but relies on the same basic move. We start here by recognizing that we use practical reason as a way to achieve our ends. So in my own case I recognize that setting goals for myself and then reasoning about the way to achieve those goals is a reason to treat me in certain ways. If you were to come and enslave me I would object, in part, because you are not allowing me to exercise my autonomy in setting my own goals for myself and in determining the best way to achieve them.

The reason that it is wrong to use a person to pull a plow but not wrong to use a horse in this way is because the horse is not capable of having goals which you are interrupting or in formulating and evaluating ways to achieve those goals which you are thwarting. If I were to use you to pull a plow then I would be preventing you from achieving the goals that you have set for yourself via the means you deemed necessary to achieve them. But it is not as though the horse is thinking, “if only I did not have to pull this plow then I could get my B.A. degree so that I could finally open that small business I always wanted,” and so on.

So, in my own case if someone were to kidnap me and make me pull a plow then I would resent them because I have other goals and ends that I want to pursue and have devised plans on how to achieve these goals. But if I recognize that in my own case rational autonomy is valuable then I must recognize that in all cases where there is means-ends reasoning there is value.

Putting these two together means that reason demands that I recognize that human beings are ends in themselves as well as that pleasure/pain is equally good/bad everywhere it occurs in the same amount.

So ultimately, then, I disagree with Churchland on this issue. We may have evolved to care about those closer to us than those further away from us, but we also evolved to track logical truths like universal instantiation and Modus Ponens. It is with our evolved reasoning capabilities that we are able to transcend our evolved emotional capabilities. We can see why we would have evolved to care about those closest to us the most. That helps to ensure our offspring’s survival. But reason tells us that if that is a good for me, then that is a good for you, and so if my offspring matter, then so do yours.

[Richard Brown, left]

3:AM: Of course, not only are you a funky philosopher you are also the philosopher of Funkomenological Overflow. Can you say something about this and say how important music making is to you? Space Clamps, Quiet Karate Reflex and the William James Trio are all key bands – are there other faves and influences?

RB: I have always been into music and pretty much always wanted to play music. I had my eye on the drums as far back as sixth grade. I never got ahold of a drum set until I was almost 19, and so I had been playing for almost five years by the time I entered college again. I always used to joke that I did not know whether philosopher or musician was my fall back! I played in a couple of different groups during my time in San Francisco and that was a lot of fun (you can hear some samples on the Musical Autobiography page of my blog).

Eventually when I got to New York City I started noticing that a lot of my fellow grad students played music. We eventually started getting together semi-regularly to have jam sessions for whoever wanted to come by and play. Thus the New York Consciousness Collective was born (originally called The Neural Correlates of David Chalmers, aka NC/DC). Originally it consisted of Peter Langland-Hassan, Josh Weisberg, David Pereplyotchick, Pete Mandik, Russell Marcus, Doug Meheen, myself, and assorted others. Everyone except Pete was a grad student. We would get together in the rehearsal studio that Peter had and just rock out.

Sometimes we would have like 5 guitars playing at the same time… or at least that is what it felt like! I used to have a bunch of recordings of the sessions, but I lost them all when my computer crashed a few years back. Now all that is left from that early stage is a Myspace page and a video I made back when I was learning how to use iMovie.

I had always thought it would be great fun to move out of the rehearsal space and try this at a local venue. The music was often chaotic but sometimes it sounded good, and besides philosophers like to drink! I used to have time to meet musicians and play but as I went through grad school and made the transition to full-time faculty member I had less and less time to play with non-academics.

We were just on different schedules. So after Peter left town due to getting a job, which resulted in our not having a place to congregate, I decided to see if we could book the show at a local spot with a backline. When I had first moved to nyc I went to a jam session at the Parkside Lounge and so I thought I would ask them. They agreed and for over a year we held monthly jam sessions for neuroscientists and philosophers there. This culminated in the first Qualia Fest in December 2010, which had Quiet Karate Reflex’s debut performance opening for The Amygdaloids (a group led by NYU neuroscientist Joe LeDoux) and then a performance of the Zombie Blues with David Chalmers. This was videoed and a part of it was used in Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman in a segment they did on Dave Chalmers.

We held the second Qualia Fest in 2011 with Quiet Karate Reflex and the debut of William James Trio and the Space Clamps, all three of which had me on the drums! Plus we had the Zombie Blues and a jam session. This was held at the Local 269 in the lower East Side of Manhattan and it was a wild night!

After that we had the Funkomenological Overflow with WJ3, QKR, and the Clamps. I played in all three groups again, one after the other, which is quite a trip because the music is very different. WJ3 plays funky jazz standards, QKR is a hybrid experimental group using an 8bit Gameboy, and Space Clamps are like a funky psychedelic circus. We will be back at the Local 269 June 23rd to celebrate Alan Turing’s 100th birthday. It also happens to be Gay Pride in NYC and so not only do we get a chance to celebrate Turing’s intellectual achievements but we also get to celebrate how far we have come on the issue of gay rights. After his service in WWII Turing was convicted of homosexuality and given the choice between prison and chemical castration. This is despicable treatment of someone who should have been honored as a national hero and an intellectual giant. In addition I hope to have Qualia Fest III in the fall!

I have delusions of trying to organize a conference/music festival with presentations during the day and music by presenters at night. It could happen…There are other faculty bands out there. In philosophy there are the 21st Century Monads who write really cool songs about philosophy. I have heard of a group known as The Critique of Pure Rhythm that sounds pretty good. I am sure there are others, and if you include bands that have at least one philosopher or scientist in them I am sure the number goes up even more.

As for other music, to be honest I don’t have the time to listen to a lot of music these days but when I do I enjoy everything from classic Napalm Death to Peter Tosh to P-Funk to Coltrane to whatever is on Hot 97. I used to go and see a lot of music and have seen bands across the gamut, including Suffocation, Cannibal Corpse, Napalm Death, Sepultura, Slayer, Metallica, Motley Crue, Poison (!!), Warrant (!), Sick of It All, the Grateful Dead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Skatalites, The Jerry Garcia Band, Primus, Beastie Boys, Erika Badu, Cypress Hill, P-Funk (I have seen P-Funk at least 10 times), Guided by Voices, Beastie Boys, Rage against the Machine, Pat Martino, John Schofield, Burning Spear, Smashing Pumpkins, Dub Syndicate, Black Uhuru, Israel Vibration, Eek-a-Mouse, and a bunch of others. These days when I go and see music it is usually something like Galactic or anyone from the Greyboy All-stars, Karl Denson, Robert Walters, Elgin Park. Recently while in New Orleans to give a talk at the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology I had the chance to see Johnny Vidacovich, a New Orleans legend, and it was really cool. That same trip I also got to see Russell Batiste Jr., the drummer who played with the Funky Meters. That was quite a trip!

3:AM: If your NYC Funkomenologists are one groove sensation in philosophy, the xphi set around Josh Knobe in Yale and everywhere is another movement of genuine philosophical excitement and buzz. Are you interested in xphi at all? Could it help with sorting ut some of your concerns? (And wouldn’t it be great to get the xphi indi music makers to jam with you guys? A kind of Philosophical Woodstock.)

RB: I have mixed feelings about Xphi, like many philosophers. I think that in the long run it is not clear that it will survive. Philosophy is full of fads that come and go and xphi may end up being one of them. For example, no one cares much about ‘ordinary language philosophy’ anymore, at least not in the way that they did when it was in its heyday. On the other hand there are areas where it seems like it can do some good. For instance, in linguistics intuitions about meaning are often taken as evidence. If English speakers find some sentence to be grammatical then that is evidence that the sentence is grammatical.

So then if some philosophers like Kripke says that a certain term refers in a certain way and yet English speakers disagree with him, then that is something that the people who work in that area need to pay attention to. Also, some philosophers make claims about what the average person accepts or doesn’t accept. Dennett is a classic example. He says in many places that the ordinary person on the street thinks that there are qualia, but recent Xphi work by Justin Sytsma and others suggests that the folk do not think in terms of qualia. This seems to confirm my own experience in the classroom. I think that the majority of people are naïve realists and think of the colors, sounds, tastes, etc as properties of the objects rather than properties of their experience of the objects. You can get them to see what qualia are and perhaps believe in them but it takes work and is not easy.

Ultimately I like to think of the kind of work I have done with the neuroscientist Hakwan Lau as the best kind of experimental philosophy. When philosophically minded scientists and scientifically minded philosophers collaborate everyone wins! But yeah, I welcome a Philosophical Woodstock!

3:AM: Finally, if you were to recommend five books for the mental readers here at 3am to help them delve further into your philosophical world, what would you suggest?

RB: (In chronological order)

1. Lectures on Logical Atomism – Bertrand Russell
2. Naming and Necessity – Saul Kripke
3. The Conscious Mind – David Chalmers
4. Consciousness and Mind – David Rosenthal
5. Being in Pain and Feeling Pain – Nikola Graheck.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Block’s Response to Lau and Brown on Inattentional Inflation

Ned was nice enough to point out that the proofs of his response to us are available online. I want to thank him for his engagement but there is a lot I don’t agree with. I want to say something about each section but first I wanted to address his claim that the argument from Inattention Inflation is question begging. He is wrong about that

He says,

Apparently, their argument is this:

  1. The first-order states were about the same in strength as evidenced by the equal performance on discriminating the gratings;
  2. But as reflected in the differing visibility judgments, the unattended case was higher in consciousness;
  3. To explain the higher degree of consciousness in the unattended case we cannot appeal to a first-order difference since there is no such difference (see premise 1). So the only available explanation has to appeal to the higher-order difference in judgments of visibility.

He then agues that the only reason we would have for accepting premise two of the above argument was a prior commitment to the higher-order thought theory, which is clearly question begging.

First I would object to the characterization of our argument. Premise 2 should not say that one case was higher in consciousness but rather that there were phenomenological differences between the two cases. If there is a difference in what it is like for someone when we have reason to think that there is no difference in their first-order states, then we have reason to think that phenomenology is not fully determined by first-order activity. Block seems very confused by this but isn’t there an obvious difference between clearly seeing something presented to you and just catching a quick glimpse of something or other presented near threshold?

I think that ultimately his argument in his reply to Inattentional Inflation (II) is that since we have two models that both predict the same pattern of results we cannot use the pattern of results as evidence for one model over the other. The two models are

  • (A) a first-order view where difference in task performance is indicative of no difference in conscious experience and difference in report is indicative of cognitive effects without necessarily effecting phenomenology.
  • (B) a higher-order view where difference in task performance is not indicative that conscious experience is the same and difference in report is indicative of an effect on phenomenology.

The question then comes down to which of these two models we should prefer.

In giving our answer to this Block edited a quote from us without indicating that in the text. We say “if a combined increase in the frequency of saying “yes I see the target” and higher visibility ratings is not good evidence that phenomenology has changed, what else can count?” and he quotes us as just saying if “higher visibility rating is not good evidence…” totally ignoring that we explicitly said it is the combination of both that we are replying on. This is misleading!

It is both of these that lead us to think that there really is a difference between the two cases and that leads us to think (B) is the right interpretation. They say they see it more often and also rate it as more visible even though they are not doing a better job of detecting the stimulus. It has nothing to do with the fact that we are willing to defend a higher-order approach to consciousness.

It is too bad that Lau et al do not collect anecdotes from participants but I think just from our ordinary everyday experience we have some cases of inattention inflation. Sometimes as I am sitting at my computer writing something I will think that I saw the little red icon in the right corner of the screen that alerts me to an email in my inbox. Sometimes I will check and it will indeed be there. Other times I check and there is no red marker. But it sure did seem like there was one there just before I looked! The idea is that something like this is going on in the experimental conditions. I predict that if asked subjects would be surprised to find out that (some of) their false alarms were indeed false.

Block goes on to attribute to me “in conversation” the claim that training and reward did not influence the results. It is funny because we say it in the paper! But I did emphasize this at the pub after LeDoux and I gave a talk at the NYU philosophy of mind discussion group. Anyway, in response to that Block says that it would nullify the findings of the original paper that this is an effect of judgement. But that is silly because our claim was that since there is reason to think there is a difference in phenomenology and that the relevant difference psychologically/neurologically was a difference in HO representation then there is reason to think that HO state explains the difference in phenomenology.

Overall, then, I think it is really unfair to say that this argument is question begging. It does depend on their being an actual phenomenal difference when task performance is the same but we think we have good reasons to believe that which are independent of the higher-order view.