Revisiting my Dissertation

Nine years ago I defended My dissertation and then I promptly forgot about it. Part of the reason was that I was distracted with the Shombie Wars (believe me, I *never* expected to write a paper on zombies!) and starting Consciousness Online but the biggest part of the story was that I was sick of working on it. I had spent two years writing it officially but I had had the core idea for the dissertation in 2002 (developing ideas I had from my days as an undergraduate) and had written several versions of it for various seminars I had taken. By the time I had decided to pursue this as my dissertation project I had already been working on it (off and on) for 4 years. So after six years of reading, re-reading, writing, and re-writing I had a hard time even thinking about this material!

Looking back on it now I think the main “result” still stands up. Just after I defended hybrid expressionist views became popular and I thought that maybe I had been scooped  (more than I already had been by Blackstone!) but no one has developed, or even seemed to notice, the kind of hybrid view I formulate and defined (i.e. one where the speech act in moral discourse involves expressing an emotion and, at the same time, the belief that the emotion is the correct one to have towards the relevant state of affairs moral character, etc)…though to be honest I have grown more out of touch with the literature on metaethics…so maybe there is some devastating objection I am not aware of?

At some point I may try to look into it but in the meantime below are links to the blog posts I wrote while working on the dissertation.

  1. Introducing Frigidity
  2. What Kripke Really Thinks
  3. The Meaning and Use of ‘is True’
  4. Truth, Justification, and the Quasi-Realist Way
  5. Meaning and Justification
  6. A Simple Argument for Moral Realism
  7. Emotive Realism
  8. Truth and Necessity
  9. Varieties of Rigidity
  10. Devitt on the A Priori 
  11. Meta-Metaethics and the NJRPA
  12. Emotive Realism Ch. 1
  13. Emotive Realism Ch. 2
  14. Some Moral Truths are Analytic
  15. (Finally) Responding to Roman
  16. Moral Truthmakers
  17. Empiricism as the Default Position
  18.  Introducing Dr. Richard Brown
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Cognitive Prosthetics and Mind Uploading

I am on record (in this old episode of Spacetime Mind where we talk to Eric Schwitzgebel) as being somewhat of a skeptic about mind uploading and artificial consciousness generally (especially for a priori reasons) but I also think this is largely an empirical matter (see this old draft of a paper that I never developed). So even though I am willing to be convinced I still have some non-minimal credence in the biological nature of consciousness and the mind generally, though in all honesty it is not as non-minimal as it used to be.

Those who are optimistic about mind uploading have often appealed to partial uploading as a practical convincing case. This point is made especially clearly by David Chalmers in his paper The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis (a selection of which is reprinted as ‘Mind uploading: A Philosophical Analysis),

At the very least, it seems very likely that partial uploading will convince most people that uploading preserves consciousness. Once people are confronted with friends and family who have undergone limited partial uploading and are behaving normally, few people will seriously think that they lack consciousness. And gradual extensions to full uploading will convince most people that these systems are conscious at well. Of course it remains at least a logical possibility that this process will gradually or suddenly turn everyone into zombies. But once we are confronted with partial uploads, that hypothesis will seem akin to the hypothesis that people of different ethnicities or genders are zombies.

What is partial uploading? Uploading in general is never very well defined (that I know of) but it is often taken to involve in some way producing a functional isomorph to the human brain. Thus partial uploading would be the partial production of a functional isomorph to the human brain. In particular we would have to reproduce the function of the relevant neuron(s).

At this point we are not really able to do any kind of uploading as Chalmers’ or others describe but there are people who seem to be doing things that look like a bit like partial uploading. First one might think of cochlear implants. What we can do now is impressive but it doesn’t look like uploading in any significant way. We have computers analyze incoming sound waves and then stimulate the auditory nerves in (what we hope) are appropriate ways. Even leaving aside the fact that subjects seem to report a phenomenological difference, and leaving aside how useful this is for a certain kind of auditory deficit, it is not clear that the role of the computational device has anything to do with constituting the conscious experience, or of being part of the subject’s mind. It looks to me like these are akin to fancy glasses. They causally interact with the systems that produce consciousness but do not show that the mind can be replaced by a silicon computer.

The case of the artificial hippocampus gives us another nice test case. While still in its early development it certainly seems like it is a real possibility that the next generation of people with memory problems may have neural prosthetics as an option (there is even a startup trying to make it happen and here is a nice video of Theodore Berger presenting the main experimental work).

What we can do now is fundamentally limited by our lack of understanding about what all of the neural activity ‘means’ but even so there is impressive and suggestive evidence that homelike like a prosthetic hippocampus is possible. They record from an intact hippocampus (in rats) while performing some memory task and then have a computer analyze and predict what the output of the hippocampus would have been. When compared to actual output of hippocampal cells it is pretty good and the hope is that they can then use this to stimulate post-hippocampal neurons as they would have been if the hippocampus was intact. This has been done as proof of principle in rats (not in real time) and now in monkeys, and in real time and in the prefrontal cortex as well!

The monkey work was really interesting. They had the animal perform a task which involved viewing a picture and then waiting through a delay period. After the delay period the animal is shown many pictures and has to pick out the one it saw before (this is one version of a delayed match to sample task). While they were doing this they recorded activity of cells in the prefrontal cortex (specifically layers 2/3 and 5). When they introduced a drug into the region which was known to impair performance on this kind of task the animal’s performance was very poor (as expected) but if they stimulated the animal’s brain in the way that their computer program predicted that the deactivated region would respond (specifically they stimulated the layer 5 neurons (via the same electrode they previously used to record) in the way that the model predicted they would have been by layer 2/3) the animal’s performance returned to almost normal! Theodore Berger describes this as something like ‘putting the memory into memory for the animal’. He then shows that if you do this with an animal that has an intact brain they do better than they did before. This can be used to enhance the performance of a neuroscience-typical brain!

They say they are doing human trials but I haven’t heard anything about that. Even so this is impressive in that they use it successfully in rats for long term memory in the hippocampus and then they also use it in monkeys in the prefrontal cortex in working memory. In both cases they seem to get the same result. It starts to look like it is hard to deny that the computer is ‘forming’ the memory and transmitting it for storage. So something cognitive has been uploaded. Those sympathetic to the biological view will have to say that this is more like the cochlear implant case where we have a system causally interacting with the brain but it is the biological brain that stores the memory and recalls it and is responsible for any phenomenology or conscious experiences. It seems to me that they have to predict that in humans there will be a difference in the phenomenology that stands out to the subject (due to the silicon not being a functional isomorph) but if we get the same pattern of results for working memory in humans are we heading towards Chalmers’ acceptance scenario?

Consciousness and Category Theory

In the comments on the previous post I was alerted, by Matthias Michel, to a couple of papers that I had not yet read. The first was a paper in Neuroscience Research which came out in 2016:

And the second was a paper in Philosophy Compass that came out in March 2017:

After reading these I realized that I had heard an early version of this stuff when I was part of a plenary session with Tsuchiya in Tucson back in April of 2016. The title of his talk is the same as the title of the Philosophy Compass paper and some of the ideas are floated. I had intended writing something about this after my talk but I apparently didn’t get to it (yet?). I am in the midst of battling a potty-training toddler so it may not be anytime soon but I did want to get out a few (inchoate) reactions to these papers now that I have read them.

Both of these papers were very interesting. The first was interesting because it is the first time I have seen proponents of IIT acknowledge that they need to examine their ‘axioms’ more carefully. Are these axioms self-evident? Not to many people! Might there be alternate formulations? Yes! At the very least there should be some discussion of higher-order awareness (or awareness at all). There ideally should be an axiom like:

Awareness: Consciousness is for one. If one is in no way aware of oneself as being in a mental state then one is not consciously in that mental state

Of course they don’t want to add anything like this because as it stands the theory clearly assumes (without argument) that higher-order theories of consciousness are false. This is a problem that will not go away for IIT. But I’ll come back to that (by the way, the first ‘axiom’ of IIT sometimes seems to me to suggest a higher-order interpretation so one might assimilate this to an unpacking of the first axiom).

The central, and very interesting, idea of these papers that they are presenting is that category theory can help IIT address the hard problem (and some of the issues I raised in the previous post). There are a lot of mathematical details that are not relevant (yet) but the basic idea is that category theory lets us look at the structures that mathematical objects have and compare it to the structure of other mathematical structures. They want to exploit this by making a category out of the integrated information cause-effect space and one for quaila and then use category theory to examine how similar these two categories are.

First, can qualia form a category? They address this issue in the first paper but (to use a low hanging pun) this looks like a category mistake. Qualia are not mathematical objects. I suppose you could form the set of qualia and that would be a mathematical (i.e. abstract) object. But if you show that this structure overlaps with IIT have you shown anything about qualia themselves? Only if the structure captured in this category exhausts  the nature of qualia, but that is highly controversial! My guess is that there will be many categories that we could construct that would have some functors to both the category of qualia and the category of IIT structures. So, take the category of the set of Munsel color chips (not the experience of them, the actual chips). Won’t they stand in relations to each other that can be mapped onto the IIT domain in pretty much exactly the same way as the set of qualia!? If so, then IIT is Naive Realism? That is a joke but the point is that one would not want to claim that this shows that IIT is a theory of color chips. All we have shown is that there is a similar structure that runs in common in these two mathematical structures that at first seemed unrelated. That is interesting, but I don’t see how it can help us.

To their credit they recognize that this is a bit controversial and here is what they say about the issue:

In the narrow sense, a quale refers to a particular content of consciousness, which can be compared or characterized as a particular aspect of one moment of experience or a quale in the broad sense (Balduzzi and Tononi, 2009; Kanai and Tsuchiya, 2012). Can category theory consider any qualia we experience as objects or arrows? Some qualia in the narrow sense are straightforward to consider as objects: a quale for a particular object or its particular aspect, such as color. There are, however, some aspects of experience that are apparently difficult to consider as objects. For example, we can experience a distance between the two cups, which is a relationship between the objects but itself has no physical object form. Such abstract conscious perception can be naturally regarded as a relationship between objects: an arrow. Further, there are some types of qualia that seem to emerge out of many parts, such as a face. A whole face is perceived as something more than a collection of its constituent parts; there is something special about a whole face. Psychological and neuroscientific studies of faces point to configural processing, that is, a web of spatial relationship among the constituent parts of a face is critical in perception of a whole face (Maurer et al., 2002). In category theory, a complicated object, like a quale for a face, can be considered as an object that contains many arrows. Considered this way, any quale in the narrow sense can be considered as either an object, an arrow, or an object or arrow that contains any combinations of them.

But even if this is ok with you (and you set aside questions about whether ‘to the right of’ can be an arrow in category theory (will it obey the axiom of composition?)) what goes into the qualia category? They seem to assume that (at least some of) it is non-controversial but that isn’t so clear to me. Even so, what about Nagel’s bat? In order to use this procedure we would have to already know what kinds of qualities, conscious experiences, the bat had in order to form the category. But we have no idea what kinds of ‘objects’ and ‘arrows’ to populate that category with! That was kinda Nagel’s point!

To hammer this point home recall the logic gates that serve as simple illustrations of IIT. How are we to use this approach on it? We know what IIT says and so we can form that category without any problems. But what goes into the category of ‘qualia’ for the logic gate system’? We have no idea. In response to a question about Scott Aaronson’s objection Tsuchiya says that the expander grid may have a huge conscious field but would not have any visual experience. But what justifies this assertion?

They conclude their paper with the following remarks:

We proposed the three steps to apply the category theory approach in consciousness studies. First, we need to characterize our own phenomenological experience with detailed and structured descriptions to the extent to accept the domain of qualia as a category.

This may prove to be a difficult task and not just for the reasons having to do with higher-order awareness. Phenomenology is tricky stuff and it is notoriously hard to get people to agree on it (N.B. this is an understatement!) and since that is the case this general strategy seems doomed.

 

Another frustrating assertion with minimal evidence comes in the second paper linked to above and it has to do with the No-Report paradigm.

Noreport paradigms have implied that certain parts of the brain areas, such as the prefrontal areas, may not be related to consciousness, but more to do with the act of the reports (Koch, Massimini, Boly, & Tononi, 2016).

IF one buys this then one will see the IIT irreducible ‘concepts’ as corresponding to phenomenally conscious states but if instead one thinks that these results are overrated then one will see these irreducible IIT ‘concepts’ as picking out mental representations that may or may not be conscious. Thus we cannot extrapolate from the results of IIT until the debate with higher-order theories is resolved.

And that cannot happen until the proponents of IIT actually address the empirical case for higher-order theories. This is something that they have been very reluctant to do and when they discuss other theories of consciousness they studiously avoid any mention or discussion of higher-order theories. Higher-order theories need to be taken as seriously as Global Workspace, local re-entry, and other theories one finds in neuroscience and for the same reasons; because there is a significant (not decisive) evidence in favor of the theory.

But ok, what about the limited claim that we could in principle know whether the bat’s phenomenology was more like our seeing or our hearing? If we could generate the relevant category for the human conscious visual experience versus auditory experience and then if we could generate the IIT category for the bat’s echolocation we could compare them and see if it resembles our visual or auditory categories. According to Tsuchiya if we found that it resembled the IIT category for our auditory experiences (instead of our visual) or vice versa then we would have some evidence that they experienced the world in the same way we did.

But this seems to me to be a fundamental misunderstanding of Nagel’s point. His point was that there is no reason to expect that the bat’s experience would be anything like our seeing or our hearing. To know what it is like for the bat requires that we take up the bat’s point of view (according to Nagel). It is not clear that this addresses this issue at all! Even if we found that the bat’s brain integrated information in the way our brain integrates auditory information, and which results in the conscious experience of hearing for us, even if (stress on the IF) we discovered that why should we think that the bat’s experience was just like our experience of hearing? The point that Nagel wanted to make was that conscious experience seems somehow essentially bound up with the idea of subjectivity, of being accessible only from one’s own point of view. This is entirely missed in the proposal by Tsuchiya et al.

Integrated Information Theory doesn’t Address the Hard Problem

Just in case you are not aware Hakwan Lau has started a blog, In Consciousness we Trust, where he is blogging his work on his upcoming book on consciousness. He has lately been taking fire at the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness and has a nice (I think updated) version of his talk (mentioned previously here) in his post How to make IIT (and other Theories of Consciousness) Respectable. I have some small quibbles with some of what he says but overall we agree on a lot (surprised? 😉 At any rate I was led to this paper by Sasai, Boly, Menson, and Tononi arguing that they have achieved a “functional split brain” in an intact subject. This is very interesting, and I enjoyed the paper a lot but right at the beginning it has this troublesome set of sentences:

A remarkable finding in neuroscience is that after the two cerebral hemispheres are disconnected to reduce epileptic seizures through the surgical sectioning of around 200 million connections, patients continue to behave in a largely normal manner (1). Just as remarkably, subsequent experiments have shown that after the split-brain operation, two separate streams of consciousness coexist within a single brain, one per hemisphere (2, 3). For example, in many such studies, each hemisphere can successfully perform various cognitive tasks, including binary decisions (4) or visual attentional search (5), independent of the other, as well as report on what it experiences. Intriguingly, anatomical split brains can even perform better than controls in some dual-task conditions (6, 7).

Really?!?! Experiments have shown this? I was surprised to read such a bold statement of a rather questionable assumption. In the first place I think it is important to note that these patients do not verbally report on what it ‘experiences’. I have argued that these kinds of (anatomical) spit brains may have just one stream of consciousness (associated with the one capable of verbally reporting) and that the other ‘mute’ hemisphere is processing information non-consciousnesly.

This is one of the problems that I personally have with the approach that IIT takes. They start with ‘axioms’ which are really (question begging) assumptions about the way that consciousness is, and they tout his as a major advance in consciousness research because it takes the Hard Problem seriously. But does it? As they put it,

The reason why some neural mechanisms, but not others, should be associated with consciousness has been called ‘the hard problem’ because it seems to defy the possibility of a scientific explanation. In this Opinion article, we provide an overview of the integrated information theory (IIT) of consciousness, which has been developed over the past few years. IIT addresses the hard problem in a new way. It does not start from the brain and ask how it could give rise to experience; instead, it starts from the essential phenomenal properties of experience, or axioms, and infers postulates about the characteristics that are required of its physical substrate.

But this inversion doesn’t serve to address the Hard Problem, (by the way, I agree with the way the formulate it for the most part). I agree that the Hard Problem is one of trying to explain why a given neural activation is associated with a certain conscious experience rather than another one, or none at all. And I even agree that in order to address this problem we need a theory of what consciousness is but IIT isn’t that kind of theory.  And this is because of the ‘fundamental identity claim’ of IIT that an experience is identical to a conceptual structure, where ‘experience’ means phenomenally conscious experience and ‘conceptual structure’ is a technical term of Integrated Information Theory.

This is a postulated identity, and they do want to try to test it, but even if it was successfully confirmed would it really offer us an explanation of why the experiences are associated with a particular brain activity? To see that the answer is no consider their own example from Figure 1 of their paper and what they say about it. nrn.2016.44_IIT - From Consciousness to Physical Substrate

They begin,

The true physical substrate of the depicted experience (seeing one’s hands on the piano) and the associated conceptual structure are highly complex. To allow a complete analysis of conceptual structures, the physical substrate illustrated here was chosen to be extremely simple1,2: four logic gates (labelled A, B, C and D, where A is a Majority (MAJ) gate, B is an OR gate, and C and D are AND gates; the straight arrows indicate connections among the logic gates, the curved arrows indicate self-connections) are shown in a particular state (ON or OFF).

So far so good. We have a simplified cause-effect structure in order to make the claim clear.

The analysis of this system, performed according to the postulates of IIT, identifies a conceptual structure supported by a complex constituted of the elements A, B and C in their current ON states. The borders of the complex, which include elements A, B, and C but exclude element D, are indicated by the green circle. According to IIT, such a complex would be a physical substrate of consciousness

So, when A=B=C=1 (i.e. on) in this system it is having a conscious experience (!), as they say,

The fundamental identity postulated by IIT claims that the set of concepts and their relations that compose the conceptual structure are identical to the quality of the experience. This is how the experience feels — what it is like to be the complex ABC in its current state 111. The intrinsic irreducibility of the entire conceptual structure (Φmax, a non-negative number) reflects how much consciousness there is (the quantity of the experience). The irreducibility of each concept (φmax) reflects how much each phenomenal distinction exists within the experience. Different experiences correspond to different conceptual structures.

Ok then. Here we have a simple system that is having a conscious experience, ex hypothesi, and we know everything about this system. We know that it has these  concepts specified by IIT, but what is it’s conscious experience like? What it is like to be this simple system of 4 logic gates when its elements A, B, and C are on? We aren’t told and there doesn’t seem to be any way to figure it out based on IIT. It seems to me that there should be no conscious experience associated with this activity, so it is easy to ‘conceive of a physical duplicate of this system with no conscious experience’…is this a zombie system? That is tongue in cheek but I guess that IIT proponents will need to say that since the identity is necessary I can’t really conceive of it (or that I can but it is not really possible). Can’t we conceive of two of these systems with inverted conscious experiences (same conceptual structures)? Why or why not? I can’t see anything in IIT that would help to answer these questions.

If IIT is attempting to provide a solution to the Hard Problem of Consciousness then should allow us to know what the conscious experience of this system is like, but it seems like it could be having any, or none (how difficult would it then be to extend this to Nagel’s bat!?!?). There are some who might object that this is asking too much. Isn’t this more like Ned Block’s “Harder Problem” than Chalmers’ Hard Problem? Here I suppose that I disagree with the overly narrow way of putting the Hard Problem. It isn’t merely about how this brain state is associated with a particular phenomenal quality rather than none at all, it is how it is associated with any physical, functional state at all that os the Hard Problem. Sure brain states are one kind of physical state and so the problem arises there but more generally the Hard Problem is answering the question of why any physical state is associated with any qualitative state at all instead of another or none at all.

IIT, and Tononi in particular, seem committed to giving us an answer. For instance, in his Scholarpedia article on IIT Tononi says,

IIT employs the postulates to derive, for any particular system of elements in a state, whether it has consciousness, how much, and of which kind.

But how do we do this for the 4 logic gates?

How do we do it in our own case?

 

Integrated Information Theory is not a Theory of Consciousness

The Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness has been garnering some attention lately. There was even a very high profile piece in Nature. Having just listened to Hakwan Lau’s talk on this (available at this conference website) I thought I would write down a couple of reactions.

Like everyone else who is interested in consciousness, I have been interested in the integrated Information Theory. I attended a talk by Tononi back in 2012 (and wrote about it here) but I also attended a workshop at NYU on it back in 2015. I had always meant to write something about it (John Horgan did here) and thought I would do so now. I wish I had written about this sooner, but to be completely honest I found out about the Paris attacks as I was leaving the workshop and it shook me up enough to distract me from blogging.

I had a couple of take-away’s from that workshop and these have really influenced how I have thought about IIT. I suppose I would sum it up by saying that IIT doesn’t look like a theory of consciousness. In the first place it purports to be a theory of phenomenal consciousness, what it is like for one to have a conscious experience, but it starts from the phenomenon of fading into a dreamless sleep. This makes it look like the main phenomenon is creature consciousness. Is IIT trying to give an account of the transition(s) from sleeping to wakefulness (and vice versa)? This is where ‘levels of consciousness’ talk seems most at home. Is being in hypnogogic reverie ‘in between’ sleeping and wakefulness? Probably yes, but does that translate to phenomenal consciousness being graded? There it seems less clear. You either have phenomenal consciousness or you do not (pace Dennett). It is the contents of consciousness that can be graded, distorted, etc. So right from the beginning it seems to me to be off on the wrong foot: the comparison is not that between waking and dreamless sleep, it is the comparison between conscious (i.e. reported) and unconscious (denied) states that one should begin with if one is looking to explain consciousness.

Another of the main ideas that came out of the workshop (again, for me) was that the ‘axioms’ of IIT seem to encode assumptions about conscious experience that are controversial. For example, is some kind of higher-order awareness necessary (and/or sufficient) for conscious experience? The axioms are silent on this, seeming to suggest that the answer is no, but a lot of people seem to think that there is a kind of higher-order awareness that is manifest in our phenomenology (old examples like Aristotle, and newer ones like Brentono, and even newer ones like Uriah Kriegel). So could we have another version of IIT that adds an axiom about consciousness requiring higher-order awareness? Can this axiom be mathematized? Or could we interpret the first axiom (i.e. consciousness exists from *my* perspective) as implying higher-order awareness?

The current defenders of IIT clearly have a first-order theory of consciousness in mind when they discuss Sperling. They say in their Nature Neuroscience Reviews paper,

In short, the information that specifies an experience is much larger
than the purported limited capacity of consciousness

But there is no argument for this other than that IIT predicts it! Doesn’t it seem the least bit fishy that a theory that starts off with axioms that encode first-order assumptions about consciousness ends up ‘predicting’ first-order readings of controversial experiments? There is nothing in IIT that seems to indicate that we should not instead say that the Sperling distinctions encoded in the integrated information are unconscious and what is conscious is just what the subjects report.

Thus it seems to me that IIT is best interpreted as giving an account of mental content. This mental content may be conscious but it may also be unconscious. To resolve this debate we need to go back to the usual debate between first-order and higher-order theories of consciousness. IIT seems to have added nothing to this debate and we would need to resolve it in the usual way (by argument, appeal to phenomenology, and experimental evidence).

Finally another of the main ideas to come out of the workshop, for me, was that IIT, can be interpreted differently from the metaphysical point of view as well. Is IIT physicalist or dualist? Well, it seems you could have a version of it that went ether way. You could, like David Chalmers seems to incline towards, view IIT as giving you a handle on what the physical correlates of consciousness might be, and then one would posit, in addition, a fundamental law of nature connecting states of physically integrated information with conscious states. This is clearly not the way that Tononi wants the theory to be developed but it is a consistent way to develop the theory. On the other hand one might end up with a physicalist version of IIT, identifying consciousness with the physical implementation of the integrated information. Or you could, like Tononi, claim that consciousness is identical to the ‘conceptual structure’ which exists over and above the parts which make it up (conceptual structures are irreducible to their physical parts for Tononi). So which one of these is the real IIT? Well, there is Tononi’s IIT and then there might be Chalmers’ IIT, etc.

This is not even to mention the problems others have pointed out, that it is hard to know what to make of a grid being ‘more conscious’ than a typical Human, or which of the many (many) different ways of formulating phi are correct, or whether it is even possible to measure phi in humans at all. Even if one wasn’t worried by any of that it still seems that IIT leaves open all of the most important questions about the ultimate nature of consciousness.

 

Afterword and Afterwards

I am concluding my series of memoir-notes posts. The last of these will probably be it for a while. I have been focusing on the time up until I was officially awarded my Bachelors degree in philosophy which was January 7th 2000. I was at the time 28 years old.

I first had the idea of writing something like a memoir back in my Sartre class in 1998 (when I found out about Existential Psychoanalysis). I was by that time scouring SF book stores trying to find interesting philosophy books. I remember coming across The Story I tell Myself and I was instantly jealous that I had not thought of that title first. But I felt extremely uncomfortable actually doing anything about it. People I talked to seemed to have had very different experiences from mine (in differing ways) but I thought it was presumptuous to think about writing something like this. Who would care? Maybe once I finished my PhD, I thought, it might make an interesting story. And so I put it on hold.

I didn’t really do anything about it until I moved to New York in 2003. I moved in the summer and had some time to kill before the semester started so I thought I would use that time to start writing a rough draft. I still thought that if I ever did actually get my PhD then the story might be worth telling. I wrote quite a bit of what is in these posts that summer. But doing so brought back all kinds of bad memories and actually made me doubt myself. It really forcibly brought home to me that it was just me, the runaway juvenile delinquent burnout trying to pretend to have profound ideas. I had to stop writing.

I started writing again in 2011 or 2012 but the same thing happened, this time worse because I was doing pretty well professionally. It wasn’t like I was trying to hide my past but I was trying to ignore it and I don’t remember thinking about my past much those days. With the help of Facebook I rediscovered some of my past self but at that point I was worried about getting tenure and I did not want to advertise my past too loudly. I was asked to do an interview for a documentary to accompany a book on education after incarceration by a colleague of mine at LaGuardia and after that I felt kind of obligated to get serious about the project. Plus I realized that I was forgetting some stuff. Even getting this far has been difficult and I am sure there are many errors. Once January 2017 came around and I realized it had been 20 years since I left the mortuary and transferred to SF State I figured it was time to stop stalling and face up to my past.

I had at one point been thinking of this series as part 1 of a larger work. At this point I plan on coming back at some point and writing about the time between January 7th 2000 and roughly September 3rd 2018 (the 10 year anniversary of my successful dissertation defense). That would cover my two years of graduate school at SF state (and the forming of Mob-L), one year of graduate school at the University of Connecticut (and my stint in a Hindi band), 5 years of graduate school at CUNY (and my helping to found the New York Consciousness Collective) and then 10 years of being ‘on the scene’ in New York philosophy (and the Qualia Fest in the New York Times). That is a very different story than the one I have been telling!

But I probably won’t get around to that until sometime around 2038!…In the meantime I’ll be editing these posts and trying to turn them into an actual narrative (and correcting the five billion typos), maybe even look into doing it over a Sabbatical…ah, that’d be nice!

As always if you know anything about these events let me know! I am sure half of this is wrong and the other half is misleading!

 

A Man of Letters: 1997-2000

I am continuing my series of memoir-posts. At this point we have caught up to where I began this story, which was my transferring to CSU San Francisco in January of 1997. I still can’t believe that was 20 years ago! Back in those days you did not know how you did in your classes until the next semester was about to begin. On top of that I had had a rough summer so I did not get my grades until I was back in SF.

Despite all of the other stuff I had done ok my first semester at SF State. I earned an A in my English Composition class (I wrote my final paper on A Rose for Emily by Faulkner…fitting don’t you think?), an A- in my ‘philosophical analysis’ class (basically a pro seminar for all new philosophy majors). I earned a B+ in my Intro to the Study of Language class. I also earned a B- in my philosophy of language course with Kent Bach. I really liked that class. At that time I was really interested in language.  I remember Dr. Bach came into class one day and says that he had been at a conference with John Searle and had in his presentation said he wanted to define a new speech act that he named the “Absearle that P” speech act and he said he would symbolize it with a middle finger.  I instantly liked and respected him but he did not like my final paper which was pretty much the entire basis of our grade. I was feeling very at odds with Putnam’s intuitions bout Twin Earth. It seemed obvious to me that there was water on Twin Earth in some sense but more importantly Putnam had argued that if we found out that what we call ‘cats’ were really Martian robots in disguise sent to spy on us (or whatever) we would have falsified ‘cats are animals’ and so it wasn’t analytic. I argued that we would have discovered that there were no cats on planet earth. I had the very strong intuition that we should say “those aren’t cats! Those are Martian robots!” because I thought ‘cats are animals’ was analytically true.

In my Space, Time, Relativity, and the Universe class I earned a C-. I was upset by this because I felt like the class had consisted mostly of stories about Einstein, which I enjoyed, but they were unrelated to what showed up on the test and there was no book for the class. I went and complained about my grade and the professor basically said ‘oh well’. I remember I said it would be a shame if I had to complain to the chair and he sat there looking at me, dispassionately, and said he didn’t think it would be such a shame. I gave up on it at that point.

So a bit of a mixed bag my first semester but even so though I did pretty good and I definitely did better than I had been doing at Cuesta (averaging about a 3.0 my first semester at SF State versus my 2.27 cumulative for Community College). What was most important to me was that I had done ok in my philosophy courses. Dr. Bach had a reputation for being a very difficult professor (rumor on the street was that he had studied with Quine, who apparently was some kind of famous philosopher) and so I actually thought that B- wasn’t a bad first grade from him. In addition I had received very positive feedback on my paper on C. S. Stevenson and contemporary philosophy of language connecting what I was doing in my other class with the philosophical analysis class. So I was happy with my progress and ready to get back to business.

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September 19th 1997 (California ID photo). I am around 25 or so in this photo

By that time my Driver’s License had been suspended. My car (the Nissan Pulsar) had been ticketed many times for illegal parking (I was clueless about the parking regulations in SF) and shortly after I moved up there it had been towed. I just ignored the whole thing. I vaguely remember that I found out it would cost as must to pay off the tickets as it had cost to buy the car in the first place, so I let it go. They told it would be auctioned off if I didn’t pay and I said I hoped they got a good price for it and walked away. The car had served me well but you did not really need one in the city and I was struggling just to stay in my classes at that point (I don’t know when this was but sometime before March 1997). That was before I moved into the dorms and then I had got a ticket for rolling through a stop sign and had never taken care of it (someone begged me to drive them somewhere, borrowing a car from someone else in the dorms, I forget the whole scenario but I vaguely remember the borrowed car was a VW bus, and that it kind of reminded me of my Baja bug). As a result I ended up obtaining a California ID in September of 1997. I did not get my Driver’s License back again until 2002 when I was getting ready to move to Connecticut.

Just before the Fall 1997 semester begins I move in with Annamarie, who everyone just called Anna, and her friend Lisa (remember no real names unless the person is a public figure). I had met both of these girls in the dorms and at the time I thought that Lisa was very attractive. Anna was from somewhere up in Northern California. Her mother was from Panama and her father was a white guy. She had dark curly hair and brown eyes that shined with a mischievous twinkle. Lisa is a freckled red-haired Irish girl with thin lips. Anna is short, about 5′ 2″ and Lisa is tall, about 6′ 1″. They made quite the pair. Apparently they had been roommates in the dorms and had this place with another roommate who left. That is why they needed another person. I had money from financial aid and so they let me move into the room. Anna was a photography major and she took amazing pictures. I thought she was really talented.

Their apartment was in a complex that was a bit south of the SF state campus in a town called Daly City. This was much nicer than living in the dorms. I had nothing but a few clothes so I went to Burlington Coat Factory and bought a bunch of bedding. Then I went to Thrift Town and bought a whole new set of clothes. I remember they had all kinds of polo shirts so I bought like 7 or 8 of them, and a bunch of corduroy pants. In addition they had this London Fog trench coat that I loved.

It was also right around this time that I saw South Park for the first time. This show blew my mind. People were big fans of Bart Simpson but at that time I found it a bit tame. He was a bad boy? Not really! These kids were bad in a way that I recognized but I could not believe that the show was actually on the television.

Anna and Lisa are really into ecstasy and I try that for the first time at this point. It is really a great experience but I do not like the way I feel afterwards. Anna and I did E and went to a coupe of shows (she even took me to some underground Rave) and eventually we ended up dating. She was also a vegetarian and I think actually this may have been the first relationship I had ever had with another vegetarian.

I am taking a very full load of classes this semester. I have registered for Existentialism (with Helen Heise), Nietzsche and Post-Modernism (with Sandra Luft), Ethics (with Peter Radcliffe), Ethics and Medicine (I can’t remember who taught this but I think it was Mary Anne Warren), History of Christian Thought I, and Ancient Philosophy (both with John Glannville). Six classes all together and all upper division philosophy courses.

Professor Heise was very intelligent and I ended up taking a lot of classes with her, but she had this English accent that sounded as though she were faking it (and the rumor was that she was an American so that she was faking it). I didn’t care. I loved that class and one thing I remember very clearly is that we read Doestevesky’s Crime and Punishment and I loved it. As usual that started me down the path of trying to find and read all of Doestevesky’s books (which led me to a whole Russian author phase, and I ended up reading some Bulgakov, especially The Master and Margarita). I then read The Brothers Karamazov and was very impressed. The problem of evil that had so haunted me was very nicely laid out. The suffering of one child was enough to falsify the existence of God; A-fucking-men, brother! The most interesting thing, to me, at the time, was that it was very hard to tell which character was ‘speaking for’ Doestevesky. They all seemed like distinct people with distinct psychologies. Of course we also read Camus and The Stranger and The Plague were really fascinating.

At some point mid-way through the semester I remember Anna is telling me that she wants to stop taking E because it is interfering with her school work (at that point she was doing a lot of E). She says she promised that she would stop and she hopes that is enough. I remember we argued about that for a long time. I was holding the “there is no momentum in consciousness” line from Sartre. I was finding the ideas I encountered in the Existentialism class to be very convincing. Previous to this I had found other philosophers and ideas interesting but this seemed to relate directly to my lived experience. I thought that the idea that in order to quit something (or keep doing it) one must quit anew every moment, consciously re-choosing to continue, very profound. It is not enough to simply quit and to have that decision carry forward some force into the future. One must choose again to quit when one is tempted. Anna and I used to argue endlessly about Sartre and personal responsibility!

On Halloween of that year I remember everyone was getting dressed to go out, Halloween in San Francisco is a big deal, and we had all taken E and were going to the Castro, when suddenly I had what I thought was a good idea for my final paper for the Existentialism class. I had had this idea that everyday actions require Bad Faith. I cannot get into a car without the assumption that it is safe and that I will make it through. I forget exactly how I developed it but it may have been that unless we explicitly acknowledge that we could die in the car we weren’t being authentic. We must face up to the possibility of imminent death at any second, yet society is set up to systematically avoid engagement with death, thus making most of us in Bad Fait most of the time. Or it may have been that doing this was impossible and therefore inauthenticity was unavoidable. I forget (I wish I had a copy of that paper!) but I do remember that at the time I felt like I had hit on a big idea and this is probably the first time that I had thought that I was contributing something of my own in a paper. It felt really good to be sitting there getting my ideas out (ok, I was on E but still) and when everyone was ready to leave I said I was going to stay and work on this paper (I remember vividly the sound of the keyboard and the way the keys felt on my fingertips, it felt amazing). I ended up getting an A- in that class.

The class on Nietzsche and Post-Modernism was really frustrating for me. Professor Luft had us reading a lot of Derrida and he seemed to be arguing that everything is a text to be interpreted and that there is no fact of the matter about its correct interpretation. As a newly minted Grecian I find this position laughable. I argue in my final paper that metaphors depend on literal meanings which have definite truth values and so it is pointless to say that everything is metaphor or that there is no literal meaning or no objective answer to the question of what a given author intended by saying or writing something (this sounded like sophistry to me at the time). Professor Luft was very critical of my paper and actually returns to me a 3-page typed response! She ends it by saying that she is sorry to have to be so harsh but she is only doing so because ‘she thinks that I am actually trying to learn’. I respond by going to her office hour and arguing that her comments actually support my paper, or at least that is how I interpreted them. She was not amused, but I did earn an A- in the class.

I am also taking an ethics class taught by Peter Radcliffe. I remember that I wrote my final paper trying to reconcile an evolutionary account of the truth of moral judgements with emotivism (which I had discovered the previous semester) and Radcliffe wrote “you have a thesis, you make an argument…but why emotivism?”I remember laughing when I read that comment (after noting that I earned an A, of course)…I didn’t really have a good answer. Emotivism just seemed to me to capture something important about moral judgements. It resonated with my own experience of moral judgements but I rejected any kind of moral relativism so I was looking for a way to supplement what I thought was good (emotions play a role in moral judgement by partially constituting them and that is what we express when we say ‘this is wrong’) but I wanted to be able to say that some moral judgements are true. This project ultimately became my dissertation.

That is also the semester I have two courses with Dr. Glanville. I have spoken about this a bit in another place so I won’t dwell on it too much here but I will note that I earned an A in the History of Christian Thought class and an A- in Ancient Philosophy. That was six intense courses and three As and three A-s, and I had even made the Dean’s List. I remember being completely shocked by that. The Dean’s list?! I had never achieved something like that before and I was feeling like studying philosophy was what I was meant to do. As a side note I can say that I really enjoyed the close textual analysis that Dr. Glannville provided us. We read through important dialogues of Plato and Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Dr. Glannville would stop every word or so and fill us in on all of the context, all of the detail in the background. It was truly amazing that someone could know as much as this man did.

At some point around the end of 1997 I find out that some people I had known briefly from the dorms (and from my Wild and Crazy Summer) were looking for a roommate. I find this out through a guy who is in my Nietzsche class, named Joe. He was a really cool guy that was a good artist and we used to talk about Nietzsche a lot. It turns out he knows Noah and they are looking for one more person to get this house they found. At that point I am starting to feel weird about living with my girlfriend (Anna and I had started dating by that time and it was strange starting as roommates and then becoming a couple that lived together). They had four people and were looking for a fifth. Once I was on board they took me out to the candidate place to check it out and we were all excited.

This house was pretty close to the campus (a 10 minute bus ride) and was located in the Sunset district of SF. It was large with a huge living room and kitchen and three bedrooms. Downstairs was a garage and a big back yard. At that point I had bad credit. I had been evicted from several apartments and I had bills from my trips to the emergency room that I had never paid. But we had enough people to get the lease signed and so we moved in. I lived in that house for the rest of the time I was in San Francisco, all in all about four years which is, I think, the longest I had lived at any one place in my entire life up to that point.

There were five of us in there at the start. At the beginning I was sharing a room with Noah. He has a bed on one side of the room, and I have a bed on the other just like in the dorms. In the back room we have Jessie, who has her own room. And then in the very back room, past the bathroom and through the kitchen, we have Joe and Henry. Noah is in the film school at SF State which has a pretty good reputation. Joe is in the fine arts school (he is a painter) and Henry is studying music composition. Jessie wants to go to law school. The best thing about this, for me, at the time, was that there was a communal bookcase in the living room and everyone put books out there. That is how I discovered Kurt Vonnegut. Time Quakes had just came out and so I read it, and Slaughterous 5. And as usual I started to read all of the stuff I could find by the author I liked. I had two favorites that stood out to me. The first was Player Piano which I thought was his absolute best piece of work and the other was Bluebeard which I really liked as well. In addition I read Philip K. Dick for the first time. I had always loved sci-fi but I had never read anything by him. Needless to say it was very cool to discover that stuff.

The spring of 1998 semester begins sometime in January and I am also taking six courses again. I take Communication Theory (I forget who taught this but it was a communications class), Metaphysics (with Helen Heise), Theory of Knowledge (with Anton Anotole), Philosophy of Mind (with Kent Bach), Cognitive Science (with John J. Kim), and Modern Philosophy (with James Syfers).

Noah, my roommate is in my metaphysics class with me. He was not a philosopher but he was a filmmaker and he wanted to be exposed to strange ideas to inspire him. We read a book by Bruce Aune. I enjoyed that class and it was my first sense of philosophy as debate. Heise was all about arguments and we tore that book to shreds in that classroom.

I found the communication theory class to be dull and boring. They mentioned some of the philosophy of language but it was offered as something to know, not something to think about and discuss. SF State had as part of their General Education requirements that you takes classes in a series of designated ‘clusters’. These clusters were thematic groups of classes that you would spread out over your time in any order you wanted. When I had arrived I was very interested in language and so I had signed up for the language cluster (hence in my first semester I had the Intro to the Study of Language class which was part of it). This communication theory class was part of that ‘cluster’ as well so I had to take it but I hated it. I had to give a presentation and I chose to talk about Pierce and the theory of signs. As part of my talk I had a friend of our, a guy named Jack, and my roommate Jessie burst into the class in the midst of a loud and angry (and fake) argument. You could hear them yelling in the hallway and then he shoved her into the classroom calling her a name or something like that. She stumbled in the classroom as I am in the middle of explaining Pierce’s theory of sign and I pretend to be surprised like everyone else. Even the professor was stunned and hadn’t reacted yet. Then I said ‘freeze’ and they stopped in mid-motion like a freeze frame. I then walked over and pointed out the signs and what they signified. Wife in curlers, dude in wife-beater complete with stain. I got an A on that but my professor had a stern talk with me in his office.

I was also finding out that I wasn’t into epistemology. We read Plato’s Theatetus and I remember feeling like it was a joke compared to the way we would have read it with Dr. Glannville. We also read Linda Alcoff’s Real Knowing, and I remember not getting it at all but a lot of my classmates were really excited about that book.

February 13th 1998 I see the Greyboy Allstars at the Elbo Room in the Mission District and they instantly become my new favorite band. This was a great club and I would go there quite a bit. The place was packed and the band was awesome. I remember being really drunk at some point and grabbing a shaker off the stage and shaking it. Karl Denson, their amazing saxophonist and band leader, came over and grabbed it from me, saying “c’mon man, that’s not cool!” and I slurred back that I was sorry and they were awesome. I remember I had their album A town called Earth and I would play it while I worked at the on campus coffee shop, where, incidentally, I learned how to use an expresso machine. People would constantly ask me who the band was. I had already been introduced to Medeski, Martin, and Wood through Ethan at the mortuary but this was something else. I remember going to Amoeba Records on Haight Street and combing through their collection looking for anything by Karl Denson or any of the other members of the Allstars.

I also remember watching the Seinfeld finale live (this was May 13, 1998). Before that time I had not really watched TV very much. I mean I had as a kid but even then we couldn’t afford cable (my mom’s boyfriend at some point had HBO and that was awesome!). There was a TV at Anna’s place but we had not had one in the dorms, and we didn’t have one in the mortuary. At my other places we had a TV but no cable. In Arroyo Grande we had a VCR and used to watch Monty Python almost everyday, and I was sucked into Days of Our Lives for a brief period but here we would all watch TV on Thursday nights and then at night before we went to bed we watched the syndicated reruns. Simpsons, followed by Friends and Blind Date (the first reality show besides Cops I had ever seen!). That is where I learned to love both of those shows.

At that point I had broken up with Anna and had met Sarah. Sarah was a psychology major and we got along really well. In fact I think one of our first time hanging out after class may have been to watch the Seinfeld finale. I remember arguing with her about Frued’s notion of the unconscious and Sartre’s argument that repression makes no sense because it requires you to know what you are repressing (how else could you explain the fact that you repress only the right cognitive states and desires?) and thus requires that you be in Bad Faith (inauthentic). Sarah was really cool but we were very different people. She listened to Tori Amos while taking a bubble bath in candlelight, and that combination of things seemed alien to me. I also remember one night laying in bed listening to Nora Jones and feeling really sad. Why would anyone want to feel this way? Much later when I actually say Nora Jones I was flabbergasted by it. That woman was the one singing like that?

At that time I worked at the various coffee shops around campus and I was usually super amped on coffee a lot of the time. The campus coffee shop was a lot of fun. It would get unbelievably buy and with the music and the fast-paced flow of the customers the time flies by in an instant. I remember coming home from the coffee shop and everyone in the house would be super high and paying video games and I would come in a be vibrating on a different level. They would all be sitting in the living room playing video games and I would be tidying up around them and it felt like time had slowed down and I was moving at light speed

After seeing Karl Denson I started to miss playing the drums so I used my financial aid money to buy a cheap CB 700 drum set. It was a real piece of shit but it got me back into jamming. We would also play music in the garage. Henry was a composer and keyboardist and Joe was a guitarist and I was the drummer. We had a lot of fun down there just messing around. Henry was also a very weird guy. He had composed a final piece that was to be performed by student musicians and he had noted it very strangely. At one point he wrote “play as if running away” under one series of notes. I wish I had seen that performance!

Except for the boring classes everything at school was good. The philosophy of mind class was amazing and that is where I first really became aware of the philosophy of mind as its own thing. We were using the new The Nature of Consciousness anthology edited by Ned Block, Owen Flanagan and Güven Güzeldere and I was instantly hooked. We were reading selected essays out of the book but I was reading all of the essays in the book. Language seemed less interesting to me now that I knew about issues related to consciousness and how neuroscience was trying to command the attention of philosophers. This was another class that paired a graduate seminar with an undergraduate class. It turned out that this was Bach’s deal. But I liked it because the class discussion was sometimes pretty good and I was really starting to see that philosophy was still being done and that I could keep up with the graduate students. At that point I was buying books on philosophy in my spare time and I was reading Searle a lot and even went and saw him give a talk down at Stanford. I think that may have been the first philosophy talk I ever attended (if you don’t count Jello Biafra’s talk way back when!)

After we had read David Rosenthal’s chapter on Higher-order theories of consciousness Kent asked us what we had thought. I said that it was about the dumbest thing I had ever read since the last thing we had read and Dr. Bach (and the class) laughed. But Bach surprised me by saying ‘I’ll tell him you said that’. I was getting the sense that the professors at SF State were actually pretty connected and that philosophy was still an ongoing endeavor. That is when I realized that there was Graduate School and started thinking about where I wanted to go. I don’t have a computer back then but we did have a computer lab (Anna had a computer (but no internet) at her place) and I remember going online and trying to find out about the authors of the papers we were reading.

This is also the first time I was exposed to Dan Dennett’s work and at the time I was enraged by it. Quine Qualia? What the fuck was this guy talking about? A lot of people seemed to think that qualia were mysterious. I knew them as the shit that changed when hallucinating. I very rarely had the sense that my visual hallucinations were real. Sure, there were exceptional cases where I got sucked up into the hallucination, and there was the very exceptional cases of the overdose on sleeping pills, but mostly I could always tells that my experience was shifting, not the actual word. Even when I had momentary lapses, and took the breathing lines of the table as indicating that the table really was morphing into something else, I usually was able to come back to the realization that this was a hallucination. If I grabbed for the table my hand would make contact, etc. I took LSD (or whatever) so of course things are trippy right now, I would often think to myself. In that class I wrote my final paper on Time and the Observer and accused Dennett of being a verificationalist (pretty low hanging fruit).

I was also taking a class on cognitive science, which focused mostly on Chomsky and his theory of an innate Language Acquisition Device (LAD). This class was taught by Dr. Kim, and rumor on the street was that he had a PhD from M.I.T and had worked with Stevan Pinker (who apparently was some kind of big psychologist). At that point I only knew Chomsky as the author of Manufacturing Consent, which by the way I loved and greatly admired. It finally gave a principled reason for my studied avoidance of sports! Dr. Kim was always hanging out in front of the Psych building smoking a cigarette before class and I still smoked at that time so I would stand out there and talk with him. I really liked him and I learned a lot from him.

At the same time I was also enjoying the Modern Philosophy class. But this was the second time that I had read the Meditations, and I was starting to doubt them (get it? ;). Our professor asked us to try to think of something that Descartes had never doubted. I wrote that he had never doubted that he had conscious experience. He never entertained the idea that he might be a zombie. If Descartes had met Dennett would the Meditations have turned out radically differently or would ‘I think therefore I am’ still come out true?

I was coming back from one of my cognitive science classes on my way to philosophy of mind. In the cognitive science class (offered in the Psychology department) we were talking a lot about how language would have to be processed, and constructing a flowchart (Boxology at its pinnacle) but no one was talking about the physical implementation of these ideas. In my Modern Phil class we were re-reading Descartes and there too we were arguing about whether the mind was identical to the brain or not, but without any real mention of the brain. Even in the philosophy of mind course there was a lot of lip service to the brain but there were no details (C-fibers anyone?). Isn’t it important to understand how the brain works, I thought, I mean if consciousness produces physical activity then really mustn’t it just be some kind of brain activity?

I stopped walking and took a deep breath. That was hard for me to accept. That meant that the scrawny asthmatic feeble meat bag that my intellect was chained to really was me. That is what I was. I am meat. This was incredibly depressing to me because I have always felt alienated and hindered by my body (in fact I used to think that I could have been born from different parents, and actually wished that it had happened when I was younger, but now I was realizing that my other beliefs required me to rethink this). But over time I have made peace with it. At any rate the point is that this really influenced me to start taking neuroscience courses, which I started doing the next semester.

Sometime in 1998 I hear that Derrida is going to be giving a talk at U.C. Davis. I had read a lot of him in the postmodern class and I thought it would be fun to drive up and see what was going on. We drive up and it is ridiculous. The conference title itself is very long. It is,

Culture and Materiality: A Post-Millenarian Conference — à propos of Paul de Man’s Aesthetic Ideology — to consider trajectories for ‘”materialist’ thought in the afterlife of theory, cultural studies, and Marxist critique

At the time I had no idea what this meant but I had started to think that I should see some living philosophers and had kind of thought of this like going to a concert. I am pretty sure this was sometime in April of 1998 (maybe around Spring Break?). This concert-esque feeling is enhanced when we get there. People are wearing Derrida T-Shirts. It felt like a really awkward Dead show and I half expected someone to be holding up their finger looking for a ticket into the festivities. One tee-shirt had Derrida crouched over a TNT detonator in the midst of plunging the handle. The detonator is connected to a bunch of TNT that is piled around the word ‘Modernity’. Holy shit. I had never seen something like this before! Derrida comes out and he is the best dressed philosopher that I have ever seen. As I remember it he had some kind of pinstripe suit on and a canary yellow tie. This was not the look I was used to from my professors at SF State! He says his talk is on Augustine’s confessions but I would not have known that from listening to him. I left thinking that a lot of bullshit had happened but the people I was with were very excited and we argued about it the whole drive back to SF. I can’t verify this but as I remember it Derrida went over his allotted time and the next speaker had to be bumped. IN doing some research for this post I found out that they apparently published these talks as a book!

I think it was over the summer of 1998 that I started playing with George Adelson. I would see George when I picked up my mail and we would always chat. Nothing exciting just small talk but he was really funny. Eventually once I had a drum set and I knew he was a guitarist we suggested that we get together to play sometime. I was looking for someone to play with so when he said he played jazz and funk and rock and that he just loved to play and didn’t care how good I was (or wasn’t) we decided to do it. We began playing with some bassist he knew and then another bassist that he knew (this guy was a local lawyer, doing corporate law, and this is the first time I saw someone like that smoke weed. It was a shock!). George was a local kid who was born and raised in San Francisco. He was a really good guitar player but he had a difficult time writing his own material (or so I thought). He was always futzing about trying to think of some ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ way to ‘tweak the chords’. The end result was that not much was written and/or what was written sounded really smooth-jazz-esque (to my inexperienced ear). One day we were down in the garage jamming and I had just got the new John Schofield album with Medeski, Martin, and Wood as the Rhythm section. It was called A Gogo and I was really into it at the time. I pulled it out and played one of my favorite tunes, Hotntot, and told George to learn it. He did, right there on the spot just listening by ear. I was like, oh it is on! After that I went out and bought an expensive drum set (the one I still have) and we formed Maggie’s Pacifier. I don’t know why we chose that name but I think it is a testament to how much I loved the Simpsons at that point. I do remember that at some point we started calling ourselves the Sunset Players Club, which was good. I think we even made little Club Cards that I printed out and distributed at parties. If you brought one back to the next party you could get a free keg cup. I wish I had one of those cards left around!

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I think this may have been my first attempt at computer art (picture downloaded illegally from the nascent internet)

Somehow we met a bassist who was also a percussionist. At that time he was in music school (the same music school George had gone to). We had a small collection of covers that I was calling ‘new school favorites’ and I had convinced George to think of them as like playing standards. Among them was the Schofield tune, and FunkFoot by Grover Washington Jr. In addition we had two Greyboy Allstars tunes and some other ones that I don’t remember. We played some house parties and eventually recorded a demo in the garage. We were just a three piece and we recorded it all live. There were originally four or five songs but they are all lost except for these two. I think they almost hold up! George’s playing still sounds great! My drumming makes me cringe at moments but I think it is a pretty good representation of what I sounded like back in 1998 or so. Not bad for just a year or so of trying to play jazz-funk (without knowing anything about jazz or funk) and just under 10 years playing the drums altogether (at that point I still only officially practiced three rudiments: the single roll, the double role, and the paradiddle). Our plan at that point was to use the demo to try to move from house parties to bars.

Happy Friends; a cover of a Greyboy Allstars tune

Fire Eater; another Greyboy Allstars cover

me and george

George and I after playing one of our house parties (I am on the left holding a giant (and empty) bottle of tequila)

George had been playing since he was very young and he was really very good. The songs we played were mostly just an excuse for him to solo over them. He told me that is what he did at home. He used a sequencer to record chord changes and then practiced soloing over it. I used to love to listen to him solo while we were playing. The bassist also played congas and eventually he would have the bass and the congas set up and we had a lot of fun playing together. I loved playing for people and watching everyone dancing. We were getting good feedback from people and some of my classmates thought we sounded like the Grateful Dead which surprised me. George and I used to endlessly argue about music. He was a jazz head and knew everything about music, I knew nothing at at all but had a lot of opinions. He always used to talk shit about death metal saying it all sounded the same and then when I said the very same thing about jazz he got all upset. Each solo is so different! So was each riff on a Cannibal Corpse album!

It was also in the summer of 1998 that Something about Mary came out and I remember seeing that with George. People were laughing so hard in the theatre that we had togo back and see the movie again because we couldn’t hear all of the jokes! I also got a job at a coffee Shop/cafe in the Richmond district. It was called Cafe Muse and I remember there was an earthquake when I was working there. This place served food as well as coffee.

In the Fall of 1998 I again took six classes (my third semester in a row of taking six classes, and I took five my first semester, making 23 classes in 4 semesters!). I had made the Dean’s list the previous two semesters and there was so much interesting stuff out there! I took Introductory Latin (I had come to believe that it would help with all the philosophy lingo), a class on ‘Words, Culture, Change’ (for my language cluster). I learned about proto-indo-European the way they think they discovered it by regressing words back through time and cultures to find common roots and then extrapolating from there), a seminar in ‘Basic Metaphysics’ (another with Peter Radcliffe. This was a graduate class where we read a book on freedom and moral responsibility), a class in Cognitive Neuroscience in the psychology department, a Cellular Neuroscience class in the biology department, and a class on Sartre.

The cellular neuroscience class was very difficult and involved a lot of mathematics. In particular we learned about the Hodgkin-Huxley equations which model neurons as electronic circuits. I had an ok time with the mathematical part but I was at a severe disadvantage because I had never taken a basic biology course (or any biology course at all, actually) so I did not know a lot of what was taken for granted by the professor. I spent a lot of time in the library trying to catch up. I didn’t do great in that class (getting a C+) but the professor was impressed that I had done that well (he was skeptical that a philosophy major should be in that class and told me to drop it early in the semester).

In the cognitive neuroscience class I saw a brain for the first time and I was introduced to the interdisciplinary home I was looking for. At that time I was talking to my mom again and I remember her being very upset by my decision to study the brain. She told me that as a vegetarian I could not be a part of such a discipline because of animal experimentation. I made the argument that without that experimentation I would have been dead (I had bad asthma as a kid) and then she launched into a tirade about modern medicine. I know that it is horrible to think about what animals go through but I believe that there is no other way to proceed.

The Sartre class was another with Helen Heise. This time we were reading Being and Nothingness and I remember scouring the bookstores of San Francisco looking for any books by him. My final paper for that class argued that Sartre’s notion that the fundamental attitude toward the other was conflict (because they turn you into an object instead of a subject) was itself a choice. Some may choose to become an object, like Emily had in a Rose for Emily (or so I thought).

In non-academic related things I take Noah to see P-Funk at the Fillmore in 1998 and he is hooked. He ends up taking a History of Funk class at SF state and George Clinton came to the class to give a talk/Q&A and I got to go. It was so cool to see him in the classroom. He was mostly talking about how he hadn’t made any money from all of those songs because he didn’t license them and let people sample them but that he felt it was important and that it kept Funk music alive (by letting hip-hop sample it). I found that very interesting.

I see Dave Matthews band October 31st 1998 with Sarah. I was never really into their albums but these guys are amazing live.

I made the Dean’s List again in the Fall of 1998, making it three this semester in a row.

Over the break between classes most people went home to their families but I stayed in SF and played Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time (released in November of 1998). I loved that game and spent months playing it. Another thing I remember related to Zelda is that my roommate used to make these movies using a video camera. He had a nice Macintosh computer (a G3 I think) and we used that a lot but he was always coming up with shit for us to act out. I was working at the coffee shop and we had had an expresso machine in our house after that and it had exploded. Somehow as a result we used to make big bowls of expresso and then we would ladle it out into individual cups. Somehow we got the idea of doing a horror film that we called Ladlehand. It was about someone who worked at a coffee shop and the expresso machine blew up and in the process fused a ladle to his hand. He was also hideously scarred and mutated and so wore a mask. He then went on a killing spree. I played Ladlehand and wore a hockey mask and used the ladle. It makes no sense to anyone who didn’t know that we were using the ladle to scoop coffee but it was fun to make. I used my best death metal growl and we came up with all kinds of creative ways to have death scenes. It was a lot of fun and the end result was a big hit. In fact I remember sometime later meeting some people who knew about Ladlehand, and I didn’t know them which was strange! Anyway the reason it is related to this time is that in the movie you can hear the Zelda theme song playing in the background because they were filming some scenes without me and I was playing it in the other room (and we never re-tapped and overdubbed the audio). Man, I wish I still had that, I’ll bet it is ridiculous!

On New Year’s 1998 I went with some people from school to Tahoe, which was a lot of fun. I had never been there and it was a pretty cool experience. One thing I remember though is that we were driving up there and I was in the back seat and I remember listening to them talking in the front seat and they were talking about how good Christmas dinner had been. The duck so succulent it fell of the bone, etc. I sat back there overwhelmed with sadness. These were nice people but their lives were fueled by the death of innocent animals. I sat in the back seat trying to hide the fact that I was softly crying. We got up there and we ended up meeting some other people from SF State. One of them was a girl I knew via Anna, her name was Gabriella (remember no real names unless the person is a public figure). I really liked Gabriella. She had a quick wit and she had very curly hair with a slender nose that made her look somewhat like an elegant bird. I really liked her and we got really drunk and had sex.

I wanted us to hang out and date but she said no because she was friends with Anna and Anna could never know. I remember feeling really frustrated by this. Anna and I ended up getting back together shortly after that and I was feeling guilty because Gabriella was around and we were keeping this secret. I felt like we had done nothing wrong because Anna and I were broken up at the time. The day after Valentine’s day I was feeling especially bad and I came clean. I think this was the first time I noticed in myself a strong urge to tell the truth and confront the consequences rather than lie and avoid it. I was becoming a different person, the kind of person who wanted to be good and didn’t want to lie and hide things. Anna was pissed off but we worked through it.

However, she talked to Gabriella who denied the whole thing. She said that I was making it up. This infuriated me and I remember thinking this must have been how other people felt when I lied to them as a kid. Anna believed me because I had told her some details about the night and it turns out that Gabriella had come back from out Tahoe trip and told Anna about this ‘really cool guy’ that she had met up there and even told her some of the details about our sexual encounter. When I told her this, without knowing about what Gabriella had said a while back, Anna knew I wasn’t lying but it was a very dramatic experience and it really interfered with my semester.

In the Spring of 1999 I was scheduled to take Intermediate Latin, Philosophy of Art (with Anita Silvers), and Neural Systems, a biology course. I remember starting the semester January 27th and then all of the Anna/Gabriella drama was unfolding and I only needed one more class to graduate anyway. So I withdrew from all but one class. Pretty soon I was too distracted and just withdrew from the remaining class and then I mostly worked and saw a lot of music and played with Maggie’s Pacifier/The Sunset Player’s Club.

My roommate was a waiter at Olive Garden and his tips compared to mine from the Cafe were no comparison. I applied for a job at the Olive Garden but did not have any experience. I asked my girlfriend if I could give this restaurant her number. The restaurant was called Organicity and it was a vegetarian place. I really wanted to work there but I had no experience so I listed my girlfriend as a reference and said she was the manager of a restaurant that had gone out of business. They called her and she gave me a good reference. I had no idea what I was doing! I loved working at a vegetarian restaurant but the chef was a real asshole. One thing I remember is that one of the girls I was worked with quit because she went on tour with Macy Grey as a back up singer. I really sucked at this job at first but I picked it up pretty quickly.

March was a really cool month. I saw the Greyboy Allstars March 27th at the Filmore. I loved the Filmore and these guys were at their peak at this time (or so it seamed to me at the time). I was up front alternately dancing my heart out and being awed by the performances of these guys. I had been in this same room to see Luna but this was way better! I remember thinking about seeing all of the people sitting on the floor, the band sucking the energy from the room. This was the polar opposite.

March 31 –The Matrix released. I won’t go on and on about how awesome this movie was for a philosophy major to see but I will say that it was cool because you really had no idea what the movie was about. All of the ads simply asked ‘What is the matrix?’…I also developed my theory that the reason Keanu Reeves was chosen to act in the film was because the movie was so deep that they thought even he couldn’t ruin it.

May 5th we have a Cinco De Mayo party at Anna’s house and the Sunset Player’s Club is playing in the living room. We have by that time found a trumpeter/ keyboardist named Paul (remember no real names unless they are a public figure).  This guy was really good and we would play Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay which I absolutely loved. He set up a four track and recorded our session that night. For a long time after that I listened to it. I thought it came out amazing. I remember I was taking Epinepherine pills (for asthma) and drinking way too much. I ended up passing out after our second set and waking myself up by chocking on my own vomit. People said I was walking around after that but I have no memory of it.

Maggie’s Pacifier broke up shortly after that. As I recall it it was over an argument about vegetarianism where I had become overly agitated. The trumpeter, who was a really nice guy actually, tried to get everyone to reconcile afterwards saying it was just the alcohol and let’s keep playing. I think that maybe this even took place over email! Anyway I remember not having it at all. We had been out by the river after jamming at a gig (I think it was the SF Boat Club) and George was saying that he sort of knew that eating meat was bad but it just tasted too good to stop and that just sent me over the edge. Of course it tastes good (I assume), but we have reason and we don’t shit in the street even though it feels good. So I quit Maggie’s Pacifier/The Player’s Club. I remember the bassist was very upset but that was a hot button issue for me. To me it sounded like someone saying that they knew rape was wrong but just enjoyed it too much to quit. I thought it was funny because after being all indignant and arguing from a Kantian and Utilitarian moral high ground, the trumpeter responded with “well, sometimes you drop the beat when we are playing and I was overlooking it because we were having fun” and I laughed out loud because I already knew that and it wasn’t the same kind of insult at all but it did inspire me to get a practice pad and a metronome.

May 19th –The Phantom Menace is released. Needless to say I was a huge Star Wars fan and I was very excited for this movie to come out. When I found out that they had (veggie-)beefed up this famous theatre in SF to show it and that Lucas was going to be there to give a little talk before the showing I was like, we GOT to go! So we decided to camp out in line (they were not selling pre-tickets). At the time we had this awesome R2-D2 cooler that we had stolen from a 7-11. They had it out front with ice in it and we just wheeled it away. We used to keep it in the garage and put kegs in it when we had house parties. We brought R2 with us to the line and it was a big hit. I forget how long we camped out but it was definitely a couple of days. I think I went home one night and slept in my bed but the other night I slept on the concrete. The line itself was a lot of fun, like a very ultra nerdy Dead show parking lot. We drank vodka and ate Red Vines and at night we ran through Golden Gate Park and had a massive light saber battle.

The showing was at midnight and soon they started letting us go in. We were not actually all that far back and actually got good seats. Obviously we couldn’t take R2 with us so we stashed it over behind a dumpster and went inside. George Lucas was there and everyone was in a raucous good mood. I forget what he said but he said some stuff and then the movie started. Everyone cheers and then a hush…and then there is some CGI underwater scene which isn’t too bad but then fucking Jar-Jar Binks shows up. We get out of the theatre and R2 is gone! Man that sucked.

Somehow I got a job selling candy. I think I saw the advertisement in the newspaper or something. It was advertised as a way to make money and see free music. I called them up and went for an interview. Basically they hired you as a sub-contractor and you had to wear this uniform and carry around this tray of candy that you bought from them. The candy would cost X amount of dollars and at the end of the night you would have to pay them for any candy that was not returned. Anything extra you got to keep. This was a very strange job but by that time I was the King of Strange Jobs and I took it. The first concert I worked was June 5th and it was the Guiness Fleadh  in Golden Gate Park and I sell candy and see Ben Harper, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison and Jon Lee Hooker, plus a bunch of others. I really liked Ben Harper after that.

July 1999 we see Blair Witch Project. At the time I didn’t really like this movie. I had heard that people were getting sick while watching it but I didn’t experience that. I also didn’t find the movie very scary. I had seen much worse. I eventually did come to see what was scary about that movie and it was the putting oneself into the place of the hunted people. I remember thinking that you have to have achieved a level of security in your life to feel threatened by that and I felt that maybe this was me progressing.

Joe takes me to see Ween at the Warfield in August of 1999. It is a great show. I was never a super huge fan of Ween (Joe was a super huge fan) but that show was amazing. They had this drummer who was killing it and they had actually developed into pretty decent players! Their edition of Party Like its 1999 rocked the house. They were up on stage passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels (or something) and they were chugging it straight from the battle and then playing a song. I was impressed.

In September 1999 I am ready to finish up. I just need one class and I will be able to graduate. I take Philosophy of Natural Sciences and we read Quantum Mechanics and Experience and it blows me away and inspires me to learn more about quantum mechanics. I had read about string theory all those years ago in juvenile hall and I had taken the physics class at SF State but other than that I had not payed much attention. I remember finding the Official String Theory website and learning about the Second Revolution and the various dualities that had been discovered.  This was exciting stuff! I also take Law and Society (which I found boring. The method of arguing from Stare Decisis is stifling to me), The Nuclear Revolution (from which I withdrew), and a graduate class preparing students for a big M.A. exam on Plato, Descartes, Hume, and Kant (this was my second time officially enrolling in a graduate level course while I was an undergrad). I was not a graduate student and I wasn’t taking the exam but I wanted to prep for it because I was applying to graduate schools.

Another concert I sold candy at was at Shoreline and it was a Bridge School Benefit show. This one was in October of 1999 and had an amazing line up of Neil Young, The Who, Pearl Jam, Sheryl Crow, Green Day, Billy Corgan & James Iha, Tom Waits (Day 1 only), Lucinda Williams, and Brian Wilson. That was a really fun concert. I remember standing there with the candy strapped around my neck and at first everyone sees you but avoided you. A few beers and joints later and you are mobbed. I had a lot of fun that night and ended up trading candy for drugs (I had to pay for the candy out of pocket which was fine with me). I also sold candy at a Gay Pride event in the Castro and that was a wild experience! I remember standing there and seeing all kinds of naked people, some guys some women. That was fairly normal for San Francisco (in the Castro). I saw one very attractive women walk by and I couldn’t help staring. As she walked by she looked over her shoulder and said “this isn’t for you, breeder”.

The semester ended and I got a job at an Italian restaurant out in North Beach. The owner is a short Italian guy named Giuseppe (remember no real names unless the person is a public figure). Giuseppe is a real piece of work and there are so many crazy stories about him, but I’ll come back to this some other time because I worked for him the next year as well. The point here is that on New Year’s Eve 1999, which was a Friday, I am planning on working that night at the Italian restaurant rather than going out anywhere. I wanted to work because you get a lot of money in tips and I wanted to buy my own computer. (By the way that was a fun night -all of the waitstaff were getting hammered while we were working and I made more money than I ever had in a single night before!)

By that time I had heard about the Tucson conferences and the Philosophical Gourmet and I knew that Rutgers and NYU were the best schools for philosophy of mind. I used to drool over the webpage for the 1997 NYU seminar on mind and language (the 1998 one wasn’t bas either).  I applied to both of them and was rejected. NYU sent me something from the Tisch School of Interdisciplinary Studies and I could have possibly gone there and taken classes at NYU in their philosophy department (so said the material) but that isn’t what I wanted. I forget when this was but I had only applied to those two places and then I did not know what to do. Some person was calling me saying they were from Berkeley and I was suspicious of that (they were leaving messages our communal answering machine, remember those?), so not knowing what to do I applied to the Graduate Program at SF State. Besides which I never felt at ease at Berkeley. The campus was beautiful and I had audited a couple of classes there once I found out that we could do so (one in bio and one in philosophy with Searle) but I always felt out of place there. Anyway so I applied hastily to the M.A. program at SF State. I remember I wrote my essay in the little box on the form and it was total last minute BS.

But I had been accepted. So I would be starting the Spring 2000 semester as a graduate student in the philosophy program. I thought that if I was going to be serious about being in grad school then I should have my own computer (and I had already enrolled in four classes: two in the biology department, Neural Systems (from which I had withdrawn in the spring of 1999) and Human Sensory Processes (a graduate seminar in the biology department) and two graduate level philosophy seminars, Wittgenstein (with Peter Radcliffe), and Early Medieval Philosophy (with Glanville)).

I didn’t go to my graduation but I did feel an immense pride. Nothing much really changed immediately after that. I was still living in the same place and I was still going to SF State but on January 7th, 2000 I had crossed an invisible line. I had earned a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and I was soon to be a graduate student in philosophy. I was especially proud that I had earned my way into SF State after having been there and gotten to know the philosophy professors. These professors knew me, not very well admittedly, but it had been 2 and 1/2 years and that is plenty of time to fuck up! But no, I had excelled and they had wanted me to continue in their program. I was sad that I wasn’t going to New York but I was also excited to continue at SF State.

And I still had my eye on New York.