Back on the Clock

I have been on parental leave for the past eight weeks but now I am officially back to work! Since there are only four weeks left of the semester I am returning to Administrative Assignment (don’t worry, I’ll be back to teaching in the summer!). I have a lot of stuff to do and I hope to be able to write about some of it here. Updates (hopefully) to follow.

Papa don’t Teach (again!)

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The Brown Boys

2018 is off to an eventful start in the Brown household. My wife and I have just welcomed our newborn son Caden (pictured with older brother Ryland and myself to the right) and I will soon be going on Parental Leave until the end of April. Because of various reasons I had to finish the last two weeks of the short Winter semester after Caden was born (difficult!). That is all wrapped up now and there is just one thing left to do before officially clocking out.

Today I will be co-teaching a class with Joseph LeDoux at NYU. Joe is teaching a course on The Emotional Brain and he asked me to come in to discuss issues related to our recent paper. I initially recorded the below presentation to get a feel for how long the presentation was (I went a bit overboard I think) but I figured once it was done I would post it. The animations didn’t work out (I used powerpoint instead of Keynote), I lost some of the pictures, and I was heavily rushed and sleep-deprived (plus I seem to be talking very slow when I listen back to it) but at any rate any feedback is appreciated. Since this was to be presented to a neuroscience class I tried to emphasize some of the points made recently by Hakwan Lau at his blog.

Ten Years in the Blogosphere

It has come to my attention recently that I started this blog ten years ago back in May of 2007. Since that time I have written 487 posts and had over 120,000 visitors. It’s been a wild ride, to say the least!

I had begun blogging before starting this blog at The Brains Blog and had had some of my paper online since 2002/2003 when I was at the University of Connecticut, but this was my first real exposure to philosophy in the online world. At the time I was in the habit of jotting down ideas in Word documents. Some of these would get developed into conference presentations or papers for a class, but I had begun to accumulate quite a few of them.  At some point in March or April of 2007 I became aware that Pete Mandik had a blog and then found out that blogs were interactive. At that time I hadn’t quite realized that you could comment on the postings at the blogs and up till then I had just been reading the articles. It sounds absurd now but that is the way it happened! I recall we were waking somewhere after some talk or something and someone said ‘oh yeah that’s what’s fun about them!” I began hanging out online and arguing with Pete about his recent paper ‘Beware the Unicorn’ paper and eventually I thought that maybe I should contribute to a blog. I approached Gualtierro Piccinini who was the owner/manager of Brains at that time. He allowed me to become a contributor and I started posting regularly there in April and early May of 2007.

Soon afterwards I got an anonymous email from someone saying that people would enjoy my posting more if I did so less often and that if I had that much to say perhaps I should start my own blog. The email was sent from an anonymous gmail account and whoever it was said they did not want me to know who they were. That was a shock and I was pretty pissed at whoever sent the email. I forget what I said back but I don’t think it was nice. I never did find out who sent that email but I certainly do have my suspicions….Even so, though, they did make a good point. Maybe I should start my own blog, I thought to myself, and so I did!

I was still a graduate student when I started this blog and I certainly had more time to write back then! Once I got my tenure-track job at LaGuardia I had less time to write but blogging here was a very important source of excellent feedback on many of my ideas. I also learned a lot about how online interactions could spiral towards non-productivity. In fact some of the more unpleasant experiences I had here at this blog led me to include some kind of video component when I started the Online Consciousness Conference. I figured that if people could at least see and/or hear the person they were responding to it might change the tone of the conversation. I think it (mostly/somewhat) worked but who knows!

I am hoping to continue to blog here if only to work out my own thoughts about various issues. Just for fun here are some of the more active posts from the past 10 years.

Top 5 most viewed posts of all time (probably due to their being among the oldest but still):

  1. Why does 1+1=2?
    • [August 2007] -The basic mathematical truths are either true because of how the world is or independently of the world. How could we ever know which?
  2. A Simple Argument against Berkeley
    • [May 2008] -“last week I talked to this guy at the DMV who told me I need to file an address change” –are you now thinking of the guy I talked to in a way that defeats Berkeley’s master argument? I think so
  3. What is Wrong with Eating Meat
    • [November 2007] -a vegetarian/vegan reflects on eating meat (brought on by Thanksgiving and the resulting callous humor surrounding killing and eating turkeys). Can we separate the issue of eating meat from that of killing animals?
  4. The Philosophical Method
    • [August 2008] -‘A good argument for the conclusion that P is a reason to believe that P is true’ -I defend the claim that the method of philosophy commits one to reason and argument as a source of knowledge
  5. God Vs. The Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser
    • [February 2008] -If knowing which path a particle takes entails that the particle displays classical particle properties then God, who always knows which path every particle takes, cannot know about the wave-properties of reality. The main pushback to this line of argument was that this is a by-product of our way of coming to know but I think this interpretation of quantum mechanics isn’t right. It is knowing that matters.

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A Higher-Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness

I am very happy to be able to say that the paper I have been writing with Joseph E. LeDoux is out in PNAS (Proceeding of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States). In this paper we develop a higher-order theory of conscious emotional experience.

I have been interested in the emotions for quite some time now. I wrote my dissertation trying to show that it was possible to take seriously the role that the emotions play in our moral psychology which is seemingly revealed by contemporary cognitive neuroscience, and which I take to suggest that one of the basic premises of emotivism is true. But at the same time I wanted to preserve the space for one to also take seriously some kind of moral realism. In the dissertation I was more concerned with the philosophy of language than with the nature of the emotions but I have always been attracted to a rather simplistic view on which the differing conscious emotions differ with respect to the way in which they feel subjectively (I explore this as a general approach to the propositional attitudes in The Mark of the Mental). The idea that emotions are feelings is an old one in philosophy but has fallen out of favor in recent years. I also felt that in fleshing out such an account the higher-order approach to consciousness would come in handy. This idea was really made clear when I reviewed the book Feelings and Emotions: The Amsterdam Symposium. I felt that it would be a good idea to approach the science of emotions with the higher-order theory of consciousness in mind.

That was back in 2008 and since then I have not really followed up on any of the ideas in my dissertation. I have always wanted to but have always found something else at the moment to work on and that is why it is especially nice to have been working with Joseph LeDoux explicitly combining the two. I am very happy with the result and look forward to any discussion.

Do We Live in a Westworld World??

I have not had the time to post here as often as I’d like and I am hoping to get back into a semi-regular blogging schedule once things settle down. The hectic pace of an almost-two-year-old and teaching a 6/3/-6/3 course load (18 classes a year!) has taken its toll. I have been meaning to write a post on my plenary session at The Science of Consciousness (TSC2016) conference in Tucson. And I have been working on a paper with Joe LeDoux developing a Higher-Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness that is nearing the final stages. I plan to post something about it once we are done. I am also still trying to produce a series of videos for my introductory logic class at LaGuardia and will also post something on that when they are finished (hopefully before the Spring semester). So a lot is going on!

But all of that aside I wanted to take a moment to talk about Westworld. I have not seen the original movie by Michael Crichton but I was eagerly anticipating the new HBO series and now having watched it I think it is a wonderful show with a lot of rich philosophical content. There are a lot of interesting questions about consciousness and computation brought up by the show but I wanted to step back and note the clever way that the show introduces a new twist on the some old skeptical worries. There are some mild spoilers below but if you have seen the first episode that is all that you need to follow the argument.

The basic premise of the show involves the existence of a giant park known as Westworld where there are advanced artificial agents that serve as the backdrop for the various adventures of the patrons of the park. These advanced artificial agents, known as hosts in the show, are very lifelike and in fact stipulated to be indistinguishable from flesh and blood humans. The behavior of the hosts is for the most part scripted and under the complete control of the people who run Westworld. When the hosts interact with the ‘newcomers’, i.e. those who visit the park for recreation, they are allowed limited improvisation and mild variance from their scripted behavior but that is all. The feature that is noticeable for our purposes is that the hosts are programmed in such a way that whenever a newcomer mentions anything about the existence of things outside the park they noticeably fail to notice what the newcomer has said. If they happen to see an artifact from outside the park, like a picture, they do not register it and simply say ‘it doesn’t look like anything to me’. Finally, they mention that the hosts have the concept of dreaming, and specifically of a nightmare, in order to ensure that any weird experiences due to park maintenance can be attributed to being in a dream.

That is enough of the plot mechanics of the show to introduce the interesting new skeptical worry. How can we be sure that we are not now, at this very instant, in a Westworld World? That is, given some common assumptions, how can we rule out that our city -NYworld-, our state -CaliforniaWorld-, our country -USAworld-, indeed our planet -EarthWorld- etc, are not actually vast artificial environments run by external agents set up for the enjoyment of ‘newcomers’ (tourists?)? It is true that I do not notice any evidence that the Earth is just an artificial environment with automatons populating it. But this is consistent with my actually being an artificial agent of some sort whose internal programming, or what ever is equivalent to that, prevents me from noticing any such evidence. In the most severe form EarthWorld might be an amusement park for an alien race. A place where they go to vacation and reek havoc. We may have interacted with any number of alien beings and simply not have noticed that they have tentacles, four eyes, etc. We may be constructed to take their appearance to conform to normal human standards (after all many take physics to already demonstrate that we don’t perceive reality as it is).

In a sense this is related to the Simulation Hypothesis. In that case Bostrom and others consider the possibility that our reality is in actuality a computer simulation, like The Sims but more advanced. This is not the kind of scenario envisioned in EarthWorld. There the idea is that we have an actual physical place, The Earth, complete with physical elements, trees, animals, wind, etc and also artificial agents, ourselves. Our role in EarthWorld may vary depending on the skeptical scenario one envisions but one scenario is that we are highly advanced artificial agents with advanced AI and limited conscious experience (that is we are phenomenally conscious but miss out on a large portion of what is actually happening around us). This is not a computer simulated reality but is still an artificial reality of sorts. Maybe more akin to Live Action Role Playing than to computer simulation (maybe Artificial Action Role Playing?).

As with most skeptical scenarios I don’t think we have to accept the conclusion that we are indeed in such a scenario but it is, I think, an interesting new take on the ‘we might be conscious computer programs in an artificial environment’ trope. As such I also think that the simulation argument, if it works at all, works equally well for Earthworld and so if you think we might be in a simulation you should also think we might be in Earthworld.

Consciousness and its Place in Physical Reality

In the Spring 2013 semester I initiated a new course at LaGuardia that had the theme Cosmology, Consciousness, and Computation. The basic idea was to explore issues relating to physicalism. Intuitively, physicalism is the view that everything that exists is physical but what is the nature of physical reality? The idea I had was to have the couse divided into three sections. In the first section we would do a conceptual physics course talking about the development of physics from the ancient world to the present day. Then we would turn to issues about consciousness and mind and where they fit in the physical picture we have so far developed. After that we turn to issues about computation; Is the universe computable? Or perhaps does it instantiate some computation? Is consciousness computational? Are we living in a simulation? Is the universe a hologram?

In my quest to have low cost book options for students I have adopted the Terminator book I co-edited and have supplemented that with readings from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and other online material. The reception to the course was very good and I am really looking forward to doing it a second time in Fall 2013. I have updated the syllabus and, as usual, would welcome any suggestions or feedback.

Week I: Introduction
• →Richard Brown on What is Philosophy? – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySS0bNeWZOg

Week 2: Early Attempts to Understand Mind and Physical Reality
• →Terminator Ch 10: The Nature of Time and the Universe
• Time- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time/
• Richard Brown on Pre-Socratic Philosophy- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfLgRotdcKI&list=PLfR0qhtOKP6eYkUoW7DH8qdjwEyQnsbPJ&index=2
• Pre-Socratic Philosophy- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/presocratics/
• Ancient Theories of the Soul- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ancient-soul/
• Parmenides- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/parmenides/
• Zeno’s Paradoxes- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/paradox-zeno/
• Ancient Atomism- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atomism-ancient/
• Democritus- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democritus/
• Intentionality in Ancient Philosophy- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/intentionality-ancient/
• Time- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time/

Week 3: Modern Philosophy and Modern Science
• →Terminator Ch 2 –Animal consciousness, Descartes, and Emotions
• Descartes’ Physics- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-physics/
• Descartes’ Epistemology- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-epistemology/
• Descartes’ Theory of Ideas- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-ideas/
• Other Minds- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/other-minds/
• Animal Consciousness- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-animal/
• Locke on Real Essence- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/real-essence/
• Locke’s Philosophy of Science- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke-philosophy-science/
• Newton’s Philosophy- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/newton-philosophy/
• Isaac Newton- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/newton/
• Newton’s Views on Space, Time, and Motion- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/newton-stm/
• The Contents of Perception- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-contents/
• The Problem of Perception- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-problem/

Week 4: Relativity Physics
• →Terminator Ch 8: paradoxes of time travel
• Einstein for Everyone: http://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton/teaching/HPS_0410/chapters/index.html
• Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe on NOVA- http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/elegant-universe.html#elegant-universe-einstein.html
• Time Travel and Modern Physics- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time-travel-phys/
• Time Machines- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time-machine/
• The Equivalence of Mass and Energy- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/equivME/
• The Hole Argument- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spacetime-holearg/
• David Lewis’ The Paradoxes of Time Travel- http://www.csus.edu/indiv/m/merlinos/Paradoxes%20of%20Time%20Travel.pdf

Week 5: Quantum Mechanics
• Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos on NOVA- http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/fabric-of-cosmos.html
• Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm-copenhagen/
• Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm-manyworlds/
• The Uncertainty Principle: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qt-uncertainty/
• Quantum Entanglement and Information: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qt-entangle/
• The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Argument in Quantum Theory- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qt-epr/
• Measurement in Quantum Theory: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qt-measurement/
• Quantum Mechanics- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm/
• Richard Feynman on Double Slit Experiment- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUJfjRoxCbk&list=PLfR0qhtOKP6eYkUoW7DH8qdjwEyQnsbPJ&index=3

Week 6: The Nature and Origin of the Universe
• →The Scale of the Universe- http://htwins.net/scale2/
• Hubble Deep Field: http://hubblesite.org/hubble_discoveries/hubble_deep_field/
• Cosmology and Theology- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmology-theology/
• Atheism and Agnosticism- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/
• Religion and Science- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/religion-science/
• Teleological Arguments for God’s Existence- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/teleological-arguments/
• Cosmological Argument- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmological-argument/
• The Possible Parallel Universe of Dark Matter- http://discovermagazine.com/2013/julyaug/21-the-possible-parallel-universe-of-dark-matter#.UhDhPRbtaz6

Week 7: The Possibility of Life Beyond Earth
• Life- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/life/
• Molecular Biology- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/molecular-biology/
• Finding Life Beyond Earth- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVzmGaGCqP8

Week 8: Consciousness in the Physical World?
• Consciousness- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness/
• Representational Theories of Consciousness- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-representational/
• Functionalism- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/functionalism/
• The Mind/Brain Identity Theory- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mind-identity/
• Dualism- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dualism/
• Zombies- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/zombies/

Week 9: Beyond Physicalism?
• Eliminative Materialism- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/materialism-eliminative/
• Folk Psychology as a Theory- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/folkpsych-theory/
• The Philosophy of Neuroscience- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/neuroscience/
• Panpsychism- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/panpsychism/

Week 10: Transhumanism
• →Terminator Ch 4: Extended Mind, Transhumanism
• A History of Transhumanist Thought- http://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/documents/journal_publications/al/nick_bostrom
• Biohackers: A Journey into Cyborg America- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0WIgU7LRcI&list=PLfR0qhtOKP6eYkUoW7DH8qdjwEyQnsbPJ&index=48
• Tim Cannon on Potential Benefits of Sensory Augmentation- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZ1KCpSL51E&list=PLfR0qhtOKP6eYkUoW7DH8qdjwEyQnsbPJ&index=46
• Aubrey de Grey on Defeating Aging- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1FBJGl2c-Y&list=PLfR0qhtOKP6eYkUoW7DH8qdjwEyQnsbPJ&index=17

Week 11: A.I. and The Singularity
• →Terminator Ch 1: A.I., Chinese Room, Transhumanism
• →Terminator Ch 3: Why always with the killing?
• The Chinese Room Argument- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chinese-room/
• The Turing Test- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/turing-test/
• The Frame Problem- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/frame-problem/
• David Chalmers’ The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis- http://consc.net/papers/singularity.pdf
• David Chalmers on Simulation and Singularity- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FafHdF_D8gA&list=PLfR0qhtOKP6eYkUoW7DH8qdjwEyQnsbPJ&index=13

Week 12: The Simulation Argument & The Holographic Hypothesis
• Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument Website- http://www.simulation-argument.com
• Nick Bostrom on The Simulation Argument- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnl6nY8YKHs&list=PLfR0qhtOKP6eYkUoW7DH8qdjwEyQnsbPJ&index=24
• David Chalmers’ The Matrix as Metaphysics- http://consc.net/papers/matrix.html
• Leonard Susskind on The World as a Hologram- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DIl3Hfh9tY&list=PLfR0qhtOKP6eYkUoW7DH8qdjwEyQnsbPJ&index=16