The Beginning: 1971-1977

As promised I am continuing to write a series of autobiographical posts which I am planning to use as the basis for a memoir. A lot of this stuff is really jumbled in my memory. I have done some research online and talked to family members about a lot of this but even so the series of events is not entirely clear. This early period is especially hard since we know that nobody has memories from the first three years of their lives and to make matters worse I have very few pictures from back then. Most of what I am talking about here I have heard in story form from one family member or another but as usual take it all with a grain of salt.


My mother and father sometime around 1969

My parents met in High School and ended up dropping out and eloping (yes there are words that start with ‘e’ that don’t have anything to do with the internet). It was a different world back then and I gather that neither of the parents thought much of their proposed son/daughter-in-law. I think that was in 1968 or somewhere thereabouts. My mom was an artist (she still is) who had been winning art competitions and my father was a musician and interested in claymation. I have never heard any of his music (that I know of) but I am told that he was pretty good and wrote a lot of music as well.

One of my mom’s drawing won a contest and was featured in a calendar put out for he next year (1969, I think). Sadly, she never got to see the calendar because it was sent to her mother’s house and she had eloped by then. I have tried to find a digitized version of the calendar but haven’t been able to so far.  Her parents did not encourage her artistic endeavors, but that is perhaps another story. Both of my parents were vegetarian at the time and decided to raise their kids vegetarian.

I am told that my father was drafted into the army and was scheduled to be sent to Vietnam. During his physical he told them he had asthma and they said he seemed fine. This was before I was born but I don’t know what year. My mom tells me that he packed and was ready to ship out, they even had a tearful goodbye, but when he reported for duty he had a serious asthma attack and was sent home. Discharged that very day. He came back home with his stuff. I haven’t been able to verify this story but if it is even partially true it is pretty amazing. I had uncles who did go to Vietnam and they came back profoundly different people, who wouldn’t after being exposed to the horrors of the Vietnam war? And, of course, many people never came back at all. Had my father actually been sent to Vietnam there is a strong possibility that I would never have been born!


Moments after my birth

But I was! I was born in LaMirada California a couple of years later in 1971. My mom tells me that at the time she did not know very much about childbirth and was not given a lot of options. She was given an epidermal and as a result I became stuck in the birth canal. I have found that this is quite common (or used to be anyway). The doctors had to go in with forceps and pull me out by the head. Apparently this was a pretty common procedure but in the process they did some damage to my head. As a result I was puffy and swollen and I did not breathe right away. The doctors warned my mom that this may have some averse effects on my early brain development. Some might suggest that this sure does explain a lot!

Thankfully I don’t remember any of that but I do look rather worse for the wear in my first picture!

My sister was born in 1973 when I was 1 and 1/2 years old. By then my mom had learned a bit in her attempt to raise me vegetarian and she had a natural childbirth. I don’t know where we lived at the time but it was somewhere in Los Angeles. Apparently having kids was more than my father bargained for and I am told that he claimed that we were holding back his music career. They were both young, in their early 20s, and had had bad childhoods themselves. Looking back on it all I can see how hard it must have been to have been so young and on your own with 2 kids, having been young and on my own I can’t imagine what it would have been like had there been children when I was their age.

But at any rate my father began began to drink heavily and at some point it got bad enough that my mom decided to leave him. He would get his paycheck and head to the local bar. My mom tells me she would be at home waiting to see if he came home with any money or not. He was also physically abusive. I don’t know when this was but I have narrowed it down to probably sometime in late 1973 or 1974. So I would have been 2 or 3 depending on the timing. I really don’t remember any of this but my mom tells me that my sister and I were terrified when they would fight. The first time she tried to leave him she waited until my father came home one night on payday and was drunk and passed out. His pants were on the floor in the bathroom and she went in and took whatever cash was left over and took my sister and I and took a bus to my grandparents house. They lived up the coast in Pismo Beach, which was part of the Central Coast of California.

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My mom and I, 1975 or so

They had a place close to downtown Pismo Beach on Price St. This was a lovely place that had an antique store beneath it (which I think my grandfather ran/owned). I have very very vague memories of staying here at that time but none of them are very clear. My mom tells me that at some point my father came down and tried to get her back. When she refused he camped out in the back yard and my grandmother became furious and told us all to leave. We went back to L.A. and ended up staying in a hotel in El Monte.

As I said my sister and I were raised vegetarian and my mom tells me that on our way back to L.A. we stopped at a Salvation Army in Santa Barbara. I have no memory of this but apparently everyone there really liked me and when they were serving food they wanted to be nice to me. They were serving beans with cut up hotdogs in it and to be nice to me they put in an additional whole hotdog into my serving. My mom says she saw this but was afraid to say anything about it because she knew that meant I would not eat it. I was sitting in a high chair and when I saw the hotdog I was very angry. I stabbed it with a fork, climbed up onto my high chair, held the fork over my head, and shouted ‘WE DON’T EAT THIS!’. I feel like I would have flung the hotdog as well, but that may be my imagination.  My mom says that she was embarrassed but secretly her and my dad were very proud. They were taken aside by the person running the food line and told they should teach me about being grateful for what I had. As anyone who has every come into any kind of contact with me knows, this story foreshadows a great deal!

I do not know how long we were back in El Monte, but I think we must have left again in 1976 or 1977. This part of the story is hard to reveal. Apparently I used to play out in the front of the hotel we were staying at (I think this was in El Monte but can’t be sure). I had a Big Wheel that I used to ride around. One day, I am told, I was out there as usual, my father was at work and I do not know where my mom was, inside I assume. Again, I do not really remember this, and in fact did not really remember it had even happened until I was in my twenties and talked to my mom about it, but I am told that at the time I reported that some man had offered me money if I came with him. I did go with him. Apparently he took me to a place where a lot of busses were stored and into one of the parked busses, where he said his wallet was. I went in and he grabbed me from behind and tried to pull my overalls off. I squirmed away and ran home. I came home crying and frightened. The police came and took a report and I was apparently really embarrassed when I had to explain that this guy had tried to grope my genitals. All of this is what my mom told me about what she remembers me telling her on that day. I don’t have any really clear memories of the event so all I can do is report what she has told me. One last chilling detail is that he apparently yelled “I know where you live,” as I ran away and as a result I was pretty paranoid that he would come back for me.

My mom also tells me that soon afterwards I was starting school. She says I did not go to preschool or kindergarten and that she would not let me attend school until the State of California mandated it, so this must have been 1st Grade. I am pretty sure that would mean that I was 6 years old at the time but I haven’t been able to confirm this (I wonder of the police report still exists?)…Either way, apparently right after this I was starting school wherever this happened, which I am assuming was in El Monte but may have been somewhere else in the Los Angeles area, and I was supposed to be taking the school bus. My mom walked me to the bus stop and the bus came to take me to school, my First Day of School! For some reason or other I missed the school bus after school and just sat on the school steps not knowing what to do. My mom was waiting for me at the bus stop after school to walk me home but I did not get off the bus. She became very worried. She thought the abductor had come back and taken me again. Frantic, she went to the school and found me sitting on the steps. I was ok but she was terrified and told my father that we had to move. He apparently responded by saying that I was fine now, and my mom tells me that she knew she had to leave him.

Somehow we ended up staying in a shelter for battered women called Haven House. Probably I was 5 around this time (in 1977 or so then) and I do have some very vague memories of Haven House. They had an Easy Bake Oven that I liked to bake with, for example. At some point we got our own place in Pasadena, though I really do not remember it at all. Maybe it was on Paso Robles St.?

Apparently the place we were staying at was pretty seedy and downstairs in the corner apartment a pimp lived with a bunch of girls that he ran. My mom says he was really nice to her, and was very cultured and she became friendly with a couple of his girls. They told her that she could make a lot of money if she became a prostitute. My mom has told me, now that she is getting on in age, that she is proud that she resisted that offer. She was at a low point, by herself with two kids, with a low paying job. At any rate she turned down the offer and the pimp respected her for that. One thing that I do sort of remember is that some guy was coming over to the pimps place and pointed to my mom, who was talking with one of the prostitutes, and asked ‘how much for her?’ to which the pimp responded with a right hook that sent the guy tumbling backwards. He stumbled and fell over the railing on the porch and into the bushes. At the time I had no idea what was going on. I had vaguely remembered living in Pasadena and the nice black man who lived downstairs who I would sometimes hang out with during the day. When I found out that he was a pimp and the women I knew were prostitutes I was a bit surprised!

Anyway, my mom says she was at that point still hanging around Haven House and through them she got the opportunity to go on the Merv Griffin Show. The show was on battered women and they had come to Haven House to ask if there was anyone there who might be good for the show. The recommended my mom.

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December 1977

The show was filmed December 15th 1977, when I would have been 6 and my sister was 4. My mom tells me that the only reason she agreed to do it was to get some extra money so that she could buy Christmas presents for my sister and I but that she did not get the money until after Christmas. The show was hosted by William C. Rader, who I had never heard of until I starting researching the show, but apparently he was a psychiatrist on tv a lot back then. They had my mom, a woman who had killed her husband, and a man who used to beat his wife. I contacted the holder of the footage and they say they have footage of that show still but I haven’t been able to get ahold of it. It would be really interesting to see it!

My aunt had come down to be in the audience of the show with my sister and I and she talked my mom into coming back down to the central coast to be involved with a catering truck business that they had started down there. And so we moved back to the central coast. I don’t know exactly when this was but according to my mom we were staying with my grandparents when they saw the episode of the Merv Griffen show air. My mom said on the show that her husband was an alcoholic just like her own father (my grandfather) and this made my grandmother very angry. In fact she was so mad that she kicked all of us out. Somehow my mom met a man who had an apartment for rent and since he liked her he gave her a deal on the place and we moved into it. That must have been 1978 or so and I would have been 6 or 7 depending on the exact timing.

So, even though I was born in Los Angeles I really identify the Central Coast of California as where I am from. My earliest clear memories are from living there in the famous 5 Cities….but I’ll get to that next month.

Towards some Reflections on the Tucson Conferences

As anyone who is even remotely interested in consciousness probably already knows, we are coming up on the big 20th Anniversary Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference in Tucson Arizona. Sadly I am not able to make it this year (due mostly to financial reasons) but I thought I would take a moment to reflect on my involvement with this conference.

I transferred to San Francisco State University in the Spring of 1997. I chose SF State over another college that had an interdisciplinary Cognitive Science program (I think it was Stanislaus, but I really can’t remember) mostly because I loved the city and was thrilled at the chance to set up shop in the Bay Area. I got there and had some adventures, taking Philosophy of Language with Kent Bach, which I really liked (some of the ideas I had in that semester eventually made it into my dissertation). But what really got me was the Philosophy of Mind course I took in the Spring of 1998 (also with Kent Bach), the same semester I was taking a Cognitive Science course. It was in those courses that I met someone who first mentioned the Tucson conference. I remember going home and using the dial-up modem (!!!!) to go online and look into this conference. It seemed really exciting (I also became aware of the Mind and Language seminar at NYU, which I really wanted to be a part of!).

I earned my Bachelors degree in 2000 and applied to exactly two graduate schools, which were NYU and Rutgers. I figured that if I was going to leave California it would be to go study consciousness and mind where it seemed to be flourishing. When I was rejected from both (no surprises there though I did get an offer from the Tisch School of NYU) I entered the graduate program at SFSU that same year. I started working with Mark Geisler in the psychology department and presented at my first professional conference with his lab (the Society for Psychophysical Research in Montreal, on a side note that conference was in October 2001, right during the Anthrax scare…not a good time to be flying around!!). Tucson2002
I suggested that we submit to the Tucson conference in Spring of 2002 and we did. Our lab had two posters at that conference. Mine was “EEG Response to Chromatic and Achromatic Hermann Grid Illusions” where I tried to show that the Herman Grid illusion was at least partially due to activity in V1. It was a great conference, and I remember being in one of the sessions, listening to a talk on how the brain processes information that allows a baseball player to catch a ball and the ways in which these players get it wrong when they talk about it. I thought to myself that it would be really cool to give a talk at this conference some day.

I came back to Tucson in 2006 to realize that goal and give my talk ‘What is a Brain State?’. My session was chaired by Hakwan Lau and I was exceedingly nervous. Even though I had presented at conferences before this was my first presentation in front of a significant number of people and I remember looking out at the audience and feeling a bit nauseated. Even so it was a lot of fun and I had some really good discussions with people afterwards.

I purchased the audio recording of my presentation and then dubbed it over a really bad video of the powerpoint slides so that you can relive this classic moment in Tucson history! Can you count all of the ‘ums’? I lose track…

I came back in 2008 to present “HOT Implies PAM: Why Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness are Committed to a Phenomenal Aspect for all Mental States, even Beliefs” which was less fun for me. My talk was at the end of the session and by the time it was my turn there was only 10 minutes left in the session (barely even enough time to get through the title!). For me it was a lot of flying (which I hate/am deathly afraid of) and a lot of money (which I don’t have and am not reimbursed for) and I thought it was not worth it at all. I remember drunkenly yelling at Uriah Kriegel that I thought that there was not very much time for discussion during the conference and that the conference should be about ideas and discussion rather than profit. Of course I found out how naive that was. The conference is not ‘for profit’ in any serious sense of that word and the format employed is fairly standard for science-based conferences. But it was partially because of my dissatisfaction with my experience that year that I started the Online Consciousness Conference in the summer of 2008.

The next time I was in Tucson was in 2012 when I presented “The 2D Argument Against Non-Materialism“. This was a very different experience. By this time I knew most of the people at the conference, including David Chalmers, and even worse most of them knew me! Perhaps Ironically I missed the days when I could slink into the back of a talk unnoticed by anyone and disappear right afterwards without a trace. I mean, there are worse things than hanging with cool and interesting people and talking about consciousness but it did bring home how much things have changed for me in the last 15 years!

photo by Tony Cheng

photo by Tony Cheng

Here’s to 20 more years!

Zombies vs Shombies

Richard Marshall, a writer for 3am Magazine, has been interviewing philosophers. After interviewing a long list of distinguished philosophers, including Peter Carruthers, Josh Knobe, Brian Leiter, Alex Rosenberg, Eric Schwitzgebel, Jason Stanley, Alfred Mele, Graham Priest, Kit Fine, Patricia Churchland, Eric Olson, Michael Lynch, Pete Mandik, Eddy Nahmais, J.C. Beal, Sarah Sawyer, Gila Sher, Cecile Fabre, Christine Korsgaard, among others, they seem to be scraping the bottom of the barrel, since they just published my interview. I had a great time engaging in some Existential Psychoanalysis of myself!

News Flash: Philosophy Sucks!

Via the latest philosophers’ carnival I learn of a recent kerfluffle, started here, and continued here over the usefulness of philosophy and I can’t resist throwing my $0.02 in.

One thing that I have little patience with is the view that dismisses philosophy all together. The view that there is no progress in philosophy is itself a philosophical view. The view that all knowledge is scientific knowledge is also a philosophical view. When people say that philosophy is a waste of time they invariably mean one particular way of doing philosophy is a waste of time. This is clearly illustrated by people like Richard Feynman who spend a lot of time denouncing philosophy in general when a closer looks reveals that he was pissed off about the method used by particular philosophers (that he happened to encounter). This is also born out by the anti-philosophy comments at the linked posts. If you do not like thought-experiments, analysis of ordinary language, or scholastic proofs for God’s existence that is fine, but that is not the same thing as not liking philosophy.

Philosophy is unavoidable. You cannot even say why it is worthless without actually doing some philosophy; that is part and parcel of its suckiness. I think it was Aristotle who first voiced this sentiment, (though I can’t seem to find the passage any where in my Barnes anthologies)…anyways. Deal with it.

Plant Rights? Yeah Right!

Over at the Opinionator there is a very nice article examining the issue of whether we should eliminate meat-eating in nature if we could. Personally I think that I agree with McMahan’s conclusion that we have more reason to eliminate meat-eating in nature (if we could without great harm) than we do to preserve the various carnivorous animal species. What is striking are the two themes of the comments, or at least the first page of comments…I did not have the strength of will to go through all 11 pages of them. The first is the ludicrous idea that McMahan is somehow advocating the extinction of the Human Race. He very clearly says that humans should stop eating meat and become voluntarily non-carnivorous. The second theme in the comments is that plants have lives and when we eat them we cause them suffering so even being an herbivore is not good enough. Since this is obviously absurd it is concluded that the original claim was also absurd.

Why is this idea so prevalent among people? Our best scientific theories about the world suggest that you at least need some kind of central nervous system in order to have pain or suffering. Carrots have no central nervous system and so cannot suffer. One reason someone might object to this is allegiance to some kind of radical substance dualism. Non-physical minds can be had by anything, even carrots! But just as there is no reason to think that substance dualism is true for humans there is even less reason to think that it is true of carrots. One other line of evidence often cited is that plants react to their environment in ways we didn’t know about 1000 years ago. We have all heard about plants responding to music, “screaming” when in danger, “warning” other trees about fire, etc but isn’t it quite obvious that this is no more evidence that plants feel pain than finding out that a Roomba emits a certain frequency when it is smashed would be evidence for it feeling pain? Plants are alive and react to the environment but unless they have some kind of brain or brain-like system there is no reason to believe that they feel pain or suffer. Reaction to physical damage does not entail that there is pain much less suffering.

Now, I grant that it is conceivable that plants feel pain, and that the issue of whether it is moral to eat them hinges in large part on the answer to this question; if carrots suffered it would be prima facie wrong to eat them. I think I can also grant that we do not know with absolute certainty that plants don’t feel pain, so we cannot rule out that the actual world is in fact a world where carrots feel pain. Even so, if that were the case then McMahan’s argument would have to be put in terms of turning all species into photosynthesizes, or some other non-predatory way of producing energy and the main conclusion would still stand. So it looks like the appeal to plants is doubly off-base. In the first place it is off-base  because though plant sentience is a possibility there is no serious reason to think that it is actual and secondly it is off-base because the conclusion would still follow if we amended the argument in a suitable way.

NyCC Video

Thanks to everyone who came out to the Parkside Lounge last night! It was a weird and wonderful night! For those of you who couldn’t make it here is some video recorded by Jennifer on my iPhone set to our version of Freddie Freeloader…We’ll be back @ the Parkside April 26th and May 31st…Let me know if you are in town!

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The Envelope Please

As you no doubt probably already know the results of the philpapers survey are out. These results were especially costly to me as I lost a bet on how many philosophers would self-identify as dualists. I bet Dave $100.00 that it would be less than 10% and it actually turned out to be something like 27%! One nice feature of the results is that you can sort them by rank and AOS. Turns out the only category where I got it right was among people who explicitly identify Philosophy of Cognitive Science as their AOS…coincidentally these are just the people that I usually associate with…I wonder if other people who took the meta-survey noticed that their meta-survey guesses reflected the numbers filtered for their AOS/friends in philosophy?