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!!). Me in Tucson copy 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 sulkiness. 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?

Fly Philosophers?

It looks like my wife Jennifer and I might be appearing in the new CW reality show Flygirls. I just saw the commercial on tv (available here)…it is basically as Perez Hilton points out The Hills in the sky! What part could I have in it? You will just have to wait until after the season finale of Gossip Girl and find out for yourself (the series airs in January 2010 in between Gossip Girl and ANTM cycle n+1)