The Biological Chinese Room (?)

I am getting ready to head out to New York Medical College to give Grand Rounds in the department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences on the Neurobiology of Consciousness. I am leaving in just a bit but as I was getting ready I had a strange thought about Searle’s Chinese Room argument that I thought I would jot down very quickly. I assume we are all familiar with the traditional version of the argument. We have you (or Seattle) locked in a room receiving input in a foreign language and looking up proper responses in a giant rule book to return the proper output. In effect the person in the room is performing the job that a computer would taking syntactic representations and transforming them according to formally specified rules. The general idea is that since Searle doesn’t thereby understand Chinese that there must be more to understanding it than formal computation.

Now, I don’t want to get bogged down in going over the myriads of responses and counter responses that have appeared since  Seattle first gave this argument but it did occur to me that we could give a biological version of this that would target the biological nature of consciousness that Searle prefers. Indeed, I think it also would work against Block’s recent claim that some kind of analog computation suffices for phenomenal consciousness (see his talk at Google (and especially the questions at the end)). So the basic idea is this. Instead of having the person in the room implement formal computations, have them implement analog ones by playing the role of neurons. They would be sequestered in the room as usual and would receive input in the form of neurotransmitters. They would then respond with the appropriate neurotransmitters. We can imagine the entire room is hooked up in such a way that the Chinese speaker on the outside in speaking normally, or typing or whatever, and this gets translated into neural-chemical activity which is what the person in the room receives. They respond in kind and this gets translated into speech on the other end. Seattle still wouldn’t understand Chinese.

So it seems that either this refutes the biological view of consciousness or it suggests what is wrong with the original Chinese Room argument…any thoughts?


Dispatches from the Ivory Tower

In celebration of my ten years in the blogosphere I have been compiling some of my past posts into thematic meta-posts. The first of these listed my posts on the higher-order thought theory of consciousness. Continuing in this theme below are links to posts I have done over the past ten years reporting on talks/conferences/classes I have attended. I wrote these mostly so that I would not forget about these sessions but they may be interesting to others as well. Sadly, there are several things I have been to in the last year or so that I have not had the tim to sit down and write about…ah well maybe some day!

  1. 09/05/07 Kripke
    • Notes on Kripke’s discussion of existence as a predicate and fiction
  2. 09/05/2007 Devitt
  3. 09/05 Devitt II
  4. 09/19/07 -Devitt on Meaning
    • Notes on Devitt’s class on semantics
  5. Flamming LIPS!
  6. Back to the Grind & Meta-Metaethics
  7. Day Two of the Yale/UConn Conference
  8. Peter Singer on Climate Change and Ethics
    • Notes on Singer’s talk at LaGuardia
  9. Where Am I?
    • Reflections on my talk at the American Philosophical Association talk in 2008
  10. Fodor on Natural Selection
    • Reflections on the Society of Philosophy and Psychology meeting June 2008
  11. Kripke’s Argument Against 4-Dimensionalism
    • Based on a class given at the Graduate Center
  12. Reflections on Zoombies and Shombies Or: After the Showdown at the APA
    • Reflections on my session at the American Philosophical Association in 2009
  13. Kripke on the Structure of Possible Worlds
    • Notes on a talk given at the Graduate Center in September 2009
  14. Unconscious Trait Inferences
    • Notes on social psychologist James Uleman‘s talk at the CUNY Cogsci Speaker Series September 2009
  15. Attributing Mental States
    • Notes on James Dow‘s talk at the CUNY Cogsci Speaker Series September 2009
  16. Busy Bees Busily Buzzing ‘Bout
  17. Shombies & Illuminati
  18. A Couple More Thoughts on Shombies and Illuminati
    • Some reflections after Kati Balog’s presentation at the NYU philosophy of mind discussion group in November 2009
  19. Attention and Mental Paint
    • Notes on Ned Block’s session at the Mind and Language Seminar in January 2010
  20. HOT Damn it’s a HO Down-Showdown
    • Notes on David Rosenthal’s session at the NYU Mind and Language Seminar in March 2010
  21. The Identity Theory in 2-D
    • Some thoughts in response to theOnline Consciousness Conference in February 2010
  22. Part-Time Zombies
    • Reflections on Michael Pauen‘s Cogsci talk at CUNY in March of 2010
  23. The Singularity, Again
    • Reflections on David Chalmers’ at the NYU Mind and Language seminar in April of 2010
  24. The New New Dualism
  25. Dream a Little Dream
    • Reflections on Miguel Angel Sebastian’s cogsci talk in July of 2010
  26. Explaining Consciousness & Its Consequences
    • Reflections on my talk at the CUNY Cog Sci Speaker Series August 2010
  27. Levine on the Phenomenology of Thought
    • Reflections on Levine’s talk at the Graduate Center in September 2010
  28. Swamp Thing About Mary
    • Reflections on Pete Mandik’s Cogsci talk at CUNY in October 2010
  29. Burge on the Origins of Perception
    • Reflections on a workshop on the predicative structure of experience sponsored by the New York Consciousness Project in October of 2010
  30. Phenomenally HOT
    • Reflections on the first session of Ned Block and David Carmel’s seminar on Conceptual and Empirical Issues about Perception, Attention and Consciousness at NYU January 2011
  31. Some Thoughts About Color
  32. Stazicker on Attention and Mental Paint
  33. Sid Kouider on Partial Awareness
    • a few notes about Sid Kouider’s recent presentation at the CUNY CogSci Colloquium in October 2011
  34. The 2D Argument Against Non-Materialism
    • Reflections on my Tucson Talk in April 2012
  35. Peter Godfrey-Smith on Evolution And Memory
    • Notes from the CUNY Cog Sci Speaker Series in September 2012
  36. The Nature of Phenomenal Consciousness
    • Reflections on my talk at the Graduate Center in September 2012
  37. Giulio Tononi on Consciousness as Integrated Information
    • Notes from the inaugural lecture of the new NYU Center for Mind and Brain by Giulio Tononi
  38. Mental Qualities 02/07/13: Cognitive Phenomenology
  39. Mental Qualities 02/21/13: Phenomenal Concepts
    • Notes/Reflections from David Rosenthal’s class in 2013
  40. The Geometrical Structure of Space and Time
    • Reflections on a session of Tim Maudlin’s course I sat in on in February 2014
  41. Towards some Reflections on the Tucson Conferences
    • Reflections on my presentations at the Tucson conferences
  42. Existentialism is a Transhumanism
    • Reflections on the NEH Seminar in Transhumanism and Technohumanism at LaGuardia I co-directed in 2015-2016

Chalmers on Brown on Chalmers

I just found out that the double special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies devoted to David Chalmers’ paper The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis recently came out as a book! I had a short paper in that collection that stemmed from some thoughts I had about zombies and simulated worlds (I posted about them here and here). Dave responded to all of the articles (here) and I just realized that I never wrote anything about that response!

I have always had a love/hate relationship with this paper. On the one hand I felt like there was an idea worth developing, one that started to take shape back in 2009. On the other hand there was a pretty tight deadline for the special issue and I did not feel like I had really got ahold of what the main idea was supposed to be, in my own thinking. I felt rushed and secretly wished I could wait a year or two to think about it. But this was before I had tenure and I thought it would be a bad move to miss this opportunity. The end result is that I think the paper is flawed but I still feel like there is an interesting idea lurking about that needs to be more fully developed. Besides, I thought, the response from Dave would give me an opportunity to think more deeply about these issues and would be something I could respond to…that was five years ago! Well, I guess better late than never so here goes.

My paper was divided into two parts. As Dave says,

First, [Brown] cites my 1990 discussion piece “How Cartesian dualism might have been true”, in which I argued that creatures who live in simulated environments with separated simulated cognitive processes would endorse Cartesian dualism. The cognitive processes that drive their behavior would be entirely distinct from the processes that govern their environment, and an investigation of the latter would reveal no sign of the former: they will not find brains inside their heads driving their behavior, for example. Brown notes that the same could apply even if the creatures are zombies, so this sort of dualism does not essentially involve consciousness. I think this is right: we might call it process dualism, because it is a dualism of two distinct sorts of processes. If the cognitive processes essentially involve consciousness, then we have something akin to traditional Cartesian dualism; if not, then we have a different sort of interactive dualism.

Looking back on this now I think that I can say that part of the idea I had was that what Dave here calls ‘process dualism’ is really what lies behind the conceivability of zombies. Instead of testing whether (one thinks that) dualism or physicalism is true about consciousness the two-dimensional argument against materialism is really testing whether one thinks that consciousness is  grounded in biological or functional/computational properties. This debate is distinct and orthogonal to the debate about physicalism/dualism.

In the next part of the response Dave addresses my attempted extension of this point to try to reconcile the conceivability of zombies with what I called ‘biologism’. Biologism was supposed to be a word to distinguish the debate between the physicalist and the dualist from the debate between the biologically-oriented views of the mind as against the computationally oriented views. At the time I thought this term was coined by me and it was supposed to be an umbrella term that would have biological materialism as a particular variant. I should note before going on that it was only after the paper was published that I became aware that this term has a history and is associated with certain views about ‘the use of biological explanations in the analysis of social situations‘. This is not what I intended and had I known that beforehand I would have tried to coin a different term.

The point was to try to emphasize that this debate was supposed to be distinct from the debate about physicalism and that one could endorse this kind of view even if one rejected biological materialism. The family of views I was interested in defending can be summed up as holding that consciousness is ultimately grounded in or caused by some biological property of the brain and that a simulation of the brain would lack that property. This is compatible with materialism (=identity theory) but also dualism. One could be a dualist and yet hold that only biological agents could have the required relation to the non-physical mind. Indeed I would say that in my experience this is the view of the vast majority of those who accept dualism (by which I mostly mean my students). Having said that it is true that in my own thinking I lean towards physicalism (though as a side-side note I do not think that physicalism is true, only that we have no good reason to reject it) and it is certainly true that in the paper I say that this can be used to make the relevant claim about biological materialism.

At any rate, here is what Dave says about my argument.

Brown goes on to argue that simulated worlds show how one can reconcile biological materialism with the conceivability and possibility of zombies. If biological materialism is true, a perfect simulation of a biological conscious being will not be conscious. But if it is a perfect simulation in a world that perfectly simulates our physics, it will be a physical duplicate of the original. So it will be a physical duplicate without consciousness: a zombie.

I think Brown’s argument goes wrong at the second step. A perfect simulation of a physical system is not a physical duplicate of that system. A perfect simulation of a brain on a computer is not made of neurons, for example; it is made of silicon. So the zombie in question is a merely functional duplicate of a conscious being, not a physical duplicate. And of course biological materialism is quite consistent with functional duplicates.

It is true that from the point of view of beings in the simulation, the simulated being will seem to have the same physical structure that the original being seems to us to have in our world. But this does not entail that it is a physical duplicate, any more than the watery stuff on Twin Earth that looks like water really is water. (See note 7 in “The Matrix as metaphysics” for more here.) To put matters technically (nonphilosophers can skip!), if P is a physical specification of the original being in our world, the simulated being may satisfy the primary intension of P (relative to an inhabitant of the simulated world), but it will not satisfy the secondary intension of P. For zombies to be possible in the sense relevant to materialism, a being satisfying the secondary intension of P is required. At best, we can say that zombies are (primarily) conceivable and (primarily) possible— but this possibility mere reflects the (secondary) possibility of a microfunctional duplicate of a conscious being without consciousness, and not a full physical duplicate. In effect, on a biological view the intrinsic basis of the microphysical functions will make a difference to consciousness. To that extent the view might be seen as a variant of what is sometimes known as Russellian monism, on which the intrinsic nature of physical processes is what is key to consciousness (though unlike other versions of Russellian monism, this version need not be committed to an a priori entailment from the underlying processes to consciousness).

I have to say that I am sympathetic with Dave in the way he diagnoses the flaw in the argument in the paper. It is a mistake to think of the simulated world, with its simulated creatures, as being a physical duplicate of our world in the right way; especially if this simulation is taking place in the original non-simulated world. If the biological view is correct then it is just a functional duplicate, true a microfunctional duplicate, but not a physical duplicate.

While I think this is right I also think the issues are complicated. For example take the typical Russellian pan(proto)psychism that is currently being explored by Chalmers and others. This view is touted as being compatible with the conceivability of zombies because we can conceive of a duplicate of our physics as long as we mean the structural, non-intrinsic properties. Since physics, on this view, describes only these structural features we can count the zombie world as having our physics in the narrow sense. The issues here are complex but this looks superficially just like the situation described in my paper. The simulated world captures all of the structural features of physics but leaves out whatever biological properties are necessary and in this sense the reasoning of the paper holds up.

This is why I think the comparison with Russellian monism invoked by Dave is helpful. In fact when I pitched my commentary to Dave I included this comparison with Russellian monism but it did not get developed in the paper. At any rate, I think what it helps us to see is the many ways in which we can *almost* conceive of zombies. This is a point that I have made going back to some of my earliest writings about zombies.  If the identity theory is true, or if some kind of biological view about consciousness is true, then there is some (as yet to be discovered) property/properties of biological neural states which necessitate/cause /just are the existence of phenomenal consciousness. Since we don’t know what this property is (yet) and since we don’t yet understand how it could necessitate/cause/etc phenomenal consciousness, we may fail to include it in our conceptualization of a ‘zombie world’. Or we may include it and fail to recognize that this entails a contradiction. I am sympathetic to both of these claims.

On the one hand, we can certainly conceive of a world very nearly physically just like ours. This world may have all/most of the same physical properties, excepting certain necessary biological properties, and as a result the creatures will behave in indistinguishable ways from us (given certain other assumptions). On the other hand we may conceive of the zombie twin as a biologically exact duplicate in which case we do not see that this is not actually a conceivable situation. If we knew the full biological story we would be, or at least could be, in a position to see that we had misdescribed the situation in just the same way as someone who did not know enough chemistry might think they could conceive of h2o failing to be water (in a world otherwise physically just like ours). This is what I take to be the essence of the Krpkean strategy. We allow that the thing in question is a metaphysical possibility but then argue that it is actually misdescribed in the original argument. While misdescribing it we think (mistakenly) we have conceived of a certain situation being true but really we have conceived of a slightly different situation being true and this one is compatible with physicalism.

Thus while I think the issues are complex and that I did not get them right in the paper I still think the paper is morally correct. To the extent that biological materialism resembles Russellian monism is the extent to which the zombie argument is irrelevant.

Recent Events

Well, the semester at LaGuardia is finally coming to a close (our schedule is out of step with the rest of CUNY). A lot has been going on and I have barely had time to do anything but since today is our reading day and I have a brief break before final exams come in, I thought I would quickly talk about what has been going on.

My new course, Cosmology, Consciousness, and Computation was a huge success and the students really seemed to enjoy the chance to take these kinds of questions seriously. The basic idea behind the course is to explore issues related to physicalism but after a grounding in the actual physics. My experiment to use the Stanford Encyclopedia as a primary text seemed to work ok as well. Some of the readings are fairly technical but I gave students the choice of which to read and which to write a one page summary/reaction to. They also seemed to like the Terminator book, which was nice. This is the first time I have used it in a class. I am toying with the idea of maybe recording the lectures for this course over the summer as I prepare to teach it again next semester (but I am also teaching philosophy of religion and ethics over the summer and I am tempted to record my philosophy of religion as well…they do overlap a bit so maybe I’ll do both!). For those interested, here is the syllabus. As with any new class I expect to update a lot of it in light of what happened this semester and any feedback would be appreciated.

All of that will have to wait until later in July, though, since I am currently getting ready for my trip to San Diego for the 17th meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC). This year I have organized a symposium on the Role of the Prefrontal Cortex in Conscious Experience. The speakers are Rafi Malach, Joe Levine, Doby Rahnev, and myself. I am really looking forward to it, as well as to the rest of the program! I am hoping to post a video of my talk in the nearish future.

I have also been working on a new paper, which came out of discussion at the 5th Online Consciousness Conference. It is entitled Consciousness is (Probably) a Biological Phenomenon. Those who know me know that I am attracted to an identity theory when it comes to consciousness and that I harbor the suspicion that consciousness is a uniquely biological phenomenon. This paper is my first attempt to spell out an answer to Chalmers’ fading and dancing qualia arguments using empirical results (in particular the partial report results that have figured in the overflow debate (see here and here)). It is extremely drafty (I have been working on it an hour here and hour there for the last few weeks) and any feedback would be much appreciated.

In addition to all of this I have just returned from my trip to the Omaha Kripke Conference (during which I was also on my first dissertation committee at the Grad Center, which was very much fun but then I also had to read and think about a dissertation!), which was a really rewarding experience. Omaha is a wonderful town and the conference itself was excellent, if exhausting. Three days of excellent papers and excellent discussion, and it was very cool to see Saul so active and engaging with the material. Unfortunately, due to bad weather, he came late and so he missed my talk but there was none the less a lot of very helpful discussion. The main objection was Dan Shargel’s ‘hierarchy objection’ which he presented at Tucson last year (the basic idea is that we can move the argument up to the level of appearance and imagine that we have that appearance without the neural state, etc). I have got to get better at explaining what my answer to that objection is. After the discussion at the conference I have come to think that the main problem is that we are using ‘how pain appears to me’ as a way to pick out two different states, one a psychological state and the other a neural state. On the one hand we use it to pick out the pain sensations, that is the first-order sensing of bodily damage. But we can also use it to pick out the neural state that the appearance is identical to (note: not the neural state that the sensation is identical to, but the neural state that is identical to the awful painfulness appearance. We can use the appearance property as a way to pick out that state itself). It is in that second sense that we avoid the charge of regress. This takes some spelling out to make sense of it and I am hoping to write something more detailed on it in the nearish future (hopefully before I head out to the ASSC).

During and after one of the other sessions I had the chance to talk to Saul about his 1963 paper Semantical Considerations on Modal Logic, which I have discussed previously on the blog. When I suggested that it was a cost to one’s theory to give up logical constants in your quantified modal logic he insisted that it was not. This was because for any sentence with a logical constant in it we could translate it into a sentence without the constant without loss of meaning using Quine’s trick of inventing a predicate. This led me to wonder whether this made it the case that we could reformulate the bothersome proofs using translated sentences. At the time I wasn’t able to come with a way to do this but once I got home I thought about it a bit more and came up with the following.

In the original reductio we used this sentences ☐∃x(x=k), where this is read as ‘there exists an x such that x is identical to Saul Kripke’. How would we translate this sentence to get rid of the constant? We would replace the constant with a predicate, say ‘K’ (‘the Kripisizer’) and thus we would get ☐∃x(x=Ky) but this has a free variable in it so we would have to take it as asserting the ‘closed’ version, so we get ∀y☐∃x(x=Ky). We can then proceed to prove this in the same way as before using a reductio

1. ~∀y☐∃x(x=Ky) -assumption for reductio
2. ∃y~☐∃x(x=Ky) -1, quantifier exchange
3. ∃y◊~∃x(x=Ky) -2, definition of ☐
4. ∃y◊∀x~(x=Ky) -3, quantifier exchange
5. ∃y◊~(Ky=Ky) -Universal instantiation on 4
6. ∀y☐(Ky=Ky) -instance of axiom of identity
7. ~∃y~☐(Ky=Ky) -6, quantifier exchange
8. ~∃y◊~(Ky=Ky) -7, definition of ☐
9. ∃y◊~(Ky=Ky) & ~∃y◊~(Ky=Ky) -4,8 -conjunction introduction
10. ∀y☐∃x(x=Ky) -1-9 reduction

I think the main issue with this reformulated proof is line 5 when I use ‘Ky’ as an instance of x in 4. It seems to me that this move should be allowed, though. This is because part of the whole point of the 1963 paper was that we could block these kinds of proofs and still keep our traditional quantification theory. So we should be able to use UI, but if we are not allowed the use of constants then we will have to use predicates, which is what I did. Also, the variable in 5 is not free and is bound by the existential quantifier. So all in all I think this reformulated proof works but I really haven’t had the time to think about it very carefully.

Well that is enough for now…time to head over to Brains to read some of the commentaries in the Symposium on Louise Richardson’s “Flavor, Taste and Smell”.

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!

The Brain and its States

Some time ago I was invited to contribute a paper to a forthcoming volume entitled Being in Time: Dynamical Models of Phenomenal Experience. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was invited because of my paper “What is a Brain State?” Looking back at that paper, which I was writing in 2004-2005, I was interested in questions about the Identity Theory and not so much about consciousness per se and I wished I had said something relating the thesis there to various notions of consciousness. So I was happy to take this opportunity to put together a general statement of my current views on this stuff as well as a chance to develop some of my recent views about higher-order theories. Overall I think it is a fairly decent statement of my considered opinion on the home of consciousness in the brain. Any comments or feedback is greatly appreciated!

Clip Show ‘011

It’s that time of year again! Here are the top posts of 2011 (see last year’s clip show and the best of all time)

–Runner Up– News Flash: Philosophy Sucks!

Philosophy is unavoidable; that is part of why it sucks!

10. Epiphenomenalism and Russellian Monism

Is Russellian Monism committed to epiphenomenalism about consciousness? Dave Chalmers argues that it is not.

9. Bennett on Non-Reductive Physicalism

Karen Bennett argues that the causal exclusion argument provides an argument for physicalism and that non-reductive physicalism is not ruled out by it. I argue that she is wrong and that the causal exclusion argument does cut against non-reductive physicalism.

8. The Zombie Argument Requires Phenomenal Transparency

Chalmers argues that the zombie argument goes through even without an appeal to the claim that the primary and secondary intension of ‘consciousness’ coincide. I argue that it doesn’t. Without an appeal to transparency we cannot secure the first premise of the zombie argument.

7. The Problem of Zombie Minds

Does conceiving of zombies require that we be able to know that zombies lack consciousness? It seems like we can’t know this so there may be a problem conceiving of zombies. I came to be convinced that this isn’t quite right, but still a good post (plus I think we can use the response here in a way that helps the physicalist who wants to say that the truth of physicalism is conceivable…more on that later, though)

6. Stazicker on Attention and Mental Paint

Can we have phenomenology that is indeterminate? James Stazicker thinks so.

5. Consciousness Studies in 1000 words (more) or less

I was asked to write a short piece highlighting some of the major figures and debates in the philosophical study of consciousness for an intro textbook. This is what I came up with

4. Cohen and Dennett’s Perfect Experiment

Dennett’s response to the overflow argument and why I think it isn’t very good

3. My Musical Autobiography

This was big year for me in that I came into possession of some long-lost recordings of my death metal band from the 1990’s as well as some pictures. This prompted me to write up a brief autobiography of my musical ‘career’

2. You might be a Philosopher

A collection of philosophical jokes that I wrote plus some others that were prompted by mine.

1. Phenomenally HOT

Some reflections on Ned Block and Jake Berger’s response to my claim that higher-order thoughts just are phenomenal consciousness