The Curious Case of my Interview/Discussion with Ruth Millikan

I started my YouTube interview/discussion series Consciousness Live! last summer and scheduled Ruth Millikan as the second guest. We tried to livestream our conversation July 4th 2018 and we spent hours trying to get the Google Hangouts Live to work. When it didn’t I tried to record a video call and failed horribly (though I did record a summary of some of the main points as I remembered them).

Ruth agreed to do the interview again and so we tried to livestream it Friday June 6th 2019, almost a year after our first attempt (and since which I did many of these with almost no problems). We couldn’t get Google Hangouts to work (again!) but I had heard you could now record Skype calls so we tried that. We got about 35 minutes in and the internet went out (I put the clips up here).

Amazingly Ruth agreed to try again and so we met the morning of Monday June 10th. I had a fancy setup ready to go. I had our Skype call running through Open Broadcast Studios and was using that to stream live to my YouTube Channel. It worked for about half an hour and then something went screwy. After that I decided to just record the Skype call the way we had ended up doing the previous Friday. The call dropped 3 times but we kept going. Below is an edited version of the various calls we made on Monday June 10th.

Anyone who knows Ruth personally will not be surprised. She is well known for being generous with her time and her love of philosophical discussion. My thanks to Ruth for such an enjoyable series of conversations and I hope viewing it is almost as much fun!

Papa don’t Teach (again!)


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.

Ian Phillips on Simple Seeing

A couple of weeks ago I attended Ian Phillips’ CogSci talk at CUNY. Things have been hectic but I wanted to get down a couple of notes before I forget.

He began by reviewing change blindness and inattentional blindness. In both of these phenomena subjects sometimes fail to recognize (or report) changes that occur right in front of their faces. These cases can be interpreted in two distinct ways. On one interpretation one is conscious only of what what is able to report on, or attend to. So if there is a doorway in the background that is flicking in and out of existence as one searches the two pictures looking for a difference and when one is asked one says that they see no difference between the two pictures one does not consciously experience the door way or its absence. This is often dubbed the ‘sparse’ view and it is interpreted as the claim that conscious perception contains a lot less detail in it than we naively assume.

Fred Dretske was a well known defender of a view on which distinguishes two components of seeing. There is what he called ‘epistemic seeing’ which, when a subject sees that p, “ascribes visually based knowledge (and so a belief) to [the subject]”. This was opposed to ‘simple seeing’ which “requires no knowledge or belief about the object seen” (all quoted material is from Phillips’ handout). This ‘simple seeing’ is phenomenally conscious but the subject fails to know that they have that conscious experience.

This debate is well known and been around for a while. In the form I am familiar with it it is a debate between first-order and higher-order theories of consciousness. If one is able to have a phenomenally conscious experience in the absence of any kind of belief about that state then the higher-order thought theory on which consciousness requires a kind of higher-order cognitive state about the first-order state for conscious perception to occur, is false. The response developed by Rosenthal, and that I find pretty plausible, is that in change blindness cases the subject may be consciously experiencing the changing element but not conceptualize it as the thing which is changing. This, to me, is just a higher-order version of the kinds of claims that Dretske is making, which is to say that this is not a ‘sparse’ view. Conscious perception can be as rich and detailed as one likes and this does not require ‘simple seeing’. Of course, the higher-order view is also compatible with the claim that conscious experience is sparse but that is another story.

At any rate, Phillips was not concerned with this debate. He was more concerned with the arguments that Dretske gave for simple seeing. He went through three of Dretske’s arguments and argued that each one had an easy rejoinder from the sparse camp (or the higher-order camp). The first he called ‘conditions’ and involved the claim that when someone looks at a (say) picture for 3-5 minutes scanning every detail to see if there is any difference between the two, we would ordinarily say that they have seen everything in the two pictures. I mean, they were looking right at it and their eyes are not defective! The problem with this line of argument is that it does not rule out the claim that they unconsciously saw the objects in question. The next argument, from blocking, meets the same objection. Dretske claims that if you are looking for your friend and no-one  is standing in front of them blocking them from your sight, then we can say that you did see your friend even if you deny it. The third argument involved that when searching the crowd for your friend you did saw no-one was naked. But this meets a similar objection to the previous two arguments. One could easily not have (consciously) seen one’s friend and just inferred that since you didn’t see anyone naked your friend was naked as well.

Phillips then when on to offer a different way of interpreting simple seeing based on signal detection theory. The basic intuition for simple seeing, as Phillips sees it, lies in the idea that the visual system delivers information to us and then there is what we do with the information. The basic metaphor was a letter being delivered. The delivery of the letter (the placing of it into the mailbox) is one thing, you getting the letter and understanding the contents, is another. Simple seeing can then be thought of as the informative part and the cognitive noticing, attending, higher-order thought, etc, can be thought of as a second independent stage. Signal detection theory, on his view, offers a way to capture this distinction.

Signal detection theory starts with treating the subject as an information channel. They then go on to quantify this, usually by having the subject perform a yes/no task and then looking at how many times they got it right (hits) versus how many times the got it wrong (false alarms). False alarms, specifically, involve the subject saying the see something but being wrong about it, because there was no visual stimulus. This is distinguished from ‘misses’ where there was a target but the subject did not report it. The ‘sensitivity to the world’ is called d’, pronounced “d prime”. On top of this there is another value which is computed called ‘c’. c, for criterion, is thought of as measuring a bias in the subjects response and is typically computed from the average of hits versus false alarms. One can think of the criterion as giving you a sense of how ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ the subjects’ response is. If they will say they saw something all the time then the seeming have a very liberal criterion for determine whether they saw something (that is to say they are biased towards saying ‘yes I saw it’ and is presumably mistaking noise for a signal). If they never say the say it then they are very conservative (they are biased towards saying ‘no I didn’t see it). This gives us a sense of how much of the noise in the system the subject treats as actually carrying information.

The suggestion made by Phillips was that this distinction could be used to save Dretske’s view if one took d’ to track simple seeing and c to track they subjects knowledge. He then went on to talk about empirical cases. The first involved memory across saccades and came from Hollingworth and Henderson, Accurate Visual Memory for Previously Attended Objects in Natural Scenes, the second f rom Mitroff and Levin Nothing Compares 2 Views: Change Blindness can occur despite preserved access to the changed information, and the third Ward and Scholl Inattentional blindness reflects limitation on perception, not memory. Each of these can be taken to suggest that there is “evidence of significant underlying sensitivity in [change blindness] and [inattentional blindness],”.

He concluded by talking about blindsight as a possible objection. Dretske wanted to avoid treating blindsight as a case of simple seeing (that is of there being phenomenal consciousness that the subject was unaware (in any cognitive sense) of having). Dretske proposed that what was missing was the availability of the relevant information to act as a justifying reason for their actions. He then went on to suggest various responses to this line of argument. Perhaps blindsight subjects who do not act on the relevant information (say by not grabbing the glass of water in the area of their scotoma) are having the relevant visual experience but are simply unwilling to move (how would we distinguish this from their not having the relevant visual experience)? Perhaps blindsight patients can be thought of as adjusting their criterion and so as choosing the interval with the strongest response and if so this can be thought of as reason responsive. Finally, perhaps, even though they are guessing, they really can be thought of as knowing that the stimulus is there?

In discussion afterwards I asked whether he though this line of argument was susceptible o the same criticism he had leveled against Dretske’s original arguments. One could interpret d’ as tracking conscious visual processing that the subject doesn’t know about, or one could interpret it as tracking the amount of information represented by the subjects mental states independently of what the subject was consciously experiencing (at leas to some extent). So, one might think, the d’ is good so the subject represents information about the stimulus that is able to guide its behavior, but that may be going on while the subject is conscious of some of it but not all of it, or different aspects of it, etc. So there is no real reason to think of d’ as tracking simple (i.e. unconceptualized, unnoticed, uncategorized, etc) content that is conscious as opposed to non-conscious. He responded that he did not think that this constituted an argument. Rather he was trying to offer a model that captured what he took to be Dretske’s basic intuition, which was that there was the information represented by the visual system, which was conscious, and then there was the way that we were aware of that information. This view was sometimes cast as unscientific and he thought of the signal detection material as proving a framework that, if interpreted in the way he suggested, could capture, and thus make scientifically acceptable, something like what Dretske (and other first-order theorists) want.

There was a lot of good discussion, a lot of which I don’t remember, but I do remember Ned Block asking about Phillips’ response to cases like the famous Dretske example of a wall, painted a certain color, having a piece of wallpaper in one spot. The little square of wallpaper has been painted and so is the same color as the wall. If one is looking at the wall and doesn’t see that there is a piece of wallpaper there, does one see (in the simple seeing kind of way) the wallpaper? Phillips seemed to be saying we did (but didn’t know it) and Block asked whether it wasn’t the case that when we se something we represent it visually and Phillips responded by saying that on the kind of view he was suggesting that wasn’t the case. Block didn’t follow up and didn’t come out after so I didn’t get the chance to follow up on that interesting change.

Afterwards I pressed him on the issue I raised. I wondered what he thought about the kinds of cases, discussed by Hakwan Lau (and myself) where the d’ is matched but subjects give differing answers to questions like ‘how confident are you that you saw it?’ or ‘rate the visibility of the thing seen’. In those cases we have, due to matched d’, the same information content (worldly sensitivity) and yet one subject says they are guessing while the other says they are confident they saw it (or rates its visibility lower while the other rates it higher (so as more visible)). Taking this seriously seems to suggest that there is a difference in what it is like for these subjects (a difference in phenomenal consciousness) while there is no difference in what they represent about the world (so at the first-order level). The difference in what it is like for them seems to track the way in which they are aware of the first-order information (as tracked by their visibility/confidence ratings). If so then this suggests that d’ doesn’t track phenomenal consciousness. Phillips responded by suggesting that there may be a way to talk about simple seeing involving differences in what it is like for the subject but didn’t elaborate.

I still am not sure how he responds to the argument Hakwan and I have given. If there is differing conscious experience with the same first-order states each in each case then the difference in conscious experience can only be captured (or is best captured) by some kind of difference in our (higher-order) awareness of those first-order states.

In addition, now that I have thought about it a bit, I wonder how he would respond to Hakwan’s argument (more stemming from his own version of higher-order thought theory) that the setting of the criterion in Phillips’ appeal to it in blindsight cases, depends on a higher-order process and so amounts to a cognitive state having a constitutive role in determining how the first-order state is experienced. This suggests that an ‘austere’ notion of simple seeing where there is no cognitive states involved in phenomenal consciousness is harder to find than Phillips originally thought.

Gottlieb on Brown

I have been interested in the relationship between the transitivity principle and transparency for quite a while now. This issue has come up again in a recent paper  by Joseph Gottlieb fittingly called Transitivity and Transparency. This paper came out in Analytic Philosophy in 2016 but he actually sent me the paper beforehand. I read it and we had some email conversation about it (and this influenced my Introspective Consciousness paper (here is the session I had on it)) but I never got the chance to formulate any clear thoughts on it. So I figured I would give it a shot now.

There is a lot going on in the paper and so I will focus for the most part on his response to some of my early work on what will become HOROR theory. He argues that what he calls Non-State-Relational Transitivity, is not an ‘acceptable consistency gloss’ on the transitivity principle. So what is a consistency gloss? The article is technical (it did come out in Analytic Philosophy, after all!). For Gottlieb this amounts to giving a precisification of the transitivity principle that renders it compatible with what he calls Weak Transparency. He defines these terms as follows,

TRANSITIVITY: Conscious mental states are mental states we are aware of in some way.

W-TRANSPARENCY: For at least one conscious state M, it is impossible to:

(a) TRANSPARENCY-DIRECT: Stand in a direct awareness relation to M, or; (b) TRANSPARENCY-DE RE: Stand in a de re awareness relation to M, or; (c) TRANSPARENCY-INT: Stand in an introspective awareness relation to M,

His basic claim, then, is that there is no way of making precise the statement of transitivity above in such a way as to render it consistent with the weak version of transparency that he thinks should count as a truism or platitude.

Of course my basic claim, one that I have made since the beginning of thinking about these issues, is that there is a way of doing this but it requires a proper understanding of what the transitivity principle says. If we do not interpret the theory as claiming that a first-order state is made conscious by the higher-order state (as Gottlieb does in TRANSITIVITY above) but instead think of transitivity as telling us that a conscious experience is one that makes me aware of myself as being in first-order states then we have a way to satisfy Weak Transparency.

So what is Gottlieb’s problem with this way of interpreting the transitivity principle? He has a section of the paper discussing this kind of move. He says,

4.3 Non-State-Relational Transitivity

As it stands, TRANSITIVITY posits a relation between a higher-order state and a first-order state. But not all Higher-Order theorists construe TRANSITIVITY this way. Instead, some advance:

  • NON-STATE-RELATIONAL TRANSITIVITY: A conscious mental state is a mental state whose subject is aware of itself as being in that state.

NON-STATE-RELATIONAL TRANSITIVITY is an Object-Side Precisification. And it appears promising. For it says that we are aware of ourselves as being in conscious states, not simply that we are aware of our conscious states. These are different claims.

I agree that this is an importantly different way of thinking about the transitivity principle. However, I do not think that I actually endorse this version of the transitivity principle. As it is stated here NON-STATE-RELATIONAL TRANSITIVITY is still cast in terms of the first-order state.

What I mean by that is when we ask the question ‘which metal state is phenomenally conscious?’ the current proposal would answer ‘the mental state the subject is aware of itself as being in’. Now, I do think that this is most likely the way that Rosenthal and Weisberg think of non-state-relational transitivity but this is not the way that I think about it.

I have not put this in print yet (though it is in a paper in draft stage) but the way I would reformulate the transitivity principle would be as follows (or at least along these general lines),

  • A mental state is phenomenally conscious only if it appropriately makes one aware of oneself as being in some first-order mental state

This way of putting things emphasizes the claim that the higher-order state itself is the phenomenally conscious state.

Part of what I think is going on here is that there is an ambiguity in terms like ‘awareness’. When we say that we are aware of a first-order state, or whatever, what we should mean, from the higher-order perspective, is that the higher-order state aims at or targets or represents or whatever the first-order state. I have toyed with the idea that the ‘targeting’ relation boils down to a kind of causal-reference relation. But then we can also ask ‘how does it appear to the subject?’ and there it is not the case that we should say that it appears to the subject that they are aware of the first-order state. The subject will seemingly be aware of the items in the environment and this is because of the higher-order content of the higher-order representation.

Gottlieb thinks that non-state-relational transitivity,

 …will do nothing with respect to W-TRANSPARENCY…For presumably there will be (many!) cases where I am in the conscious state I am aware of myself as being in, and so cases where we will still need to ask in what sense I am aware of those states, and whether that sense comports with W-TRANSPARENCY. NON-STATE-RELATIONAL TRANSITIVITY doesn’t obviously speak to this latter question, though; the awareness we have of ourselves is de re, and presumably direct, but whether that’s also true of the awareness we have of our conscious states is another issue. So as it stands, NON-STATE-RELATIONAL TRANSITIVITY is not a consistency gloss.

I think it should be clear by now that this may apply to the kind of view he discusses, and that this view may even be one you could attribute to Rosenthal or Weisberg, but it is not the kind of view that I have advocated.

According to my view the higher-order state is itself the phenomenally conscious state, it is the one that there is something that it is like for one to be in. What, specifically, it is like, will depend on the content of the higher-order representation. That is to say, the way the state describes one’s own self determined what it is like for you. When the first order state is there, it, the first-order state, will be accurately described but that is besides the point. W-transparency is clearly met by the HOROR version of higher-order theory. And if what I said above can hold water then it is still a higher-order theory which endorses a version of the transitivity principle but it is able to simultaneously capture many of the intuitions touted as evidence for first-order theories.

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!

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

Two Ways to (Not) Think About Unicorns

Listening back to the discussion Pete and I had, as well as my previous post on this stuff, and something occurred to me. There really are two different ways of thinking about the concept “unicorn”. One way is the way that I have been thinking about it ad that is as a regular natural kind term like ‘horse’, ‘tiger’, etc. Concepts like this, according to me, are best treated along the lines of a causal-historical account like the Kripkean inspired theory that Devitt produced. But there is another way of thinking about unicorn, one that thinks of it as like ‘bachelor’ rather than ‘tiger’. Terms like that are best treated in terms of a conceptual-role theory. So, it is the relations between the concept ‘bachelor’, ‘unmarried’, and ‘male’ that makes my thought that all bachelors are unmarried males true. If one thought about ‘unicorn’ like this, one might think that it is the conceptual relations between ‘unicorn’, ‘horse’, and ‘horn’ have that make it the case that when I am thinking about unicorns I am thinking about horned horses. That is, one might think of the concept ‘unicorn’ as being defined as ‘horse with a horn’. Now, it seems to me that we employ both kinds of representations in thought so then the question becomes one of which kind features in the content of higher-order thoughts. I claim that it is the former and not the latter and that that matters.

Can We Think About Non-Existent Objects?

I am scheduled to record a conversation with Pete Mandik for Philosophy TV tomorrow on higher-order approaches to consciousness and in the course of preparing for it I was rereading Pete’s Unicorn paper where, among other things, Pete gives several arguments that we are in fact able to think about non-existent objects. I do not think that we can.

It may seem quite natural to think that the answer to the above question is ‘yes’. For instance, we think of Count Dracula, unicorns, Santa Claus, and many other examples of this kind. If we take ‘thinking about’ to involve having some kind of relationship with the thing that is thought about this can seem crazy. If I am thinking about Santa Claus, for instance, that would mean that there would have to be some object that I was related to and since Santa doesn’t exist the object would seem to be a very strange one indeed! What should we conclude from this? Should we conclude that ‘thinking about’ doesn’t really involve a relationship between the thinker and the thing thought about?

Suppose that one accepted some kind of causal-historical account of the reference of (at least some of) our concepts and that thinking about x means tokening a thought containing a mental representation of x with the approriate causal-historical connection to x. So, to rehearse a familiar picture, Some child is born, his parents say “let’s call him  ‘Saul Kripke'”, other people are told “this is Saul Kripke” and thereby acquire the ability to refer to this child. Over time this name propagates, like a chain, link by link to us. So that when I think about Saul Kripke I employ a thought token that traces a causal-historical route back to the initial “baptism”. If this were the case, and one thought that natural kind terms worked like this as well, one would end up denying that we think about non-existent objects. The concept UNICORN has as its reference whatever it is that actually turns out to have been “baptized”. This may turn out to be a deformed goat, a hallucination, or maybe an imaginative act on the part of a person, whatever it actually turns out to be is what we are thinking about when we think about unicorns and that thing exists. So too for Dracula, Santa Claus, Jackalopes, etc.

But what about when we think thoughts like ‘there are no square circles’? Aren’t we thinking about square circles? I don’t think we are. Rather I think we are having an existentially quantified thought to the effect that nothing is both square and circular at the same time. Aha! Aren’t existentially quantified statements that are actually false examples of thinking about non-existent objects? If I think that the present King of France is bald, and there is no present King of France, are not I thinking about a non-existent object? Of course not! What you are thinking is that there is someone or other who is the present King of France and that is just plain, ordinary, boring false. There is no non-existent object which is correctly described as the one you are thinking about.

But isn’t denying that we can think about non-existent objects self refuting? What have we been talking about this whole time if not whether or not there are any of this kind of thought! So denying that there are any just shows that we have been thinking about non-existent objects all along! The very thoughts about non-existent objects that we have been discussing. But this is too quick. This is again just another example of an existentially quantified statement. ‘There are no thoughts about non-existent objects’ is really just saying that thoughts about non-existent objects don’t exist but that does not thereby mean that I am thinking about some non-existent objects! And this is for just the same reason as above; there are no objects which can be correctly described as the ones that I am thinking about.

So I am inclined to deny that we can think about non-existent objects…I am not saying that everyone should but only that there is a reasonable view, one that we ought to accept for other reasons not gone into here, and which denies that we think about non-existent objects. What this has to do with consciousness and Pete’s unicorn argument I will save for tomorrow’s discussion.