Papers I almost Wrote

In celebration of my ten years of blogging I have been collecting some of my posts into thematic meta-posts. The previous two listed my writing on the higher-order thought theory of consciousness and my writing about various conferences and classes I have attended. Continuing in that theme below are links to posts I have written about various things that are not in either of the two previous categories. Some of these I had thought I might develop into papers or something but so far that hasn’t happened!

  1. Freedom and Evil
    • This was written for a debate at Brooklyn College entitled ‘If there is a God, Why does Evil Exist?” sponsored by the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship
  2. There is No Santa
    • Is it wrong to lie to children about the existence of Santa? I think so!
  3. What’s So Unobservable about Causation?
    • This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote while a graduate student at the University of Connecticut
  4. Freedom of Speech Meets Speech Act Theory
    • Freedom of speech means freedom of assertion but not the freedom to perform any speech act one wants
  5. Reason and The Nature of Obligation
    • A discussion of Locke and Hobbes on reason and obligation. I think this was first written for a class I had on social and political philosophy. I argue that both are committed to the view that reason is the source of moral obligation but fear (or some external motivator) is required to get people to conform to reason.
  6. Logic, Language, and Existence
    • I discover the problem of necessary existence, and, as usual, also discover that I have reinvented (a crappier version of) the wheel
  7. Timothy Williamson on Necessary Existents
  8. Stop your Quining!!!
    • Are there any counter-examples to some common analytic truths? I don’t think so
  9. What God Doesn’t Know
    • Can we invent Liar Paradox-type sentences involving God’s knowledge? Spoiler alert: yes!
  10. A Counter-Example to the Cogito?
    • Are you nothing more than an alternate personality of the all-power Evil Genius?
  11. Conceptual Atomism, Functionalism, and the Representational Theory of Mind
    • Can we construct quaility-inversion-type scenarios for the mental attitudes? I give it my best shot.
  12. Did Quine Change His Mind?
    • No he did not. The axioms of logic are revisable but we haven’t got any good reason to revise them (yet)
  13. God v. the Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser
    • one of my most popular posts.
  14. The Evolutionary Argument against Rationalism
    • Evolution may have built certain facts about our local reality into the brain, thus generating a priori justification (of a sort)
  15. The A Priori Argument against Rationalism
    • Is it conceivable that there are no necessary truths?
  16. The Empirical Justification of Mathematics
    • Could there be empirical disconfirmation of basic arithmetic?
  17. Invoking God Doesn’t Save Descartes from Skepticism
    • Doesn’t the case of Job from the bible undermine Descartes’ claim that God is not a deceiver?
  18. The (New) Agnostic’s Manifesto: Part 1 –Preamble
  19. Secular Ethics vs. Religious Ethics
  20. Breaking Promises
    • When is a promise broken versus excused?
  21. Second Thoughts about Pain Asymbolia
  22. Transworld Saints
  23. The Logical Problem of Omniscience
  24. Empiricism and A Priori Justification
  25. Reduction v. Elimination
  26. Why I am not a Type-Z Materialist
  27. Pain Asymbolia and a Priori Defeasibility
  28. Summa Contra Plantinga
  29. The Unintelligibility of Substance Dualism
  30. What is Philosophy that it Sucks so Bad?
  31. Identifying the Identity Theory
  32. Can we think about Non-Existant Objects?
  33. The Zombie Argument Depends on Phenomenal Transparency
  34. Bennett on Non-Reductive Physicalism
  35. News Flash: Philosophy Sucks!
  36. Kant’s response to Hume’s Challenge in Ethics
  37. The Identity Theory in 2-D
  38. Outline of the Case for Agnosticism
  39. Consciousness Studies in 100 words (more) or less
  40. The Argument from Photosynthesis
    • Could humans be photosynthetic? The answer seems to be yes and this i bad news for the problem of evil
  41. The Design Argument for the Simulation Hypothesis
  42. Consciousness as an M-Property (?)
  43. If Consciousness is an M-Property then it is Physical
  44. Do We Live in a Westworld World??
  45. Eliminativism and the Neuroscience of Consciousness

Do We Live in a Westworld World??

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Shombie

I had planned on posting here more once back from Taiwan but that has’t exactly worked out! If one wants to see the videos from the conference in Taiwan they are here and I will eventually write up a paper from my talk (and the one I gave at the Grad Center). Even so lots has been going on. I am also happy to announce that I am now officially Tenured and promoted to Full Professor! Tenured Full Professor…It hasn’t quite sunk in yet but it is still pretty cool.

In other news I am getting ready to head up to UConn to give a talk. I left UConn way back in 2003 to come to NYC and I went back in 2007 to participate in the Yale/UCONN graduate conference but I haven’t been back since then so I am looking forward to it! I figure since it is so close to Halloween I will talk about ways to kill zombies. In particular I have been thinking a lot about the 2D argument against dualism and plan to present an updated version of that. I have a draft up at PhilPaper which I wrote after my presentation at the Towards a Science of Consciousness conference back in 2012 and the helpful comments from Dave on the linked to post but I think I have a better way to present it now.

The main points are the same: The shombie argument is aimed at establishing the falsity of dualism, not the truth of physicalism. Physicalism can be formulated as the familiar [](P ⊃ Q) and dualism can be formulated as the claim that it is necessary that if all there is in a world is the physics of our world then there is no consciousness at that world. We can symbolize that as [](PT ⊃ ~Q). Here PT is the conjunction of the familiar P (a complete description of the fundamental microphysics of our world, laws and particles, etc) together with a ‘that’s all’ clause. To show that this is false we need to show that it is possible that we could have PT and at the same time Q. In symbols ◊(PT & Q). So the shombie argument is as follows. PT & Q is conceivable and so possible. From that it follows that [](PT ⊃ ~Q) is false. From here the main action is how to understand the that’s all clause. Dave suggested a modal and non-modal (see the paper or his comments) way to interpret it and I think either of those would work. There are tricky issues about parity here and whatever turns out to be the case for shombies should be the case for the zombie argument as well. So if we need to invoke modal notions, or notions of fundamentality to describe the shombie world then I am happy with that as long as we also need to do it to describe zombie worlds.

However that turns out I think we can describe the shombie world without any modal terms in any of the premises. I understand the shombie world to roughly be the following kind of world. For everything that exists in that world there is a physical property which is that thing. We can symbolize this as: (x)[∃y(y=x) ⊃ ∃z(Pz & (z=x))]. This says that for anything that exists there is some physical property which is that thing. Here one might object that the identity statement in the consequent already has modal notions smuggled in but I think we can get rid of this as well. The basic idea is that we have a non-modal way of understanding what it means to say that x is identical to y, it just means that if x has some property F then so does y. In symbols this is (x=y) ⊃ (Fx ⊃ Fy). We can substitute this into the above to get (x)[∃y(y=x) ⊃ ∃z(Pz & (Fz ⊃ Fx))] which is now a non-modal ‘that’s all’ clause. It says that for any object which exists there is some physical property (which may be very complex) such that if that property is a certain way then so is the physical object. It may be the case that I need something like ‘for all F, if z is F then x is F’ or maybe even ‘for all F, z is F if and only if Fx’ but either way there are no modal claims here. We simply imagine one world where consciousness is physical and that is enough to show that dualism is false. We do not need to imagine anything complicated like that it is possible that it is necessary that P entails Q.

In the course of re-working all of this it struck me that I spend a lot of time trying to show that the zombie argument (and related scenarios like inversions etc) are not relevant to the question of physicalism. Thus I think that in the shombie case if one is partial to modal rationalism (as I sometimes am) then only one of the pair (zombies, shombies) can be ideally conceivable and different people find them differently conceivable. Thus for us these intuitions are not helpful one way or the other. This was also the point I was trying to make in my short paper Zombies and Simulation which was in the JCS issue on Dave’s singularity paper. But another route to this kind of conclusion just struck me.

Suppose that the identity theory is true, so that consciousness in our world is (necessarily) physical, let us symbolize that as b=q, where b is some brain state and q is some episode of consciousness. If the identity theory is true are zombies conceivable (and you accept modal rationalism)? The answer seems to be ‘no’. For, suppose that b=q as we have said. Then someone who said that you could have a physical duplicate of me, which includes b, and yet lack consciousness, q, would be asserting both that b was and was not instantiated at the possible world in question. It is instantiated because I am described as being in brain state b and yet it is described as not being there because we are told that there is no q, even though we are assuming that b=q. This is like being told that there is H2O (and our laws of physics) and yet no water. If water is H2O then this is not conceivable.

So far so good, but what is often unnoticed is that we can conceive of a creature that is physically just like me except that it is not in brain state b (and so not having conscious experience q). It seems like there is nothing contradictory about the scenario where this creature behaves just like I do when I have the relevant brain state (and thus the relevant conscious experience). This will be a world where there are causal gaps, where, that is, the behavior of our world is duplicated but without the usual causes. So this creature may put its hand in the fire and in me this would cause brain state b (and thus conscious experience q) and this in turn would case me to yell etc. But the creature we are imagining puts its hand in the fire and does not go into the relevant brain state, but does go into the relevant states that cause behavior (and has the relevant beliefs, etc). This creature still has a brain and is very similar to me excepting for the fact that it has no conscious experience (due to lacking those specific brain states) and all of these strange causal gaps (to make its behavior indistinguishable from mine). This creature counts as a zombie, though not the kind that is relevant to physicalism. Thus one kind of zombie threatens the identity theory while the other does not. So which one is really conceivable? I find that I can only really make sense of the non-threatening kind (surprise! surprise!)But what kind of evidence could push us one way or the other? Once again I find conceivability (for now) to be of now use in answering questions about consciousness.

Ok enough for now! I am hoping to make it out to what should be a very interesting discussion of a paper by Jonathan Simon on how to conceive of pain inversions (I hope someday to write up some of the stuff that comes out of the nyu consciousness discussion group but we’ll have to see if Ryland lets me! 🙂

Self-Selecting for Rationality

I just read this interview with Plantinga conducted by Gary Gutting for the Stone and I had a couple of thoughts I wanted to jot down.

First, while it was nice to see Plantinga pushing the argument for agnosticism against the atheist, it is disappointing that he doesn’t seem to see that the very same reasoning should push the theist towards agnosticism as well.

Second, it was interesting to see Plantinga’s informal take on his argument that evolution plus physicalism is self-undermining. I caught myself wondering if we can accept Plantinga’s conclusion in a way that would not be so disturbing to the atheist physicalist. His claim, roughly, is that there is no evolutionary reason to expect that we would end up with rational creatures like ours with beliefs that are produced by reliable mechanisms and which are mostly true. False beliefs get you around the world just fine. Suppose that we agree that *natural selection* wouldn’t do the trick. Is that all there is?

Plantinga assumes the only alternative is *artificial selection* done by a Deity (why not via a simulated world?). But that doesn’t seem to me to be the only option. Another possibility is that we have been exerting selective pressures on ourselves, most likely via culture and civilization. In fact it turns out there may be some evidence for this claim.

I for one find it very plausible that evolution would produce a creature like Plantinga describes and that this creature might in turn then selectively cultivate certain traits resulting in the semi-rational creature that we know and love today. In fact I would go so far as to say that we are still in the process of self-selecting. Viewed this way the abstract idea or concept of God can be seen as a sort of ideal limit or goal towards which the self-section might aim. Of course one need not invoke God for this; an ‘ideal reasoner’ in general will suffice.

I am not saying this is the only way to answer Plantinga, and I am not entirely convinced that natural selection couldn’t do the trick, but even so I think this is an interesting idea. I wonder if anyone has explored this issue before?

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

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.

Applied Mathematics and Scrutability

Also via Leiter’s blog I was perusing the Philosopher’s Annual list of the ten best papers of 2008. The paper on Mill is very interesting and I have heard a lot about belief and alief lately but what really caught my attention is Penelope Maddy’s How Applied Mathematics Became Pure.

The whole paper is really very interesting and I would highly recommend that you read the whole thing but I want to quickly discuss one of the morals that she draws from the story she tells. She says,

This story has morals, it seems to me, about how mathematics functions both in application and in its pure pursuit. One clear moral for our understanding of mathematics in application is that we are not in fact uncovering the underlying mathematical structures realized in the world; rather, we are constructing abstract mathematical models and trying our best to make true assertions about the ways in which they do and do not correspond to the physical facts. There are rare cases where this correspondence is something like isomorphism – we have touched on elementary arithmetic and the simple combinatorics of beginning statistical mechanics, and there are probably others, like the use of finite group theory to describe simple symmetries – but most of the time, the correspondence is something more complex, and all too often, it is something we simply do not yet understand: we do not know the small-scale structure of space-time or the physical structures that underlie quantum mechanics. And even this leaves out the additional approximations and accommodations required to move from the initial mathematical model to actual predictions.

I wonder if this is right if it causes problems for the kinds of scrutability claims that David Chalmers wants to defend, and which for the most part I am highly sympathetic to (of course where we differ is over whether we need to include phenomenal truths in the base truths or not…I think probably not since they can be derived just as easily as other ordinary macroscopic truths).

The problem, it seems to me, is that if this is right (i.e. if at the limit we do not end up with a unified mathematical model of the world but rather patchwork models that apply only in various respects) then which mathematical model we apply or assumption we make will crucially depend on empirical knowledge (for instance knowing that the equations for a harmonic oscillator  are a good model of a molecule’s vibration only in the region of the minimum (see page 35)). Am I missing an easy response?

I’ll have to think about it later because now I’m off to Jared Blank’s cogsci talk

The Philosophical Method

It seems to me that philosophy is distinguished from other endeavors by the method that it adopts. This is not unusual, as science is usually identified by the scientific method. But what is the philosophical method? This question is obviously controversial but I think a good case can be made that the philosophical method involves a commitment to reason and argument as a source of knowledge.

In its earliest form it was often argued that reason could discern facts about reality that were in opposition to the way that the senses revealed reality to be. This was taken as evidence that only reason was a source of knowledge (this is rationalism). So Parmenides argued that though reality appeared as a plurality that was in constant change in actuality it was a static unity that never changed. The reason that we are supposed to adopt this radical position is that positing the reality of many changing objects leads to a contradiction (that of something coming from nothing or opposites existing in the same place at the same time).

This may make it seem as though empiricists who see philosophy as continuous with the sciences (or as I prefer, see science as natural philosophy) are not really doing philosophy anymore. They are doing science, or at least advocating that they should be doing science. But this is wrong. The empiricist is using the philosophical method because their belief in empiricism is based on reasoned argument. Hume’s arguments are just as good as any rationalists; perhaps better!

The philosophical method then involves a commitment to the following:

A good argument with the conclusion that p is a reason to believe p

What counts as a good argument (or even an argument at all) will be debated but everyone agrees that if there is a good argument with the conclusion that p then there is a reason to believe that p. This also lets us see how it is that science is a type of philosophy. The scientific method presupposes the philosophical method with the restriction that good arguments come from empirical testing of theory. So though Einstein used thought experiments to come up with relativity no one believed it until there was empirical confirmation.

Even this doesn’t preclude the rationalist from agreeing that the scientific method presupposes the philosophical method. They may hold that we have to do science because we are not omnicient. But a purely rational being that new every physical fact (i.e. the position of every fundamental unit of physics and the laws that govern them) could deduce what was possible and actual a priori.

So the identification of the philosophical method with a commitment to reason and argument as a source of knowledge (or at least justification for people to believe) seems reasonably viable.