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!

Cognitive Prosthetics and Mind Uploading

I am on record (in this old episode of Spacetime Mind where we talk to Eric Schwitzgebel) as being somewhat of a skeptic about mind uploading and artificial consciousness generally (especially for a priori reasons) but I also think this is largely an empirical matter (see this old draft of a paper that I never developed). So even though I am willing to be convinced I still have some non-minimal credence in the biological nature of consciousness and the mind generally, though in all honesty it is not as non-minimal as it used to be.

Those who are optimistic about mind uploading have often appealed to partial uploading as a practical convincing case. This point is made especially clearly by David Chalmers in his paper The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis (a selection of which is reprinted as ‘Mind uploading: A Philosophical Analysis),

At the very least, it seems very likely that partial uploading will convince most people that uploading preserves consciousness. Once people are confronted with friends and family who have undergone limited partial uploading and are behaving normally, few people will seriously think that they lack consciousness. And gradual extensions to full uploading will convince most people that these systems are conscious at well. Of course it remains at least a logical possibility that this process will gradually or suddenly turn everyone into zombies. But once we are confronted with partial uploads, that hypothesis will seem akin to the hypothesis that people of different ethnicities or genders are zombies.

What is partial uploading? Uploading in general is never very well defined (that I know of) but it is often taken to involve in some way producing a functional isomorph to the human brain. Thus partial uploading would be the partial production of a functional isomorph to the human brain. In particular we would have to reproduce the function of the relevant neuron(s).

At this point we are not really able to do any kind of uploading as Chalmers’ or others describe but there are people who seem to be doing things that look like a bit like partial uploading. First one might think of cochlear implants. What we can do now is impressive but it doesn’t look like uploading in any significant way. We have computers analyze incoming sound waves and then stimulate the auditory nerves in (what we hope) are appropriate ways. Even leaving aside the fact that subjects seem to report a phenomenological difference, and leaving aside how useful this is for a certain kind of auditory deficit, it is not clear that the role of the computational device has anything to do with constituting the conscious experience, or of being part of the subject’s mind. It looks to me like these are akin to fancy glasses. They causally interact with the systems that produce consciousness but do not show that the mind can be replaced by a silicon computer.

The case of the artificial hippocampus gives us another nice test case. While still in its early development it certainly seems like it is a real possibility that the next generation of people with memory problems may have neural prosthetics as an option (there is even a startup trying to make it happen and here is a nice video of Theodore Berger presenting the main experimental work).

What we can do now is fundamentally limited by our lack of understanding about what all of the neural activity ‘means’ but even so there is impressive and suggestive evidence that homelike like a prosthetic hippocampus is possible. They record from an intact hippocampus (in rats) while performing some memory task and then have a computer analyze and predict what the output of the hippocampus would have been. When compared to actual output of hippocampal cells it is pretty good and the hope is that they can then use this to stimulate post-hippocampal neurons as they would have been if the hippocampus was intact. This has been done as proof of principle in rats (not in real time) and now in monkeys, and in real time and in the prefrontal cortex as well!

The monkey work was really interesting. They had the animal perform a task which involved viewing a picture and then waiting through a delay period. After the delay period the animal is shown many pictures and has to pick out the one it saw before (this is one version of a delayed match to sample task). While they were doing this they recorded activity of cells in the prefrontal cortex (specifically layers 2/3 and 5). When they introduced a drug into the region which was known to impair performance on this kind of task the animal’s performance was very poor (as expected) but if they stimulated the animal’s brain in the way that their computer program predicted that the deactivated region would respond (specifically they stimulated the layer 5 neurons (via the same electrode they previously used to record) in the way that the model predicted they would have been by layer 2/3) the animal’s performance returned to almost normal! Theodore Berger describes this as something like ‘putting the memory into memory for the animal’. He then shows that if you do this with an animal that has an intact brain they do better than they did before. This can be used to enhance the performance of a neuroscience-typical brain!

They say they are doing human trials but I haven’t heard anything about that. Even so this is impressive in that they use it successfully in rats for long term memory in the hippocampus and then they also use it in monkeys in the prefrontal cortex in working memory. In both cases they seem to get the same result. It starts to look like it is hard to deny that the computer is ‘forming’ the memory and transmitting it for storage. So something cognitive has been uploaded. Those sympathetic to the biological view will have to say that this is more like the cochlear implant case where we have a system causally interacting with the brain but it is the biological brain that stores the memory and recalls it and is responsible for any phenomenology or conscious experiences. It seems to me that they have to predict that in humans there will be a difference in the phenomenology that stands out to the subject (due to the silicon not being a functional isomorph) but if we get the same pattern of results for working memory in humans are we heading towards Chalmers’ acceptance scenario?

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

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! 🙂

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

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