A Higher-Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness

I am very happy to be able to say that the paper I have been writing with Joseph E. LeDoux is out in PNAS (Proceeding of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States). In this paper we develop a higher-order theory of conscious emotional experience.

I have been interested in the emotions for quite some time now. I wrote my dissertation trying to show that it was possible to take seriously the role that the emotions play in our moral psychology which is seemingly revealed by contemporary cognitive neuroscience, and which I take to suggest that one of the basic premises of emotivism is true. But at the same time I wanted to preserve the space for one to also take seriously some kind of moral realism. In the dissertation I was more concerned with the philosophy of language than with the nature of the emotions but I have always been attracted to a rather simplistic view on which the differing conscious emotions differ with respect to the way in which they feel subjectively (I explore this as a general approach to the propositional attitudes in The Mark of the Mental). The idea that emotions are feelings is an old one in philosophy but has fallen out of favor in recent years. I also felt that in fleshing out such an account the higher-order approach to consciousness would come in handy. This idea was really made clear when I reviewed the book Feelings and Emotions: The Amsterdam Symposium. I felt that it would be a good idea to approach the science of emotions with the higher-order theory of consciousness in mind.

That was back in 2008 and since then I have not really followed up on any of the ideas in my dissertation. I have always wanted to but have always found something else at the moment to work on and that is why it is especially nice to have been working with Joseph LeDoux explicitly combining the two. I am very happy with the result and look forward to any discussion.

Existentialism is a Transhumanism

In the academic year 2015-2016 I was the co-director, with my colleague Naomi Stubbs, of a faculty seminar on Technology, Self, and Society. This was part of a larger three year project funded by a grant from the NEH and supported by LaGuardia’s Center for Teaching and Learning.  During my year as co-director the theme was Techno-Humanism and Transhumanism. You can see the full schedule for the seminar at the earlier link but we read four books over the year (in addition to many articles). In the Fall 2015 semester we read  The Technohuman Condition by Braden Allenby, and Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. In the Spring semester we read The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku, and Neuroethics, an anthology edited by Martha Farah. In addition to the readings Allenby and Kaku both gave talks at LaGuardia and since we had room for one more talk we invited David Chalmers who gave his paper on The Real and the Virtual (see short video for Aeon here).

All in all this was a fantastic seminar and I really enjoyed being a part of it. I was especially surprised to find out that some of the other faculty had used my Terminator and Philosophy book in their Science, Humanism and Technology course (I thought I was the only one who had used that book!).  The faculty came from many different disciplines ranging from English to Neuroscience and I learned quite a bit throughout the process. Two things became especially clear to me over the course of the year. The first is that many of my view can be described as Transhumanist in nature. The second is that a lot of my views can be described as Existentialist in nature.

The former was unsurprising but the latter was a bit surprising. I briefly studied Sartre and Existentialism as an undergraduate at San Francisco State University from 1997-1998 and I was really interested in Sartre’s work after that (i.e. I searched every book store in SF for anything Sartre related, bought, read it, and argued endlessly with anyone around about whether there was ‘momentum’ in consciousness). However once I got to Graduate School (in 2000)  I began to focus even more on psychology, neuroscience, and the philosophy of mind and I gradually lost contact with Sartre. I have never really kept up with the literature in this area (but I have recently read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on Sartre and Existentialism), haven’t read Sartre in quite a while (but I did get out my copy of Being and Nothingness and Existentialism is a Humanism a couple of times during the seminar), and don’t work on any explicitly Sartrean themes in my published work (though there are connections between higher-order theories of consciousness and Sartre) but during this last year I found myself again and again appealing to distinctly Sartrean views, or at least Sartrean as I remembered it from being an undergraduate! By the end of it all I came to the view that Existential Transhumanism is an interesting philosophical view and probably is a pretty good descriptor for what I think about these issues. So, all that having been said, please take what follows with a grain of salt.

The core idea of existentialism as I understand it is a claim about the nature of persons and it is summed up in Sartre’s dictum that ‘existence precedes essence’. Whatever a person is you aren’t born one. You become one by acting, or as Sartre might put it, we create ourselves through our choices. Many interpret that claim as somehow being at odds with physicalism (Sartre was certainly a dualist) while I do not. But what does this mean? It helps to invoke the distinction between Facticity and Transcendence. Facticity relates to all of the things that are knowable about me from a third person point of view. It is what an intense biographer could put together. But I am not merely the sum total of those facts. I am essentially a project. An aiming toward the future. This aiming towards something is the way in which Sartre interpreted the notion of intentionality. All consciousness, for him, was necessarily directed at something that was not itself part of consciousness. This is why Sartre says ‘I am not what I am and I am what I am not”. I am not what I am in the sense of not being merely my facticity. I am what I am not in the sense that I am continually creating myself and turning myself into something that I was not previously.

Turning now for the moment to Transhumanism, I interpret this in roughly the same way as the World Transhumanist Association does. That is, as an extension of Humanism. Reason represents the best chance that Human Beings have of accomplishing our most cherished beliefs. These beliefs are enshrined in many of the world’s great religions and espouse principle of universality (all are equal in some sense), and compassion. Transhumanists see technology, at least in part, as a way of enhancing human reason and so as a way of overcoming our natural limitations.

One objection to this kind of project is that we could modify ourselves to the point of no longer being human, or to the point of our original selves not existing any further. Here I think the existentialist idea that there are no essential properties required to be human can help. We are defined by the fact that we are ‘a being whose being is in question’. That is we are essentially the kind of thing which creates itself, which aims towards something that is not yet what it is. Once one takes this kind of view one sees there is no danger in modifying ourselves. This seems to me to be very much in line with the general idea that the kinds of modifications the transhumanist envisions are not different in kind from the kind we have always done (shoes, eyeglasses, etc). Even if we are able to upload our minds to a virtual environment we may still be human by the existentialist definition.

In addition, another objection which was the central objection in the Allenby book, is that the Transhumanist somehow assumes a notion of the individual, as an independent rational entity, which doesn’t really exist. This may be the case but here I think that existentialism is very handy in helping us respond. The kind of individual envisioned by the Enlightenment thinkers may not exist but one way of seeing the transhumanist project is as seeking to construct such a being.

Enlightenment, in Kant’s immortal words, is

….man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment

To this the transhumanist adds that Kant may have been wrong in thinking that we have enough reason and simply need the courage to use it. We may need to make ourselves into the kinds of rational beings which could fulfill the ideals of the Enlightenment.

There is a lot more that I would like to say about these issues but at this point I will briefly mention two there themes that don’t have much to do with existentialism. One is from Bostrom (see a recent talk of his at NYU’s Ethics of A.I. conference). One of Bostrom’s main claims is what he calls the orthogonality thesis. This is the claim that intelligence and values are orthogonal to each other. You can pair any level of intelligence with any goal at all.  This may be true for intelligence but I certainly don’t believe it is true for rationality.

Switching gears a bit I wanted to mention David Chalmers’ talk. I found his basic premise to be very convincing. The basic idea seemed to be that virtual objects count as real in much the same way as concrete objects do. When one is in a virtual environment (I haven’t been in one yet but I am hoping to try a Vive or a Playstation VR set soon!) and one interacts with a virtual dragon, there really is a virtual object that is there and that one is interacting with. The fundamental nature of this object is computational and there are some data structures that interact in various ways so as to make it roughly the same as ordinary objects and their atomic structure. Afterwards I asked if he thought the same was true for dreams. It seemed to me that many of the same arguments could be given for the conclusion that in one’s dreams one interacted with dream objects which were real in the same way as virtual objects. He said that perhaps but it depended on whether one was a functionalist about the mind. It seems to me that someone like Chalmers, who thinks that there is a computational/functional neural correlate for conscious states, is committed to this kind of view about dreams (even though he is a dualist). Dream objects should count as real on Chalmers’ view.

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

Some Drafts

Here are some recent paper drafts I have been working on, in various stages of being rewritten for various projects. Comments are most welcome!

  • Zombies and Simulation
    • a brief paper arguing that one way to conceive of philosophical zombies is conceiving of a ‘perfect’ simulation of a creature for whom a consciousness-as-biological view is true. Thus physicalists who think of consciousness as biological can admit that zombies are conceivable (even possible) with no consequence to physicalism.
  • The Identity Theory in 2D
    • a short paper sketching an updated version of the type-type identity theory in a two dimensional framework. The resulting view is similar to Lewisian functionalism but combined with a posteriori identities and gives a unified response to all a priori arguments (part of a larger project of taking back a priori reasoning for the physicalist. It seems to me to be a historical accident that a priori arguments are primarily used to argue against physicalism)
  • The Emperor’s New Phenomenology? The Empirical Case for Conscious Experience without First-Order Representations
    • a longer paper written with Hakwan Lau arguing that some kind of higher-order approach to consciousness can make better sense of some key empirical evidence.