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.

The Myth of Phenomenological Overflow

Update 7/27/11
The paper is now available on Consciousness and Cognition’s website: The Myth Of Phenomenological Overflow

I have just finished my contribution to the Special Issue of Consciousness and Cognition that I am editing featuring descendants of papers from the second online consciousness conference and made the pre-print available at my PhilPapers profile. Discussion and comments are welcome.

The Myth of Phenomenological Overflow

In this paper I examine the dispute between Hakwan Lau, Ned Block, and David Rosenthal over the extent to which empirical results can help us decide between first-order and higher-order theories of consciousness. What emerges from this is an overall argument to the best explanation against the first-order view of consciousness and the dispelling of the mythological notion of phenomenological overflow that comes with it.

HOT Block

In celebration of my three years in the Blogosphere I will be reposting some of my earlier posts that I am particularly fond of. This piece was originally published July 11th, 2007.

I was recently reading Block’s forthcomming BBS paper Consciousness, Accessibility, and the Mesh between Psychology and Neuroscience. It is an interesting paper and I am looking forward to seeing the commentary. The basic puzzle is one that I have heard him talk about before; How could we tell whether the transitivity principle is right or not? What would empirically decide whether there can be a phenomonally conscious state that we are unconscious of having? So, to take Block’s example, suppose that we have a person who is subliminally percieving a face and there is activation in that person’s fusiform face area. Since the subject sincerely reports that they do not see a face it seems we can agree that this is the sensory state in the absence of the higher-order state.

How do we describe this situation? Do we say that the face expeirience is phenomonally unconscious? That there is nothing that it is like to see the face? Does it, as Rosenthal would say, have unconscious qualitative properties? Or do we say that there is something that it is like for the perseon to see the face but that they are unconscious of what it is like for them? The puzzle is that both theories make the same prediction about what the person will report (they don’t see a face) and so we need to find someother way to distinguish the two claims empirically. I don’t really want to talk about Block’s argument that phenomenology overflows our access to it (unless someone does want to talk about it), as all I could do it to repeat the Rosenthal line that the evidence that Block presents (i.e. the change blindness stuff) isn’t good evidence because the subjects can report, as Block acknowledges, that they saw some letters or ‘a rectangle’. Rosenthal can explain this on his account in the following way. In one case we are conscious of the first-order experience as just some rows of some letters or as just a rectangle while in the other we are conscious of the experience as being a row of some specific letters or shapes. So the fact that subjects report that they have some phenomenally conscious experience as Block rightly points out, needen’t be evidence for his claim that there is phenomenology without Awareness.

I think that if one steps far enough back from this debate one can see that it is the distinction between analytic and psyco-functionalism that is causing a lot of the local flare-ups and that this has some bearing on the empirical testability issue and the debate with Mandik that I have been suffering through, but I will leave that for another day.

What I do want to talk about is Block’s dismissal of Rosenthal’s kind of higher-order theory. He makes it very clear that he thinks that the higher-order thought theory is not even a candidate for a serious theory of phenomenal consciousness. As I have said many times before, I do not know if the higher-order thought theory is true or not, but it is at least not obviously false. It is a well formulated theory that could turn out to be right. So what’s Block’s problem?

He makes his case at the beggining of the paper in this rather longish quote.

We may suppose that it is platitudinous that when one has a phenomenally conscious experience, one is in some way aware of having it. Let us call the fact stated by this claim – without committing ourselves on what exactly that fact is – the fact that phenomenal consciousness requires Awareness. Sometimes people say Awareness is a matter of having a state whose content is in some sense “presented” to the self or having a state that is “for me” or that comes with a sense of ownership or that has “meishness” (as I have called it; Block 1995a).

Very briefly, three classes of accounts of the relation between phenomenal consciousness and Awareness have been offered. Ernest Sosa (2002) argues that all there is to the idea that in having an experience one is necessarily aware of it is the triviality that in having an experience, one experiences one’s experience just as one smiles one’s smile or dances one’s dance. Sosa distinguishes this minimal sense in which one is automatically aware of one’s experiences from noticing one’s experiences, which is not required for phenomenally conscious experience. At the opposite extreme, David Rosenthal (2005) has pursued a cognitive account in which a phenomenally conscious state requires a higher order thought to the effect that one is in the state. That is, a token experience (one that can be located in time) is a phenomenally conscious experience only in virtue of another token state that is about the first state. (See also Armstrong 1977, 1978; Carruthers 2000; Lycan 1996) for other varieties of higher order accounts.) A third view, the “Same Order” view says that the consciousness-of relation can hold between a token experience and itself. A conscious experience is reflexive in that it consists in part in an awareness of itself. (This view is discussed in Brentano 1874/1924; Burge 2006; Byrne 2004; Caston 2002; Kriegel 2005; Kriegel & Williford 2006; Levine 2001, 2006; Metzinger 2003; Ross 1961; Smith 1986).

So he is telling us here that his target in the paper is people who think that there is no phenomenology without awareness. Now we could (and should) quibble with the way that Block cast’s Rosenthal’s theory. For instance when he says that it is the view that a token experience that is located in time is a conscious state in virtue of a higher-order thought that is about it. But that is not quite right, as I have spent a lot of time arguing (for instance, Consciousness, Relational Properties, and Higher-Order Theories, Conscioiusness is Not a Relation Property, and The Function of Consciousness in Higher-Order Theories). but waive that for the moment.

He goes on in the next paragraph to say,

The same order view fits both science and common sense better than the higher order view. As Tyler Burge (2006) notes, to say that one is necessarily aware of one’s phenomenally conscious states should not be taken to imply that every phenomenally conscious state is one that the subject notices or attends to or perceives or thinks about. Noticing, attending, perceiving, and thinking about are all cognitive relations that need not be involved when a phenomenal character is present to a subject. The mouse may be conscious of the cheese that the mouse sees, but that is not to say that the mouse is conscious of the visual sensations in the visual field that represent the cheese or that the mouse notices or attends to or thinks about any part of the visual field. The ratio of synapses in sensory areas to synapses in frontal areas peaks in early infancy, and likewise for relative glucose metabolism. (Gazzaniga et al. 2002, p. 642–43). Since frontal areas are likely to govern higher-order thought, low frontal activity in newborns may well indicate lack of higher-order thoughts about genuine sensory experiences.

The relevance of these points to the project of the paper is this: the fact of Awareness can be accommodated by either the same order view or the view in which Awareness is automatic, or so I will assume. So, there is no need to postulate that phenomenal consciousness requires cognitive accessibility of the phenomenally conscious state. Something worth calling “accessibility” may be intrinsic to any phenomenally conscious state, but it is not the cognitive accessibility that underlies reporting.

He is making it very clear that he thinks that he has given decisive reasons for dismissing the higher-order thought theory. Has he? Not suprisingly, I don’t think that he has. Instead he displays a curious prejudice against the higher-order thought theory.

Let us look at what he says. In the first sentence he says that the same-order view, a view like Kriegel’s, is better suited to common sense and science. What follows that remark then looks like what he takes to be common sense evidence against the higher-order thought view and in favor of the same-order view, followed by some scientific evidence that illustrates the same point. The common sense evidence, evidently, rests on our intuition that “[t]he mouse may be conscious of the cheese that the mouse sees, but that is not to say that the mouse is conscious of the visual sensations in the visual field that represent the cheese or that the mouse notices or attends to or thinks about any part of the visual field.” But that is certainly true and neither Rosenthal, nor any other higher-order theoriest, denies it! The mouse is conscious of the cheese by having a first-order sensory state that represents the cheese, so it can be conscious of the cheese without any higher-order thoughts at all.

Presumably, though, what Block means here is that the mouse can have a phenomenally conscious experience of the cheese without having a thought about its first-order mental states. But that is to simply beg the question against Rosenthal. He has a story about why you wouldn’t notice the higher-order thought were it there, and yet how we can still have some evidence that they do occur, and also a story about how the concepts that occur in the higher-order thoughts about sensory states would be easy to come by. So easy to come by in fact, that animals could probably get them. So it is not crazy or absurd to think that the mouse might have a conscious experience of teh cheese by having a higher-order thought to the effect that it is seeing cheese. So the common sense evidence against the higher-order thought theory isn’t any good.

What about the scientific evidence? The suggestion here is that there is empirical evidence that newborns have very low frontal activity and that this would mean that they do not have higher-order thoughts and so do not have any conscious experiences at all. Therefore the higher-order thought theory is at odds with scientific evidence. But there is a suppressed premise in Block’s argument. Namely, the premise that it is obvious that new born infants do in fact have conscious experiences. Now, granted it does seem obvious, what with all the kicking and screaming and facial gesticulation and all, but that is really just more question beggining. According to Rosenthal, if it turned out that babies lack the part of the brain that we KNOW is responsible for higher-order thoughts the he would be committed to saying that newborn infants lack phenomenallt conscious states. And if we could show that that was absurd then his theory would be a bust. He would pack it in. But he challeneges the claim on both accounts.

First, there is some evidence that babies lack the right part of the brain for higher-order thoughts, but Rosenthal also claims that there is some evidnece that they do have it as well and we are not ABSOLUTELY sure about the role that the frontal cortex plays. The science is not in, or at least it is not a lock like Block thinks. Secondly, it is not an absurd claim to say that newborn infants lack phenomenally conscious experience. According to Rosenthal an unconscious pain will play all of the same roles that the conscious one does. It will cause kicking and screaming and hootin’ and a-hollerin’ and facial contoriations and the whole nine. We can even say that it is a bad thing and be motivated to stop it, all the while maintaining that there is nothing that it is like for the infant to have the pain. Of course Block finds this implausible and the point of the paper is to show that this doesn’t happen, but the point is that the baby stuff does not cut against Rosenthal in the way that Block thinks. Or at least he hasn’t made it clear here why it does. So neither the common sense nor the scientific evidence merits such a quick dismissal of Rosenthal’s view.

Finally, why does Block think that this evidence is more favorable for the same-order view? Block seems to assume that the same-order view does not posit a thought-like Awareness and so is more in line with his intuition about the mouse, but, at least for people like Kriegel and Gennaro, the higher-order content is thought-like. So if Rosenthal’s view is too cognitive, then so is the same-order view. Or at least there is no reason to think otherwise. And what about the scientific evidence? Block seems to assume that since the first-order and higher-order content are part of the same state that means that the frontal cortex will not play a role and so the same-order view would not be affected by the experimental evidence showing that infants have low activity there. But that isn’t obvious. On Kriegel’s view, for instance, the two contens are bound together by a ‘psychologically real’ process. But this does not require that the two contents be in the same part of the brain. In fact he explicity appeals to synchrony as a candidate for the psychologically real process and points out that it allows for binding of contents in segregated parts of the brain as one of its virtues.

So either Block’s list of positions to consider just got reduced to one (Sosa’s) or it is back up to three.

3rd Birthday

Tomorrow marks the third anniversary of my starting Philosophy Sucks! I started my blogging career over at Brains and had my first post on April 12, 2007. I had several posts there before I was compelled to start my own blog and as people may know I continue to contribute to Brains and am very pleased to have seen it grow in recent times. I continue to post here as well and limit my posts at Brains to ones that directly relate to philosophy of mind and consciousness.

In these three years I have had over 100,000 hits, nearly 350 posts, and almost 2,000 comments…and next week I will be hosting my third Philosopher’s Carnival (I hosted the 58th and the 50th); not bad! I have had some rough experiences adapting to online discussion (there are some crazies out there as people well know) but all in all the discussion has been extremely helpful and challenging. I have had two papers and numerous presentations (two at the apa Pacific) develop out of discussions that started here. So thanks to everyone and I hope it continues in the future!

The year is still young but here are the most viewed posts so far (see also the best of all time).

10. HOT Qualia Realism
9. Am I a Type-Q Materialist?
8. Why I am not a Type-Z Materialist
7. Consciousness, Consciousness, and More Consciousness
6. More on Identity
5. The Singularity, Again
4. HOT Damn! It’s a HO Down-Showdown
3. Attention & Mental Paint
2. Part-Time Zombies
1. The Identity Theory in 2-D


In preperation for Consciousness Online I am testing my ability to take a narrated powerpoint presentation, convert into a movie and then embed it into a post (there is at least one person who will be doing a narrated powerpoint pres). So, as a test here is my presentation of ‘What is a Brain State?’ from the 2006 Towards a Science of Consciousness conference…let’s see if this works.

So, it works! But the text is kind of small and hard to read in the player…I suppose I can link to the video at google video and people can go there and watch it in a larger player, or even full screen…

New Virtual Presentation!!

So, I just got a recording of my What is a Brain State? talk which I gave at the 2006 Towards a Science of Consciousness conference. I used that to record the narration to the powerpoint slides, and voila! A new virtual presentation. The conference uses a service called ‘conference recordings’ and it was easy to get the recording, but I think in the future I am going to try and record the narration as I am giving the talk…I think my mac laptop has a built in microphone…

This was by far the largest audience for a talk that I have had, and I was extremely nervous! So, I apologise in advance for all of the ‘um’s

The Connectome

Researchers at Harvard have develped a device that allows them to slice brain tissue ultra-thin and then scan it with an electron microscope in order to create a complete mapping of the cell kinds and connections in a mouse brain (wired story here). The resulting map is called a connectome…very cool. This kind of research is exactly what we need in order to move forward in our quest to fill in the theoretical place-holder term ‘brain state’.

On a related note it also brings us one step closer to being able to end our relience on real animals to do chemical manipulations/lesions in. If these can be simulated a lot of animal suffering could be stoped.