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!

Prefrontal Cortex, Consciousness, and…the Central Sulcus?

The question of whether the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is crucially involved in conscious experience is one that I have been interested in for quite a while. The issue has flared up again recently, especially with the defenders of the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness defending an anti-PFC account of consciousness (as in Christof Koch’s piece in Nature). I have talked about IIT before (here, here, and here) and I won’t revisit it but I did want to address one issue in Koch’s recent piece. He says,

A second source of insights are neurological patients from the first half of the 20th century. Surgeons sometimes had to excise a large belt of prefrontal cortex to remove tumors or to ameliorate epileptic seizures. What is remarkable is how unremarkable these patients appeared. The loss of a portion of the frontal lobe did have certain deleterious effects: the patients developed a lack of inhibition of inappropriate emotions or actions, motor deficits, or uncontrollable repetition of specific action or words. Following the operation, however, their personality and IQ improved, and they went on to live for many more years, with no evidence that the drastic removal of frontal tissue significantly affected their conscious experience. Conversely, removal of even small regions of the posterior cortex, where the hot zone resides, can lead to a loss of entire classes of conscious content: patients are unable to recognize faces or to see motion, color or space.

So it appears that the sights, sounds and other sensations of life as we experience it are generated by regions within the posterior cortex. As far as we can tell, almost all conscious experiences have their origin there. What is the crucial difference between these posterior regions and much of the prefrontal cortex, which does not directly contribute to subjective content?

The assertion that loss of the prefrontal cortex does not affect conscious experience is one that is often leveled at theories that invoke activity in the prefrontal cortex as a crucial element of conscious experience (like the Global Workspace Theory and the higher-order theory of consciousness in its neuronal interpretation by Hakwan Lau and Joe LeDoux (which I am happy to have helped out a bit in developing)). But this is a misnomer or at least is subject to important empirical objections. Koch does not say which cases he has in mind (and he does not include any references in the Nature paper) but we can get some ideas from a recent exchange in the Journal of Neuroscience.

One case in particular is often cited as evidence that consciousness survives extensive damage to the frontal lobe. In their recent paper Odegaard, Knight, and Lau have argued that this is incorrect. Below is figure 1 from their paper.

Figure 1a from Odegaard, Knight, and Lau

This is brain of Patient A, who was reportedly the first patient to undergo bi-lateral frontal lobectomy.  In it the central sulcus is labeled in red along with Brodman’s areas 4, 6, 9, and 46. Labled in this way it is clear that there is an extensive amount of (the right) prefrontal cortex that is intact (basically everything anterior to area 6 would be preserved PFC). If that were the case then this would hardly be a complete bi-lateral lobectomy! There is more than enough preserved PFC to account for the preserved conscious experience of Patient A.

Boly et al have a companion piece in the journal of neuroscience and a response to the Odegaard paper (Odegaard et al responded to Boly as well and made these same points). Below is figure R1C from the response by Boly et al.

Figure R1C from response by Melanie Boly, Marcello Massimini, Naotsugu Tsuchiya, Bradley R. Postle, Christof Koch, and Giulio Tononi

Close attention to figure R1C shows that Boly et al have placed the central sulcus in a different location than Odegaard et al did. In the Odegaard et al paper they mark the central sulcus behind where the 3,1,2 white numbers occur in the Boly et al image. If Boly et al were correct then, as they assert, pretty much the entire prefrontal cortex is removed in the case of patient A, and if that is the case then of course there is strong evidence that there can be conscious experience in the absence of prefrontal activity.

So here we have some experts in neuroscience, among them Robert T. Knight and Christof Koch, disagreeing about the location of the central sulcus in the Journal of Neuroscience –As someone who cares about neuroscience and consciousness (and has to teach it to undergraduates) this is distressing! And as someone who is not an expert on neurophysiology I tend to go with Knight (surprised? he is on my side, after all!) but even if you are not convinced you should at least be convinced of one thing: it is not clear that there is evidence from “neurological patients in the first half of the 20th century” which suggests that the prefrontal cortex is not crucially involved in conscious experience. What is clear is that is seems a bit odd to keep insisting that there is while ignoring the empirical arguments of experts in the field.

On a different note, I thought it was interesting that Koch made this point.

IIT also predicts that a sophisticated simulation of a human brain running on a digital computer cannot be conscious—even if it can speak in a manner indistinguishable from a human being. Just as simulating the massive gravitational attraction of a black hole does not actually deform spacetime around the computer implementing the astrophysical code, programming for consciousness will never create a conscious computer. Consciousness cannot be computed: it must be built into the structure of the system.

This is a topic for another day but I would have thought you could have integrated information in a simulated system.

Levin on Brown

My paper Deprioritizing the A Priori Arguments Against Physicalism, which was a product of the online consciousness conference, directly grew out of blog discussions I had around here shortly after I started this blog in May of 2007 (which, by the way, I just noticed, means that the 10 year anniversary of Philosophy Sucks! is coming up soon!!)…at that time I had been interested in modal arguments against physicalism but had no plans at all of writing a paper on zombies. At any rate this paper has become my second most cited paper (and is even cited by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Zombies (and the Wikipedia one too!)) but it is usually cited en passant, so to speak, so it is nice to see some actual discussion of the argument.

Janet Levin discusses it in her paper Do Conceivability Arguments Beg the Question Against Physicalism? which was published in the 2014 issue of Philosophical Topics that I edited as a result of the 4th online consciousness conference. At the time I was putting the issue together I contemplated writing something about it in a brief response but decided to wait. ‘Better late than never’ is quickly becoming my motto!

Levin starts with Perry’s response to the zombie argument in his 2001 book Knowledge, Possibility, and Consciousness and I think this is a good place to start. As a bit of an aside Perry’s book  has been hugely influential on me. I read it in my philosophy of mind course, with Kent Bach, in the fall of 2001 and at the time I remember feeling that the identity theory was not really given the due that it deserved and then I saw Perry defending it and it gave me hope. I even invited him out to SFSU to give a talk to the philosophy club as a result and he did. This may have been my first attempt at organizing an academic event! The paper I wrote for that class, “Sticking to the Subject: My Response to Chalmers’ Response to Perry” became my writing sample when I applied to PhD programs. I rewrote it with feedback from the class and afterwards when I approached him with this as a potential writing sample….I think I used to have this up on my website at some point when I was in Connecticut but it seems to be lost now (especially after my pre-cloud computer crash back in 2004 or 2005). I  only have a vague notion of what was in that paper and it would be interesting to see it again.

(On another tangent I also recall this book influenced a paper I wrote for my epistemology class I had in the spring of 2002 (also with Kent Bach) where I argued that adopting Perry’s view showed us how we can say that when I play Resident Evil and have thoughts like “there’s a green herb in the basement” they come out true (and how this shows a way to avoid skepticism)).

…But back to Levin’s critique. Here is what she says,

In his (2010), Richard Brown argues that the zombie argument (and its relatives) beg the question; they seem compelling only to those who already assume that qualitative properties are not physical.

One thing that I think has become clear over the years is that I was not clear enough in the original paper about my background assumptions and intentions. I had been used to arguing with people like David Chalmers and Richard Chappell and they were both very strong supporters of a priori reasoning and some version of two-dimensional semantics. So when I said that the zombie argument begged the question I meant that it begged the question against a physicalist who accepted the link between conceivability and possibility. I was trying to show that even if you grant all of the other assumptions that dualists make they still do not have an argument against physicalism. I didn’t really intend this to be a claim that the zombie argument begged the question against those who accepted type-B physicalism, or who otherwise denied the link between conceivability and possibility (as I am in some moods likely to do).

So how was this supposed to play out? As Levin says, I attempt to show this by

…presenting conceivability arguments analogous to the Zombie Argument that aim to support, rather than undermine, physicalism.  In particular, Brown argues for the conceivability of Zoombies; that is (p. 50), ‘creatures non-physically identical to me in every respect and which lack any non-physical phenomenal consciousness’, and also of Shombies; that is (p. 51), ‘creature[s] that [are] microphysically identical to me, ha[ve] conscious experience, and [are] completely physical’, and suggests that arguments with such conceivability premises will seem as compelling to physicalists as the zombie argument seems to dualists.

I can see why she says this but I would like to clear this up a bit.

First, I never intended my paper to offer any support for physicalism. I took the point to be that we did not have any good reason to think it was false, or that the a priori arguments against it did not show it to be false (currently, that is. Whatever their potential to do so in the future amounts to they do not presently constitute a reason to think that physicalism is false). Perhaps this is in fact to offer some kind of indirect support for physicalism but even so the conceivability arguments she is here discussing were aimed at showing that dualism is false. So take the pair {zombie, shombie}. If one accepts a two-dimensional semantics and one buys the general arguments against strong necessitates, then only one of this pair is truly ideally conceivable and the other is necessarily inconceivable. That much is common ground between those who accept two-dimensional semantics )and I do for the purposes of this argument…and sometimes for other purposes as well). But which one of this pair is ideally conceivable? No one has really been able to show that either one leads to a contradiction.

So, as I stressed above, given this set of background assumptions then I think the zombie argument is question begging. It begs the question by assuming that it is zombies that are truly ideally conceivable and not shombies. But if I am working inside 2D semantics then I find shombies to be conceivable and so that means zombies have to be the ones that are ideally inconceivable, even if I cannot yet say why. It is at this point, from within the 2D framework that the standoff manifests most strongly. As the Stanford encyclopedia entry on zombies suggests the best option for the dualist like Dave is to maintain that shombies are inconceivable (Dave has said this as well) but when pressed on why they are all that can be said is that many people have found it very hard to see how physicalism could be true of consciousness. But that is just to say that shombies are incredible for him, just as zombies are for me.

And this is just what Levin herself says, as we’ll see below. She goes one to say,

More precisely, Brown argues that Zoombies and Shombies—along with zombies—are all prima facie conceivable, and contends (like the theorists discussed above) that one’s antecedent theoretical commitments determine one’s convictions about which of these creatures will be ideally conceivable, conceivable ‘in the limit’.  And, though he is officially neutral about what the ultimate outcome will be, he suggests that if we were to learn, and sufficiently attend to, all the (not yet discovered) physical and functional facts about the world, we would be able to recognize that these facts do indeed entail that certain of our internal states are conscious experiences.

I would balk at this way of putting things. It is true that I am neutral about which one is ultimately truly conceivable but I do not think that it must be the case that we end up being able to make these deductions. I only think this is a possibility and that it is not ruled out by the conceivability arguments against physicalism. I do think that for different people different combinations of zombies and shombies will seem to be conceivable/inconceivable and that it is one’s background theoretical commitments that tacitly determine which is which.

I will also say that one thing that has been somewhat disappointing is that the suggestion that we may be able to make deductions a priori from physical states to phenomenal states only when we have the relevant concepts, whatever those turn out to be. So, Mary cannot do it in her room unless she has the relevant phenomenal concept (I can be neutral on what exactly these are and do not mean to endorse any account of them here). I have always thought that this was the best way to respond to the Mary case and I do not see it being discussed very much. I wish it were!

The main problem Levin has with what I say is something she points out as a flaw in Perry’s argument as well. She says,

Brown characterizes his view as a species of (what Chalmers calls) Type-C physicalism, the view that, although zombies may be conceivable now, they would be inconceivable ‘in the limit’.   But of course dualists would deny this, and it’s worth getting clear about what, on Brown’s view, could account for the eventual inconceivability of zombies.  First (p. 49) he likens the (prima facie) conceivability of zombies for us now to the prima facie conceivability of H2O in the absence of water for those living in the early 18th century, and suggests that, just as further empirical discoveries made H2O without water inconceivable, so further empirical discoveries will do the same for zombies. But this argument, like the ones discussed above, relies on a questionable analogy.  At least arguably—as noted before—what enables us (and not our 18th century counterparts) to deduce water facts from H2O facts is not merely that we have increased our empirical information, although this, to be sure, is crucial.  In addition, we, at least implicitly, appeal to certain principles that go beyond one’s empirical or methodological ‘theoretical commitments’; in particular, that the referent of ‘water’ is a  (natural) kind of stuff (e.g. the stuff that fills our lakes and comes out of our faucets or, alternatively—pointing to a lake or a puddle—that kind of stuff), and that natural kinds are to be individuated by their compositional properties (such as being composed of H2O).  But it is not clear that there are analogous principles which, when combined with our knowledge of the structure and function of the brain and central nervous system, would permit the deduction of facts about conscious experience from even a complete statement of the physical and functional facts.  And thus, it seems, it is plausible to think that even those committed to physicalism and open to further information about the structure and function of the brain will continue to find zombies conceivable.

I think I partially agree with what she is saying here. Especially with respect to the ‘extra empirical’ factors relevant to theory adoption in general.

Levin’s comments can be made especially poignant for the ‘water is H2O’ example. To anyone really interested in these issues I would recommend  reading Hasok Cheng’s book Is Water H2O? Evidence, Realism, and Pluralism, which was recommended to me after a talk I gave in Taiwan at the Academia Senica. This book really clarified a lot of the technical philosophical and empirical issues about the theoretical identity of water and H2O and I think it does highlight similar kinds of extra empirical forces at work in the history of science. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in these issues. But I am not sure why this kind of point is supposed to count against  the claim I am making. It seems to me to further support it!

If I am reading Levin right it looks like she is arguing that we may be Type B physicalists at the limit. That is, we may learn all of the physical facts and yet still find that zombies are conceivable even if we become otherwise convinced that physicalism is true. I agree that this is a possibility and this is why I think it is correct to say none of these arguments (employing zombies or shombies) are question begging tout court. They beg the question against a particular way of thinking about physicalism.

I also tend to agree that in the background of my thinking is something like what she points to about natural kinds. Especially in this case where I am interested in being as close to two-dimensional semantics as possible (because part of me thinks it is nice view to have). If one takes that point of view then consciousness is similar enough in that it can be picked out by a primary intension. We can, I think, attend to specific instances of phenomenal consciousness and say ‘that kind of stuff’ and thereby pick something out. So while I agree that my way of thinking is not the only way or forced up on in any way I am more concerned with arguing that this way of thinking is not (currently) threatened by any a priori arguments.

This is because my aim is not to establish physicalism but to show that arguments aimed at undermining it don’t do so without further assumptions. Even if you grant that the ideal conceivability of zombies would show that physicalism is false we need more than that. We need to also know that zombies are in fact ideally conceivable, and that is why homies are problematic. They must be inconceivable but then why can I, and so many others, conceive of them? The reason is, I suggested, that neither side has been able to show what contradiction is (or could be) entailed by the other side. Dualists and type B physicalists correctly point out that no one has made a successful case for why zombies are  inconceivable but, less often pointed out of late, it is also the case that no one has shown what contradiction is entailed by shombies. As far as we can tell at this point either both are ideally conceivable and so 2-dimensional semantics and modal rational fail or only one of the pair is ideally conceivable and we don’t presently know which one it is.

I think that Levin herself arrives at something like this position as well, as we’ll see. She goes on to say,

In a related argument, Brown suggests (p 55) that what could permit ‘the deduction of the phenomenal facts from the physical facts is the (for us) a posteriori discovery of identities between phenomenal and physical properties’.  But given the asymmetry discussed above, one may wonder, on behalf of dualists, what makes it plausible to think that any such a posteriori discovery could occur.  The answer, Brown maintains (pp. 55-56), is that further empirical investigation is likely to show that (contrary to Chalmers, et al and also Type B physicalists) ‘we will have discovered that phenomenal properties can be explained in broadly functional terms’, and goes on to argue that ‘this does not thereby endorse Type A physicalism.  It is just to point out that I cannot really conceive of anything else doing any explanatory work…No one has ever given anything like a proper account of what non-physical properties are or how they explain phenomenal consciousness.’

This, however—as for Perry—seems to be a matter not of zombies’ being inconceivable, but rather incredible, and the plausibility of Type C physicalism depends on the plausibility of the former, stronger, claim.  In short, there is no particular reason to think that any further discoveries of the neural structure of the brain and psychological laws governing mind-body interactions will provide information of a different sort from the information we have now.  And given that there seem to be no a priori links between physical (or physical-functional) and phenomenal concepts, and no a priori principles determining the nature or essential properties of the items denoted by our phenomenal concepts (other than that they must feel a certain way), it’s hard to see how zombies could become inconceivable—even in the limit.

Here I completely agree with her and in fact I think this is part of the point that I was trying to make.  Some people seem to find zombies conceivable, some people seem to find shombies conceivable. Since I am assuming that our reasoning capabilities are good enough for this (another common assumption between Chalmers and I for this argument) that leaves only empirical or conceptual issues left. So I agree that we haven’t yet got the story. I have argued that something like the higher-order theory will help but really the larger point is that we need a theory of consciousness and empirical data to move forward.

Again I would also point out that I think that part of the story here must invoke something about how these identities could be established. Here I think we could have a 2D version but also a version like that of Ned Block (that is a non-two-dimensional account). I am attracted to both kinds of pictures about the way these identities will be discovered.

But all of that to one side the whole point is that we cannot start from the assumption that zombies are in fact ideally conceivable. They may *seem* to be so *to you* given what *we know now* but this is not at all the same thing as their actually really being ideally conceivable, as shombies show. If one or the other were truly ideally conceivable *at this point in time* then we wold be able to show what contradiction is entailed by the zombie or shombie world. Thus, until that can be done, instead of ‘physicalism is false’ the best we get from the zombie argument is ‘it seems to me now that physicalism is false’. I hope it goes with out saying that I think the same is the case for the a priori arguments from the physicalist.

On a final note, Levin says in a footnote that Thomas Nagel in his 1965 paper Physicalism discusses cases like zoombies. Zoombies were supposed to be non-physical duplicates of me which lack consciousness. These creatures have all of my non-physical properties and yet they do not have consciousness. This seems conceivable to me, but is this what Nagel is talking about? When I went and re-read that paper it seemed like a warm up for his Bat paper and at the end he is talking about indexical information (which seems to be part of the story about how I became part of PQTI in Chalmers’ work and may be a precursor to Perry’s work). Maybe this is what she meant? I might have to re-re-read it…anyone else see the similarity?

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?

Consciousness and its Place in Physical Reality

In the Spring 2013 semester I initiated a new course at LaGuardia that had the theme Cosmology, Consciousness, and Computation. The basic idea was to explore issues relating to physicalism. Intuitively, physicalism is the view that everything that exists is physical but what is the nature of physical reality? The idea I had was to have the couse divided into three sections. In the first section we would do a conceptual physics course talking about the development of physics from the ancient world to the present day. Then we would turn to issues about consciousness and mind and where they fit in the physical picture we have so far developed. After that we turn to issues about computation; Is the universe computable? Or perhaps does it instantiate some computation? Is consciousness computational? Are we living in a simulation? Is the universe a hologram?

In my quest to have low cost book options for students I have adopted the Terminator book I co-edited and have supplemented that with readings from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and other online material. The reception to the course was very good and I am really looking forward to doing it a second time in Fall 2013. I have updated the syllabus and, as usual, would welcome any suggestions or feedback.

Week I: Introduction
• →Richard Brown on What is Philosophy? –

Week 2: Early Attempts to Understand Mind and Physical Reality
• →Terminator Ch 10: The Nature of Time and the Universe
• Time-
• Richard Brown on Pre-Socratic Philosophy-
• Pre-Socratic Philosophy-
• Ancient Theories of the Soul-
• Parmenides-
• Zeno’s Paradoxes-
• Ancient Atomism-
• Democritus-
• Intentionality in Ancient Philosophy-
• Time-

Week 3: Modern Philosophy and Modern Science
• →Terminator Ch 2 –Animal consciousness, Descartes, and Emotions
• Descartes’ Physics-
• Descartes’ Epistemology-
• Descartes’ Theory of Ideas-
• Other Minds-
• Animal Consciousness-
• Locke on Real Essence-
• Locke’s Philosophy of Science-
• Newton’s Philosophy-
• Isaac Newton-
• Newton’s Views on Space, Time, and Motion-
• The Contents of Perception-
• The Problem of Perception-

Week 4: Relativity Physics
• →Terminator Ch 8: paradoxes of time travel
• Einstein for Everyone:
• Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe on NOVA-
• Time Travel and Modern Physics-
• Time Machines-
• The Equivalence of Mass and Energy-
• The Hole Argument-
• David Lewis’ The Paradoxes of Time Travel-

Week 5: Quantum Mechanics
• Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos on NOVA-
• Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics:
• Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics-
• The Uncertainty Principle:
• Quantum Entanglement and Information:
• The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Argument in Quantum Theory-
• Measurement in Quantum Theory:
• Quantum Mechanics-
• Richard Feynman on Double Slit Experiment-

Week 6: The Nature and Origin of the Universe
• →The Scale of the Universe-
• Hubble Deep Field:
• Cosmology and Theology-
• Atheism and Agnosticism-
• Religion and Science-
• Teleological Arguments for God’s Existence-
• Cosmological Argument-
• The Possible Parallel Universe of Dark Matter-

Week 7: The Possibility of Life Beyond Earth
• Life-
• Molecular Biology-
• Finding Life Beyond Earth-

Week 8: Consciousness in the Physical World?
• Consciousness-
• Representational Theories of Consciousness-
• Functionalism-
• The Mind/Brain Identity Theory-
• Dualism-
• Zombies-

Week 9: Beyond Physicalism?
• Eliminative Materialism-
• Folk Psychology as a Theory-
• The Philosophy of Neuroscience-
• Panpsychism-

Week 10: Transhumanism
• →Terminator Ch 4: Extended Mind, Transhumanism
• A History of Transhumanist Thought-
• Biohackers: A Journey into Cyborg America-
• Tim Cannon on Potential Benefits of Sensory Augmentation-
• Aubrey de Grey on Defeating Aging-

Week 11: A.I. and The Singularity
• →Terminator Ch 1: A.I., Chinese Room, Transhumanism
• →Terminator Ch 3: Why always with the killing?
• The Chinese Room Argument-
• The Turing Test-
• The Frame Problem-
• David Chalmers’ The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis-
• David Chalmers on Simulation and Singularity-

Week 12: The Simulation Argument & The Holographic Hypothesis
• Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument Website-
• Nick Bostrom on The Simulation Argument-
• David Chalmers’ The Matrix as Metaphysics-
• Leonard Susskind on The World as a Hologram-

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!

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

108th Philosophers’ Carnival

Welcome to the 108th edition of the Philosophers’ Carnival! I don’t know what is going on with the Carnival but  the last few editions have not had very many interesting submissions and I did not get a lot of acceptable submissions for this issue…but I know that there are interesting posts out there  so I scoured the internets to find the best that the philosophy blogosphere has to offer…I also checked a few other disciplines for some food for thought.
  1. Tuomas Tahko presents Draft: The Metaphysical Status of Modal Statements posted at
  2. Andrew Bernardin presents Beneath Reason: An Iceburg of Unconscious Processes posted at 360 Degree Skeptic.
  3. Eric Michael Johnson presents Chimpanzees Prefer Fair Play To Reaping An Unjust Reward posted at The Primate Diaries.
  4. Terrance Tomkow presents Means and Ends posted at, saying, “If your only available means of doing something are impermissible, does it follow that it is impermissible for you to do that thing? Judith Jarvis Thomson says, “yes”. Tomkow argues, “no”.”
  5. Thom Brooks presents The Brooks Blog: Thom Brooks on “A New Problem with the Capabilities Approach” posted at The Brooks Blog.
  1. Over at Conscious Entities Peter discusses Justin Sytsma’s recent JCS paper in Skeptical Folk Theory Theory Theory
  2. Over at Alexander Pruss’s Blog said blogger discusses Video Games as Art
  3. Not to long ago we had a very interesting post over at Brains on breeding pain free livestock. Anton Alterman has a somewhat polemical but interesting response at Brain Scam in Pains in the Brain: On LIberating Animals from Feeling
  4. Over at Siris we are reminded how malleable language is and the effect it has on reading past philosophers in Every Event Has a Cause
  5. Over at Practical Ethics Toby Ord asks Is It Wrong to Vote Tactically? I don’t want to spoil it for you but he thinks the answer is ‘no’
  6. Over at Evolving Thoughts John Wilkins discusses Plantinga’s argument that naturalism is self-refuting in You and Me, Baby, Ain’t Nothing But Mammals
  7. Did you know that a Quine is a computer program that can print its own code? It’s true and over at A Piece of Our Mind John Ku discusses them in Meta Monday: Ruby Quines
  8. Over at Neuroschannells Eric sums up his current views on perception and consciousness in Consciousness (13): The Interpreter versus the Scribe
  9. Over at Specter of Reason there is a discussion of Pete Mandik’s Swamp Mary thought experiment in Swamp Deviants, Part II
  10. Over at the Arche Methodology Blog Derek Ball asks Do Philosophers Seek Knowledge? Should They?
  11. Over at Philosophy on the Mesa Nina Rosenstrand wonders if Neanderthal’s raped early Humans in They Are Us? News from the Primate Research Front
  12. Is the idea that the mind in the head an a priori prejudice? Ken Aizawa thinks not in So, why does common sense say the mind is in the head?
  13. Over at Inter Kant Gary Benham discusses Free Speech and Twitter
  14. Over at The Ethical Werewolf Neil Shinhababu discusses his recent run on Bloggingheads and Hedonism
  15. Over at Logical Matters Peter Smith talks about Squeezing Arguments and comments on Fields characterization of them in Saving Truth from Paradox
  16. Over at In Living Color Jean Kazez discusses just how outrageous espousing moral realism really is in Torturing Babies Just for Fun is Wrong
  17. Over at Philosophy Talk: The Blog Ken Taylor discusses Culture and Mental Illness
  18. Over at In the Space of Reasons Tim Thornton discusses Aesthetic Self-Knowledge
  19. Over at the Philosophy North Blog Aiden McGlyn discusses The Problem of Vanishing Warrant
  20. Finally, have you heard about this Philosopher’s Football match? Virtual Philosopher has a nice report of the madness in Philosopher’s Football -Match Report from the Ref.
That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of philosophers’ carnivalusing our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival |

Fodor on Natural Selection

I am back from Philly. I had a veggie-cheese steak and saw the Liberty Bell.

As for the SPP, it seemed to be doing quite well. I missed the first day of the conference, which I was bummed about. I wanted to see Devitt’s talk on ‘The “Linguistic Conception” of Grammars’. From what I know of Devitt’s recent work I would guess that the talk was an attack on the assumption that the rules of grammar are explicitly or implicitly represented in the mind of a typical language user. I am sure that would have been interesting to see.

I did catch Jerry Fodor’skeynote speech on Friday. He was there giving a version of a talk that I have heard a couple of other times at various conferences around the New York area. The basic theme of his latest work has been an attack on standard formulations of adaptationism of the Darwinian variety. This theory aims to explain how it comes to be the case that animals come to be adapted to their environment. This is a question that has puzzled biologist for some time. The Darwinian answer is in terms of natural selection. The basic idea is as follows. The traits that are useful for the species (cashed out in terms of reproductive success) are selected for and the traits that are detrimental to reproductive success are selected against.

Fodor’s argument againts this well established view proceeds in a couple of steps. The first step is to look at intentional actions and point out a certain kind of problem. Take the frog. It snaps at flies in order to survive. Now consider the intentional state of the frog itself. Is it intending to snap at flies? Or is it intending to snap at ‘ambient black dots’? These are twp different properties. It happens to be the case that whichever one the frog is doing will help it in the environment it finds itself in, so in a sense natural selection cannot distinguish between these two very different properties. Since it can’t distinguish between them it cannot select between them.

This problem generalizes, according to Fodor. Consider the Polar bear. The standard story that is supposed to explain why the polar bear is white involves selection for white polar bears. But ‘selection for’ as an intensional context. What this means is that we do not get truth preservation with substitution of co-referring terms. So, in the case of belief attribution which are the exemplars of what happens in an intensional context. So, I can believe that 50 cent is a great rapper without believeing that Curtis JAckson is an excellent rapper even though 50 cent and Curtis Jackson are the same person. Now consider ‘selection for’. Say that white is my favorite color. Being white and being my favorite color are different properties and selection for one is not selection for the other. The problem then becomes of explaining how we can say that white polar bears were selected for, as opposed to polar bears that are my favorite color. There are an indefinate number of properties which are distinct from yet coextensive with being white. If you don’t like that of being my favorite color Fodor’s example is ‘being the same color as the environment’. Which of these properties were selected for? To answer that question you would need a selector, but the Darwinist is not allowed to this claim. So then, the traditional adaptionist theory fails to do what it promises to do.

As usual, the scientist in teh room were very upset with Fodor, and it was quite entertaining. Lot’s of people have been upset with Fodor recently. Dennett says that Fodor’s argument is good for two things. Providing a reductio of the Fodor-inspired Representational theory of Mind in cognitive science. And demonstrating how NOT to do philosophy. I worry that this is half right. It seems to me that if one does approach the problem in the way that Fodor does, which whether or not correct is one of the most widely held views about the mind in current cog sci, then you do have this problem.

How much of a problem it turns out to be remains to be seen. Fodor thinks that it is no big deal. He certainly doesn’t think that this should provide comfort to the intelligent design folks.  

Top 10 Posts of 2008

OK, so the year isn’t over yet…but these are the most view posts so far…

–Runner up– Reverse Zombies, Dualism, and Reduction

10. Question Begging Thought Experiments

9. Ontological Arguments

8. The Inconceivability of Zombies

7. There’s Something About Jerry 

6. Pain Asymbolia and Higher-Order Theories of consciousness

5.  Philosophical Trends

4. A Short Argument that there is no God

3. Has Idealism Been Refuted?

2. God versus the Delayed Choice Quantuum Eraser

1. A Simple Argument Against Berkeley