Dispatches from the Ivory Tower

In celebration of my ten years in the blogosphere I have been compiling some of my past posts into thematic meta-posts. The first of these listed my posts on the higher-order thought theory of consciousness. Continuing in this theme below are links to posts I have done over the past ten years reporting on talks/conferences/classes I have attended. I wrote these mostly so that I would not forget about these sessions but they may be interesting to others as well. Sadly, there are several things I have been to in the last year or so that I have not had the tim to sit down and write about…ah well maybe some day!

  1. 09/05/07 Kripke
    • Notes on Kripke’s discussion of existence as a predicate and fiction
  2. 09/05/2007 Devitt
  3. 09/05 Devitt II
  4. 09/19/07 -Devitt on Meaning
    • Notes on Devitt’s class on semantics
  5. Flamming LIPS!
  6. Back to the Grind & Meta-Metaethics
  7. Day Two of the Yale/UConn Conference
  8. Peter Singer on Climate Change and Ethics
    • Notes on Singer’s talk at LaGuardia
  9. Where Am I?
    • Reflections on my talk at the American Philosophical Association talk in 2008
  10. Fodor on Natural Selection
    • Reflections on the Society of Philosophy and Psychology meeting June 2008
  11. Kripke’s Argument Against 4-Dimensionalism
    • Based on a class given at the Graduate Center
  12. Reflections on Zoombies and Shombies Or: After the Showdown at the APA
    • Reflections on my session at the American Philosophical Association in 2009
  13. Kripke on the Structure of Possible Worlds
    • Notes on a talk given at the Graduate Center in September 2009
  14. Unconscious Trait Inferences
    • Notes on social psychologist James Uleman‘s talk at the CUNY Cogsci Speaker Series September 2009
  15. Attributing Mental States
    • Notes on James Dow‘s talk at the CUNY Cogsci Speaker Series September 2009
  16. Busy Bees Busily Buzzing ‘Bout
  17. Shombies & Illuminati
  18. A Couple More Thoughts on Shombies and Illuminati
    • Some reflections after Kati Balog’s presentation at the NYU philosophy of mind discussion group in November 2009
  19. Attention and Mental Paint
    • Notes on Ned Block’s session at the Mind and Language Seminar in January 2010
  20. HOT Damn it’s a HO Down-Showdown
    • Notes on David Rosenthal’s session at the NYU Mind and Language Seminar in March 2010
  21. The Identity Theory in 2-D
    • Some thoughts in response to theOnline Consciousness Conference in February 2010
  22. Part-Time Zombies
    • Reflections on Michael Pauen‘s Cogsci talk at CUNY in March of 2010
  23. The Singularity, Again
    • Reflections on David Chalmers’ at the NYU Mind and Language seminar in April of 2010
  24. The New New Dualism
  25. Dream a Little Dream
    • Reflections on Miguel Angel Sebastian’s cogsci talk in July of 2010
  26. Explaining Consciousness & Its Consequences
    • Reflections on my talk at the CUNY Cog Sci Speaker Series August 2010
  27. Levine on the Phenomenology of Thought
    • Reflections on Levine’s talk at the Graduate Center in September 2010
  28. Swamp Thing About Mary
    • Reflections on Pete Mandik’s Cogsci talk at CUNY in October 2010
  29. Burge on the Origins of Perception
    • Reflections on a workshop on the predicative structure of experience sponsored by the New York Consciousness Project in October of 2010
  30. Phenomenally HOT
    • Reflections on the first session of Ned Block and David Carmel’s seminar on Conceptual and Empirical Issues about Perception, Attention and Consciousness at NYU January 2011
  31. Some Thoughts About Color
  32. Stazicker on Attention and Mental Paint
  33. Sid Kouider on Partial Awareness
    • a few notes about Sid Kouider’s recent presentation at the CUNY CogSci Colloquium in October 2011
  34. The 2D Argument Against Non-Materialism
    • Reflections on my Tucson Talk in April 2012
  35. Peter Godfrey-Smith on Evolution And Memory
    • Notes from the CUNY Cog Sci Speaker Series in September 2012
  36. The Nature of Phenomenal Consciousness
    • Reflections on my talk at the Graduate Center in September 2012
  37. Giulio Tononi on Consciousness as Integrated Information
    • Notes from the inaugural lecture of the new NYU Center for Mind and Brain by Giulio Tononi
  38. Mental Qualities 02/07/13: Cognitive Phenomenology
  39. Mental Qualities 02/21/13: Phenomenal Concepts
    • Notes/Reflections from David Rosenthal’s class in 2013
  40. The Geometrical Structure of Space and Time
    • Reflections on a session of Tim Maudlin’s course I sat in on in February 2014
  41. Towards some Reflections on the Tucson Conferences
    • Reflections on my presentations at the Tucson conferences
  42. Existentialism is a Transhumanism
    • Reflections on the NEH Seminar in Transhumanism and Technohumanism at LaGuardia I co-directed in 2015-2016
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Chalmers on Brown on Chalmers

I just found out that the double special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies devoted to David Chalmers’ paper The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis recently came out as a book! I had a short paper in that collection that stemmed from some thoughts I had about zombies and simulated worlds (I posted about them here and here). Dave responded to all of the articles (here) and I just realized that I never wrote anything about that response!

I have always had a love/hate relationship with this paper. On the one hand I felt like there was an idea worth developing, one that started to take shape back in 2009. On the other hand there was a pretty tight deadline for the special issue and I did not feel like I had really got ahold of what the main idea was supposed to be, in my own thinking. I felt rushed and secretly wished I could wait a year or two to think about it. But this was before I had tenure and I thought it would be a bad move to miss this opportunity. The end result is that I think the paper is flawed but I still feel like there is an interesting idea lurking about that needs to be more fully developed. Besides, I thought, the response from Dave would give me an opportunity to think more deeply about these issues and would be something I could respond to…that was five years ago! Well, I guess better late than never so here goes.

My paper was divided into two parts. As Dave says,

First, [Brown] cites my 1990 discussion piece “How Cartesian dualism might have been true”, in which I argued that creatures who live in simulated environments with separated simulated cognitive processes would endorse Cartesian dualism. The cognitive processes that drive their behavior would be entirely distinct from the processes that govern their environment, and an investigation of the latter would reveal no sign of the former: they will not find brains inside their heads driving their behavior, for example. Brown notes that the same could apply even if the creatures are zombies, so this sort of dualism does not essentially involve consciousness. I think this is right: we might call it process dualism, because it is a dualism of two distinct sorts of processes. If the cognitive processes essentially involve consciousness, then we have something akin to traditional Cartesian dualism; if not, then we have a different sort of interactive dualism.

Looking back on this now I think that I can say that part of the idea I had was that what Dave here calls ‘process dualism’ is really what lies behind the conceivability of zombies. Instead of testing whether (one thinks that) dualism or physicalism is true about consciousness the two-dimensional argument against materialism is really testing whether one thinks that consciousness is  grounded in biological or functional/computational properties. This debate is distinct and orthogonal to the debate about physicalism/dualism.

In the next part of the response Dave addresses my attempted extension of this point to try to reconcile the conceivability of zombies with what I called ‘biologism’. Biologism was supposed to be a word to distinguish the debate between the physicalist and the dualist from the debate between the biologically-oriented views of the mind as against the computationally oriented views. At the time I thought this term was coined by me and it was supposed to be an umbrella term that would have biological materialism as a particular variant. I should note before going on that it was only after the paper was published that I became aware that this term has a history and is associated with certain views about ‘the use of biological explanations in the analysis of social situations‘. This is not what I intended and had I known that beforehand I would have tried to coin a different term.

The point was to try to emphasize that this debate was supposed to be distinct from the debate about physicalism and that one could endorse this kind of view even if one rejected biological materialism. The family of views I was interested in defending can be summed up as holding that consciousness is ultimately grounded in or caused by some biological property of the brain and that a simulation of the brain would lack that property. This is compatible with materialism (=identity theory) but also dualism. One could be a dualist and yet hold that only biological agents could have the required relation to the non-physical mind. Indeed I would say that in my experience this is the view of the vast majority of those who accept dualism (by which I mostly mean my students). Having said that it is true that in my own thinking I lean towards physicalism (though as a side-side note I do not think that physicalism is true, only that we have no good reason to reject it) and it is certainly true that in the paper I say that this can be used to make the relevant claim about biological materialism.

At any rate, here is what Dave says about my argument.

Brown goes on to argue that simulated worlds show how one can reconcile biological materialism with the conceivability and possibility of zombies. If biological materialism is true, a perfect simulation of a biological conscious being will not be conscious. But if it is a perfect simulation in a world that perfectly simulates our physics, it will be a physical duplicate of the original. So it will be a physical duplicate without consciousness: a zombie.

I think Brown’s argument goes wrong at the second step. A perfect simulation of a physical system is not a physical duplicate of that system. A perfect simulation of a brain on a computer is not made of neurons, for example; it is made of silicon. So the zombie in question is a merely functional duplicate of a conscious being, not a physical duplicate. And of course biological materialism is quite consistent with functional duplicates.

It is true that from the point of view of beings in the simulation, the simulated being will seem to have the same physical structure that the original being seems to us to have in our world. But this does not entail that it is a physical duplicate, any more than the watery stuff on Twin Earth that looks like water really is water. (See note 7 in “The Matrix as metaphysics” for more here.) To put matters technically (nonphilosophers can skip!), if P is a physical specification of the original being in our world, the simulated being may satisfy the primary intension of P (relative to an inhabitant of the simulated world), but it will not satisfy the secondary intension of P. For zombies to be possible in the sense relevant to materialism, a being satisfying the secondary intension of P is required. At best, we can say that zombies are (primarily) conceivable and (primarily) possible— but this possibility mere reflects the (secondary) possibility of a microfunctional duplicate of a conscious being without consciousness, and not a full physical duplicate. In effect, on a biological view the intrinsic basis of the microphysical functions will make a difference to consciousness. To that extent the view might be seen as a variant of what is sometimes known as Russellian monism, on which the intrinsic nature of physical processes is what is key to consciousness (though unlike other versions of Russellian monism, this version need not be committed to an a priori entailment from the underlying processes to consciousness).

I have to say that I am sympathetic with Dave in the way he diagnoses the flaw in the argument in the paper. It is a mistake to think of the simulated world, with its simulated creatures, as being a physical duplicate of our world in the right way; especially if this simulation is taking place in the original non-simulated world. If the biological view is correct then it is just a functional duplicate, true a microfunctional duplicate, but not a physical duplicate.

While I think this is right I also think the issues are complicated. For example take the typical Russellian pan(proto)psychism that is currently being explored by Chalmers and others. This view is touted as being compatible with the conceivability of zombies because we can conceive of a duplicate of our physics as long as we mean the structural, non-intrinsic properties. Since physics, on this view, describes only these structural features we can count the zombie world as having our physics in the narrow sense. The issues here are complex but this looks superficially just like the situation described in my paper. The simulated world captures all of the structural features of physics but leaves out whatever biological properties are necessary and in this sense the reasoning of the paper holds up.

This is why I think the comparison with Russellian monism invoked by Dave is helpful. In fact when I pitched my commentary to Dave I included this comparison with Russellian monism but it did not get developed in the paper. At any rate, I think what it helps us to see is the many ways in which we can *almost* conceive of zombies. This is a point that I have made going back to some of my earliest writings about zombies.  If the identity theory is true, or if some kind of biological view about consciousness is true, then there is some (as yet to be discovered) property/properties of biological neural states which necessitate/cause /just are the existence of phenomenal consciousness. Since we don’t know what this property is (yet) and since we don’t yet understand how it could necessitate/cause/etc phenomenal consciousness, we may fail to include it in our conceptualization of a ‘zombie world’. Or we may include it and fail to recognize that this entails a contradiction. I am sympathetic to both of these claims.

On the one hand, we can certainly conceive of a world very nearly physically just like ours. This world may have all/most of the same physical properties, excepting certain necessary biological properties, and as a result the creatures will behave in indistinguishable ways from us (given certain other assumptions). On the other hand we may conceive of the zombie twin as a biologically exact duplicate in which case we do not see that this is not actually a conceivable situation. If we knew the full biological story we would be, or at least could be, in a position to see that we had misdescribed the situation in just the same way as someone who did not know enough chemistry might think they could conceive of h2o failing to be water (in a world otherwise physically just like ours). This is what I take to be the essence of the Krpkean strategy. We allow that the thing in question is a metaphysical possibility but then argue that it is actually misdescribed in the original argument. While misdescribing it we think (mistakenly) we have conceived of a certain situation being true but really we have conceived of a slightly different situation being true and this one is compatible with physicalism.

Thus while I think the issues are complex and that I did not get them right in the paper I still think the paper is morally correct. To the extent that biological materialism resembles Russellian monism is the extent to which the zombie argument is irrelevant.

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.