2021 in Review

Like most people (I assume) I can’t believe that 2021 is almost over. This year has really flown by and I am feeling very burnt out. I feel like I am getting less and less done and yet at the same time being more and more overwhelmed by what I do manage to get done.

Because of class cancelations (don’t get me started on how CUNY has handled the pandemic!) I was only able to teach 10 classes this year and I have to admit that it was nice not teaching as much as I usually do (I average around 13-14 a year and last year I did 17!!!). I am looking forward to 2022 and being able to teach the Neuroscience and Philosophy of Consciousness course with Tony Ro at the Graduate Center (in Spring in person!) and possibly even a class on David Chalmers’ book Reality+ (in Fall), though I am not sure if that will go through or not (I hope it does!)…but I have to get through my three classes in the short 6 week winter session first (starting in January)!

I also had a lot of fun with Consciousness Live! in season 4, doing 18 conversations! This was less than I planned and less than I did in 2020. Even so I did start to find it a bit overwhelming towards the end and I felt like I was underprepared for some of these conversations. I didn’t even get to schedule all of the people that agreed to come on and talk to me! If there is a season 5 I think I need to do fewer and prepare more. Aiming for one a week is just too much with my teaching load. We’ll see what I can do once I come back in January and start missing talking to cool people about consciousness 🙂

I wrote only one blog posts and tried another short story but my mostly I have been using Philosophy Sucks! (the name of my blog) for Consciousness Live! podcasting.

Part of the reason for the lite blogging is that I tried putting more time into my YouTube channel posting some videos of my recent attempts to re-learn how to skateboard, some ‘philosophical reactions‘ and other cringey things…it turns out this is a lot of work! I was experimenting with one or two of these kinds of videos per week in November and I think that if I do more of this kind of content in 2022 that I need to limit it and do fewer. I don’t think there is any way I could keep that up when my teaching schedule returns to ‘normal’.

I had two co-authored publications come out

I have another co-authored piece in the pipeline and I am hoping that makes it out someday. It’s funny because all of my recent publications have been co-authored and I actually heard through the grapevine that maybe I should publish more single authored stuff (philosophy is weird about giving credit in co-authoring situations) and I do have some recent talks that I gave which could be written up and some other projects as well but lately I have been finding it really hard to produce anything that I think is any good. Part of the reason for that is that I teach a lot, and had my first child in 2015 (the year of my last single authored piece and the year I got tenure coincidently). But the other part of the reason is a bit more complicated.

I used to jump at every publication opportunity I got because I needed to get tenure and then when I sort of thought I had done enough to get tenure I thought maybe someday I could get a job where I could teach less and have more time for all of these other projects I am constantly starting and getting overwhelmed by (like the New York Consciousness Collective and the Qualia Fest, the Online Consciousness Conference, and all of the other stuff I do as the Director of CONSC -the Center for the ONline Study of Consciousness 😉 but if I had my way I probably would have chosen not to publish them or to wait longer. Writing philosophy and enduring the publication process takes a level of self-confidence that is hard to sustain…but I did recently pull of my first feeble and smith grinds on a (small) quarter pipe and that helps a bit 🙂

See you in 2022!

Shombies vs Zombies (my interview from 3:AM magazine)

It is too bad that 3:AM magazine is now offline (for who knows how long)…just in case it doesn’t come back I found an archived version of my interview from back in 2012


Richard Marshall is moving all of his interviews with philosophers to this new site.


Shombies vs Zombies

Richard Brown interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Richard Brown is a funkybodacious philosopher of consciousness and leader of the Shombie universe. He’s asked why 1+1 has to equal 2, presented a short argument proving that there is no God, shown what’s wrong with eating meat, discussed both the delayed choice quantum eraser and pain asymbolia whils’t he flies his freak flag to Alan Turing. He denies Skynet forced him to co-write Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back Therefore I Am but has never been known to sleep. He’s another renegade philosophical musical doo bee doo from the legendary NYC bands who brought you 8-bit fusion higher-order thoughts about vegan unicorn meat with experimental breakbeats. Jammin’.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher – you had a tricky youth and clearly you had options to become a drummer in a band! Was it that philosophy rocks?

Richard Brown: Aristotle famously claimed that all people by nature desire to know. I am not so optimistic and would say merely that at least some people by nature desire to know. I count myself lucky to be among that group. As early as 5th grade I was interested in nuclear physics; having grown up near the controversial Diablo Canyon Nuclear power plant had a big influence. We had regular get-under-the-desk or get-on-a-bus-and-drive-a-safe-distance drills at the elementary school I attended and so I went out to the power plant and took a tour and spent a lot of time in the library reading about nuclear physics. I was literally horrified when I found out that they were splitting the atom to generate heat to boil water to create steam to turn a turbine. Nuclear power turned out to be just a fancy way of boiling water??!?

In general I was always very interested in highly theoretical endeavors and not so much in the implementation or practical import of those theories. I used to joke saying that I didn’t want to learn how to boil water. If there were any practical implications at all then I wasn’t interested. I looked into chemistry and biology, and was interested in genetics and molecular biology, and of course computers were just invented and by the seventh grade I was very interested in programming and learned basic and some other programming languages, but what really captured my interest was mathematical physics. By the ninth grade I was reading books on relativity physics and trying to come to grips with the idea that there is no absolute simultaneity. I had joined the speech team and I really enjoyed going to speech competitions. I competed in the Original Oratory event (and a couple of others, but this was my favorite). In this competition one delivered a pre-written 10-minute speech on something factual. In mine I made the argument that relativity physics allowed for the actual possibility of time travel.

At the same time that I was discovering physics my mother was discovering religion. She experimented with several different kinds of Christian and non-Christian beliefs, including Baptist, Pentecostal, Church of the Nazarene, and even a version of Buddhism, before eventually becoming affiliated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses (who she met because of their door-to-door witnessing). From the beginning of these interactions I found myself very skeptical of religious beliefs. The person they were describing seemed to be an insolent child who demanded attention lest they smite you with overwhelming force. I simply could not believe that there was some supremely powerful all-loving being who had created us, endowed us with reason and free will, and then demanded that we subjugate that will and reason to theirs or else suffer eternal punishment. Add to this the overwhelming amount of suffering in the world (I was reading about both World Wars and the Holocaust as well as Jack the Ripper at that time as well) and the fact that this Being was hidden and chose to reveal itself to a select few who we were all supposed to just trust (who all suspiciously lived a long time ago) and I found the whole thing extremely suspicious.

This became more and more of an issue as my mom became more involved with the Witnesses, eventually getting baptized and formally joining them, while I was getting more and more interested in physics and naturalistic explanations (we had other issues as well, but I’ll leave those aside here). Mid-way through my freshman year in high school things came to a head. My mom declared that if I were to live under her roof then I would be a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and be baptized. I ran away from home shortly after that. I continued going to school and my after school job for a couple of weeks until I eventually ended up stealing a motorcycle (it was sitting there with the keys in it and I wanted to visit the bigger county library 30 or so miles up the highway), getting caught (the motorcycle was too big for me and I could not get it out of third gear so I was easy to spot), and spending the rest of my time before turning 18 going from juvenile hall to various group homes (and vice versa).

All in all it was about four years and seven or eight different group homes before I was released in Fresno CA on my 18th birthday. It was in juvenile hall that I became aware of string theory via an article in the Smithsonian. I was instantly fascinated with it and after that I spent my time teaching myself calculus in order to try to understand the equations in the article. At that time I still thought I wanted to be a theoretical physicist and I had dreams of going to Cal Tech or Harvey Mudd College. I graduated high school early and started at a local community college taking physics and calculus.

After getting out of the system I spent the next few years trying to make a living and staying out of the system. When I had been “on the inside” a guard once told me that I was nothing but a statistic now. He said that once you were in the system you never got out of the system, and that made a big impact on me. At the time I remember thinking “yeah, but even if I do get out of the system I will still be a statistic, dumbass!” but nonetheless I resolved that I would not go down that road. I wanted my freedom. Education and my aspirations necessarily took a back seat. I did not end up going back to college until I was 24. A lot of stuff happened in between that time but I ended up working at a Burger King as the night manager (I had been working in fast food places off and on since I was 13) and playing drums in a death metal band.

One day the owner of the Burger King said, casually in conversation, that I had been doing very well and that some day I would own my own Burger King. I suddenly realized that he was right and that this was not what I wanted. Around that time I found out that I could get some help re-enrolling in the local community college though a program run by a group known as the Private Industry Council.

And so I did (along the way I ended up working at a mortuary, but that is also another story!). My first semester I had an introduction to philosophy course and I instantly knew I had found what I wanted to spend my time doing. Physics was interesting but what had always really interested me, it turns out, were the metaphysical questions. I was interested in understanding the nature of space and time and the place of human beings in a purely naturalistic world.

Once I knew that there was a long history of a conversation about this stuff dating back to Thales and other ancient Greeks, I knew that I wanted to be a part of that conversation. When I found out that in order to do philosophy professionally one usually needed to teach I thought, “ok, so I can do this and eventually get a job that let’s me do this? I am in!” (Of course at that time I was wholly ignorant of how the academic job market actually works or what it actually means to do philosophy professionally, but that is another another story!)

So, I sort of feel like I have been in training for this my whole life. It’s funny because when I was 14 I used to think that I would have my PhD in theoretical physics before I was 30. The plan was to graduate high school at 18, Bachelor’s degree by 22, 6-8 years for the PhD. No one in my family had ever been to college (neither of my parents even graduated from high school) and I was at the time incarcerated but that didn’t seem to bother me. The most surprising thing to me now is that despite the massive derailment of being locked up for four years it turns out I wasn’t that far off. I earned my PhD in Philosophy and Cognitive Science when I was 36 (in 2008), ultimately fulfilling my desire to do something with no practical application at the highest level of theoretical abstraction possible! I even managed to get a job doing it, but that is a….well you get the idea…

3:AM: So you’re interested in philosophy of mind, of consciousness and so on. You are trying to explain consciousness giving a higher order explanation of consciousness. This kind of explanation contrasts with those philosophers like Jesse Prinz who want to analyse it in terms of brain states. You say this pitches the explanation at the wrong level. Can you say something about this contrast? You don’t want a neural-philosophical account do you but you do want a naturalistic one don’t you? And how come this approach isn’t viciously circular in its explanation if consciousness appears as part of the explanation? (I know that philosophers substitute other terms for consciousness, such as ‘awareness’ in Ned Block’s case, but surely that’s just cheating.)

RB: Yeah, the issue that really caught my attention was how consciousness, and the mind more generally, fit into the picture of the world as described by our fundamental physics. I found dualism plausible as an undergraduate (I was after all a scrawny-asthmatic-math-obsessed nerd and so naturally mostly identified with my rational/mental side as against my body) but I became convinced that it was wrong shortly afterwards mostly because of causal closure. Every physical event has a complete explanation in terms of fundamental physics. If you accept that my mental states are caused by and in turn cause physical events then mental states must be physical. In addition to this we don’t seem to have a theoretical need for non-physical substances or properties when we explain behavior.

At this point it seems entirely possible to account for all animal behaviors in terms of brain activity. I don’t think that this conclusively demonstrates that consciousness is physical but it does show that it is highly desirable to have an account of consciousness that makes it part of the world described by physics.

In general I am interested merely in trying to show that it is possible that consciousness is physical in the sense of being wholly and exhaustively constituted by neurons doing what neurons do; which is ultimately collections of fundamental particles/strings/whatever doing what they do. This is the thesis of physicalism: that everything that exists is ultimately composed of nothing but the kinds of things that a completed physics talks about (notice that there is no commitment to our physics being true as it is. Rather the idea is that someday 5,000 years from now we may have a complete understanding of physics and neurons are made out of that stuff). Neurons are physical precisely because they can be completely described in the language of fundamental physics (at least in principle). But again, I never say that this is true or that I know that it is true, or even that I believe that it is true. Rather I am merely trying to say that we do not know that it is false and that we have reasons maybe even good reasons, to think that it could be true.

So yes, I do want a naturalistic account of consciousness and I am cautiously optimistic that physicalism is true as a matter of fact. And if that is so then that means that consciousness just is something neural. But the brain is just a physical object like any other. Of course, it is vastly more complicated than any other physical object, but it is physical through and through. If we don’t have some idea of what we are looking for, telling someone that this and that is happening in the brain is not going to help. It is only because we think that sensations, say, are states that represent features of objects in our environments, and that such and such activity is how the brain represents those features that we are justified in concluding that sensations just are such and such brain activity. In short what we need is a theory of the mind that is pitched at the psychological level.

Here is another way to make the point. Suppose that someone tried to give you a circuit-based explanation of what a computer is. They tell you that this resistor is connected to that capacitor and so on and so on. But none of that will enable you to understand what a computer is unless you come to understand how those circuits represent, store, and manipulate information and that requires a theory pitched at a different level.

This is what higher-order theories of consciousness try to do. It is part and parcel of our everyday experience that we have unconscious mental states. You may believe something without being aware that you believe it, you may have desires that you are unaware of, or intentions, etc. It is natural to say that the belief is unconscious when you are in no way aware of yourself as having that belief, and it is conscious when you are aware of yourself as believing it. Here we are talking about consciousness in psychological terms, in terms of being aware or unaware of being in certain other kinds of mental states. This will allow us to look into the brain and interpret the activity that we see in a meaningful way.

This is not circular because we are appealing to different things. On the one hand we are talking about mental states such as thoughts, desires, fears, pains, itches, seeings of red, etc. As noted above it looks like these states can occur consciously as well as unconsciously. Now, when they occur unconsciously they nonetheless represent, carry the same information, or however you want to put it. We understand that kind of awareness independently of our notion of consciousness. We understand it in terms of representing. We might say, as Jerry Fodor says, that the thought “I’m hungry” is like a sentence in the mind, not a sentence of any natural language but a sentence in the language of thought. We can understand the thought as somehow being about the speaker and attributing to that speaker a certain state. If you say it, it refers to you, if I say it to me. When I believe that I am hungry, on this theory, I have this sentence playing a certain functional role. It is connected to my other thoughts, and my behavior, in a certain way. So, we have an independent understanding of these things (and I use the language of thought hypothesis just as an example of how you could have an independent understanding).

When that state is conscious, as opposed to unconscious, it is, on the present account, because I am aware of myself as being in that state. This kind of awareness is the same kind as the other kinds of awareness in the mind. There is nothing special about it, except that instead of making me aware of some thing in the world, this state makes me aware of myself as being in some mental state. So the consciousness of the mental state is explained in terms of something that we understand in an independent way, and so there is no circularity.

I tend to think that even Jesse’s view is really doing this. Why does attention lead to consciousness? This would be totally mysterious unless one is thinking that attention is a general way of our becoming aware of our own mental states. Interpreted in this way Jesse is interested in giving a neuronal account of how these psychological states are realized in the brain, but that is not a neuro-philosophical theory of consciousness. The theory of consciousness is again at the psychological level and cashed out in terms of awareness. Interestingly, I once asked Jesse if he thought that by attending to something we thereby became aware of that thing, and he said yes. Maybe he would take it back now.

3:AM: Doesn’t your approach end up proposing that we can be unconsciously conscious? I guess having unconscious beliefs and desires doesn’t seem strange in these post-Freudian times, and everyone goes on automatic from time to time, but isn’t there a problem with something like a pain. How can we have a pain that doesn’t hurt? Is this what you’re discussing in your recent paper with Hakwan Lau?

RB: You are right to point this out as a consequence of the higher-order approach. According to the theory the conscious experience of pain, the painfulness and awfulness of pain, consist in my being aware of myself as being in pain and not just in my actually being in a pain state. And yes this does mean that there must be pains that don’t (consciously) hurt. We do have some commonsense reasons for thinking this is the case. We might have a pain in our knee for the whole day and yet there may be times when we are not aware of the pain, perhaps because engaged in lively discussion of some topic. So at that moment I don’t experience any painfulness. My focus is on the discussion, or whatever. Yet, if I am still limping slightly and wincing, etc., doesn’t it make sense to say that the pain is still there? It is having effects on my behavior! But if it doesn’t seem to me as though I am in pain why should we call it a conscious pain?

But we can also give an empirical argument that pain and painfulness come apart. There is a condition called Pain Asymbolia, which challenges our preconceptions about pain. Pain Asymbolics claim that they experience pain but that it does not hurt. You can poke them with a pin, burn their hand, or apply pressure and they can tell you what kind of pain and how intense it is yet they do not find it unpleasant and even smile when poked and burned! What this suggests is that pain as a sensory state is distinct from the painfulness and awfulness of the pain. The sensory component of pain tells us about bodily tissue damage and we can be aware of that sensory component as something awful and hurting or not.

This is backed up in a case that I first heard about from David Rosenthal called Dental Fear. In cases of Dental Fear dental patients that have been anesthetized complain of experiencing pain. When the doctor explains that they cannot be experiencing pain because the nerves have been blocked the patient no longer experiences pain. What is going on in this case? One plausible explanation is that the patient is experiencing vibrations from the drilling and pressure from the dentist pushing the drill into the tooth. But since the patient is afraid they interpret the pressure and vibration as pain. That is, they are aware of those states as being painful and awful when they are in fact not.

But you are right that this means that we need some way to talk about what a pain is independently of how we are conscious of it, just as with thoughts and beliefs that we were just talking about. That is, what we need is some way to say what an unconscious pain is that does not appeal to the way it appears to us. There are different ways to do this and the details get tricky but the basic idea is that a state is a pain (whether conscious or not) when it plays the right kind of role in our mental life. This means that it has certain kinds of causes and effects as well as certain characteristic relations to other kinds of pains states. A pain, whether conscious or not, will be manifest in behavior. One will still limp even if one has an unconscious pain.

Once when I was very young I noticed that my sister was limping as we were walking (barefooted) down the sidewalk. I asked here why she was limping and she said she wasn’t limping. I laughed and said she was. She looked at her foot and saw that she had stepped on a bee and its stinger was stuck into the bottom of her foot. At that point she started screaming in pain. While she was walking, and limping, it seems natural to say that my sister had a pain and that she just was not aware of being in pain. When she became aware of it, it became painful for her. This seems like a normal common sense description of what is going on in this kind of case, and if so then unconscious pains don’t seem all that strange to me.

This is related to the brief discussion of overflow in the paper with Hakwan Lau, but it is not our main focus. There we are more interested in trying to argue that there is good empirical reason to think that some kind of higher-order theory could be true, but one of the things we address is Ned Block’s argument that there is more in our conscious experience that we can cognitively access. There is a very interesting empirical issue here, which is what Ned has called ‘the methodological problem’. What kind of evidence could we have that there is consciousness that we are not able to access (at any given moment)? We agree with Ned that we want to look at how the proposals make sense of the widest swath of empirical evidence, and we argue that leans towards the higher-order approach and against overflow. But there are also more general issues with the idea of overflow. It is not at all clear what it would even mean to say that there is a mental state, a pain say, that is conscious in any sense but which the subject denies having (at that moment). How could it possibly be painful if the subject was in no way aware of being in it? On the other hand, to the extent that one thinks that one must be aware of the pain in order for it to be consciously painful for one, then the higher-order kind of awareness seems like the best candidate.

Before I started working with Hakwan I was a lot more cautious about this stuff. I used to say that the higher-order theory “was not obviously false,” meaning that there is no blatant contradiction in the theory (it is not circular, etc), but now I have clicked it up a notch to “it could be true”. This is mostly because I think there is pretty decent experimental evidence that something like a higher-order theory is true. There seem to be cases where we have conscious experience without activity in the sensory (lower) areas of the brain and we have evidence that selectively interfering with areas in the frontal (higher) part of the brain induces lower confidence in judgments about seeing or not seeing something while not affecting the ability of subjects to actually detect those things.

Notice, though, that I would be just as happy if it turned out to be false. As I said I am optimistic about the chances for physicalism, at the moment I think the higher-order theory has the best chance of being true, but it could be that Jesse is right, or some other naturalistic theory could turn out to be true. In general this is what makes me an optimist about physicalism. There may be many ways that consciousness could be physical, so let’s explore those ways.

I happened to study with David Rosenthal, who is a well-known defender of a certain version of this kind of theory, and so I know a lot about it. It also happens to be wrongly maligned by some who only engage with straw versions of the theory, so yes I defend it, but I don’t advocate it to the exclusion of other naturalistic candidates. I advocate a proliferation of theories. It is only with well-developed theories tested against our best empirical evidence that we will move forward on these debates. So these are very interesting times!

3:AM: One of the things you are passionate to defend is the reality of phenomenal consciousness. For you there are three kinds of consciousness. There’s state, transitive consciousness and phenomenal consciousness. Can you say a little about each of these and why this third element, phenomenal consciousness, is not to everyone’s taste?

RB: ‘Phenomenal consciousness’ is a fancy term to name a simple idea. We all know that we have conscious experience. This has evolved into a technical term for the properties of our experience in virtue of which there is something that it is like for us to have the experience. It is totally and completely obvious that I have conscious experiences of sounds, colors, shapes, thoughts, desires, etc. What is less obvious is that my experiences have properties that represent the way things are. One way to see this is to engage in something like Cartesian Doubt. Here I am sitting in my room typing away on my computer. I see various shapes and hear various sounds as I try to express my various thoughts. But yet I can coherently imagine that all this is happening in some dream or computer simulation.

Now compare that to what is going on in a fancy digital camera. Both the camera and I could be pointed towards the same visual stimulus, an orange, say. We are both exposed to the same wavelength of light, and we both capture that light and perform some computations as a result. Yet in me there is a conscious experience of the color orange while in the camera, presumably, there is not. It seems quite natural to put this, as Thomas Nagel once did, by saying that there is something that it is like for me to see the orange but yet there is nothing that it is like for the camera. Or to take Nagel’s own example, consider the bat. Surely the bat is conscious and there is something that it is like for the bat to perceive objects in its environment by echolocation but since we don’t perceive that way we can’t know what it is like for the bat. Phenomenal consciousness just is the idea that our mental life is like something for us. We are not computers that merely process information in the dark, we have an inner life and it is replete with sounds, colors, shapes, emotions, thoughts, judgments, pains, itches, tickles, dizziness, nausea, the list goes on and on.

Put in this way I do not think that there is anyone who could deny that phenomenal consciousness exists. There is some temptation to say, with Descartes, that it is the thing we are the most certain of in the entire world. Even if I am living in a computer simulation, which I take to be a possibility, I am conscious.

Others dislike the term ‘phenomenal consciousness’ because it is a technical term introduced into the literature by Ned Block and so comes with certain theoretical baggage. If the term implicitly carries with it the implication that consciousness is a property of states that they must have even when the subject is in no way aware of themselves as being in the sate then one will be pre-disposed to think of consciousness in a way that is not favorable to certain theoretical outlooks, for instance the higher-order approach. I whole-heartedly agree with this. We should not build any major theoretical commitments into the notion of phenomenal consciousness. It is simply that, whatever it is, which I could have even if this were a dream or if I were living in the Matrix. It is important that we start off the investigation into the nature of consciousness with a neutral conception of what it is. All parties should be able to agree on what the target for explanation is. What we want to understand is consciousness. Saying that there is no consciousness may be provocative but it is really just a non-starter.

3:AM: You part company with Dan Dennett and others on qualia don’t you? Denying this is this something you find scandalous. I’d have thought as a mad dog philosopher of mind you’d have been cool about any counter-intuitive stuff. Why is it so important to you (and others like Searle) even though so many others in your field are happy to Quine the Qualia?

RB: I am all for counter-intuitive stuff (given that there is compelling reasons to accept it) but denying that there is consciousness is just crazy! I am not often tempted to say that I know something but I am tempted to say that I know that I am conscious. When Dennett says that he wants to Quine Qualia he really means that he wants to do away with some particular conception of conscious experience. So if you define Qualia as being intrinsic, ineffable, and private features of experience then you might want to say that there are no such properties, or if you define qualia as non-physical properties of experience, then you might want to deny that there are any such properties. So in that sense, the sense in which Dennett is attacking a highly theoretical notion that is far-removed from our day-to-day conscious lives, then I am happy to be on his side.

But surely even Dennett consciously experiences pains, the sounds of music, the taste of food, the exhilarating highs of intellectual achievements, etc. You mention Searle and I remember once as an undergraduate in San Francisco being at one of Searle’s talks and him talking about Consciousness Explained.

He said, “What do I have to do? Pinch myself and publish the results in the Journal of Philosophy?” and I thought “hell yeah, that’s the way you do it!” As someone who is optimistic about physicalism we should not give up the game right off the bat. We want consciousness, the same stuff the dualist is talking about, and we want that to be physical, to depend on the brain in a way that we can understand within the confines of our fundamental physical theory. We don’t want to say that consciousness doesn’t exist or that we have something that is somehow less than what the dualists are talking about. We have got to be talking about the same thing here! They think that thing isn’t physical, I think it could be physical but we agree on the target.

3:AM: You use an example about the taste of whisky and the concept of oaky to argue that concepts change phenomenal states. Is that right? Does this mean that if I have a concept and just apply it to something it wouldn’t normally be applied to I’d produce some new phenomenal conscious state?

RB: This is an adaptation of an argument of David Rosenthal’s. The idea is that it is part of or ordinary experience that acquiring concepts in this way can change what it is like for us to have the experience. But how could acquiring a concept make that difference? One plausible way this could happen is that acquiring the concept allows us to be aware of a difference in the original state that we were not able to be aware of previously. The mental state that is the taste of the whiskey is the same as it was before, but you are now aware of it in a different way. You come to be aware of it in respect of the oakiness and being aware of it in that way changes what it is like for you to have the experience. This suggests that the higher-order approach is at least a possible explanation of how pains come to be painful for us.

Critics of this argument usually respond that it may be the case that acquiring the concept comes to change the first order state itself. So, perhaps the oakiness component of the taste was not present unconsciously, perhaps it was created by the concept. That is, perhaps applying the concept actually changed the state which was the ‘taste of whiskey’. But this would be very strange! How could acquiring a concept bring about this change in the other mental state? It is not like what happens when we expect something and this causes a first-order state, as when an initiate expects to be burned and so experiences a burning kind of pain when an ice cube is applied to their skin while blindfolded. Here there is no expectation that the whiskey taste a certain way. Rather you learn a new word and that changes the way the experience seems to you. I think this is a strong argument that points towards higher-order awareness being crucially involved in phenomenal consciousness.

3:AM: You’re famous for your Shombies. So in the movie, Shombie vs Zombie and Swamp Mary, why does the Shombie win? What does this show? Why does Dave Chalmers object and how would he rewrite the ending?

RB: Haha, I wouldn’t say famous! Shombies for me were the product of an argument I had on my blog Philosophy Sucks! with Richard Chappell, who was then a graduate student at Princeton. The zombie argument goes, roughly, as follows. It seems conceivable that there be a physical duplicate of me that lacked conscious experience. If so, then it is possible for our world to have been that way and so physicalism is false.

My problem with this well known argument was that people just assert that they really can conceive of these philosophical zombies. I am willing to admit that it is plausible that if something is conceivable in the right way then that thing is a real possibility for how our actual world might be (for the sake of argument). But why should we think that zombies are really conceivable? It seems like a real possibility that we are not conceiving what we think we are. We may, for instance, be conceiving of a world that is very physically similar to ours but which lacks consciousness. It may, for instance, be a world where there are creatures like us but with no higher-order awareness, and so no consciousness.

How do we rule this out unless we already know that the higher-order theory of consciousness is wrong? Simply asserting that they had successfully done this was massively question begging. At most we are entitled to say that it seems to a particular person that zombies are conceivable and so the conclusion would have to be that it seems to them that physicalism is false, not that it actually is. As a way to try to get them to see how frustrating this argument against physicalism was and to try to show them how they sounded to me when they said they could do this I said that I could conceive of a physical duplicate with consciousness, and I think I can. In fact, I think many people can. That is a shombie.

Afterwards I found out that Keith Frankish, Kati Balog, Gualtiero Piccinini, and others had made this basic move already. Keith calls these beings ‘anti-zombies’ but the basic argument is exactly the same. Keith and I had a discussion about this on Philosophy TV that was very interesting, and as a result I think there are some issues there that separate us.

For instance, Keith denies that there is any neutral conception of consciousness (though I gather that he used to believe there was). But if this is right then there is the question of what he means when he says that he is conceiving of anti-zombies. It seems like he might be conceiving of a creature with the kind of ‘consciousness’ that Dennett would be happy with. If so, and if that is different from the ordinary notion of consciousness that I and others are working with, then it looks like he is not really conceiving of the same thing that I am when I think about shombies. Shombies, as I said, have consciousness in the way that the dualists, and I, think we have consciousness right now; it is just that their consciousness is exhaustively physical. That is conceivable, and so possible.

Swamp Mary would actually be on the side of shombies! Swamp Mary is Pete Mandik’s thought experiment where we imagine the famous neuroscientist locked in a black and white room known as Mary after she has seen red. We imagine a complete duplicate of her springs into existence and falls into a deep slumber. This Swamp Mary knows what it is like to see red but has never actually seen it. Mandik’s challenge is to try to explain why Mary inside the room, before she has seen red, is in any way different from Swamp Mary. His strategy is to try and force the physicalist to admit that Mary could know what it was like to see red from within her room. I am certainly sympathetic to that view, though I am not entirely happy with the Swamp Mary argument for it.

As for who wins, that is a tricky question. My initial strategy was to try and show that these kind of a priori arguments were actually just showing us which theories we already accepted. So, if you have an intuition that zombies are possible then rather than showing that physicalism is false this really shows that the person in question is a dualist, or a physicalist who denied the connection between conceivability and possibility. If one thinks that intuitions are the product of internalized theories then we won’t know which intuition is right until we know which theories are true. This in turn shows that we should put these a priori arguments on the back burner, so to speak, and focus on empirically testing our best theories. This is why in my recent work I have been paying attention to the question of what kind of empirical support there is for higher-order theories of consciousness. If there is convincing evidence that this is way that consciousness is produced in the brain then that would show that shombies are really the conceivable ones as opposed to zombies. Either way, though, it seems to me that for us, at least, these kinds of a priori arguments will only be relevant once they are no longer relevant.

How would Dave write the ending? I think he takes these kinds of intuitions more seriously than I would. It is an appealing kind of view to have. I think that his view is that it is zombies that are really conceivable and that shows that shombies are not really conceivable. But in so far as I am inclined to accept that intuitions can really be a guide to reality I just find that shombies are much more conceivable than zombies. And once we reach this point the real issue arises. What explains the fact that some people find shombies conceivable and others find zombies conceivable? The most reasonable answer, it seems to me, is that these intuitions are the result of internalized theory.

3:AM: How rational can anyone be in theorising about the mind? So Frank Jackson thinks that Mary in her black and white world with total knowledge of physics doesn’t know what its like to see red, Paul Churchland disagrees, Dan Dennett finds the discussion damaging, Michael Tye comes up with a PANIC theory, Jackson changes his mind, Dave Chalmers responds to Ned Block and Robert Stalnaker’s response, and you say Qualia and Mandik responds and Frankish responds to you responding and on it goes. Yet all of these guys are pretty much at the same level of super-smartness and know the same stuff as each other. They are genuinely peers. Isn’t it rational to concede in this situation that my own theory is no more likely to be true than the others and so I should lose confidence in my own? Continuing the debate by disagreeing and defending one’s own position is therefore irrational isn’t it?

RB: This is a very good question! I think there are two ways of answering it. One is personal and the other is not.

From the personal perspective, one might think that what matters in philosophy is one’s own self coming to understand certain issues with greater clarity. This is in some way related to Socrates’ view about philosophy and his famous interpretation of the command to Know Thyself. In this sense philosophy is a personal obligation of each and every person to investigate their own beliefs and make sure that they are true, or at least have some kind of plausible justification.

The other way to answer it is from the perspective of the field. I think philosophers should think of our job as canvassing the theoretical landscape. We want to know every possible permutation and every possible interrelation between every possible theory. We can think of philosophers as a kind of explorers of logical space. We have been working on this grand unified map of possibilities for some time now and this constitutes progress in philosophy, at least of a sort. If so then it doesn’t really matter who is right about how things actually are, what matters is exploring logical space.

But I do have some sympathy with your main point. Look, we have all these smart people and they can’t even agree on whether there is such a thing as phenomenal consciousness, so what’s the point? I think this is interesting, and a very hard problem. On of my professors, Saul Kripke, famously pointed out a certain paradox in this area. If one really has knowledge, and so knows some fact, call it P, then one should ignore evidence that would contradict P. So, to take astrology as an example, we know that astrology is B.S. and so we feel justified in ignoring any evidence that would seem to support its claims (say, you find out all of your best friends are the signs that the astrologists say are most compatible with your sign). The puzzle, for Kripke, is when is this allowed, and when isn’t it?

I take a different lesson from this puzzle. It seems to me that it is always a bad idea ignore evidence. Evidence can be over-ridden or defeated but it shouldn’t be ignored until it has been defeated. This suggests that it is a bad idea to think that one has knowledge in the first place. This is my interpretation of the Socratic idea that one needs to embrace that one does not know before one can start the journey towards knowledge. Socrates claimed that he knew only that he did not know and this made him wiser than those who did not know but that thought they did. I would not be so bold; I don’t even know that I don’t know!

But seriously, I am very cautious when it comes to knowledge. And really I think a bit of humility is required here. If you look at the course of human history, then you see that we have only really been doing what we do now, living in society, reading, writing, etc, for around 5,000 years or so (by contrast Homo Sapiens appear to have evolved almost 200,000 years ago).

Modern science has only been around for 400 years, give or take, and particle physics and quantum field theory for even less. If we assume that we don’t kill ourselves off or die from some other catastrophic event (asteroid, zombie apocalypse, etc) then it is very hard to say what the science 5,000, 10,000, or 100,000 years from now will look like. Our physics may seem very advanced to us, but so did Aristotle’s physics to the people of his day, and it was disastrously wrong (e.g. in assuming that heavier objects would fall faster than lighter objects). What will the science that makes ours look as simplistic as Aristotle’s look like? We can’t say.

3:AM: One thing you say about why consciousness seems a mystery is that theories start with it as a whole thing whereas you think if we build up to it step by step the explanation seems more plausible. Is that right? But if intuitions are what Frank Jackson says, kind of implicit theories, then this isn’t going to help someone if you are someone who whose theory assumes consciousness, the target phenomenon, can’t be something broken down ?

RB: Yes, I think this is right. This was a point that David Rosenthal emphasized in his classic paper ‘Two Concepts of Consciousness’. If one defines consciousness as a mysterious non-reducible thing then it is no mystery why it turns out to be mysterious and non-reducible. The higher-order approach has a ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategy to explaining consciousness. The first step, as mentioned earlier, is to separate mental properties from consciousness. We have good reason to think that thoughts and sensations occur unconsciously and have various causal connections and it is reasonable to assume that the mental properties that have these causal connections are the same when they occur unconsciously.

So, if a pain sensation is a certain kind of mental state that is supposed to represent bodily damage, and if it does so by having a certain qualitative character, then we should expect that very same qualitative character to be present when the state occurs unconsciously. But, since we have separated consciousness from qualitative character, there will nothing that it is like for someone to have this unconscious pain. The conscious experience of pain results from one being aware of oneself as being in the pain state and this gives us a way to explain what consciousness is.

3:AM: In your paper ‘Deprioritizing The A Priori Arguments Against Physicalism’ you conclude not only are there any a priori reasons against physicalism but there aren’t any against dualism either. This might surprise many who for years have been told by Dennett and co that Dualism was a non-starter. So is Cartesianism still alive? Is this where the idea of ‘Overflow’ comes in?

RB: I do think that dualism has received somewhat of a bad rap and I don’t think that Dennett is especially fair to dualism. As I have already said, I don’t think we can prove that physicalism is true. At best, I think, we can prove that it is possibly true, and maybe get to the point where it is reasonable to believe that it is true, but not to the point where we can say that we know that it is true.

The most powerful argument for physicalism, at least from my point of view, has always been the argument from the causal closure of the physical world together with the obviousness of mental causation, and this is the argument that Dennett also endorses. But what are we to make of causal closure? Is it an empirical truth or something that can be known a priori? Well, we seem to have discovered the conservation of mass and energy empirically and in so far as that is evidence for causal closure then it looks like that was an empirical discovery for us as well. But if so, then it could be false.

On the other hand if it is something that could, in principle, be known a priori, it doesn’t conclusively rule out dualism since (some) physical events may be over-determined (an event is over-determined when there are two things each of which would bring about the effect but only one of which does, e.g. if you and I both throw rocks at a window at the same time then the window’s breaking is over-determined). This is to say that perhaps there is a physical cause of my bodily motions, but there may also be an over-determining mental cause.

Also, it is possible to accept causal closure and reject the idea of mental causation, resulting in epiphenomenalism. This view seems to me highly undesirable, but that doesn’t show that it is false.

Finally, there is the response that some interpretations of quantum mechanics allow dualism. Chalmers has argued that on the view that the collapse of the wave function requires a conscious observer fits nicely with dualism, and I think that this is right. This is why I think the two views are on a par a priori-wise. The battle has to be fought on the empirical level.

Another wrinkle here, and one I haven’t talked about yet, is the possibility of what Chalmers has called Type-F Monism. This view is roughly inspired by Kant and holds that physics as we know it describes the relational properties of reality but leaves out the intrinsic fundamental nature of reality. So, one might wonder, what is it that has mass and charge and spin? Perhaps there are some fundamental properties that we are cut off from.

One could view this as a kind of dualism. Since if there are properties in reality that transcend our physics there are things which are not physical in the strict sense. But on the other hand one could view this as a kind of physicalism. If the physics of the future is expanded to include these more basic features then in a way we can say that these things are physical. In a way this has happened already. It is a familiar story that modern physics as we know it today only developed because of the addition of a fundamentally new kind of thing, the field. So in a way this view preserves what the physicalist wants but it also preserves the spirit of dualism. This is an extremely interesting theory that is just now being developed in detail, so it will be interesting to see what happens as a result.

This is different from the idea of overflow, which is the idea that we experience more than we can cognitive access at any given moment. We are arguing that our conscious experience of the world may be a lot less detailed than we think that it is. That is an issue which is independent of the debate between the physicalist and the dualist.

3:AM: You’ve wondered whether Moogles and Final Fantasy creatures could exist. What if we found a creature that seemed to fit the Chocobo? You say Kripke no less would say NO! What do you say?

RB: I think that given the way our world is (or the way I think it is), then it is impossible for there to be a Chocobo in real life, but a Fool’s Chocobo would be good enough for me!

3:AM: I asked Pete Mandik and he had no worries if he turned out to be the guy who led to Skynet and The Terminator. (He thought it would lead to concessions that would protect him!) But what you worry about is that pesky ‘the’. You think it makes everything ambiguous. What’s the issue? Would ‘Terminator’ beat ‘The Terminator’?

RB: Haha, well I don’t really worry about it! As graduate student in the Bay Area I found out about the pop culture and philosophy books and had the Simpsons and Philosophy and Seinfeld and philosophy books when they came out. One of the very first critical thinking classes I ever taught was done with the Simpsons and Philosophy book. I liked the books but wished there was more current topics in philosophy dealt with. Where were the chapters on Kripke, Dennett, Searle, etc?

When I got the chance to edit that book I figured a lot of people would send in articles on mind-related issues, and I had had the chance to study with some really good philosophers of language (Kent Bach, Michael Devitt, Saul Kripke, Ruth Millikan) and I really wanted to bring some of that debate out of the ivory tower and down to main street. The series editor did not like my paper because he thought it had no practical import and I was pushed to come up with some kind of practical import for the debate (hence the lame bit about the name of the movies).

There isn’t really one, though, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting! This is a part of the world that we want to understand, and that is valuable in its own right. Of course, there are some consequences for one’s view of the mind, or how it connects to the world depending on how you go so it is not as though there are no practical implications of the debate.

The issue is over whether the word ‘the’ is ambiguous, like the word ‘bank’ or not. Usually one is told that the word ‘the’ is used, in English, to indicate uniqueness. It is usually held to be equivalent to ‘the one and only’. But there are many instances where we use the word ‘the’ in such a way that strictly interpreting it as meaning ‘the one and only’ would make the sentence false. So, if I say ‘the dog is hungry,’ while looking at my dog looking at me, it seems I say something true. The dog is hungry, just look at it! But, my dog is not the only dog, so the ‘the’ in that sentence must mean something different from the standard ‘the one and only’. That is the ambiguity claim.

The other side thinks that the sentence, strictly speaking, does mean ‘the one and only dog is hungry’ and that the speaker uses that (false) sentence as a way to communicate to someone that this particular dog is hungry (which is true). That is, a speaker can use a false sentence to communicate something true. This seems like something we do all the time, as when I say ‘I feel like a burrito’ in response to someone asking me what I want to eat. What I mean to communicate is that I feel like eating a burrito, but what I say is that I feel like one, which I don’t. If I felt like a burrito then I would feel like beans and cheese and rice in a tortilla, which is not how I feel at all!


3:AM: It seems inevitable that to think about thinking you have to engage with metametaphysical ideas? Can you say what metametaphysicalism is, and perhaps outline an important contemporary issue in it, the discussion of two-dimensional semantics between Ned Block and David Chalmers.

RB: Metametaphysical questions are questions about the status of metaphysical questions. So, for instance, take two metaphysical theories about ordinary objects and their properties. On one view, roughly Plato’s view, we have objects, like a red ball, but we also have abstract objects like redness, which is red itself apart from any red object. On another view we just have red objects and no abstract redness. Red, on this view, is just the set of all red objects. This view is sometimes called nominalism. These, as I said, are metaphysical theories. They are theories about the ultimate nature of reality. Metametaphysical questions then deal with the status of these kinds of debates. Is there really an answer to the question of which of these is true? If there is really an answer then how do arrive at it?

There are a lot of facets to the disagreement between Ned and Dave but the one that most interests me is over how reduction in the sciences works. On Dave’s view identities like ‘water=H2O’ are the product of a priori reasoning. So, we start with something like ‘water is the wet, clear, liquid that falls from the sky, fills lakes, etc’ and then we find out that the wet, clear, liquid that falls from the sky is composed of H2O and so we can deduce that water is H2O.

On the view that Ned has we can’t do this kind of thing. Rather identity statements are postulated because of the explanatory power we get from the identity. It is because we identify water and H2O that we can explain the behavior of water in terms of the properties of H2O.

My own sympathies tend to go with Dave here but I wouldn’t be too surprised to find out that Ned’s way of doing things was right. This is the metametaphysical question. What would count as evidence for or against these views? One strategy has been to argue that there is something deeply unsettling about the idea that identities are brute –that they just are and have no explanation for why they are, but, then again, if they are brute, then they are brute.

3:AM: You’re a Kantian of sorts, which is an odd mix given the naturalist company you keep philosophically. You recently brooded in a Kantian way on Kant’s views on suicide and started to rethink your views about the status of his theory. You’d thought it was some sort of natural law theory Kant was advancing against suicide but changed your mind. So where do you stand on suicide now?

RB: Yeah, the difference between Kant and Kantians is that Kantians are not committed to endorsing all of Kant’s ideas but just the most basic tenets of the theory and I have never agreed with Kant about suicide. My views on suicide have always been the same. I think that in some cases it is cowardly and in other cases it is noble. Overall I find nothing objectionable about suicide. In my case my drive to live is very strong and I do not want to die but if someone else did and was of sound mind then that is their right.

3:AM: And to pick up on that naturalism and Kant issue, isn’t there an inherent contradiction that we see vividly when we contrast, say Christine Korsgaard‘s approach to ethics with Pat Churchland‘s? How do you square that circle?

RB: This is a very interesting question. It is true that I feel pulled from both ends, as it were. As I have said already, rationalism is an attractive view and I admit to being influenced in that direction. But at the same time on reflection we seem to have reasons to be skeptical of the claims that rationalists make. Something that seems impossible and contradictory at one time may at a later date be shown to be actually possible.

History shows us that this has happened time and time again (for instance, like the possibility of non-Euclidean geometry). What I take this to show is that if we do come to know eternal and necessary truths about reality via reason then it can seem to us that we have them even when we don’t, and that should give us pause when we come across something that seems intuitively obvious.

On top of that it seems plausible that creatures like us that evolved in a world with the physics that our world has would come to have “built into them” certain basic truths about the world as tracked by successful ancestors. In fact we could imagine that they do so even though those basic truths were merely regularities and not necessarily true. If so then we would have creatures that are in the same epistemic position as we are but who are not tracking necessary truths. This seems to me to be an extension of Hume’s basic argument, and is the main reason I am reluctant to give in to rationalism.

As an added worry, for any given purported necessary fact I think we can imagine that it be false. Even such basic facts as that an object is necessarily self-identical, or that the number seven exists, or is odd, can be imagined to be false. None of this shows that rationalism is false, but I think it does show that the burden of proof is on their side. We have a relatively well-understood notion of how we could acquire empirical knowledge, but we have no clue of what to say about how we would acquire the kind of knowledge that the rationalist is talking about.

But even so, the basic logical axioms seem to be true. That is, even if I am hesitant to say that we know that they are necessarily true, I am not at all hesitant to say that they are actually true. Take a basic logical rule such universal instantiation. This rule says that if we know that, for some range of things, something is true of all of them then it is true of any given one. Thus if we know that all dogs are mammals then we know that any given dog, say my dog, is a mammal.

This kind of thing certainly seems to be true, and what’s more is the kind of thing that you couldn’t teach to someone. Any attempt to teach this rule would depend on the rule itself (this is a point that Kripke makes, which is similar to the well-known point about Modus Ponens. How could you convince someone who denied “if p then q, p, therefore q”? Any way you would try to do so would involve using modus ponens (or, some argument that depended on it)). So is this a necessary truth about reality or just the way we evolved? I don’t know. ‘An evolved innate truth’ seems more plausible to me, but ‘necessary truth about reality known by reason’ seems sexier. But none of this stops me from saying that it is true (or that it is known, by us, through reason).

How does this apply to ethics? Well, I think that both utilitarianism and Kantianism as typically understood ultimately rely on an instance of the above logical rule. Take utilitarianism. In its most basic form it says that an action is right in so far as it produces the greatest amount of pleasure and least amount of pains among sentient beings. This depends, ultimately, on accepting that pleasure is intrinsically good. But why should I care about your pleasures? Bentham, the modern founder of utilitarianism, said that his theory could be summed up by saying that “each should count as one and none for more than one”. We can take this to mean that your pleasure is just as valuable as mine is.

How do we get this conclusion? We recognize that pleasure in our own case is valuable. We seek it out, and we avoid pain. But if pleasure is valuable in our own case then it must also be valuable when it appears in your consciousness. That is, we have to apply an instance of universal instantiation. All pleasures are good, yours is a pleasure, so yours is good. Thus if I am to consistently value my own pleasure I must accord it the same level of value wherever it occurs; Whether in you, a stranger, my own mother, or a goat. By way of an analogy it is just the same as if I were to conclude the diamond that I own is valuable and then I find out that you have a similar diamond. I would be forced to conclude that your diamond is as valuable as mine is. Of course, it isn’t valuable to me, but to you.

The Kantian story is a bit different but relies on the same basic move. We start here by recognizing that we use practical reason as a way to achieve our ends. So in my own case I recognize that setting goals for myself and then reasoning about the way to achieve those goals is a reason to treat me in certain ways. If you were to come and enslave me I would object, in part, because you are not allowing me to exercise my autonomy in setting my own goals for myself and in determining the best way to achieve them.

The reason that it is wrong to use a person to pull a plow but not wrong to use a horse in this way is because the horse is not capable of having goals which you are interrupting or in formulating and evaluating ways to achieve those goals which you are thwarting. If I were to use you to pull a plow then I would be preventing you from achieving the goals that you have set for yourself via the means you deemed necessary to achieve them. But it is not as though the horse is thinking, “if only I did not have to pull this plow then I could get my B.A. degree so that I could finally open that small business I always wanted,” and so on.

So, in my own case if someone were to kidnap me and make me pull a plow then I would resent them because I have other goals and ends that I want to pursue and have devised plans on how to achieve these goals. But if I recognize that in my own case rational autonomy is valuable then I must recognize that in all cases where there is means-ends reasoning there is value.

Putting these two together means that reason demands that I recognize that human beings are ends in themselves as well as that pleasure/pain is equally good/bad everywhere it occurs in the same amount.

So ultimately, then, I disagree with Churchland on this issue. We may have evolved to care about those closer to us than those further away from us, but we also evolved to track logical truths like universal instantiation and Modus Ponens. It is with our evolved reasoning capabilities that we are able to transcend our evolved emotional capabilities. We can see why we would have evolved to care about those closest to us the most. That helps to ensure our offspring’s survival. But reason tells us that if that is a good for me, then that is a good for you, and so if my offspring matter, then so do yours.

[Richard Brown, left]

3:AM: Of course, not only are you a funky philosopher you are also the philosopher of Funkomenological Overflow. Can you say something about this and say how important music making is to you? Space Clamps, Quiet Karate Reflex and the William James Trio are all key bands – are there other faves and influences?

RB: I have always been into music and pretty much always wanted to play music. I had my eye on the drums as far back as sixth grade. I never got ahold of a drum set until I was almost 19, and so I had been playing for almost five years by the time I entered college again. I always used to joke that I did not know whether philosopher or musician was my fall back! I played in a couple of different groups during my time in San Francisco and that was a lot of fun (you can hear some samples on the Musical Autobiography page of my blog).

Eventually when I got to New York City I started noticing that a lot of my fellow grad students played music. We eventually started getting together semi-regularly to have jam sessions for whoever wanted to come by and play. Thus the New York Consciousness Collective was born (originally called The Neural Correlates of David Chalmers, aka NC/DC). Originally it consisted of Peter Langland-Hassan, Josh Weisberg, David Pereplyotchick, Pete Mandik, Russell Marcus, Doug Meheen, myself, and assorted others. Everyone except Pete was a grad student. We would get together in the rehearsal studio that Peter had and just rock out.

Sometimes we would have like 5 guitars playing at the same time… or at least that is what it felt like! I used to have a bunch of recordings of the sessions, but I lost them all when my computer crashed a few years back. Now all that is left from that early stage is a Myspace page and a video I made back when I was learning how to use iMovie.

I had always thought it would be great fun to move out of the rehearsal space and try this at a local venue. The music was often chaotic but sometimes it sounded good, and besides philosophers like to drink! I used to have time to meet musicians and play but as I went through grad school and made the transition to full-time faculty member I had less and less time to play with non-academics.

We were just on different schedules. So after Peter left town due to getting a job, which resulted in our not having a place to congregate, I decided to see if we could book the show at a local spot with a backline. When I had first moved to nyc I went to a jam session at the Parkside Lounge and so I thought I would ask them. They agreed and for over a year we held monthly jam sessions for neuroscientists and philosophers there. This culminated in the first Qualia Fest in December 2010, which had Quiet Karate Reflex’s debut performance opening for The Amygdaloids (a group led by NYU neuroscientist Joe LeDoux) and then a performance of the Zombie Blues with David Chalmers. This was videoed and a part of it was used in Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman in a segment they did on Dave Chalmers.

We held the second Qualia Fest in 2011 with Quiet Karate Reflex and the debut of William James Trio and the Space Clamps, all three of which had me on the drums! Plus we had the Zombie Blues and a jam session. This was held at the Local 269 in the lower East Side of Manhattan and it was a wild night!

After that we had the Funkomenological Overflow with WJ3, QKR, and the Clamps. I played in all three groups again, one after the other, which is quite a trip because the music is very different. WJ3 plays funky jazz standards, QKR is a hybrid experimental group using an 8bit Gameboy, and Space Clamps are like a funky psychedelic circus. We will be back at the Local 269 June 23rd to celebrate Alan Turing’s 100th birthday. It also happens to be Gay Pride in NYC and so not only do we get a chance to celebrate Turing’s intellectual achievements but we also get to celebrate how far we have come on the issue of gay rights. After his service in WWII Turing was convicted of homosexuality and given the choice between prison and chemical castration. This is despicable treatment of someone who should have been honored as a national hero and an intellectual giant. In addition I hope to have Qualia Fest III in the fall!

I have delusions of trying to organize a conference/music festival with presentations during the day and music by presenters at night. It could happen…There are other faculty bands out there. In philosophy there are the 21st Century Monads who write really cool songs about philosophy. I have heard of a group known as The Critique of Pure Rhythm that sounds pretty good. I am sure there are others, and if you include bands that have at least one philosopher or scientist in them I am sure the number goes up even more.

As for other music, to be honest I don’t have the time to listen to a lot of music these days but when I do I enjoy everything from classic Napalm Death to Peter Tosh to P-Funk to Coltrane to whatever is on Hot 97. I used to go and see a lot of music and have seen bands across the gamut, including Suffocation, Cannibal Corpse, Napalm Death, Sepultura, Slayer, Metallica, Motley Crue, Poison (!!), Warrant (!), Sick of It All, the Grateful Dead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Skatalites, The Jerry Garcia Band, Primus, Beastie Boys, Erika Badu, Cypress Hill, P-Funk (I have seen P-Funk at least 10 times), Guided by Voices, Beastie Boys, Rage against the Machine, Pat Martino, John Schofield, Burning Spear, Smashing Pumpkins, Dub Syndicate, Black Uhuru, Israel Vibration, Eek-a-Mouse, and a bunch of others. These days when I go and see music it is usually something like Galactic or anyone from the Greyboy All-stars, Karl Denson, Robert Walters, Elgin Park. Recently while in New Orleans to give a talk at the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology I had the chance to see Johnny Vidacovich, a New Orleans legend, and it was really cool. That same trip I also got to see Russell Batiste Jr., the drummer who played with the Funky Meters. That was quite a trip!

3:AM: If your NYC Funkomenologists are one groove sensation in philosophy, the xphi set around Josh Knobe in Yale and everywhere is another movement of genuine philosophical excitement and buzz. Are you interested in xphi at all? Could it help with sorting ut some of your concerns? (And wouldn’t it be great to get the xphi indi music makers to jam with you guys? A kind of Philosophical Woodstock.)

RB: I have mixed feelings about Xphi, like many philosophers. I think that in the long run it is not clear that it will survive. Philosophy is full of fads that come and go and xphi may end up being one of them. For example, no one cares much about ‘ordinary language philosophy’ anymore, at least not in the way that they did when it was in its heyday. On the other hand there are areas where it seems like it can do some good. For instance, in linguistics intuitions about meaning are often taken as evidence. If English speakers find some sentence to be grammatical then that is evidence that the sentence is grammatical.

So then if some philosophers like Kripke says that a certain term refers in a certain way and yet English speakers disagree with him, then that is something that the people who work in that area need to pay attention to. Also, some philosophers make claims about what the average person accepts or doesn’t accept. Dennett is a classic example. He says in many places that the ordinary person on the street thinks that there are qualia, but recent Xphi work by Justin Sytsma and others suggests that the folk do not think in terms of qualia. This seems to confirm my own experience in the classroom. I think that the majority of people are naïve realists and think of the colors, sounds, tastes, etc as properties of the objects rather than properties of their experience of the objects. You can get them to see what qualia are and perhaps believe in them but it takes work and is not easy.

Ultimately I like to think of the kind of work I have done with the neuroscientist Hakwan Lau as the best kind of experimental philosophy. When philosophically minded scientists and scientifically minded philosophers collaborate everyone wins! But yeah, I welcome a Philosophical Woodstock!

3:AM: Finally, if you were to recommend five books for the mental readers here at 3am to help them delve further into your philosophical world, what would you suggest?

RB: (In chronological order)

1. Lectures on Logical Atomism – Bertrand Russell
2. Naming and Necessity – Saul Kripke
3. The Conscious Mind – David Chalmers
4. Consciousness and Mind – David Rosenthal
5. Being in Pain and Feeling Pain – Nikola Graheck.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Consciousness Live! Update

I’ve had a busy week doing 4 interviews for a total of 7 in the month of August (all discussions available here)! In case you missed them they are:

My discussion with Javier Gomez-Lavin

My discussion with Miguel Sebastian

My discussion with Michael Rodriguez

My discussion with Romina Padro

That is a schedule I don’t think I can maintain! With the fall semester starting I am aiming to tone it down to one discussion per month. In September I will be talking with Adriana Renero and in October I will be talking with Monica Gagliano. More (hopefully) to come!


Review of The Consciousness Instinct by Michael Gazzaniga

Summer is here and I have finally started on my summer reading list. First up was Michael Gazzaniga’s new book The Consciousness Instinct. Gazzaniga is of course we’ll known for his work on split brain patients and for helping to found the the discipline of cognitive neuroscience. I was very excited to read the book but after having done so I am very disappointed. There are some interesting ideas in the book but overall it does not strike me as a serious contribution to the study of consciousness.

The book begins with the standard potted history of the mind body problem with Descartes invoked as the primary villain. It was Descartes who initiated the-brain-is-a-machine ethos and Gazzaniga thinks that is a mistake. This part of the book was well written but could be found almost anywhere. He then goes completely off the rails and invokes quantum mechanics as a non-mechanical foundation for solving the mind-body problem. In particular he invokes the notion of complementarity as his solution. According to him Quantuum mechanics tells us that a physical system can be in two different states at once (p. 175). So the brain can be a mechanical system and also a mind at the same time. No problem.

I am of course no expert on quantuum mechanics (though I have put it in a fair amount of time trying to figure it out). But as far as I understand it this is a gross misuse of the idea of complimentary. Quantum mechanics does not say that a physical system can be in two contradictory states at the same time! Rather what it says is that the state of the system *before measurement* cannot be described by classical concepts  like ‘wave’ or ‘particle’ yet once a measurement is made (and depending on the type of measurement we make) we will find that it does have one of these properties (and had we done the measurement different we would have found that it had the other property). How, then, should we think of poor Schrodinger’s cat? Isn’t the poor cat both dead and alive (as Gazzaniga says on p. 181)? Not as I understand it! When we have a vector, represented by |A> and we add it to another vector |B> then, yes,  we do get a new vector that represents the state the system has entered but saying that 1/2|Alive> + 1/2|Dead> represents the cat’s state before measurement doesn’t mean it is both dead AND alive; it means that when we measure it it will EITHER be dead OR alive (with probabilities given by the 1/2).

But what about before we measure it? What state is the cat in then? As far as I understand it quantum mechanics (i.e. the mathematical formalism) is silent on that question but the reply I prefer is that the cat has no determinate properties before the measurement.

But all of this is highly controversial and does not help us at all with the mind-body problem! Suppose, as Gazzaniga assumes, that the mind and brain are two irreducible complimentary descriptions of the single system, then we would only be able to know (i.e. measure) one of the at a time, at the expense of the other. But that is manifestly not the situation. We can measure our own brain activity even as we are having conscious experiences produced by/identical with that neural activity.  No complementarity required.

I am leaving out a lot of the details, and as I said some of his views are interesting, but what is it about consciousness that drives people to these kinds of extreme intellectual gyrations? Why do people trust their intuitions so much that they are ready to jettison all of the progress made by psychology and neuroscience as wasted time?

Mary, Subliminal Priming, and Phenomenological Overflow

Consider Mary, the super-scientist of Knowledge Argument fame. She has never seen red and yet knows everything there is to know about the physical nature of red and the brain processing related to color experience. Now, as a twist, suppose we show her red subliminally (say with backward masking or something). She sees a red fire hydrant and yet denies that she saw anything except the mask (say). Yet we can say that she is primed from this exposure (say quicker to identify a fire truck than a duck subsequently or something). Does she learn what it is like to see red from this? Does she know what it is like to see red and yet not know that she knows this?

It seems to me that views which accept phenomenological overflow, and allow that there is phenomenal consciousness in the absence of any kind of cognitive access, have to say that the subliminal exposure to red does let Mary learn what it is like for her to see red (without her knowing that she has learned this). But this seems very odd to me and thus seems to me that this is a kind of a priori consideration that suggests there is no overflow.

Of course I have had about 8 hours of sleep in the last week so maybe I am missing something?


Remembering Jerry Fodor

I was very sad to find out about the passing of Jerry Fodor today. He was obviously an iconic figure in philosophy and I had only a brief interaction with him but he made a big impact. I sat in on the Research Seminar in Mind and Language that he ran along with Christopher Peacock in the Spring of 2004 and I also took his class on Concepts at NYU in the Spring of 2005 (through the CUNY Consortium). Sadly this was before I started blogging and so don’t have anything on either one written up (I recall having some notes on paper but those have been lost).

I do remember that I was also taking David Armstrong’s class on Truthmakers at CUNY and David Rosenthal’s class on Consciousness, Thought, and Language. For my final paper I ended up writing a version of what became The Mark of the Mental that was 50-plus pages long! I saw it as a kind of walking the line between Fodor’s views and Rosenthal’s views. I sent a draft of it to Jerry before it was due and he asked to meet with me to talk about it. I remember being very surprised to have heard back from him at all, let alone that he wanted to meet with me one-on-one to discuss it. He came up to the Graduate Center and we spent hours arguing about the paper. I forget exactly what we argued about but I remember thinking that I could not believe that he would take the time to come and sit down with me at all. I took a lot of notes during the discussion (all lost now) but I remember he gave me very valuable feedback and I really enjoyed talking with him. I actually can’t find the original version of the paper anywhere (I must have lost it when my old computer crashed back in 2007/2008), which is too bad.

Since I thought the paper nicely straddled the line between issues raised in both Fodor and Rosenthal’s classes I ended up submitting the paper to both of them. I figured at 50-plus pages it was really like two papers and I wanted to get the feedback from both of them. About a week later I got a message from Rosenthal saying he needed to talk to me. It turns out that it had somehow come to light that I had submitted it to both of them for credit. David explained to me that I could not do that (I believe he said “you would not try to pay for two different things with numerically the same money, would you?”). I felt really bad after that as I had really thought it was not a big deal at all. After hashing out the matter I was informed that I would have to pick one of them to submit it to. I chose to submit it for David’s class and so I never did get to hear what Jerry thought of the final version of the paper. I never spent any time with him after that, though I saw him speak on several occasions, I was too embarrassed to go up and talk to him.

He could be very intimidating (and sometimes downright mean) but he was also very lively and I will always remember that he took the time to come and talk to a student that he didn’t know very well at all to provide excellent feedback on a paper he must have thought was very bad.


Integrated Information Theory doesn’t Address the Hard Problem

Just in case you are not aware Hakwan Lau has started a blog, In Consciousness we Trust, where he is blogging his work on his upcoming book on consciousness. He has lately been taking fire at the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness and has a nice (I think updated) version of his talk (mentioned previously here) in his post How to make IIT (and other Theories of Consciousness) Respectable. I have some small quibbles with some of what he says but overall we agree on a lot (surprised? 😉 At any rate I was led to this paper by Sasai, Boly, Menson, and Tononi arguing that they have achieved a “functional split brain” in an intact subject. This is very interesting, and I enjoyed the paper a lot but right at the beginning it has this troublesome set of sentences:

A remarkable finding in neuroscience is that after the two cerebral hemispheres are disconnected to reduce epileptic seizures through the surgical sectioning of around 200 million connections, patients continue to behave in a largely normal manner (1). Just as remarkably, subsequent experiments have shown that after the split-brain operation, two separate streams of consciousness coexist within a single brain, one per hemisphere (2, 3). For example, in many such studies, each hemisphere can successfully perform various cognitive tasks, including binary decisions (4) or visual attentional search (5), independent of the other, as well as report on what it experiences. Intriguingly, anatomical split brains can even perform better than controls in some dual-task conditions (6, 7).

Really?!?! Experiments have shown this? I was surprised to read such a bold statement of a rather questionable assumption. In the first place I think it is important to note that these patients do not verbally report on what it ‘experiences’. I have argued that these kinds of (anatomical) spit brains may have just one stream of consciousness (associated with the one capable of verbally reporting) and that the other ‘mute’ hemisphere is processing information non-consciousnesly.

This is one of the problems that I personally have with the approach that IIT takes. They start with ‘axioms’ which are really (question begging) assumptions about the way that consciousness is, and they tout his as a major advance in consciousness research because it takes the Hard Problem seriously. But does it? As they put it,

The reason why some neural mechanisms, but not others, should be associated with consciousness has been called ‘the hard problem’ because it seems to defy the possibility of a scientific explanation. In this Opinion article, we provide an overview of the integrated information theory (IIT) of consciousness, which has been developed over the past few years. IIT addresses the hard problem in a new way. It does not start from the brain and ask how it could give rise to experience; instead, it starts from the essential phenomenal properties of experience, or axioms, and infers postulates about the characteristics that are required of its physical substrate.

But this inversion doesn’t serve to address the Hard Problem, (by the way, I agree with the way the formulate it for the most part). I agree that the Hard Problem is one of trying to explain why a given neural activation is associated with a certain conscious experience rather than another one, or none at all. And I even agree that in order to address this problem we need a theory of what consciousness is but IIT isn’t that kind of theory.  And this is because of the ‘fundamental identity claim’ of IIT that an experience is identical to a conceptual structure, where ‘experience’ means phenomenally conscious experience and ‘conceptual structure’ is a technical term of Integrated Information Theory.

This is a postulated identity, and they do want to try to test it, but even if it was successfully confirmed would it really offer us an explanation of why the experiences are associated with a particular brain activity? To see that the answer is no consider their own example from Figure 1 of their paper and what they say about it. nrn.2016.44_IIT - From Consciousness to Physical Substrate

They begin,

The true physical substrate of the depicted experience (seeing one’s hands on the piano) and the associated conceptual structure are highly complex. To allow a complete analysis of conceptual structures, the physical substrate illustrated here was chosen to be extremely simple1,2: four logic gates (labelled A, B, C and D, where A is a Majority (MAJ) gate, B is an OR gate, and C and D are AND gates; the straight arrows indicate connections among the logic gates, the curved arrows indicate self-connections) are shown in a particular state (ON or OFF).

So far so good. We have a simplified cause-effect structure in order to make the claim clear.

The analysis of this system, performed according to the postulates of IIT, identifies a conceptual structure supported by a complex constituted of the elements A, B and C in their current ON states. The borders of the complex, which include elements A, B, and C but exclude element D, are indicated by the green circle. According to IIT, such a complex would be a physical substrate of consciousness

So, when A=B=C=1 (i.e. on) in this system it is having a conscious experience (!), as they say,

The fundamental identity postulated by IIT claims that the set of concepts and their relations that compose the conceptual structure are identical to the quality of the experience. This is how the experience feels — what it is like to be the complex ABC in its current state 111. The intrinsic irreducibility of the entire conceptual structure (Φmax, a non-negative number) reflects how much consciousness there is (the quantity of the experience). The irreducibility of each concept (φmax) reflects how much each phenomenal distinction exists within the experience. Different experiences correspond to different conceptual structures.

Ok then. Here we have a simple system that is having a conscious experience, ex hypothesi, and we know everything about this system. We know that it has these  concepts specified by IIT, but what is it’s conscious experience like? What it is like to be this simple system of 4 logic gates when its elements A, B, and C are on? We aren’t told and there doesn’t seem to be any way to figure it out based on IIT. It seems to me that there should be no conscious experience associated with this activity, so it is easy to ‘conceive of a physical duplicate of this system with no conscious experience’…is this a zombie system? That is tongue in cheek but I guess that IIT proponents will need to say that since the identity is necessary I can’t really conceive of it (or that I can but it is not really possible). Can’t we conceive of two of these systems with inverted conscious experiences (same conceptual structures)? Why or why not? I can’t see anything in IIT that would help to answer these questions.

If IIT is attempting to provide a solution to the Hard Problem of Consciousness then should allow us to know what the conscious experience of this system is like, but it seems like it could be having any, or none (how difficult would it then be to extend this to Nagel’s bat!?!?). There are some who might object that this is asking too much. Isn’t this more like Ned Block’s “Harder Problem” than Chalmers’ Hard Problem? Here I suppose that I disagree with the overly narrow way of putting the Hard Problem. It isn’t merely about how this brain state is associated with a particular phenomenal quality rather than none at all, it is how it is associated with any physical, functional state at all that os the Hard Problem. Sure brain states are one kind of physical state and so the problem arises there but more generally the Hard Problem is answering the question of why any physical state is associated with any qualitative state at all instead of another or none at all.

IIT, and Tononi in particular, seem committed to giving us an answer. For instance, in his Scholarpedia article on IIT Tononi says,

IIT employs the postulates to derive, for any particular system of elements in a state, whether it has consciousness, how much, and of which kind.

But how do we do this for the 4 logic gates?

How do we do it in our own case?


Integrated Information Theory is not a Theory of Consciousness

The Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness has been garnering some attention lately. There was even a very high profile piece in Nature. Having just listened to Hakwan Lau’s talk on this (available at this conference website) I thought I would write down a couple of reactions.

Like everyone else who is interested in consciousness, I have been interested in the integrated Information Theory. I attended a talk by Tononi back in 2012 (and wrote about it here) but I also attended a workshop at NYU on it back in 2015. I had always meant to write something about it (John Horgan did here) and thought I would do so now. I wish I had written about this sooner, but to be completely honest I found out about the Paris attacks as I was leaving the workshop and it shook me up enough to distract me from blogging.

I had a couple of take-away’s from that workshop and these have really influenced how I have thought about IIT. I suppose I would sum it up by saying that IIT doesn’t look like a theory of consciousness. In the first place it purports to be a theory of phenomenal consciousness, what it is like for one to have a conscious experience, but it starts from the phenomenon of fading into a dreamless sleep. This makes it look like the main phenomenon is creature consciousness. Is IIT trying to give an account of the transition(s) from sleeping to wakefulness (and vice versa)? This is where ‘levels of consciousness’ talk seems most at home. Is being in hypnogogic reverie ‘in between’ sleeping and wakefulness? Probably yes, but does that translate to phenomenal consciousness being graded? There it seems less clear. You either have phenomenal consciousness or you do not (pace Dennett). It is the contents of consciousness that can be graded, distorted, etc. So right from the beginning it seems to me to be off on the wrong foot: the comparison is not that between waking and dreamless sleep, it is the comparison between conscious (i.e. reported) and unconscious (denied) states that one should begin with if one is looking to explain consciousness.

Another of the main ideas that came out of the workshop (again, for me) was that the ‘axioms’ of IIT seem to encode assumptions about conscious experience that are controversial. For example, is some kind of higher-order awareness necessary (and/or sufficient) for conscious experience? The axioms are silent on this, seeming to suggest that the answer is no, but a lot of people seem to think that there is a kind of higher-order awareness that is manifest in our phenomenology (old examples like Aristotle, and newer ones like Brentono, and even newer ones like Uriah Kriegel). So could we have another version of IIT that adds an axiom about consciousness requiring higher-order awareness? Can this axiom be mathematized? Or could we interpret the first axiom (i.e. consciousness exists from *my* perspective) as implying higher-order awareness?

The current defenders of IIT clearly have a first-order theory of consciousness in mind when they discuss Sperling. They say in their Nature Neuroscience Reviews paper,

In short, the information that specifies an experience is much larger
than the purported limited capacity of consciousness

But there is no argument for this other than that IIT predicts it! Doesn’t it seem the least bit fishy that a theory that starts off with axioms that encode first-order assumptions about consciousness ends up ‘predicting’ first-order readings of controversial experiments? There is nothing in IIT that seems to indicate that we should not instead say that the Sperling distinctions encoded in the integrated information are unconscious and what is conscious is just what the subjects report.

Thus it seems to me that IIT is best interpreted as giving an account of mental content. This mental content may be conscious but it may also be unconscious. To resolve this debate we need to go back to the usual debate between first-order and higher-order theories of consciousness. IIT seems to have added nothing to this debate and we would need to resolve it in the usual way (by argument, appeal to phenomenology, and experimental evidence).

Finally another of the main ideas to come out of the workshop, for me, was that IIT, can be interpreted differently from the metaphysical point of view as well. Is IIT physicalist or dualist? Well, it seems you could have a version of it that went ether way. You could, like David Chalmers seems to incline towards, view IIT as giving you a handle on what the physical correlates of consciousness might be, and then one would posit, in addition, a fundamental law of nature connecting states of physically integrated information with conscious states. This is clearly not the way that Tononi wants the theory to be developed but it is a consistent way to develop the theory. On the other hand one might end up with a physicalist version of IIT, identifying consciousness with the physical implementation of the integrated information. Or you could, like Tononi, claim that consciousness is identical to the ‘conceptual structure’ which exists over and above the parts which make it up (conceptual structures are irreducible to their physical parts for Tononi). So which one of these is the real IIT? Well, there is Tononi’s IIT and then there might be Chalmers’ IIT, etc.

This is not even to mention the problems others have pointed out, that it is hard to know what to make of a grid being ‘more conscious’ than a typical Human, or which of the many (many) different ways of formulating phi are correct, or whether it is even possible to measure phi in humans at all. Even if one wasn’t worried by any of that it still seems that IIT leaves open all of the most important questions about the ultimate nature of consciousness.


The Mortuary: 1995-1997

I am continuing my series of memoir-notes posts. In the last of these I had just heard about the job opening at the mortuary but let me back up just a bit.

Through one of the classes I was in I met this dude named Guido (remember no real names unless the person is a public figure). He was a beginning bassist and I was a freshly out of the death metal scene drummer. He suggested we get together and jam, which we did a few times. One time we even took mushrooms and jammed together and we had a lot of fun. I remember that we recorded the whole thing and while we were playing I felt like I wasn’t moving my arms. I had this feeling like they were rubber bands with vibration in them. When we listen back to it the next day we were surprised to find that some of it sounds pretty good.

After we had known each other a little bit Guido tells me that he lives and works at a mortuary/funeral home. He says that he doesn’t unusually tell people this right off the bat because people find it weird and off putting. Guido is a nice guy but he also a total hippie. I am pretty sure he is studying holistic medicine or something like that at this time at Cuesta. He has a black belt but he also stops when he sees road kill and says a Buddhist prayer for the spirit of the animal. In short not my kind of person but we got along well and I needed a place to stay. He tells me that they are looking for a roommate at the mortuary. He said it was a cool gig, free rent and good money. I needed the money and I was crashing at a friend’s house who lived with his parents so I jumped at the chance.

I went over to meet the rest of the people at the house. Driving up to the mortuary there is a huge parking lot and then a big white building, looking very nondescript. This place is right downtown San Luis, and right next to a place I used to eat at all the time, but somehow I had never noticed it before. There is a main entrance I can see but we go around to the side entrance. I can see that in back of the main building there is another building, and off to the side another. There is, on the side, a little alley like entrance way that leads to a short concrete flight of steps. Going up those steps puts you in a semi-enclosed area where there is a single door. Guido opens the door with a key and we go inside. Once inside I see a normal living room. There is a kitchen off to my left in front of me and further to the left another door. To the right is a hallway that leads to a short flight of steps. On the left just before the steps is a door and I can see a sink and some toothbrushes in there. Right after that is another door and I can see that it is a bedroom. Some guys are hanging around sitting on one of the three couches. Directly across from where I am standing is a desk with what looks like an office phone on it. It has a lot of buttons and lights.

“Hey everyone,” begins Guido “this is Richard, they guy I was telling you about,” as he says this the two guys on the couches nod at me. “That is Bill” Guido continues pointing to a shortish guy with dark hair. He is wearing a Cal Poly shirt tucked into jeans and a very large belt buckle. Bill was from somewhere near Santa Barbara and is going to Cal Poly studying civil engineering. Bill nods as though he is used to wearing a cowboy hat.

“And I’m Zach” the other guys says. It turns out that Zach is the one leaving and the one I am going to replace. They give me a tour of the rest of the place. Up the short flight of stairs I had seen earlier there was a corner and the building turned to the left. On the right hand side was a small room and that became my room. It was big enough for a bed, a small dresser, and it had a window. It really reminded me of the room I had had in juvenile hall. Turning left at my room there another short flight of stairs and then further down the hallway another room at the end. That is where Bill lived.  I would get the little cubby that Zach had been in. It was funny that he had the smallest room because he was a tall lanky guy.

I moved in on New Year’s Eve 1995. The folks had a big Bar-B-Q to welcome me and I moved my stuff into my room. The room was small but I didn’t have much of anything. I had recently sold my drum set in an attempt to distance myself from the death metal scene and to attempt to focus on school. So all in all the move was pretty easy! Zack’s band played that night and I found out that he was a good drummer. I also got a tour of the rest of the facilities. There was the chapel where they had services, funerals, etc. This place had an alter and a bunch of pews and best of all a giant pipe organ. There was the business office where they met with grieving families and worked out the details. There was the coffin display room where they had all kinds of caskets and urns that people could choose from. In the back there was the embalming room where they would do autopsies and embalming as well as other things like applying make up and doing hair. Out back in one of the other buildings I had seen there was the ice box which is where we stored the corpses and the furnace that we used to cremate the bodies. A one-stop death shop.

It turned out that the apartment which we lived in was attached to the main building. The door I had seen in the living room, by the kitchen, opened directly into the coffin display room. That door always creeped me out and the first few weeks I was in there I did not want to have my back to that door; “that is where the zombies will come from,” I used to joke.

The way the thing worked was as follows. We always worked in two man shifts with one man off. One person was “on duty” which meant they were the designated person and their job was to hang out at the house and to answer the mortuary phone, which we had a line in our house. That was the office-looking phone I had seen when I first came in. While you were on duty you could not leave the mortuary unless there were a death somewhere. During the day we would ignore the phone and be alerted to anything we needed to do by the office staff but after 5:00 p.m. it was our responsibility to answer it. People would call for one of a few reasons. One would be to arrange some kind of funeral service or to arrange a time to bring in the clothes or other personal items for a recently deceased loved one. The other was to report that there was a body. In most cases the people had been into the mortuary to make arrangements and then when the person died we would transport the remains back to the chapel. However the mortuary also had a deal with the sheriff’s office. Every other month we would handle all of the police needs (at least I think it was every other month).

While one person was always at the mortuary on duty the other person in the team was free to come and go as they pleased. They only had to carry with them a beeper and be within 10-20 minutes of the mortuary. The reason for this was that if we had a call that meant we had to transport a body then the home person would beep the pager alerting you to the fact that there was a body in need of pick up. You were then supposed to immediately drop whatever you were doing and head back to the mortuary. We called that beeper ‘the Grim Beeper’. The person who had to stay at the mortuary was in charge of any paperwork and dealing with the police/family members. The person with the Grim Beeper was mostly there to help physically move the body. Both of the people were required to wear a suit and tie. And since we often had to go into people’s homes with them still there we had to very professional and respectful.

Once the beeper went off you would go back home, change into a suit provided by the mortuary and then get in the official mortuary van and drive out to wherever the body happened to be. A lot of times it was a home or a hospital but it could literally be anywhere. Wherever there was death we would go. Rent was provided and on top of that we got paid by the body (I forget the actual rate per body but it was different depending on where we had to go) and to work funeral services (handing out programs, being an usher, etc). These two man teams would work for two weeks straight while the other was off. At the end of the two weeks the person on duty would be off duty while the previous holder of the Grim Beeper went On Duty and the person who was off got the beeper. This meant that we had one month of work and two weeks off and mostly worked at nights (though there were daytime deaths as well).

I am very nervous about the job at this point because I have never actually seen a dead body but I have seen lots and lots of horror films and death metal lyrics. I remember at some point during my moving in party the office phone started ringing. It was late by that time and the band had stopped playing. We were mostly just hanging around telling stories and talking shit. The phone rang and everyone became silent. Bill, who was on duty that night gave everyone a stern look to ensure total silence and then picked up the phone “Such and Such Chapel and Funeral Home this is Bill speaking how may I help you?” he begins in a very professional phone voice. I was impressed. He starts nodding and saying ‘ah ha, uh uh” and then writing something on a piece of paper he says “we will have someone from the mortuary over very soon. Please be on the lookout for our van, and our condolences at this very difficult time.” He hangs up the phone and says “we got one! Let’s suit up!” In a way that reminds me of Ghostbusters. Guido has the Grim Beeper that night but he is already there so they go off to their rooms to put their suits on. They tell me I should wear Zack’s suit and come along just to observe. By this time I am drunk and so say ok.

The suit is much too long for me. Zach is at least six foot three and this has been his suit for a while. The van is a two seater and the back is empty except for the gurney. I had to sit in between in the floor. I really hated that van. I would sit in the front seat and could hear the creaking of the gurney behind me. I always half-expected to feel an icy cold hand on my shoulder as the corpse on the gurney bites into my flesh and I swerved off the road into….but in my time at the mortuary I experienced 0 supernatural events. We show up at this guy’s house and the corpse is in the bedroom still in bed. It is an older gentleman who died of seeming natural causes. Guido shows me how to get a sheet underneath him. Roll him on one side (grab by shoulder and hip and pull), insert sheet. Roll him on the other side, pull sheet through. Once the sheet is underneath then we can move them onto the gurney. Once on the gurney we strap them down and cover them up. Then we move them to the van and load them up. We check with the family for any paperwork and give them a card.

I was standing by the back of the van waiting for Guido when this young kid comes up to me. He looks up at me and says, “Gramppy is in heaven now, right?” I am standing there looking at this kid wondering what to say (what I am thinking is that Gramppy is in the van) when Guido comes over and grabs me. “We gotta go man,” he says and pulls me away. I look back and the kid is standing there crying. I get in the van and look at the silent lump on the gurney. What have I gotten myself into? We drive back to the mortuary and drop the paperwork off in the office. We then unload the body from the van and take it into the back where the ice box is. We unload the body from the gurney and heave it onto the slab. This person died in an expected way and so there will be no autopsy. The doctors already know what happened. There will be funeral services shortly.

Since I didn’t do anything I only earned partial pay for that ride. $26 for the loss of my innocence.

I eventually worked one of the funeral services for some extra money. I handed out programs and stood by the door. This was a very strange experience. I had never been to a funeral at that point and this was a Catholic ceremony so there was a lot of call and response. I was really caught off guard by how well oiled the whole process was. It reminded me of a very sad P-Funk concert and I realized what they meant when they said that kind of music had taken gospel and made it sexy.

Balaram lived down the street from the mortuary and we would spend a lot of time smoking weed and paying music and playing street fighter 2. He would continually kick my ass but I would never give up. It was a good working relationship. His father, Shival, had a place at the end of the block. During the day Shival was locked inside his house. He could be seen in the morning on his way to the liquor store and returning with a six pack of beer. He would then go inside and smoke, practice guitar, do yoga, and pray. He would come out in the evening to play whatever gig he had scheduled and hang out. I really liked Shival, everyone did, and when he was drunk he would tell the most amazing stories. The downstairs of his building is where Balaram lived. He had a nice set up down there and we would jam down there sometimes.

I really sucked at the drums back then, much more than I do now! But still Shival would let me sit in on the drums every once in a while and eventually I got to play a couple gigs as the main drummer. One was a night at the local club Tortilla Flats and the other was at a wedding. By the time I moved away he was suggesting that maybe I should stay. He said I didn’t have any technical skills but that could be learned if he worked with me. But what I did have, he continued, was a strong sense of rhythm and  he could play with me. He said he knew that I was a real drummer because when I played I played the beat and didn’t add in a bunch of fills all over the place. I agreed that I liked to play the beat but I just didn’t know how to do fills! He didn’t like to rehearse much and if I needed to learn anything Balalram would work with me on it. Shival really only had one rule and that was that he never wanted to have to look over his shoulder at you and if you didn’t fuck up the rhythm he wouldn’t look at you.

Their regular drummer at the time, a guy who worked at Cal Poly by day and drummed with them by night named Maurice. He was really really good. He offered to trade drum lessons for weed and I agreed. My first lesson he wrote down single strokes, double strokes and paradiddles and showed me what they sounded like when played well. He told me to practice that. I kept that paper for a long time and really that was the only drum lesson I ever had. He wanted to keep it going but I lost my weed connection and couldn’t afford to buy it and give it to him. I heard he took it personally and thought that I was some young upstart who though he was too good to be taught by an old burnout like Maurice. Not the case at all! But then when he found out that Shival was even considering working with me he was really mad. It turns out that he had a pretty serious drug problem and I think that is why Shival wanted to find someone who could play without the drugs. I wish I had continued studying with him but I did realize that drumming was an art that involved manipulating these two pieces of wood in time. I would bring that with me to San Francisco.

I ended up playing with a dancehall reggae singer known as Mellow Max and we played a couple of gigs. He was from Jamaica and had a thick Jamaican accent. We called ourselves Mr. Roper (from Three’s Company). We actually opened for another reggae band at SLO Brew and had a really good recording of it. It actually sounded pretty good. Authentic even. I was surprised. Mellow Max was a terrible rapper but with his accent you couldn’t tell that his rhymes were no good.

The Spring 1996 semester would have started in January 1996 and I was officially working at the mortuary during the next two semesters. That semester I took a class on government (a required class), and a speech class, and I also took my very first Introduction to Logic course. The professor was Peter Dill who apparently still teaches out at Cuesta College. We used an early edition of Hurley’s Concise Introduction to Logic and I really loved that class.

At the time I was dating a girl named Amanda who was a local girl from Atascadero. She was beautiful. Strawberry blond hair, freckles, slim and a nice body. Great personality. I really liked her a lot. I heard that P-Funk was playing up in San Francisco March 9th 1996 at the Maritime Hall and Amanda and I decided to drive up and see if we could get in. We drove up and the concert was sold out so we hung around outside not knowing what to do. I eventually see that there is a back door where they are loading equipment in. We wait until they are done and then sneak in. There is a stair well and we hide in there for a bit. We then go up stairs and we end up coming out into the hall where the concert is going to be taking place. We are in! And we are early. The band is on stage warming up. We are sitting on a bench and I start talking to this crazy looking guy next to me. He is the bus driver and he assumes that I am a roadie. He has this giant 7-11 Slurpee Big Gulp cup and he hands it to me. Inside it is filled with mushrooms. I look back at him and he is looking at me like ‘hurry up!’ so I grab a handful and pass them to Amanda. Amanda and I eat a handful and we enjoy the concert. It is amazing. They do the entire Mother Ship landing and Bootsy makes a guest appearance. I realize this is as close as I will ever get to seeing that historic event. This is like an echo of that cosmic funky groove in spacetime left by the Mothership tour.

Afterwards Amanda is too fucked to drive so we decide to hang around in SF for a bit. We end up over by the Sutro baths. This place is really cool and I remember jumping from rock to rock and feeling like spiderman. I also remember seeing the foam on the beach being blown by the wind. It looked like some kind of translucent slug creatures moving in herds across the beach. Eventually I start to feel like I can  drive. She is sleeping with her head in my lap and I am shrooming hard. As we drive down the Pacific Coast Highway I am watching the moon over the ocean and almost drive off of the rode. This wakes her up. We sit in the car until a cop pulls over and asks us what we are doing. Just coming home. He tells us to move along so I am driving again. We make it home but it is a wild trip!

I really liked Amanda but she had had a hard life. We dated off and on and I told her that I loved her. She told me that she had heard that a lot and that people were in love with how she made them feel about themselves. I thought that was sad. We ended up breaking up and I remember I wrote her a letter where I tried to lay out the reasons for our breakup in a series of valid syllogisms. She wrote ‘WHORE’ in lipstick on my Nissan Pulsar and I remember leaving it on for weeks and driving the car around with it.

One day I was hanging outside of Barnes and Nobles and I saw this girl there. I started talking to her and told her I lived in a mortuary. Her name was Carrie and she was instantly into it. There are two kinds of people out there: Those that are interested in the fact that I worked in a mortuary and those that are not interested in that fact. She was interested. I took her back to my place and gave her the tour. We ended up having sex in a coffin in the coffin display room. She lived in Santa Cruz and I would drive up to see her every now and again. One time when I was up there she wanted to go see Luna in San Francisco. I had plans to see Primus the next day but figured it couldn’t hurt. I was on break and so had a lot of time.

We both took acid and drove up to S.F May 3rd 1996. The plan was to stop by her friend’s place and get some weed before we went to the concert. She told me to drop her off and then circle the block and come back and pick her up. By that time I was frying pretty good and as I turned right and then turned right again I was suddenly on the freeway. I did not mean to get on the freeway but it had happened. I drove until I could get off and then I had to find my way back to Carrie. I had been in SF before but did not know it well at that point. I thought there was no way to know where I had dropped her off. I started driving in concentric circle-ish patters until, randomly, I saw Carrie on the corner. She was so mad at me. She thought that I had ditched her. We went to the concert.

It was so trippy. The music was not my scene at all. It was very melancholy and slow. At that time I really did not like melancholy music. My view was that life was difficult enough and that music should inspire energy not suck it from you.

The very next day I was supposed to see Primus in Santa Barbara so I drove back to San Luis after dropping Carrie in Santa Cruz. That was May 4th 1996. We take mushrooms and the show is amazing. The opening band is called Weapon of Choice and they become my new favorite band. They were a heavy-ish funk group who liked to sing about doing nutmeg. We tried doing it, as I found out some famous jazz musicians were into it, but it never had any effect one me. At any rate they opened for Primus in Santa Barbara and we loved the show.

Afterwards we are walking back to the car but I keep hearing this weird noise and I start following it. It leads me to a tattoo parlor where someone is getting a late night tattoo. The door is open so I come in and ask how much to get my tongue pierced. He tells me and I decide to do it. I was sitting in the chair and he grabs these forceps and grabs my tongue. To me it seems like he pulls out my tounge to an impossible length and then he stabs me, I mean pierces the tongue. It hurts and my head explodes into tiny fragments and is re-assembled into an exact replica. I get up and no one seems to notice that I am a replica. I worry that they will notice because the real me does not have a tounge ring.

The next morning I wake up and my tongue is swollen and I cannot eat any food. I try to put a can of soup into the blender and suck it through a straw but it is so thick that the sucking hurts just as bad.

The spring semester ended and at some point I hear about the Free Tibet concert which took place June 15th and 16th 1996 in Golden Gate park. This is an insanely big line up including The Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, Pavement, Cibo Matto, Biz Markie, Richie Havens, John Lee Hooker, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, Sonic Youth, Beck, Foo Fighters, Björk, De La Soul, Fugees, Buddy Guy, The Skatalites, Yoko Ono and No Doubt. A group of us head up. It is a two day event and we are staying at a hotel and will attend both days. I really want to take some acid and see the Beastie Boys on the first day. So I am looking for some. I buy some off some guy out front and head into the concert. The acid never really kick in. I am disappointed and kind of pissed off but the concert is fun.

After the concert we head over to Haight Street and we are walking around checking shit out. I have a can of Pringles and after a while I start shaking it and saying ‘Pringles for doses’ to anyone who would pass by. “Pringles for doses’ shake, shake. ‘Pringles for doses’ shake, shake. Most people ignore me or laugh but I persist. ‘Pringles for doses’ I say in a louder voice. Shake, shake goes the Pringles can. After a while some guy stops and says ‘open your mouth” I do and he puts in a whole strip of acid. That is 10 hits of paper and this is by far the most I have ever done at one time in my life. It was only blotter and who knows how strong it was but I had the trip of my life. I gave the guy a stack of Pringles and walked away happy at last. The acid started to come on while I was playing chess with some street kid. He beat me and we started to play again. He was starting to beat me again and I felt like all my options were closing in on me. I felt like I had no chance. I saw a bus across the street and I literally got up and ran away and jumped on the bus. I did not know where my friends were that I came with. On the bus I swore I kept hearing this eerie music. I would learn later that it was simply the noise these electric buses made. But at the time it was creepy, like a sci-fi electric opera sung by a corpse with decaying vocal chords.

I wanted to find the hotel but I had no idea where it was. I knew it was close to the park and I was asking the bus driver if he knew where it was. Some random guy sitting in front of the bus started talking to me “Oh, you mean that hotel on the corner?”

“Yes, on the corner!” I responded.

“Oh yeah, it’s got a tree out in front?”

“Yeah, yeah it does!”

“The tree is by the sidewalk?”

“Yes! That’s exactly right!”

This went on for a while. To this day I don’t if this guy was fucking with me or not but I did eventually make it to the hotel. Everyone else was there and passed out but I was still frying balls. So I sat there in the dark all by myself and I started going through everyone’s bags. Every so often I would find a beer and drink it. Eventually people woke up and there I was. “Oh hey you made it!” They had not known what had happened to me and by that time I was beyond the use of words.

I was still tripping but not as bad as the night before. But I felt like this was going to be a never ending trip. I could not shake the felling that my brain was short circuiting.

We headed over to the concert but somehow I get separated from the rest of my group. I saw a guy I knew from SLO there and he was tripping too. We were over in the pit for Rage against the Machine and I was instantly a huge fan of those guys. So we hung out. I couldn’t find my friends. I found out later that they looked for me but eventually went back to San Luis without me.  Whoever I was with said they had hitchhiked and so I said I would hitchhike back with him.

That trip back was a wild and crazy trip and it ended up taking three days to make it back to the mortuary. One of the nights we ended up sleeping on top of a McDonald’s roof and eating food out of their dumpster. This was in Gilroy or some such place south of SF. We slept by the heating vent to stay warm and in the morning we were back on the road. One night we slept in the back of a church in a little play land they had for kids. We huddled up in the playhouse to keep warm. It was not fun. By the third day I was near my breaking point. All I could think about was that I was desperate to be home, to sleep in my own bed, but that my home was a fucking mortuary filled with death. How in the world did my life end up with me feeling safe in the house of the dead? I couldn’t help feeling like I had asked for this. My curiosity about death had led me here. Most of the time I wanted to get away from the mortuary and now I was desperate, I would do anything, to be back there. This really fucked with my head.

We did eventually make it back and everyone was like “we thought you were dead!” Nope, still alive but my brain was fried. Years later when I reconnected with a lot of these people on Facebook, Ethan (remember no real names) said he felt bad for that. I had actually forgotten that they left me there and just remembered it as one of the times I was hitchhiking. After that incident, which I eventually came to refer to as The Incident, I was not interested in taking acid anymore. I think I did one more time in the mortuary and I just felt like I skipped the fun part and went to the feeling of being a computer with water thrown on it (probably it was just bad blotter with some strychnine or something in it). I do remember arguing with someone about a Tom Robbins plotline. In Another Roadside Attraction Robbins depicts a scene where someone walks past the bones of Jesus Christ and just ‘feels’ their presence. They know that someone important is buried there. Somehow this came up and this guy was really emphatically in agreement that there would be some special kind of feeling where I argued that you would just walk by without any special feelings at all. We could be sitting on the bones of Jesus right now, I said, and we would not know it. This actually led to a heated argument (I don’t know why, we were both on acid) and I remember associating that feeling of frustration with being on acid at that point.

In the fall of 1996 I took a World Cultures class (a repeat of the anthropology course I took my first semester and earned a D in; this class was as boring the second time as it was the first and I got a D in it again), an English course that I really liked and where I read Noam Chomsky for the first time. I also had a human sexuality course (the only class I earned an A in my entire time at community college!) and a stretching routines course. And finally I took another class with Mr. Dill. This time it was World Religions and I really liked that class. I was very surprised to find out the relationship between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Balaram and Shival were Hare Krishna and so I especially enjoyed learning about Buddhism and Hinduism.  It was around this time I got my large eyes of buddha tattoo. I remember when Shival first saw that tattoo he said “oh man, you’re in service now!”. By the way this is also when I got the big tribal piece on my left leg.

I felt I had learned everything I could from Cuesta and I wanted to continue. I was also sick of San Luis Obispo. It was the same shit all of the time. Everyone knew everyone (it had a population of about 40,000 back then I think). There were only so many things to do. Farmer’s market on Thursday, drinking on the weekend, play a gig on third Thursday’s etc. repeat. I wanted to be in a city. And I really wanted to be in San Francisco which I had really come to like. I applied to CSU Long Beach and San Francisco and U.C. Merced (I think it was Merced). I hated Fresno but they had an awesome Cog Sci program that I was interested in. I ended up getting into Merced and SF State (Long Beach requested my High School transcripts, and I was like “which one?” and wrote that school off) but I chose San Francisco. Plans were made.  I would move to S.F.  to start the Spring 1997 semester in the philosophy program there.

During all of this I was doing my month on/two weeks off routine at the mortuary. At some point Bill graduated and my friend Ethan moved in. He was a drummer who played in my friend’s death metal band. He also had a drinking and meth addiction problem, most of which he had kept hidden at that point (his parents were Mormons (his dad was one of my professors)). I don’t remember all of the calls that I had to go on and I certainly do not remember the order that they were in so instead of trying to work them into the stuff I do remember I am just going to go through them below. Some of it is somewhat gruesome so you could just skip this part. I also don’t know anyone’s names here. My roommate Ethan used to very curious about these people, who they were, what they left behind. I never wanted to know that. I tried as much as possible to think of them as couches that needed to be moved. They were just physical items. I joked with my mom at one point that I had seen too many zombie movies to be living here and she said that any spirits would leave immediately. Why would they stick around their body when they just discovered the astral plane? Insert double eye-roll here. Anyways, I know that that is a calloused way of thinking, especially to their loved ones, and I apologize for that but this was a tough situation to deal with and that is the way I dealt with it.

One thing I remember was that at night we had to go through the mortuary and turn off all of the lights. We had to go through the coffin room, through the chapel, and into the business office and then work our way back checking all the lights, and all the doors. There was one light that would turn on and off randomly that really creeped us out. I have to admit that I got the shivers a few times down there but I used to force myself to walk slowly, and calmly through there. I didn’t really believe that a ghost was turning that light on and off and so I refused to scurry past it like the others did.

Ok, so here goes, here are some of the calls that I remember during my time. I really don’t remember when these occurred. They could have been at anytime during the year. These are not all of the calls I went on but this is what still haunts my dreams.

If I were you I would stop reading now.

The Time we Almost Hit a Deer
Needless to say this job was very stressful. We could get a call at any hour of the day, whether noon or midnight or anywhere in between. Sometimes we would get a call at 2:00 a.m., and then I would have class the next morning. It was surreal.

One night we were up late drinking vodka and shooting bottle caps at each other. I finally passed out at 3:30 in the morning. At 4:00 I am awoken by the roommate. “we’ve got one”. I am pretty tired and still kind of wasted but I get dressed and we head out. It is an out of town call and we drive out past Cuesta. We get the body no problem and we are on our way back to the mortuary. We are on a tiny two lane road and there are no streetlights. It is pitch dark out and there is nothing around in sight. All of a sudden I see these two glowing points in the darkness. “what the fuck?” I start to say and then we are swerving. We swerve to the left. We swerve to the right. The gurney in the back is locked down so isn’t flying around but there is a tire jack that was left back there and that is flying around back there and it flies up and hits me in the back of the head. I see a bright light and I am not sure what the hell is going on. Finally we get the car under control. I am bleeding but not too badly. It was a fucking deer and my roommate had swerved to avoid it and kept his cool and did not flip the van. We look in the back to check on the body. It is fucked. The guy’s face was bashed in and his legs and arms were broken. For a guy who died of a heart attack this was not good. We got back an explained what had happened. The owners convinced the family to have a cremation instead of an open casket service and they agreed. They never knew what had happened to their loved one.

The Time I got a Call While on Mushrooms
We partied a lot at the mortuary. One time I was taking mushrooms and Balaram, Max and I were playing at some open mic at some bar in downtown SLO. I had the Grim Beeper but it had been almost two weeks and there had been no calls, what are the odds we would get one? I was up there when the beeper went off. “Oh shit I gotta go” I said as we cut the tune short. I left and everyone in the club seemed a bit confused. I was shrooming pretty good by the time I got back and I told Guido that this was so. He told me to get my shit together and get dressed so I did. We went out to the place and it was a home. The family was all gathered in the living room and they had like 6 or 7 little dogs. There were wiener dogs, and some other kinds as well. My roommate was handling the family and I was standing there and the dogs kept looking at me. One of them was growling softly under its breath and I was telling it to shush under mine. It started barking. They know! The dogs are on to me. They were yelling “he’s tripping! Hey everyone look at him he’s tripping’ No one else noticed and the owners told the dogs to shush. We went into the room where the body was and asked the family to wait outside. As we began to get the body ready to move to the gurney I thought that I saw the person breathing.

I said “hey man this guy is still alive”.

My roommate looked at me, “what?”

“he’s still alive look he’s breathing!” I tried to pull him off the gurney and back onto the bed. “He’s not dead! What are we doing? This isn’t right!”

I was starting to loose it. My roommate grabbed me and looked me in the eye “he’s fucking dead” and the he pounded on his chest with both fists “dead! He’s dead! Get it together!” I snapped out of it and we got the hell out of there.

I made it back to the club and we even got back on stage and played a bit more!

The Time we picked Up a Baby
On this particular call we went out to a hospital. We had the stretcher and we were ready to transport the body when we went into the room and saw a newborn baby. It’s head had not properly sealed and it had been torn open during childbirth. It’s skull was split in two and looked like a split melon. We looked at each other. This thing wouldn’t fit on the gurney. What should we do. Bill wrapped it up in swaddling and picked it up. He held it like a football player holds a football on a long run and we walked out. The thing was gruesome and he was trying to hide it from the other people in the hospital. We would later jokingly refer to this kind of thing as a sneak-a-touchdown. And we would only send one person.

More money that way.

The Time we picked up my Roommate’s Grade School Teacher
One call we went on was to a house that had the doors locked and the windows shut. The neighbors had called because of the smell. We had the sheriff out there and they opened the door. Inside was a heavy man who had died at least a week ago. Apparently he was cold just before he dies so he turned the heater on full blast. As a result he was in an advanced state of decomposition. As we walked in I saw that my roommate stopped dead in his tracks and was starring at the body. What’s the matter? I asked. He said that’s my fifth grade teacher MR. So and So. Holy shit!?! Really? Yep he said, so lets get to work. The guy was really decomposing and was full of gas. His body was really bloated. We went to roll him over so that we could get the sheet underneath him. As Guido was turning his head his finger sunk into the skin. Guido jumped back shouting “oh fuck!” the guy fell back on his back and his stomach split open and a great big WHOOSH! of putrid air came gushing out. As Guido was inhaling and jumping back he takes a big bong-hit like inhalation of the gasses. HE blanches and instantly vomits. ‘Reek of putrefaction’ indeed I thought! We eventually had to put the gurney at the foot of the bed and pull him down. It was disgusting.

The Time we picked up a Suicide Victim
This call was out in Los Osos near where I had used to live. This person had put a .357 into his mouth and pulled the trigger. We walked in and he was sitting in the back yard facing the fence. “Probably watching the sunset one last time” I thought. As I approached his back was to me. I could see a huge hole in the back of his head where the bullet had exited. I could see all the way down to the back of his teeth. Something I will never forget. He was up on the second floor and it was a real pain in the ass getting the gurney down.

The Time I had to Deal with the Police
There was one call we went on where we had been right smack in the middle of a huge party at our apartment and I was kind of liquored up. I was on duty and so I had to run point. I had to handle the paperwork and talk to any police/family members. We showed up and there was a large police presence there. Cops were standing around everywhere. Lights were flashing everywhere. I was sort of panicking but there is nothing I can do. I try to keep a straight face. I pull up and roll down the window. “Where should I park?” I ask the nearest officer. He points to the driveway and tells me to back in. Remember this is a van. It is a large vehicle and I am three sheets to the wind drunk. I am going to have to back this huge van up and into a small drive way with about 30 or so police officers standing around.

It was very strange for me to be dealing with police in a positive way. In fact though one time I was so drunk and I was driving back to the mortuary from the 7-11 and I was driving the wrong way up a one way street. A policeman pulled me over and he immediately recognized me from the mortuary. He told me he had done the same thing when he was in college and told me to walk home and leave me car. Sleep it off! he yelled at me as I stumbled down the sidewalk. Really a very different experience with the police!

Bring Out yer Dead
We developed a very dark sense of humor at the mortuary and I was having recurring nightmares. I would dream that my roommates were trying to strap me down to the gurney and I would yell “I’m not dead! I’m not dead!” my roommates would hold me down chanting in unison ‘you are dead! You. Are. Fucking. Dead…D…E…A…D” over and over again. I would wake up with my heart beating fast.

We had this dry erase board in the bathroom. One month we were kind of broke and we started joking about how it would be nice if a bus full of children would go off a cliff or something because we would make a lot of money without much effort that way. I went into the bathroom and wrote ‘Bring Out Yer Dead’ on the wall in honor of Monty Python. That weekend we had a record amount of deaths. We filled up the entire walk in freezer and had bodies in the embalming rooms as well. There was a murder victim we found under a house (very decayed, had been there a while), a kid who drowned out a the river (carrying that kid to the van was enough to make me cry), a car accident that killed 7 people (I remember the driver had hit the steering wheel so hard that it had embedded into his frontal lobe about two or three inches. I had to pull his head off of the steering wheel). We made lots of money but I couldn’t help but feel that we had tempted fate somehow. We decided not to make those kinds of jokes anymore.

I’m Not Dead Yet!
One call we went on we show up at the house and the person was not actually dead yet. That really bothered me a lot. I had not ever seen anyone die before. They were always long dead by the time I showed up. This person was still (minimally) alive and laying in a hospice medical bed in their living room. We are talking to the family who is explaining that they thought he had passed but he just was breathing very shallowly. I am saying that we will have to come back later when this guy in the bed suddenly blurts out ‘now begins the great teddy bear’ or at least that is what we all thought we heard.

Other not Fun Stuff
I also saw some organ harvesting and “helped” to perform an autopsy. The organ harvesters came for somebody’s eyes. They have to act quickly while the body is still fresh. I held the eyelids as they extracted the actual eyeball. During the autopsy I saw them make the Y incision and I got to use the bone saw to open up the skull. Afterwards I saw them put all of the organs into the stomach and sew them up. Obviously I had no business doing that and I should not have even been allowed back there but this guy thought it was funny to see my reaction.

There was also a call I went on where we went to the hospital and picked up someone who was still on the operating table. They had tubes and wires attached to them, their shirt was ripped open. They had tried to save this person and failed.

There was another call where we discovered someone who died of cancer. They hand an enormous tumor.

The Saddest One Yet
At some point I started working as a flower delivery guy. It is funny how working around death makes you crave feeling alive. We did lots of stupid stuff like that and now that I look back on it is seems to me that we just wanted to feel alive. For example I remember we had a cooking contest to see who could make the spiciest spaghetti dish. Everyone made a dish that others had to eat. You lost by not finishing the dish. I was at one point dating two girls, one of whom worked at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and who would bring me a box of caramel apples and candy every night.

Anyway somehow I got the chance to do this flower delivery gig and I jumped at it. It was part time and not very stressful. I drove a van provided by the flower shop. They loaded it up and I simply drove around town delivering these flowers, I liked it because I was usually the best thing that happened to these people. I would drive up in my van and knock on the door and there would be no death and no sorrow, just a person whose eyes would light up.

One time I delivered something for mother’s day to a kindly old lady. It was sad, I thought, how her kids didn’t visit her and sent me instead. But she had been happy. About a week later I had to come to that same house in my other van and there she was. The flowers were dead and so was she. It was really depressing.

All in all if I had known then what I know now I would not have taken this job at the mortuary. Death is incredibly sad and disgusting. After leaving the mortuary in January of 1997 I lost my taste for violent horror films pretty much all together.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in Natural Science

Why is mathematics so apt for describing the physical world? Why do our local descriptions turn out to be pretty generalizable (like the law of gravity, first developed for objects around here, then applied to planets, then expanded by Einstein). I have always thought that this problem had an easy solution but this morning I started to reconsider.

I remember back in 2014 Max Tegmark gave a talk at the Graduate Center (and again at NYU) where he argued that the universe itself is a mathematical structure and part of his argument was based on the unreasonable effectiveness argument. At the time I raised an objection along the following lines: there are an infinite number of mathematical structures so one of those will turn out to be a pretty good description of reality. It is not magic, it is just that the number of mathematical structures out there covers all the possibilities so it is no mystery why one (or several) map onto the world. At the time he responded that there were only a finite number of Platonic solids not an infinite number (or at least this is how I remember his response) and of course that is true of our kind of word with three spatial dimensions (at least three macroscopic ones 😉 but there are higher-dimensional Platonic solids and if we lived in an 8 dimensional world we would have those mapping onto physical reality rather than the 5 we know and love. At the time I felt like that settled the issue, and a couple of people remarked afterwards that they had basically agreed with my point.

But now I think that perhaps this kind of response misses Tegmark’s point. Perhaps the question isn’t ‘why does this equation (rather than that one) so accurately describe physical reality?’ but rather ‘why does any equation at all (whatever it is) so accurately describe physical reality?’…the kind of answer I gave before seems like a good answer to the former question but it is not a good answer to the latter question. I think I can conceive of a world, much like ours, but which no mathematical description sufficiently describes. If that is conceivable then, if it is also possible that there be such a world, then it is a genuine question whether our world has any non-mathematically describable properties. And it would also be a genuine further question why mathematics does accurately describe the part it does (since it could have failed to do so) not to mention the question of why mathematical speculation can lead to fruitful empirical discoveries.

On the other hand, is it really conceivable that there be world like ours that no mathematics could describe?