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?

Ten Years at LaGuardia

The spring semester is finally coming to an end for us (classes end next week; we are on a slightly different schedule than the rest of CUNY) and while I was getting ready for the end of the semester I realized that this marks the end of my 10th year at LaGuardia! I officially started at LaGuardia September 1st 2007 but I was interviewed sometime in June of 2007. This is definitely the longest I have ever held one job in my entire life! If you count the four years I taught at Brooklyn College before coming to LaGuardia that makes 14 years working for CUNY! I hadn’t really been planning on including this period in my current series of memoir-note posts. The plan was roughly to get up to the point where I earned my Bachelor’s degree (January 2000; I am currently up to 1987 or so) and save graduate school and beyond for a possible ‘second volume’ in the future (Volume I=the life of the body; Volume II=The Life of the Mind ?) but I can’t help adding a couple of comments about what was going on in my life 10 years ago.

Back in 2007 I was a graduate student with at least a year and a half or so of work on my dissertation (which I finished in the summer of 2008 and defended September 3rd 2008). It is a long story (aren’t they all!), but I had started working on my dissertation officially in 2006 and at that time it had been a project that I had had on the back burner for a while. I worked on it for about a year with my committee and then had to basically start the project over because of various things.

I was also a full time faculty member at Brooklyn College teaching 5 classes a semester (and beginning to form what would be the New York Consciousness Collective), on what is known as a Substitute Line. These are two year contracts that are limited and non-renewable. I started at Brooklyn College in the fall of 2003 as an adjunct lecturer and I really liked teaching there. Especially since I was allowed to teach philosophy of language, philosophy of biology, scientific revolutions, and philosophy of psychology (as well as Ethics, Business Ethics, and Intro to Philosophy). I knew my time as a Sub was coming to an end (I had been hired on the two-year contract in 2005 and so in 2007 it was up). I had had a taste of what a full-time salary was like and I didn’t see how we could go back to just what an adjunct makes. As a result I was on the job market pretty heavy at that point. I forget how many places I applied to but it was quite a few. I was really hoping to leave New York and wasn’t planning on applying to LaGuardia at all but the chair of our department at Brooklyn College told me that I should apply there and that it was a really great place to work.

So I did.

I was getting no responses and I was getting worried. I even considered the possibility that blogging was having some kind of detrimental effect (I had received an anonymous email after all). I wasn’t sure but I brushed off the concern (no one even reads my blog!). It is striking that I didn’t talk to anyone about where or how I should apply. I just did it because I needed to get a job. I had taken out over 100 thousand dollars in debt. I started taking loans out my first semester of community college back in 1994 and took the last one out in 2003 or 2004. I was taking a lot of classes so I mostly used the loans to support myself over those ten years. I did work here and there, most notably at the mortuary (which I’ll get to later) but also at several coffee shops and restaurants in San Francisco and a few other odds and ends, but that was usually during breaks between semesters. So, I knew that once I defended my dissertation and was awarded my PhD (should I be so lucky) I would have to start paying that back. And so I *needed* to find a job. I was really really nervous. I had known going into this whole thing that it was a long shot and that the market was pretty bad for philosophers (and this was before 2008!) but I really had no other choices (or so it seemed to me at the time). I had been on the market the year before (in 2006) and got an interview but ultimately nothing panned out so it was really wearing on me at this time. If I graduated with all of that debt and then failed to find a job (and/or then failed to get tenure…but one step at a time!)…

On top of all of that I had just found out that my aunt had died. This is a very sad story that is probably best for another time but I had been very close with my aunt before I ran away from home. She had had a very rough life and back in 1982/1983 she was kidnapped at gunpoint by an ex-boyfriend, driven to a secluded place, told that if he could not have her then no one could, and shot point blank in the chest. The coward then turned the gun on himself and shot himself in the stomach. They both survived but my aunt was paralyzed from the waist down after that. Her life spiraled from there (I will skip all of the details) and though she was a strong independent woman I don’t think she every fully recovered from that event. I lost contact with my family when I moved to Connecticut in August of 2002 and was focused on graduate school.

It turns out that my mom had hired a private detective to find me and she found me teaching out at Brooklyn College. She called and left a message with the department secretary and left her number saying she had ‘information’ I might want. I am pretty sure this was in late 2006 or early 2007. I eventually called her back and she told me about my aunt.  That really hit me hard. It was a such a sad, pointless, story. I hadn’t talked to her in years but it brought back a flood of memories and threw me for a loop for a few weeks. I also found out that both of my mom’s parents (my grandparents) had died in 2002. I had talked to both of them sometime before I moved to Connecticut and apparently my grandma had died shortly after that, in May 2002, and my Grandfather followed her a few months later in August. The last time I spoke with her I told her that I was sorry for all of the trouble that I had caused as a kid and how much I appreciated her and grandpa sticking by us through it all and letting us live with them when we needed to. She said she was proud of me but that they never expected me to be the one that did so well. I remember trying to explain Sartre to her. People are not static objects, they can change if they choose to change. Not just once, but every day.

It turned out that my grandfather had dementia from Alzheimer’s and would get angry and upset. He would misplace his keys, for instance, and then accuse my grandma of hiding the keys. Apparently she was terrified of him and so she took a bunch of sleeping pills and killed herself. She was laying on her bed with a bunch of photos of the family from when they were all young played out around her. After that my grandfather just withered and kind of gave up. So, my favorite aunt died of a drug overdose, her last words were “I think something’s wrong” according to my mom, my grandmother committed suicide because of my grandfather’s potentially violent rages. So I was not in the greatest of moods back then. I kept hearing my mom’s words from the last time we spoke echoing in my mind. All of this had happened while I was ‘polishing the brass on a sinking ship’. If I had stayed in California was there anything that have been done differently? It seemed like my life might still ultimately end up like that of the rest of my family. Maybe I hadn’t come as far as I thought I had.

But then I got a phone call one day from LaGuardia asking me if I was available for an interview. This was the only place that had contacted me at this point (I did hear from one other place but that was later). All of my eggs were suddenly in this basket!

I was overjoyed at having an interview, but not entirely happy that it was here in New York. New York is great for philosophy but if you don’t have a lot of money it is difficult to live here. But anyway,  it turned out they were holding the interview on a Friday and I just happened to be going to the Society for Philosophy and Psychology meeting up in Toronto Canada to present a poster of “Consciousness, (Higher-Order) Thoughts, and What It’s Like” (blog post here). The plans were all set and I asked if there was any chance to reschedule. I was told they would get back to me. I hung up the phone and then, in shock, realized what I had done. Had I just passed on this interview? Should I call back and say I would cancel my trip? I was panicking and my wife (then girlfriend) was at work. I was about to call back when the phone rang. It was them. I answered and was told that they really wanted to interview me and could I come in the following Monday (or something). I said no problem. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was the only one coming in for an interview that day. They were all meeting just to interview me. Luckily I was in the city already so it was no big issue to get there.

As I sat in the office waiting for my interview, nervous of course, the secretary, Alice (remember no real names) who I later came to know really well said to me “you want to work here?” I nodded. She laughed and said “you should run!” and I laughed nervously with her. After that an older professor walked by, stopped and looked at me and said “you’re applying for the philosophy job?” I nodded and he turned to the secretary and said “he has a great tie on, hire him!” and walked out of the room. What had I got myself into?

After my first interview I had a second with the Vice President, and then a third and final interview with the President. I think that was in July. I did not find out that I was actually hired until mid-August and was hurriedly prepping for a Philosophy of Religion course (I had never taught this course before but obviously I was interested in the topic!). I stopped teaching philosophy of Religion regularly back in 2009 (I think) since we hired people who actually knew what they were doing.

My interview was actually a lot of fun and I really liked the environment at LaGuardia. I had started at a Community College myself and so I knew the power that education had to transform lives for the better. I still believe that. It is funny because at the end of the interview they asked me if I had anything I wanted to say to the hiring committee and I said that I had come into the interview not knowing if I would be happy at LaGuardia but that they had convinced me that this would be a great place to work. I walked out feeling good but also wondering if I should have said that. Truth be told, I did not really want to stay in New York. Back then I was still hoping to ultimately end up back in California and was naively assuming that if it didn’t work out this year I would try again next year. Boy was I wrong.

I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if they had not decided to take a chance on me. For most of my life I thought of myself as a Californian more than anything else but now I am proud to be an honorary New Yorker (14 years in the city!) and a part of the world’s community college. Here’s to 10 more years!

Papers I almost Wrote

In celebration of my ten years of blogging I have been collecting some of my posts into thematic meta-posts. The previous two listed my writing on the higher-order thought theory of consciousness and my writing about various conferences and classes I have attended. Continuing in that theme below are links to posts I have written about various things that are not in either of the two previous categories. Some of these I had thought I might develop into papers or something but so far that hasn’t happened!

  1. Freedom and Evil
    • This was written for a debate at Brooklyn College entitled ‘If there is a God, Why does Evil Exist?” sponsored by the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship
  2. There is No Santa
    • Is it wrong to lie to children about the existence of Santa? I think so!
  3. What’s So Unobservable about Causation?
    • This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote while a graduate student at the University of Connecticut
  4. Freedom of Speech Meets Speech Act Theory
    • Freedom of speech means freedom of assertion but not the freedom to perform any speech act one wants
  5. Reason and The Nature of Obligation
    • A discussion of Locke and Hobbes on reason and obligation. I think this was first written for a class I had on social and political philosophy. I argue that both are committed to the view that reason is the source of moral obligation but fear (or some external motivator) is required to get people to conform to reason.
  6. Logic, Language, and Existence
    • I discover the problem of necessary existence, and, as usual, also discover that I have reinvented (a crappier version of) the wheel
  7. Timothy Williamson on Necessary Existents
  8. Stop your Quining!!!
    • Are there any counter-examples to some common analytic truths? I don’t think so
  9. What God Doesn’t Know
    • Can we invent Liar Paradox-type sentences involving God’s knowledge? Spoiler alert: yes!
  10. A Counter-Example to the Cogito?
    • Are you nothing more than an alternate personality of the all-power Evil Genius?
  11. Conceptual Atomism, Functionalism, and the Representational Theory of Mind
    • Can we construct quaility-inversion-type scenarios for the mental attitudes? I give it my best shot.
  12. Did Quine Change His Mind?
    • No he did not. The axioms of logic are revisable but we haven’t got any good reason to revise them (yet)
  13. God v. the Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser
    • one of my most popular posts.
  14. The Evolutionary Argument against Rationalism
    • Evolution may have built certain facts about our local reality into the brain, thus generating a priori justification (of a sort)
  15. The A Priori Argument against Rationalism
    • Is it conceivable that there are no necessary truths?
  16. The Empirical Justification of Mathematics
    • Could there be empirical disconfirmation of basic arithmetic?
  17. Invoking God Doesn’t Save Descartes from Skepticism
    • Doesn’t the case of Job from the bible undermine Descartes’ claim that God is not a deceiver?
  18. The (New) Agnostic’s Manifesto: Part 1 –Preamble
  19. Secular Ethics vs. Religious Ethics
  20. Breaking Promises
    • When is a promise broken versus excused?
  21. Second Thoughts about Pain Asymbolia
  22. Transworld Saints
  23. The Logical Problem of Omniscience
  24. Empiricism and A Priori Justification
  25. Reduction v. Elimination
  26. Why I am not a Type-Z Materialist
  27. Pain Asymbolia and a Priori Defeasibility
  28. Summa Contra Plantinga
  29. The Unintelligibility of Substance Dualism
  30. What is Philosophy that it Sucks so Bad?
  31. Identifying the Identity Theory
  32. Can we think about Non-Existant Objects?
  33. The Zombie Argument Depends on Phenomenal Transparency
  34. Bennett on Non-Reductive Physicalism
  35. News Flash: Philosophy Sucks!
  36. Kant’s response to Hume’s Challenge in Ethics
  37. The Identity Theory in 2-D
  38. Outline of the Case for Agnosticism
  39. Consciousness Studies in 100 words (more) or less
  40. The Argument from Photosynthesis
    • Could humans be photosynthetic? The answer seems to be yes and this i bad news for the problem of evil
  41. The Design Argument for the Simulation Hypothesis
  42. Consciousness as an M-Property (?)
  43. If Consciousness is an M-Property then it is Physical
  44. Do We Live in a Westworld World??
  45. Eliminativism and the Neuroscience of Consciousness

LeDoux and Brown on Higher-Order Theories and Emotional Consciousness

On Monday May 1st Joe LeDoux and I presented our paper at the NYU philosophy of mind discussion group. This was the second time that I have presented there (the first was with Hakwan (back in 2011!)). It was a lot of fun and there was some really interesting discussion of our paper.

There were a lot of inter-related points/objections that came out of the discussion but here I will just focus on just a few themes that stood out to Joe and I after the discussion. I haven’t yet had the chance to talk with him extensively about this so this is just my take on the discussion.

One of the issues centered on our postulation that there are three levels of content in emotional consciousness. On the ‘traditional’ higher-order theory there is the postulation of two distinct states. One is ‘first-order’ where this means that the state represents something in the world (the animal’s body counts as being in the world in this sense). A higher-order mental state is one that has higher-order content, where this means that it represents a mental state as opposed to some worldly-non-mental thing. It is often assumed that the first-order state will be some basic, some might even say ‘non-representational’ or non-conceptual, kind of content. We do not deny that there are states like the but we suggested that we needed to ‘go up a level’ so to speak.

Before delving into this I will say that I view this as an additional element in the theory. The basic idea of HOROR theory is just that the higher-order state is the phenomenally conscious state (because that what phenomenal consciousness is). I am pretty sure that the idea of the lower-order state being itself a higher-order state is Joe’s idea but to be fair I am not 100% sure. The idea was that the information coming in from the senses needed to be assembled in working memory in such a way as to allow the animal to connect memories, engage schemas etc. We coined the term ‘lower-order’ to take the place of ‘first-order’. For us a lower-order state is just one that is the target of a higher-order representation. Thus, the traditional first-order states would count as lower-order on our view but so would additional higher-order states that were re-represented  at a higher-level.

Thus on the view we defended the lower-order states are not first-order states. These states represent first-order states and thus are higher-order in nature. When you see an apple, for example, there must be a lot of first-order representations of the apple but these must be put together in working memory and result in a higher-order state which is an awareness of these first-order states. That higher-order representation is the ‘ground floor’ representation for our view. It is itself not conscious but it results in the animal behaving in appropriate ways. At this lower-order level we would characterize the content as something like ‘(I am) seeing an apple’. That is, there is an awareness of the first-order states and a characterization of those states as being seeing of red but there is no explicit representation of the self. There is an implicit referring to the self, by which we mean these states are attributed to the creature who has them but not in any explicit way. This is why we think of this state as just an awareness of the first-order activity (plus a characterization of it). At the their level we have a representation of this lower-order state (which is itself a higher-order state in that it represents first-order states).

Now, again, I do not really view this three-layer approach as essential to the HOROR theory. I think HOROR theory is perfectly compatible with the claim that it is first-order states that count as the targets. But I do think it is an interesting issue at state here and that is what role exactly the ‘I’ in “I am seeing a red apple’ is playing and also whether first-order states can be enough to play the role of lower-order states. Doesn’t the visual activity related to the apple need to be connected to concepts of red and apple? If so then there needs to be higher-order activity that is itself not conscious.

Another issue focused on our methodological challenge to using animals in consciousness research. Speaking for myself I certainly think that animals are conscious but since they cannot verbally report, and as long as we truly believe that the cognitive unconscious is as robust as widely held, then we cannot rule out that animal behavior is produced by non-conscious processes. What this suggests is that we need to be cautious when we infer from an animal’s behavior to the cause of it being a phenomenally conscious mental state. Of course that could be what is going on, but how do we establish that? It cannot be the default assumption as long as we accept the claims about the cognitive unconscious. Thus we do not think that animals do or do not have conscious experience but rather that the science of consciousness is best pursued in Humans (for now at least). For me this is related to what I think of as the biggest confound in all of consciousness science and that is the confound of behavior. If an animal can perform a task then it is assumed this is because its mental states are conscious. But if this kind of task can be performed unconsciously then behavior by itself cannot guarantee consciousness.

One objection to this claim (sadly I forgot who made this…maybe they’ll remind me in the comments?) was that maybe verbal responses themselves are non-conscious. When I asked if the kind of view that Dennett has, where there is just some sub-personal mechanism which results in an utterance of “I am seeing red” and this is all there is to the conscious experience of seeing red, counts as the kind of view the objector had in mind. The response was that no they had in mind that maybe the subjects are zombies with no conscious experience at all and yet were able to answer the question “what do you see” with “I see red,” just like zombies are thought to do. I responded to this with what I think is the usual way to respond to skeptical worries. That is, I acknowledge that there is a sense in which such skeptical scenarios are conceivable (though maybe not exactly as the conceiver supposes), but there are still reasons for not getting swept up in skepticism. For example I agree with the “lessons” from fading, dancing, and absent qualia cases that we would be in an unreasonable sense detached from our conscious experiences if this were happening. The laws of physics don’t give us any reason to suppose that there are radical differences between similar things (like you and I), though if we discovered an important brain area missing or damaged then I suppose we could be led to the conclusion that some member of the population lacked conscious experience. But why should we take this seriously now? I know I am conscious from my own first-person point of view and unless we endorse a radical skepticism then science should start from the view that report is a reliable(ish) guide to what is going on in a subject’s mind.

Another issue focused on our claim that animal consciousness may be different from human conscious experience. If you really need the concept ‘fear’ in order to feel afraid and if there is a good case to be made that animals don’t have our concept of fear then their experience would be very different from ours. That by itself is not such a bad thing. I take it that it is common sense that animal experience is not exactly like human experience. But it seems as though our view is committed to the idea that animals cannot have anything like the human experience of fear, or other emotions. Joe seemed to be ok with this but I objected. It is true that animals don’t have language like humans do and so are not able to form the rich and detailed kinds of concepts and schemas that humans do but that does not mean that they lack the concept of fear at all. I think it is plausible to think that animals have some limited concepts and if they are able to form concepts as basic as danger (present) and harm then they may have something that approaches human fear (or a basic version of it). A lot of this depends on your specific views about concepts.

Related to this, and brought up by Kate Pendoley was the issue of whether there can be emotional experiences that we only later learn to describe with a word. I suggested that I thought the answer may be yes but that even so we will describe the emotion in terms of its relations to other known emotions. ‘It is more like being afraid than feeling nausea’ and the like. This is related to my background view about a kind of ‘quality space’ for the mental attitudes.

Afterwards, over drinks, I had a discussion with Ned Block about the higher-order theory and the empirical evidence for the role of the prefrontal cortex in conscious experience. Ned has been hailing the recent Brascamp et al paper (nice video available here) as evidence against prefrontal theories. In that paper they showed that if they take away report and attention (by making the two stimuli barely distinguishable) then you can show that there is a loss of the prefrontal fMRI activation. I defended the response to this that fMRI is too crude of a measure to take this null result too seriously. This is what I take to be the line argued in this recent paper by Brain Odgaard, Bob Knight, and Hakwan, Should a few null findings falsify prefrontal theories of consciousness? Null results are ambiguous as between the falsifying interpretation and it just being missed by a crude tool. As Odgaard et al argue if we use more invasive measures like single cell or ECoG then we would find prefrontal activity. In particular the Mante et al paper referred to in Odgaard et all is pretty convincing demonstration that there is information decodable from prefrontal areas that would be missed by an fMRI. As they say in the linked to paper,

There are numerous single- and multi- unit recording studies in non-human primates, clearly demonstrating that specific perceptual decisions are represented in PFC (Kim and Shadlen, 1999; Mante et al., 2013; Rigotti et al., 2013). Overall, these studies are compatible with the view that PFC plays a key role in forming perceptual decisions (Heekeren et al., 2004; Philiastides et al., 2011; Szczepanski and Knight, 2014) via ‘reading out’ perceptual information from sensory cortices. Importantly, such decisions are central parts of the perceptual process itself (Green and Swets, 1966; Ratcliff, 1978); they are not ‘post-perceptual’ cognitive decisions. These mechanisms contribute to the subjective percept itself (de Lafuente and Romo, 2006), and have been linked to specific perceptual illusions (Jazayeri and Movshon, 2007).

In addition to this Ned accused us of begging the question in favor of the higher-order theory. In particular he thought that there really was no conscious experience in the Rare Charles Bonnett cases and that our appeal to Rahnev was just question begging.

Needless to say I disagree with this and there is a lot to say about these particular points but I will have to come back to these issue later. Before I have to run, and just for the record, I should make it clear that, while I have always been drawn to some kind of higher-order account, I have also felt the pull of first-order theories. I am in general reluctant to endorse any view completely but I guess I would have to say that my strongest allegiance is to the type-type identity theory. Ultimately I would like it to be the case that consciousness and mind are identical to brain states and/or states of the brain. I see the higher-order theory as compatible with the identity theory but I am also sympathetic to to other versions (for full-full disclosure, there is even a tiny (tiny) part of me that thinks functionalism isn’t as bad as dualism (which itself isn’t *that* bad)).

Why, then, do I spend so much time defending the higher-order theory? When I was still an  undergraduate student I thought that the higher-order thought theory of consciousness was obviously false. After studying it for a while and thinking more carefully about it I revised my credence to ‘not obviously false’. That is, I defended it against objections because I thought they dismissed the theory unduly quickly.

Over time, and largely because of empirical reasons, I have updated my credence  from ‘not obviously false’ to ‘possibly true’ and this is where I am at now. I have become more confident that the theory is empirically and conceptually adequate but I do not by any means think that there is a decisive case for the higher-order theory.

My Issues with Daniel Dennett

Dennett has been absent from philosophy of mind conferences for some time now. In fact I seem to remember being at an Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness meeting in Pasadena in 2005 and overhearing him say that he was passing on the torch to the younger generation (I forget who he was talking to at that time, and in fact it may have been at the Neurophilosophy conference held at CalTech that same weekend). At any rate he was true to his word and was absent from the scene for a period of time. He came back to participate in a few conferences, including the Online Consciousness Conference in 2013, now with his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, he is back in full swing.

There has been a lot of discussion of his new book, including by himself, by Thomas Nagel in the New York Review of Books, and an extensive profile in The New Yorker, as well as a bunch of other places. I don’t know him personally, though we did email bunch as I co-ordinated the online consciousness conference and I did review a book that was devoted to his work and which had a response from him. Anyway, he seems like a really nice guy and he is certainly very smart but his philosophical views, and his way of doing philosophy in general, have always really bothered me.

I first encountered his work in a philosophy of mind course that I had with Kent Bach. This was at San Francisco State University and we were using the newly released The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates. We must have read three of Dennett’s papers in that class and I remember being very irritated with Dennett’s Quining Qualia and Time and the Observer papers. At the time I was a staunch supporter of Ned Block in his opposition to Dennett and I remember I wrote a lot about how I thought that Dennett was a verificationalist about consciousness. I remember I was in my modern philosophy class and the professor was talking about Descartes and how ‘radical’ his doubt was and he asked us if we could think of anything that Descartes hadn’t doubted and I said that he hadn’t doubted his own consciousness. He never asked the question, “am I a zombie, with no conscious experience (even though I believe that I have it)?” and so his method of doubt was not as radical as he thought. Dennett, on the other hand, had a truly radical kind of doubt. One that seemed impossibly absurd to me but even so it was struggling with Dennett’s arguments and ideas that really drew me into the philosophy of mind.

I had to re-read a lot of Dennett’s work to write the review of Content and Consciousness Reconsidered (linked to above) and now I have read his latest book (and watched his Talk at Google) and I can say I am as frustrated as ever with his work. I understand that he has a view (and that it is an interesting and clever one) and that he has been at this for a long time but it is astonishing to me that there is absolutely no engagement with the literature on this stuff. He does cite a lot of work but it is mostly people that Dennett is sympathetic to (or vice versa) or past students of his. He makes almost no attempt to engage with anything like a serious version of the arguments that people who don’t share his views have. And one starts to get the feeling that this is because he hasn’t read anything in the philosophy of mind during his absence.

For instance, in setting up his polemic he trots out the usual Cartesian Strawman to beg the question in effigy. He says,

The problem with Dualism, ever since Descartes, is that nobody has ever been able to offer a convincing account of how these postulated interactive transactions between mind and body could occur without violating the laws of physics. The candidates on display today offer us a choice between a revolution in science so radical that it can’t be described (which is convenient, since critics are standing by, ready to pounce) or a declaration that some things are just Mysteries, beyond human understanding (which is also convenient if you don’t have any ideas and want to exit swiftly).

I am not much of a supporter of Caresian Dualism but I am a supporter of taking one’s opponents seriously, and this doesn’t even come close!

Later he goes on to say,

Doggedly pursuing the idea that qualia are both the causes and the intentional objects (the existing intentional objects) of introspective beliefs leads to further artifactual fantasies, the most extravagant of which is the idea that unlike our knowledge of all other kinds of causation, our knowledge of mental causation is infallible and direct: we can’t be wrong when we declare that our subjective beliefs about the elements of our conscious experience are caused by those very elements. We have “privileged access” to the causes or sources of our introspective convictions. No logical room for any tricksters intervening here! We couldn’t be victimized by any illusions here! You might be a zombie, unwittingly taking yourself to have real consciousness with real qualia, but I know that I am not a zombie! No, you don’t. The only support for that conviction is the vehemence of the conviction itself, and as soon as you allow the theoretical possibility that there could be zombies, you have to give up your papal authority about your own nonzombiehood. I cannot prove this, yet, but I can encourage would-be consciousness theorists to recognize the chasm created by this move and recognize that they can’t have it both ways.

It is passages like this that drive me up the wall. I am not a dualist and I have spent a lot of time arguing that zombie are not actually conceivable but it is absolutely not the case that once you allow the possibility of zombies you loose knowledge that you aren’t a zombie. To even try to conceive of zombies requires first acknowledging that consciousness is real. My conviction that it is real comes from my own experience of it. It is a perfectly coherent view to say that I know that I am conscious and yet there could be creatures who had ‘beliefs’ like mine and yet lacked consciousness. I don’t hold that view but Dennett is much too glib here!

This is a general problem with Dennett’s work. He may be (re-)presenting his world view but there is very little effort to engage with the other side in a serious way. It is as though it is still 1965 and the main bad guy is Descartes-as-Ryle-understood-him and that doesn’t seem true. In addition Dennett’s discussion is so vague that it could fit with any number of actual theories of consciousness, including dualist ones! And there is almost no discussion of what is probably his actual view on consciousness which is almost certainly Global Workspace Theory (with some special Dennett-spice added in).

Here is his big argument against dualism:

Let’s suppose then that there is a subjective property of some kind that “explains” your current introspective convictions and abilities. Let’s suppose, that is, that when you experience what seems to be a horizontal red stripe, there really is, somewhere, a horizontal-shaped red quale (whatever that is) and it is somehow the cause or source of your conviction that you are experiencing a horizontal red stripe, and that this rendering in some unknown medium is caused or triggered by the confirmation (the absence of disconfirmation) of all the expectations generated by the normal operation of your visual system. Just to make the supposition as clear as possible, here is a somewhat expanded version of the purported explanation of the red afterimage effect:

Fixating on the real green stripes in front of you for a few seconds fatigues the relevant neural circuits in the complementary color system, which then generate a false signal (red, not green), which does not get disconfirmed so long as the fatigue lasts, so somewhere fairly high in the process betwixt retina and, um … the philosophical conviction center, a red stripe-shaped quale is rendered, and it is the appreciation of this quale that grounds, fuels, informs, causes, underwrites the philosophical conviction that right now you are enjoying a stripe-shaped red quale.

This spells out the idea behind the rhetorical question: We need something like this— don’t we?— to explain the undeniable fact that it sure seems to you there’s a red stripe right now. You’re not just saying this (the way a robot might, if programed to be a model of complementary color afterimages); you believe it with all your heart and soul. Fine. So now we have qualia installed in our sketchy model of the process. What next? Something would have to have access to the rendering in that medium (otherwise, the rendered qualia would be wasted, unwitnessed, and unappreciated, like a beautiful painting locked in an empty room). Call whatever it is that has this access the inner observer. Now what do you suppose an appropriate reaction to this rendering by this inner observer would be? What else but the judgment that there sure seems to be a red stripe out there, part of an apparent American flag? But that conclusion had already been arrived at in the course of the nondisconfirmed expectations. A red stripe in a particular location in visual space had already been identified by the system; that conclusion was the information that informed the inner rendering (the way a bitmap informs the rendering of colors on your computer screen). The postulation of qualia is just doubling up the cognitive work to be done. There is no more work (or play) for consciousness to do.

Now again, I am no fan of dualism but this is not fair at all. To name just one thing, for the dualist conscious experience is a datum and a theory needs to account for that. This is a point I am in agreement with them on. We start from the first-person knowledge that we are conscious. Hypothetical zombies, were they really conceivable (instead of just seemingly so), would not start from the position of first-person knowledge (by stipulation we differ from them in this respect). In addition I would add that from the panpsychist or panprotopsychist position there is a role for consciousness to play as the fundamental basis of the causal powers manifested by physical objects but to know that you might have to read something that has been written in the last 10 years and Dennett seems not to have done that!

This is why it has been nice to see philosophers like Keith Frankish defending illusionism with actual arguments. In fact one might wonder if the HOROR theory that I sometimes defend should count as a kind of illusionism. On the HOROR theory phenomenal consciousness consists in having a suitable higher-order representation of oneself as being in a mental state. I was originally going to write something for the Illusionism special issue but the newly acquired duties of parenthood (not to mention a 6/3-6/3 teaching load) overwhelmed me.

But I like to think that if I had managed to write that paper I would have suggested that the HOROR theory is compatible with illusionism but I myself do not see it as a version of it.

Logic & Philosophy: Online Course Lectures

I have been teaching a hybrid/online logic course for a while now and I have been meaning to record some videos for it to augment the class discussion. In the Spring of 2015 I went on paternity leave and because of the timing of it all I did not return tot he classroom and was allowed to go on Administrative Assignment for the remaining four weeks of the semester. During that time I recorded a series of videos in my office at LaGuardia utilizing a borrowed whiteboard (thanks Payal!) and my laptop. These videos are not ideal, and I would change things here and there, but they are the best I could do after having been sleep-deprived for three months. I finally got around to editing them and my hope is to supplement these with more philosophically oriented videos but this is what I have for now!