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!

Online Conferences in Philosophy

There has been some discussion of online conferences over at Daily Nous. It struck me that it has almost been 10 years since the first online conference in philosophy (that I know of) and it might be a good idea to have a list of all of this freely available content which is hanging around in various places. Altogether there have been five online conferences that I am aware of; 4 at the professional level and one undergraduate. They are listed below. Does anyone else know of any others?

  1. The Online Philosophy Conference: (2006 & 2007) Two years of papers, commentaries and comments
  2. Consciousness Online: The Online Consciousness Conference: (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013) Five years of papers, commentaries, and comments
  3. New Waves in Philosophy of Mind Conference: (2012) one year of papers and comments
  4. Minds Online conference: (2015) one year of papers, commentaries and comments

Undergraduate Conferences

  1. Online Undergraduate Philosophy Conference (2013, 2014) two years of papers commentaries and comments

Papa Don’t Teach

2015 is shaping up to be big year in the Brown household. Perhaps the biggest news is that my wife and I welcomed our son, Ryland, in March and I have been on Parental Leave. Sadly it is is over now and I am back on the clock! Since I am coming back right in the midst of the the Spring semester (which ends in the first week of June for LaGuardia) I will return to Administrative Assignment rather than teaching. I have been teaching nine courses a year since 2006 so it is a bit strange not being in the classroom, but I still have plenty to do!

Back in February I gave a talk ‘Introspective Consciousness and Higher-Order Thoughts’ at the CUNY Cognitive Science Speaker Series and there was a lot of very helpful discussion. In that talk I tried to extend some of the things I have said about higher-order theories and phenomenal consciousness to introspection. These ideas were all in the early stages and I plan to blog a bit about the discussion and eventually finish writing up a paper on this topic. For now, if anyone is interested, here are the Keynote slides that I used. I am also working on my paper/presentation ‘Two Concepts of Phenomenal Consciousness’ for a conference in Taiwan coming up in August in honor of David Rosenthal. And something else I am very excited about is that I have been asked to write an article for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness. This isn’t due until early in 2016 but I would like to get a rough draft up before the summer in the hope of getting some feedback.

Teaching-wise I also have a lot of interesting projects to work on. I plan to finally record a set of videos for my Hybrid/Online Logic and Philosophy course. I am teaching this course in the summer and I hope to have most of the videos completed by then (course begins in mid-June). I have made a couple of videos in the past for this course but I have never been happy with them. They were (hastily) made to supplement the lecture in class while I was away at a a conference in the Spring of 2013 (the APA maybe? I forget). I want to make a complete series of them and plan to use the Hurley textbook I usually use (and which I had in my first logic course). Doing these videos will be challenging since I haven’t found a way to make them that works well. A lot of the videos I have seen online either resort to recording in class lectures, or to showing a close up of the hand of the person while they write on paper. Those who know me know that my handwriting is terrible and it would really be a terrible idea for me to engage in handwriting on camera! Keynote has the logical notation but doing truth tables and Venn diagrams will be difficult. I am still thinking about what the best thing to do here is so any ideas would be welcome.

Also during the summer I am scheduled to teach Introduction to Neuroscience at LaGuardia. We use Brain and Behavior by Kolb and I am very excited to jump into it.

Looking past the spring/summer I also have some exciting projects and announcements coming up in the fall semester but first things first!

Some Recent Papers

1. The HOROR Theory of Phenomenal Consciousness Philosophical Studies (online first). Just in time for Halloween a truly terrifying take on phenomenal consciousness: It may simply consist in a suitable higher-order representation of a representation.

2. (Coauthored with Pete Mandik) On Whether the Higher-Order Thought Theory of Consciousness Entails Cognitive Phenomenology, Or: What is it like to think that one thinks that P? Philosophical Topics 40(2):1-12. We argue that it does.

3. Consciousness Doesn’t Overflow Cognition. In this short piece I argue that the higher-order thought theory of consciousness is not threatened by Block’s recent arguments for phenomenological overflow.

If Consciousness is an M-Property then it is Physical

Let us consider a possible world WM where consciousness is an M-property. At this world consciousness acts to collapse the wave function. Supposing that we live at WM can you or I have a zombie twin? A zombie twin is one that is physically identical to me in the relevant ways and which lacks consciousness. Suppose that I am actually suffering from a headache while eating Jelly Belly jelly beans. Then my zombie twin is in exactly the same physical states but without the consciousness. This means that the zombie must have a brain and that this brain must be in the same physical states that my brain is in. But my brain is in a collapsed state of definitely being in the relevant neural correlates (due to the presence of conscious experience). In the world where there is no consciousness, and which is physically just like WM (call this world WM-C), there would be no collapsed state. This is because the M property is missing. Since I am not in a superposition of states and my ‘zombie’ twin is we are not in the same physical states.

So it seems that if consciousness is an M-property then zombies are inconceivable and this in turns shows that if consciousness is an M-property then consciousness is a physical property.

But one might object that the right world to think about is WP. At this world the neural correlate of consciousness, construed here as distinct from consciousness itself (for the sake of argument), collapses the wave function. It is this world, continues the objection, rather than WM-C, that is the zombie world relative to WM. At WP there is a creature that has a brain, and which has a definite collapsed state identical to the neural correlates of the experience that I am actually having. This is the quantum zombie, not the one that is in the superposition of states.

I think it is is plausible that the creature at WP is in the same physical state as I am in some sense, but is it the case that WP has the same physics as WM? I would argue that they have similar physics but they are not the same. In WM when you lack consciousness you have a giant superposition that evolves deterministically according to the Schrodinger equation. There may be quasi-classical branches due to decoherence but that is not the same thing as there being a collapsed world, which is what we have at WP.

You cannot just start with WM and subtract consciousness and end up with WP. Instead you end up with WM-C and you then need to add some new physical law (or change the previous one), stating that it is the neural correlate that is responsible for collapsing the wave function. These worlds have different laws of physics and so are not the same. This is different than the zombie argument as normally construed, which leaves all the strictly physical laws in tact and simply posits the removal of the super-physical laws connecting the neural correlates of consciousness to actual consciousness.

Of course, consciousness probably isn’t an M-property but even so, any thoughts on the argument?

Logic and Death

Episode four of the SpaceTimeMind podcast is now available. This episode features special guest Eric Schwitzgebel. In this first part of our discussion we talk about death, immortality, and logic (and in the second part we talk about consciousness and its relation to biology).

During the first part of the discussion about logic I am pressing the kind of argument that Williamson makes in his new book Modal Logic as Metaphysics (even though none of us have read the book :)). My thought was that since Eric is open to the possibility of Crazyism then he should welcome Williamson’s view as one of the possible crazy options. Eric resists because of a commitment to logical pluralism while Pete resists because modal logic seems disconnected from science and the actual world. At the 87 minute mark I make the crucial move of distinguishing one’s metalogic from first-order logic that would help to answer a lot of Pete’s and Eric’s objections. And of course after we had this discussion I found this paper by Williamson where he makes exactly the same move but with more elegance and sophistication. I am not saying that I endorse Williamson’s view of higher-order modal logic as a science, or that I reject it, but I do think it is an interesting and important position that is worth exploring.