Chalmers on Brown on Chalmers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Higher-Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness

I am very happy to be able to say that the paper I have been writing with Joseph E. LeDoux is out in PNAS (Proceeding of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States). In this paper we develop a higher-order theory of conscious emotional experience.

I have been interested in the emotions for quite some time now. I wrote my dissertation trying to show that it was possible to take seriously the role that the emotions play in our moral psychology which is seemingly revealed by contemporary cognitive neuroscience, and which I take to suggest that one of the basic premises of emotivism is true. But at the same time I wanted to preserve the space for one to also take seriously some kind of moral realism. In the dissertation I was more concerned with the philosophy of language than with the nature of the emotions but I have always been attracted to a rather simplistic view on which the differing conscious emotions differ with respect to the way in which they feel subjectively (I explore this as a general approach to the propositional attitudes in The Mark of the Mental). The idea that emotions are feelings is an old one in philosophy but has fallen out of favor in recent years. I also felt that in fleshing out such an account the higher-order approach to consciousness would come in handy. This idea was really made clear when I reviewed the book Feelings and Emotions: The Amsterdam Symposium. I felt that it would be a good idea to approach the science of emotions with the higher-order theory of consciousness in mind.

That was back in 2008 and since then I have not really followed up on any of the ideas in my dissertation. I have always wanted to but have always found something else at the moment to work on and that is why it is especially nice to have been working with Joseph LeDoux explicitly combining the two. I am very happy with the result and look forward to any discussion.

January-March 1997

I have been meaning to start to write some autobiographical posts and, maybe it has something to do with being trapped inside during this snowstorm, maybe something else, but I started thinking about my first semester at San Francisco State University.

It was 20 years ago, way back in January of 1997, and I was living and working at a mortuary and crematorium slash chapel and funeral home while I was also attending community college at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. I had started Cuesta College in August of 1994 and had gone from hitchhiking to school everyday while working here and there to driving my Nisan Pulsar to school every day while living and working at the mortuary. I found out about this place through a person I met at school and thought it was a good chance to live rent free while making some money. Boy was I wrong! I had lived at the mortuary for at least a year, though to be honest I cannot remember how long I lived there, or how many bodies I came into contact with. There are some memorable ones, and the rest is a bit of a blur. That was a dramatic time and at some point I will try to write something about my time in the mortuary, but even though it has now been over 20 years it still haunts me and I don’t think I’m ready to relive that time.

At any rate in January of 1997 my time at the mortuary, at Cuesta, and indeed in the Central Coast of California, were drawing to an end. I was getting ready to move to San Francisco to attend San Francisco State University, where I had been accepted as a transfer student. I’ll get to that but first I had to deal with an old court case that had unexpectedly threatened to hold me back. A while back when I had first started at Cuesta I had been in a fight with someone who had gone on to press charges against me. I did not realize this until I was pulled over for an unrelated incident and found out that there was a warrant for my arrest. To make a somewhat long story short I had hit someone in the head with a 40 ounce bottle of Old English. The judge in the case was worried about the nature of the incident. The use of the bottle made him want to convict me of assault with a deadly weapon. They told me that I could make a plea to aggravated assault and that if I did not take the deal it could go to trial and I would face worse; up to five years in jail. I was familiar with this routine from my time in Juvy and stood my ground. I must have gone to court three times before the judge gave me community service for disturbing the peace. It was a very odd feeling to be literally on the verge of moving to pursue a college degree and then facing the possibility of being dragged back into my old patterns of activities and ending up arrested and in jail, this time as an adult. It was very frightening but it also served to remind me why I was going to school. I did not want to be that kind of person anymore and I had seen a glimpse of the kind of person that I could become. After completing my community service me and the guys at the Mortuary took one last snow boarding trip. It was the day of Super Bowl 31, Sunday January 26th 1997 and we had the mountain all to ourselves. Classes were set to begin Wednesday January 29th and my plan was to put my stuff into storage and drive up the day before classes started. I thought I could stay in a hotel for a week or so while looking for a place to live. I had not pre-arranged any place but I thought it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Boy was I wrong!

My first semester I was taking five classes, which I had registered for already. I had been to SF a few times in recent years to see bands (like P-Funk, Luna, and Free Tibet concerts) and for Gerry Garcia’s memorial in Golden Gate Park (it’s a long story!). The only time I went to SF specifically because of SFSU was to go to the orientation which must have taken place in late 1996. At any rate my first semester had a nice mix of class. I was taking a second year english course (we read a lot of short stories and some Shakespear), a physics class on Space, Time, the Universe, and Relativity, a linguistics course introducing one to the study of language, a philosophical analysis course, and a philosophy of language class taught by Kent Bach. This was a very heavy load and I had a lot going on. It was harder having a car in San Francisco than I thought and I ended up staying in a residential hotel located in the Tenderloin district, which was pretty far away from the SFSU campus. This was a pretty seedy place where there was one bathroom located on the floor that was shared by all of the tenets and where you could find used condoms in the hallway. Classy all the way. Parking around SFSU was tough and so I started taking public transportation and leaving my car. Especially after it stopped starting. It was eventually towed and I found out it would cost more to get it back than it actually cost to purchase it. So I let it go.

Those early weeks were tough. I was there all alone in the city and thrown head over heels into very deep philosophical waters. I remember one night sitting in my residential hotel reading Austin on performative utterances and feeling like I was in way over my head. The philosophy of language class was a mixed seminar that combined an undergraduate class along with a graduate seminar in the same room. I did not realize this at first. Anyway, as I was reading Austin, the distinction between locutionary act, what is said, and illocutionary act, what speech act is performed, seemed clear to me. However, I could not understand what the perlocutionary act was supposed to be. In particular I remember reading the example given over and over. It was ‘don’t do that’ or something, and it was offered as an example of someone protesting against doing the thing in question. The perlocutionary act was listed as ‘he pulled me up, checked me’ and I had no idea what this meant. Looking back on it now it seems like this was an example of the way in which the language used was just not familiar to me. Another example was from Russell’s paper On Denoting. He tells the story about George IV inquiring whether Scott was the author of Waverley. At the time this made no sense to me, though I think I understood the point being made. Years later I learned the whole story (in a class with Nathan Salmon) and then I realized it is a good example!

I eventually ran out of my financial aid money and so could not afford to stay in the residential hotel. The housing market in SF in the late 90s was very tough. I didn’t know it at the time but people were asking professors if they would let students stay with them! I was out looking for a place every chance I got but I also had a lot of work to do for school and I found it easy to get lost in what I was learning. Once I ran out of money and had my car towed I did not know what to do. The semester was not even half way over and I had no where to live and no money. I took to hanging around on campus and staying in the library. They had a 24 hour study area and computer lab and people slept there occasionally. One night I hid in the library until they locked it down just to get a few hours sleep straight. I remember one day, after about three or four days of this, a fellow student in my english lit class approached me and asked if I knew where to get any heroin. I said I didn’t and did not use the stuff. They replied that they could tell when someone was strung out by the dark circles under their eyes. I laughed and said that was because I was living in the 24 hour study section of the library!

I had no food and no money for food but I found out I could get a voucher to help with lunch and I applied for a couple of those. Once those ran out I took to ordering food and standing in line to pay for it but since it was so busy it was easy to slip out of line and just start eating. That worked a couple of times until one of the cooks one day came over to me and said that he had seen what I had done and that he would let it go this time but next time he wouldn’t. I knew I couldn’t pull that stunt again. I forget exactly how it happened but somehow I found out about the dormitories on campus, and especially the residential food hall. I went to inquire about the possibility of getting into the dorms but they said they were full. It was, after all, halfway through the semester! I was bummed but I scoped out the food hall and discovered that there was a back entrance that went in through the kitchen and into the dining hall. I went in desperate and hungry. People were working but no one payed any attention to me. I walked cautiously through the kitchen into the dining hall, grabbed a tray and just stood for a second admiring all of the food. It was basically exactly like a Sizzler all you can eat buffet. It was then that I first heard the Spice Girls song ‘if you wanna be my lover’. It was played on a loop on a TV they had in there.

I soon found out that they had an opening in one of the dorm rooms but that I could not move in until after Spring Break. That was great news! All I had to do was to hang in until then. I decided I would head back to San Luis Obispo and crash with friends during spring break. I could come back to SF afterwards and be in the dorms. I did not want to stay in the mortuary so I ended up staying with an old friend that played in a band with one of my band mates from the past. We played Resident Evil and took it easy and it was nice being back. I was planning on taking the bus from San Luis to SF but the bus made a pit stop somewhere along the 101 and I got out to use the bathroom. I must have been in there too long because when I came out the bus had left. My backpack was on the bus with my books for the semester. I figured I would have to hitchhike back to SF but somehow ended up hitchhiking back to San Luis.

While I was in San Luis I found out that all of my stuff which I had put into storage had been sold. They told me that they had tried to contact me and when they couldn’t they auctioned off the stuff they could and trashed the rest. I couldn’t really blame them, I had signed something saying this would happen and I had been hard to contact being homeless and all. This included not only all of my clothes, my photo albums, music collection, personal keepsakes, artwork from my mother, and furniture but also my drum set and all of my books from my time at Cuesta College. At first I was really depressed. I ended up staying there for another week, thereby missing a week of classes, and I did seriously think about not going back. But I did. They even had my books for the semester and backpack at the Greyhound bus station in SF! Not bad.

So there I was, 25 years old and living in a dormitory with a bunch of people who had already known each other for half of the semester. To make matters worse I soon found out that the reason there had suddenly been a room available was because no one wanted to be roommates with Doug (not his/her real name). Doug had apparently been the major source for a school newspaper article on campus drug use. He had named names and there had been a crackdown as a result. Needless to say he was not liked in the residential hall. For my own part I was surprised by how much like living in a group home and being in juvenile hall this experience was.

I finished the semester and did pretty well. Even more surprisingly I can see now that I learned a lot during that semester and that some of the ideas I had stuck with me and ended up becoming part of later projects (see the preface to my dissertation for more on this). The summer of 1997 was pretty memorable as well. Hopefully I’ll get to that next time!

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!

Existentialism is a Transhumanism

In the academic year 2015-2016 I was the co-director, with my colleague Naomi Stubbs, of a faculty seminar on Technology, Self, and Society. This was part of a larger three year project funded by a grant from the NEH and supported by LaGuardia’s Center for Teaching and Learning.  During my year as co-director the theme was Techno-Humanism and Transhumanism. You can see the full schedule for the seminar at the earlier link but we read four books over the year (in addition to many articles). In the Fall 2015 semester we read  The Technohuman Condition by Braden Allenby, and Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. In the Spring semester we read The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku, and Neuroethics, an anthology edited by Martha Farah. In addition to the readings Allenby and Kaku both gave talks at LaGuardia and since we had room for one more talk we invited David Chalmers who gave his paper on The Real and the Virtual (see short video for Aeon here).

All in all this was a fantastic seminar and I really enjoyed being a part of it. I was especially surprised to find out that some of the other faculty had used my Terminator and Philosophy book in their Science, Humanism and Technology course (I thought I was the only one who had used that book!).  The faculty came from many different disciplines ranging from English to Neuroscience and I learned quite a bit throughout the process. Two things became especially clear to me over the course of the year. The first is that many of my view can be described as Transhumanist in nature. The second is that a lot of my views can be described as Existentialist in nature.

The former was unsurprising but the latter was a bit surprising. I briefly studied Sartre and Existentialism as an undergraduate at San Francisco State University from 1997-1998 and I was really interested in Sartre’s work after that (i.e. I searched every book store in SF for anything Sartre related, bought, read it, and argued endlessly with anyone around about whether there was ‘momentum’ in consciousness). However once I got to Graduate School (in 2000)  I began to focus even more on psychology, neuroscience, and the philosophy of mind and I gradually lost contact with Sartre. I have never really kept up with the literature in this area (but I have recently read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on Sartre and Existentialism), haven’t read Sartre in quite a while (but I did get out my copy of Being and Nothingness and Existentialism is a Humanism a couple of times during the seminar), and don’t work on any explicitly Sartrean themes in my published work (though there are connections between higher-order theories of consciousness and Sartre) but during this last year I found myself again and again appealing to distinctly Sartrean views, or at least Sartrean as I remembered it from being an undergraduate! By the end of it all I came to the view that Existential Transhumanism is an interesting philosophical view and probably is a pretty good descriptor for what I think about these issues. So, all that having been said, please take what follows with a grain of salt.

The core idea of existentialism as I understand it is a claim about the nature of persons and it is summed up in Sartre’s dictum that ‘existence precedes essence’. Whatever a person is you aren’t born one. You become one by acting, or as Sartre might put it, we create ourselves through our choices. Many interpret that claim as somehow being at odds with physicalism (Sartre was certainly a dualist) while I do not. But what does this mean? It helps to invoke the distinction between Facticity and Transcendence. Facticity relates to all of the things that are knowable about me from a third person point of view. It is what an intense biographer could put together. But I am not merely the sum total of those facts. I am essentially a project. An aiming toward the future. This aiming towards something is the way in which Sartre interpreted the notion of intentionality. All consciousness, for him, was necessarily directed at something that was not itself part of consciousness. This is why Sartre says ‘I am not what I am and I am what I am not”. I am not what I am in the sense of not being merely my facticity. I am what I am not in the sense that I am continually creating myself and turning myself into something that I was not previously.

Turning now for the moment to Transhumanism, I interpret this in roughly the same way as the World Transhumanist Association does. That is, as an extension of Humanism. Reason represents the best chance that Human Beings have of accomplishing our most cherished beliefs. These beliefs are enshrined in many of the world’s great religions and espouse principle of universality (all are equal in some sense), and compassion. Transhumanists see technology, at least in part, as a way of enhancing human reason and so as a way of overcoming our natural limitations.

One objection to this kind of project is that we could modify ourselves to the point of no longer being human, or to the point of our original selves not existing any further. Here I think the existentialist idea that there are no essential properties required to be human can help. We are defined by the fact that we are ‘a being whose being is in question’. That is we are essentially the kind of thing which creates itself, which aims towards something that is not yet what it is. Once one takes this kind of view one sees there is no danger in modifying ourselves. This seems to me to be very much in line with the general idea that the kinds of modifications the transhumanist envisions are not different in kind from the kind we have always done (shoes, eyeglasses, etc). Even if we are able to upload our minds to a virtual environment we may still be human by the existentialist definition.

In addition, another objection which was the central objection in the Allenby book, is that the Transhumanist somehow assumes a notion of the individual, as an independent rational entity, which doesn’t really exist. This may be the case but here I think that existentialism is very handy in helping us respond. The kind of individual envisioned by the Enlightenment thinkers may not exist but one way of seeing the transhumanist project is as seeking to construct such a being.

Enlightenment, in Kant’s immortal words, is

….man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment

To this the transhumanist adds that Kant may have been wrong in thinking that we have enough reason and simply need the courage to use it. We may need to make ourselves into the kinds of rational beings which could fulfill the ideals of the Enlightenment.

There is a lot more that I would like to say about these issues but at this point I will briefly mention two there themes that don’t have much to do with existentialism. One is from Bostrom (see a recent talk of his at NYU’s Ethics of A.I. conference). One of Bostrom’s main claims is what he calls the orthogonality thesis. This is the claim that intelligence and values are orthogonal to each other. You can pair any level of intelligence with any goal at all.  This may be true for intelligence but I certainly don’t believe it is true for rationality.

Switching gears a bit I wanted to mention David Chalmers’ talk. I found his basic premise to be very convincing. The basic idea seemed to be that virtual objects count as real in much the same way as concrete objects do. When one is in a virtual environment (I haven’t been in one yet but I am hoping to try a Vive or a Playstation VR set soon!) and one interacts with a virtual dragon, there really is a virtual object that is there and that one is interacting with. The fundamental nature of this object is computational and there are some data structures that interact in various ways so as to make it roughly the same as ordinary objects and their atomic structure. Afterwards I asked if he thought the same was true for dreams. It seemed to me that many of the same arguments could be given for the conclusion that in one’s dreams one interacted with dream objects which were real in the same way as virtual objects. He said that perhaps but it depended on whether one was a functionalist about the mind. It seems to me that someone like Chalmers, who thinks that there is a computational/functional neural correlate for conscious states, is committed to this kind of view about dreams (even though he is a dualist). Dream objects should count as real on Chalmers’ view.

Do We Live in a Westworld World??

I have not had the time to post here as often as I’d like and I am hoping to get back into a semi-regular blogging schedule once things settle down. The hectic pace of an almost-two-year-old and teaching a 6/3/-6/3 course load (18 classes a year!) has taken its toll. I have been meaning to write a post on my plenary session at The Science of Consciousness (TSC2016) conference in Tucson. And I have been working on a paper with Joe LeDoux developing a Higher-Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness that is nearing the final stages. I plan to post something about it once we are done. I am also still trying to produce a series of videos for my introductory logic class at LaGuardia and will also post something on that when they are finished (hopefully before the Spring semester). So a lot is going on!

But all of that aside I wanted to take a moment to talk about Westworld. I have not seen the original movie by Michael Crichton but I was eagerly anticipating the new HBO series and now having watched it I think it is a wonderful show with a lot of rich philosophical content. There are a lot of interesting questions about consciousness and computation brought up by the show but I wanted to step back and note the clever way that the show introduces a new twist on the some old skeptical worries. There are some mild spoilers below but if you have seen the first episode that is all that you need to follow the argument.

The basic premise of the show involves the existence of a giant park known as Westworld where there are advanced artificial agents that serve as the backdrop for the various adventures of the patrons of the park. These advanced artificial agents, known as hosts in the show, are very lifelike and in fact stipulated to be indistinguishable from flesh and blood humans. The behavior of the hosts is for the most part scripted and under the complete control of the people who run Westworld. When the hosts interact with the ‘newcomers’, i.e. those who visit the park for recreation, they are allowed limited improvisation and mild variance from their scripted behavior but that is all. The feature that is noticeable for our purposes is that the hosts are programmed in such a way that whenever a newcomer mentions anything about the existence of things outside the park they noticeably fail to notice what the newcomer has said. If they happen to see an artifact from outside the park, like a picture, they do not register it and simply say ‘it doesn’t look like anything to me’. Finally, they mention that the hosts have the concept of dreaming, and specifically of a nightmare, in order to ensure that any weird experiences due to park maintenance can be attributed to being in a dream.

That is enough of the plot mechanics of the show to introduce the interesting new skeptical worry. How can we be sure that we are not now, at this very instant, in a Westworld World? That is, given some common assumptions, how can we rule out that our city -NYworld-, our state -CaliforniaWorld-, our country -USAworld-, indeed our planet -EarthWorld- etc, are not actually vast artificial environments run by external agents set up for the enjoyment of ‘newcomers’ (tourists?)? It is true that I do not notice any evidence that the Earth is just an artificial environment with automatons populating it. But this is consistent with my actually being an artificial agent of some sort whose internal programming, or what ever is equivalent to that, prevents me from noticing any such evidence. In the most severe form EarthWorld might be an amusement park for an alien race. A place where they go to vacation and reek havoc. We may have interacted with any number of alien beings and simply not have noticed that they have tentacles, four eyes, etc. We may be constructed to take their appearance to conform to normal human standards (after all many take physics to already demonstrate that we don’t perceive reality as it is).

In a sense this is related to the Simulation Hypothesis. In that case Bostrom and others consider the possibility that our reality is in actuality a computer simulation, like The Sims but more advanced. This is not the kind of scenario envisioned in EarthWorld. There the idea is that we have an actual physical place, The Earth, complete with physical elements, trees, animals, wind, etc and also artificial agents, ourselves. Our role in EarthWorld may vary depending on the skeptical scenario one envisions but one scenario is that we are highly advanced artificial agents with advanced AI and limited conscious experience (that is we are phenomenally conscious but miss out on a large portion of what is actually happening around us). This is not a computer simulated reality but is still an artificial reality of sorts. Maybe more akin to Live Action Role Playing than to computer simulation (maybe Artificial Action Role Playing?).

As with most skeptical scenarios I don’t think we have to accept the conclusion that we are indeed in such a scenario but it is, I think, an interesting new take on the ‘we might be conscious computer programs in an artificial environment’ trope. As such I also think that the simulation argument, if it works at all, works equally well for Earthworld and so if you think we might be in a simulation you should also think we might be in Earthworld.

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