Mary, Subliminal Priming, and Phenomenological Overflow

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

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

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


Gottlieb and D’Aloisio-Montilla on Brown on Phenomenological Overflow

Last year I started to try to take note of papers that engage with my work in some way (previous posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). The hope was to get some thoughts down as a reference point for future paper writing. So far not much in that department has been happening; with a 3 year old and a 1 month old it is tough to find time to write (understatement!) but I am hoping I can “normalize” my schedule in the next few weeks and try to get some projects off of the back burner. At any rate I have belatedly noticed a couple of papers that came out and thought I woud quickly jot down some notes.

The first paper is one by Joseph Gottlieb and came out in Philosophical Studies in October of 2017. It is called The Collapse Argument and makes the argument that all of the currently available mentalistic first-order theories of consciousness turn out to really be versions of the higher-order theory of consciousness. I don’t know Joseph IRL (haha) but we have emailed about his papers several times, though I usually get back him too late for it to matter on account of the 16 classes a year I have been teaching since 2015 (for anyone who cares: I am contractually obligated to teach 9 a year and  in addition I teach another 7 as an adjunct (the maximum allowed by my contract)…sadly this is what is required in order for my family to live in New York! ) and I have blogged about his work here before (linked to above) but I really, really like this paper of his. First, I obviously agree with his conclusion and it is nice to see some discussion of this issue. I took some loose steps in this direction myself in the talk I gave at the Graduate Center’s Cognitive Science Speaker Series back in 2015. I thought about writing it up but then had my first son and then found out about Joseph’s paper, which is better than what I could have come up with anyway! I suppose the only place we might disagree is that I think this applies to Block’s first-order theory as well.

But even though I really like the paper there is a bit I would quibble about (but not very much). Gottlieb seems to take seriously my argument that higher-order theories are in principle compatible with phenomenological overflow but I am not sure I agree with how he puts it. He says,

As Richard Brown (2014) points out, HO theorists don’t need to claim that we are aware of our conscious states in all their respects. I might be aware that I am seeing letters (a fairly generic property) but not the identity of every letter I am seeing. In other words, I can be unaware of some of the information represented by the first- order state without the state itself being unconscious (ibid). What happens, then, is: I am phenomenally conscious of the entire 3 X  4 array, with representations of the identities of all the letters available prior to cuing. But only a small number (usually around four) ever get through, accessed by working memory. That’s overflow, and perfectly consistent with HO theory.

In the paper he is citing I was trying to make the point that the higher-order theories which deny overflow do not thereby also commit themselves to the existence of unconscious *states* which are doing heavy lifting. If the states are targeted by the appropriate higher-order representation then those states are conscious. Yet one may not represent all of the properties of the state and so, even though the state is conscious, there is information encoded in the state which you are not aware of (and so is unconscious). That unconscious information (that is to say, that aspect of the conscious state)  is (presumably) what you come to be aware of when you get the cue in the relevant experiments. So it is a bit strange to see this part of the paper cited as supporting overflow (though I do think the position is compatible with overflow I wasn’t thinking of it in this way). But I think I see his point. On the higher-order view it will true to say that one has a phenomenally conscious experience of all of the letters and the details but only access a few (even though what it is like for one may not have all of the details, which is really what I think the overflow people mean to be saying).

This point, though, is I think they key difference between higher-order theories and Global Workspace theories (which is what Block is really targeting with his argument). The basic idea behind the higher-order approach is this. When one is presented with the stimulus all or most of the details of the stimulus are encoded in first-order visual states (that is, states which represent the details of the visual scene). Let’s call the sum-total representational state S. S represents all (or most) of the letters and their specific identifies. One can have S without being aware that one is in S. In this case S is unconscious. Now suppose that one comes to have a (suitable) higher-order awareness that one is in S. According to the higher-order theory of consciousness one thereby comes to have a phenomenally conscious experience of S and becomes consciously aware of what S represents. But since one’s higher-order awareness is (on the theory) a cognitive thought-like state, it will describe its target. Thus one can be aware of S in different ways. Suppose that one is aware of S merely as a clock-like formation of rectangles. Then what it is like for one will be like seeing a clock-like formation of rectangles. Being aware of S seems to keep S online and as one is cued one may come to have a different higher-order awareness of S. One may become aware of some of the details already encoded in S. One was already aware of them, in a generic way, but now one comes to be aware of the same details but just in more detail. Put more in terms of the higher-order theory, one’s higher-order thought(s) come to have a different content than they previously did. The first higher-order state represented you as merely seeing a bunch of rectangles and now you have a state that represents you as seeing a bunch of rectangles where the five-o’clock position is occupied by a horizontal bar (or whatever). Notice that in this way of thinking about the case there are no unconscious states (except the higher-order ones). S is conscious throughout (just in different respects) and it will be true that subjects consciously see all of the letters (just not all of the details).

I want to keep this in mind as I turn to the second paper but before we do I also like Gottlieb’s paper because it actually references this blog! I think this may be the first time my personal blog has been cited in a philosophy journal! I will have more to say about that at some point but for now: cool!

The second paper is by Nicholas D’Aloisio-Montilla and came out in Ratio in December 2017. It is called A Brief Argument for Consciousness without Access. This paper is very interesting and I am glad I became aware of it and D’Alosio-Montilla’s work in general. He is trying to develop a case for phenomenological overflow based on empirical work on aphantasics. These are people who report lack of the ability to form mental imagery. I have to admit that I think of myself this way (with the exception of auditory imagery) so I find this very interesting. But at any rate the basic point seems to be that there is no correlation between one’s ability to form mental imagery (as measured in various ways) and one’s ability to perform the Sperling-like tasks under discussion in the overflow debate.  His basic argument is that if you deny phenomenological overflow then you must think that unconscious representations are the basis of subject’s abilities. Further, if that is the case then it must be because subjects form a (delayed) mental image of the original (unconscious) representation. But there is evidence that subject’s don’t form mental images and so evidence that we should not deny overflow.

I disagree with the conclusion but it is nice to see this very interesting argument and I hope it gets some attention. Even so, I think there is some mis-characterization of my view related to what we have just been talking about in Gottlieb’s paper. D’Alosio-Montilla begins by setting the problem up in the following way,

The reports of subjects [in Sperling-like tasks] imply that their phenomenology (i.e. conscious experience) of the grid is rich enough to include the identities of letters that are not reported (Block, 2011, p.1; Land- man et al., 2003; cf. Phillips, 2011b). As Sperling (1960, p.1) notes, they ‘enigmatically insist that they have seen more than they can … report afterwards’. Introspection therefore suggests that subjects consciously perceive almost all 12 items of the grid, even if they are limited to accessing the contents of just one row (Block 2011; Carruthers, 2015). The ‘overflow’ argument uses this phenomenon as evidence in favor of the claim that the capacity of consciousness outstrips that of access. Overflow theorists maintain that almost all items of the grid are consciously represented by perceptual and iconic representations (D’Aloisio-Montilla, 2017; Block, 1995, 2007, 2011, 2014; Bronfman et al., 2014; for further discussion, see Burge, 2007; Dretske, 2006; Tye, 2006).

This is a nice statement of the overflow argument and the claim that it is the specific identifies of the items of the grid which are consciously experienced but this way of framing the argument begs the question against the higher-order interpretation. The reports in question do not imply rich phenomenology because, as we have just discussed, subjects are correct that they have consciously seen all of the letters even if they are wrong that they consciously experienced the details. Because of this the higher-order no-overflow theorist can accept that there is no correlation between mental imagery ability and Sperling-like task performance and for pretty much the same reasons that the first-order theorist does: because there is a persisting conscious experience.

D’Aloisio-Montilla then goes on to give two objections to his interpretation of my account. He puts it this way,

A final way out for the no-overflow theorist might be to allow for a limited phenomenology of the cued item to occur without visual imagery (Brown, 2012, 2014; Carruthers, 2015). Brown (2012, p. 3) suggests that subjects can form a ‘generic’ experience of the memory array’s items while the array is visible, since attention can be thinly distributed to bring fragments of almost all items to both phenomenal and access consciousness. Phenomenology, for example, might include the fact that ‘there is a formation of rectangles in front of me’ without specifying the orientation of each rectangle (Block, 2014). However, there a still number of problems with an appeal to generic phenomenology. First, subjects report no shift in the precision of their conscious experience when they are cued to a subset of items that they subsequently access (Block, 2007; Block, 2011).

First, I would point out that my goal has always been to show that the higher-order theory of consciousness is both a.) compatible with the existence of overflow but also b.) compatible with no-overflow views and gives a different account of this than Global Workspace Theories (or other working memory-based views). So I am not necessarily a ‘no-overflow theorist’ though I am someone who thinks that i.) overflow has not been established but assumed to exist and ii.) even if there is overflow it is mostly an argument against a particular version of the Global Workspace theory of consciousness, not generally against cognitive theories of consciousness.

But ok, what about his actual argument? I hope it is clear from what we have said above that one would not expect subjects to report ‘a shift in precision’ of their phenomenology. One has a conscious experience (generic or vague in certain respects) but in so doing you help to maintain the first-order (detailed) state. When you get the cue you focus on the aspect of the state which you had only generically been aware of (by coming to have a higher-order awareness with a different content) but what it is like for you is just like feeling like you see all of the details and then focusing in on some of the details. No change in precision. But even so these appeals to the subject’s reports are all a bit suspect.  I use the Sperling stimulus in my classes every semester as a demo of iconic memory and an illustration of how philosophical issues connect to empirical ones and my students seem to be mixed on whether they think they “see all of the letters”. Granted we only do 10-20 trials in the classroom and not in the lab (in Sperling they did thousands of trials) and these are super informal reports made orally in the classroom…but I still think there is a issue here. I have long wanted there to be some experimental philosophy done on this question. It would be nice to see someone replicate Sperling’s results but also include some qualitative comments from subjects about their experience. I almost tried to get this going with Wesley Buckwalter years ago but it didn’t go through. I still think someone should do this and that the results would be useful in this debate.

D’Aloisio-Montilla goes on to say,

Second, subjects are still capable of generating a ‘specific’ image – that is, a visual image with specific content – when the cue is presented. Assuming that the cued item is generically conscious on the cue’s onset, imagery would necessarily be implicated in maintaining any persisting consciousness of the cued item (whether gist-like or specific) throughout the blank interval. Thus, we can still expect to see a correlation between imagery abilities and task performance, because subjects can generate either (1) a visual image with specific phenomenology, or (2) a visual image with generic phenomenology (Phillips, 2011a; Brown, 2014). In any case, subjects who generate a specific phenomenology of the cued item should perform better than those who rely solely on a gist-like experience, and so Brown’s interpretation is also called into question.

But again this seems to miss the point of the kind of no-overflow account the higher-order thought theory of consciousness delivers. It is not committed to mental imagery as a solution. Subjects have a persisting conscious experience which may be less detailed than they experience it as.

Shesh that is a lot and I am sure there is a lot more to say about it but nap time is over and I have to go and play Dinosaur now.

Papa don’t Teach (again!)


The Brown Boys

2018 is off to an eventful start in the Brown household. My wife and I have just welcomed our newborn son Caden (pictured with older brother Ryland and myself to the right) and I will soon be going on Parental Leave until the end of April. Because of various reasons I had to finish the last two weeks of the short Winter semester after Caden was born (difficult!). That is all wrapped up now and there is just one thing left to do before officially clocking out.

Today I will be co-teaching a class with Joseph LeDoux at NYU. Joe is teaching a course on The Emotional Brain and he asked me to come in to discuss issues related to our recent paper. I initially recorded the below presentation to get a feel for how long the presentation was (I went a bit overboard I think) but I figured once it was done I would post it. The animations didn’t work out (I used powerpoint instead of Keynote), I lost some of the pictures, and I was heavily rushed and sleep-deprived (plus I seem to be talking very slow when I listen back to it) but at any rate any feedback is appreciated. Since this was to be presented to a neuroscience class I tried to emphasize some of the points made recently by Hakwan Lau at his blog.

Fanselow and Pennington on LeDoux and Colleagues

Things have been really hectic around here lately and I have been meaning to post something on this for a while now.

Recently Michael Fanselow and  Zachery Pennington, both at UCLA, have argued against the kind of position developed by LeDoux and Colleagues. This includes his paper with Daniel Pine who is a psychiatrist, his paper with me developing a higher-order theory of fear and anxiety, and his paper with Stefan Hofmann who is a cognitive behavioral therapist. The papers are linked to below.

LeDoux and Pine responded here:

There is also a a bit of a response in our recent general piece on these issues here:

I think the responses do a good job but there is one passage that I think needs more attention.

This is from the ‘Psychiatric Dark Ages’ paper where Fanselow and Pennington say,

5. A logical inconsistency within the two-system framework

The two-system framework formally states that fear as a subjective experience arises from the neural circuitry that gives rise to working memory and conscious recollection, and more specifically, to episodic memory (LeDoux & Brown, 2017; LeDoux, 2017). As an example of an episodic memory, I can recall the what, where and when of yesterday’s breakfast. This includes my memory for the flavors I experienced. I can use this memory to flexibly guide today’s choices—yesterday I had bacon, better stick to oatmeal today. The neural circuits that support such episodic memories are also the neural systems that allow animals to take alternate paths when the one normally used is blocked. And in the two-systems framework, they support the subjective emotion of fear. The question then becomes what is unique about fear that differentiates it from other cognitions? The answer to this question is immediately apparent if one looks at LeDoux and colleagues’ schematics [Figure 1b (LeDoux & Pine, 2016), Figure 2a (LeDoux, 2017) and Figure 5 (LeDoux & Brown, 2017)]: it is the input from the subcortical defensive system, and in the case of LeDoux and Brown, feedback from the behavioral responses generated by the subcortical defensive circuits. In other words, the unique qualities of subjective fear in the two-system framework reduce to the more parsimonious single generator model, where conscious fear reflects one component of an integrated response. Indeed, the additional machinery needed to generate subjective report probably adds additional noise, rendering it, as many previous to us have suggested, a less pure and objective measure of fear.

The central argument here seems to be that since we allow that activity of the amygdala and other lower-order areas influence the subjective experience of fear then it is the case that you could have had that same subjective experience without the higher-order activity. This simply doesn’t follow.

On the view LeDoux and I developed the unique qualities of subjective fear come from the unique contents of certain higher-order representations. It is entirely plausible that activity from the subcortical defensive system may cause the appropriate higher-order representations to have a specific kind of content, which in turn results in a specific subjective experience. When that activity is missing and fear is still felt it may be subjectively different because of the missing causal contribution from the subcortical defensive circuit. This does not collapse the view into a first-order view.

What the HOROR view is committed to, though, is that if it were to be the case that we could, via some other means than normal, mimic the causal input of the subcortical circuits, then we could produce the higher-order state with the appropriate content without any activity in the defensive survival circuits and that would result in the exact same subjective experience of fear.


Ian Phillips on Simple Seeing

A couple of weeks ago I attended Ian Phillips’ CogSci talk at CUNY. Things have been hectic but I wanted to get down a couple of notes before I forget.

He began by reviewing change blindness and inattentional blindness. In both of these phenomena subjects sometimes fail to recognize (or report) changes that occur right in front of their faces. These cases can be interpreted in two distinct ways. On one interpretation one is conscious only of what what is able to report on, or attend to. So if there is a doorway in the background that is flicking in and out of existence as one searches the two pictures looking for a difference and when one is asked one says that they see no difference between the two pictures one does not consciously experience the door way or its absence. This is often dubbed the ‘sparse’ view and it is interpreted as the claim that conscious perception contains a lot less detail in it than we naively assume.

Fred Dretske was a well known defender of a view on which distinguishes two components of seeing. There is what he called ‘epistemic seeing’ which, when a subject sees that p, “ascribes visually based knowledge (and so a belief) to [the subject]”. This was opposed to ‘simple seeing’ which “requires no knowledge or belief about the object seen” (all quoted material is from Phillips’ handout). This ‘simple seeing’ is phenomenally conscious but the subject fails to know that they have that conscious experience.

This debate is well known and been around for a while. In the form I am familiar with it it is a debate between first-order and higher-order theories of consciousness. If one is able to have a phenomenally conscious experience in the absence of any kind of belief about that state then the higher-order thought theory on which consciousness requires a kind of higher-order cognitive state about the first-order state for conscious perception to occur, is false. The response developed by Rosenthal, and that I find pretty plausible, is that in change blindness cases the subject may be consciously experiencing the changing element but not conceptualize it as the thing which is changing. This, to me, is just a higher-order version of the kinds of claims that Dretske is making, which is to say that this is not a ‘sparse’ view. Conscious perception can be as rich and detailed as one likes and this does not require ‘simple seeing’. Of course, the higher-order view is also compatible with the claim that conscious experience is sparse but that is another story.

At any rate, Phillips was not concerned with this debate. He was more concerned with the arguments that Dretske gave for simple seeing. He went through three of Dretske’s arguments and argued that each one had an easy rejoinder from the sparse camp (or the higher-order camp). The first he called ‘conditions’ and involved the claim that when someone looks at a (say) picture for 3-5 minutes scanning every detail to see if there is any difference between the two, we would ordinarily say that they have seen everything in the two pictures. I mean, they were looking right at it and their eyes are not defective! The problem with this line of argument is that it does not rule out the claim that they unconsciously saw the objects in question. The next argument, from blocking, meets the same objection. Dretske claims that if you are looking for your friend and no-one  is standing in front of them blocking them from your sight, then we can say that you did see your friend even if you deny it. The third argument involved that when searching the crowd for your friend you did saw no-one was naked. But this meets a similar objection to the previous two arguments. One could easily not have (consciously) seen one’s friend and just inferred that since you didn’t see anyone naked your friend was naked as well.

Phillips then when on to offer a different way of interpreting simple seeing based on signal detection theory. The basic intuition for simple seeing, as Phillips sees it, lies in the idea that the visual system delivers information to us and then there is what we do with the information. The basic metaphor was a letter being delivered. The delivery of the letter (the placing of it into the mailbox) is one thing, you getting the letter and understanding the contents, is another. Simple seeing can then be thought of as the informative part and the cognitive noticing, attending, higher-order thought, etc, can be thought of as a second independent stage. Signal detection theory, on his view, offers a way to capture this distinction.

Signal detection theory starts with treating the subject as an information channel. They then go on to quantify this, usually by having the subject perform a yes/no task and then looking at how many times they got it right (hits) versus how many times the got it wrong (false alarms). False alarms, specifically, involve the subject saying the see something but being wrong about it, because there was no visual stimulus. This is distinguished from ‘misses’ where there was a target but the subject did not report it. The ‘sensitivity to the world’ is called d’, pronounced “d prime”. On top of this there is another value which is computed called ‘c’. c, for criterion, is thought of as measuring a bias in the subjects response and is typically computed from the average of hits versus false alarms. One can think of the criterion as giving you a sense of how ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ the subjects’ response is. If they will say they saw something all the time then the seeming have a very liberal criterion for determine whether they saw something (that is to say they are biased towards saying ‘yes I saw it’ and is presumably mistaking noise for a signal). If they never say the say it then they are very conservative (they are biased towards saying ‘no I didn’t see it). This gives us a sense of how much of the noise in the system the subject treats as actually carrying information.

The suggestion made by Phillips was that this distinction could be used to save Dretske’s view if one took d’ to track simple seeing and c to track they subjects knowledge. He then went on to talk about empirical cases. The first involved memory across saccades and came from Hollingworth and Henderson, Accurate Visual Memory for Previously Attended Objects in Natural Scenes, the second f rom Mitroff and Levin Nothing Compares 2 Views: Change Blindness can occur despite preserved access to the changed information, and the third Ward and Scholl Inattentional blindness reflects limitation on perception, not memory. Each of these can be taken to suggest that there is “evidence of significant underlying sensitivity in [change blindness] and [inattentional blindness],”.

He concluded by talking about blindsight as a possible objection. Dretske wanted to avoid treating blindsight as a case of simple seeing (that is of there being phenomenal consciousness that the subject was unaware (in any cognitive sense) of having). Dretske proposed that what was missing was the availability of the relevant information to act as a justifying reason for their actions. He then went on to suggest various responses to this line of argument. Perhaps blindsight subjects who do not act on the relevant information (say by not grabbing the glass of water in the area of their scotoma) are having the relevant visual experience but are simply unwilling to move (how would we distinguish this from their not having the relevant visual experience)? Perhaps blindsight patients can be thought of as adjusting their criterion and so as choosing the interval with the strongest response and if so this can be thought of as reason responsive. Finally, perhaps, even though they are guessing, they really can be thought of as knowing that the stimulus is there?

In discussion afterwards I asked whether he though this line of argument was susceptible o the same criticism he had leveled against Dretske’s original arguments. One could interpret d’ as tracking conscious visual processing that the subject doesn’t know about, or one could interpret it as tracking the amount of information represented by the subjects mental states independently of what the subject was consciously experiencing (at leas to some extent). So, one might think, the d’ is good so the subject represents information about the stimulus that is able to guide its behavior, but that may be going on while the subject is conscious of some of it but not all of it, or different aspects of it, etc. So there is no real reason to think of d’ as tracking simple (i.e. unconceptualized, unnoticed, uncategorized, etc) content that is conscious as opposed to non-conscious. He responded that he did not think that this constituted an argument. Rather he was trying to offer a model that captured what he took to be Dretske’s basic intuition, which was that there was the information represented by the visual system, which was conscious, and then there was the way that we were aware of that information. This view was sometimes cast as unscientific and he thought of the signal detection material as proving a framework that, if interpreted in the way he suggested, could capture, and thus make scientifically acceptable, something like what Dretske (and other first-order theorists) want.

There was a lot of good discussion, a lot of which I don’t remember, but I do remember Ned Block asking about Phillips’ response to cases like the famous Dretske example of a wall, painted a certain color, having a piece of wallpaper in one spot. The little square of wallpaper has been painted and so is the same color as the wall. If one is looking at the wall and doesn’t see that there is a piece of wallpaper there, does one see (in the simple seeing kind of way) the wallpaper? Phillips seemed to be saying we did (but didn’t know it) and Block asked whether it wasn’t the case that when we se something we represent it visually and Phillips responded by saying that on the kind of view he was suggesting that wasn’t the case. Block didn’t follow up and didn’t come out after so I didn’t get the chance to follow up on that interesting change.

Afterwards I pressed him on the issue I raised. I wondered what he thought about the kinds of cases, discussed by Hakwan Lau (and myself) where the d’ is matched but subjects give differing answers to questions like ‘how confident are you that you saw it?’ or ‘rate the visibility of the thing seen’. In those cases we have, due to matched d’, the same information content (worldly sensitivity) and yet one subject says they are guessing while the other says they are confident they saw it (or rates its visibility lower while the other rates it higher (so as more visible)). Taking this seriously seems to suggest that there is a difference in what it is like for these subjects (a difference in phenomenal consciousness) while there is no difference in what they represent about the world (so at the first-order level). The difference in what it is like for them seems to track the way in which they are aware of the first-order information (as tracked by their visibility/confidence ratings). If so then this suggests that d’ doesn’t track phenomenal consciousness. Phillips responded by suggesting that there may be a way to talk about simple seeing involving differences in what it is like for the subject but didn’t elaborate.

I still am not sure how he responds to the argument Hakwan and I have given. If there is differing conscious experience with the same first-order states each in each case then the difference in conscious experience can only be captured (or is best captured) by some kind of difference in our (higher-order) awareness of those first-order states.

In addition, now that I have thought about it a bit, I wonder how he would respond to Hakwan’s argument (more stemming from his own version of higher-order thought theory) that the setting of the criterion in Phillips’ appeal to it in blindsight cases, depends on a higher-order process and so amounts to a cognitive state having a constitutive role in determining how the first-order state is experienced. This suggests that an ‘austere’ notion of simple seeing where there is no cognitive states involved in phenomenal consciousness is harder to find than Phillips originally thought.

Remembering Jerry Fodor

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

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

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

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


The Biological Chinese Room (?)

I am getting ready to head out to New York Medical College to give Grand Rounds in the department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences on the Neurobiology of Consciousness. I am leaving in just a bit but as I was getting ready I had a strange thought about Searle’s Chinese Room argument that I thought I would jot down very quickly. I assume we are all familiar with the traditional version of the argument. We have you (or Seattle) locked in a room receiving input in a foreign language and looking up proper responses in a giant rule book to return the proper output. In effect the person in the room is performing the job that a computer would taking syntactic representations and transforming them according to formally specified rules. The general idea is that since Searle doesn’t thereby understand Chinese that there must be more to understanding it than formal computation.

Now, I don’t want to get bogged down in going over the myriads of responses and counter responses that have appeared since  Seattle first gave this argument but it did occur to me that we could give a biological version of this that would target the biological nature of consciousness that Searle prefers. Indeed, I think it also would work against Block’s recent claim that some kind of analog computation suffices for phenomenal consciousness (see his talk at Google (and especially the questions at the end)). So the basic idea is this. Instead of having the person in the room implement formal computations, have them implement analog ones by playing the role of neurons. They would be sequestered in the room as usual and would receive input in the form of neurotransmitters. They would then respond with the appropriate neurotransmitters. We can imagine the entire room is hooked up in such a way that the Chinese speaker on the outside in speaking normally, or typing or whatever, and this gets translated into neural-chemical activity which is what the person in the room receives. They respond in kind and this gets translated into speech on the other end. Seattle still wouldn’t understand Chinese.

So it seems that either this refutes the biological view of consciousness or it suggests what is wrong with the original Chinese Room argument…any thoughts?