Shombies vs. Zombies vs. Anti-Zombies and Popular Sessions from the Online Consciousness Conference

Ten years ago, way back in February 2010, the 2nd online consciousness conference would have been just starting and the papers from the first conference were coming out in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Even though I would change some things if I could, I am still very happy with my paper Deprioritizing the A Priori Arguments Against Physicalism . I think it is especially cool that this paper is cited by both the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Zombies as well as the Wikipedia entry on Philosophical Zombies. In addition I have yet to see a good response to the argument I developed there. David Chalmers assimilates the objection to a ‘meta-modal’ objection involving conceiving that physicalism is true (or that necessarily (P –> Q) is possibly true). I went to Tucson in 2012 to talk about this and we talked about it a bit here (and I wrote up a version here) but I have never seen a real response to the actual argument.

If the best response, as the SEP and Dave’s 2D argument against Materialism paper/chapter suggest (though to be fair they are talking about conceiving that physicalism is true, which is not what I am talking about), is that they find shombies inconceivable then they have revealed that the a priori arguments should be deprioritized (that’s always been my point). I find zombies inconceivable and they find shombies inconceivable. How can we tell who is doing it right? These thought experiments can give an individual who finds the first premise plausible (the conceivability of zombies/shombies) some reason to think that their view (physicalism, dualism, whatever) is rational to hold but they cannot be used as a way to show that some metaphysical view about the mind/conscious is actually true. In this sense they are sort of like the ‘victorious’ Ontological Argument of Plantinga.

I would also say that I am more convinced than ever that shombies are not Frankish’s Anti-Zombies. In fact given Keith’s views on illusionism I am pretty sure he is committed to the claim that shombies, as I envision them, must be inconceivable (or not possible).

Oh yeah, this was supposed to be a post about the Online Consciousness Conference 🙂 Below are links to the most viewed sessions from the five conferences as well as to the most commented on sessions.

Most viewed sessions

Most commented on sessions

A New Home

I wrote a short story! I occasionally get little ideas for stories but have never tried to write one down. So I figured I would give it a shot. I doubt I am any good at it but see what you think.


“In that?” Jank asked, looking anxiously over at Ziff for confirmation.

“Yep, it’s nearly ready. Just a few more adjustments to make,” Ziff said, briefly looking up from the workstation she was busy stabbing keys on.

Jank looked at the artificial being on the table. He couldn’t believe that it had come to this. The planet was dying and as a last resort they were attempting to upload their consciousness into an artificial machine and then launch the machine to a new home.

Ziff stopped madly punching at the keys on her workstation long enough to notice that Jank was wistfully gazing down at the construct on the table. Ziff stood up and walked over to him.

“Look,” she began “you know that our limited tests have been successful. When we have replaced one small part of our biological brain with an artificial bit that does the same job no one notices at all.”

“I know, I know, I had the test done while I was listening to my favorite music and eating my favorite dessert and I couldn’t notice anything when they replaced my taste areas with artificial bits. But it’s just so mechanical looking! And why didn’t we make it look more like we do?”

Jank looked down at the creature. It had two limbs that it could balance on, two limbs that it could use to manually grasp things in the environment, and on top a command station of sorts that served as its head. The “head” of the construct had two orbs for detecting electromagnetic energy in the environment, two chemical entryways for detecting chemical concentrations in the air as well in potential energy sources. There were also two entryways for sound waves, of all things, to enter. Then inside the “head” was all of the machinery for processing this information. They had modeled this machinery on their own biological brains but they had made it from another material altogether. Some had said that it would never work and that only the material we ourselves were composed of could instantiate consciousness and intelligence.

But the critics were wrong. We had figured out not only how to build constructs but also how to get those strange energy sources to result in the kind of conscious experience we have from our own senses. And just in time too. No one had heeded the warnings about our abuse of the environment and now we were being forced to upload our minds into these machines and flee our own planet.

Jank looked up and realized that Ziff had been answering the question he had asked. She was in the middle of explaining that the planet they had found that was in the habitable zone and close enough to get to in our ships had a different atmosphere than our home planet. The constructs had been designed to function on that strange new world.

Jank had already zoned out and was thinking about the long voyage to this new home. First he would have to upload his consciousness into the construct. In the process his current body would be destroyed. Maybe if they had enough time they could get a non-destructive form of uploading but they had to act now. Then the constructs would be loaded on the ships and launched to the new world. It would take very long time to reach the new world and the constructs would only be activated once they arrived. In addition to the constructs that were built to house our minds, we also built a host of other intelligent machines that would be used to sustain the livability of the new planet. This new planet was relatively young as planets go and had all of the conditions for life, though a form of life that was different from ours. These machines would enforce a cycle that would eventually be self-sustaining.

Jank snapped back and realized that Ziff had stopped talking and was looking at him expectantly. Jank ignored the look and instead asked, “is it true that the new planet only has one star that it orbits?”

Ziff was used to these sudden darts of attention and so she just said, “yes that is true. It also emits light in a different part of the spectrum. That is why we had to design the constructs in the way that we did. We had to not only think about how to preserve our conscious minds but also how the constructs could emulate our biological behavior. We want our species to survive!”

Ziff was well known for her passionate defense of the idea that this would count as a continuation of our species. Others were skeptical. They argued that once we uploaded into the constructs it would be questionable whether we were the same species or not. Once you add to that that these constructs were built in such a way that they could emulate childbirth -Jank suppressed a shudder. He couldn’t quite bring himself to think of it as childbirth.

The constructs had been designed so that they could produce new constructs. We had decided to emulate nature and had given the constructs a kind of code that could be passed on and which carried instructions for constructing a new construct from the materials provided by the host construct. A lot of debate had gone into how to make this work. Without it our species would perish after these construct bodies wore out. They lasted a long time by our standards but on the new world they would last at most a few hundred years. We were the only conscious, intelligent life form in the universe as far as we knew. We could not let our own carelessness with our home world deprive the universe of life. We needed to be able to make new people.

Once you bought the original idea that you could be uploaded into these constructs it wasn’t that far of a leap to think that the new constructs would be new people. They would be ‘born’ and have a ‘childhood’ etc. Since these construct bodies are so strange they will need time to adjust to controlling it in a new atmosphere, one that our minds were not designed to be in. Would Jank’s construct ‘offspring’ be members of our own species? Ziff firmly believed this. These ‘children’ will never really know that they are in a constructed body after all.

Jank on the other hand did not believe this. He suddenly stood up and said “I don’t think I can do it!”

Ziff had been expecting this and was ready for it.

“Do what?” she asked

“This!” shouted Jank pointing at the construct. “I may as well stay here with those who think that uploading is suicide. If they are right then what is the difference anyway? I will die if I stay here but I will die if I am uploaded into that horrible squishy thing!”

Ziff waited until the outburst had subsided. Then she began to try to calm him down. “It is true that some people think you don’t survive uploading. It is also true that some people think you don’t survive sleep,” Ziff smiled and Jank seemed to relax a little so she continued.

“Questions about the self are deep and to be honest I am not sure whether it will really be me when I upload. But I do think that it will at least be someone closely related to me and who I can now care about in a way similar to how I care about my own future self. I want her to achieve her goals because they are my goals! So even if it isn’t me I can think of it as saving my child, or twin or something”

Jank had calmed down now and was sitting looking out the window off into the distance. Only two of the suns were visible. He tried to imagine what it would look like to ‘see’ with these artificial ‘eyes’ an alien sun. He snorted quietly to himself when he realized that they had designed the constructs so that it would pretty much look like things normally did -minus a few suns. Ziff had come over and was sitting next to Jank.

“We had to make these constructs out of an element that was sustainable on the new world. The chemistry of that world severely limited our choices and so we had to use carbon. We tried to use other elements to base the constructs on but they just did not survive our simulations of the conditions on the New World. We had to build the body and the ‘brain’ of the constructs from carbon. It is a miracle that we figured out how to reproduce the functionality of our biological brain using artificial carbon-based cells that depended on sodium and potassium ions to generate electrical signals which were then converted to chemical signals and back again to electrical signals.”

Ziff smiled ruefully and trailed off waiting for Jank’s response.

Jank was marveling at the stupidity of the whole thing. Carbon? Really? 86 billion artificial carbon-based cells to hold my conscious mind on an alien world? Piloting a strange squishy carbon-based space-suit-slash-rover built for an environment our species was never meant to exist in. Was it really any more ridiculous than the way it actually worked for our species on our own world?

“You’re right,” he said as he stood up, “I’m ready”

“Great!” shouted Ziff as she jumped up, “let’s save our species”

Jank grinned as he stepped towards the uploader saying, “Or at least a species that will descend from ours! I hope they do better there”

Transworld Depravity and the New Logical Problem of Evil

I am teaching philosophy of religion in our short six week winter session and I was re-reading Plantinga’s Free Will Defense. I think I understand it better now than I did back when I was first thinking about these issues.

As I understand it now it might show that there is no contradiction between some evil existing and God’s being omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect but it cannot show that the actual world is among the set of possible worlds that God chose to actualize. The basic idea behind all of Plantinga’s modal logic is just that the counter-factuals of freedom for all of the creaturely essences that God could actualize just shake out in such a way that there is no way to make it the case that everyone always does what is morally right (i.e. the Mackie world where everyone always chooses to do what is right is possible but not actualizable by God).

To be quite honest I find the whole thing pretty confusing. I am sure I must (still) be misunderstanding something about Plantinga’s system. How are we supposed to understand what is actually happening in a case of trans-world depravity? There is a possible world where there is a creaturely essence that, in that world, always chooses to do what is morally right. But then, since the creaturely essence is trans-world depraved, when God tries to actualize that creaturely essence it turns out that they will go wrong with respect to at least one moral choice. This seems like a really strange thing we are being asked to conceive of and now that think it through I am not so sure that it is obvious that we can conceive of what Plantinga says we can.

But even if you set that issue aside I don’t still don’t think that Plantinga’s free will defense does succeed it disarming the logical problem of evil. I am willing to grant that maybe it shows that an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being can possibly allow some evil and so there is no logical contradiction between the claim that God is perfect and some evil exists. But it seems like we can generate a strengthened, revenge-style, logical problem of evil in the following way.

We can start by granting Plantinga the possibility of trans-world depravity. But if God has knowledge of the so-called counterfactuals of freedom (which could be denied but as I read Plantinga he accepts) then God will know, in advance, the outcomes of all of the free choices of every creaturely essence. We can then impose an ordering on the creaturely essences in terms of the kind and degree of evil their choices will bring into the world. Morality is a fraught issue and all of us have moral shortcomings but not all of us end up being genocidal mass murders, serial rapists, etc. Thus we can envision God assigning a number between 0 and 1 where 0 is ultimately evil and 1 is ultimately good (one assumes God would merit a 1 on the scale but probably nothing else would). Naturally there will be many many possible worlds for God to average over but that should be no problem for an omniscient being. Thus every creaturely essence will have some final value representing their net ‘evil impact factor’ on the modal landscape

E0 –supremely evil creaturely essence (every morally significant choice chooses immoral option)


E1 -supremely good creaturely essence (every morally significant choice chooses good)

Let us assume that a modal evil impact factor of less than .5 means that generally the possible worlds this creaturely essence is actualized in are ones they choose to act immorally in an egregious way whereas an impact factor above .5 means that you act immorally but in a less than egregious way (maybe one is dishonest and breaks promises and steals but never physically harms anyone or some such).

So even if we are able to make sense of the claim that God cannot actualize the possible world where everyone always freely chooses to do what is morally right (and yet still say that God is omnipotent) we still need an explanation for the kind of evil we find. There is a logical incompatibility between God’s perfection and the kinds of evil which actually exist. A morally perfect God would select the world with the lowest possible total evil impact factor (the combined impact factors of all of the possibly instantiated creaturely essences at that world). You mean to tell me that God could not have actualized the possible world where there is plenty of lying, cheating, stealing, truth telling, loyalty, etc but no murder? He couldn’t have actualized a world in the .75 evil impact factor rage?

What am I missing?

Consciousness Live! Season 3

I am happy to announce the opening line-up for the new season of Consciousness Live! I originally intended to try to limit these to the summer but then I realized I am just as busy then as now so why not let people pick when is best for them? There may be more to come and I will announce timing info when I have them scheduled.

Sounds like a lot of fun!!

…And the Conscious State is…

No too long ago Jake Berger and I presented a paper we are working on at the NYU philosophy of mind discussion session. There was a lot of very interesting discussion and there are a couple of themes I plan on writing about (if I ever get the chance I am teaching four classes in our short six week winter semester and it is a bit much).

One very interesting objection that came up, and was discussed in email afterwards, was whether HOT theory has the resources to say which first-order state is the conscious state. Ned Block raised this objection in the following way. Suppose I have two qualitative first-order states that are, say, slightly different shades of red. When these states are unconscious there is nothing that it is like for the subject to be in them (ex hypothesi). Now suppose I have an appropriate higher-order thought to the effect that I am seeing red (but not some particular shade of red). The content of the higher-order thought does not distinguish between the two first-order states so there is no good reason to think that one of them is consciousness and the other is not. Yet common sense seems to indicate that one of them could be conscious and the other non-conscious, so there is a problem for higher-order thought theory.

The basic idea behind the objection is that there could be two first-order states that are somewhat similar in some way, and there could be a fact of the matter about which of the two first-order states is conscious while there is a higher-order thought that does not distinguish between the two states. David’s views about intentional content tend toward descriptivism and so he thinks that the way in which a higher-order thought refers to its target first-order state is via describing it. I tend to have more sympathy with causal/historical accounts of intentional content (I even wrote about this back in 2007: Two Concepts of Transitive Consciousness) than David does but I think in this kind of case he does think that these kinds of considerations will answer Block’s challenge.

But stepping back from the descriptivism vs. causal theories of reference for a second, I this objection helps to bring out the differences between the way in which David thinks abut higher-order thought theory and they way that I tend to think about it.

David has presented the higher-order thought theory as a theory of conscious states. It is presented as giving an answer to the following question:

  • How can the very same first-order state occur consciously and also non-consciously?

The difference between these two cases is that when the state is conscious it is accompanied by a higher-order thought to the effect that one is currently in the state. Putting things this way makes Block’s challenge look pressing. We want to know which first-order state is conscious!

I trend to think of the higher-order thought theory as a theory of phenomenal consciousness. It makes the claim that phenomenal consciousness consists in having the appropriate higher-order thought. By phenomenal consciousness I mean that there is something that it is like for the organism in question. I want to distinguish phenomenal consciousness from state consciousness. A state is state-conscious when it is the target of an appropriate higher-order awareness. A state is phenomenally conscious when there is something that it is like for one to be in the state. A lot of confusion is caused because people use ‘conscious state’ for both of these notions. A state of which I am aware is naturally called a conscious state but so to is a state which there is something that it is like to be in.

Block’s challenge thus has two different interpretations. On one he is asking how the higher-order awareness refers to its target state. That is, he wants to know which first-order state am I aware of in his case. On the other interpretation he is asking which first-order state is there something that it is like for the subject to be in. The way I understand Rosenthal’s view is that he wants to give the same answer to both questions. The target of the higher-order state is the one that is ‘picked out’ by the higher-order state. And what it is like for the subject to be in that target first-order state consists in there being the right kind of higher-order awareness. Having the appropriate higher-order state is all there is to there being something that it is like to be in the first-order state.

I tend to think that maybe we want to give different answers to these two challenges. Regardless of which first-order state is targeted by the higher-order awareness the state which there is something that it is like for the subject to be in is the higher-order state itself. This higher-order state makes one aware of being in a first-order state, and that is just what phenomenal consciousness is. Thus it will seem to you as though you are in a first-order state (it will seem to you as though you are seeing red when you consciously see red). For that reason I think it is natural to say that the higher-order state is itself phenomenally conscious (by which I mean it is the state which there is something that it is like to be in). I agree that we intuitively think it is the first-order states which are phenomenally conscious but I don’t think that carries much weight when we get sufficiently far into theorizing.

While I agree that it does sound strange to say that the first-order state is not phenomenally conscious I think this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that we can none the less say that the first-order state is a conscious state when it is targeted by the appropriate higher-order awareness. This is because all there is to being a conscious state, as I use the term here, is that the state is targeted by an appropriate higher-order awareness. The advantage to putting things in this way is that it makes it clear what the higher-order theory is a theory of and that the objection from Block is clearly assuming that first-order states must be phenomenally conscious.

2019 in Review

I had a busy year in 2019!

I taught three less classes than I usually do and so I only taught 13 classes in 2019 (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ‘semesters’). That is the same number as the year I was on parental leave.

I teach a lot of courses but I also get to teach a lot of different classes. Besides my typical philosophy courses (Intro to Phil, Phil Religion, Logic, Ethics) I get to teach a variety of science classes including Introduction to Neuroscience, General Psychology, and a capstone seminar that I usually do on consciousness and some aspect of science. In the Spring semester I am teaching Life in the Universe which is really cool. In addition this semester I got to co-teach a class on neuroscience and philosophy of consciousness at the Gradate Center with Tony Ro, which was awesome!

I like teaching but I feel like I would be better at it if I did less of it. And I do wish I could do more teaching at the graduate level.

I also had my paper with hakwan Lau and Joe LeDoux come out in Trends in Cognitive Science. This journal works very quickly and we spent most of early 2019 working on this paper, which came out in September 2019! The whole experience of writing that paper was intense and a bit surreal.

On the other side of the spectrum, my paper with Hakwan Lau for the Ned Block volume was written a long time ago but just came out along with Block’s response (see my response here)

In addition I wrote some book reviews, gave a couple of talks, wrote a couple of blog posts, and of course completed my second season of Consciousness Live!

Looking back further, back in December 2009 I was a newly-married Assistant Professor and was organizing the very first jam session at the Parkside Lounge (after the American Philosophical Association meeting in Times Square December 28th 2009). (I also was just realizing that the way things had been presented to me at CUNY had slightly skewed my intuitions about philosophy over-all). (In addition I was also in the middle of organizing the second Online Consciousness Conference). I recently found an old recording of one of the tunes we played. I don’t remember who was playing what, or when it was recorded (maybe sometime in 2008) but it is some combination of core-NC/DC members. Next year in December 2020 we will be coming up on the 10 year anniversary of the Qualia Fest; might the world be ready for another one?

10000 lies performed by NC/DC
The New York Consciousness Collective at the Parkside Lounge December 28th 2009

Since that timely life has changed a lot! I don’t get to play as much music but I have been promoted to Full Professor, celebrated my 10 year wedding anniversary, welcomed two sons, bought a house, and moved out of Brooklyn. It’s been an eventful decade both personally and professionally! I wonder what I’ll be writing in 2029?