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.

cfp: Fifth Online Consciousness Conference

UPDATE: The deadline is fast approaching!

I am pleased to announce the call for papers for the Fifth Online Consciousness Conference, which is scheduled for February 15-March 1, 2013.

Invited talk by Daniel C. Dennett, Tufts University

Special Session on Self-Consciousness organized by John Schwenkler, Mount St. Mary’s University. Invited participants include Katja Crone and Joel Smith. This session will also include two submitted talks by graduate students or recent PhDs. If you want your paper to be considered specifically for this special session please indicate so in your submission email.

Papers in any area of consciousness studies are welcome (construed widely so as to include philosophy of mind and philosophy of cognitive science, as well as the cognitive sciences) and should be roughly 3,000-4,000 words. Submissions made suitable for blind review should be sent to consciousnessonline@gmail.com by January 5th 2013.

For papers that are accepted, an audio/visual presentation (e.g. narrated powerpoint or video of talk) is strongly encouraged but not required.

Program Committee:
Richard Brown
David Chalmers
Adam Pautz
Susanna Siegel

For more information visit the conference website at http://consciousnessonline.com

Find Consciousness Online on Facebook!

Peter Godfrey-Smith on Evolution And Memory

On friday I attended the first session of the CUNY Cognitive Science Speaker Series. The talk seemed to me to be based largely on this paper. I only have a few moments but I thought I would jot down the gist of the talk while it is fresh in my mind.

Godfrey-Smith wanted to take the ‘sender-receiver’ model of communication develop by David Lewis and apply it to debates about memory. On the Lewis model we have a sender that has access to a part of the world that the receiver does not, a sign that is passed between them, and a receiver that is able to take the sign and produce an action. Godfrey-Smith’s guiding idea is that when you have this kind of set up in the psychology of an organism and the signaling takes place over time, then you have memory.

One of the main points he wanted to make in the first half of his talk was that the idea of episodic memory as ‘constructive’ does not show that one of the main functions of episodic memory is to be truth preserving. He was aiming to oppose a group of scientist working on memory who hold what he called the ;future first’ hypothesis about episodic memory. Roughly speaking the idea is this. Our ability to imagine future events, and their outcomes is crucial for us and gives us an evolutionary advantage against those that cannot do it. What we have found out is that the neural areas that underlie our ability to do this are also largely the same ones involved in our ability to remember our past experiences. The ‘future first’ hypothesis is the idea that our ability to remember our own past experiences is simply a by-product of our ability to imagine future events and their outcomes. This is supposed to be further supported by the fact that episodic memory is thought of as ‘constructive’ in the sense that it is often wrong about the details of past experiences and tends to ‘construct’ memories along the most likely scenarios. Godfrey-Smith argued that if we think of memory in terms of the sender-receiver model then we should not immediately expect that the contrastive nature of episodic memory means that it is not truth-tracking. It is perfectly conceivable that the senders produce truth-tracking representations and that the receivers, who may be a bit smarter, ‘improvise’ from there. We can then go on and ask just how much deviation from the facts there is in the sender’s signal.

In the second half of his talk he went to discuss the controversy in cognitive science of whether there is any kind of reader in the brain. That is, is there anything in the brain which is akin to the ‘head’ in a turing machine. Something which interprets whatever message has been sent by the sender. He argued that the dominant view in the sciences is that there is no such reader. Godfrey-Smith went on to argue that there must be a reader, but that there is no sender. DNA, for instance, on this view is not an instance of information being sent. It is information, that happens to be able to be read (as a result of natural selection), but it has not been ‘written’ because, to put it crudely, nothing had the purpose of sending the message. In discussion he wanted to back away from talk of intention and purpose as ‘shorthand’ for the longer answer but I couldn’t make out what the longer answer was supposed to be.