Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Unintentional Absurdity of Academic Philosophy…

I was reading Debbie Nathan’s book Sybil Exposed and I came across this passage:

“[American Chemical Society] membership was so overwhelmingly male that some meetings in the 1930s were still called “smokers” – a word implying cigars, beer, half-naked girls, and pornographic movies.”

If the ACS was “so overwhelmingly male” that Nathan thinks it was sexist to still call professional meetings “smokers” in the 1930s, I wonder what she would think if she knew that a prominent meeting organized by a professional philosophical association is still called a “smoker” in the 21st century?

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Summer update

It’s almost July and I wanted to give a status update on my summer research progress. My main task of the summer has been to work on my Qualifying Paper for Wash U. The paper is more or less a complete draft at this stage, although there are about 5 more references I need to add to the bibliography. Since I have finished the draft, what I am doing now is a combination of more extensive reading of the literature as well as re-reading the paper and tweaking as much as possible, as well as adding or adjusting footnotes or minor points as I read deeper into the literature. I’ve probably read through the paper now dozens of times. And by the time I get done with revising it at the end of next semester in response to the Works in Progress PNP workshop, I will probably have read it dozens more times. I’m excited by the paper since it seems to be my best work yet. I feel pretty confident that it could eventually end up in a good journal once I get comments from my faculty committee and revise it further. It already feels fairly polished compared to my earlier publications. My only concern right now is that I might be trying to do too much in one paper. I think I could cut it down to a more narrow range of concerns, but I’d be concerned of losing sight of the broader implications of my argument. I’m not the type of philosopher who likes to write short counter-argument rebuttals of someone else’s argument. Instead, I have a broader focus and my argument is an argument against a general approach, not any specific philosopher. As such, I think the “big picture” approach is right for the paper. Hopefully my committee members won’t feel otherwise and have me do major revisions. That would suck! For my first QP though, I think the paper is pretty damn good and it’s definitely a direction I’d like to pursue further in my dissertation.

In other news, I am still waiting to hear from the Central States Philosophical Association whether or not my paper was accepted. They said I would find out by the end of the month, and the suspense is killing me!

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Quote of the day 6-24-2012

“Logic is the art of going wrong with confidence.” ~ Joseph Krutch

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The Immorality of Catholic Confessional

A Roman Catholic priest created an Ask Me Anything thread the other day on Reddit. One redditor asked the following question:

“If a man came to you in confessional and admitted to murdering someone and shares intent to do it again, do you go to the police or do you respect the rules of confession? If you read in the paper that he did it again the next day, how would you feel?I went to Catholic school for 12 years and this has been my favorite question to ask of priests since I was really young, because the answer actually varies.”

Surprisingly, this is how the priest answered:

” The seal of the confessional is inviolate, even if the person has murdered someone.”

This flabbergasted me. The immoral stupidity of such an absolutist rule can easily be demonstrated by performing a thought experiment and taking the logic of an “inviolate seal” to its logical extreme. Let’s say the confessor admits to the priest that he is planning to murder 1 billion people tomorrow with a doomsday device. If the Roman Catholic church still thinks it’s more important to keep the seal of the confessional inviolate than to prevent the death of 1 billion people, then I believe this is a reductio of the principle of the confession.

But, you might object, in order to make it a genuine confession, the confessor must genuinely repent, and you can’t really repent if you consciously plan on committing the sin you are repenting for tomorrow. So it wouldn’t be a real confession. But we need only tweak our thought experiment. Imagine the confessor has a Jekyll and Hyde personality (realistically, this could be done through hypnosis or dissociative identity disorder) and it is the good personality confessing what he thinks the bad personality is going to do. The confessor says, “I am genuinely sorry for this, but I know that I am still going to set off that doomsday device tomorrow because I can’t help it”. Would the seal of the confession still be inviolate? If so, then I think I have provided a reductio of the principle, since it seems obviously absurd to value the principle of the seal over the lives of 1 billion people (or 10 billion, it doesn’t matter for purposes of the thought experiment). Derek Parfit calls this the “Law of Large Numbers”. When you deal with extremely large numbers of lives, then “common sense” moral principles tend to wither under the pressure. If you really considered yourself a moral person, and you believed in a moral God, then surely you would reason that it’s more just to violate the seal and save 1 billion people. Upholding the rule for the sake of upholding the rule is immoral if you cannot give a justification that outweighs the prima facie reasonableness of saving 1 billion lives.


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Quote of the Day 6-19-2012

“The brain, for Miller, has evolved much like the [human] penis. People are on the lookout for entertaining mates. We prefer to be with, and mate with, those who make us happy. This puts evolution in a new light. Evolutionary psychologists typically see the mind as either a scientific data-cruncher, constructing theories of the natural environment, or as a Machiavellian schemer, trying to outfox others a zero-sum game of social dominance. Maybe the mind is also an entertainment center, shaped by the forces of sexual selection to give pleasure to others, to possess the capacity for storytelling, charm, and humor.” ~ Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works p. 85

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Quote of the day 6-12-2012

“Philosophers, of course, are supposed to be critical. We have trained, and daily refine our skills, at exposing the errors in others’ work. But while the exposing of error is an essential part of the doing of philosophy, it is not all there is to doing philosophy. Far too much of the practice of philosophy, both written and dialogical, has become one-sided: finding what is wrong in someone else’s work and failing to find what is right, useful, and meritorious in that work.” ~ Norman Swartz, “Philosophy as  a Bloodsport

h/t: The Philosophers’ Cocoon 

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A quick thought on pain and suffering

It is common for theorists to distinguish between pain and suffering. Pain is generally associated with nociception, a very primitive chemical detection system that responds to cellular damage signals. Suffering, in contrast, is usually defined as the minding of pain, sometimes called the “affectivity” or “unpleasantness” of pain. In humans and monkeys, the pain system and the minding system can be teased apart.  Such a distinction has considerable moral implications for how we treat nonhuman animals. Many philosophers think that it is only the minding of pain, and not pain itself, that deserves moral consideration. Thus, any creature who only has nociception but does not mind pain will not fall under the full umbrella of moral consideration. Moreover, the minding system has been associated with having an Anterior Cingulate Cortex. All mammals have an ACC. Therefore, this seems like a good reason to grant all mammals moral status.

But I propose to make a further distinction between the minding of pain and the introspective awareness that you mind pain. It is unfortunate that the term “minding pain” seems to imply a kind of higher-order awareness since “minding” sounds like a cognitively sophisticated capacity reminiscent of introspection. But if a rat can mind pain, how complex could it really be? Such an capacity doesn’t strike me as all that fancy. And I am skeptical that in humans we have really teased apart minding from introspective awareness of minding. Do we really know that what “bothers” humans is the minding shared with rats or the introspective awareness of minding? More experimentation will be needed to tease this apart, but it is difficult because the verbal reports necessary to determine minding levels seem to be confounded by introspective awareness.

Don’t take me the wrong way. I’m not arguing that only introspective awareness of minding is deserving of moral consideration. Otherwise, I’d be left with the conclusion that we can treat newborn babies as mere objects, a conclusion I obviously reject. It seems plausible that the ability to merely mind pain deserves some moral consideration. But the crucial question is, how much? It seems plausible to me that we have good reason to want to reduce all instances of minding pain in the universe. But it also seems plausible to me that we have good reason to prioritize the reduction of the introspective awareness of minding over the mere minding. This line of reasoning includes nonhuman mammals into the moral sphere, but does not place them on an equal status with well-developed human beings capable of introspective minding.

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Is Higher-order Theory Really Defunct?

Last year Ned Block published a paper in Analysis called “The higher-order approach to consciousness is defunct“. In it, he offers a very simple and compelling argument that is supposed to expose the incoherency of both Higher-order Thought theory (HOT) and Higher-order Perception theory (HOP). Block first distinguishes modest and ambitious versions of these theories. The modest view is simply an account of “Higher-order consciousness” as distinct from what-it-is-likeness while the ambitious view is designed to be a theory of what-it-is-likeness itself. According to Block, the Higher-order view is as follows:

The higher order theory: A mental state is conscious if and only if the state is the object of a certain kind of representation arrived at non-inferentially.

Block’s argument against the ambitious view rests on the possibility of radical misrepresentation, something acknowledged by all HO theorists. More specifically, Block has in mind the possibility of a “targetless” Higher-order representation. Block formulates his argument in terms of HOT, but since I am more interested in HOP, I will do it the other way. Suppose that Jones has a HOP to the effect that it says “I am now having a red sensory experience” when in fact there is no first-order representation of redness. The HOP is in this case “empty”. But according to ambitious Higher-order theory, it is sufficient for there to be what-it-is-likeness so long as there is a HOP, since it is the HOP that generates what-it-is-likeness. But notice how the Higher-order theory is formulated. A mental state is conscious IFF the state is the object of an HOP. But there is no first-order mental state! As Block says, “Thus, the sufficient condition and the necessary condition are incompatible in a situation in which there is only one non-self-referential higher order representation.” Block (rightly) thinks this is incoherent.

According to ambitious Higher-order theorists, the targetless HO representation is enough to generate what-it-is-likeness. But the theory seems to require there to be a first-order state, since the theory is designed to show how first-order states become conscious. So the HO theorist seems to be stuck. The theory is supposed to be a theory of how first-order states become conscious but the theory is committed to the idea that HO representations all by themselves can generate what-it-is-likeness completely independently of the existence of any first-order state.

To be honest, I actually think Block has a nice argument here. But this is because I have always thought the ambitious version of HO theory is confused (see my paper “What is it like to be nonconscious?“). I don’t think higher-order theory is a theory of the origin of what-it-is-likeness, but rather, a theory of introspection. This is what William Lycan supposedly has claimed all along: that he is only offering a theory of introspective awareness. But wouldn’t it just be trivial to develop a “higher-order theory” of higher-order introspection? Well, it’s not trivial so long as we are trying to decide between HOP and HOT as an account of higher-order consciousness. Personally, I think HOP is better suited neurologically to explain higher-order introspective awareness.

But I am also skeptical of the very possibility of a truly targetless HOP. I just can’t make much neurological sense of such a possibility. Let’s assume an overly simplistic neural theory of introspection such that introspection is neurally realized in the frontal cortex. On this simplistic view, the frontal cortex is constantly receiving input from the other areas of the brain and introspecting upon that content. It seems to me that in order for there to be a truly targetless HOP, either the frontal cortex would have to be completely isolated from the rest of the brain, or the rest of the brain would have to be turned off. In the latter case, it seems like the person would simply be brain dead. And the former case seems just as unrealistic, since the idea of the frontal cortex have zero synaptic connections to any other area of the brain seems too incredible. So long as the rest of the brain is working, and there is at least one synaptic connection to the frontal cortex, then the frontal cortex will have something to “work with” in performing its introspective monitoring function.

Consider Damasio’s theory of primal background feelings arising in the brain stem and other primitive circuitry. Presumably these kinds of first-order mental states can’t just be “turned off” without severely incapacitating the subject. And if these background feelings can make their way to the frontal cortex (as seems plausible), the introspective machinery will always have something to work with. So the case of a truly targetless HOP seems unrealistic to me. However, it seems more realistic to assume that radical misrepresentation of first-order states is possible. This seems like what’s going on when people are on psychedelic drugs or hallucinating. But it’s never the case that the frontal cortex is completely spinning in the void, without having any input from first-order systems. We can then reformulate the higher-order theory to coherently (and perhaps trivially) say “a mental state is the object of introspective awareness just when it is accompanied by a higher-order representation”. No surprises there. The only thing that’s left is just to develop a theoretical model of the evolutionary and ontogenetic origins of such introspective awareness (no easy feat, as Jaynes shows).

Where does this leave us then in terms of Block’s attack on HO theory? Well, I believe the attack is successful against ambitious HO views, since it seems entirely plausible to me that there is something-it-is-like for first-order sensorimotor systems to be operative. But so long as we are sufficiently modest in our ambitious about what HO theory can explain, then it seems like HOP theory is on solid grounds for making sense of our human powers of introspection. Where I disagree with Lycan however is that Lycan thinks the introspective machinery of HOP is simplistic enough to be shared by many nonhuman mammals. My own research has led to me conclude that the introspective machinery of HOP is unique to humans, and that such introspective machinery is what accounts for the great cognitive differences between humans and nonhuman animals. If HOP is a theory of higher-order consciousness, then I believe that HOP is also a theory of what makes humans cognitively unique. While there are likely simpler homologues of introspective machinery in other primates, it seems to me that human introspection is at a much higher level of sophistication. Following Julian Jaynes, I believe this sophistication stems from our linguistic mastery. More specifically, learning linguistic concepts related to psychological functions allows us think about thinking. This linguistically mediated recursion seems to allow for an “intentional ascension” whereby we engage in truly metarepresentational cognition. This allows us to thinking about the fact that we are thinking about the fact that we are thinking, and so on.

So, I don’t think Higher-order theory is really defunct. It’s defunct as a theory of what-it-is-likeness, but that not really all that surprising given the usual criteria for ascribing what-it-is-likeness are cases where we think there is simple sensation going on. And it’s just absurd to suppose that sensation requires the existence of metarepresentation. So that alone gives us good reason to make a phenomenological distinction between what-it-is-like to be a simple sensing creature and what-it-is-like to be a creature with sensation and the capacity for higher-order representation. Where I disagree with Block is his view that what-it-is-likeness is a property generated in neural systems, since I think there is good reason to ascribe phenomenality to creatures lacking nervous systems.  And unlike Block, I also don’t think what-it-is-likeness generates an epistemic or explanatory gap once we understood what exactly it is we are referring to when we use such a term.

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