Category Archives: Psychology

The Inner Life of Vegetative Patients and Why It Matters


Here’s the latest draft of my paper on covert consciousness in the vegetative state, which is still very much a work-in-progress. If you compare it to the earlier draft I posted, you can see I am taking the paper in a more bioethical direction, which is a whole new ballgame for me. Comments welcome.

Abstract: Adrian Owen and colleagues (2006 et al.) report using functional neuroimaging to detect residual levels of conscious awareness in patients diagnosed with vegetative state syndrome. These studies have generated immense scientific and public interest largely due to the putative moral significance of consciousness. These findings raise vexing philosophical and ethical questions about the nature of consciousness and its moral significance. My goal in this paper is to critically examine these findings and evaluate their significance from a clinical-ethical perspective. The general lesson is that determining the moral significance of consciousness is complex and multifaceted.

Link to PDF: Williams 4-24-14-InnerLifeofVegetativePatients


Filed under Consciousness, Moral Philosophy, Philosophy, Psychology

Reflections on My Dislocated Shoulder: Two Types of Pain and Their Moral Significance

I recently dislocated my right shoulder and not surprisingly this experience has caused me to reflect on the nature of pain. In this post I will use my own experience coupled with a thought experiment to argue for two distinct types of pain: reflective pain and nonreflective pain. Having spelled out this distinction, I will raise some difficult questions about their respective moral significance.

Reflective Pain

If you are right-handed like myself, a dislocated right shoulder is an example of an injury that occasions reflective pain par excellence.  In essence, reflective pain is pain that interferes with your day-to-day functioning by causing you to consciously reflect on it more than normal. Everything is now harder and more painfully deliberate to do e.g. taking a shower, putting on clothes, hugging my wife, wearing a backpack, opening a beer, etc. The thousands of micro-tasks I typically used my dominant hand for in coordination with my non-dominant left now must be performed awkwardly with my left hand alone in order to minimize pain in my right shoulder. This has halted my daily productivity significantly. For example, as a grad student and denizen of the 21st century, I spend much of my time on a laptop. It’s amazingly slow to type with only your left hand on a QWERTY keyboard. You actually type significantly less than half of normal speed because you have less fingers but you also have to stretch your fingers more to reach across the whole keyboard. This has made day-to-day academic housekeeping and research painfully tedious in a literal sense.

Thus, the salient feature of reflective pain is that you can’t help but reflect on it because throughout the day you are continually reminded of your injury every time you go to do something that you previously would have done without hesitation. Now every motor intention is tentative and the perception of thousands of lost affordances is palpable. Reflective pain intrudes and interferes with your thought processes because you are acutely aware of the bodily powers you have lost and the pain that has replaced them.

What about nonreflective pain?

Nonreflective Pain

Nonreflective pain is quite different from reflective pain. Imagine you are walking across a desert keenly intent on getting to the other side. It’s sweltering hot so you expose your back to the air. In so doing you introspectively notice a pain sensation localized to a patch of skin on your back. You can’t remember how long that pain sensation as been there. The pain isn’t screamingly intense nor does it burn or throb. It’s more like a light tingle or steady buzz. It doesn’t itch and you feel no compulsion to reach behind you and scratch or rub it. In fact, the pain seems to be minimized by simply leaving it alone. The pain is localized such that the movement of your muscles and skin across your skeleton doesn’t exacerbate the pain. In fact the pain doesn’t interfere with your walking at all.

 The pain doesn’t necessarily command your full attention and often when you are absorbed in watching out for rattlesnakes or walking across tough terrain you entirely forget the pain is there. It’s only when you get on flat easy ground again and your mind begins to wander that you can notice the pain, buzzing with the same steadiness as always.

As you walk you begin to use the pain as a source of introspective entertainment. The pain becomes more of an interesting sensation to play with than a genuine nuisance. The pain is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It’s simply there. You can choose to attend to it or not. You can describe the sensation and localize it to a particular patch of skin, but you don’t mind the sensation; it doesn’t bother you. In fact you have grown to like it because it gives you something to reflect on as you walk mindlessly across the desert. What’s interesting about the pain is when you are not reflecting at all but entirely in the flow of walking the pain is not consciously noticed at all. There is seemingly no conscious awareness of the pain as you are absorbed in walking. There is only the ground before you and your movements. But even if you don’t consciously attend to the pain the pain is there nonetheless (presumably). It’s a steady sensation, but it seems then that not all sensations are necessarily conscious. This is what David Rosenthal might call “nonconscious qualia”.  If you didn’t introspect and reflect on the pain sensation, it’s hard to imagine it interfering with your cognitive functioning except at the grossest level of physiological nociception.

The Ethics of Pain

Now that I’ve distinguished these two types of pain, I want to ask a series of rhetorical questions. Do animals have reflective pains or are all their pains nonreflective? If so, which animals have reflective pain? All of them, or only the super-intelligent animals like apes, dolphins, and elephants? What about fish, insects, rats and cats? What is the evolutionary function of reflective pain, if it even has one? Is nonreflective pain just as morally significant as reflective pain? If we knew that a vegetative state patient had nonreflective pain, are clinicians obligated to give them pain medication?

Perhaps these are bad questions because the distinction is a false dichotomy, or conceptually or empirically mistaken. Maybe it’s a matter of degree. But it seems intuitive to me that there is something morally distinctive about the type of pains that cause us suffering and anguish on account of our reflecting on them and not just in virtue of the first-order sensory “painfulness” of them. I don’t mean to suggest that first-order painfulness has no moral significance but it seems to me that it should be weighted differently in a utilitarian calculus.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

Book Review: Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body


In The Story of the Human Body Daniel Lieberman builds a strong case that making fully informed decisions about diet and lifestyle is only possible through the lens of evolutionary history. If you want to know where your body comes from, you need to understand its evolutionary history. Why do humans stand and walk on two legs? Why are we weak compared to other primates of comparable size? Why are our legs and feet shaped the way they are, with springy tendons and arched feet? Why does our spine have a special S-curve? The answer to these questions lies in the the evolutionary history of our species.

Now ask, why do people in modern societies suffer from “diseases of affluence” like obesity, type-2 diabetes, tooth decay, metabolic syndrome, flat feet, nearsightedness, lower back pain, and sleep disorders? Daniel Lieberman argues that these questions can only be fully answered by understanding the evolutionary history of our species. Lieberman argues these diseases are examples of “mismatch diseases” i.e. a disease that is primarily caused by our bodies not being sufficiently adapted to novel gene-environment contexts. We know they’re mismatch diseases primarily because they used to be rare, are largely preventable, and are almost unheard of in hunter-gatherer populations.

Lieberman argues that all of these diseases are in some sense a result of cultural evolution speeding ahead of natural evolution with the result that have humans manufactured a psychologically comfy and satisfying environment that is paradoxically unhealthy without fundamentally affecting our reproductive fitness. Lieberman calls this this paradoxical unhealthiness “dysevolution”. It turns out that surrounding ourselves with unlimited sources of cheap junk food is a bad idea because humans are genetically wired to crave food with dense amounts of fat, sugar, starch, and salt.

Lieberman is no luddite, and certainly doesn’t advocate a return to the caves and giving up on modern science and technology. His position is more nuanced than many of the extreme black and white positions out there, as befitting the complexity of gene-environment interaction. In many senses, the agricultural and industrial revolutions have propelled humans to new heights of health and longevity, with modern science curing diseases and fixing people better than ever before. At the same time, we are living longer but spending many of those years suffering from chronic, preventable diseases. The paradox of the modern world is reduced mortality but greater morbidity i.e. living longer, but spending more of those extra years with an illness of some sort. Lieberman argues that too often the incentives of modern medicine aim at fixing symptoms but not the underlying structural causes: the toxically comfortable environments we built for ourselves.


Filed under Books, Psychology

Draft of Latest Paper – Awake But Not Aware: Probing For Consciousness in Unresponsive Patients


Ok everyone, here’s a paper I’m really excited about. The topic is so “me” — the first project I’ve wholeheartedly thrown myself into since since I came to Wash U. I can see myself wanting to write a dissertation or book on the topic so this paper will likely serve as the basis for a prospectus in the near future. The issue I’m dealing with in the paper is situated at the intersection of a variety of fields ranging from philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, cutting edge neuroscience, clinical neurology and biomedical ethics. I could conceivably “sell” the project to a variety of people. The project is obviously at an early stage of development and the paper is drafty but I have the rest of the semester to work on this so I’m open to any comments, criticisms, or questions. Thanks!

For PDF of paper, click here –> Williams-AwakeButNotAware-Draft-3-03-14

Here’s a tentative abstract:

The standard approach in clinical neurology is to diagnose disorders of consciousness (DOC) on the basis of operationally defined behaviors. Critics of the standard approach argue that it relies on a flawed behaviorist epistemology that methodologically rules out the possibility of covert consciousness existing independently of any observable behavior or overt report. Furthermore, critics point to developments in neuroimaging that use fMRI to “actively probe” for consciousness in unresponsive patients using mental imagery tasks (Owen et al. 2006). Critics argue these studies showcase the limitations of the standard approach. The goal of this paper is to defend the standard approach against these objections. My defense comes in two parts: negative and positive. Negatively, I argue that these new “active probe” techniques are inconclusive as demonstrations of consciousness. Positively, I reinterpret these active probes in behavioral terms by arguing they are instances of “brain behaviors”, and thus not counterexamples to the standard approach.

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Filed under Academia, Consciousness, Philosophy, Philosophy of science, Psychology

Latest Draft of Mental Time Travel Paper

CLICK HERE to read the latest draft of “Measuring Mental Time Travel in Animals”.

I’ve been working on this paper over the semester, responding to comments and generally cleaning it up. I’ve also added a new sub-section that explores an analogy with–believe it or not–whether Pluto is a planet. I also cut down on some repetitiveness towards the end. I will be turning it in as a Qualifying Paper very soon, so any last minute comments/suggestions/corrections would be greatly appreciated.

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Filed under Philosophy, Philosophy of science, Psychology

New paper – Measuring Mental Time Travel in Animals

For pdf click here: Williams – Measuring Mental Time Travel In Animals

Hasok Chang describes in Inventing Temperature how scientists dealt with the problem of measurement verification circularity when standardizing the first thermometers ever constructed. The problem can be illustrated by imagining you are the first scientist who wanted to measure the temperature of boiling water. What materials should you use to construct the measuring instrument? Once built, how do you verify your thermometer is measuring what you claim it is without circularly relying on your thermometer? Appealing to more experimentation is unhelpful because we must use a thermometer to carry out these experiments, and thermometers are what we are trying to determine the reliability of in the first place. Hasok Chang calls this the Problem of Nomic Measurement (PNM), which is defined as:

The problem of circularity in attempting to justify a measurement method that relies on an empirical law that connects the quantity to be measured with another quantity that is (more) directly observable.1 The verification of the law would require the knowledge of various values of the quantity to be measured, which one cannot reliably obtain without confidence in the method of measurement.

Stated more precisely, the PNM goes as follows:

1. We want to measure unknown quantity X.

2. Quantity X is not directly observable, so we infer it from another quantity Y, which is directly observable.

3. For this inference we need a law that expresses X as a function of Y, as follows:X = f(Y).

4. The form of this function f cannot be discovered or tested empirically because that would involve knowing the values of both Y and X, and X is the unknown variable that we are trying to measure.

My aim for this paper is to apply the PNM to an on-going debate in cross-comparative psychology about whether and to what extent non-human animals can “mentally time travel”. In 1997, Suddendorf and Corballis argued “the human ability to travel mentally in time constitutes a discontinuity between ourselves and other animals”.2 In 2002, Roberts argued non-human animals are “stuck-in-time”. Since then, a number of psychologists have defended similar claims. Endel Tulving states this hypothesis clearly:

There is no evidence that any nonhuman animals—including what we might call higher animals—ever think about what we could call subjective time…they do not seem to have the same kind of ability humans do to travel back in time in their own minds, probably because they do not need to. (Tulving, 2002, p. 2)

Call the claim that mental time travel is unique to humans Uniqueness. Naturally, Uniqueness has not gone unchallenged. One worry is that different theoretical assumptions about what counts as “mental time travel” are leading to disagreements over whether animals do or do not possess MTT. Furthermore, both sides of the debate more or less agree about the behavioral evidence, but disagree about how to interpret the evidence qua evidence for or against Uniqueness. This raises a problem of verification circularity similar to the PNM:

1. We want to measure MTT in animals

2. MTT is not directly observable, so we infer it from behavior Y, which is directly observable.

3. For this to work, we need to know how to infer MTT from behavior alone.

4. The form of this function cannot be discovered or tested empirically because that would involve knowing the unknown variable we are trying to measure (MTT).

Accordingly, my central thesis is that the question of whether animals can mentally time travel is not a purely empirical question. My argument hinges on premise (3): if psychologists have irreconcilable differences in opinion about which behaviors best express MTT, they will use the construct “mental time travel” to describe distinct phenomena and thus make different inferences from behavior to MTT. For example, if defenders of Uniqueness are using MTT as a label to describe a human autapomorphy3 but critics of Uniqueness are using MTT as a label for a core capacity shared with other animals, then they are clearly talking past each other and the debate is reduced to a semantic dispute about whether the term “MTT” is applied to “core” capacities or uniquely human traits.4 Therefore, I argue the empirical question of whether animals can in fact mentally time travel is intractable unless theorists can agree on both the connotative and denotative definitions of the term i.e. approximate agreement on the conceptual definition as well as agreement on its conditions of realization in the physical, measurable world.

1Chang does not analytically define the notion of “direct observation” but the paradigm case is observing the read-out of an instrument e.g. writing down the height of a column of mercury in a glass tube. Chang defends a hybrid version of foundationalism and coherentism whereby we begin scientific inquiry with some tentatively held beliefs justified by experience, especially the belief that we are capable of accurately observing the read-outs of our instruments.

2Citing neurological overlaps between “episodic-like” memory in non-human animals and human episodic memory, Corballis has recently dissented (2012). In his (2011) book, Corballis argues that what makes humans unique is our capacity for MTT and symbolic language super-charged by the capacity for recursivity i.e. Alice believes Bob desires that Chris thinks highly of Bob’s desire for Alice. Another recent convert is Roberts (2007), taking back his (2002) claims about MTT in animals.

3An autapomorphy is a derived trait that is unique to a terminal branch of a clade and not shared by other any members of the clade, including their closest relatives with whom they share a common ancestor.

4“We caution against grounding the concept of episodic-like memory in the phenomenology of the modern mind, rather than in terms of core cognitive capacities.” (Clayton et al 2003, p. 437)

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Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Philosophy of science, Psychology, Science

Quote for the Day – The Overwhelming Automaticity of Being

“Habit is thus a second nature, or rather, as the Duke of Wellington said, it is ‘ten times nature,’–at any rate as regards its importance in adult life; for the acquired habits of our training have by that time inhibited or strangled most of the natural impulsive tendencies which were originally there. Ninety-nine hundredths or, possibly, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of our activity is purely automatic and habitual, from our rising in the morning to our lying down each night. Our dressing and undressing, our eating and drinking, our greetings and partings, our hat-raisings and giving way for ladies to precede, nay, even most of the forms of our common speech, are things of a type so fixed by repetition as almost to be classed as reflex actions. To each sort of impression we have an automatic, ready-made response. My very words to you now are an example of what I mean; for having already lectured upon habit and printed a chapter about it in a book, and read the latter when in print, I find my tongue inevitably falling into its old phrases and repeating almost literally what I said before.”

~William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals


Filed under Books, Philosophy, Psychology