Tag Archives: research

The Varieties of Consciousness Worth Wanting in the Vegetative State

Draft of conference-length version of longer project.

The Varieties of Consciousness Worth Wanting in the Vegetative State | Gary Williams – Academia.edu.

Abstract: Which kinds of consciousness matter for moral status? According to welfarism, phenomenal consciousness is what matters because of its connection to sentience. A rival view is autonomism, which says that reflective self-consciousness is what matters because of its connection to rational autonomy. Recently, Suchy-Dicey (2009) used the vegetative state to argue for a hybrid view whereby welfare and autonomy both matter for moral status. Suchy-Dicey also argues that the value of welfare and autonomy is asymmetrical: a creature that was sentient without autonomy would have moral status but a creature that was autonomous but not sentient would lack moral status. I argue we should reject asymmetrical ethical dualism in favor of symmetrical ethical dualism: an entity that is autonomous but not sentient would have moral status too in virtue of the intrinsic value of autonomy.

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May 20, 2014 · 10:15 pm

What It’s Like to Be Locked-In


I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.

-Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, p. 52

As I mentioned in this post my latest research project involves the measurement of consciousness in patients with brain damage, including the rare case of Locked-in Syndrome. I recently finished reading Bauby’s memoir about being in the locked-in state, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly where Bauby takes you inside what he called his “diving bell”, submerged in the depths of his useless body peering out at the world through the tiny window of his left eye. The memoir is nothing less than riveting, a powerful demonstration of the indefatigable human will.

Bauby dictated the entire book to an assistant with only the use of his left eye. The assistant would read off letters in the alphabet in a pre-established series arranged by frequency in the French language and Bauby would blink when the assistant spoke the correct letter; then they would start from the beginning for the next letter, and so on. You can imagine how laborious this would be. Yet the book reads beautifully, revealing an active, curious, intelligent mind trapped inside a bodily shell.

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Filed under Consciousness

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

Beginning to Work on Something Long

Now that I am almost done with coursework — nearly three years later — I am finally beginning to think about something long – a dissertation. To write a dissertation I need a topic, and I think might I have one: measuring consciousness in persistent vegetative state or minimally conscious patients. I got interested in this topic last Fall when I read Nachev and Hacker’s paper “Covert cognition in the persistent vegetative state” for Carl Craver’s class Current Controversies in Cognitive Science. The paper is excellent and raises many fascinating questions. Some questions that I would like to answer in the dissertation include:

  • What does it mean to be a PVS or minimally conscious patient? What’s their respective neurology?
  • What exactly are we trying to detect in these patients? How is “consciousness” defined?
  • What measurement methods are we using and why? How is “consciousness” operationalized? Can it even be measured?
  • How can we arbitrate between rival operational measures of consciousness? How can we verify we are detecting what we think we are detecting?
  • Is the thing we are trying to detect worth detecting? What should we be looking for?
  • How do we determine an acceptable false positive/false negative rate?

This topic is at the intersection of many of my interests: consciousness, philosophy of science, operationalism, behaviorism, and ethics. This semester I am doing directed research with Carl Craver to dive head-first into the topic. I have a long reading list that I will be working my way through and hopefully I’ll be able to share some of my findings as the semester progresses. Stay tuned!


Filed under Academia, Philosophy

New paper: Minimal Models Make for Minimal Explanations

Williams – Minimal Models Make for Minimal Explanations


The ontic view of scientific explanation is that explanations are objectively in the world. Critics of the ontic view argue it fails to capture the importance of idealization as a critical component of scientific practice. Specifically, Robert Batterman argues that highly idealized mathematical models in physics are counter-examples to the ontic view or at least show why the ontic view is incomplete as an account of scientific explanation. My aim in this paper is to defend the ontic view of scientific explanation against Batterman’s objections.

Feedback welcome! This may or may not be turned in as my second qualifying paper at Wash U.


Filed under Philosophy, Philosophy of science

Quote for the Day – Academia: Grinding Out Little Peppercorns of Truth

If we reflect upon the various ideals of education that are prevalent in the different countries, we see that what they all aim at is to organize capacities for conduct. This is most immediately obvious in Germany, where the explicitly avowed aim of the higher education is to turn the student into an instrument for advancing scientific discovery. The German universities are proud of the number of young whom they out every year, –not necessarily men of any original force of intellect,  but men so trained to research that when their professor gives them an historical or philological thesis to prepare, or a bit of laboratory work to do, with a general indication as to the best method, they can go off by themselves and use apparatus and consult sources in such a way as to grind out the requisite number of months some little pepper-corn of new truth worthy of being added to the store of extant human information on that subject. Little else is recognized in Germany as a man’s title to academic advancement than his ability to show himself an efficient instrument of research.

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

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Filed under Academia, Books

Abstract of paper I’m working on this semester: Minimal Models Make Minimal Explanations

Abstract: Defenders of the ontic view of scientific explanation argue that explanations for scientific phenomena are in the world regardless of whether we discover them e.g. what explains the hole in the ground is the actual meteor that hit the Earth, not our description of the meteor hitting the Earth. However, critics of the ontic view argue that it fails to capture the importance of idealized models as a critical component of scientific practice. Specifically, Robert Batterman argues that highly idealized minimal models of physical phenomenon are counter-examples to the ontic view insofar as minimal models purport to leverage explanatory power by leaving out all the ontic details. In this paper, I argue that existence of minimal modeling as a scientific practice is consistent with the ontic view of explanation.

This paper topic stems from a recent Philosophy of Science workshop I attended. At the workshop, many talks centered around a contrast between two views of scientific explanation: an “ontic view” and a “non-ontic” view (for lack of better terms). On the ontic view, scientific explanations are out there in the world and models are idealized descriptions of these explanations. On the ontic view, the extent to which a model or description explains a phenomena is proportional to the extent to which that description makes reference to the underlying ontic explanation. In contrast, the non-ontic view states that idealizations are not just “incomplete” or “partial” explanations to be filled in with more ontic details later. Rather, the explanatory work is being done by the details left out of the model.

The paper is an attempt to analyze these views and determine whether they are inconsistent. I argue that the existence of idealizations in scientific practice does not undermine the ontic view of explanation, despite Batterman and others claims to the contrary. At best, they are orthogonal. Batterman’s point is that idealizations are better explanations than ones referring to micro-levels because they help us understand the aspects of the phenomena that we are most interested in: the macro-level regularities. However, the very fact that Batterman is focused on what’s interesting is irrelevant to the ontic view because they are ontic explanations of both interesting and non-interesting phenomena. Thus, the point of what’s interesting to humans is a non-starter as an objection to the ontic view.

Rather than diagnosing this as a mere terminological dispute over the correct usage of the English word “explanation”, I appeal to Richard Feynman’s remarks on mathematics and physics to highlight an under-appreciated feature of theoretical physics that makes it distinct from mathematical physics: the notion that conjectures in physics must have a “physical meaning” to be true whereas mathematical conjectures do not.

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Filed under Philosophy, Philosophy of science