Consciousness online

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If you’re interested in current philosophical and cog-sci work being done on consciousness, you should check out the online conference on consciousness being held here:

Consciousness online

There are lots of video presentations of papers with fairly provocative theses (for instance, David Rosenthal argues that consciousness of one’s own mental states has no function at all), and it is still possible to participate in ongoing discussions with the authors.

Warning: Rated “H” for Hard To Follow Without Previous Exposure To The Literature.

By the way, if I understand Rosenthal properly (and I haven’t read his entire paper yet – I’ll report back when I have), his view would seem to support the conclusion that one’s ability to be aware of one’s own thoughts (judgments, intentions, and desires – Rosenthal is not discussing consciousness of sense perceptions here) as such is not a product of natural selection, since, at first glance anyway, it seems that only characteristics that have turned out to benefit the organism could be selected for, and once they have been selected (by ecological pressures), procuring that benefit is their function. But that would imply that one of the few cognitive traits that sets us apart from other animals is not a product of evolution. (In regard to the thread on Intelligent Design below, please note that an argument against the evolution of a trait is not an argument for the intelligent design of that trait… Again: “either x evolved or else x was intelligently designed” is a false dichotomy).

UPDATE 3/1/09: Rosenthal does think that, because there are far fewer conscious states compared to non-conscious (“first-order”) ones, they would not be significant enough to “sustain selective pressures needed for an evolutionary explanation of consciousness.” He holds that they are rather simply by-products of other psychological factors – i.e., of linguistic abilities and certain dispositions to make causal inferences. If you’re interested, you can read the paper or watch the presentation at the site linked above.

My Mother Was Right…!

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Watching the stock market fall to new lows recently, I had a bit of an epiphany: my mother, bless her heart, had been right, and I had been wrong. For nearly a decade before she passed away in 2006, I had made several efforts to convince her to invest a significant portion of her savings, which by then were rapidly dwindling, in the stock market. My efforts were really just pro forma, because I knew that she would never do any such thing. Maybe it was in part her having lived through the great depression, but she wanted nothing to do with stocks. Year after year, she renewed her FDIC insured CDs, reaping her dependable 4 or 5% interest. Meanwhile, my friends, some of whom had much more money to invest than I (on my meager academic salaries), sang the praises of the market. Just diversify, went the conventional wisdom, and all would be well. After all, if the entire market crashed, there would be no safe haven anyway. And with the new global economy, with so much unsatisfied need and so much potential for new production, how on Earth could the entire market, foreign and domestic, in all sectors, go belly up?

Given the information we had to go on, it was quite reasonable to invest in a diversified portfolio of stocks, and when I finally had some money to do so, I dove right in. My mother, however, was driven not by reason, but by emotion. Anxiety, to be precise. Lots of it. And if she had lived through these times, she wouldn’t have lost a penny. I, on the other hand, with a PhD in philosophy, rational to a fault, have already lost about a third of my retirement savings, and I have no reason to think that I’ll get all of that back by the time I retire. This demonstrates, I think, the “wisdom” of even high levels of anxiety: yes, it results in a lot of “false positives”; a lot of needless caution in perfectly safe situations. But it also increases the likelihood that at least some people will survive when things go seriously wrong.

Of course, high anxiety is not, all things considered, healthy. My mother just happened to have had an emotional make-up that would have been adaptive in our current situation. And a broken clock is right at least once a day, as they say. Would I trade my reliable clock for a broken one? No. But if I had been a little wiser, I wouldn’t have tried to convince her to act rationally. When in the proximity of an economic black hole, even the most reliable clocks break down.

Did I Misrepresent Aquinas?

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A couple of posters on LGF (who no doubt are more familiar with Aquinas than I am) have suggested that I misrepresented Aquinas in the argument from design sketched out in the last post. For the record, that sketch is a way of paraphrasing the following quotation, which is from Summa Theologica – First Part – Question 2 – Article 3:

“The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.”

Again, my paraphrase:
1) Natural things (even inanimate objects) nearly always act regularly, in such a way as to produce the best results.
2) So, natural things act purposefully, to achieve some goal.
3) If something acts purposefully, it either has a mind, or is designed by something that does.
4) Natural things (such as inanimate objects) do not have minds.
Conclusion: So such natural things must be designed by something that does have a mind (God)

It seems to me that my sketch properly captures the logic of this particular passage, although I am more than willing to be educated otherwise by Aquinas scholars.

By the way, I have great respect for Aquinas. His systematic thought helped to pave the way for modern and contemporary philosophy. And I certainly do not mean to imply that this passage was his final word on reasons to believe in God.

Intelligent Design?

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Since Charles over at LGF was kind enough to link to my blog in this article, and identified me as an “anti-intelligent design” blogger, I figured it would be best to write something about the issue (other than commending Charles for his similar stance, as I did below). Since I discuss this issue in my Introduction to Philosophy class, I fortunately have some comments readily at hand…

While the intelligent design movement that concerns Charles focuses on the theory of evolution, arguments from (apparent) design to the conclusion that God exists date back at least to Aquinas, and the earliest ones had little (if anything) to do with biological evolution per se. Aquinas, for instance, argued from an Aristotelian conception of all things natural having a purpose. His argument, very roughly, went like this:

1) Natural things (even inanimate objects) nearly always act regularly, in such a way as to produce the best results.
2) So, natural things act purposefully, to achieve some goal.
3) If something acts purposefully, it either has a mind, or is designed by something that does.
4) Natural things (such as inanimate objects) do not have minds.
Conclusion: So such natural things must be designed by something that does have a mind (God)

The problem with this argument is that (2) doesn’t follow from (1), and there is no independent reason to think it’s true – at least short of accepting a Darwinian notion of “purpose” (biological function, where ‘function’ is defined in part by procreative usefulness), which would in any case apply only to biological organisms, rather than to all natural things.

A more recent argument for intelligent design of the universe which is not limited to the purported design of living creatures has to do with the extremely narrow range of physical constants that allow our sort of life to exist:

1) Life would never have evolved if certain physical constants had been slightly different.
2) There are only three possible explanations of the observed values of those constants: physical laws, sheer luck, or intelligent design.
3) Known physical laws do not explain the observed values.
4) Given all of the possibilities, it is highly unlikely that the observed values are the result of luck.
Conclusion: So the observed values are the result of intelligent design.

The problems with this argument are not as obvious as those with Aquinas’s, since this argument does not presuppose Aristotelian physics. However, there are several objections, one of which is, to my mind, fairly conclusive-

Objection to premise 2: this list might not be exhaustive; there might be more explanations (admittedly, this is not a particularly strong objection…). Objection to premise 3: maybe unknown physical laws can explain the observed values (this is a stronger objection, but still based on an assumption of ignorance). Objection to premise 4’s supporting the conclusion: even if the values are unlikely, this is no reason to believe in intelligent design. This is the strongest objection, but it calls for some explanation…

Suppose that, using a net, you catch 100 fish in a pond, all of which are larger than 6 inches. Does this data support the view that most fish in the pond are larger than 6 inches? Not if your net can’t catch smaller fish… This is known as a “selection effect”: limitations of a data collection process limits the reasonable conclusions that can be drawn from the data.

A similar limitation has to do with any single observation, in isolation from other observations. For instance, we observe life on Earth. Does this imply that life is probably found on Earth-like planets elsewhere in the universe? Well, not by itself. The problem is that our single datum entitles us to conclude neither that our situation is typical, nor that it is atypical. The point is that we may be be prejudiced by the fact that no matter how unlikely life on Earth-like planets might be, we happen to live on one that has life. Unlikely events do happen.

A similar sort of “observation selection effect” applies to the observed values of the physical constants, but here the problem is even more serious. For while we may someday have the data to be able to judge whether life on Earth is likely or unlikely (after we have observed a large number of such planets), there is only one universe to ever observe. So even if the values of the physical constants are highly unlikely, they give us no good reason to believe in intelligent design. After all, the constants having those values (or at least falling within a narrow range of values) are preconditions of there being any observations (by creatures like us) at all! We would have to observe them, whether they were likely or unlikely. Now, if they are likely (that is, if unknown physical laws make it the case that any physical universe must have similar values), this is obviously no reason to believe in intelligent design. But, less obviously, even if they are unlikely, this is also no reason to believe in intelligent design. Here’s a simple lottery analogy: it is always unlikely that the winner of a fair lottery is the winner. But this certainly doesn’t give us any reason to believe that an intelligent designer picked the winner.

The meaning of life, and then some…

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I just posted a link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. As you probably already know, I make my living teaching and writing philosophy. If I were on a desert island with nothing but my laptop, and I could access only one web site, this would be my second choice. (What would be my first choice? Let your imagination run wild!). The SEP is by far the best philosophy reference on the internet, and probably the best in any medium. And if it’s the best today, it’s safe to say that it’s the best in all of human history. But anyway, it’s my go-to resource when I’m in the beginning stages of thinking about any philosophical issue: thousands of articles by experts on almost any philosophical topic, including the meaning of life.

Wood and steel

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Here’s a live, duet version of one of my favorite cuts from Chris Thile’s beautiful “New Grass”/Jazz album Not All Who Wander Are Lost. Some of you might be familiar with his work as a member of Nickel Creek, but if you haven’t heard “Not All Who Wander…”, you haven’t really heard the best of Chris’s mandolin playing…

Wisconsin winter survival kit…

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imageWisconsin is known for its beer-drinking, and to a lesser extent for its beers. I’ve never been much of a beer drinker (I’ve always preferred wine), but recently, after receiving some inspiration from an old friend, I’ve decided that life is short, and seems even shorter during the long Wisconsin winters… so it is time to get serious about beer. Here’s one that definitely got my attention: Tyranena Brewing Company’s “Chief BlackHawk Porter”, out of Lake Mills WI. Nicely balanced between sweet and bitter (emphasis on the bitter), chocolate aftertaste, medium brown, very smooth. What is your current favorite?

The pornography of anxiety

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I made the mistake of pausing briefly on Fox News as I was flipping through the channels today, and had the misfortune of seeing a few minutes of the Glenn Dreck Beck program… He had a couple of guests on who were helping him fantasize about the very worst-case scenarios they could dream up for the next five years… It’s not that I think that some anxiety about the future isn’t justified; of course it is. But these guys were positively drooling over the horrible possibilities. They were fixating on them with a sort lustful glee. I’d never imagined that there could be a pornography of anxiety, but there you have it. Anything for ratings.

Alan Watts podcasts

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Ever since I lived in the Hollywood hills in the late 1970s, televisionless, with only my FM receiver to distract me, I’ve enjoyed listening to Alan Watts’ lectures. KPFK’s “Roy of Hollywood” used to broadcast them after midnight one night a week. There’s something about Watt’s soothing British accent that invites the listener into his uniquely hybrid, East/West view of the world. Although Watts was an intellectual (in the best sense of the term), an expert in both Western and Asian religions (as his friend Joseph Campbell was an expert in world mythologies), he often characterized himself as a “spiritual entertainer”. This was to discourage anyone who would view him as a “guru”, although undoubtedly many have. Although his outlook was influenced mostly by Zen Buddhism and Taoism (he spent many years as a child in China), his later philosophy truly became his own. Anyway, although I don’t always agree with his metaphysics, and often wish that he would address ethical questions in more detail, I find his basic attitude towards life and death to be as healthy as any I’ve ever heard.

You can subscribe to his podcasts here (link requires iTunes).

Here’s an example from my own podcast library: “Journey From India #1″-



Three guitarists

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I’ve always been a fan of acoustic guitar, and (as you might already be aware) play a bit myself.  In the last several years, a few steel-string acoustic guitarists have stretched the boundaries of the instrument: Don Ross, Tommy Emmanuel, and Andy McKee. I’ll post some others in the future.  Here are some samples of their work:

Two blogs added to “A Few Links”

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I just added links to two political blogs I visit frequently.  I’m not an intensely political person, but I do like to read a variety of opinions on “the issues of the day”.  The Huffington Post needs no introduction to most netizens, since it has received rightful praise from a number of sources.  I first started listening to Arianna on KCRW’s show “Left, Right, and Center” years ago (now available as a podcast – highly recommended), and always find something interesting and provocative to read on her site.

Charles Johnson’s Little Green Footballs is  more controversial and  narrowly focused.  Since 9/11, Charles has been obsessed (I don’t think he would object to the use of that term) with national security issues in the age of Islamic Fundamentalism.  His blog has been called a “hate site” by some for its  critical attitude towards Islam as a a religion; he believes that Islamist terrorists are interpreting the Koran faithfully (as one might say).  Similar views have been espoused, in a less strident way, by writers such as Sam Harris.  But just as Harris is  not a hate-monger, neither is Charles.  He goes out of his way to praise Muslims who are trying to reform their religion.  He also forcefully criticizes the various neo-Nazi groups (especially those in Europe) who have taken up the banner of the “anti-Jihadist” movement.  Finally, while I think he is quite unfair to democrats for what he perceives as their “softness” on national security issues (I’m an enthusiastic Obama supporter), few have criticized far-right Republicans as harshly as Charles for their support of “Intelligent Design” (aka Creationism).

The other reason I visit Little Green Footballs is to find out what Charles has been listening to lately.  I learned of the guitarists mentioned above from posts on his site.

Huge plot hole in “The Reader”?

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Okay, I might have this all wrong, but isn’t there a huge plot hole in The Reader?  If not, can someone please explain to me why the script goes to so much trouble to stress that the Kate Winslet character is found especially guilty of her crime because she confesses to having written a certain document (it is implied that the document must be written in her own handwriting), and then suggests that she can’t write at all, but keeps on treating her as if she’s more guilty than the others?

By the way, except for this huge glitch (if it is such), I enjoyed the film a lot.  Winslet’s performance is indeed Oscar-worthy.  I don’t think that the political criticism leveled at the film (i.e., that it portrays a concentration camp guard too sympathetically) is true.  After all, the film portrays her  not only as a docile concentration camp guard, but also as a pedophile who has left deep psychological scars on her victim…  In fact, if the script is suggesting that she voluntarily accepts responsibility for a document she did not write, it implies that she herself recognizes her own guilt more honestly than the others.

UPDATE 2/23/09- Apparently the Oscar voters agreed. Winslet won.

Welcome!

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This is my first blog post (on my own blog, anyway).  For all I know, it could be my last.  But let’s be optimistic.  They say optimism clouds your objectivity; depression is more realistic.  I say: depressive realism has its disadvantages.  Give me optimism any day.

The purpose of this blog is sketched out in the “About Blog Here Now” page.  Please read “The Rules” before commenting.  I look forward to hearing from you.