Cognitive Philosophy Exploring Mental Landscapes, musings at the intersection of Cognitive Science and Philosophy Thu, 27 Mar 2014 00:04:57 +0000 en hourly 1 Book Review: Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind, and Language robot structural analysis buy online alien skin exposure Discount paid by credit card graphisoft archicad 15 oem Autodesk AutoCAD Civil price
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Mon, 04 Feb 2013 20:08:33 +0000
Greg This book is a good ‘ol fashion philosophers slugfest at its best. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

T.H. Huxley famously said:

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how it is that any thing so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as the result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.

In recent decades the field of neuroscience has proclaimed to have a gone a long way towards answering this question. We have studied the inner workings of the brain and have been able to correlate neuronal activity in certain areas of the brain with specific cognitive processes. For instance, knocking out the activity of certain areas prevents a person from engaging in the cognitive processes correlated with (controlled by?) that area. We now say in passing that the visual cortex is responsible for vision. The auditory cortex is responsible for hearing. Memories are stored in the hippocampus and fear is in your amygdala. And so it is that the brain, or parts of it, see or hear, think or believe, hope and fear, plan and decide.

Along come Maxwell Bennett and Peter Hacker, a neuroscientist and a philosopher, and they write a book about how they are displeased with this pervasive aspect of neuroscientific terminology and its use by not only neuroscientists, but neuro-friendly philosophers as well. They argue that it’s not specific areas of the brain that see or hear or feel or remember; it is people that do! These are attributes of human beings, not of their brains. The brain is simply not an appropriate subject for psychological predicates, and making it so has serious consequences for both neuroscience and philosophy according to Bennett and Hacker. It leads us down dead ends and makes research difficult, if not futile. We think we’ve answered Huxley’s riddle from above, when in reality we’re no closer to answering the fundamental question he posed.

Bennett and Hacker place the blame for this state of affairs squarely on the shoulders of Descartes. Ask any neuroscientist and they will strongly deny the plausibility of a dualistic theory of mind. And yet, the predicates which used to be ascribed to an immaterial mind, neuroscientists unreflectively ascribe to the brain instead. They replaced mind/body dualism with brain/body dualism, retaining the same basic structure. And so there is talk about maps in the brain, symbols, representations, information, etc…but the fact that certain features of the visual field can be mapped onto the firing of groups of neurons in a particular brain region does not mean that these maps actually “exist” in the brain, and that the brain actually “uses” these maps to “formulate hypotheses” about what is visible.

by speaking about the brain’s thinking and reasoning, about one hemisphere’s knowing something and not informing the other, about the brain’s making decisions without the person’s knowing, about rotating mental images in mental space, and so forth, neuroscientists are fostering a form of mystification and cultivating a neuro-mythology that are altogether deplorable.

Now, with that out of the way, here’s where things get interesting. In this book by Bennett and Hacker, they devote two whole sections to criticizing the views of Daniel Dennett and John Searle, respectively. And two years after publishing this book, they were invited to participate in a special session of the meeting of the American Philosophical Association entitled “Authors and Critics,” where their critics were, you guessed it, Dennett and Searle. Dennett and Searle dug into them over the course of this session through prepared remarks and questions, and some time later, Bennett and Hacker published their own “reply to the rebuttals” stemming from this conference. The book I’m discussing here is that fight, laid out for our amusement, and education. The first part is a few specific selections from Bennett and Hacker’s original book, followed up by Dennett and Searle’s responses. Dennett and Searle don’t pull any punches in their criticisms, and Bennett and Hacker then fire right back. So the book ends up being worth it both for the show, and for the great philosophical work presented by a group of great thinkers.

Dennett and Searle (writing separately) make for some strange bedfellows given that Searle’s Biological Naturalism and Dennett’s functionalism (of the computational variety?) stand in strong opposition to each other. Searle’s formulation of the Chinese Room was in direct response to computational functionalist accounts of mind, and Dennett’s Intentional Stance, taken to its extreme ascribes beliefs and desires to lawn mowers and thermostats. (click here for my take on the Chinese room) And yet both agree that Bennett and Hacker are way off. Go figure that you have two philosophers defending neuroscience against the attack of a neuroscientist! But these are two great (scientifically minded) philosophers, and their criticisms of Bennett and Hacker do the work of forcing the reader to question their support for what at first seemed so intuitively appealing in Bennett and Hacker’s arguments.

One specific example that sticks out is Searle’s criticism of certain aspects of Bennett and Hacker’s positions in regards to the location of conscious experience. If you cut your foot, to Bennett and Hacker, the answer to the question of “where is your pain?” is an obvious one…It’s in your foot! But Searle brings up the point that there are people who are missing limbs who feel pain in their phantom limb. For people such as this, who no longer have a foot, where is their pain located? Bennett and Hacker say the pain is located where the person’s foot would have been. But Searle finds this ridiculous. The pain would then have to be said to be in the bed or under the sheet, it would have to exist in a location where no part of the person’s physical body exists. Searle says that considerations such as these, which can be explained by neuroscience, result in the conclusion that it only makes sense to say that the pain exists in the person’s brain. And this is true of someone with a real foot as much as it is of someone with a phantom foot. There’s an intuitive appeal here. Damage to your foot is just that, damage. For there to be pain, a signal has to be sent up to the brain. Stop that signal from reaching the brain, and the person feels no pain. So it does seem that the pain isn’t really *in* the foot, but rather, damage to the foot causes you to have an experience of pain, where it feels to you that the pain exists in the foot.

I happen to think that all of the responsible parties are wrong about the location of subjective experience. I’m not entirely convinced that it even makes sense to ascribe a location to subjective experience. Saying that the pain is “in your brain” is precisely what Bennett and Hacker criticize, and even given the data surrounding something like phantom limb syndrome, I’m sympathetic to this aspect of their criticism. As Dan Dennett himself so humorously and engagingly points out in his essay “Where Am I,” the question of *where* the self exists is not so easily answered, and our intuitions often pull us in contradictory directions. So while it’s obvious that saying the pain is in your foot ends up being indefensible, saying the pain is in your brain, seems just as sloppy. What’s in your brain is a neurological process. Where the pain is, and even what the pain is, doesn’t seem to be answered by a neuroscientific understanding of the processes that underlie it.

This was a great read, both because you get to see some philosophical heavyweights duking it out, and because they cover some fascinating topics in neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language. I didn’t explicitly cover much of this last topic, but the specter of Wittgenstein was summoned regularly, and interestingly, by all parties involved. How these philosophers can all be so influenced by Wittgenstein, while simultaneously disagreeing with each other so much, was an amusement in its own right.

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The Extended Mind and the range of our mental states Tue, 15 Jan 2013 05:05:08 +0000 Greg This is one of my more recent papers, which was recently accepted to the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology’s (SSPP) 2013 annual meeting. It looks at whether The Extended Mind hypothesis can account for cognitive states other than beliefs that aren’t usually discussed, such as desires and fears.

The Abstract:

The extended mind hypothesis (henceforth EMH) says that cognition, and thus our minds, extends beyond the boundaries of our skin and skulls. Proponents of EMH mean this to be a claim about cognition in general, a claim that should hold for all of our propositional attitudes, but the claims thus far have focused almost exclusively on beliefs. I claim that the neglect of other propositional attitudes poses a significant problem for proponents of EMH. Through a series of examples that attempt to extend attitudes such as desires or fears, I’ll show that even if EMH ends up being true, it is at best a claim about extended beliefs, not extended cognition. These examples will further show that much of the appeal of EMH rests on a conflation of propositional attitudes with propositional content, a confusion only made possible by the focus on belief.

The extended mind and why propositional attitudes are still in the head

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Moral Motivation: Judgment Internalism Tue, 15 Jan 2013 05:03:03 +0000 Greg This paper has recently had the honor of being accepted to the main program of the Pacific APA’s upcoming 2013 meeting. Any feedback that might help me prepare for presenting this one is greatly appreciated.

The abstract:

The debate between judgment internalists and judgment externalists is fought over whether moral judgments are necessarily motivating, or only contingently so. I argue that formulations of the judgment internalist position have never clearly defined what it means to be motivated. As a result of this, the “practically irrational” defeater (and others like it) included in conditional forms of judgment internalism do too much work for the judgment internalist’s claim. Using a partial working definition of motivation, I explore a few unusual cases for the judgment internalist, and examine what kind of impact this definition has on their claim. I argue that the judgment internalist should accept this view of motivation which will allow them to respond to many standard critiques against their position. This move will also allow the judgment internalist to defend judgment internalism in its strong form, sans conditionals. I then examine one particular critique of the strong form of judgment internalism on empirical, rather than a priori, grounds, and determine the consequences for the judgment internalist position.

Does the Judgment Internalist’s Claim Depend on a Particular View of Motivation

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On embodied cognition and the problem of mental representation Tue, 15 Jan 2013 05:01:13 +0000 Greg This paper began as something written for a seminar on Edmund Husserl. The original focused on how Husserl’s work anticipated advancements in cognitive science and embodied cognition research. This paper here was an eventual edit of that original paper that was presented as a poster presentation at the Society for Philosophy and Psychology’s (SPP) 2012 annual meeting.

The abstract:

With its historical roots in the phenomenological perspective of philosophers such as Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, embodied cognition has been able to address classically problematic issues in cognitive science. In this paper I examine the model of visual consciousness put forth by Alva Noë and J. Kevin O’Regan, and the model of learning and skill acquisition put forth by Hubert Dreyfus. In each case the authors attempt to explain aspects of cognition and consciousness without recourse to mental representations. These accounts, and others, have been embraced by many philosophers of mind. I charge that while they provide a better explanation of aspects of cognition, they fail to address fundamental questions to do with the intentionality of our mental states towards the world. In rejecting representation, they keep pushing the fundamental question of intentionality further and further back.

Can embodied cognition deny representaiton and still account for intentionality

Below I’m also including the poster that was eventually presented at the conference.

SPP Poster Presentation

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Science, Progress, and Evolutionary Epistemology Tue, 15 Jan 2013 05:00:51 +0000 Greg This was one of my earliest papers when I began studying philosophy academically. It attempted to use progress in science as a case study, and defense of, Evolutionary Epistemology. It’s sprawling, and it’s very rough and a bit rambling, but I still stand by most of the ideas in it. One day I’d like to revamp it. Till then…

Science, progress, and evolutionary epistemology

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Is There a Difference Between Memory and Imagination? Fri, 20 Apr 2012 22:08:16 +0000 Greg If you remember something wrong, is the label “memory” still accurate? Does the label of memory necessitate a 1:1 correspondence with the past? If not 1:1, how much correspondence with the past is necessary for us to still be comfortable using the label of memory? More importantly, if we can talk about a memory being in error, or even completely fabricated (i.e. – “false memories”), then at what point can we then say there is a meaningful difference between memory and imagination?

I’ve written about memory a handful of times on this blog. In one post I criticized the notion of implicit memory. In there I argued that what we call implicit memory is simply a way to describe the behavior of an organism based off its neurophysiological structure in the present, by connecting that behavior to changes in neurophysiology that occurred during past interactions. But that this notion is not what we commonly refer to when we talk about “memory”. So in this post, when I talk about memory I’m specifically referring to “the act of remembering,” memory as conscious access to, and awareness of, past experiences.

What I’d like to do first is describe a body of research that calls into question our standard conception of memory as some sort of accurate recording and subsequent access to past experiences, then I’ll move into a more explicit conceptual connection between these two seemingly distinct things that we refer to as memory and imagination. First, before we even get into the act of recalling an experience, let me point out that a memory doesn’t really correspond to a past event, but rather a past experience. What do I mean by this? We know that the act of experiencing does not always correspond to the total reality of the events going on around us. For instance, just as a few examples, we know that your prior knowledge, your current emotional state, and where your attention is directed at any given moment will all greatly influence the nature of your experience, and thus, even the initial memory you form may be a grossly distorted representation of what was actually occurring around you. This here is already a slightly problematic point to consider, since we have to acknowledge that even from the very beginning, our memories are susceptible to all sorts of distorting effects based on cognitive processes unrelated to the truth of the circumstances in the world outside of ourselves. So already, memory is not about events, but about experiences.

The notion that memories are not accurate representations of the past is not new. These days the cognitive science literature has moved away from talking about a “memory” being stored in the brain, but rather, a “memory trace.” This memory trace is a partial aspect of your memory, which is actually a constructive process of remembering that happens in the moment, built up from the memory trace and…what? This is precisely the problem. If we accept that this stored fragment (the trace) and the memory (the subjective experience of recalling a past event) are not the same thing, then we are committed to the notion that the stored fragment is just a contributor to memory, something that plays a part in contributing to some sort of new emergent entity which we’ve labeled a memory. Compare this to the imaginative process. Imagination also needs to be constructed in the moment from fragments of other thing stored in the brain. If I imagine myself winning the lotto or winning an Oscar or sky diving, somewhere in my brain needs to be stored representations of what a lotto is, what the Oscars are, what an Oscar statue looks like, what planes look like, what parachutes look like, what skydivers look like, etc…Imagination is certainly a creative process, but it is only made possible by constructing an imaginative experience from stored fragments of memory that it can be built up from, in something that seems to me very much akin to memory process discussed above. One way to look at it this is simply that imagination is not possible without memory, but, of course, I’m making a stronger claim than that. I’m claiming that the process of remembering and imagining are not so easily distinguished.

Moving on though, we also know that memories are not stable constructs. Our brains are always undergoing synaptic change. As our neurons fire, neuronal connections are created, strengthened, pruned, etc…Memories are thought to the be the result of a set of neuronal connections made in the hippocampus, the memory trace I discussed above. Recalling an event is thus, at least in part, reactivating this set of neurons. The problem is that neurons can’t fire without some sort of change occurring in the strengths of their connections. The phenomenon that describes the change in our memories due to this reactivation (and the process that subsequently occurs) is known as reconsolidation. What this means is that all sorts of things at the moment of recollection can influence aspects of the memory you are recalling. Similar to the actual memory formation process, the influence of your prior knowledge, your current emotional state, other things you are thinking about, and where your attention is directed can all play a role in changing the memory you are recalling. And this process is going to happen every time you remember something. In a way, the more you remember something, the less likely that memory is going to remain accurate; you are constructing a new entity every time you remember.

Now we’ve reached an even bigger problem though. If memory is constructed from traces, and yet, because of the fact of synaptic change, even these very traces are constantly undergoing change, then it seems that some time down the line the only thing that connects your current recollective experience to the actual original experience, is a causal chain connecting the current memory trace to the original memory trace. But there are all sorts of causal connections between two objects or events in the universe, and on it’s own this fact doesn’t seem to solve all scientific problems. There’s a causal connection between your neurophysiology at this moment and your neurophysiology 10 years in the past. That might give us justification for saying you’re the same person, but in itself doesn’t seem to justify a distinction between the act of remembering and the act of imagining based on that neurophysiology.

Many researchers have noted that memories are simply imaginative reconstructions of past events; that the experience of remembering is shaped as much by a rememberer’s expectations and general knowledge regarding what should have happened, and what could have happened, as what actually did happen. Cases have been documented where knowledge about what we expect to happen can become incorporated into a new memory, even when that expected event didn’t occur. We also know that often times we create false memories by activating certain concepts or categories related to the intended objects of memory. For instance, if I give you a list of words to memorize that include words like candy, sugar, honey, chocolate, etc…many people will later confidently remember reading the word sweet, though it never appeared in the list.

I’ll run through a few more ways memory goes wrong. In recent decades there has been a string of patients, who either under hypnosis or questioning by their therapists have retrieved long repressed memories of sexual abuse, witnessing satanic rituals, or alien abduction. Many of these memories came under fire when it was realized that certain psychiatrists tended to have an inordinate amount of patients with the same type of repressed memory. Psychiatrist A’s patients had all been abducted by aliens, B’s had all been molested, etc…We now know that inserting false memories is incredibly easy. Elizabeth Loftus has been successful in inserting various false memories into subjects. Whether through vivid imagining or simply through repetition, we tend to be unable to distinguish between real memories and imaginings. It’s also been shown that hypnosis can create an environment in which subjects are willing to call just about any mental experience a “memory.”

So far I’ve talked about all sorts of empirical connections between memory and imagination; I’d like to spend a bit of time focusing on some conceptual ones as well. I mentioned above how memory is necessary for imagination, and how imagination can be said to draw from the memory area. But remembering draws from the memory area too, in what way are these processes different? Well, at first glance, memory (the act of remembering) is supposed to be about things that happened in the past, and imagination about things that have never occurred. But isn’t this an epistemological issue? i.e. – there’s a matter of fact about the situation, and we may be able to determine it, but is there actually any difference from the standpoint of the processes functioning in the brain?

Let’s step back for a moment and think about the function of both memory and imagination from an evolutionary perspective. It seems to me that the function is the same in both cases. No thought occurring in the present can have any effect on the past; necessarily, it can only have an effect on the future. And the effect of these processes is to aid in action selection. Memory and learning have a survival advantage inherent in them; otherwise the capabilities would have never evolved. Thinking about stuff in the past allows us to learn and apply the knowledge from past experiences to better act in the future. Imagining counterfactual situations allows us to think about possible events and outcomes and incorporate that knowledge into future action. What we call memory and what we call imagination are intimately tied in allowing organisms to better act in their environments. Sure, these days we can lie around and reminisce about past events, or day dream of what ifs and what might have beens, without necessarily being relevant to survival, but a) this doesn’t speak against the evolutionary origins and purposes of these processes and b) as I’ve written before (in regards to memory), those processes still play that same functional role, just not as obviously.

I am not quite taking the extreme position I seem to be. I don’t want to imply that we can never be in mental states that accurately, or at least mostly accurately, correspond to events that we experienced in the past. What I am arguing though is that these mental states that we call remembering are not cases of you accessing some sort of stored experience out of your memory vault. Every time you ‘remember’ a past experience you are not accessing some sort of stored ‘thing’ in your brain. You are constructing an entirely new experience in something akin to the imaginative process, and while what you construct this experience out of will have some sort of causal connection to synaptic changes made at the time of the original experience, and while there are ways to ensure that this imaginative construction is more justifiably in correspondence with the original event, that original event is gone forever; all that exists is your imagining in the moment. Let’s not be too tied to calling this experience a memory, without at least being cognizant of in how many ways this experience fails to fit that role.

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Genetic Modification and Human Ontology Sat, 28 Jan 2012 16:00:17 +0000 Greg Imagine a world where human beings weren’t susceptible to diseases, where we were all strong and smart, where we couldn’t feel pain and could be put in a state of ecstasy due to things which today produce only mild excitement. Imagine a world where human beings could fly of their own volition, where we have gills and could breathe under water, where we could see the entire electromagnetic spectrum, smell as richly as a dog, and hear as richly as a bat. These advances are far off, if possible at all (and whether we’d even want them is a different question), but the debate around genetic modification or engineering is a heated one. There are host of objections to genetic modification, but there is one in relation to morality that is rarely, if ever, addressed. Before I focus on that one, I’ll mention a few common objections that are considered, as a way to set up some background conditions to why the particular ethical consideration I have in mind is more interesting.

The first one I’ll mention is the “who are we to play God” argument. I’m really not going to focus on this one too much as I believe it’s almost completely based on a false assumption. And not just the assumption that god exists, but that there is something intrinsically valuable and ordained about the types of human beings that we are. This argument says that god made us a certain way for a certain reason and we have no right to modify his design. I reject the idea of deities, so this argument is a bit of a non-starter for me. But if this is the kind of argument you make, I would question some of the principles it’s based on. If god made us to be angry and jealous and violent and hateful, if god made us to have tendencies towards rape and murder and cruelty, if god made us to get cancer, and autism, and alzheimers disease and parkinson’s disease, well, I question his engineering skills.

If we embrace a naturalism, the question of who are we to play god is answered by, why shouldn’t we? Homo sapiens are the result of an incredibly long evolutionary process, there is nothing sacred about the particular genome we have right now; there is nothing pre-ordained in the human genotype. We are not the culmination of some directed process resulting in the perfect biological organism. We are what we are. We could have been different. And a million years from now, maybe we will be. Evolution is not over, and who knows what kind of persons will walk this earth far in the future (assuming we’re still around at all).

So I see nothing inherently wrong with altering the human genome. And how many of us would really say it was wrong to remove our susceptibility to cancer and neurological disorders? How many people would say “no, I don’t want to make it so human beings don’t get autism, that’s wrong and against nature”? What is medicine, if not an attempt to do these very things? What is the difference between a penicillin shot or vaccinations, and changing our DNA so those shots aren’t necessary in the first place? Science and medicine IS playing god.

Other arguments focus on practical ethical issues that would arise from this sort of research and possibility. I find these questions important, so I’ll mention them as well. The first has to do with ethical implications of the research itself, and particularly, the process of perfecting this sort of technology. How much suffering, how much death and deformity and failure will occur before scientists are able to perfect this process and bring to term healthy babies that grow and develop normally? When the technology is available, who will it be available for? Who will have access to it, and what are the implications of this for society? When we can be super strong and super fast, what are the implications for sports? When we can be super smart, what are the implications for education? There is an endless list of these sorts of questions that need to be addressed, which I won’t address here.

The issue that I’ve been bouncing around in my head cuts right to the very root of our entire enterprise of morality. There are a variety of naturalistic accounts of morality, and though there is much they disagree on, there are certain common underlying factors that few would deny. Whether you see morality as developing certain virtuous traits, or about maximizing well being, or about doing certain duties, ethics is in general about choosing how to act, how to treat other people, and about the kinds of people we want to be. These questions are going to be rooted in (or at the very least constrained by) the ways in which behavior affects the conscious states of organisms able to experience consciousness. The ways in which we define well being, or happiness, or pleasure, or virtue, or duty are dependent upon facts of our biology. If personal autonomy is important in ethics, it’s because we are a certain type of biological organism for which having autonomy, or engaging in autonomous actions, leads to happiness/well being/fulfillment. If we value giving or receiving kindness, compassion and love it is because we are a certain type of biological organism who is put in a positive state of being as the result of those types of interactions. Anything we can possibly value as human beings, and the ability to be put into positive or negative emotional states, is going to be dependent on our psychology, our neurophysiology, our biology.

So the real danger that I see in altering the human genome (significantly) is that the very metaethical base from which we ground our ethical theories is what we might conceivably change in the process of genetic modification. Let me try to be clear about what I’m saying. If what is or is not an ethical truth is contingent on the types of biological organisms that we are, then changing the types of biological organisms that we are will change the nature of what is or is not ethical. Imagine an alien species whose evolutionary history didn’t contain the social nature of the development that our primate ancestors went through. These beings are very individual and don’t find value in the kinds of social relationships that we humans do (whether on the family level or friendship level or community level). Can we make statements about how they ought to treat each other based off how we think we ought to treat each other? If you’re answer to that is “yes”, feel free to comment below, as I won’t delve into a defense of why I think the answer is no in the post.

Take another example. Imagine an alien species where the young can only survive to adulthood if they are given no parental care (no love, no compassion, no kindness) during their formative years. If they are shown any sort of compassionate care, they simply don’t develop the right kinds of cognitive processes to become fully functional adults. Being the recipient of kindness is actually psychologically damaging. These aliens would consider it incredibly immoral to treat their young with what we call love and compassion, since it would bar them from actualizing their potential as the types of beings they can be.

These aren’t the best examples, but they’ll serve for now. The point is that if we embrace a naturalism about metaphysics and about morality, then moral statements like love each other, be kind, be generous, be compassionate, etc…aren’t universally true, but are rather, objectively true given the types of biological organisms we are. Changing the types of biological organisms that we are could conceivably change what is or is not right to do in any particular situation. It might change the very people that we should be striving to be. Yes, it’s unlikely we’ll change ourselves to the point where harming others is a good thing (though not impossible), but to what degree our systems of ethics will have to change is not something we can predict in advance. Now, let me be clear. I’m not making the naturalistic fallacy (or at least I’m not trying to). My point is that facts about our biology and psychology are going to *constrain* our ethical theories, not wholly *determine* them. Ethics is tricky business. Philosophers have been arguing about it for thousands of years, and while we all have some intuitive notions of what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong, we’re certainly not anywhere close to having all the answers. Changing who we are as human beings will cause us to have to rethink some problematic notions. If only some people are modified do we have multiple competing “true” ethical systems? If the types of modifications that are made are always changing are we always going to be reshaping our ethics? As I said at the beginning, I find nothing inherently valuable about the types of biological organisms that we happen to be at this moment in time in our evolutionary history, so I am not claiming we shouldn’t move forward with genetic modification because of these considerations. I’m simply making a call to be aware that the issue exists, and it’s something that would need to be addressed, over and above the normal ethical considerations discussed surrounding these issues.

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Philosophers’ Carnival – January 9, 2012 Mon, 09 Jan 2012 17:06:03 +0000 Greg Welcome to the January 9th edition of the Philosophers’ Carnival! A showcase of the best philosophy blog posts from around the internet from the last three weeks. Thanks to everyone that submitted*, and enjoy the show!

Philosophy of Mind

In Art and the Limits of Neuroscience, Alva Noe questions whether neuroscience is really the proper evaluative tool for studying art, and discusses what the role of the brain is in accounting for consciousness.

Guest contributor to Cognitive Philosophy, Polo Camacho, discusses the fallibility of our perception in I’ll Believe It When I See It.

Over at Minds and Brains, Gary Williams puts forth a thesis of Hybrid Holism, attempting to bridge the gap between a foundationalism and a holism about cognition and mental content.

Philosophy of Action

Russel Blackford at Talking Philosophy, in a response to a  post by Jerry Coyne (link), argues that the likes of Coyne and Harris are too quick to dismiss the compatibilist position in the free will debate, even if determinism is true.

Relatedly, over at the Rationally Speaking blog, Massimo Pigliucci asks us to question our commitment to determinism.


In Can forgiveness be obligatory?, Max Sipowicz answers the question in the affirmative from a Kantian, utilitarian, and virtue ethics perspective.

Imagine a man develops pedophile impulses, a brain tumor is found and removed, and those impulses go away (true story btw). What if the brain tumor had never been found? What if it couldn’t be removed? A discussion over at Practical Ethics on what our responsibility is to use neuroscience to inform law.

An amusing painting from philosophygags, on the not so equal anthropocentric assumptions of John Rawls.


In A Theory of Moral Intuition, Christopher Eddy lays out a defense of an organ of moral sense, akin to our other senses.

A short post by Alexander Pruss, reminding us to take ontology seriously if we want to talk about human flourishing.

Philosophy of Language

A discussion of Frege’s puzzle and propositional attitudes at The Splintered Mind. What exactly does Lois Lane believe about Superman/Clark Kent?

A bit of an older post of mine on Language Acquisition which was a follow up to a post discussing Searle’s Chinese Room.


A great cartoon from over at SMBC on the Gettier Problem.


Jonah Lehrer recently had quite an in depth article in Wired tackling issues to do with causation and complex systems. Rather than link directly to that (since it is quite long), I’ll link to the his blog post where he posted just the introduction.

In Welfarism vs. Appreciating Beauty, Richard Chappell at Philosophy, et cetera examines the intrinsic vs. instrumental value of beauty.

A short discussion about the fictional anthropic principle over at Occasional Philosophy.

That’s it for this edition! Make sure to check the Philosophers’ Carnival homepage for links to all future editions (and to submit posts). Also, connect on facebook!

*I tried to pick posts that fit reasonably well with the criteria I put out in my call for submissions, sorry if you ended up not being included!

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I’ll Believe It When I See It Tue, 03 Jan 2012 21:58:22 +0000 Polo The lawyer leans over the witness stand, piercing holes of disbelief into the witness. He matter-of-factly paces towards her. She is one of the few witnesses at the crime scene. Her palms are sweaty and she’s fidgety from all the coffee from earlier. “Tell us what you saw on the night of Thursday, August 11th, 2011!” Questions flood her mind: How can I be asked to report on experiences I may or may not have had? I was present, but does being present guarantee an accurate experiential report? Maybe my opinion is tainted by others’ opinions? HELP!

It is here that she is asked to report her experiences to the jury, the judge and all those in the courtroom. It is here that an accurate report of one’s perceptual experience counts! One can imagine the tremendous weight bearing on any witness asked to testify under oath.

If questions concerning truth, perception and judgment flooded your mind after reading the above-mentioned, congratulations you are among the few who have delicately scratched the surface of an ongoing philosophical problem: the problem of perception.

There are many problems in philosophy that involve perceptual experience. The problem I’m referring to specifically involves the question of whether perceptual experience offers accurate information about the physical world.

If we’re lucky, few of us will find ourselves in a position that demands our reporting on perceptual experience. Why? Because there is an increasingly resounding sentiment in contemporary literature on perception that suggests our experiences are far from perfect.

Take for instance Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’s ‘dancing gorilla’ experiment*. In this experiment participants were asked to watch a video of people wearing black and white t-shirts pass a ball to one another. After the initial viewing of the video, most of the participants did not report anything strange or out of the ordinary. They were surprised to find that a person dressed in a gorilla costume was dancing during the passing of the ball. This experiment suggests that it is possible, in perceptual experience, to a give a situation your full attention, and still fail to perceive objects present in the visual field. This phenomenon is known as innatentional blindness. (Simons & Chabris, 1999)

This insight is disconcerting, to say the least. Why are we so convinced that our perceptual faculties contain lively, rich, and vivid detail about the external world? This notion stems from an old-fashioned view of perception held by Aristotle: that particles travel towards the visual system that collide with emissions from the eye. This is obviously problematic because as philosopher Howard Robinson notes, “…there is nothing to explain why such a collision of particles should constitute an experience.” (2004, Robinson) A better way to conceive of an Aristotilean account would be to draw on the idea of representation. Particles leave the object in question creating in the subject a representation. Think of a catcher’s mitt, where the mitt represents the visual system and the ball, information. The eye passively welcomes information from the external world just as a catcher’s mitt welcomes the baseball. One cannot possibly catch the ball unless it is thrown, and, in Aristotle’s case, one cannot perceive unless one obtains information from the world. It is a unilateral system.

You might be asking yourself whether the ‘dancing gorilla experiment’ threatens Aristotle-like programs. It does so in the following way: If perception plays a passive role, then how do we account for unsuccessful visual experiences? Say, for instance, I see a dog, where there ought to be a blue ball (i.e. illusion). If we subscribe to Aristotle’s view, then the blue ball is creating (in me!) a representation of a dog. See the problem? How can object x (the ball) represent itself as y (the dog) in experience? Lets take things a step further – if I perceive a dog, where there is in fact a dog, this is considered a successful perceptual experience by many a philosopher. But how accurate are our percepts? If my percept of a dog is not accurate (I perceive the dog as red vs. brown) then it would be fair to say that object x (brown dog) represents itself as y (red dog) in experience, where x and y are distinguishably different.

Some theories of successful perception assume a necessary connection between what is perceived and the thing perceived, but by what criterion do we determine the adequacy of our percepts? If what is represented, in this case a dog-like representation, only requires some correspondence between the thing perceived and the thing represented, then how accurate can our experiences really be? The connection may be a necessary one, but certainly not an accurate one. We have inevitably returned to the point from which we departed: the problem of perception.

According to the ‘dancing gorilla experiment’, even when our cognitive systems are at their best (whatever that means) we fail to perceive objects strewn in the visual field. This must be terrifying for our witness. Not only will she have to report on very specific experiences by drawing on her memory, which is already problematic (given the possibility of forgetting and distorting information), but the experiences themselves, as noted in the ‘dancing gorilla’ experiment, are prone to err. Perhaps one can claim fallibility, leave the witness stand with a sense of relief knowing full well that our perceptual systems are frail. As reassuring as this sounds, this doesn’t change the fact of the matter, and that lack of evidence, in some cases, carries with it the same force as strong evidence, and, consequently, its effects. Perhaps our witness will leave with a little more than just a sense of relief – a desire to find a way to fasten her experiences by understanding how she is situated in the world.


*Now that you’ve read the description above it may not work, but here is a great example of the dancing gorrila experiment!

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Call for submissions: Philosophers’ Carnival Wed, 14 Dec 2011 20:42:53 +0000 Greg On January 9th, Cognitive Philosophy will be hosting the Philosophers’ Carnival, a roaming showcase of the best philosophical blog posts from the previous three weeks. The Carnival is put together through submissions, but you do not have to be the author of a blog post to submit one.  More info about the Carnival and submission guidelines can be found here:

For this coming carnival, the following topics will be given priority:

  • philosophy of mind
  • philosophy of language
  • philosophy of action
  • ethics
  • metaethics
  • epistemology
  • philosophy of science
  • metaphysics
  • phenomenology
  • and anything that links to the cognitive sciences

More importantly though, ideally posts should be accessible to a philosophically interested lay audience. Thanks! I’m excited to host the Carnival here and look forward to reading all the submissions!

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