Monday, March 27, 2006

Why is the Hard Problem so Hard?

D. Stoljar, Ignorance and Imagination: On the Epistemic Origin of the Problem of Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press (due out in May 2006).

Why is it so hard to explain phenomenal consciousness in physical (i.e., naturalistic, scientific) terms? Why do many find it easy to imagine zombies and other putative physicalism-refuting scenarios?

Perhaps it's because our knowledge of physics is not advanced enough--we just lack the right physical theory or the right physical concepts. This answer has always seemed to me a plausible part of the correct story on consciousness (at the present state of our knowledge). It is a natural response of those acquainted with the history of science. Just as vitalists could not imagine a physical explanation of life, or Newton could not imagine a physical explanation of gravity, etc., etc., we cannot imagine a physical explanation of consciousness. It doesn't follow that there is no such explanation.

Eventually I realized that many philosophers have made similar observations. They seem to fall into two camps.

Camp 1 (e.g., the Churchlands): even though we currently lack a naturalistic explanation of consciousness, it is within reach; we just need to do the necessary science (plus, perhaps, the right amount of conceptual analysis/revision). I think this is too optimistic: we don't even seem to have a clear idea of what would constitute a successful naturalistic explanation of consciousness.

Camp 2 (e.g., Colin McGinn): we will never explain consciousness naturalistically because our minds are incapable of acquiring the right concepts. This sounds too pessimistic: why rule out future conceptual breakthrough?

The current philosophical landscape contains no one filling an intermediate position between the above two camps. But the history of science and philosophy contains many conceptual breakthroughs; by (optimistic) historical induction, we should expect more in the future. Now it appears that Daniel Stoljar has developed this line of thinking into a whole forthcoming book. It sounds promising.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Revenge of Grandmother Cells

Take a look at this.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Computer Reads Mind

An interesting technological development.

Myths About Turing

David Leavitt, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Norton, 2006.

Alan Turing is an iconic figure. He was one of the main founders of the mathematical theory of computability. He proved that first-order logic is undecidable. He was one of the main brains behind the allies' successful effort to break Nazi secret codes during WWII. He designed one of the earliest general-purpose, program-controlled computers. He pioneered artificial intelligence. He was persecuted by British authorities for being homosexual. And much more.

But there are also a number of myths about Turing.

Myth #1: he invented the notion of stored-program computer. Truth: Turing's universal machines are not properly called stored-program; roughly speaking, this is because they have no memory component separate from input and output devices.

Myth #2: he created the computational theory of mind, according to which mental capacities are explained by neural computations. Truth: the computational theory of mind is due to Warren McCulloch, who published it in 1943 in collaboration with Walter Pitts.

Myth #3: Turing committed suicide because of being persecuted for his homosexuality. Truth: well, myth #3 might be true, for all we know. But there is very little evidence for it. Turing might have committed suicide for other reasons, or he might have died because of an accident. Turing's archives in Cambridge contain a lot of testimonials by people who knew and saw Turing during the last weeks of his life, many of whom express doubts that he committed suicide. To my knowledge, no historian has done justice to those documents in print. At a minimum, it's fair to say that no one knows why he died.

In his new book, author David Leavitt misses a perfectly good opportunity to correct some of these myths about Alan Turing. In addition, the book contains a lot of technical mistakes. For example, Leavitt mistakenly states that Kurt Gödel showed that Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s system in “Principia Mathematica” was inconsistent. (what Gödel actually showed is that if the system is consistent, then it is incomplete.)

If you wish to read more serious work on Turing, you should read articles by Wilfried Sieg and Jack Copeland. References may be found in my own article on Turing, or on their websites. (However, be aware that Copeland subscribes to myth #1, and as I argue in that same article, Sieg is not always right either.)

Monday, March 13, 2006

Pitt HPS Places 10 out of 10

Leiter Reports has a page up for posting junior philosophy hires.

We at University of Missouri - St. Louis hired John Brunero, a graduate of Columbia who works in ethics and political philosophy.

My alma mater, History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, placed 10 candidates out of 10. 9 are in tenure-track positions and one has a post-doc at Yale. (One of the 10 is not yet listed because although he has an offer, he is waiting to hear from another place.)

Edouard Machery noted to me: "100% with 10 people. Pretty impressive, I think." I concur.

Pitt HPS has been traditionally associated with general philosophy of science and philosophy of physics, and more recently, with philosophy of biology. But others, including aspiring (science-oriented) philosophers of mind should seriously consider it. It has an excellent track record in philosophy of psychology/neuroscience. As a bonus, students have easy access to the faculty of the Pitt philosophy department.

Models in Science

R. Frigg and S. Hartmann, Models in Science, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Spring 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =>.

The Stanford Encyclopedia Entry on scientific modeling is out (since February 27, 2006). The authors are among the organizers of the upcoming conference on Models and Simulations. I expect that many philosophers of mind would benefit from reading their encyclopedia entry (and related literature).

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Should Philosophy Be Experimental?

Experimental philosophy is a recent philosophical movement. In spite of the name, its proponents do not attempt to do philosophy by conducting experiments. Strictly speaking, they don’t conduct experiments at all (at least in the literature I’ve read).

They conduct surveys, however, in which they ask for subjects’ opinions on a variety of philosophically relevant subjects. Examples include whether certain actions are intentional or which of two people a name refers to (e.g., assuming that the true discoverer of the incompleteness of arithmetic was not named “Gödel,” does “Gödel” now refer to the person who stole the theorem’s proof and who was named “Gödel” or to the proof’s true author?). The results of these surveys may be used as data for theories of people’s concepts and cognitive processes. They may also be used as data to test philosophical accounts of various folk notions, such as reference and intentional actions. So far, this sounds like a careful methodology for conceptual analysis (a traditional philosophical enterprise) or cognitive science (an enterprise to which philosophers traditionally participate).

Some experimental philosophers draw stronger conclusions. They reject conceptual analysis. For folk intuitions appear to be more variable and less stable than is often assumed. In other words, different people have different folk notions, or they easily change them depending on contextual factors. Hence, some experimental philosophers maintain, philosophers have little business in offering conceptual analyses of folk notions and drawing philosophical conclusions from them.

(Of course, there are philosophers who reached similar conclusions about the instability of certain intuitions without conducting rigorous surveys (e.g., Peter Unger, in his book Philosophical Relativity). But at the very least, it’s good to replace softer data with harder ones. When it comes to folk intuitions, experimental philosophers’ data are harder than most other philosophers’.)

Given all this, experimental philosophy is controversial, and for good reasons. I, for one, have heard exaggerated claims about the consequences of their work. (For instance, by my friend Edouard Machery when he gave a talk in Barcelona.)

The rejection of conceptual analysis may be taken too far. Even if folk intuitions are unstable, there is still room for analyzing concepts, provided that one is careful about what one is analyzing and what follows from it.

A perfect example of an overly strong conclusion drawn from conceptual analysis is David Chalmers’s dualism. Chalmers argues that phenomenal consciousness cannot be physical, and an important premise in his arguments is that our folk notion of consciousness cannot be analyzed in physical (or functional) terms. But at most, this argument shows a limitation of our (current) folk notion. It doesn’t show anything about consciousness itself. If folk notions turn out to be variable and unstable, it is all the more dangerous to draw strong metaphysical conclusions from their analysis.

Nevertheless, experimental philosophy does not undermine more modest analytical projects. In fact, the work of experimental philosophers may be used as a more sophisticated evidential basis for certain kinds of conceptual analyses.

Whether or not you agree with any of the above, I hope this brief discussion shows that experimental philosophy is interesting and valuable, and cannot be summarily dismissed.

But recently, experimental philosophy made it into a Slate article. You may want to forgive the journalist for not capturing every wrinkle in the philosophical debate. But the article ticked off David Velleman, who posted an unpleasant comment on Left2Right. Velleman wrote, roughly speaking, that experimental philosophy is trivial, and it’s not even philosophy. Since Velleman is a professional philosopher who should know better, you may want to be less forgiving towards him.

Of course, experimental philosophers quickly responded with a comment posted on Leiter Reports. Here are some other comments and links. In their response, experimental philosophers point out that Velleman is not well informed on their work.

In a comment on the experimental philosophers’ response, Velleman seems to suggest that experimental philosophers should find jobs outside philosophy departments. He writes: “Should departments have slots for faculty in the sub-field of experimental philosophy? Should we take time to train our graduate students in experimental design and statistics? As I said in my post, I believe that philosophy needs to inform itself about empirical matters. It's less clear to me that the relevant empirical research should itself be considered philosophy or should take up time and resources available to the discipline.”

This purism about what constitutes philosophy gives me the creeps. Does Velleman know how to draw a principled line between philosophy and other disciplines? If so, he should let us know. While we wait, I hope that other philosophers, of all people, will welcome those who disrespect so-called disciplinary boundaries.

Ironically, in his original post Velleman mentions Aristotle as someone who (unlike experimental philosophers, in his opinion) treated folk intuitions appropriately. But Aristotle spent much of his time developing empirical theories of the natural world. By Velleman’s standards, Aristotle shouldn’t seek employment in a philosophy department.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Experimental Philosophy War

Since Slate published an article on so called "experimental philosophy," the debate on it has escalated in the blogosphere. Good ways into the discussion are here and here. Hopefully I'll post something on it soon.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Cognition and the Brain

A. Brook and K. Akins, eds., Cognition and the Brain: The Philosophy and Neuroscience Movement, Cambridge, CUP, 2005.

A collection of articles by a group of good philosophers of neuroscience, on a wide range of topics (theory in neuroscience, representation, "visuomotor transformation," color, consciousness). Should be of interest to most philosophers of mind.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Philosophy Journals

Several people asked me what the good philosophy journals are. I can't say about all areas of philosophy, but I have compiled an informal and provisional ranking based on Leiter's ranking plus commentaries that were posted on his website in the past. It contains journals that publish in philosophy of mind and related areas. Some of this information may be helpful in other areas of philosophy, but not all. (Journals that specialize in areas other than philosophy of mind are not included.)

The best guide to creating your own ranking is to look at which journals contain articles that get cited by the leaders in your field. As usual, comments are welcome.

A) Journal of Philosophy, Philosophical Review
B) Mind, Nous, Philosophy & Phenomenological Research, Philosophy of Science, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Behavioral & Brain Sciences

Very Good
Philosophical Studies, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Synthese, Philosophical Quarterly, Analysis, Biology & Philosophy, Erkenntnis, Linguistics & Philosophy

Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Mind & Language, American Philosophical Quarterly, European Journal of Philosophy, Ratio, Journal of Philosophical Logic, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science

OK Journals Specializing in Philosophy of Mind
Journal of Consciousness Studies, Philosophical Psychology, Minds and Machines

Update: Leiter Reports has a useful page with commentaries on which philosophy journals and well behaved and which aren't.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

More on the Philosophy Job Market

In a previous post, I wrote some observations on the philosophy job market. I wish to thank the many people who posted insightful comments (some of them here) and questions. A few clarifications might help. As I said before, these are rough generalizations. Every department is different, every committee is different, and every philosopher is different. Also, keep in mind that I’m only talking about junior hires.

1. It might be useful to distinguish between three types of department. First, top research-oriented departments. They are likely to consider only candidates from other top departments. They will rely on letters and pedigree, but they will also read writing samples. They won’t require publications provided that letters and writing samples are outstanding. Next, other research-oriented departments and top teaching-oriented departments. They will pay attention mostly to candidates from highly ranked programs. They will be skeptical of candidates who have not published—they’ve heard enough stories of people who seemed brilliant but never published anything. By the time they interview candidates, someone has read the writing samples, but writing samples of candidates who were not selected for an interview may or may not have been read. Finally, other teaching-oriented departments, where the majority of jobs are. They will be skeptical of candidates who look too research-oriented (based on pedigree and publications), because they fear such candidates won’t fit well in their department or will leave soon anyway. They will pay relatively little attention to writing samples.

2. It was never my intention to criticize the way departments choose candidates. Although imperfect, I think it’s a pretty efficient way of allocating resources. Perhaps some searches overemphasize pedigree. But who has the time to read 100 to 300 writing samples? And who has the skills to evaluate them reliably in their respective areas? Pedigree, after all, is not a terrible measure of academic potential, especially when suitably supplemented by other information. And besides, there are plenty of good departments that try to exploit others’ biases to snatch better candidates than they could otherwise afford.

3. If you are committed to research and your CV shows it, you may have the unpleasant experience of slipping through the cracks. You were not lucky enough to be a top choice at any research-oriented department, but your two articles in, say, Phil. Studies scared off all the teaching-oriented departments. What should you do? There is no universal recipe, but I would certainly not drop my publications from my CV. Consider whether you would be happy at a teaching-oriented department. If so, make it very clear in your cover letter next time you go on the market. Emphasize your love of teaching as much as you can. Get a temporary job at a teaching institution and point out how much you love it. Meanwhile, if you are also interested in research jobs, work hard on those paper submissions and try to get some more papers accepted at good journals. If you get enough articles in the right places, there is likely to be a research job for you some day.

4. What are the good journals? As someone pointed out in the comments, there is a ranking of journals posted by Leiter. At the time it was posted, a lot of people added comments with useful additional information, but I don’t know what happened to them.

5. By and large, I think the same considerations apply to American postdoc positions. There are few postdoc positions in philosophy, so they are usually hard to get. Having published certainly makes you more competitive.

6. Someone asked how much fellowships (Javits, Fulbright, etc.) help on the job market. If they are very competitive, they might give you a tiny boost in the eyes of some. Otherwise, they probably make no difference. These days, most job candidates have quite a list of them, so I imagine most people pay little attention.

7. Candidates who don’t have a Ph.D. from English-speaking countries (primarily U.S., U.K., Canada, or Australia), and who don’t have extensive teaching experience in any of those countries, are considered high risk and are at a huge disadvantage in the U.S. job market. If there is interest, perhaps I will post separately on their specific case.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

More on the Italian Miracle

In a recent post, I commented on the recent hire of a foreign candidate for a philosophy job at the University of Parma, Italy. The hire of a foreigner, without “connections,” in Italian academia is almost unheard of.

I just discovered that the search committee was chaired by Tito Magri, of the University of Roma – La Sapienza. He wrote me the following:

"I am not aware that many of my colleagues in Italy were so appreciative - although I was told that people in Parma were happy at our choice. Of course, I have no inclination to think that we set anything like a precedent."

A few comments:

1. Magri’s words are probably a nice way of saying that by hiring a foreigner without yielding to political pressures, the search committee upset many other academics, who prefer the traditional Italian way of hiring. Well done!

2. Magri doubts that other Italian search committees will follow the lead of the Parma search committee. But wouldn’t it be great if Italian philosophers started hiring based on accomplishments rather than connections?

3. Compare the influence of Australian philosophers vs. Italian philosophers. Australia has a much smaller population, and none of the academic tradition, of Italy. Yet Australian philosophers are orders of magnitude more influential than Italian ones. And consider how many brilliant minds around the world would love to live in a place as beautiful and pleasant as Italy. If Italians started hiring people from around the world based on their accomplishments, they might be able to quickly improve the quality and influence of their academic community.

4. I don’t mean to say that currently, there are no good philosophers working in Italy. Of course there are. But there is also plenty of dead weight.

5. Of course, knowing how conservative Italians are, I don’t expect much change. At any rate, don’t count on me moving there.

CFP: Models and Simulations

Below is a call for papers for a conference on computer simulations. Although philosophers of mind have talked a lot about computer simulations (Turing test, anyone?), in my opinion they are very far from having reached the bottom on this important topic. I have written some of my opinions on this matter here. What follows is reproduced from the call for papers for the conference.

Two-day conference in Paris, 12-13 June 2006

Computer simulations play a crucial role in many sciences, but they have not yet received the attention they deserve from philosophers of science. This conference attempts to systematically explore methodological issues in connection with computer simulations and the implications of these for traditional questions in the philosophy of science. Special emphasis is put on the relation between models and simulations as well as on the role of computers in the practice of science.


Please send extended abstracts of 1000 words to by 15 March 2006. Decisions will be made by 1 April. A few travel bursaries for graduate students are available; if you wish to be considered please submit a short (tentative) travel budget and a CV together with your paper. There will also be a Best Graduate Paper Award of 500 EUROS. For details, visit the conference website.
Deadline for submissions: 15 March 2006