Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Coma in Movies

Coma is a phenomenon that philosophers of mind should probably spend more time thinking about. As Reuters Health reports, a recent article in Neurology has found that most popular movies misrepresent coma, and most people don't notice.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

More on Philosophy Journals

A few weeks ago, I wrote a comment on which philosophy journals are considered best. Brit Brogaard has reminded me that there is a useful post with commentaries at Leiter Reports on which journals are well behaved and which aren't.

Monday, May 15, 2006


I'm out of town until the end of the month.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Central APA Highlights

Last weekend I was at the Central APA in Chicago. Here are some events I attended that may be of interest to philosophers of mind:

Henry Jackman, in "Fodor on Concepts and Modes of Presentation," argued that Fodor's treatment of the publicity constraint on concepts is available to a certain kind of semantic holist (contrary to what Fodor implies). Roughly, Fodor argues that concepts are constituted by reference plus syntactic form. Syntactic form is not shared, but Fodor adds that concepts are nevertheless shared because their reference is public and that's enough. Jackman suggested that any holist that believes in reference as a component of content can make a similar move: although content is holistic and hence not shared, concepts are nevertheless shared because their reference is public and that's enough.

There was an invited session on "The Extended Mind and Scientific Psychology". (1) Alva Noe argued that the physical substrate of consciousness is not limited to the brain but extends into the environment. So far as I can tell, he announced he was going to argue that the alternative view, according to which the physical substrate of consciousness is limited to the brain, is unintelligible, and hence its opposite must be true. But quite aside from the implausibility of such an argument form, I didn't catch what is supposed to be unintelligible about the view that the physical substrate of consciousness is limited to the brain. (2) Robert Rupert read a nice paper entitled, "Extended Cognition as a Framework for Empirical Psychology: The Costs Outweight the Benefits," arguing that the hypothesis of extended cognition does not help, and may hinder, the science of mind. Needless to say, his commentator, Rob Wilson, disagreed.

There was an invited session on "Mechanism in the Sciences", with Bill Wimsatt, Peter Machamer, Stuard Glennan as speakers, and Stathis Psillos and Carl Craver as commentators. The notion of "mechanism" and mechanistic explanation is undergoing a resurgence of interest in the last few years, and some people--including me--think it's going to provide new insights to the philosophy of biology, technology, and mind. Make sure you read Carl Craver's book on mechanistic explanation as soon as it comes out (from Oxford U Press).

There were other things of interest but I couldn't attend them. Curiously, all the invited sessions that I found interesting appeared to have been organized by Carl Gillett.

What Is a Mind?

Last Saturday, in his Central APA commentary, Rick Grush raised this question and suggested it is the most fundamental question in the philosophy of mind. He also suggested that if you don't understand this question and its importance you are missing something.

I must be slow because I don't think I understand the question.

Is it asking what is the explanation of the mental capacities and phenomena that we observe, such as perception, problem solving, and motor control? If so, the answer lies in the usual mix of theoretical and empirical investigations that scientists and many philosophers of mind are engaged in. But that is clearly not what Rick has in mind, for he argued that the question must be answered before we proceed with our science.

Is it asking what the folk means by "mind"? If so, the anwser lies either in the conceptual analysis of folk psychology (if that project makes sense) or in some empirical study of folk psychology, but it is hardly the most important question in the philosophy of mind.

Is it asking what counts as a mental phenomenon vs. what doesn't? (E.g., is conditioning properly called a mental phenomenon or not?) If so, presumably this is largely a matter of stipulation, of relatively little theoretical importance.

Is it asking what is the essence of mind (or the mark of the mental)? But why suppose that the mind has one and only one mark or essence? And more importantly, how are you supposed to find out what the essence of mind is before you begin doing science? I thought that in so far as we believe in essences these days, we believe they are discovered empirically.

I don't think any of the above corresponds exactly to what Rick was trying to ask, but I honestly don't know what else to suggest. Any thoughts on this?

Is the Brain Digital or Analog?

This is an old matter of debate in neuroscience, going back to the 1940s. The question has never been properly resolved. In my opinion, the question has never even been properly formulated.

A recent study in Nature provides evidence that "in some sensory organs and invertebrate systems, neurons can also communicate in the absence of action potentials by grading their transmitter release according to the presynaptic membrane potential, which is directly determined by the barrages of synaptic activity arriving in the cell. This graded synaptic transmission was thought to be irrelevant at the vast majority of synapses in the brain, because the electrotonic distance between the presynaptic cell and its axonal terminals was considered to large." (The quote is not from the paper but from this summary.)

This result is an interesting and straightforward challenge to the classic view according to which neural impulses are all-or-none. But when the result is formulated in terms of the digital vs. analog question, it misleadingly suggests that neural signals are both digital and analog in the sense of those terms that are used in computer science and engineering.

The notions of "digital" and "analog" that are used in computer science and engineering are relatively well defined, and in my opinion they do not map onto the homonymous but vaguer notions employed in the debate about brains. So, the brain might well be both digital and analog in some loose sense, but that has relatively little to do with digital and analog computers. (For more on this, you a draft that I've written on this here.)

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Corey Maley for telling me about this study.