A Coincidence

I recently published three articles that may be of interest to some readers:

“The Cognitive Neuroscience Revolution,” (with Worth “Trey” Boone), Synthese.

Articulates how cognitive neuroscience explains cognition in terms of representational, computational, multi-level mechanisms.

“Access Denied to Zombies,” Topoi.

Argues that in doing metaphysics we should pay closer attention to the relation of accessibility between possible worlds, or else we risk committing fallacies.

“Is Consciousness a Spandrel?” (with Zack Robinson and Corey Maley), Journal of the APA.

Articulates the possibility that phenomenal consciousness has no biological function because it’s either a byproduct of other traits or a (functionless) evolutionary accident, and examines which metaphysical positions entail this view.

Also, my book Physical Computation: A Mechanistic Account, OUP, is coming out on July 2 in the UK, and in a few weeks in the US.


Australasian Association of Philosophy 2015 Philosophy of Cognitive Science and Psychology Stream

Sisters and Brothers,

Here are links to the abstracts for the Philosophy of Cognitive Science/Psychology stream at this years AAP. Timetable is currently being done :). Also please note that there are some relevant talks in the Neuroethics Stream (which includes moral cognition) and some other good looking philosophy of science talks elsewhere in the conference (e.g. the Peter Menzies Stream). Continue reading Australasian Association of Philosophy 2015 Philosophy of Cognitive Science and Psychology Stream


CFP: FSU Graduate Conference on Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and Agency

The Philosophy Graduate Student Association (PGSA) at Florida State University is now accepting paper submissions for its fourth annual graduate conference on free will, moral responsibility, and agency.

The conference will take place at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida on Friday and Saturday, September 18‐19, 2015.

This year’s keynote speakers will be:

  • Angela Smith, Roger Mudd Professor of Ethics and Professor of Philosophy, Washington and Lee University
  • Derk Pereboom, Susan Linn Sage Professor of Philosophy, Cornell University

Current graduate students interested in submitting high‐quality papers related to free will, moral responsibility, or the wider notion of agency should email their submissions to fsupgsa@gmail.com. Continue reading CFP: FSU Graduate Conference on Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and Agency


Symposium on Martin & Le Corre, “Sensory Substitution Is Substitution”

I aTVSSS PHONEm glad to kick off our latest Mind & Language symposium on Jean-Rémy Martin and François Le Corre‘s Sensory Substitution Is Substitution ,” from the journal’s April 2015 issue, with commentaries by Kevin Connolly (Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Penn), Ophelia Deroy (Center for the Study of the Senses/Institute of Philosophy, University of London), Julian Kiverstein (Amsterdam), and Michael Proulx (Bath).

Continue reading Symposium on Martin & Le Corre, “Sensory Substitution Is Substitution”


Talking to Our Selves

If you’ve worked in an office, you’re probably familiar with “honor box” coffee service. Everyone helps themselves to stewed coffee, adds to the lounge’s growing filth, and deposits a nominal sum in the honor box, with the accumulated proceeds being used to replenish supplies. Notoriously, this system often devolves into a tragedy of the commons, where too many people drink without paying. Unless some philanthropic soul goes out of pocket to cover freeriders, the enterprise goes in the red, and everyone’s back to extortionate prices at the cafe.

Fortunately, the tragedy of the honor box may be readily ameliorated; if images of eyes are placed prominently near the coffee service, deposits increase. Or so Bateson and her colleagues (2006) found: the take in a Psychology Department’s honor box (computed by amount contributed per liter of milk consumed) was nearly three times as large when the posted payment instructions were augmented with an image of eyes as when they were augmented with an image of flowers.

Fig. 1: The Eyes Have It: honor box contributions higher with eyes than with flowers (Pounds paid per liter of milk consumed as a function of week and image type; from Bateson et al. 2006: 413)
Fig. 1: The Eyes Have It: honor box contributions higher with eyes than with flowers (Pounds paid per liter of milk consumed as a function of week and image type; from Bateson et al. 2006: 413)

Continue reading Talking to Our Selves


Imaginative Phenomenology

What is the difference between the phenomenology of perception and the phenomenology of imagination? Here are three prima facie possibilities:

  • There’s no difference
  • There’ a difference of degree
  • There’s a difference of kind

The first view is that perceiving my dog Julius and imagining him (in the same setting) have exactly the same phenomenology; the only difference is in the surrounding beliefs: the perception is accompanied by a belief that the dog is really there, or that the dog is being perceived, or something like that. The second view is that perception and imagination have the same kind of phenomenology, but perception has a sharper, or more vivid, or finer-grained version of it. The third view is that the two have a different kind of phenomenology – there’s a qualitative difference between seeing Julius and visualizing Julius. Continue reading Imaginative Phenomenology


Emotional Phenomenology

In the previous post I brought up the issue of how to distinguish belief from desire. In a framework in which belief and desire are treated as explanatory posits cited in the explanation of behavior, it’s pretty straightforward to identify the respective functional role each plays in the explanation of behavior. But in a more descriptive project where you treat conscious belief (or judgment) and conscious desire as essentially the types of experience that exemplify cognitive phenomenology and conative phenomenology, it’s trickier to say what phenomenal quality exactly distinguishes the two. Continue reading Emotional Phenomenology


Call for early career commentator

Brains invites an early career philosopher (graduate student, post-doc, or person who earned their PhD in the past five years) to act as a commentator for our upcoming symposium on an article appearing in the journal Neuroethics. The symposia will be similar to ones we have run the past two years on papers from Mind & Language, which can be viewed here: http://philosophyofbrains.com/category/mind-language-symposia.

The first symposium is scheduled to happen this upcoming August, and will discuss Farah Focquaert and Maartje Schermer’s paper entitled “Moral Enhancement: Do means matter morally?” The abstract for the paper is below. Anyone interested in acting as an early career commentator may submit a short abstract of their proposed commentary (less than 500 words) to Katrina Sifferd via email (sifferdk@elmhurst.edu) by June 1. A full copy of the paper to be discussed is available upon emailed request.

The commentator will be chosen by a panel based upon the submitted abstracts. Continue reading Call for early career commentator


Conative Phenomenology

There’s a long philosophical history, dating back to Plato’s Republic, of distinguishing between a cognitive “department” of the mind (the intellect, or the “understanding”) and a conative department (the will). This is preserved in mainstream philosophy of mind within the framework of belief-desire psychology. Belief is taken to be the fundamental cognitive state, desire the fundamental conative state. Other mental states are accounted for in terms of these two: being glad that p is analyzed in terms of believing that p plus desiring that p; being disappointed that p in terms of believing that p and desiring that ~p; doubting that p in terms of believing that conceivably, ~p; and so on.

In this picture, then, desire is the fundamental conative state. The background project is an explanatory one, with behavior being the relevant explanandum and belief-desire pairs the explanans. Why did the agent µ? Because she desired that p and believed that µ-ing would make it more likely that p. Indeed, desire is often construed as essentially the kind of state which, in conspiracy with the right beliefs, normally causes the right behavior. This functionalist account of desire ultimately falls out of the theorist’s theoretical interests: if you start out with an explanatory project, you’re probably going to end up with a functional individuation of the explanantia (I think that’s a word).

That’s all cool with me. But as I mentioned in my Monday post, I also like me a descriptive project, wherein the subjective dimension of conative mental life is described in its own terms, regardless of what it explains and what explains it. Consider the following vignette:

Jimmy travels to Bolivia, where someone offers him an amazing-looking piece of cake. He wants to eat it. Then he remembers it’s May and he’s got at most three weeks to get his belly beach-ready, which he very much intends to do. This is not the right time to have a decadent cake, he reflects. On the other hand, who knows when he’ll have another opportunity to try Bolivian cake. He deliberates for a while, but eventually decides he’s got to give this Bolivian cake a try. He reaches for it, grabs it, brings it to his mouth, and eats it.

This vignette features many conative elements of our mental life: desires, intention, desire conflict, deliberation, decision, trying, action. Now here’s a pretty impressionistic question: from a purely descriptive point of view, which elements here embody most deeply the exercise of the will?

My first reaction – still impressionistic – is to say: deciding! It’s that instantaneous act of deciding which, on the one hand, cannot be decomposed into any other elements in Jimmy’s stream of consciousness, and on the other, captures the exact moment when Jimmy’s will kicks into gear and does its thing. Desire is from this perspective is a bit far from the action. I don’t know if you’re with me up to here, but let me to try to say all this less impressionistically.

What makes desire, intention, decision, etc. so fundamentally different from belief, judgment, thought, etc.? I want to say: the latter (cognitive) states are directed at the true, the former (conative) are directed at the good. When you want ice cream, there’s a sense in which your desire presents the ice cream as good to you – or perhaps presents the getting of the ice cream as a good idea. Importantly, however, the goodness of the ice cream (or of the getting of it) is not part of the content of the desire. In the first instance, you don’t desire that the ice cream be good; no, you just desire the ice cream. Rather, the commitment to the ice cream’s goodness is built into the very attitude of desiring. So compare these two reports:

  • Jane’s desire presents the ice cream as good
  • Jane’s desire presents-as-good the ice cream

My claim is that 2 is the better report, capturing better the locus of goodness-commitment in desire. In my book, I argue that this presenting-as-good is the essential property of conative mental states: intending to eat ice cream and deciding to eat ice cream, for example, both present-as-good eating ice cream.

At the same time, there are also some differences between all these conative attitudes. In particular, desire and decision both present-as-good their objects, but there is some difference between them too. Moreover, since we can desire and decide on the same thing, the difference between desire and decision cannot be a difference at the level of content or object, the level of what is being desired/decided. It must be an attitudinal difference. So everything points to there being a difference between two kinds of presenting-as-true: one characteristic of desire and one of decision.

In my book, I argue for the following account of that difference. Consider that when Jimmy wants to eat the cake, the commitment to the goodness of eating the cake that’s built into his desire is a conditional, hypothetical, controvertible commitment: he’s committed to it provided there are no overriding factors. If his life depended on not eating it, he wouldn’t eat the cake after all. In contrast, when Jimmy decides to eat the cake; the commitment to the goodness of eating the cake that’s built into his decision is a complete, categorical, incontrovertible commitment: as far as this token act of deciding is concerned, there is a finality to the matter – we’re just gonna go ahead and eat the cake now. If there’s a shred of hesitation, then the decision has not truly been made yet. One way to capture this contrast is as follows: desire presents-as-prima-facie-good its object, whereas decision presents-as-ultima-facie-good its object. That’s the thesis I defend in my chapter on conative phenomenology, as underlying the more basic idea that decision, and not desire, is (from a descriptive point of view) the fundamental conative state.



Introspection, Seriously

Maybe before plunging into the project I pursue in Varieties, I should say something on the very idea of a first-person, introspectively based project for studying consciousness. In particular, I want to comment on the idea that a crucial step in cognitive science becoming a serious scientific study, no flimsier than organic chemistry or astronomy, was getting rid of any appeal to introspection, subjective data, etc. The comment I want to make is that this is a complete myth: introspection is pervasive in cognitive science, and we’re lucky that it is.

To appreciate the depth of the myth, we should remind ourselves of Reichenbach’s old distinction between “the context of discovery” and “the context of justification.” Continue reading Introspection, Seriously


Consciousness: Explanation vs. Description

A couple of months ago I got an amazing book called Owls of the World that more or less summarizes all the knowledge that humanity has gathered so far on the 250-odd species of owl inhabiting the earth. It gave me a glimpse into the kind of work a zoologist working on owls engages in. Much of it involves trying to explain owl phenomena: typical food and hunting styles, social behavior and communication, breeding habits, migration patterns, etc. Sometimes we learn things from the “deep essence/hidden nature” of the owl: recent DNA analysis, for example, suggests that owls are closer to parrots than to falcons! Continue reading Consciousness: Explanation vs. Description


The compelling nature of consciousness

We shall conclude our posts with something more controversial. In identifying a function for consciousness it is useful to carefully study cases associated with conscious attention. Memory is one case in which there are insights to be found. In chapter 4 of our book, we distinguish between two types of memory traces: phenomenal and epistemic. The main idea is that some kinds of memory may not require phenomenal consciousness, such as semantic and episodic memory. Phenomenal traces, on the other hand, necessitate phenomenal consciousness and autobiographical memory seems to fall in this category. Take the effect music has on memory. When one listens to a song one has not heard in a long time, the experience can be one of immersion in the past. One feels as if the memories of a whole period of one’s distant past suddenly rush in.

There are conscious attention processes that capture this kind of experience. Continue reading The compelling nature of consciousness


Conscious Attention and Evolution

While we argue that consciousness and attention must be largely dissociated, there is some overlap between the two. Conscious attention is this overlap and can be described as the “reportable” form of attention that is part of conscious awareness (i.e., where the contents of attention are consciously accessible such that one could report detecting this information). Continue reading Conscious Attention and Evolution


CFP: PC 2015

The 6th International Workshop on Physics and Computation (PC 2015)

(A satellite workshop to Unconventional Computation & Natural Computation 2015)

31 August – 4 September 2015
University of Auckland, New Zealand


The 6th International Workshop on Physics and Computation (PC 2015) will take place at the University of Auckland, New Zealand as a satellite workshop to the 14th International Conference on Unconventional Computation & Natural Computation (UCNC 2015). The workshop will run for two days alongside the UCNC conference between 31 August and 4 September 2015. Continue reading CFP: PC 2015


Consequences of the dissociation between consciousness and attention

To substantiate the claims about our definitions of ‘consciousness’ and ‘attention’ we would like to explain how using the framework of dissociation (CAD) helps elucidate these meanings in two important ways. First, the framework shows that debates can be reinterpreted in insightful ways and second, it provides theoretical reasons to think that regardless of one’s own convictions and theoretical leanings, consciousness and attention must be dissociated independently of the specificities of definitions, thus avoiding verbal disputes. We provide three cases we discuss in chapter 3 of the book. Continue reading Consequences of the dissociation between consciousness and attention


Regarding visual attention

Attempting to understand the ‘hard problem’ of conscious experience through the lens of attention requires a discussion of what we mean by visual attention. This can be challenging since there are many forms of attention that work on several levels, both within and outside of our conscious experience. Continue reading Regarding visual attention


Summary of “Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention”

unnamed (3)We are very grateful to John Schwenkler for inviting us to blog at Brains. Our main claim in Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention is that consciousness and attention must be distinct kinds of mental states. We offer four arguments, each explicated in a separate chapter. The first argument is that a vast amount of research shows that many forms of attention, even at the personal level, occur automatically and without conscious awareness. We emphasize the variety of attentional processes to boost this claim. Second, we argue that most philosophical views on the nature of consciousness entail the dissociation between consciousness and attention. Third, we claim that there is a distinctive kind of conscious attention that is not reducible to attention or conscious awareness. And fourth, what is perhaps the strongest empirical argument we develop, we claim that considerations about evolution strongly suggest that consciousness and attention must be dissociated. What follows is a more detailed description of these arguments and the contents of the book.

Continue reading Summary of “Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention”


Upcoming Events at the Brains Blog

In the coming weeks we are excited to be hosting our next Mind & Language symposium, on Jean-Rémy Martin and François Le Corre’s “Sensory Substitution is Substitution”, as well as several authors who will write about their recently published books:

Due to unforeseen events the exact scheduling of these events remains to be determined, but we do know that Montemayor and Haladjian will blog during this next week. Remember that you can follow the Brains blog on Facebook and Twitter to keep informed about all our events.


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