CFP: Robustness in Neurological Systems

Call for Posters

Robustness in Neurological Systems

13 – 15 November, 2015
Center for Philosophy of Science
817 Cathedral of Learning
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA USA

This workshop is designed to maximize productive interaction in large and small groups among scientists and philosophers, faculty, and graduate students. We will include a graduate student poster session. If you would like to present a poster at this workshop, please email Cheryl Greer ( with your abstract (c. 500 words) by October 1st. Notice of posters accepted for presentation will be given by October 14th.

For more information:


Next Week’s Neuroethics Symposium

3Next Wednesday (August 26th) our first symposium on papers published in the journal Neuroethics will go live. Our discussion will focus on a great paper by Farah Focquaert and Maartje Schermer titled “Moral Enhancement: Do means matter morally?”

We hope to generate a lively discussion around the authors’ central claim that moral enhancements in which the recipient is passive are more ethically concerning than those in which the recipient must exert some effort to be enhanced.

Anyone interested in reading the target paper in advance of the symposium can find it here. We are very grateful to Neil Levy for supporting this symposium, and to Springer helping to make the article available in open-access.


There Are Many Kinds of Computing Systems

One of the ways that the philosophical literature on computation is traditionally impoverished is that it tends to focus on just one or two paradigmatic examples, such as Turing machines or traditional digital computers. Perhaps because of this, some philosophers have produced accounts of physical computation from which it follows that many paradigmatic examples of computing systems, such as, say, finite-state automata or Boolean circuits, do not perform computations. Another drawback of this impoverished discourse is the simplistic way in which the debate on the computational architecture of cognition has been conducted–as if there were only two options: “classical” programmable digital computation or relatively simple associative connectionist systems. Yet another drawback of this impoverished discourse is that critics of the computational theory of cognition often produce straw man arguments of the form: the brain is not a Turing machine (or what have you), therefore the computational theory of cognition is wrong.

I hope that my book will contribute to enrich these discussions by enlarging our appreciation of the many kinds of computing system. That’s why I devote a big chunk of the book (six chapters) to distinguishing, explicating, and classifying various important kinds of computing system.

Continue reading There Are Many Kinds of Computing Systems


Does Every Physical System Compute?

In my previous post, I introduced pancomputationalism–the idea that every physical system performs computations. There are three main versions of pancomputationalism.

Unlimited pancomputationalism says that every physical system performs just about any computation you like. For example, a piece of the Berlin wall sitting outside a museum, like the one in the picture that accompanies this post, implements MS Word. Continue reading Does Every Physical System Compute?


Does Computation Require Representation?

Most of the philosophers who discuss computation are interested in computation because they are interested in the computational theory of cognition. Cognitive systems are typically assumed to represent things, and computation is supposed to help explain how they represent. So many philosophers conclude that computation is the manipulation of representations. Or perhaps computation is a specific kind of manipulation of a specific kind of representation. (People disagree about which representations and manipulations are needed for computation.)

This semantic view of computation, popular as it may be, doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Continue reading Does Computation Require Representation?


Is Computation Abstract or Concrete?

John Schwenkler kindly asked me to blog about my new book, Physical Computation: A Mechanistic Account. I am grateful for the invitation.

The original motivation for the research that led to the book was to make progress on the vexed question of whether cognition involves computation. That seems to require clarity on what computation amounts to. That’s what this book aims to deliver. Continue reading Is Computation Abstract or Concrete?


Upcoming Events at the Brains Blog

In the coming weeks before the Minds Online Conference begins on August 31, we’ll feature posts about new books from two authors who are very well known to readers of this blog, as well as our first Neuroethics symposium:

Remember that you can check our calendar, and follow Brains on Facebook and Twitter, to keep up with these and other upcoming events.


Lucid Dreaming or Dreaming That You’re Dreaming?

Why isn’t a lucid dream just a dream within a dream? Suppose I’m having a flying dream and I think, “I must be dreaming.” I’m in a dream state, so why I am not just dreaming that I’m dreaming? To put the question another way, if there’s a difference between knowing you’re dreaming and dreaming you’re dreaming, then what exactly is it?

Continue reading Lucid Dreaming or Dreaming That You’re Dreaming?


Is Consciousness a “Stream”?

In 1890 William James introduced the metaphor of the “stream of consciousness” into Western psychology: “Consciousness… is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.”

Continue reading Is Consciousness a “Stream”?



Thanks to John Schwenkler and The Brains Blog for giving me this opportunity to tell you about my work. In this first post I’d like to describe the themes and ideas of my most recent book, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. In later posts I’ll go into a few selected topics and issues in more detail.

Continue reading Introduction


Introducing Evan Thompson

It is my great pleasure to introduce Evan Thompson, who will be our featured scholar on the blog this week. Evan is Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Previously, he was a professor at the University of Toronto. His works spans the areas of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and phenomenology and  – unusually – also draws heavily on Asian philosophy and contemporary Buddhist philosophy. He is particularly interested in exploring points of contact and fostering dialogue between neuroscience, contemporary Western philosophy and Asian philosophy.

Continue reading Introducing Evan Thompson


CFP: Situating Cognition: Agency, Affect, and Extension

The organizers of the second edition of the international conference in Trends in Interdisciplinary Studies, entitled SITUATING COGNITION: AGENCY, AFFECT, AND EXTENSION, welcome proposals for submitted talks and papers. The conference will take place on October 15-18, 2015, in Warsaw (Poland), at the University of Warsaw and the Polish Academy of Sciences. Proposals are due by August 15. For more information, see the conference website.



Primates Who Are Calm Enough to Pay Attention, or How Touch Allows Human and Non-Human Infants to Engage in Social Interactions

When orphans who have had to overcome difficult upbringings are portrayed in movies or books, they are usually described as smart, sensible children who are capable of facing any challenge and are able to intuitively excel in anything they attempt (even quidditch). The reality of a harsh upbringing, especially for infants who lack affiliative touch, is very different. One of the more extreme examples of this effect could be observed in 1990, after the fall of the Ceauşescu regime. Continue reading Primates Who Are Calm Enough to Pay Attention, or How Touch Allows Human and Non-Human Infants to Engage in Social Interactions


In the Beginning Was Touch, or How Touch Enables the Social Communicative Capacities behind Joint Attention

Throughout the 20th century we find several examples where, once it has been established that a mental capacity is expressed through a specific mode, this link becomes so strong that anyone who doesn’t engage in this mode will be described as not possessing that mental capacity. For example, the link between oral speech and mental capacities became so strong during most of the 20th century that people who were born deaf during this period were forced to learn how to speak and lip read instead of sign language. It was only recently, when William Stokoe wrote his dissertation in 1960 demonstrating that American Sign Language (ASL) is a genuine language with syntax and grammar, that we stopped this practice.

A similar case can be found in children with visual impairments. Continue reading In the Beginning Was Touch, or How Touch Enables the Social Communicative Capacities behind Joint Attention


The Impossibility of Hugging Yourself, or How Touch Opens the Doors of Perception in Apes and Humans

As I mentioned in my first post, I had the opportunity to conduct research at Gombe National Park several years ago. In one of the trips from the national park to town to get provisions (and experience the luxury of a cold soda and indoor plumbing where you are not concerned about snakes), I started thinking about the infants I was seeing around town, wondering what was like to be carried around all day in a sling. This image was strangely familiar; when I was a child my parents had a coffee farm in the countryside in Colombia, and Gumabiano women who lived around the area used a similar style to carry their children. After months of observing mother chimpanzees carrying their infants ventrally and on their backs, I returned to Canada and observed the popularity of sling carriers among caregivers. Thus, infants in close contact with their mothers seem to be a cross-cultural/cross-species unifying factor everywhere I went. Continue reading The Impossibility of Hugging Yourself, or How Touch Opens the Doors of Perception in Apes and Humans


The Eyes Are Not a Window to the Mind

I would like to start by thanking the editors of The Brains Blog, especially Cameron Buckner, for giving me the opportunity to discuss some of the ideas I had about the human and ape minds while observing a group of mother and infant chimpanzees at Gombe National Park in Tanzania, Africa.

By the end of my first week of observations at Gombe, I was more exhausted than I had ever been in my life. I was constantly out of breath and wondering why anyone would think it was a good idea to send a philosopher to Gombe. Then I ran into a mother and infant chimpanzee. This was the first time I’d seen a chimpanzee in the wild, within arm’s reach. Even though the encounter lasted less than a minute, her gaze made a big impression on me. There was something in her eyes that I had never seen before. It is hard to describe without relying on empty platitudes, but I can tell you that it is different than the way a dog looks at you and it is different than the way a human looks at you. There was something else there. I experienced many wonderful and challenging things after that moment, but that first encounter has stayed with me.

Looking back at that moment, I realize that this experience was not only significant in terms of seeing a chimpanzee for the first time but also in terms of the immediate way in which I framed my experience. Continue reading The Eyes Are Not a Window to the Mind


Introducing Maria Botero

I am extremely pleased to introduce Maria Botero, who will contribute several featured posts at the Brains blog beginning this coming week. Maria is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Psychology at Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, TX. Prior to that she obtained her PhD at York University under Stuart Shanker and Kristin Andrews, and before that completed an M.A. also at York under Evan Thompson. At the end of her PhD work, she studied chimpanzees at Gombe, supported by the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative (MEHRI) at York University. Her work explores one of the oldest philosophical questions–what distinguishes humans from other animals?–by comparing early mother-infant interactions across species and cultures. Continue reading Introducing Maria Botero


Symposium on Bernard Molyneux, “The Logic of Mind-Body Identification”

It’s my pleasure to introduce this symposium on Bernard Molyneux’s paper “The Logic of Mind-Body Identification” (in the current issue of Ergo), with commentaries by Liz Irvine (Cardiff), István Aranyosi (Bilkent), and Jonathan Simon (NYU).

Molyneux’s paper introduces a new strategy for explaining why proposed identities between the mental and the physical give rise to “how-possibly” questions, such as “how could this throbbing pain possibly be nothing but some complicated pattern of neural activation?” Why does considering such identifications lead us to these feelings of incredulity? The most common answer in the literature—called the phenomenal concepts strategy—is that such questions arise because of some distinctive features of the concepts that we deploy in thinking about our experiences from the first-person perspective. Continue reading Symposium on Bernard Molyneux, “The Logic of Mind-Body Identification”


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