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


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.

I have suggested that there’s a kind of subtle attitudinal phenomenal property that each exhibits and the other doesn’t: conscious belief exhibits presenting-as-true, desire presenting-as-good. In general, in working on the book I’ve come to use as a personal heuristic the following principle when trying to decide which primitive, irreducible types of phenomenology I should admit: look for a distinctive attitudinal phenomenal property of the form presenting-as-F; if you find a plausible one, then there’s a prima facie reason to suspect that the relevant type of experience involves its own sui generis phenomenology.

Applying this heuristic proved tricky when it came to emotional phenomenology. On the one hand, I had a strong antecedent intuition that emotional experience does involve its own irreducible type of phenomenology. On the other hand, it wasn’t obvious what F there might be such that, plausibly, all and only emotional experiences present-as-F their objects/contents.

People always talk of “the true, the good, and the beautiful” (well, sometimes they do; well, they rarely do, but whatever). So if the cognitive is directed at the true and the conative at the good, might the emotive be directed at the beautiful? That’s not very plausible. Anger and indignation about the Armenian genocide are emotions, but they don’t present-as-beautiful the Armenian genocide. (I think there’s a kind of emotional experience at the core of aesthetic experience – I like to call it perceptual delight – whose attitudinal essence is to present-as-beautiful. But that’s just one kind of emotion.)

Emotions divide into positive and negative: being happy feels good, being sad feels bad; in a more subtle way, loving someone feels “positive,” hating someone feels “negative.” One thought might be that positive emotions present-as-good while negative emotions present-as-bad. When I’m happy that the whether is nice, for example, my happiness state presents-as-good the weather’s niceness. A first problem with this is that it doesn’t identify as single F that both positive and negative emotions present-as. This might be a superficial problem: let’s say that an experience presents-as-valuable just if it either presents-as-good or presents-as-bad. Then maybe all and only emotional experiences present-as-valuable their objects/contents? But I think there’s a deeper problem with this view: if conative experiences, such as conscious desiring and deciding present-as-good, then it looks like the view entails that such experiences are emotional experiences. This doesn’t sound right, especially for the kinds of experiences that manifest most intimately the exercise of the will. Deciding to do the dishes first and then walk the dog, rather than first walk the dog and then do the dishes, doesn’t seem like an emotional experience.

The view that seemed most tempting to me, when writing the chapter on emotional phenomenology, is that the attitudinal essence of emotional experiences is to present-as-important. Many things are true and many things are good, but emotion says which of these are worth getting agitated over. When I experience a negative emotion – say, indignation – regarding the Armenian genocide, my experience, in virtue of being a negative experience, may perhaps present-as-bad the genocide; but in addition, in virtue of being an emotion at all, it presents-as-important the genocide. This presenting-as-important sets certain appropriateness conditions for emotion: when I am angry that the subway is two minutes late (and I don’t have any appointment I’m late to), it seems like my anger is in some sense inappropriate. One neat way to explain its inappropriateness is to say that the anger presented-as-important something which in reality is unimportant.

This still seems to me emotion’s best shot at involving a distinctive, sui generis phenomenology. As against that, one could take a more reductive approach that attempts to account for emotional phenomenology in terms of a combination of perceptual phenomenology (in particular, proprioceptive phenomenology associated with bodily, especially visceral, sensations), algedonic phenomenology (unpleasant feeling in the case of negative emotions, pleasant one in the positive ones), cognitive phenomenology (the appreciation of a wrong in case of indignation, of a danger in the case of fear, of a loss in the case of grief, etc.), and conative phenomenology (a felt motivation to “do something about it,” for example). Maybe from the soup of all these elements comes out the phenomenology of anger or joy that we experience emotionally.

This leaves open what to do with the sense that emotional experience also refers somehow to the important. The primitivist view would be that that element of importance-presentation constitutes a sui generis residue in the phenomenology of emotion. But I think there’s also a reasonably plausible reductive move here. This is to say that our cognitive architecture is such that emoting about X tends to draw attention to X, and it’s this attention – only contingently connected to emotion – that presents-as-important X. Which view is better? I worked on this book for almost 5 years and never could make up my mind on this. It’s even hard for me to say which view I’m closer to have 51% credence in and which I’m closer to 49% credence. The only thing I know is that the reductive view is more parsimonious, allowing us to go on without positing a sui generis emotional phenomenology. That makes it the burden of the proponent of a sui generis emotional phenomenology to come up with an deadlock-breaking argument…

Accordingly, my official “tally” in the book does not count emotional phenomenology as among the phenomenal primitives necessary for being able to fully describe the stream of consciousness.


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:

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 ( 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.


CFP: Collective Self-Awareness

CFP: Workshop “Collective Self-Awareness”

September 10-12, Institute of Philosophy, University of Vienna

Submission deadline: May 3

There has been a growing philosophical interest in Collective Intentionality in recent decades, but the topic of collective self-awareness is still in its infancy. How do we experience ourselves as acting and perceiving jointly? How do we know what we believe, intend, feel and value as members of informal groups? And how do institutional actors such as universities, parties and governments know their minds?

Continue reading CFP: Collective Self-Awareness


Upcoming Mind & Language Symposium

I’m happy to announce that our next Mind & Language symposium will be on Jean-Rémy Martin and François Le Corre’s “Sensory Substitution is Substitution” from the journal’s April 2015 issue. Thanks to the generous support of Wiley-Blackwell and the journal’s editors, the target article is now available in open access at the link above. Commentaries will be provided by Kevin Connolly, Ophelia Deroy, Julian Kiverstein, and Michael Proulx. The symposium begins next week!



knew_2015_big-672x372The eleventh KNEW workshop will take place in Kazimierz Dolny, Poland, in August, 10th to 14th. The topic for this year’s workshop is Placing Art and Music in Nature. Recent scientific research concerning art and music has thrown up a plethora of new aspects to be integrated into our understanding of these phenomena. Individual studies, such as attempts to explain aesthetic responses in terms of some aspect of human neurology, have at times been deemed reductionist. Quite apart from such ‘accusations’ often being wholehearted accepted by researchers, the overall picture of art that science is revealing is anything from simplistic. Instead, research coming out of a variety of disciplines is presenting philosophy with ever new challenges if it is to provide anything like an integrated understanding of art and music. Thus, among others, ecological approaches provide a novel perspective upon meaning in music, embodied approaches explore the role of the specific played by the body in experiencing music and evolutionary approaches examine the significance of human evolutionary history for art and music. Far from being simplified, the view that tended to focus upon cultural factors has been enriched by consideration of cognitive and evolutionary factors as well as novel tools and ways of thinking about the interplay between art and music and the broader cultures in which they exist. In effect, it is philosophy that is forced to extend its perspective in order to seek a synthesis that reflects the new research. In our workshop we will seek to further this process by engaging philosophers and scientists in a dialogue concerning the multifaceted place that art and music hold in nature.

The keynotes are Ian Cross (University of Cambridge)Ellen Dissanayake (University of Washington)Piotr Przybysz (Adam Mickiewicz University). The deadline for abstracts is June, 30.

The full call for papers is found at the workshop website.  The event is organized by Marcin Miłkowski, Jakub Ryszard Matyja, and Konrad Talmont-Kaminski.


Consciousness in the persistent vegetative state

For the remainder of my posts here, I’m going to move on to new work, and try out some ideas. This post will continue on the theme of consciousness, but turn to a very different question. The work I will discuss in this post is conducted in collaboration with Will Davies, so hopefully it won’t go too far askew of reality.

Continue reading Consciousness in the persistent vegetative state


Implicit bias and moral responsibility: assessing responsibility

This post continues on from the last. I’m going to assume the claims I made in that post – in particular, that implicit attitudes are patchy endorsements – though in fact what I will say would go through on most rival views (the only extant view on which it would be false would be the Mandelbaum/De Houwer view, according to which implicit attitudes are structured beliefs). In the last post, I argued that we must avoid intuition mongering when it comes to assessing the moral responsibility of agents for actions that have a moral character due to the agents’ implicit attitudes. Instead, I suggest, we should construct our account of moral responsibility, in whatever way we judge appropriate, and then pretty mechanically apply it to the cases think hand. We should just churn the cases through the machinery. That’s a departure from the standard methodology, because normally philosophers engage in some sort of process of seeking a reflective equilibrium between their theories and their case-by-case intuitions. If instead we approach the cases mechanically, as I’m suggesting, than we accept the results, no matter how counterintuitive. Continue reading Implicit bias and moral responsibility: assessing responsibility


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