Sunday, August 9, 2020

on being taken seriously

yesterday i posted this on twitter. didn't think of doing it here coz it's a rather simple point. basically i think some panpsychists have been making claims that i find less than intellectually honest, and i have made a complaint to SEP like i said i would. SEP responded promptly and made the author(s) change the text, so that's that.

the claim concerns whether panpsychism is taken seriously by neuroscientists these days. to my mind the obvious answer is no. but there is a tricky sense in which if you can find a couple of neuroscientists who support the view, the positive claim is logically satisfied

this was exactly what Dave Chalmers said on FB, when i brought up the issue in public first. yesterday i referred to the exchange as 'low rhetorics'. but i was promptly told that Dave was actually also part of the editorial process that lead to the change of the text. so he probably didn't intend for it to be a very serious or strong defense. i made a note of clarification and apologies on twitter then.

that said, i didn't know it back then. the point was something said in public. and others e.g. Neil Levy joined in to defend it. together with the lack of response from the author (Philip Goff; turns out he was busy; maybe i should have waited longer), i went ahead and shot SEP the email. just as expected, there wasn't much argument about the case.

so there's little to be surly about. but there's a small part of the argument that is perhaps interesting. so Dave's point was if X is taken seriously by a few members of Y, it is *logically* fine to say X is taken seriously by Ys. but many things are logical to say, yet silly, e.g. 'if 2+2=9, then I am a better philosopher than Dave Chalmers'. certainly for a place like SEP, we'd want the content to be not just logical but also non-silly.

in particular i suggested that it may make sense for one to at least restrict the statement to cases when X is taken seriously by 50% of members of Y or more. Dave and others suggested maybe that's too high a cutoff. perhaps 20% would pass the mark for non-silliness (or something like that).

but i'm not sure. let's say 20% of members of Y take X seriously. so we say 'X is taken seriously by Y'. but it also means 80% of Ys do NOT take X seriously. so certainly, it is just as logical to say 'X is not taken seriously by Y'. so we should allow people to say 'X is taken seriously by Y, and X is also not taken seriously by Y'. or we can say that 'X is taken seriously by Y; the negation of this statement is also true'. or: 'it is both true and untrue that X is taken seriously by Y'.

that's just ..... silly.

but anyway, silliness aside, i don't really feel so strongly about it; mostly just brought up the above for fun. in large part becoz i think it is already a lost cause. some authors will find other rhetorics to promote the view, as they already do. an easy way would be so say the view is endorsed by some 'leading neuroscientist'. again, leading is a pretty subjective thing. there is a sense in which e.g. Christof Koch is a 'leading' neuroscientist, just as Christof likes to unilaterally profess that his preferred theory is 'dominant', 'leading', etc. there's not much to do about it other than to shrug. i too think those old Crick and Koch papers are important and positively influential. but i am not sure many of us think that Christof these days still represents the field we're in. so the situation may be a bit like citing Eccles to say that some of the most accomplished neuroscientists (Nobel laureate no less) were dualists.

yes, yes, you can say that. there are only so many complaint emails i would care to write, and not all editors are reasonable. but why would you want to do that? if you have to cheat this much to promote your view it probably just isn't worth promoting or having, is it?

ok enough about sociology. i may eventually write a post about other problems of panpsychism too. most of us don't like it for scientific reasons, but over the past months i did dig into the philosophy a bit. but i must say, there i'm not so impressed either.....

ps - someone suggested that there may be a difference in standards between science and philo re: what count as being taken seriously. i think that's right, philosophers are meant to consider far-fetched ideas more carefully; that's part of their job. i ran some twitter polls which seem to confirm that too. but if that's so, they should still be careful in saying that certain *scientific* discipline takes their ideas seriously. that's not how it works for us. if we feel misrepresented, it will just get harder for us scientists to take them seriously. and this may be hurting not just panpsychism but philosophy the discipline as a whole.

Saturday, August 8, 2020


Zombies are hypothetical creatures which are functionally identical to us, but they lack qualia altogether. If they are possible, functionalism can’t be right. If such possibilities are conceivable, perhaps it means that functionalism is at least conceivably wrong.

There are a few senses in which zombies can be functionally identical to us. Suppose we merely mean they can refer to and act on the same objects in the world like we do. Then sure some robot-like creatures can interact with objects in the world without being conscious.

But if we mean that they are functionally fully identical to us, as in the whole mental algorithm is consistent with what we have, then we should recognize that they can’t be coherently conceived to be nonconscious. Such ‘zombies’ will know what it is like to have certain experiences. They can tell you scarlet is a bit like crimson, not much like pink or purple, etc, from a subjective point of view. This means, if you ask them if there is something it is like to see colors, they will truthfully say yes, for the same reasons we do. On the other hand, if you ask them what it is like to experience some subthreshold firing of neurons in the visual cortex, it should draw a blank. And this would not be merely because they don’t know enough about neuroscience. Even if you actually stimulate their visual cortices that way, they still wouldn’t know what you were talking about. In this sense, they are just like us.

Of course, the anti-functionalist can say that they only behave or talk as if they consciously see. But how else do you know if anyone is conscious, besides their expressing that they think so and your lack of reason to doubt that they are lying or deluded? 

Let’s say we have some Martians, who truthfully agree with us that there is something it is like to see red and other colors. And yet, when asked what it is like to smell, it draws a blank. If odors could nevertheless influence their behavior, we probably would think that they have olfactory processing. In that case, what else apart from consciousness can account for the difference between their vision and olfaction? According to them, in one modality, there is something it is like, and in the other, there isn’t. If they aren’t lying or crazy, what else is the difference?

This is to say, if a creature is capable of thinking meaningfully whether there is something it is like to have a certain experience, then whether the creature is inclined to truthfully think so is the truth of the matter. As such, zombies in a fully functional sense are simply not coherently conceivable. Either they truthfully think there is something it is like to have some experiences, in which case they aren’t zombies; or they do not think so, in which case they are not functionally like us at all.

[this literature is vast and mine will never be the last words, of coz. hence this is a blogpost not a paper. my goal is just to hopefully convince some of my scientist colleagues that some functionalist defense is possible, and it needn't be overly complicated.]

Monday, August 3, 2020

Cognitive Neuroscience of Consciousness Trainee Recruitment Conference

Hi everyone,

In a previous post I discussed the tricky business of finding a suitable lab for grad school in this field. After some discussion with lab members and colleagues we are now organizing the following event:

- What is it about? 

The Cognitive Neuroscience of Consciousness Trainee Recruitment Conference 2020 (link to registration here) will feature 12 PIs in the field. Most of them will have short videos uploaded in the coming few weeks, to showcase some current projects in their labs. There will then be 3 panel sessions where registered attendees can ask questions and discuss with the PIs about the presented projects, working in their labs, career advice, grad school applications, etc.

- When are the meetings? Who are the PIs?

They are tentatively scheduled as follows:

Aug 26 Wed 11am (PST) will feature Rachel Denison (Boston University), Tony Ro (City University of New York), Jason Samaha (UC Santa Cruz), & Emily Ward (U Wisconsin-Madison)

Sep 1 Tues 11am (PST) will feature Eve Isham (U Arizona), Brian Odegaard (U Florida), Giancarlo Vanini (U Michigan), Caroline Robertson (Dartmouth) 
-- Update: Profs Isham & Robertson will not be putting up videos; please check their websites for their research: 

Sep 3 Thur 11am (PST) will feature Ruth Rosenholtz (MIT), Megan Peters (UC Irvine), Michael Cohen (Amherst), Phil Corlett (Yale)
-- Update: Prof Cohen won't be putting up a video; please check his research website @

We expect each meeting to last for about an hour.

- Where will the meetings take place?

These will be virtual meetings online. We plan to use Zoom.

- Who can attend?

The meetings are primarily for trainees, broadly defined to include prospective grad students, research assistants, and postdocs. But others are welcome too. All you need to do is to register here with a correct email address so as to receive further information for the Zoom meetings.

But please be reminded that the meetings will take a semi-synchronous format, that is we will not show the videos at the meeting. You should watch them prior to the meeting, during which we'll go straight to Q&A.

- Where do I find the videos?

Watch this space. Links to the videos / background materials will be added gradually in the coming weeks, as hyperlinks associated with the names of the PIs listed in the schedule above. For example, you can click on Ruth Rosenholtz's name for her video.

- Do I have to pay?

No, although you have to register to attend the meeting, it is free.

- Who are the organizers?

All the work has been done by Cody Cushing and Taylor Webb from my lab, together with our frequent collaborator Matthias Michel.

- Why are all the labs featured based in the US?

Sorry but this is the purpose and current scope of the meeting. The field faces unique challenges in US, due to various factors including funding structure and popular media misrepresentation. Perhaps in the future others will set up similar meetings for other regions too. For now, please forgive our limited logistical bandwidth.

- I have a question not covered above ....

The ideal place may be to ask me on twitter, so others can see the question and my response to it too.