Monday, October 16, 2017

greetings from NYC; my philosophical roots

in the last post i said i would explain why we like arguing so much. in a way, many academics do. for me, it may be in part temperament. in part, it may have something to do with my upbringing at home. it may also have something to do with my graduate training. but New York, New York... is one big reason.

i went to New York city in 2007, a day before i taught my first class as a faculty member at Columbia, with just a suitcase. i remember on the flight from Heathrow to JFK, i kept thinking about a line from a movie i had just watched recently: "... and we all come to New York, to be forgiven." i was 27 years old.

living in Manhattan was fun. Columbia gave me good subsidized housing. work-wise, i was struggling, coz i didn't know how to get funding for my kind of work. i wasn't very well connected as i was trained in the UK. i spent a lot of time partying, drinking, and eating really well downtown.

but this is not to say i wasn't stimulated intellectually. ever since i left NYC for Los Angeles, people often ask if i missed the city. there are of course things i miss, but above all, it is philosophy that brings me back. back then i taught a seminar with Ned Block at NYU. i lived just a block away from David Rosenthal. New York, of course, was and still is the center of the philosophical universe - at least for the kind of philosophy that i care about. hanging out and arguing with these guys, together with many others (like my good friend, collaborator, and drummer Richard Brown) helped me get through the scientific/administrative chores, and kept me inspired.

i wrote my undergrad thesis in philosophy. in Hong Kong i was lucky to have Joe Lau as a professor and advisor. he went to MIT and worked with Ned Block and Bob Stalnaker for his PhD, and is a really wonderful teacher. as an undergrad i read all the good stuff - Michael Tye, Bill Lycan, Tyler Burge,  Putnam, Fodor, etc etc - stuff that i still find useful at work today. ever i since i went to grad school and started doing human neuroscience, every now and then i would contemplate leaving science to go back to do philosophy. there are points where it was a close call. somehow... i stayed. but living in NY helped me scratch that constant itch.

scientists love to bash how useless philosophy is. often, those who know least about philosophy tend to be the most dismissive. i suppose that makes sense: as in most other fields, finding the good stuff to read isn't easy, and if you don't know your way around, it gets confusing. somehow, neuroscientists don't tend to pick up some random articles in economics journals and talk trash about them though.

to me, the value of philosophy is clear. at the very least, like chess playing it helps sharpen your thinking. with a good audience, one gets really useful critical feedback that you can't really get when you give a talk to a science crowd, becoz the whole purpose of giving a talk is different....

the past few days i've actually been in this city. gave a seminar at CUNY, chatted with friends about the paper i'm writing. it's been really really fun and rewarding. tonite is the final gig, at NYU, where i will have 10 mins max to present my paper. really, it's just to start the convo; people who haven't read the paper already wouldn't want to be there; they are there for the Q&A, which would take up the rest of the 2 hours. in philosophy, you give a talk to be grilled. the grilling is the best part.

to be honest with you, even though i've done this before, this is pretty frightenting. this is gonna be tough. all this arguing about statistics pale in comparison. but i suppose this is in the spirit of the project of the book - we have to do things right by industry standards. if the views we propose are philosophically relevant, we can't just moonlight it. we have to talk to the experts and to try to win their approval.

so, wish me luck. this is the paper which i mentioned in a post back in August, where i promised we can talk about consciousness in robots and trees and whatnot too, by building a theory based on empirically plausible assumptions rather than some axioms based on one's own imagination. i will post it here after revising it based on the harsh criticisms i will no doubt face tonite.

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