Thursday, February 27, 2014

I'm Glad I'm Not Real

(by Amie L. Thomasson)

There once was a fictional character. And her name was May. May was four years old; or, at least that's what the story said. In fact, she had just been written quite recently "and so in that sense, I am a newborn fictional character" she liked to say. Especially when she was looking for a good excuse to curl up on the rug like a teeny tiny baby, suck her thumb, and bat at things in a homemade play gym.

Well May was a lovely little fictional character, bouncy, fun, very clever, and with an uncanny ability to eat olives. Put as many as you like in front of her, and they'd always be gone by the next page.

But still May was not happy, for although she appreciated the olives, she was lonely. "Why don't I have a mommy or daddy to take care of me?" she asked.

"But you do have a mother. I created you from words and pictures" her author said.

"That's NOT what I mean" the little girl sulked, and she slumped down right in the corner of the page, folding one edge over to hide herself.

"Oh alright then," the author said. And she made her a mother. A mother who loved her more than anything in the world, who taught her to paint and to laugh at herself, who sat on the floor for hours making zoos and block houses and earthquakes to destroy them. And she made her a father. A father with constant love and gentle patience, who taught her to bake banana bread and to play piano and to name every bird in the garden. And they were happy together.

They came to live in a book. A real hardcover book, with full color pictures and shiny pages. And the book came to be on the shelves of a little girl—a four year old girl, as it happens—by the name of Natalie. The various dragons and bears who lived in tatty second hand paperbacks on lower shelves really quite envied them.

Till one day, just before bedtime, Natalie spotted the book, sticking out slightly between a board book about ducklings and something involving a circus. What's this book? She asked. She had never seen it before. "I want to read it now! Can't we read it pleeeaaase?" She asked. "Well, it's a bit late," her mommy said, "but I guess we could read just this one." And they all plumped down on Natalie's fluffy red comforter, and her daddy began to read.

As they closed the book for the night, Natalie's mommy said, "well I'm glad little May got some parents and isn't lonely anymore." "But mooommmy," Natalie protested, "she's not REAL!" Oh yeah, admitted mommy, closing the book gently and turning out the light.

"I'm glad I'm real and not just in a book." said Natalie quietly as she curled up with her blanket.

"So am I, sweetheart," her mommy agreed as she kissed her soft cheek goodnight.

Well once the book was closed little May began to cry. "What does she MEAN I'm not real?" asked May who, like most children, had forgotten those muddled early days after she was first made, those days when she was lonely. Well, her mother explained, we are just characters in a book. We do what our author writes, there’s no more to us than she's given us, and we stay in the world of these pages.

But I want to get out of here! May protested. I want to be really REAL. I want to have toes (for these had never been seen in the pages). I want to know what happened when I was just two (for this had never been spoken of). And I want to go wherever I want to go, not where some author puts me! She railed. And she wept and she struggled and she stewed. Her mother cried a bit too, to see her daughter realizing these sad truths, but her daddy just held her hand.

You know, he said, since were not real, we'll never get sick (see: no sickness is ever mentioned). We'll never bump too hard off a slide. Or get bitten by mosquitoes.

And will no one ever steal the olives out of my lunch box? May wanted to know.

Nope, no one will ever steal the olives out of your lunchbox. Or your vanilla cookies either. And best of all, none of us will ever die—we can stay here together for always, loving each other in this book.

I'm glad we're not real, May decided. And she curled up in a corner of the page, sucking her thumb quietly, and went to sleep.


Extract from "I'm glad I'm not real" by Amie L. Thomasson, from The Philosophy Shop: Ideas, activities and questions to get people, young and old, thinking philosophically. Edited by Peter Worley (c)Peter Worley 2012. ISBN 9781781350492

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Case for Pessimism about General Theories of Consciousess

Recently, I've been arguing (e.g., here and here) that we should be skeptical about any general theory of consciousness, whether philosophical or scientific. Here's one way of putting the case.

When we advance a general theory of consciousness, we must do so on some combination of empirical grounds (especially the study of actual conscious systems here on Earth) and armchair reflection (especially thought experiments).

Our empirical grounds are very limited: We have only seen conscious systems as they exist on Earth. To draw, on these grounds, universal conclusions about how any conscious system must be structured would be a reckless leap, if our theories are really supposed to be driven by empirical tests on conscious animals, which could have come out either way. Who knows how those crucial theory-driving experiments would have come out on very differently constructed beings from Andromeda Galaxy?

A truly universal theory of consciousness seems more likely to succeed if it draws broadly from a range of hypothetical cases, abstracting away from empirical details of implementation on Earth. So we must sit in our armchairs. However, armchair reflection about the consciousness of hypothetical beings has two huge shortcomings:

  1. Experts in the field reach very different conclusions when asked to reflect on what sorts of hypothetical beings would be conscious (all the way from panpsychism to views that require highly sophisticated cognitive abilities).
  2. Our judgments about such cases must be grounded in some sort of prior knowledge, such as our experience of beings here on Earth and our developmentally and socially and evolutionarily favored beliefs. And there seems little reason to trust such judgments outside the run of normal cases, for example, about the consciousness or not of large group entities under various conditions.

If you are moved by these concerns, you might think that the appropriate response is to restrict our theory to consciousness as it appears on Earth. But even just thinking about consciousness on Earth drops us into a huge methodological dilemma. If we treat introspective reportability as something close to a necessary condition for consciousness, then we end up with a very sparse view of the distribution of consciousness on Earth. And maybe that's right! But it also seems reasonable to think that consciousness might be possible without introspective reportability, e.g., in dogs and babies. And then it becomes extremely unclear how we determine whether it is present without begging big theoretical questions. How could we possibly determine whether an ant is conscious without begging the question against people with very different views than our own?

Could we forget about non-human animals and babies and restrict our (increasingly less general) theory of consciousness just to adult humans? Even here, I incline toward pessimism, at least for the medium-term future.

One reason is this: I see no near-term way to resolve the question of whether consciousness abundantly outruns attention. I think I can imagine two very different possibilities here. One possibility is that I have constant tactile experience of my feet in my shoes, constant auditory experience of the hum of the refrigerator, etc., but when I'm not attending to such matters, that experience drops out of memory so quickly and is so lightly processed that it is unreportable. Another possibility is that I usually have no tactile experience whatsoever of my feet in my shoes or auditory experience of the hum of the fridge unless these things capture my attention for some reason. These possibilities seem substantively distinct, and it's easy to see how a proponent of one can create a methodological error theory to explain away the judgments of a proponent of the other.

Now maybe there's a way around these problems. Scientists have often found ingenious ways to embarrass earlier naysayers! But still, there's such a huge spread between the best neuroscientific approaches (e.g., Tononi and Dehaene) and such a huge spread between the best philosophical approaches (e.g., Chalmers and Dennett), that it's hard for me to envision a well-justified consensus emerging in my philosophical lifetime.

[HT Scott Bakker, who has been pushing me on these issues.]
[image source]

Friday, February 14, 2014

Might I Be a Cosmic Freak?

A "freak observer" or "Boltzmann brain" is a conscious being who did not arise in the normal way on a large, stable planet, but who instead congealed by freak chance out of chaos, due to a low-probability quantum or thermodynamic fluctuation -- a conscious being with rich seemingly sensory experience, rich seeming-memories, and capable of sophisticated thoughts or seeming-thoughts about itself and its position in the universe. By hypothesis, such a being is massively deluded about its past. And since random fluctuations are much likelier to create a relatively small system than a relatively large system, and since a relatively small system (such as a bare brain) amid chaos is doomed to a short existence, most freak observers will swiftly perish.

If certain cosmological theories are true, then almost all conscious systems are freak observers of this sort. Here's one such theory: There is exactly one universe which began with a unique Bang, which contains a finite number of ordinary non-freak observers, and which will eventually become thin chaos, enduring infinitely thereafter in a disorganized state. In any spacetime region there is a miniscule but finite chance of the spontaneous freak formation of any finite organized system, with smaller and less organized systems vastly more likely than larger and more organized systems. Given infinite time, the number of spontaneously formed freak observers will eventually vastly outnumber the normal observers. Whatever specific experiences and evidence I take myself now to have, according to this theory, to any finite degree of precision, there will be an infinite number of randomly generated Eric Schwitzgebel clones who have the same experiences and apparent evidence.

Can I prove that I am not a freak observer by counting "1, 2, 3, still here"? Seemingly no, for two reasons: (1.) By the time I reach "still here" I am relying on my memory of the "1, 2, 3", and the theory says that there will be an infinite number of freak observers with exactly that false memory. (2.) Even if assume knowledge of my continued existence for three seconds, there will be an infinite number of somewhat larger freak observers who congealed simultaneously with a large enough hunk of environment to exist for three seconds, doing that apparent count. If I am such a one, I will very likely perish soon, but it is not guaranteed that I will perish, and if I don't perish and thus conclude that I am not a freak I have ignored the overwhelming base rate of freaks to normal observers.

Suppose that given the physical evidence such a cosmology seems plausible, or some other cosmology in which freak observers vastly outnumber normal observers. Should I conclude I am probably a freak observer? It would be a strange conclusion to draw!

One interesting argument against this conclusion is the cognitive instability argument (Carroll 2010; Davenport & Olum 2010; Crawford 2013): Suppose that my grounds for believing that I am a freak observer are Physical Theory X, which I accept only conditionally upon believing that I have good empirical evidence for Physical Theory X. If I am a freak observer, then, contrary to the initial assumption, I do not have good empirical evidence for Physical Theory X. I have not, for example, despite my contrary impression, actually read any articles about X. If I seem to have good empirical evidence for Physical Theory X, I know already that that evidence is almost certainly misleading or wrongly interpreted -- either I do have the properly-caused body of evidence that I think I have, that is, I am not a freak, and that evidence is misleadingly pointing me to the wrong conclusion about my situation; or I am a freak and I don't have such a body of properly-caused evidence at all.

For this reason, I think it would be irrational to accept a cosmological theory that implies that almost all observers are freak observers and then conclude that therefore I am also a freak observer.

But a lower-confidence conclusion seems to be more cognitively stable. Suppose our best cosmological theory implies that 1% of observers are freaks. I might then accept that there is a non-trivial chance that I am one of the freaks. After all, my best understanding of the universe implies that there are such freaks, and I see no compelling reason to suppose that I couldn't be one of them.

Alternatively, maybe my best evidence should leave me undecided among lots of cosmologies, in some of which I'm a freak and in others of which I'm not. The possibility that I'm a freak undercuts my confidence in the evidence I seem to have for any specific cosmology, but that only adds to my indecision among the possibilities; it doesn't seem to compel elimination of the possibility that I am a freak.

Here's another way to think about it: As I sit here in my office, or seem to, and think about the scope of the cosmos, I find myself inclined to ascribe a non-trivial credence to some sort of very large or infinite cosmology, and also a non-trivial credence to the hypothesis that given enough time freak observers will spontaneously form, and also a non-trivial credence to the possibility that the freaks aren't vastly outnumbered by the normal observers. If I accept this conjunction of views, then it seems to me that I should also assign a bit of credence to the possibility that I am one of the freaks. To do otherwise would seem to commit me to near certainty on some proposition, such as about the relative nucleation rates of freaks vs. environments containing normal observers, that I wouldn't normally think of as something I know with near certainty.

Or maybe I should just take it as an absolutely certain "framework" assumption that I do have the kind of past I think I have, regardless of how many Eric-Schwitzgebelesque freaks the cosmos may contain? I can see how that might be a reasonable stance. But that approach has a dogmatic air that I find foreign.

If I allow that I'm not absolutely 100.0000000000000000000000000000% certain that I'm not a spontaneously formed freak observer, what sort of credence should I assign to the possibility that I am a freak? One in million? One in ten trillion? One in 10^100? I would like to go low! But I'm not sure that it's reasonable for me to go so low, once the possibility occurs to me and I start to consider my reasons pro and con. I'm inclined to think it is vastly less likely that I am a freak observer than that this ticket will win the one-in-ten-million Lotto jackpot -- but given the dubiety of cosmological theories and my inability to really assess them, should I perhaps be considerably less confident than that about my non-freakish position in the cosmos?

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Knowledge Without Belief and the Knowledge Norm of Assertion

Philosophers sometimes say that knowledge is a norm of assertion -- that a person should assert only what she knows. Since knowing some proposition P is usually taken to imply believing that same proposition P, commitment to a knowledge norm of assertion is generally thought to imply commitment to a belief norm of assertion: A person should assert only what she believes.

What happens, however, if one accepts, as I do, that knowledge that P does not imply belief that P? Can the belief norm be violated as long as the knowledge norm is satisfied? Bracketing, if we can, pragmatic and contextualist concerns (which I normally take quite seriously), is it acceptable to assert something one knows but does not believe?

I'm inclined to think it is.

Consider my favorite case of knowledge without belief (or at least without full, determinate belief), the prejudiced professor case:

Juliet, let’s suppose, is a philosophy professor who racially identifies as white. She has critically examined the literature on racial differences in intelligence, and she finds the case for racial equality compelling. She is prepared to argue coherently, sincerely, and vehemently for equality of intelligence and has argued the point repeatedly in the past. And yet Juliet is systematically racist in most of her spontaneous reactions, her unguarded behavior, and her judgments about particular cases. When she gazes out on class the first day of each term, she can’t help but think that some students look brighter than others – and to her, the black students never look bright. When a black student makes an insightful comment or submits an excellent essay, she feels more surprise than she would were a white or Asian student to do so, even though her black students make insightful comments and submit excellent essays at the same rate as do the others. And so on.
I am inclined to say, in such a case (assuming the details are fleshed out in plausible ways) that Juliet knows that all the races are equally intelligent, but her belief state is muddy and in-betweenish; it's not determinately correct to say that she believes it. Such in-between cases of belief require a more nuanced treatment than is permitted by straightforward ascription or denial of the belief. (I often analogize here to in-betweenish cases of having a personality trait like courage or extraversion.) Juliet determinately knows but does not determinately believe.

You might not accept this description of the case. My view about it is distinctly in the philosophical minority. However, suppose you grant my description. Is Juliet justified in asserting that all the races are equally intelligent, despite her not determinately believing that to be the case?

I'm inclined to think so. She has the evidence, she's taken her stand, she does not err when she asserts the proposition in debate, even if she cannot bring herself quite to live in a way consistent with determinately believing it to be so. However she is inclined spontaneously to respond to the world, the egalitarian proposition reflects her best, most informed judgment. Assertability in this sense tracks knowledge better than it tracks belief. She can properly assert despite not determinately believing.

Objection: "Moore's paradox" is the strangeness of saying things like "It's raining but I don't believe that it's raining". One might object to the above that I now seem to be committed to the assertability of Moore-paradoxical sentences like

(1.) All the races are intellectually equal but I don't (determinately) believe that they are.
Reply: I grant that (1) is not properly assertable in most contexts. Rather, what is properly assertable on my view is something like:
(2.) All the races are intellectually equal, but I accept Schwitzgebel's dispositional approach to belief and it is true in the terms of that theory that I do not determinately believe that all the races are intellectually equal.
The non-assertability of (1) flows from the fact that my dispositional approach to belief is not the standard conception of belief. If my view about belief were to become the standard view, then (1) would become assertable.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014


One reason I'm a fan of MIT Press (the publisher of both of my books) is that for an academic press their prices are very low (my 2011 book is currently $14.21 at Amazon) which means that a broader range of people can afford the book than if it were at another press. Another reason I'm a fan is that MIT has tended to be a leader in exploring new electronic media.

So it's very cool that they've chosen a chapter of my Perplexities of Consciousness for their BITS project, a new enterprise which allows people to electronically buy a portion of an MIT Press book for a low price ($2.99 in this case) and then later, if the reader wants, the whole book for 40% off list price. The chapter they've chosen is "When Your Eyes Are Closed, What Do You See?", which although it is the eighth and final chapter of my book, does not require that the reader know material from the previous chapters -- thus, a reasonable choice for a BIT.

What I'd really love to see down the road is a model where you can buy any selection of pages from a book for a nickel per page.