Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Against Intellectualism about Belief (Prefaced by a Celebration of Academic Articles in General)

I have finally received the final published PDF of my article "The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief". What a pleasure and relief. I poured so much time into that paper! I started presenting versions of it to academic audiences in 2015, including at two APAs and in colloquium talks or mini-conferences at nine different academic departments on three continents. It has been rewritten top to bottom several times and tweaked between, through probably about 100 different versions over six years.

Now there it is, the last chapter in The Fragmented Mind from Oxford University Press. How many people, I wonder, will read it?

I suspect that people outside of academia rarely understand how much work goes into research articles that relatively few people will read. In a way, it's a beautiful thing. There is so much energy, thought, and care in academic research! Every article, even the ones you might be inclined to dismiss as wrong-headed and foolish, is the long labor of someone who has excelled over many years of specialized education, usually through the PhD and beyond, dedicating their enormous talents to the issues discussed. Every article is a master's careful craftwork, an intricate machine into which a skilled specialist has poured their academic passion, usually for years. (Well, maybe not every article.)

This is why I loathe the casual dismissal of others' work, as well as the false and cynical view that far too much "junk" is published in academic journals these days.

Every year I publish a few articles, so in a sense this is just one more in a series. Maybe I'm inspired to these thoughts because this one has gone through more versions than average and taken longer than average.


This newest article is about what it is to believe. I set up a debate between "intellectualist" and "pragmatic" approaches to belief, and I argue in favor of the latter.

According to intellectualist approaches to belief, sincere endorsement of a statement is approximately sufficient for believing that statement. If you feel sincere when you say, "Women and men are intellectually equal" or "My children's happiness is far more important than their grades at school", then you believe those things, regardless of how you generally live your life.

According to pragmatic approaches to belief, what you believe isn't about what you are sincerely disposed to say. It's about how you live your life. If you say "women and men are intellectually equal" but you don't act and react accordingly -- if you tend implicitly to treat women as less intelligent, if you're readier to ascribe academic brilliance to a man, etc. -- then you don't really or fully have the belief you might think you have. If you say "my children's happiness is more important than their grades" but your day-to-day interactions with them display much more concern about their academic success than their mental health, then you don't really or fully have that belief.

Now that I've set things up this way, I hope you can already start to see why why a pragmatic approach is preferable, even if we often implicitly take the intellectualist approach for granted. But if you need some additional arguments, here are three:

(1.) The pragmatic approach better expresses our values. We care about what people believe because we care not just about what they sincerely say but even more importantly how they act in the world. The pragmatic approach thus accurately reflects what matters to us in belief ascription.

(2.) The pragmatic approach keeps philosophers' disciplinary focus in the right place. "Belief" plays a central role in philosophy of mind, epistemology, philosophy of action, philosophy of language, and philosophy of religion. If we make belief primarily about intellectual endorsements, then discussion of belief in these subfields is primarily about people's patterns of intellectual endorsement. If belief is instead about how you act and react generally, then our discipline, in continuing to use the term "belief" in central ways, keeps its focus on what is important.

(3.) The pragmatic approach discourages noxiously comfortable self-assessments by forcing us, when we think about what our beliefs are, to examine our behavior and implicit assumptions. We don't get to casually and comfortably say "oh, yes, of course I believe women and men are intellectually equal and that my children's happiness is more important than their grades", patting ourselves on the back for these admirable attitudes. Instead, if we really want to honestly say we genuinely believe these things, we will need to take a look at our general comportment toward the world, which might not be as handsome and consistent as we hope.

If you're curious to read more, the final manuscript version is here, or you can email me for the final PDF version, or you can buy the whole anthology when it finally appears in print in a week or two (or six?).

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

An Argument for the Existence of Borderline Cases of Consciousness

I aim to defend the existence of "borderline cases" of consciousness, cases in which it's neither determinately true nor determinately false that experience is present, but rather things stand somewhere in between.

The main objection against the existence of such cases is that they seem inconceivable: What would it be like to be in such a state, for example? As soon as you try to imagine what it's like, you seem to be imagining some experience or other -- and thus not imagining a genuinely indeterminate case. A couple of weeks ago on this blog, I argued that this apparent inconceivability is the result of an illegitimately paradoxical demand: the demand that we imagine or remember the determinate experiential qualities of something that does not determinately have any experiential qualities.

But defeating that objection against borderline cases of consciousness does not yet, of course, constitute any positive reason to think that borderline cases exist. I now have a new full-length draft paper on that topic here. I'd be interested to hear thoughts and concerns about that paper, if you have the time and interest.

As this week's blog post, I will adapt a piece of that paper that lays out the main positive argument.

[Escher's Day and Night (1938); image source]

To set up the main argument, first consider this quadrilemma concerning animal consciousness:

(1.) Human exceptionalism. Only human beings are determinately conscious.

(2.) Panpsychism. Everything is determinately conscious.

(3.) Saltation. There is a sudden jump between determinately nonconscious and determinately conscious animals, with no indeterminate, in-between cases.

(4.) Indeterminacy. Some animals are neither determinately nonconscious nor determinately conscious, but rather in the indeterminate gray zone between, in much the same way a color might be indeterminately in the zone between blue and green rather than being determinately either color.

For sake of today's post, I'll assume that you reject both panpsychism and human exceptionalism. Thus, the question is between saltation and indeterminacy.

Contra Saltation, Part One: Consciousness Is a Categorical Property with (Probably) a Graded Basis

Consider some standard vague-boundaried properties: baldness, greenness, and extraversion, for example. Each is a categorical property with a graded basis. A person is either determinately bald, determinately non-bald, or in the gray area between. In that sense, baldness is categorical. However, the basis or grounds of baldness is graded: number of hairs and maybe how long, thick, and robust those hairs are. If you have enough hair, you're not bald, but there's no one best place to draw the categorical line. Similarly, greenness and extraversion are categorical properties with graded bases that defy sharp-edged division.

Consider, in contrast, some non-vague properties, such as an electron's being in the ground orbital or not, or a number's being exactly equal to four or not. Being in the ground orbital is a categorical property without a graded basis. That's the "quantum" insight in quantum theory. Bracketing cases of superposition, the electron is either in this orbit, or that one, or that other one, discretely. There's discontinuity as it jumps, rather than gradations of close enough. Similarly, although the real numbers are continuous, a three followed by any finite number of nines is discretely different from exactly four. Being approximately four has a graded basis, but being exactly four is sharp-edged.

Most naturalistic theories of consciousness give consciousness a graded basis. Consider broadcast theories, like Dennett’s "fame in the brain" theory (similarly Tye 2000; Prinz 2012). On such views, a cognitive state is conscious if it is sufficiently "famous" in the brain – that is, if its outputs are sufficiently well-known or available to other cognitive processes, such as working memory, speech production, or long-term planning. Fame, of course, admits of degrees. How much fame is necessary for consciousness? And in what respects, to what systems, for what duration? There’s no theoretical support for positing a sharp, categorical line such that consciousness is determinately absent until there is exactly this much fame in exactly these systems (see Dennett 1998, p. 349; Tye 2000 p. 180-181).

Global Workspace Theories (Baars 1988; Dehaene 2014) similarly treat consciousness as a matter of information sharing and availability across the brain. This also appears to be a matter of degree. Even if typically once a process crosses a certain threshold it tends to quickly become very widely available in a manner suggestive of a phase transition, measured responses and brain activity are sometimes intermediate between standard "conscious" and "nonconscious" patterns. Looking at non-human cases, the graded nature of Global Workspace theories is even clearer. Even entities as neurally decentralized as jellyfish and snails employ neural signals to coordinate whole-body motions. Is that "workspace" enough for consciousness? Artificial systems, also, could presumably be designed with various degrees of centralization and information sharing among their subsystems. Again, there’s no reason to expect a bright line.

Or consider a very different class of theories, which treat animals as conscious if they have the right kinds of general cognitive capacities, such as "universal associative learning", trace conditioning, or ability to match opportunities with needs using a central motion-stabilized body-world interface organized around a sensorimotor ego-center. These too are capacities that come in degrees. How flexible, exactly, must the learning systems be? How long must a memory trace be capable of enduring in a conditioning task, in what modalities, under what conditions? How stable must the body-world interface be and how effective in helping match opportunities with needs? Once again, the categorical property of conscious versus nonconscious rests atop what appears to be a smooth gradation of degrees, varying both within and between species, as well as in evolutionary history and individual development.

Similarly, "higher-order" cognitive processes, self-representation, attention, recurrent feedback networks, even just having something worth calling a "brain" -- all of these candidate grounds of consciousness are either graded properties or are categorical properties (like having a brain) that are in turn grounded in graded properties with borderline cases. Different species have these properties to different degrees, as do different individuals within species, as do different stages of individuals during development. Look from one naturalistic theory to the next -- each grounds consciousness in something graded. Probably some such naturalistic theory is true. Otherwise, we are very much farther from a science of consciousness than even most pessimists are inclined to hope. On such views, an entity is conscious if it has enough of property X, where X depends on which theory is correct, and where "enough" is a vague matter. There are few truly sharp borders in nature.

I see two ways to resist this conclusion, which I will call the Phase Transition View and the Luminous Penny View.

Contra Saltation, Part Two: Against the Phase Transition View

Water cools and cools, not changing much, then suddenly it solidifies into ice. The fatigued wooden beam takes more and more weight, bending just a bit more with each kilogram, then suddenly it snaps and drops its load. On the Phase Transition View, consciousness is like that. The basis of consciousness might admit of degrees, but still there's a sharp and sudden transition between nonconscious and conscious states. When water is at 0.1° C, it's just ordinary liquid water. At 0.0°, something very different happens. When the Global Workspace (say) is size X-1, sure, there's a functional workspace where information is shared among subsystems, there's unified behavior of a sort, but no consciousness. When it hits X -- when there's that one last crucial neural connection, perhaps -- bam! Suddenly everything is different. The bright line has been crossed. There’s a phase transition. The water freezes, the beam snaps, consciousness illuminates the mind.

I'll present a caveat, a dilemma, and a clarification.

The caveat is: Of course the water doesn't instantly become ice. The rod doesn't instantly snap. If you zoom in close enough, there will be intermediate states. The same is likely true for the bases of consciousness on naturalistic views of the sort discussed above, unless those bases rely on genuine quantum-level discontinuities. Someone committed to the impossibility of borderline cases of consciousness even in principle, even for an instant, as a matter of metaphysical necessity, ought to pause here. If the phase transition from nonconscious to conscious needs to be truly instantaneous without a millisecond of in-betweenness, then it cannot align neatly with any ordinary, non-quantum, functional or neurophysiological basis. It will need, somehow, to be sharper-bordered than the natural properties that ground it.

The dilemma is: The Phase Transition View is either empirically unwarranted or it renders consciousness virtually epiphenomenal.

When water becomes ice, not only does it change from liquid to solid, but many of its other properties change. You can cut a block out of it. You can rest a nickel on it. You can bruise your toe when you drop it. When a wooden beam breaks, it emits a loud crack, the load crashes down, and you can now wiggle one end of the beam without wiggling the other. Phase transitions like this are notable because many properties change suddenly and in synchrony. But this does not appear always to happen with consciousness. That precipitates the dilemma.

There are phase transitions in the human brain, of course. One is the transition from sleeping to waking. Much changes quickly when you awaken. You open your eyes and gather more detail from the environment. Your EEG patterns change. You lay down long-term memories better. You start to recall plans from the previous day. However, this phase transition is not the phase transition between nonconscious and conscious, or at least not as a general matter, since you often have experiences in your sleep. Although people sometimes say they are "unconscious" when they are dreaming, that's not the sense of consciousness at issue here, since dreaming is an experiential state. There's something it’s like to dream. Perhaps there is a phase transition between REM sleep, associated with longer, narratively complex dreams, and nREM sleep. But that probably isn't the division between conscious and nonconscious either, since people often also report dream experiences during nREM sleep. Similarly, the difference between being under general anesthesia and being in an ordinary waking state doesn't appear to map neatly onto a sharp conscious/nonconscious distinction, since people can apparently sometimes be conscious under general anesthesia and there appear to be a variety of intermediate states and dissociable networks that don't change instantly and in synchrony, even if there are also often rapid phase transitions.

While one could speculate that all of the subphases and substates of sleep and anesthesia divide sharply into determinately conscious and determinately nonconscious, the empirical evidence does not provide positive support for such a view. The Phase Transition View, to the extent it models itself on water freezing and beams breaking, is thus empirically unsupported in the human case. Sometimes there are sudden phase transitions in the brain. However, the balance of evidence does not suggest that falling asleep or waking, starting to dream or ceasing to dream, falling into anesthesia or rising out of it, is always a sharp transition between conscious and nonconscious, where a wide range of cognitive and neurophysiological properties change suddenly and in synchrony. The Phase Transition View, if intended as a defense of saltation, is committed to a negative existential generalization: There can be no borderline cases of consciousness. This is a very strong claim, which fits at best uneasily with the empirical data.

Let me emphasize that last point, by way of clarification. The Phase Transition View, as articulated here with respect to the question of whether borderline consciousness is possible at all, that is, whether borderline consciousness ever exists, is much bolder than any empirical claim that transitions from nonconscious to conscious states are typically phase-like. The argument here in no way conflicts with empirical claims by, for example, Lee et al. (2011) and Dehaene (2014) that phase transitions are typical and important in a person or cognitive process transitioning from nonconscious to conscious.

The Phase Transition View looks empirically even weaker when we consider human development and non-human animals. It could have been the case that when we look across the animal kingdom we see something like a "phase transition" between animals with and without consciousness. These animals over here have the markers of consciousness and a wide range of corresponding capacities, and those animals over there do not, with no animals in the middle. Instead, nonhuman animals have approximately a continuum of capacities. Similarly, in human development we could have seen evidence for a moment when the lights turn on, so to speak, in the fetus or the infant, consciousness arrives, and suddenly everything is visibly different. But there is no evidence of such a saltation.

That's the first horn of the dilemma for the Phase Transition View: Accept that the sharp transition between nonconscious and conscious should be accompanied by the dramatic and sudden change of many other properties, then face the empirical evidence that the conscious/nonconscious border does not always involve a sharp, synchronous, wide-ranging transition. The Phase Transition View can escape by retreating to the second horn of the dilemma, according to which consciousness is cognitively, behaviorally, and neurophysiologically unimportant. On second-horn Phase Transition thinking, although consciousness always transitions sharply and dramatically, nothing else need change much. The lights turn on, but the brain need hardly change at all. The lights turn on, but there need be no correspondingly dramatic change in memory, or attention, or self-knowledge, or action planning, or sensory integration, or.... All of the latter still change slowly or asynchronously, in accord with the empirical evidence.

This view is unattractive for at least three reasons. First, it dissociates consciousness from its naturalistic bases. We began by thinking that consciousness is information sharing or self-representation or whatever, but now we are committed to saying that consciousness can change radically in a near-instant, while information sharing or self-representation or whatever hardly changes at all. Second, it dissociates consciousness from the evidence for consciousness. The evidence for consciousness is, presumably, performance on introspective or other cognitive tasks, or neurophysiological conditions associated with introspective reports and cognitive performance; but now we are postulating big changes in consciousness that elude such methods. Third, most readers, I assume, think that consciousness is important, not just intrinsically but also for its effects on what you do and how you think. But now consciousness seems not to matter so much.

The Phase Transition View postulates a sharp border, like the change from liquid to solid, where consciousness always changes suddenly, with no borderline cases. It's this big change that precipitates the dilemma, since either the Phase Transition advocate should also expect there always also to be sudden, synchronous cognitive and neurophysiological changes (in conflict with the most natural reading of the empirical evidence) or they should not expect such changes (making consciousness approximately epiphenomenal).

The saltationist can attempt to escape these objections by jettisoning the idea that the sharp border involves a big change in consciousness. It might instead involve the discrete appearance of a tiny smidgen of consciousness. This is the Luminous Penny View.

Contra Saltation, Part Three: Against the Luminous Penny View

Being conscious might be like having money. You might have a little money, or you might have a lot of money, but having any money at all is discretely different from having not a single cent. [Borderline cases of money are probably possible, but disregard that for sake of the example.] Maybe a sea anemone has just a tiny bit of consciousness, a wee flicker of experience -- at one moment a barely felt impulse to withdraw from something noxious, at another a general sensation of the current sweeping from right to left. Maybe that’s $1.50 of consciousness. You, in contrast, might be a consciousness millionaire, with richly detailed consciousness in several modalities at once. However, both you and the anemone, on this view, are discretely different from an electron or a stone, entirely devoid of consciousness. Charles Siewert imagines the visual field slowly collapsing. It shrinks and shrinks until nothing remains but a tiny gray dot in the center. Finally, the dot winks out. In this way, there might be a quantitative difference between lots of visual consciousness and a minimum of it, and then a discontinuous qualitative difference between the minimum possible visual experience and none at all.

On the Luminous Penny View, there is a saltation from nonconscious to conscious in the sense that there are no in-between states in which consciousness is neither determinately present nor determinately absent. Yet the saltation is to such an impoverished state of consciousness that it is almost empirically indistinguishable from lacking consciousness. Analogously, in purchasing power, having a single penny is almost empirically indistinguishable from complete bankruptcy. Still, that pennysworth of consciousness is the difference between the "lights being on", so to speak, and the lights being off. It is a luminous penny.

The view escapes the empirical concerns that face the Phase Transition View, since we ought no longer expect big empirical consequences from the sudden transition from nonconscious to conscious. However, the Luminous Penny View faces a challenge in locating the lower bound of consciousness, both for states and for animals. Start with animals. What kind of animal would have only a pennysworth of consciousness? A lizard, maybe? That seems an odd view. Lizards have fairly complex visual capacities. If they are visually conscious at all, it seems natural to suppose that their visual consciousness would approximately match their visual capacities -- or at least that there would be some visual complexity, more than the minimum possible, more than Siewert's tiny gray dot. It's equally odd to suppose that a lizard would be conscious without having visual consciousness. What would its experience be? A bare minimal striving, even simpler than the states imaginatively attributed the anemone a few paragraphs back? A mere thought of "here, now"?

More natural is to suppose that if a lizard is determinately conscious, it has more than the most minimal speck of consciousness. To find the minimal case, we must then look toward simpler organisms. How about ants? Snails? The argument repeats: These entities have more than minimal sensory capacities, so if they are conscious it’s reasonable to suppose that they have sensory experience with some detail, more than a pennysworth. Reasoning of this sort leads David Chalmers to a panpsychist conclusion: The simplest possible consciousness requires the simplest possible sensory system, such as the simple too-cold/okay of a thermostat.

The Luminous Penny View thus faces its own dilemma: Either slide far down the scale of complexity to a position nearly panpsychist or postulate the existence of some middle-complexity organism that possesses a single dot of minimal consciousness despite having a wealth of sensory sensitivity.

Perhaps the problem is in the initial move of quantifying consciousness, that is, in the commitment to saying that complex experiences somehow involve "more" consciousness than simple experiences? Maybe! But if you drop that assumption, you drop the luminous penny solution to the problem of saltation.

State transitions in adult humans raise a related worry. We have plausibly nonconscious states on one side (perhaps dreamless sleep), indisputably conscious states on the other side (normal waking states), and complex transitional states between them that lack the kind of simple structure one might expect to produce exactly a determinate pennysworth of consciousness and no more.

If consciousness requires sophisticated self-representational capacity (as, for example, on "higher order" views), lizard or garden snail consciousness is presumably out of the question. But what kind of animal, in what kind of state, would have exactly one self-representation of maximally simple content? (Only always "I exist" and nothing more?) Self-representational views fit much better with either phase transition views (if phase transition views could be empirically supported) or with gradualist views that allow for periods of indeterminacy as self-representational capacities slowly take shape and, to quote Wittgenstein, "light dawns gradually over the whole" (Wittgenstein 1951/1969, §141).

If you’re looking for a penny, ask a panpsychist (or a near cousin of a panpsychist, such as an Integrated Information Theorist). Maximally simple systems are the appropriate hunting grounds for maximally simple consciousness, if such a thing as maximally simple consciousness exists at all. From something as large, complicated, and fuzzy-bordered as brain processes, we ought to expect either large, sudden phase transitions or the gradual fade-in of something much richer than a penny.

Full manuscript:

Borderline Consciousness, When It's Neither Determinately True nor Determinately False That Consciousness Is Present.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Top Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazines 2021

image of alien invasion

[updated 10:35 a.m.]

Since 2014, I've compiled an annual ranking of science fiction and fantasy magazines, based on prominent awards nominations and "best of" placements over the previous ten years. Below is my list for 2021. (For all previous lists, see here.)

Method and Caveats:

(1.) Only magazines are included (online or in print), not anthologies, standalones, or series.

(2.) I gave each magazine one point for each story nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Eugie, or World Fantasy Award in the past ten years; one point for each story appearance in any of the Dozois, Horton, Strahan, Clarke, or Adams "year's best" anthologies; and half a point for each story appearing in the short story or novelette category of the annual Locus Recommended list. (In 2021, two of the "year's bests" are based on their tentative Table of Contents.)

(3.) I am not attempting to include the horror / dark fantasy genre, except as it appears incidentally on the list.

(4.) Prose only, not poetry.

(5.) I'm not attempting to correct for frequency of publication or length of table of contents.

(6.) I'm also not correcting for a magazine's only having published during part of the ten-year period. Reputations of defunct magazines slowly fade, and sometimes they are restarted. Reputations of new magazines take time to build.

(7.) I take the list down to 1.5 points.

(8.) I welcome corrections.

(9.) I confess some ambivalence about rankings of this sort. They reinforce the prestige hierarchy, and they compress interesting complexity into a single scale. However, the prestige of a magazine is a socially real phenomenon that deserves to be tracked, especially for the sake of outsiders and newcomers who might not otherwise know what magazines are well regarded by insiders when considering, for example, where to submit.


1. (186.5 points) 

2. Clarkesworld (174) 

3. Asimov's (171.5) 

4. Lightspeed (133.5) 

5. Fantasy & Science Fiction (130.5) 

6. Uncanny (93) (started 2014) 

7. Analog (59.5) 

8. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (58) 

9. Subterranean (49) (ceased short fiction 2014) 

10. Strange Horizons (45) 

11. Interzone (30.5) 

12. Nightmare (29.5) 

13. Apex (28) 

14. Fireside (17) 

15. Slate / Future Tense (15.5) 

16. Fantasy Magazine (14) (occasional special issues during the period, fully relaunched in 2020) 

17. The Dark (10.5) (started 2013) 

18t. FIYAH (9.5) (started 2017) 

18t. The New Yorker (9.5) 

20t. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (7) 

20t. McSweeney's (7) 

22t. Sirenia Digest (6) 

22t. Tin House (6) (ceased short fiction 2019) 

24. Black Static (5.5) 

25t. GigaNotoSaurus (5) 

25t. Shimmer (5) (ceased 2018) 

27t. Conjunctions (4.5) 

27t. Omni (4.5) (briefly relaunched 2017-2018) 

27t. Terraform (4.5) (started 2014) 

30t. Boston Review (4) 

*30t. Wired (4)

*32. Diabolical Plots (3.5) (started 2015)

33t. Electric Velocipede (3) (ceased 2013) 

33t. Kaleidotrope (3) 

33t. B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog (3) (started 2014)

33t. Beloit Fiction Journal (2.5) 

33t. Buzzfeed (2.5) 

33t. Harper's (2.5) 

33t. Matter (2.5) 

33t. Paris Review (2.5) 

33t. Weird Tales (2.5) (off and on throughout the period)

42t. Daily Science Fiction (2) 

42t. Future Science Fiction Digest (2) (started 2018) 

42t. Mothership Zeta (2) (ran 2015-2017) 

*42t. Omenana (2) (started 2014) 

*46t. Anathema (2) (started 2017)

46t. e-flux journal (1.5) 

46t. Flurb (1.5) (ceased 2012) 

46t. Intergalactic Medicine Show (1.5) (ceased 2019) 

46t. MIT Technology Review (1.5) 

46t. New York Times (1.5) 

*46t. Translunar Travelers Lounge (1.5) (started 2019)

[* indicates new to the list this year]



(1.) The New Yorker, McSweeney's, Tin House, Conjunctions, Boston Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Harper's, Matter, and Paris Review are literary magazines that occasionally publish science fiction or fantasy.  Slate and Buzzfeed are popular magazines, and Omni, Wired, and MIT Technology Review are popular science magazines, which publish a bit of science fiction on the side. e-flux is a wide-ranging arts journal. The New York Times is a well-known newspaper that ran a series of "Op-Eds from the Future" from 2019-2020.  The remaining magazines focus on the F/SF genre.

(2.) It's also interesting to consider a three-year window. Here are those results, down to six points:

1. (59.5)

2. Uncanny (51.5)

3. Clarkesworld (39.5)

4. Lightspeed (38.5)

5. F&SF (32.5)

6. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (21)

7. Asimov's (16.5) 

8. Nightmare (16)

9. Analog (16)

10. Fireside (15)

11. Slate / Future Tense (13)

12. Apex (11.5)

13. Strange Horizons (11)

14. FIYAH (9)

15. The Dark (6)

(3.) For the first time since I started keeping records, Asimov's is not in the top spot.  The trend has been clear for several years, with the classic "big three" print magazines -- Asimov's, F&SF, and Analog -- slowly being displaced in influence by the four leading free online magazines,, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny (all founded 2006-2014).  Presumably, a large part of the explanation is that there are more readers of free online fiction than of paid subscription magazines, which is attractive to authors and probably also helps with voter attention for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

(4.) Left out of these numbers are some terrific podcast venues such as the Escape Artists' podcasts (Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders), Drabblecast, and StarShipSofa. None of these qualify for my list by existing criteria, but podcasts are also important venues.

(5.) Other lists: The SFWA qualifying markets list is a list of "pro" science fiction and fantasy venues based on pay rates and track records of strong circulation. is a regularly updated list of markets, divided into categories based on pay rate.

[image source]

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

On the Apparent Inconceivability of Borderline Cases of Consciousness

Let's call a state or process a borderline case of consciousness if it is in the indeterminate gray zone between being a conscious state or process and being a nonconscious state or process. Consider gastropods, for example. Is there something it's like to be a garden snail? Or is there nothing it's like? If borderline consciousness is possible then there's a possibility between those two: the possibility that there's kind of something it's like. Consider other vague predicates or properties, such as greenness and baldness. Between determinate baldness and determinate non-baldness is a gray zone of being kind of bald. Between determinate greenness and determinate non-greenness there's a range of kind of greenish shades, with no sharp, dichotomous boundary. Might consciousness be like that? Might some organisms in that in-betweenish zone?

For a human case, consider waking from anaesthesia or dreamless sleep. Before you wake you are (let's suppose) determinately nonconscious. At some point, you are determinately conscious, though maybe still feeling confused and hazy-minded, still getting your bearings. Must the transition between the nonconscious and the conscious state always be sharp? Or might there be some cases in which you are only kind of conscious, i.e., there's only kind of something it's like to be you?

We need to be careful about the concept of "consciousness" here. You might be only half-aroused and not fully coherent, responsible, or knowledgeable of your location in time and space. Such a confused state has a certain familiar phenomenal character. But that is not a borderline case of consciousness in the intended sense. If you are determinately having a stream of confused experience, then you are determinately conscious in the standard philosophical sense of "conscious". (For a fuller definition of "conscious", see here.). An in-between, borderline case would have to be a case in which it's neither quite right to say that you are having confused experiences nor quite right to say that you aren't.

It is commonly objected that borderline cases of consciousness are inconceivable. (Michael Antony and Jonathan Simon offer sophisticated versions of this objection.) We can imagine that there's something it's like to be a particular garden snail at a particular moment, or we can imagine that there's nothing it's like, but it seems impossible to imagine its kind of like being something. How might such an in-between state feel, for the snail? As soon as we try to answer that question, we seem forced either to say that it wouldn't feel like anything or to contemplate various types of conscious experiences the snail might have. We can imagine the snail's having some flow of experience, however limited, or we can imagine the snail to be an experiential blank. But we can't in the same way imagine some in-between state such that it's neither determinately the case that the snail has conscious experiences nor determinately the case that the snail lacks conscious experiences. The lights are, so to speak, either on or off, and even a dim light is a light.

Similarly, as soon as we try to imagine the transition between dreamless sleep and waking, we start to imagine waking experiences, or confused half-awake experiences, that is, experiences of some sort or other. We imagine that it's like nothing - nothing - nothing - something - something - something. Between nothing and something is no middle ground of half-something. A half-something is already a something. Borderline consciousness, it seems, must already be a kind of consciousness unless it is no consciousness at all.

I'm inclined to defend the existence of borderline consciousness. Yet I grant the intuitive appeal of the reasoning above. Before admitting the existence of borderline cases of consciousness, we want to know what such a borderline state would be like. We want a sense of it, a feel for it. We want to remember some borderline experiences of our own. Before accepting that a snail might be borderline conscious, neither determinately lights-on nor determinately lights-off, we want at least a speculative gesture toward the experiential character of such in-betweenish phenomenology.

Although I feel the pull of this way of thinking, it is a paradoxical demand. It's like the Catch-22 of needing to complete a form to prove that you're incompetent, the completing of which proves that you're competent. It's like demanding that the borderline shade of only-kind-of-green must match some sample of determinate green before you're willing to acept that it's a borderline shade that doesn't match any such sample. An implicit standard of conceivability drives the demand, which it is impossible to meet without self-contradiction.

The implicit standard appears to be this: Before granting the existence of borderline consciousness, we want to be able to imagine what it would be like to be in such a state. But of course there is not anything determinate it is like to be in such a state! The more we try to imagine what it would be like, the worse we miss our target. If you look through a filter that shows only determinately bald people, you won't see anyone who is borderline bald. But you shouldn't conclude that no borderline bald people exist. The fault is in the filter. The fault is in the imaginative demand.

In another sense, borderline cases of consciousness are perfectly conceivable. They're not like four-sided triangles. There's no self-contradiction in the very idea. If you're unhappy with your inability to imagine them, it could be just that you desire something that you can't reasonably expect to have. The proper response might be to shed the desire.

A philosophically inclinded middle-schooler, on their first introduction to imaginary numbers, might complain that they can't conceive of a number whose square is -1. What is this strange thing? It fits nowhere on the number line. You can't hold 3i pebbles. You can't count 3i sheep. So called "imaginary numbers" might seem to this middle-schooler to be only an empty game with no proper reference. And yet there is no contradiction in the mathematics. We can use imaginary numbers. We can even frame physical laws in terms of them, as in quantum mechanics. In a certain way, imaginary numbers are, despite their name, unimaginable. But the implicit criterion of imagination at work -- picturing 3i sheep, for example -- is inappropriate to the case.

We can conceive of borderline cases of consciousness, in a weaker sense, by forming a positive conception of clear cases of consciousness (such as regular waking consciousness and such as the experience of feeling disoriented after waking) and by imagining in a different way, not from the inside, cases in which consciousness is determinately absent (such as dreamless sleep), and then by gesturing toward the possibility of something between. There is, I think, good reason to suppose that there are such in-between, borderline states. Nature is rarely sharply discontinuous. On almost every theory of consciousness, the phenomena of consciousness are grounded in states of the brain that aren't sharp-boundaried. (I'm working on an article that defends this view at length, which I hope to have in circulating shape soon.) This is fairly abstract way of conceiving of such states, but it is a conception.

If borderline cases were common enough and important enough in human life, we might grow accustomed to the idea and even develop an ordinary language term for them. We might say, "ah yes, one of those jizzy states, in the intermediate zone betweeen consciousness and nonconsciousness." But we have no need for such a concept in everyday life. We care little about and needn't track borderline cases. We can afford to be loose in talking about gradual awakenings. Similarly for nonhuman animals. For everyday purposes, we can adequately enough imagine them either as determinately conscious or as nonconscious machines. There has never been a serious linguistic pressure toward an accurate heterophenomenology of nonhuman animals, much less a heterophenomenology with a dedicated label for in-between conditions.

Thus, if we accept the existence of borderline cases of consciousness on general theoretical grounds, as I'm inclined to think we should, we will need to reconcile ourselves with a certain sort of dissatisfaction. It's incoherent to attempt to imagine, in any determinate way, what it would be like to be in such a state, since there's nothing determinate it would be like. So first-person imaginative transportation and phenomenological memory won't give us a good handle on the idea. Nor do we have a well-developed science of consciousness to explain them or an ordinary folk concept of them that can make us comfortable with their existence through repeated use.

It's understandable to want more. But from the fact that I cannot seize the culprit and display their physiognomy, it does not follow that the jewels were stolen by no one.

[image source]