Thursday, October 28, 2021

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

New Book in Draft: The Weirdness of the World

... huzzah!

I would really appreciate constructive critical comments from anyone who is interested. The book is intended primarily for academic philosophers but should also mostly be comprehensible to non-specialists who enjoy my blog.

Each chapter of the book is mostly freestanding (most are based on previously published articles), so if you're interested, you can dive straight to the part that interests you instead of feeling like you need to read from the beginning.

Anyone who provides valuable comments will of course be thanked in the acknowledgements.  Anyone doughty enough to provide comments on the whole book will receive a free copy of the published book, with my thanks.

Draft available here.

[image source]


Introductory Chapter

In Praise of Weirdness

The weird sisters, hand in hand,

Posters of the sea and land,

Thus do go about, about:

Thrice to thine and thrice to mine

And thrice again, to make up nine.

Peace! the charm’s wound up

            (Macbeth, Act I, scene iii)


Weird often saveth

The undoomed hero if doughty his valor!

            (Beowulf, X.14-15, trans. L. Hall)


The word “weird” reaches deep back into old English, originally as a noun for fate or magic, later as an adjective for the uncanny or peculiar.  By the 1980s, it had fruited as the choicest middle-school insult against unstylish kids like me who spent their free time playing with figurines of wizards and listening to obscure science fiction radio shows.  If the “normal” is the conventional, ordinary, predictable, and readily understood, the weird is what defies that.

The world is weird.  It wears mismatched thrift-shop clothes, births wizards and monsters, and all of the old science fiction radio shows are true.  Our changeable, culturally specific sense of normality is no rigorous index of reality.

One of the weirdest things about Earth is that certain complex bags of mostly water can pause to reflect on the most fundamental questions there are.  We can philosophize to the limits of our comprehension and peer into the fog beyond those limits.  We can think about the foundations of the foundations of the foundations, even with no clear method and no great hope of an answer.  In this respect, we vastly out-geek bluebirds and kangaroos.


1. What I Will Argue in This Book.

Consider three huge questions: What is the fundamental structure of the cosmos?  How does human consciousness fit into it?  What should we value?  What I will argue in this book – with emphasis on the first two questions, but also sometimes drawing implications for the third – is (1.) the answers are currently beyond our capacity to know, and (2.) we do nonetheless know at least this: Whatever the truth is, it’s weird.  Careful reflection will reveal all of the viable theories on these grand topics to be both bizarre and dubious.  In Chapter 3 (“Universal Bizarreness and Universal Dubiety”), I will call this the Universal Bizarreness thesis and the Universal Dubiety thesis.  Something that seems almost too crazy to believe must be true, but we can’t resolve which of the various crazy-seeming options is ultimately correct.  If you’ve ever wondered why every wide-ranging, foundations-minded philosopher in the history of Earth has held bizarre metaphysical or cosmological views (each philosopher holding, seemingly, a different set of bizarre views), Chapter 3 offers an explanation.

I will argue that given our weak epistemic position, our best big-picture cosmology and our best theories of consciousness are tentative, modish, and strange.

Strange: As I will argue, every approach to cosmology and consciousness has bizarre implications that run strikingly contrary to mainstream “common sense”.

Tentative: As I will also argue, epistemic caution is warranted, partly because theories on these topics run so strikingly contrary to common sense and also partly because they test the limits of scientific inquiry.  Indeed, dubious assumptions about the fundamental structure of mind and world frame or undergird our understanding of the nature and value of scientific inquiry, as I discuss in Chapters 4 (“1% Skepticism”), 5 (“Kant Meets Cyberpunk”), and 7 (“Experimental Evidence for the Existence of an External World”).

Modish: On a philosopher’s time scale – where a few decades ago is “recent” and a few decades hence is “soon” – we live in a time of change, with cosmological theories and theories of consciousness rising and receding based mainly on broad promise and what captures researchers’ imaginations.  We ought not trust that the current range of mainstream academic theories will closely resemble the range in a hundred years, much less the actual truth.

Even the common garden snail defies us (Chapter 9, “Is There Something It’s Like to Be a Garden Snail?”).  Does it have experiences?  If so, how much and of what kind?  In general, how sparse or abundant is consciousness in the universe?  Is consciousness – feelings and experiences of at least the simplest, least reflective kind – cheap and common, maybe even ubiquitous?  Or is consciousness rare and expensive, requiring very specific conditions in the most sophisticated organisms?  Our best scientific and philosophical theories conflict sharply on these questions, spanning a huge range of possible answers, with no foreseeable resolution.

The question of consciousness in near-future computers or robots similarly defies resolution, but with arguably more troubling consequences: If constructions of ours might someday possess humanlike emotions and experiences, that creates moral quandaries and puzzle cases for which our ethical intuitions and theories are unprepared.  In a century, the best ethical theories of 2022 might seem as quaint and inadequate as medieval physics applied to relativistic rocketships (Chapter 10, “The Moral Status of Future Artificial Intelligence: Doubts and a Dilemma”).


2. Varieties of Cosmological Weirdness.

To establish that the world is cosmologically bizarre, maybe all that is needed is relativity theory and quantum mechanics.

According to relativity theory, if your twin accelerates away from you at nearly light speed then returns, much less time will have passed for the traveler than for you who stayed here on Earth – the so-called Twin Paradox.  According to quantum mechanics, if you observe the decay of a uranium atom, there’s also an equally real, equally existing version of you in another “world” who shares your past but who observed the atom not to have decayed.  Or maybe your act of observation caused the decay, or maybe some other strange thing is true, depending on your favored interpretation of quantum mechanics.  Oddly enough, the many-worlds hypothesis appears to be the most straightforward interpretation of quantum mechanics.[1]  If we accept that view, then the cosmos contains a myriad of slightly different, equally real worlds each containing different versions of you and your friends and everything you know, each splitting off from a common history.

The cosmos might also be infinite: There is no evidence of a spatial boundary to it, no positive reason to think there is a spatial limit, and topologically, at the largest observable scales, it appears to be flat rather than curving back around upon itself.[2]  The tiny little 93-billion-light-year diameter speck that we can observe might be the merest dot in a literally endless expanse.  If so, and if a few other plausible-seeming assumptions hold (such as that we occupy a not-too-exceptional region of cosmos, that our emergence was not infinitesimally improbable, and that across infinite space every finitely probable event is instantiated somewhere) then somewhere out there, presumably far, far beyond the borders of what we can see, are myriad entities molecule-for-molecule identical to us down to a tiny fraction of a Planck-length – duplicates of you, your friends, and all Earth, living out every finitely probable future.  Furthermore, if your actions here can have effects that ripple unendingly through the cosmos, you can even wave your hand in such a way that a future duplicate of you will have the thought “I’ve been waved at by a past duplicate of myself!” partly as a result of that hand wave.[3]  (Here I pause in my writing to wave out the window at future duplicates of myself.)

I won’t dwell on those particular cosmological weirdnesses, since they are familiar to academic readers and well-handled elsewhere (for example, in recent books by Sean Carroll, Brian Greene, and Max Tegmark).[4]  However, some equally fundamental cosmological issues are typically addressed by philosophers rather than scientific cosmologists.

One is the possibility that the cosmos is nowhere near as large as we ordinarily assume – perhaps just you and your immediate environment (Chapter 4) or perhaps even just your own mind and nothing else (Chapter 7).  Although these possibilities might not be likely, they are worth considering seriously, to assess how confident we ought to be in their falsity and on what grounds.  I will argue that it’s reasonable not to entirely dismiss such skeptical possibilities.

Another is the possibility that we live inside a simulated reality or a pocket universe, embedded in a much larger structure about which we know virtually nothing (Chapters 4 and 5).  Still another is that our experience of three-dimensional spatiality is a product of our own minds that doesn’t reflect the underlying structure of reality (Chapter 5) or maps only loosely onto it (Chapter 8 “The Loose Friendship of Visual Experience and Reality”).

Still another set of questions concerns the relationship of mind to cosmos.  Is conscious experience abundant in the universe, or does it require the delicate coordination of rare events (Chapter 9)?  Is consciousness purely a matter of having the right physical structure, or might it require something nonphysical (Chapter 3)?  Under what conditions might a group of organisms give rise to group-level consciousness (Chapter 2, “If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious”)?  What would it take to build a conscious machine, if that is possible at all – and what ought we to do if we don’t know whether we have succeeded (Chapter 10)?  In each of our heads are about as many neurons as stars in the galaxy, and each neuron is arguably more structurally complex than any star system that does not contain life.  There is as much complexity and mystery inside as out.

I will argue that in these matters, neither common sense, nor early 21st-century empirical science, nor armchair philosophical theorizing is entirely trustworthy.  The rational response is to distribute your credence across a wide range of bizarre options.


3. Philosophy That Closes Versus Philosophy That Opens.

You are reading a philosophy book – voluntarily, let’s suppose.  Why?  What do you like about philosophy?  Some people like philosophy because they believe it reveals profound, fundamental truths about the one way the world is and the one right manner to live.  Others like the beauty of grand philosophical systems.  Still others like the clever back-and-forth of philosophical combat.  What I like most is none of these.  I love philosophy best when it opens my mind – when it reveals ways the world could be, possible approaches to life, lenses through which I might see and value things around me, which I might not otherwise have considered.

Philosophy can aim to open or to close.  Suppose you enter Philosophical Topic X imagining three viable possibilities, A, B, and C.  The philosophy of closing aims to reduce the three to one.  It aims to convince you that possibility A is correct and the others wrong.  If it succeeds, you know the truth about Topic X: A is the answer!  In contrast, the philosophy of opening aims to add new possibilities to the mix – possibilities that you maybe hadn’t considered before or had considered but too quickly dismissed.  Instead of reducing three to one, three grows to maybe five, with new possibilities D and E.  We can learn by addition as well as subtraction.  We can learn that the range of viable possibilities is broader than we had assumed.

For me, the greatest philosophical thrill is realizing that something I’d long taken for granted might not be true, that some “obvious” apparent truth is in fact doubtable – not just abstractly and hypothetically doubtable, but really, seriously, in-my-gut doubtable.  The ground shifts beneath me.  Where I’d thought there would be floor, there is instead open space I hadn’t previously seen.  My mind spins in new, unfamiliar directions.  I wonder, and wondrousness seems to coat the world itself.  The world expands, bigger with possibility, more complex, more unfathomable.  I feel small and confused, but in a good way.

Let’s test the boundaries of the best current work in science and philosophy.  Let’s launch ourselves at questions monstrously large and formidable.  Let’s contemplate these questions carefully, with serious scholarly rigor, pushing against the edge of human knowledge.  That is an intrinsically worthwhile activity, worth some of our time in a society generous enough to permit us such time, even if the answers elude us.


4. To Non-Specialists: An Invitation and Apology.

I will try to write plainly and accessibly enough that most readers who have come this far can follow me.  I think it is both possible and important for academic philosophy to be comprehensible to non-specialists.  But you should know also that I am writing primarily for my peers – fellow experts in epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of cosmology.  There will be slow and difficult patches, where the details matter.  Most of the chapters are based on articles published in technical philosophy journals – articles revised, updated, and integrated into what I hope is an intriguing overall vision.  These articles have been lengthened and deepened, not shortened and simplified.  The chapters are designed mostly to stand on their own, with cross-references to each other.  If you find yourself slogging, please feel free to skip ahead.  I’d much rather you skip the boring parts than that you drop the book entirely.

My middle-school self who used dice and thrift-shop costumes to imagine astronauts and wizards is now a fifty-three-year old who uses 21st century science and philosophy to imagine the shape of the cosmos and the magic of consciousness.  Join me!  If doughty our valor, the weird may saveth us.

[continue here]

[1] Greene 2011; Wallace 2012; Carroll 2019.  For a review of the leading interpretations, see Maudlin 2019.

[2] Vardanyan, Trotta, and Silk 2011; Tegmark 2014; Leonard, Bull, and Allison 2016.  If the topology is not precisely flat, it appears about as likely to have a negative, hyperbolically open curvature as a positive curvature suggesting closure.

[3] For a fuller explication of this possibility, see Schwitzgebel forthcoming.

[4] Carroll 2010, 2019; Greene 2011, 2020; Tegmark 2014.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Disability, Sexuality, Political Leaning, Socio-Economic Background, and Other Demographic Data on Recent Philosophy PhD Recipients

... hot from the Academic Placement and Data Analysis project, run by Carolyn Dicey Jennings. (I'm on the APDA board of directors.) The APDA tracks the job placements of PhD recipients in philosophy from PhD-granting departments in the English-speaking world plus selected programs elsewhere, with over 200 universities represented. Every few years, the APDA also surveys PhD recipients concerning their satisfaction with their PhD program as well as selected demographic characteristics.

The full report is not yet publicly available, but Carolyn Dicey Jennings has reported on placement and satisfaction at Daily Nous. (UCR ranks #3 in student satisfaction rating and #13 in 10-year placement rating, go team!) Marcus Arvan has reported on placement into non-academic careers at Philosophers' Cocoon.

In this post, I'll highlight some of the APDA's demographic results.

Response Rate, Race, Ethnicity, and Gender

The APDA contacted over 10,000 recent PhDs (>90% 2006 and later) for whom email addresses were available, achieving about a 10% response rate, with the majority of respondents having received their degrees from programs in the United States. A 10% response rate naturally raises concerns about non-response bias, though low response rates have become common in opinion surveys in general, and recent research suggests that low response rate might be less of a concern than often feared.

APDA results on race, ethnicity, and gender approximately match results on recent philosophy PhDs from other more complete sources like the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates, for example as reported here. Philosophy remains disproportionately White, with 82% percent of the APDA's U.S. respondents describing themselves as in that racial/ethnic category and no other (85% of all respondents).

As in other surveys, the APDA results show Black respondents to be enormously underrepresented: 2% of U.S. respondents (also 2% overall), compared to 13% of the general population. It will be interesting to see if this remains the case in 10-15 years, since recent data from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) (reported here), shows a dramatic recent increase in interest in the philosophy major among Black students entering college.

The APDA results also show the typical gender skew among PhD recipients in philosophy, with 70% of respondents selecting "man" as their gender, 27% selecting "woman", 2% selecting "non-binary", and 1% selecting "other" (these percentages are identical in the U.S. and overall).

The similarity of these numbers to numbers from other sources makes them less novel than other parts of the APDA report, and for that reason I don't recount them in detail here. The similarity also reassuringly suggests that non-response isn't interacting in a worrisome way with these demographic variables.


Overall, 744 respondents provided information about their sexuality, with 79% selecting "straight", 8% selecting "bisexual", 5% selecting "queer", 3% selecting "gay", 1% selecting "lesbian", and 4% selecting "other". In a separate question, 1.6% of participants identified as transgender. Limiting to the 575 respondents from programs in the U.S., the numbers were overall similar, with 78% selecting "straight", and 1.1% identifying as transgender.

Gallup finds that 5.6% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ. In the HERI database of first-year undergraduates, 92% of students intending to major in philosophy identified as straight and 0.6% identified as transgender.

If the APDA data are accurate and representative, recent philosophy PhDs in the U.S. are much less likely to be straight and non-trans than the general U.S. population or even the population of first-year philosophy majors.


Good data on disability and philosophy are difficult to find, partly because disability is so various and reported rates of disability can differ markedly with the content and context of the question. In 2013, Shelly Tremain presented evidence of the underrepresentation of disabled people in philosophy and systemic biases against them.

The APDA questionnaire asked:

Which of the following best describes your disability status, treating disability according to the ADA definition: "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity"? Please choose all that apply.

Overall, 67% of participants selected "no known disability" (also 67% among U.S. respondents). Including those with multiple answers:

  • 24% selected "mental health condition (e.g. depression)"
  • 5% selected "long-standing illness or health condition (e.g. cancer)"
  • 3% selected "specific learning disability (e.g. dyslexia)"
  • 2% selected "social/communication impairment (e.g. Asperger's syndrome)"
  • 2% selected "physical impairment or mobility issues (e.g. difficulty using arms)"
  • 1% selected "blind or visual impairment uncorrected by glasses"
  • 1% selected "deaf or serious hearing impairment"
  • none reported "general learning disability (e.g. Down's syndrome)"
  • 4% selected "other type of disability"
  • For comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 10% of the non-institutionalized U.S. population aged 18-64 has a disability.

    Based on personal experience, anecdotal evidence, and Tremain's and others' work on disability in philosophy, it seems to me unlikely that disabled people are as dramatically overrepresented among philosophy PhD recipients as these numbers might superficially suggest, though certain types of mental health conditions (such as anxiety and depression) might be fairly common. In my view, we remain far from fully understanding the prevalence of disability in academic philosophy, its relation to the prevalence of disability in the wider community, and the disadvantages that disabled philosophers face.

    Political Leaning

    You will be unsurprised to learn that philosophers lean left. This has been well known since at least Neil Gross's work in the late 2000s. In 2008, based on voter registration data from five U.S. states, I also found that among philosophers registered with a political party, 87% were Democrats and 8% were Republicans (the rest with minor parties), compared to 73% and 22% respectively for professors overall. This was, of course, before the "Tea Party" movement and Trump era, which shifted U.S. academia even more against the Republicans.

    The APDA added a new question in 2021 concerning political leaning. Among 769 respondents, 50% selected "very liberal", 33% selected "liberal", 12% selected "moderate", 3% selected "conservative", and 1% selected "very conservative". Considering only the 596 respondents from U.S. programs, 83% selected liberal or very liberal, 12% selected moderate, and 5% selected conservative or very conservative.

    One percent very conservative! Could this be representative? It might be worth checking out Uwe Peters' interesting discussion of hostility to conservatives in philosophy.

    I worry that there's a vicious circle here: Academia, especially the humanities and social sciences, shifts left -- right-leaning politicians criticize and defund academic work, especially in the humanities and social sciences -- people in the humanities and social sciences understandably react by associating even more with the left -- and so forth.

    Socio-Economic Background

    The APDA also asks a few interesting questions about socio-economic background.

    One is "What was your family's socioeconomic status (SES) growing up?" Overall, 8% selected "lower", 24% "lower middle", 36% "middle", 28% "upper middle", and 3% "upper". Among respondents from U.S. programs, 32% selected lower or lower middle, 35% selected middle, and 33% selected upper middle or upper.

    This makes it sounds like philosophers hail from a fairly ordinary sample of families. However, regarding parental education, the story is very different. When asked "What is the highest education level obtained by at least one of your parents/guardians?" 78% reported bachelor's degree or higher (80% of respondents from U.S. institutions), and 56% reported that at least one parent had an advanced degree. Among people born in the United States overall, 36% of the population aged 25 and over have a bachelor's degree.

    If take these data at face value, we might conclude that philosophers tend to hail from families of the overeducated and underpaid. Perhaps that's so. Or perhaps respondents are erring toward the low side in reporting the SES of their families of origin.

    Lots more interesting data in the full report! Keep an eye out for a publicly available version before too long.



    "The Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Diversity of Philosophy Students and Faculty in the United States: Recent Data from Several Sources", Eric Schwitzgebel, Liam Kofi Bright, Carolyn Dicey Jennings, Morgan Thompson, and Eric Winsberg. The Philosopher's Magazine (2021).

    "The Philosophy Major Is Back, Now with More Women" (Sep 2, 2021).

    "Diversity and Equity in Recruitment and Retention", Sherri Conklin, Gregory Peterson, Michael Rea, Eric Schwitzgebel, and Nicole Hassoun. Blog of the APA (Jun 7, 2021)


    image adapted from here

    Wednesday, October 20, 2021

    Podcast/YouTube Interview on Belief, Consciousness, and the Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors

    ... with Adam Omary at Nature & Nurture.

    After some initial discussion of my path into philosophy we get into:
    • the nature and value of experimental philosophy;
    • my empirical work on the not-especially-ethical behavior of ethics professors;
    • how there's a type of intellectual integrity in embracing ideals that you don't quite live up to;
    • the nature of belief and how to think about cases where your sincere judgments don't align well with you everyday behavior;
    • the nature of consciousness and why something that seems "crazy" must be true about consciousness;
    • consciousness in non-human animals;
    • the value of philosophy.
    It's a pretty good introduction, I think, to some of my central philosophical ideas and how they hang together.



    Wednesday, October 13, 2021

    Michael Tye on Vagueness about Consciousness

    In late August, about two days after I finished drafting my new paper "Borderline Consciousness, When It's Neither Determinately True nor Determinately False That Consciousness Is Present", I learned that Michael Tye had a new book forthcoming on the same topic: Vagueness and the Evolution of Consciousness.

    Tye is eminent in consciousness studies, and he has also written influentially about the logic of vagueness. In the past, he had defended, but not in detail, the idea that consciousness is a vague property, admitting borderline cases -- the same thesis I defend in that circulating draft paper. You know that feeling when you discover that someone much better known than you is working on the same thing you've been working on, probably with a similar view and probably a couple of steps ahead? Right. Eek!

    So of course I had to read Tye's new book straightaway. I received it last week.


    Chapter 1 is surprising, given Tye's previous work defending vagueness.

    First (the unsurprising part), Tye argues that consciousness is vague, that is, that there must be a range of "borderline cases" between being conscious and being non-conscious. His argument is similar to mine: If consciousness is a physical phenomenon or grounded in a physical phenomenon, it pretty much has to have fuzzy boundaries since basically all physical phenomena have fuzzy boundaries, including those normally associated with consciousness (such as having neurons or integrating a certain amount of information). Therefore, between non-conscious bacteria and conscious humans, there must be some animals who are only borderline conscious. I'd add, though it's not Tye's emphasis, that there must also be transitional, borderline states between non-conscious sleep and conscious waking.

    Second (the surprising part), Tye argues that consciousness cannot be vague on the grounds that we cannot present examples of, or even conceive of, borderline cases of it. He rejects a couple of putative examples. Feeling groggy upon waking is not borderline consciousness, but rather a type of conscious experience (perhaps with indistinct contents). Also, hearing a tone fade into silence (an example he used in his own earlier work) is not a case of borderline consciousness because one can hear silence, so throughout the fading you are definitely having a conscious experience, though it might one with vague or indeterminate representational content such as "maybe there's a very quiet tone or maybe there's just silence".

    Tye presents these two arguments as a "paradox". On the one hand, we seem to have a good argument that consciousness must be a vague property, admitting of borderline cases. On the other hand, we seem to have a good argument that consciousness cannot be a vague property, admitting of borderline cases. He concludes by saying, "So, consciousness, it seems, is both vague and not vague. What to do? Houston, we have a problem!" (p. 18).

    Before presenting Tye's solution to that problem, let me suggest that the two arguments -- one pro-vagueness, one anti-vagueness -- are not equally strong. The first argument is approximately as strong as standard-issue (non-panpsychist) materialism. If consciousness is, or is grounded in, large, floppy, fuzzy-edged properties like having a brain of a certain sort or having cognitive capacities of a certain sort, as basically all ordinary materialist philosophers think, then barring something quite strange, consciousness too must have vague boundaries.

    The anti-vagueness argument seems weaker. From the fact that we can't conceive of borderline cases, it doesn't follow that borderline cases don't exist. The problem might be (as I argue in my paper) that there's a failure or limitation in our imaginative capacities. As Tye himself says, "The concept consciousness is such that we cannot conceive of a borderline case and that is prima facie evidence that it is sharp" (p. 16, bold added). "Prima facie evidence", he says -- not conclusive evidence. Just an initial reason in favor. Shouldn't the response for the standard-issue materialist convinced by the argument of the first part just be to reject the "prima facie evidence" and look for another explanation for our conceptual failure?


    Neither Chapter 2 nor Chapter 3 are mainly about vagueness. Chapter 2 argues against a certain panpsychist way of solving the problem of Chapter 1. Chapter 3 defends Tye's famous representationalist view of consciousness against a family of objections, along the way establishing the important point that representational contents of determinately conscious experiences can be vague. It can determinately be the case, for example, that you're having a visual experience with vague, partly indeterminate contents, as when you are looking through blurry glasses at something you can't quite make out.


    In Chapter 4, Tye delivers his answer to the puzzle of Chapter 1. His answer turns on the concept of consciousness*. Consciousness* is a property

    that a state must have to be conscious. Experiencing something, I propose, is a matter of undergoing an inner state (with a quasi-pictorial structure), a state that has the property of being conscious* and that also represents something. Consciousness* is not itself a representational property, nor is it a functional property.... It is, I hold, irreducible and fundamental. And it is consciousness* that is found at the level of quarks. Quarks are conscious* but not conscious (p. 79).

    Concerning vagueness, Tye adds:

    Consciousness* is sharp whereas consciousness essentially involves content and thus is vague. When we assert baldly that there are no possible borderline states of consciousness, we are wrong; but the borderline cases arise via the vagueness of the representational aspect of consciousness. There is no vagueness in consciousness*, the other key element of consciousness (p. 79).

    I confess to finding consciousness* a bit puzzling! What is this new fundamental property? It's philosophically bold, and seemingly empirically unmotivated, to posit that quarks have not only the usual properties that particle physicists attribute to them, such as spin and "color", but also a previously unnoticed property, consciousness*, which isn't consciousness itself but which is intimately related to it. Why should we posit the existence of such a property rather than satisfying ourselves with, say, a simpler representationalism on which the only thing necessary for consciousness is having a cognitive, representational structure of a certain sort? Tye himself, in his earlier work, ranks among the chief proponents of that type of simpler representationalism about consciousness. Consciousness* is a new aspect of his view -- a change in his position (as he admits in the introduction), presumably forced upon him after long thought and dissatisfaction with his previous view.

    I can see two main motivations for positing consciousness*. Both depend on treating conceivability as a compelling test of possibility.

    The first is zombies. A philosophical zombie is an entity particle-for-particle identical to a person, at the finest level of functional detail, but lacking consciousness. Tye treats such zombies as conceivable and therefore possible (esp. p. 98-99). Consciousness* gives us a way to make sense of this. Zombies are microphysically like us at the finest-grain functional level, and have all the same representational contents, but their microparticles lack consciousness*. Consciousness* thus plays a role in explaining why we aren't zombies. Consciousness* is a micro-level property that we have and that zombies lack, even though every molecule in our bodies behaves outwardly in the same way (including in producing the same verbal reports of consciousness).

    The second reason to posit consciousness* is more central to the vagueness project. Something about consciousness is sharp-bordered, Tye argues. But it can't be the representational content. Consciousness* thus plays the role of being this sharp-bordered property -- either present at the micro level (in us) or absent (in zombies), rather than objectionably fading gradually in as systems become bigger and more complex.

    I've long found philosophers' fascination with the zombie thought experiment a little puzzling. Part of me is inclined to doubt that we can reach any substantive conclusions about the nature of consciousness by considering examples that are not even (by most zombie-theorists' own lights) physically possible.[1] Another part of me, however, is happy to concede zombie-theorists their point: Sure, there is some property we have that these hypothetical creatures would lack despite their (posited) physical-functional identity, i.e., the property of being conscious. But properties of this sort are cheap. They don't threaten materialism as a scientific hypothesis concerning what is physically possible. The zombie-business seems separable from the business of figuring out what real creatures have conscious experiences, in virtue of which physical/structural features. It is similarly separable from the business of figuring out what hypothetical but physically possible creatures would have conscious experience if we built them, in virtue of which physical/structural features.

    In that concessive mood, maybe I should be fine with consciousness*. Maybe, even, it's just the thing we need to deal with the zombie case. We can then say, sure, all ordinary matter is such that if you organize it in the right way it gives rise to consciousness. All matter we can see and interact with has consciousness*, i.e., is such that it would not give rise to mere zombie fake-consciousness if you swirled it together into the form of a biological person. Hypothetically we can imagine matter that lacks consciousness*. Hypothetically we can also imagine ghosts and Cartesian souls. There's no compelling evidence that our universe contains any such things. So maybe, similarly, microparticles around here have Property NG, the property of being such that they don't require the existence of ghosts to give rise to consciousness when they are organized in the right way. Perhaps this, too, is a previously unlabeled fundamental property? Or is it maybe just the same property as consciousness*?

    But let's return to vagueness. In Chapter 1, Tye argued that the fact that we cannot conceive of borderline cases of consciousness is prima facie evidence against the existence of such cases. Now, in Chapter 4, we find him -- in my view wisely -- positing the existence of borderline cases of consciousness after all, stating that it is only consciousness* that cannot be vague. But, strikingly, he doesn't really address the problem he raised in Chapter 1. He still does not present a borderline case of vague consciousness. He does not tell us how to conceive of such cases. Or at least, he does so no more than he could easily have done without the concept of consciousness*. In Chapter 5 he defends honeybee consciousness and box jellyfish non-consciousness. So presumably he could say something like "since jellyfish aren't conscious and bees are conscious, any borderline-conscious animals would have to be somewhere between those two." But that gestural remark depends not at all on the concept of consciousness*, and it's just the sort of handwavy thing that ordinarily fails to satisfy those who object in principle to the existence of borderline cases of consciousness.

    I am left, then, thinking that a piece of the puzzle is missing: an explanation of why we should allow the existence of borderline cases of consciousness despite our difficulty of really clearly conceiving of such cases.

    Fortunately, that missing piece is just what I supply in my own paper on borderline consciousness.


    [1] Qualification here: Tye treats consciousness* as a physical property and thus zombies as physically possible, though presumably no particles lacking consciousness* have been observed in our universe (though there's a question of how we could know that). Zombies are thus, on his view, not physically identical to us but only identical to us with respect to the functional side of their physical properties, i.e., how every particle interacts with other physical particles. This difference between Tye's and others' treatment of zombies doesn't matter, I think, to the argument of this post.



    Borderline Consciousness, When It's Neither Determinately True nor Determinately False That Consciousness Is Present (article in draft)

    An Argument for the Existence of Borderline Cases of Consciousness (Aug 18, 2021).

    Thursday, October 07, 2021

    Philosophy, Doubt, and Value

    Imagine a planet on the far side of the galaxy, one we will never interact with, blocked by the galactic core so we will never see it. What do you hope for this planet? Do you hope that it’s a sterile rock, or do you hope that it hosts life?

    I think most readers will join me in hoping that it hosts life. And not just bacterial life, but even better, plants and animals. Not just plants and animals, but even better, intelligent creatures capable of abstract thought and long-term social cooperation, capable of love and art and science and philosophy. That would be an amazing, wonderful, awesome planet!

    Earth, for the same reasons, is an amazing, wonderful, and awesome planet. Among the most awesome things about Earth is this: There are moments when certain complex bags of mostly water can pause to contemplate profound and difficult questions about the fundamental nature of things, their position in the universe, the grounds of their values, the limits of their own knowledge. A world in which no one ever did this would be an impoverished world. The ability to ask these questions, to reflect on them in a serious way, is already a cause for pride and celebration, a reason to write and read books, and basis for an important academic discipline. This is so even if we can't find our way to the answers.

    Philosophical doubt arises when we've hit and recognized the limits of our philosophical knowledge. Of course we have limits. To ask only questions we can answer is a failure of imagination.

    But doubt need not be simple and unstructured. We can wonder constructively. We can consider possibilities, weighing them uncertainly against each other. We can speculate about what might be the case. We can learn something by doing so, about the structure of our ignorance and hopefully also about how things might be. We can try to shed some of our narrowness, our provincialism, and our inherited presuppositions. In exploring our philosophical doubts, we recognize and expand the cognitive horizon of our species.

    Exploring the biggest philosophical questions, even when -- no, especially when -- one can’t know the answers, ranks among the most intrinsically valuable human activities.

    [image adapted from here]