Thursday, March 26, 2009

Phantom limbs and Ramachandran's consciousness model

Following our discussion of various oddities such as the phenomenon of phantom limbs, I recommend that you watch the BBC series on Phantoms in the Brain courtesy of YouTube. Or, if you prefer the written word, watch Ramachandran's lecture on "The perception of phantom limbs."

Multiple personalities: fun facts claims that people with multiple personalities (disorder) (MPD) "may be aware of each other to some degree though only one will be in control at a given time" and that "transitions are typically sudden and precipitated by stress." The number of multiple personalities for any given "person" may vary from 10 to 100!!! As you might have expected, people with MPD exhibit behavioral and even physical characteristics of the respective personalities (changes in voice register, altered facial expressions, etc.)

For more on this you may want to read Richard M. Gottlieb's paper "Does the Mind Fall Apart in Multiple Personality Disorder? Some Proposals Based On a Psychoanalytic Case" and an earlier review of the phenomenology of some 100 cases of multiple personality disorder. For a literary take on the MPD phenomenon you may find this piece by Deacon Morgan on Toni Morrison's novel Paradise quite interesting. Hey, you can now even find meet-up groups with people with MPD happening at a place near you.

To be, or not to be...reflexive; that is the question

In his response to Paul William's detailed study of the debate about the reflexive nature of awareness in Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy Garfield, while taking the non-reflexive stance, concludes the following:

"Mipham and Williams...take it for granted that the mind is self-revealing; that we know our own minds in a special, direct way; that we cannot be in error about the nature of our own minds or cognitive activity. While this might be common sense, it is all wrong, and Tsong khapa’s great genius is that he saw this and so saw the importance of this issue. If we were to have immediate, veridical knowledge of our own minds, that would amount to having, in Tsong khapa’s terms, a Buddha’s access to the mind; in more familiar terms, to having direct, non-concept- or theory-dependent access to our own cognitive processes. If we were to have a special kind of access to our own mental processes and were to know others’ indirectly, this would be to abandon the publicity and conventional character of the concepts through which we know ourselves, and hence to saddle ourselves with an insuperable problem of other minds, and an insuperable problem about how we ever develop those concepts in the first place. If we were always to be correct about our own cognitive activities, in Tsong khapa’s terms, meditation and cultivation would be pointless; in our own, cognitive science would be complete."

Now that you all had the benefit of Garfield's visit to our seminar and of his lively exposition of the scope of his paper (and the nature of the controversy) what do you make of his stance on the nature of awareness/consciousness?

Cortically micro-stimulated being-in-the-world

In their piece on "Phenomenology and Cortical Microstimulation" John Bickle and Ralph Ellis recall the example of Penfield's patient D.F., who reported having the subjective experience of hearing music when her temporal lobe was electrically stimulated.

Now, if D.F. took her experience of music to be veridical, then, what are we to conclude: that consciousness (always, most of the time, occasionally) misrepresents its own operations? How can a phenomenological approach to experience, which relies on the distinction between the 'physical' object (air vibrations) and the object as intended (the auditory phenomenon of 'music'), help us here?

If, on Merleau-Ponty's use of the phenomenological method, every looking-at must be accompanied by a corresponding looking-for, how exactly can we correlate first-person phenomenology with third-person cognitive science? When I look at a calm sea and imagine huge waves I find myself looking for waves in precisely the same way as I were to look at the sea expecting it to be churning (as though a hurricane were approaching). Can you look at a PET or fMRI scan of the brain in such a way that your theoretical assumptions are wholly bracketed? Or, to make it a bit easier, can you gaze at your sweetheart in such a way that the fact that you are always already attracted to her/him does not affect your perception?

PHIL 450 has the peculiar feel of... pie, hard work, cherry blossom, utter bewilderment, impending graduation, an AA session, PHIL 101 on steroids, etc.

Please be brief, but pay attention to nuance: surely, reading Dreyfus on Heidegger must feel different than reading Chalmers on the hard and easy problems of consciousness, or Siewert on Merleau-Ponty's theory of sensorimotor intentionality or Polger's rethinking of the evolution of consciousness, and still different than Garfield's endorsement of the Madhyamaka's commitment to a non-reflexive view of awareness or your professor's twice-weekly perorations on the inescapability of phenomenology.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

Chalmers thinks that if any problem qualifies as the problem of consciousness, then it is this: "Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?" Do you agree with Chalmers that it seems objectively unreasonable that all this physical processing should give rise to a rich inner life, as in fact it does? (See "The Hard Problem of Consciousness" in Max Velmans and Susan Schneider, eds. The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007: 228)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Orwellian or Stalinesque

Now that we've discussed Taylor Carman's paper "On the Inescapability of Phenomenology," what do you all make of his conclusion about Dennett's proposed explanation of the phi phenomenon: "If we are unable to choose between the Stalinesque and the Orwellian hypothesis in the case of perceptions of very quickly flashing spots of light (i.e., color phi phenomenon), then, it is not because the two hypotheses are equally good when extended to the general case, as Dennett seems to suggest, but because they are equally bad."

You all saw the moving and color changing dots, so is it indeed "utterly preposterous to suggest that no one can ever really see continuity, movement, or color change in the phi phenomenon" (p. 75)?

No yes or no answers: do at least seem to care about this subtle point. 


Following on from our discussion of infant and pre- and perinatal consciousness, this is what Hubert Dreyfus has to say about Heidegger's understanding of when human beings can be properly said to begin to exist: "...human beings begin to exist in Heidegger's
 special sense of existence only after the first few weeks. They begin to
 exist as they are
 socialized into the understanding of what it is to be a human being that
 is already contained in
social practices" (Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time, Division I, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991, p. 23). Amanda is curious to find out what all of you think about whether or not the idea of prenatal consciousness is reconcilable with Heidegger's concept of the Dasein? Does the embryo in the womb count as a being-in-the-world, given that for it the womb is the world?

Friday, January 23, 2009

How much is phenomenal consciousness worth?

Selmer Bringsjord (see reference bellow) raises some important questions in his exploration of the (moral?) dilemma of whether or not to accept a billion dollar contract for producing a mere 'proof-of-concept' robot capable of phenomenal consciousness: first, what would a SOW (Statement of Work) outlining the research & development of the project look like (all that's necessary simply to get half the money and get started))? second, why, if truly honest, one must decline such an offer; and third, even in a distant future when robots indistinguishable from humans both physically and sensorimotor-wise could become a reality, the question of whether they have phenomenal consciousness (and not merely physical and behavioral resemblance) still remains.

Bringsjord is rather candid in his assessment of human motivation (at least in certain quarters of Consciousness Studies) when it comes to such ridiculously large sums of money: sure, some researches will write a proposal, grab the money and run! But, as he tells us, "these are not nice people." And precisely how would researches of a future world already 'populated' by androids, look upon such a proposal?

If behaving in a certain way is having qualia, then one may justifiably grab the billion dollars offer now. But it's not: at best, it's as if having qualia. How much might a 'proof-of-concept' robot with phenomenal consciousness rake in the future (with appropriate adjustments for inflation) is anyone's guess. But if anyone thinks that such a robot would have life and feelings and a sense of what is it like to undergo certain experiences, then obviously that person (Shanahan et. al.) does not fully understand that phenomenal consciousness is not reducible to activation patterns of the brain's neural architecture nor any simulation thereof.

Source: Bringsjord, Selmer, "Offer: One Billion Dollars for a Conscious Robot; If You're Honest, You Must Decline," Journal of Consciousness Studies, 14, No. 7, 2007, pp. 28-43.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Collective Consciousness

On the heels of our discussion last Tuesday about collective consciousness here's what Pamela Gerloff has to say about Obama's Real Challenge: Shifting the Collective Consciousness.

Consciousness, Intentionality, Embodiment


Welcome to the course blog for PHIL 450 - Consciousness, Intentionality, Embodiment in the Department of Philosophy at the College of Charleston (Spring 2009). This course will explore some of the most important research on consciousness, intentionality, and embodiment that is at the heart of the new interdisciplinary field of Consciousness Studies: What it is like to perceive, desire, or know something---like listening to the sound of a Mozart concerto, tasting the flavor of a strong espresso, or feeling the cool breeze of a spring morning? What are the structures of conscious experience? How is perceptual consciousness different from emotion, memory, or imagination? Why is there something it is like to be conscious? How are we to understand the fact that our consciousness appears to be always directed at something? Finally, to what extend is our conscious experience shaped and conditioned by the body? I sincerely hope that in conducting some of our discussion of these important questions on this open forum others might benefit from it.

To find out more about the content of this course, please consult the draft syllabus.