Philosophy Bites interview on conscious thought

In 2016 I recorded another interview for Philosophy Bites, the popular philosophy podcast series produced by Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds. The subject this time was conscious thought, and the podcast was part of the Mind Bites series, which Nigel and David produced for Nicholas Shea’s AHRC-funded research project, Meaning for the Brain and Meaning for the Person. You can listen to the interview below, and you can discuss it on the project site.

Thomas Hardy: The Darkling Thrush

If you cannot see the audio controls, listen/download the audio file here

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

— Thomas Hardy interview with Robert Wright

In October 2016 Robert Wright (, The Evolution of God, Nonzero) interviewed me for The Wright Show on We talked about my views on consciousness and related topics. Here is the full video, with timings for some sections within it.

02:15 Consciousness as an illusion
10:02 How would a belief look in the brain?
23:07 Two kinds of dualism
29:49 What if you and I see blue differently?
38:34 Is it like something to be Keith Frankish?
01:05:37 Why thinking about consciousness is so hard

The page for the interview, with associated comment thread.

Philosophy Bites interview on qualia

In September 2014 Nigel Warburton recorded this interview with me for the Philosophy Bites podcast series. We discussed my views about qualia and the hard problem of consciousness.

Interview in Greenland

The Moscow Center for Consciousness Studies recorded this interview with me during the conference on Problems of Consciousness and Free Will in Analytic Philosophy, held in Greenland from 12 to 19 June 2014. (The ship in the background is the three-mast schooner Rembrandt van Rijn, on which the conference was held.)

Philosophy TV discussion with Richard Brown

In 2011 Richard Brown (CUNY) and I recorded this 60-minute discussion about consciousness for Philosophy TV. Physicalists find it hard to accept the existence of ‘classic’ qualia (intrinsic, ineffable, private properties of experience), but can they plausibly hold that we have only ‘zero’ qualia (dispositions to judge that we have classic qualia)? Is there a coherent ‘diet’ notion of qualia, which is intermediate between the two? Richard and I discussed these and related issues.

The Philosophy TV page for the discussion, with and associated comment thread

Interview with Daniel Dennett

Consciousness explained

I recorded this interview with Daniel Dennett in 2004 to accompany my Open University textbook on consciousness. Professor Dennett talked about issues surrounding intentionality and consciousness and about his belief that consciousness can be scientifically explained. The interview is a companion to an interview with David Chalmers recorded at the same time.

Here is a transcript of the interview (pdf).

Interview with David Chalmers

The hard problem

In 2004 I conducted this audio interview with David Chalmers to accompany my textbook on consciousness for the Open University course Thought and Experience. We talked about his articulation of the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness and his defense of a property dualist position.

Here is a transcript of the interview (pdf)

The Evil Trolley Problem

Photo of child on railway line

On Tuesday I posted a question on Twitter (prompted by a remark by @bowmanthebard). The question involved a version of the trolley problem, in which one has to choose between letting die and actively killing, but with the twist that the motive for choosing the active option is not to minimize loss of life (in this version it might actually increase it) but to preserve a life especially dear to one.

As the question generated some interest, I thought I would set out the thought experiment in more detail here. Another Twitter user @gjfitzgerald described my question as evil, since there is no way to answer it without guilt, so I call it The Evil Trolley Problem (not a perfect name, I admit, since it’s ambiguous). I’m not an ethicist, and I don’t know if this particular scenario has been previously discussed in the literature (if it has, I’d be grateful for references), though I’m sure the underlying issues have. My tweet provoked a number of responses — some darkly humorous — which I have collated with Storify.

Here is the problem:

You are walking by the railway line, where a group of local children are playing. Suddenly, there is a shout and you see that a runway trolley is thundering down the track. You run to warn the children and see that one child is trapped on the line. With horror you realize that it is your own child. The trolley will certainly kill your child if you do not act. Luckily, you are close to the points, and by operating a manual lever you can divert the trolley onto another track. But as you grasp the lever, you notice that another child, not known to you, is trapped on the other track. If you pull the lever, the trolley will certainly kill them.

What would you do? There are only seconds left and there is no other option. Would you sacrifice an unknown child to save your own? If you would switch the trolley, would do the same if it it would result in more deaths? What if there were two children trapped on the other line or if there were a school bus stalled there? How many children would you sacrifice to save your own child?

The scenario is of interest because what most of us would do in the imagined situation is in contrast to what moral theory tells us we should do. I suspect that most of us would switch the trolley, even if it would result in many deaths. Yet I doubt if there are many moral theories that would dictate that course, or even judge it permissible, and most legal systems would, I assume, class it as murder. This in turn raises wider questions about how far moral theory should bend to human nature, and how we can reconcile our intense preference for our kin with our ideals of altruism and egalitarianism.

Image credit

A. E. Housman: When I watch the living meet

If you cannot see the audio controls, listen/download the audio file here

When I watch the living meet,
And the moving pageant file
Warm and breathing through the street
Where I lodge a little while,
If the heats of hate and lust
In the house of flesh are strong,
Let me mind the house of dust
Where my sojourn shall be long.

In the nation that is not
Nothing stands that stood before
There revenges are forgot,
And the hater hates no more;
Lovers lying two and two
Ask not whom they sleep beside,
And the bridegroom all night through
Never turns him to the bride.

— A. E. Housman (1859-1936)