Designed for destruction?

Suppose that our universe is intrinsically special in a way that it would not have been if the physical constants had taken other possible values. (As I argued in this previous post, it’s important that it be intrinsically special, not just special in the eyes of the creatures who inhabit it.) Then this would seem to raise the credence we should give to the hypothesis that the constants were not randomly set but shaped by a purposive agency of some kind, which sought to produce a universe with this special feature. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that it does. So is our universe intrinsically special? What might be the special-making feature be? An obvious candidate is life. Life looks pretty special, perhaps even intrinsically valuable. Now, I’m not convinced that life is intrinsically valuable in the relevant sense. (We often treat it as intrinsically valuable, of course, and […]

Continue reading

Notes on emergence

Last April, Bryce Huebner and I had a Twitter exchange about emergence in biology. I felt that we were talking past each other and tried to work out how it had happened. I suspected that it was due to the way the concept of emergence had been used in different traditions, and I sketched the following tentative history. (I should stress that this is speculative; I’m not a historian.) 1. Late 19th – early 20th century: Some British philosophers (Broad, Lloyd Morgan, Alexander) started using ’emergentism’ to describe a metaphysical view on which the world is radically layered, with new fundamental properties and powers spontaneously appearing at each level, building up to the mental. 2. Mid 20th century: That kind of emergentism was empirically falsified, and philosophers rejected it. However, dualist philosophers continued to claim that some mental properties and powers are fundamental, emerge spontaneously, and exert a ‘top-down’ influence […]

Continue reading

Illusionism cover image

The cover image for my 2017 book Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness is a painting of a rather flamboyant stage magician performing a variety of tricks simultaneously. I found the image on Wikimedia and thought it was an appropriate visual metaphor for the theory discussed in the book. But who was this magician? Wikimedia says only this about the image: Zan Zig performing with rabbit and roses, including hat trick and levitation. Advertising poster for the magician (who seems to have left no other trace behind). Could it be Julius Zancig? It seemed unlikely to me, given the description of Julius’s act, which he performed with his wife Anges. I put a message on my website asking if anyone could find out more. In 2020, Jeff Miner (a former student of Kent Bach at SFSU, now working in tech) contacted me to say that he’d done some research on […]

Continue reading

Tricks of the mind

Welcome to my blog. Its title, Tricks of Mind, reflects the role that notions of illusion and artifice play in my view of the human mind. We humans have learned a variety of subtle but powerful tricks — strategies of self-control, self-manipulation, and extended problem-solving — which vastly extend the power of our biological brains and give us the sense of having a unified, phenomenally conscious mind, self, or soul. The conscious mind is a virtual system, constituted by these activities. It is, in a sense, a trick of the biological mind.

Continue reading

The pinprick solution to the Fermi paradox

Why are there no signs of aliens, given the vastness of the galaxy and the apparent abundance of opportunities for life to develop? This is the Fermi paradox. Here’s a possible solution to it. I’ve not seen it proposed before, though I don’t know the literature well. Suppose the following claims are true: 1) There is a multiverse. (It may not be strictly necessary to assume this, but it makes exposition easier.) 2) Any universe that is capable of supporting life is also fragile, in the sense that a relatively small, highly localized ‘pinprick’ event can cause the whole thing to collapse, as a pinprick can destroy an inflated balloon. 3) ‘Pinprick’ events do not occur naturally. (Again, it may not be strictly necessary to assume this.) 4) An advanced technological civilization will almost certainly create a pinprick event inadvertently as soon as it is capable of doing so. (Suppose […]

Continue reading

Fine-tuning and intrinsic value

I’ve been thinking a bit about the fine-tuning argument for design, and in particular about this Scientific American piece by Philip Goff. I’ve also been talking to Philip about it. Here are few thoughts arising from the process. (Note added 8/11/21: Below I talk about fine-tuning as evidence for design — a word which might be taken to imply the existence of a personal creator god of the kind believed in by the Intelligent Design community. Philip has asked me to clarify that he does not align himself with that community and that he prefers to talk of fine-tuning as evidence for ‘teleology’ or ‘goal-directed activity’ in the early universe rather than design. The points made below equally to this weaker claim.) The fine-tuning argument starts with the uncontroversial claim that if the fundamental physical constants of our universe had been different, then life would have been impossible. There is […]

Continue reading

Introducing jekylls

Philosophers of mind talk a lot about zombies. I want to introduce a related species of philosophical monster, which I shall call jekylls. Like zombies, jekylls are atom-for-atom duplicates of us, inhabiting a world with the same physical laws as ours — a world which, let’s assume, is causally closed. Your jekyll twin has all the same physical and functional states you do, including mental ones. It has the same functionally defined perceptions, sensations, thoughts, desires, memories, and emotions, and it is conscious in a functional way too. It also has a sense of self, built of memories, emotions, and introspective and interoceptive states — all functionally defined. (For simplicity, I’ll use ‘psychological’ as David Chalmers does in TCM to mean ‘psychological in a functional sense’.) So far, then, jekylls are just like zombies. There is a difference, however. Jekylls also have phenomenal states, understood as qualitative mental states that […]

Continue reading

‘Illusionism as a theory of consciousness’ translated into Spanish by David Vanegas

David A. Vanegas-Moreno has made a Spanish translation of my 2016 article ‘Illusionism as a theory of consciousness’ , which he has kindly allowed me to share here. David is a psychologist and cognitive scientist from the Universidad de Antioquia, Colombia. His work has focused on the evolution of language and its role in human cognition. At the moment he is working on the “representation wars” in 4E cognitive science, and on the explanatory and integrative approach to cognitive science proposed by the new mechanical philosophy. He posts on Twitter as @evolanguagemind. I am very grateful to David for his careful work in making my article accessible to Spanish-speaking readers. The translation is also available on my Publications pages.

Continue reading

The dynamical combination problem

Panpsychism is the idea that basic physical entities are essentially micro-consciousnesses and that our macro-consciousnesses result from combining the phenomenal natures of the physical entities that constitute us. The view faces the combination problem: how do simple, discrete micro-consciousnesses combine to produce complex, unified macro-consciousnesses? This problem has been much discussed, but there’s an aspect of it that has, I think, been relatively neglected. Here it is. It looks like a sensible methodological assumption that if two entities are qualitatively identical from a physical point of view, then they are phenomenally identical too. If panpsychists don’t make this assumption, then it’s hard to see how they could construct anything like a science of consciousness. If panpsychism is true, then we are acquainted with only a tiny fraction of phenomenal reality — the portions that constitute our consciousnesses. The rest can be known only indirectly, by inference from corresponding physical features. […]

Continue reading

Essential-state materialism and multiple realizability

Suppose that phenomenal properties, such as the intrinsic feel of pain, are not physical properties in the standard sense. It’s a fair bet that science will be able to identify physical causes for all the effects of experience. So how can phenomenal properties have any effect on us? How does the feel of our experiences make a difference to us? Panpsychists have a neat answer to this. They say that the phenomenal properties of experience are the intrinsic natures of the physical states that play the functional roles of the relevant experiences, including causing their characteristic effects. So (to use a hoary example) if the firing of C-fibres in the brain is the physical state that plays the functional role of pain, then the feel of pain is the intrinsic nature of C-fibre firing. Assuming this intrinsic nature does at least some of the causal work in producing pain effects, […]

Continue reading