Jun 282010
Alan Turing

Discussing articles by Alan Turing, Gilbert Ryle, Thomas Nagel, John Searle, and Dan Dennett.

What is this mind stuff, and how can it “be” the brain? Can computers think? No? What if they’re really sexified? Then can they think? Can the mind be a computer? Can it be a room with a guy in it that doesn’t speak Chinese? Can science completely understand it? …The mind, that is, not the room, or Chinese. What is it like to be a bat? What about a weevil? Do you even know what a weevil is, really? Then how do you know it’s not a mind? Hmmmm? Is guest podcaster Marco Wise a robot? Even his wife cannot be sure!

We introduce the mind/body problem and the wackiness that it engenders by breezing through several articles, which you may read along with us:

1. Alan Turing’s 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.

2. A chapter of Gilbert Ryle’s 1949 book The Concept of Mind called “Descartes’ Myth.

3. Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?

4. John Searle’s Chinese Room argument, discussed in a 1980 piece, “Minds, Brains and Programs.”

5. Daniel C. Dennett’s “Quining Qualia.”

Some additional resources that we talk about: David Chalmers’s “Consciousness and its Place in Nature, “ Frank Jackson’s “Epiphenomenal Qualia”, Paul Churchland’s Matter and Consciousness,Jerry Fodor’s “The Mind-Body Problem,” Zoltan Torey’s The Crucible of Consciousness,and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s long entry on the Chinese Room argument.

End Song: “No Mind” from 1998’s Mark Lint and the Fake Johnson Trio; the whole album is now free online.

If you enjoy the episode, please donate at least $1:

Jun 272010

Here’s a roundtable that gives an interesting high-level overview of a couple of points:

First, Joseph Bogen, a neurologist, gives us possible levels at which the brain could produce consciousness: sub-cellular, cellular, circuit, systems, the whole brain, or brain interacting with larger systems (other brains).

Second, we get a quick face-off at the end with Stuart Hameroff mentioning something like Chalmers’s view that “proto-consciousness” is a fundamental property of subatomic particles (like spin or mass), a view that Christof Koch dismisses as “a mystical statement that’s totally untestable.” It’s quickly clear that this is again a face-off between philosophers (like Nagel, Chalmers, and McGinn) who want to deal with the “hard problem” of how to make the conceptual leap between the physical and the mental and the engineering problem of what’s going on in the brain (whether analyzed purely at the biological level or also at the functional level) when consciousness occurs. Koch argues that these philosophical questions, still unanswered after many years of consideration, are simply not helpful in achieving the progress that’s being made on the neurological side. Hameroff argues that you still need to answer the philosophical questions in order to understand consciousness and not just know the correlations between consciousness and brain activity.

Jun 252010

At the half way point of this 2010 experiment, I’ve got something very special to post: my first ever intentional recording of a song, which was also my first experience playing with a band that I put together. It’s from spring ’86 and called “Venus on Earth.”

I had some little music composition program on my Apple IIe that let me type in notes and play them back to me, and so I mapped out a bunch of variations of this little progression, only the simplest of which actually made it into the song. The introduction was inspired by some music from the movie “Something Wicked This Way Comes” that I’d seen on cable a few times, plus the cheesy wind and laser noises that were built in sounds on Brian’s Casio CZ-5000 (used to much greater effect in our later effort). The guitarist (Pete Catsaros) had never actually played guitar before doing this with us, and didn’t know how to play any chords; he just played the same riffs I played on bass, though not always at the same time, with the keyboard covering the chords. Then the lyrics… god, the lyrics are bad, and sung with a weird, quirky English inflection that can only be the 80s at work in me. I can’t imagine what inspired them other than thinking that the words themselves just sounded cool apart from any consideration of their meaning: “I have the indication it’s not infatuation. It’s a different situation that’s worthy of your station.” My favorite part is where I go “…for all eternity- he-e-e hee hee.” Just unintentionally f’in funny. Continue reading »

Jun 242010

This video features a guy I’d not heard of before, Vilayanur S. Ramachandra, called “The Marco Polo of neuroscience,” though I prefer “the great gesticulator,” a title I just invented while watching this animated performance:

Rama states the common conception of qualia (from Frank Jackson): we can know all of the neurological facts about color and yet still learn something when we actually see the color itself. Yet he’s also clearly a reductionist in that he thinks that physiological research is where it’s at in explaining these qualia. Continue reading »

Jun 222010

Today I present the crown jewel of my high school band years: The Spring ’89 version of “Run Away.”

I’ve previously blogged about this song, which is pretty cheesy, but pleasurable, I think. This version owes a lot to the keyboard programming of the last couple of albums by The Cars (my favorite band at the time). The story of The Backdrop, the band that gave rise to this, can be found here. The important point was that with this band, and the maybe four songs we programmed in this way, I had pretty much total control over orchestration, and in this case, this was the third studio recording I’d made of this with my keyboardist Brian Greenfield, and the fifth recording overall. Previous to this (and after all those four other recordings) we had put together a large group to play this at the school variety show, but for this version, I reasserted control, doing all the nine vocal parts myself and all the guitars except for the guitar solo (played by Mike Goldberg, which solo I complained about at the time as being too much like Chuck Berry and having little to do with the song, but which I like just fine now; I may have been responsible for putting it through my phaser pedal, but I’m not sure). The sax is by one of my best friends Sanj Ghogale, playing a part I wrote out for him.

We had a more elaborate drum machine program that we’d used for earlier versions; this version just leaves in the hi-hat and hand claps and a couple of other things. I think the plan was to have a real drummer overdub the rest of it, but we never got around to it, and I think I thought it was fine as is. Now that I’ve added a mess of noise reduction, it actually makes the piercing drum machine hi-hat sound more like a shaker, so I actually like that.

Some of this was actually recorded on the school’s 8-track reel-to-reel recorder, but then it got bounced to Brian’s new cassette 4-track for the last couple of overdubs. This makes it just about the only recording of mine from before ’91 that doesn’t sound absolutely terrible.

When we played this live (for the variety show in spring ’88; I forget whether we revived it for our one of our few other gigs, at the “gym jam” near the end of ’89 where we played covers by U2, Huey Lewis, R.E.M., etc.), there was some conflict in the band between the whole “Mark is the composer and gets to tell everyone exactly what to do” faction and the fact that I had two guitarists playing very simple parts and a drummer who initially was asked to play along with this drum machine part (later in the process, the drum machine was eliminated, but the synths still used a sequencer, so the drummer had to use headphones with a click track on them; very 80′s!). This taught me a more hands-off approach to arranging that I’ve since used with bands, and given that I don’t typically take 2 years arranging a single song now, I don’t have time for that kind of detail work anyway, but I’ve long wanted to get a real mastery of computer music programming now that it’s so much easier (i.e. software I currently possess but haven’t figured out how to use can do it) and do some really complex arranging. It’ll happen some day.

Jun 222010

Ned Block (or is it Bill Maher?) gives us a good statement of the fundamental problems of consciousness and talks about some of the most commonly cited neuroscientific findings and what they mean about consciousness, and specifically what he takes to be Dennett’s position that consciousness is an illusion:

“The hard problem:” how is it that the neural basis of an experience is the neural basis of that experience and not of another experience? Patricia Churchland, in the article I linked to, responds to this:

What is an example where a science — any subfield of science — explains why X = Y? Not how we know or why we believe that X = Y, but why X is identical to Y, rather than to Z. Using the examples already at hand, the corresponding questions would be these: why is temperature mean molecular kinetic energy, rather than, say, caloric fluid or something else entirely? Why is visible light actually electromagnetic radiation rather than, say, something else entirely, say, ‘‘intrinsic photonicness’’? By and large science does not offer explanations for fundamental identities. Rather, the discovery is that two descriptions refer to one and the same thing — or that two different measuring instruments are in fact measuring one and the same thing. Why is that thing, the thing it is? It just is.

Block’s substantial point here is distinguishing between access consciousness, defined as “information globally available in the cognitive system for the purposes of reasoning, speech and high-level action control,” and phenomenal consciousness, which is consciousness as we experience it.

Interestingly, Block uses many of the same neuropsychological cases cited by Dennett (like blind sight, where someone claims not to be able to see something but yet can identify it if forced to guess), but whereas Dennett uses these cases to say “look, you think you know what you’re conscious of, but you’re really not,” Block says this shows that what Dennett (or any functionalist) calls consciousness doesn’t correspond to what we experience, and it is still a legitimate challenge to the theorist to explain this experienced world that the functionalist in effect ignores.

It is confusing, however, when Block sums up his point by saying (at 3:38): “what we need to do is distinguish the cognitive aspects of consciousness from the basic biological phenomenal aspects.” This sums up a methodological difference: Presumably Block wants to find the biological underpinnings of phenomenal consciousness. Dennett and Churchland both argue that because our self-reports are unreliable, we need to somehow pin them down in third-person verifiable (i.e. scientific) language before we can then look for the neural correlate. For instance, in the “inverted spectrum” case, Block claims that its conceivable that you and I could have switched colors: my experience of yellow is your experience of green, but yet we use our words the same, so this difference is undetectable (we both point at grass and say “green”). The response is complicated, but amounts to a claim that any such switch in perception can be detected with enough testing due to the nature of color as a network of infinite interrelated shades; you can’t just shift the whole spectrum towards one end without this showing itself up in effects in the person’s ability to discriminate certain shades or make claims like “lighter” or “darker” accurately or whatever. So the full explanation of what’s going on, for Dennett, has to involve getting behind the phenomenology to “what’s really being seen” despite the person’s self reports, and from there you can figure out the neural correlate.

Since both Block and Dennett in effect acknowledge both kinds of consciousness, and are certainly not going to shut down some line of research if it’s actually achieving results, the dispute to me seems more a matter of emphasis and the use of language than anything else. This is a conflict among people trying essentially to do the same thing rather than some showdown over fundamental ontology.

Jun 212010

Dan Dennett, who is not Santa Claus, has many clips on youtube, both as “new atheist” and as someone who wants to “deflate consciousness,” i.e. show to us through optical illusions and things that we don’t know as much of what’s going on in our minds as we think.

Here he discusses the “Cartesian theater,” his starting point for argument in his big book Consciousness Explained:

A primary illusion of consciousness, he thinks, is that it is a unified stream, but it’s hard to see how processing in various parts of the brain “comes together” to give rise to consciousness. On the contrary, he thinks that mental processing is distributed over lots of dumb, unconscious little robots, and that there’s no point where our unified representation of the world comes together. Continue reading »

Jun 192010

Here’s a guy that Wes brought up to me as being a somewhat extreme case in terms of anti-scientism. Whereas Churchland approaches the problem of consciousness from a scientific perspective, Colin McGinn (who must be in the witness protection program based on how darkly this is filmed) is a proclaimed “mysterian,” saying that consciousness just can’t be understood:

There are a few things I find strange here, like the way he talks about different kinds of reduction here (his distinction doesn’t match those I’m familiar with, though I think I understand what he’s saying) and his purpose in saying that “the physical world” includes entities unknowable by physics. However, I agree his overall point that sciences always tend to have mysteries at their center: they don’t explain the intrinsic nature of the entities involved, just the observable relations between them.

McGinn has a blog here, and his most recent book is apparently called Mindfucking.

Jun 182010

Here’s John Searle, most famous for his Chinese room argument against the possibility of programming a mind on a computer and who reminds me most of a figure from my childhood growing up in the Chicago area, snarky Sun Times columnist Mike Royko.

Here Searle gives us, in a mere minute and 20 seconds (the latter part of this clip), his solution to the mind-body problem, which is that if we stick to the facts and don’t try to impose some sort of ontological preconceptions onto the situation, then it seems much less mysterious. Just to spell out his four points for examination:

1. Consciousness is real and irreducible.
2. Consciousness is caused by brain processes.
3. Consciousness exists in the brain.
4. Consciousness functions causally.

If you accept all four of these claims, which he thinks are all very well established by common experience and/or science, then the main task becomes trying to refute arguments that say that they’re incompatible. The challenge is that if you come at these facts with a framework that creates a conflict between them (e.g. the idea that science is committed to a physicalist ontology or that a difference in our epistemic access to things implies an ontological difference of the sort that raises interaction problems), then the burden is on you to justify this framework and to refute one of these claims using evidence and/or intuitions that are more powerful than what appears to support it.

If you accept all four of these claims, does that actually address the chief area of discomfort with the mind-body relation? To my mind, Searle is claiming that the relation is in a sense basic. Much like causality (which Hume claims we just can’t understand, despite the fact that we can happily use it as a foundation for science), the mind just is some parts or activities of the brain, seen from a different point of view. Neuropsychology (which relies on first-person reports; if you want to establish that some brain process is equivalent to thinking of your mom, you have to ask your subjects if they’re thinking of their mom) can establish tight correlations between consciousness and brain states. From there, you can posit that either mind and body are simply correlated in some inexplicable way, or that they’re one and the same thing. Searle sees too many problems with the first option and so is willing to accept what may be counterintuitive about the second.

Jun 172010

Here’s an eliminative materialist, Pat Churchland, from whom I get sort of a Miss Hathaway from the Beverly Hillbillies vibe. Keep a sharp eye for the key points where she is interrupted by Mr. Rogers music with pictures of traffic, and then later when she’s overlaid with blurry students on campus:

Churchland here explains what “eliminative materialism” is supposed to eliminate. The phenomenon itself, i.e. consciousness, doesn’t go away, but it gets causally explained, and the explanation will in turn enrich the concepts we use to describe consciousness. So, “folk psychology” talks about “the will,” whereas Churchland doesn’t think that there’s going to be any single neural correlate to this term. Likewise “attention” we already understand to be several distinct systems, so an understanding of the causal basis might get us to be more precise in the way we talk about our inner lives.

For more detail, you can check out this article she wrote in 2005 called “A neurophilosophical slant on consciousness research:” http://philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu/faculty/pschurchland/papers/progressinbrainsc05neuroslant.pdf

Here’s an argument from there that’s more contentious than anything in the video:

First, a common philosophical complaint is that any neurobiological theory of consciousness will always leave something out – something crucial. It will always leave out the feeling itself — the feeling of what it is like to be aware, to see blue, smell mint, and so on (Nagel, 1974; Chalmers, 1996). These are so-called qualia — the experiences themselves — and these are what are important about consciousness. Pursuing this point further, the philosopher may go on to conclude that no science can ever really explain qualia because it cannot demonstrate what it is like to see blue if you have never seen blue; consciousness is forever beyond the reach of scientific understanding.

What is the merit in this objection? It is lacking merit, for if you look closely, you will find that it rests on a misunderstanding. The argument presumes that if a conscious phenomenon, say smelling mint, were genuinely explained by a scientific theory, then a person who understood that theory should be caused to have that experience; e.g., should be caused to smell mint. Surely, however, the expectation is unwarranted. Why should anyone expect that understanding the theory must result in the production of the phenomenon the theory addresses? Consider an analogy. If a student really understands the nature of pregnancy by learning all there is to know about the causal nature of pregnancy, no one would expect the student to become pregnant thereby.

Like Chalmers’s argument that accuses materialists of denying the raw fact of experienced consciousness (which Churchland doesn’t), this argument is also a straw man: the discomfort with purely physical explanations doesn’t arise because the theory itself needs to include the phenomena to be explained as part of the explanation (though Chalmers does believe that some non-physical elements have to play a part as basic explanatory principles of the universe); the discomfort is because the conceptual gap between the mental and the physical just seems fundamentally different to us than the gap between, say, the macroscopic phenomena of heat and the motion of molecules.

Churchland also makes the point that what science does is find correlations between phenomena, and if the correlations are tight enough, we call these identities, e.g. for all practical purposes heat is the motion of molecules. Science never explains WHY heat is correlated with that as opposed to something else; this is just a raw fact that we find, and hence every scientific theory of this sort provides some explanation in that it allows us to predict, and perhaps control, the phenomena, but this is not really ever sufficient for us to understand in a stronger sense what’s going on. It’s in the concept of the scientific method itself that prediction and and control is all we need; one of the philosophical questions here is whether that’s really the case.

Jun 162010

We just recorded our discussion of the philosophy of mind last Sunday, though it’ll be a while before it gets all mixed and edited and posted. The discussion was very wide-ranging and covered a number of colorful personalities in not very much detail at all, so I’m going to post a series of videos to introduce you to these folks.

So, here, first, is apparently a member of Whitesnake, i.e. David Chalmers:

Now, a lot of what he says seems obvious, and it should: it is obvious to us that we are conscious, and this recognition is something different than knowing anything about neurology, and our experience has a certain “feel” to us (he calls these feelings “qualia”).

He argues (using an example from Frank Jackson; most of the ideas from this interview are from the literature and not specific to Chalmers) that the fact that we could know all there is to know about the physicality of seeing a color, and still learn something when we at last see it ourselves, and this suggests to him that there is something over and above the physical to consciousness, i.e. he argues from an observation about our epistemic access to the world (how we know things) to an ontological point (i.e. what kind of stuff there is in the world).

One weird point, that we actually don’t discuss in the podcast is the possibility of “zombie,” i.e. beings that act just like we do, including claiming that they’re conscious, yet they have no inner lives. He doesn’t argue that such beings actually exist, but only that they are conceivable, and hence metaphysically possible. Now, it sounds here like he’s just saying that there could be beings that cleverly imitate the behavior of conscious beings that aren’t conscious. This I can buy as as possibility. What he means, though (and he says this elsewhere) is the stronger claim that it’s possible for someone to have all the same brain states that I do, yet still not be conscious, which to me is not at all intuitively obvious, and arguably begs the question against physicalism (the view that, ontologically, everything is physical, and thus mental states are physical… most likely brain states).

There’s an equivocation to watch out for here. His interviewer claims that lots of people deny the existence of consciousness. Well, there are some that do that, but that sort of behaviorism is for the most part dead; we can’t actually deny the obvious. What a greater number of people do deny is that a complete theory that explains our experience has to have any “mental terms” like believe, desire, qualia, etc. in it. So no one (well, almost no one) is saying that consciousness doesn’t exist as phenomenon-to-be-explained; they’re just saying that talk of consciousness won’t be part of the theory that does the explaining. Chalmers’s ultimate claim is that it is impossible to conceive of how physical accounts can “explain” to our intuitive satisfaction the appearance that our experience has to each of us, while his opponents’ position is that it’s not impossible, just very very hard.

For more on how Chalmers responds to arguments against the conceivability of zombies and other matters, you can read his article “Consciousness and its Place in Nature.”

Jun 142010

My computer no longer boots and is in the shop, which means I’m on my wife’s MacBook, which means it’s time for more camcorder youtube uploads! Here’s a version of “Love Is the Problem:” http://www.youtube.com/user/MLinsenmayer#p/a/u/0/e0LblloTUnc

We (my band New People) recently played a very big show at Madison’s Brat Fest, on the “Quench Gum” stage, which I honored by inadvertently saying “quench” instead of “clench” during two different songs. The stage was huge, the sound was great, and we brought in a laptop to record the sound right from the board and my camcorder was set up in a great spot also next to the soundboard, away from chatty people.

However, we had not managed to get anyone not on stage to help us make sure that these things were working, so the sound didn’t record at all on the laptop, and the video was poorly framed, with our guitarist and drummer very small in the middle of the screen and me entirely off screen.

So, what I’ve posted is not that, but instead a couple of tunes from a show last August, our final outing with our drummer Julian, who by then had gotten mighty tight. On the whole, this was one of our best played shows, though the newer songs are stronger now that we spent time recording them (some rough mixes should be available for my posting w/in a couple of weeks). The video is pretty good quality, with all three of us actually visible and all the parts audible (though the bass is a bit low, at least where I’m listening to it). It was a great venue, but no alcohol, so our turnout (on a Friday night, no less) was pretty poor, and I’ve not bugged them for another show.

I’ve also posted there a great newer one of Matt Ackerman’s called “Lucky” (http://www.youtube.com/user/MLinsenmayer#p/a/u/1/qh3dByWYw9E). I’ll likely upload some more tracks from that show over the next few days; so check back to the channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/MLinsenmayer.

Jun 092010
C.S. Peirce

Reading Pragmatism by William James and “The Fixation of Belief” and “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” by Charles Sanders Peirce.

Is truth a primitive relation between our representations and things objectively in the world, or is it an analyzable process by which propositions “prove their worth” by being useful in some way, like by fitting well with other portions of our experience or being delicious?

Peirce, the inventor of pragmatism, focuses on the philosophy of science and thinks of inquiry as a way for us to just settle on any belief we can stomach. James, who popularized pragmatism, has a wider view that applies not only to science but to religious beliefs. If it makes you feel nice to believe in Hogwarts, should you do so?

The episode features then-guest podcaster Dylan Casey; we continued it in episode 22.

Read Pragmatism online or purchase it.

End Song: “Friend” from 1998’s Mark Lint and the Fake Johnson Trio; the whole album is now free online.

Jun 042010

I felt bad enough about posting the previous tune that I spent a bit more time and “polished” up another two old clunkers from the same pile, because mom always told me “If you do something bad, do more of that same thing to make up for it.”

So, first, a very old (1988) demo called “A Little Feeling.” This is a piano tune, which was and is rare for me, inspired, I think, by Billy Joel’s “All for Leyna.” This is not actually a terrible song for my 17 year old self, and it was briefly added to the first-lineup MayTricks set but not revived after we lost our keyboardist, so this is it, unless I’m motivated enough to record a new version some day, complete with the free-form New Age piano solo in the middle and the echoing Pink Floyd-esque guitar I pictured.

Second, “Pakistan-the Complete Works,” a recording made using a walkman from spring 1991, maybe only a month after the MayTricks demo was recorded, when two of our members didn’t show up for rehearsal, so those of us left (me, Steve Petrinko, and our new rhythm guitarist Matt Diaz) all traded instruments (i.e. to ones we didn’t know how to play too well) and improvised three songs, pretending to be a garage band called Pakistan, which shows you my snobby attitude towards “garage bands” (i.e. many of our peers), whereas I saw us as usually playing intelligent, carefully orchestrated pieces. So this is me, with a hoarse voice, apparently, improvising lyrics that are supposed to be funny and sometimes are, though the whole thing is equally juvenile to “Girl.” Steve in turn adopted a persona of a demented individual named Bucko or Bucky, depending on the song.

There are three “songs” on here, but I saw no reason to break them apart, as the whole 14-minute experience is the thing, man: Baby (Don’t Look at Me), Swishy Boy, and Cram. The second, which I played guitar on, actually sort of sounds like a song, whereas the other two (where I played drums) are just chaos. I will admit that this recording is fairly dear to me, and makes me chuckle. And yes, a security guard did come and make us stop (we were playing in a dorm basement practice room, and there were complaints both about the volume and the foul language).

Jun 042010

Warning: foul language, juvenile humor, possible misogyny, and terrible sound quality. The song is called “Girl,” and it is from fall, 1989, just a couple months into my college experience, recorded in the excruciatingly awful sounding method of tape-to-tape dubbing, which is what I used from 1987 or so through spring 1991.

This was my first collaboration of any sort with Steve Petrinko, whose MayTricks material has appeared in this blog before. I should say that due to its foulness, Steve has been against this ever seeing the light of day, despite his bitchin’ guitar-solo and “bitch”-saying little sampling keyboard that we used. It was also my first, though very knocked off, co-writing effort, and I find it amusing that even for this piece of drivel, I was egotistic enough that I remember very clearly who wrote which lyric lines and felt the need to point that out whenever I would play this for anyone so that the lyrically inferior parts wouldn’t be attributed to me. I will resist doing so now.

If someone wants to post a comment re. the line between humor and misogyny, be my guest. Later, in 1997 or so, I wrote (purely in my head; no tape was stained by this idea that I recall) an Elvis-ripoff song called “Rape My Life,” which has irritatingly never left my memory. The joke of that song was that it was the opposite of euphemistic, meaning that whereas a euphemism expresses something offensive in less offensive terms that might not even be recognized as offensive by innocent parties, this song was making a bland, unoffensive point (about changing ones life for the better) by using over-the-top, needlessly offensive language. One of the verses went like this: “I want to rape my life, want to do it in the eyes; I want to f*#% that skull ’till it’s paralyzed. I want to rape my life. I want to rape my life. I don’t need a gun, I don’t need a knife, I’m the man, I’m the one, I want to rape my life.” (Procedural point: it’s OK to say “fuck” in a blog post, but not when it’s next to the word “skull.”) My wife pretty much cried (not in a good way) when I sang it at her, even with my explanation of the subtle and complex humor involved, so away it went until now. Lucky fucking you.

Some technical crap: This was digitized from cassette with some processing back in 1994. My work on this just now was applying my bitchin’ noise reduction plugin-in to it after bouncing it (along with a dozen other old recordings, some of which showed digital glitches and things) from my decrepit DAT machine, which I purchased in 1993 and looks like this:

It apparently no longer rewinds, so I need to open the little tapes and spool them back by hand (well, with a little screwdriver, actually). Luckily, most of my master mixes (I used this as the mix destination all the way up through 1998.) have already long since been bounced to PC (the DAT is digital storage, so it’s just a matter of transferring the data, though you still have to actually play the tape while hitting “record” on the PC program), but I still have a small shelf of these tapes. I actually keep the DAT machine in my active stereo setup as a pass-through digital-analog converter for listening back to my computer and sometimes for digitizing cassettes; it’s not strictly necessary, but it’s convenient, and it doesn’t require that the machine be able to rewind.

Jun 032010

For the second entry in the New York Times’s series of online philosophy discussions, our friend Arthur Danto has posted an article about the MoMA’s ongoing display of veteran performance artist Marina Abramovic.

It describes this odd piece of performance art, wherein Marina sits on a chair in the museum with an empty chair across from her, and patrons can sit for as long as they want in the chair (one at a time, of course, leading to very long lines) and just sit with the artist, not talking, and this is apparently a potentially religious experience.

The piece is as usual beautifully described by Danto (don’t just go with my flippant description here), such that, like the avant garde works we discussed in our Danto episode, you get the conceptual point of the piece without having to actually be there; your imagination is likely better than the thing itself, I guess, given the posters’ complaints about the noise and crowds and all.

The respondents on the NY Times site are of course divided, and many are entirely dismissive of the piece described. Moreover, there’s some of bitching there about how Danto’s article is really not philosophy, and consequently the NY Times people in choosing him are doing philosophy a disservice. Well, I actually did post a response to that, though it should sound familiar already to those who listened to our episode.

Jun 022010

A few months back in response to a blog post where I lauded our podcast over/against other philosophy podcasts, Jon recommended Philosophy Bites, Little Atoms, and Philosophy: The Classics, among others.  Two of these have in common that Nigel Warburton is involved, which is a very good thing.

Nigel Warburton of the Open UniversityWarburton is a Philosopher and scholar of the history of Philosophy at The Open University and is involved in a number of other things (I won’t pretend to understand how all the Fellowships work).  From a media perspective, he’s a polymath, having published books; written, appeared in and produced television and radio programs; contributed to a multimedia museum presentation and recorded a number of podcasts.

Philosophy: The Classics is his reading of excerpts from his book of the same name.  Each episode is like a chapter summary, covering one philosopher and text.  Clocking in between 12 – 25 minutes or so, Warburton concisely and clearly explicates and explains the major themes in the work, gives some background on the philosopher and provides some criticisms.  As introductions for the lay reader, these are hard to beat, but even experienced students of philosophy will benefit from his framing of the motivations, problems, arguments and critiques of the texts.  For the topics we have covered in common, the diligent PEL adherent would certainly gain from listening to the corresponding episodes from P: TC (Aristotle, Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Mill, Kant) and the lazy PEL listener could even use his casts as a substitute for reading the texts.  Here’s the iTunes link.

P: TC is great, but it is through Philosophy Bites, however, where I feel Warburton is making a significant contribution to the world of philosophy that we inhabit, and the larger culture as well.  [Although he partners with David Edmonds, Warburton is the primary interlocutor so I'm giving him credit for what I like most about the podcast].  PB is a series of short, focused interviews around philosophical topics, specific philosophers as well as contemporary topics in ethics, politics, etc.  The interviewees are subject matter experts (SME) from the world of British academia, both current and past, with the occasional American or Aussie thrown in.

What is impressive about Warburton in each episode of PB is his deep understanding of the topic at issue as well as the SME’s point of view and his ability to turn that into concise, articulate and insightful questions which invite exposition and challenge the guest.  This skill is remarkably more difficult than it sounds and he does it phenomenally well – with genuine interest, reserve and occasionally, a bit of British wit.  While I am sure many of the interviewees are colleagues and acquaintances, it is not uncommon for them to express what sounds to me to be genuine surprise and delight at Warburton’s insightful questions that cut straight to key issues.  I get the sense that many are thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss something about which they are passionate with someone who cares enough not only to give them a forum, but also to be educated on the subject and, most importantly, rhetorically (or perhaps pedagogically) gifted enough to guide the conversation to cover issue, context, significance, position and challenges clearly in a short period of time.

There are well over 100 episodes covering a broad range of topics.  I enjoy most of the episodes about historical figures, have gained some insights through the more contemporary issue-focused episodes and have discovered a few personalities I didn’t previously know to whom I really like to listen (A.C. Grayling,  Quinton Skinner, Simon Blackburn).   Whether selectively or simply working through catalog as I have, I believe most PEL listeners will gain from checking out the podcast as well.

My admiration for Warburton’s style and commitment aside, let me enumerate a few of the ways that he is enriching our intellectual and cultural life:

  • He has created a bridge between traditional academia and ‘new media’, bringing philosophers and philosophical issues into broader consciousness with digital mass communication
  • Along with the Ideas themselves, he is exposing a broader audience to contemporary philosophy and in turn modern philosophers to an extra-academic audience
  • He is tremendously skilled at clearly framing questions and issues in such a way that they can be (mostly) understood by a lay audience in a digestible format
  • He’s generously sharing his knowledge of and respect for philosophy and the tradition
  • Philosophy Bites is a model for civil discourse, which is in catastrophically short supply not only in this field, but in social/mass media in general

A few of the limitations of the podcast, which are not criticisms:

  • It is fairly limited to the British/Analytic tradition and approach.  The majority of the participants are from British universities.
  • Depending on the topic and guest, there can be a lot of “-isms” thrown around.
  • Some of the dinosaur guests trot out the tired ‘clarity’ & ‘rigor’ refrain and do some continental bashing, which is tedious and unhelpful
  • Some of the topics may not have a lot of relevance for our peer audience (e.g. The Problem of Evil)

You’ll find that the comments on iTunes more or less reflect my opinion.  I want to reiterate, however, that Warburton through Philosophy Bites and other media is using his not inconsiderable skill, intellect, knowledge and experience as well as leveraging his network to bring Philosophy to a much broader audience and to do so in a way that hopefully will engage them.  It’s free and he’s demonstrated commitment over time and a generosity of spirit which is to be commended.  And so, I do.  Thank you, Nigel Warburton.


[ADDENDUM - Nigel sent me a very nice note of thanks and noted that David Edmonds is involved in the conception, structuring and editing of the interviews, the last of which is critical to making the episodes as coherent and smooth as they are.  We, certainly Mark, can appreciate that.

He also noted that there is a Philosophy Bites application now, which you can find here.  Use this code JFTH9NEXEHWL in the next couple of weeks for a free download.]