In this interview, David Chalmers, Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness at New York University, and Professor of Philosophy at Australian National University, discusses his criminal ancestry, growing up in Australia, what music looked like when he was a kid (he used to be a music-color synesthete), programming computers with punch cards in high school, korfball, majoring in math, developing an interest in Asian Philosophy and consciousness, being encouraged to study philosophy formally, delving into philosophy of mind and whipping up his grad school writing sample (in which he argues zombies are impossible), moving to Indiana and working with Doug Hofstadter, writing his dissertation which would eventually become The Conscious Mind, writer’s block, ultimate Frisbee, the relationship between luck, success, fame, and privilege in academia, landing his first job and teaching in a pleasant alternate dimension (Santa Cruz), moving to Arizona where he helped create and directed the Center of Consciousness Studies, the origin of PhilPapers, PhilJobs, PhilEvents and the future of the PhilX franchise, moving back to Australia and setting up a second consciousness research center, working at NYU and improving the atmosphere for graduate students there, the strangest thing he’s seen in NYC, the Hudson Valley, philosophy of technology, the effect of treating people we disagree with about diversity issues like cretins, romance in academia, ranking philosophy departments, topical diversity in philosophy, the pros and cons of specialization within philosophy, public philosophy, the role philosophy plays in his personal life, meeting Quine, his photo album of philosophers, conscious machines, leather jackets, Ziggy Stardust, Thelma and Louise, and his last meal...
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Sydney, Australia. My parents moved around. I spent about a year each in Boston and London as a preschooler, and I lived in a few different places in Sydney. When I was 9 we moved to Adelaide, where I stayed until I was 21.
What's your earliest memory?
I think I have just one memory from Sydney before we went overseas when I was three. I was standing with my brother and sister in the front garden of our place in Camperdown, waiting for my mother to come home from the school where she was teaching. I'm not really sure whether this is a memory, or just a memory of having a memory, as I've recalled this being my first memory so many times before. I have a few similar chain-memories from Boston and London, as well as a few photo-memories that coincide suspiciously well with photos that are still around. I don't think I have a consistent stream involving occasional newly recovered memories until we moved back to Sydney when I was five.
What did your parents do for a living? What were they like?
My father is a medical researcher who's still extremely active in his field at 79. He grew up in Egypt speaking French, and moved to Australia in 1947 when he was 10 along with his sister and his mother. His mother was a pianist who studied with Rubinstein in Cairo and then set up a piano school in Sydney (alas I didn't inherit any of the talent). He's done a lot of work especially on hypertension and has also helped to build major medical institutions in Adelaide and Sydney, while traveling constantly around the world and still somehow finding a huge amount of time for his family.
My biological mother has done many things -- teacher, shopkeeper, social worker, spiritualist, and scholar. For a long time she ran a store in Kings Cross, the seedy part of Sydney, really to minister to young people in trouble there. Later she set up a foundation running a halfway house in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney where drug addicts could come to get their lives back on track. These days she's mainly working on her own scholarly work on spiritual topics.
Various people have observed that it's not too hard to see how you put together a hardheaded scientist and a spiritualist and get me! I also recently discovered that I'm descended from four convicts on my mother's side (via her mother's mother): a forger, a burglar, a stocking thief, and a mutton thief who came across on the First Fleet. A few decades ago that would have been a mild embarrassment for an Australian, but now it's a point of pride.
My father and mother split when I was 5, and I lived with my father and stepmother from age 7 or so, so I have three parents. My stepmother is just as important as the other two! She's a physician who has just this year retired from working in hospitals in Sydney. She's also done a lot of work in medical education and helped to set up the new medical school at ANU a few years ago.
Do you have any siblings?
Yes, I have an older sister and three younger brothers, including a stepbrother who's two months younger than me. We're all pretty different. Growing up, Helen was the social one, I was the geek, Matt was the sportsman, Mike was the entrepreneur, and Johnny was the musician. Now we're in health, academia, finance, business, and media respectively, where everyone is doing great. The whole family – my parents and siblings, their partners and kids -- recently visited New York to help celebrate my 50th birthday. That was a lot of fun!
As a little kid, what did you do for fun?
Everyone tells me that I was a bookworm, always with my head in a book. I also remember a lot of time playing outside, though. In Sydney we lived near the harbour and had constant adventures in the mangroves lining the bay where we lived. In Adelaide we'd play in the creek running through our backyard and also ride bikes throughout the neighborhood.
Was there any sign you were going to grow up to be a philosopher?
Not that I can remember! For a long time I thought I'd be a scientist. My parents thought they figured out at one point that I wanted to be a physicist, and I was too embarrassed to say that it was really test tubes that I thought were cool. I didn't know much at all about philosophy. Various things helped get me interested in consciousness, though. As a child I was a music-color synaesthete--songs had colors for me. Somewhat disappointingly most songs were murky shades of brown or olive green, but every now and then there was something distinctive. I remember that "Here, There, and Everywhere" by the Beatles was bright red. The synesthesia went away around the age of 20. I have a journal entry from around then, saying "Songs don't have colors any more. What happened?" As a child, I'm not sure I realized there was anything special about this, but I think it helped get me fascinated by the world of sensory experience, especially the experience of color and the experience of music.
So, in high school, as a teen, did you start thinking about what you were going to do for a living or what you were going to major in at college?
In high school it became pretty clear that I was going to do math (or maths as I called it then, but for you I'll go with the American version). I loved math and did as much of it as I could absorb. I remember going to the State Library of South Australia each weekend and reading through all of Martin Gardner's "Mathematical Games" columns in Scientific American since the 1950s. I was into math competitions and math summer schools and pretty much saw myself becoming a mathematician.
The only likely alternative to math was something involving computers. I loved computers since I first played with one and wrote a little program in BASIC at my father's work when I was 10 or so. At my school we didn't have a computer but I used to write little programs by penciling in punched cards (!), sending them to the computer across town and getting a printout back the next day (which usually said "syntax error"). When the first microcomputers came out in 1978 I was obsessed by them, going into the computer store every afternoon to play with their Apple II. Eventually my parents got me my own.
What were you into? Art? Music? Science? Sports?
Science, definitely. I read all the popular science I could get my hands on. Art, not so much. Music, despite my lack of talent I played the cello for a few years and the piano after that, but it didn't really go anywhere. Sports I've always loved despite a similar lack of talent. I played cricket and Australian football in primary school, and they're still my biggest sporting passions, even though I was so bad at football that I got demoted to the age group younger than mine. My brother Matt and I would play Australia vs West Indies cricket matches across the road from our house until it became clear he was in a different league from me. I also played tennis for years on a team with my two other brothers. Later on at university I played korfball, which is a fairly obscure basketball-like sport from the Netherlands. I don't really play any sport any more but I still follow many sports (Australian, American, whatever) religiously over the web. In the last few years I've been to the World Cups for cricket and soccer, and I've just been to my third Olympics.
Wow! Were you a good student?
I guess so. Especially at math, where I won a lot of math competitions at the state and national level, and represented Australia in the Math Olympiad (that's a property I share with at least two other philosophers, Kevin Davey and Brian Weatherson). I was pretty patchy in the humanities. My English teacher used to complain (reasonably enough) about my playing with a Rubik's Cube during class.
Did you party?
I was an archetypal nerd in high school and didn't get invited to many parties. It didn't help that with all the moving I ended up a year younger than everyone else in my year at school -- though this did have the wonderful side effect that I was finished with high school by 16 and got to move on to university which was just a different world. At high school I had a few friends but mostly at parties I'd shuffle awkwardly. People who knew me back then are usually surprised that somehow I've turned into a socially functional guy. I did love the gatherings with other math geeks when we could all get together and revel in our geekiness and party in our own way.
So you say university was a different world. How so? Was it what you expected?
Intellectually I suppose it was roughly what I expected. Socially it was a different world. I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful group of friends in my first year there who taught me how to be a human being. We were all very young, and it was a time of adventure and emotional intensity. Later on I moved into a shared house where we spent all our time talking about ideas and figuring ourselves out. It's those things rather than academic things that stand out in my memory.
What else did you do in your spare time?
A large amount of reading. Lots of korfball and bike-riding. Bushwalking and camping with friends. I supported myself by working on a medical research project designing an algorithm for predicting heart disease outcomes based on exercise tests (it wasn't very successful).
Favorite classes? Least favorite classes?
I did mainly math, physics, and computer science (Australian degrees are much more focused than American ones). Most of the math classes were well-taught and interesting. Physics and computer science were a lot more mixed, though I now realize that this was just bad luck with instructors.
In my first year I had room for one extra class, and my mother (Alex, my stepmother) suggested that I take philosophy. I had only the dimmest idea of what philosophy was -- something to do with lots of old guys with beards. But I looked it up and the questions seemed pretty interesting. So I did a year's worth of philosophy. Graham Nerlich taught philosophy of science, Chris Mortensen taught philosophy of mind, and John Gill taught philosophy of religion. I also remember endless arguments with my tutor (teaching assistant) Philip Cam. I liked it quite a lot though I also did pretty badly: I got the equivalent of a B for the class (A for philosophy of science, B for philosophy of mind, C for philosophy of religion). So I ended up dropping the subject though I think it planted a seed.
A little coda: Twenty years later in 2003 I was invited back to the University of Adelaide to give a keynote address to the Australasian Association of Philosophy. I felt a little like the prodigal son and no doubt puffed myself up a bit in my old haunts. At one point I saw Graham Nerlich across the room for the first time since I was a student and walked up to him, saying "Professor Nerlich, I'm David Chalmers. You were my first teacher in philosophy". He was perfectly nice, but his face was a complete blank -- didn't remember me, didn't recognize the name. So much for being a prodigal son.
Ha! You ended up getting a BA in mathematics...did you consider doing anything else?
It had always seemed my destiny to be a mathematician and for the most part I didn't question it. I've always loved computers and I suppose the obvious alternative was something in that area. Perhaps a decade or two later, information technology would have seemed more intellectually exciting than mathematics and I might have gone that way, but in the mid-1980s this wasn't so clear. I did keep thinking about philosophical problems, though mostly for fun on the side rather than as a serious career possibility. I was more or less obsessed by the problem of consciousness, and used to badger my friends about my theory that like numbers, consciousness was an "abstraction". I even gave my big final-year presentation to the math department on that topic, modestly presenting a solution to the problems of the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of mind in one blow. I'm not sure what the mathematicians made of it. But despite all that I don't think I seriously considered going into philosophy as a career.
So you went to Oxford for grad school in mathematics?
Yes -- for Australians like me, Oxford and Cambridge were always presented as the holy places of academia. If there were any more objective guides to graduate school in math back then, I didn't know about them. My advisor (Bill Moran) mentioned a few places like Princeton and Berkeley but he told me that I couldn't do better than work with Michael Atiyah at Oxford. So when Atiyah responded positively and I got a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, it seemed like everything had come together.
What made you turn away from mathematics?
It's a long story. Before starting at Oxford I hitchhiked around Europe for four months or so. I'd done a bit of hitchhiking in Australia and enjoyed it. It was a great way to meet people and see all sorts of small towns in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, England, and Scotland. Of course I spent plenty of the time by the side of the road, and I read various philosophical books along the way. Not analytic philosophy -- I still didn't really know about that then. I read things like the Tao Te Ching, The Tao is Silent by Raymond Smullyan, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, philosophical novels by Umberto Eco and Hermann Hesse, and Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse (a neglected classic in the philosophy of living, I think). Somehow all that got me into thinking more and more about philosophy and especially about consciousness.
When I got to Oxford I thought I'd settle down and study math, but that didn't happen. The mathematics I was studying did nothing for me. It began to seem arid and disconnected from the really fundamental issues that had gotten me into the field in the first place. Instead I kept thinking obsessively about consciousness, writing all my thoughts down in a little notebook I carried around.
In retrospect, although I was at Oxford for just over a year, it was intellectually the most important and exciting year of my life. I remember attending the launch of a book on consciousness at Blackwell's bookstore in late 1987 (it was Mindwaves, edited by Colin Blakemore and Susan Greenfield), and having what struck me at the time as a great insight. Like many great insights it hasn't worn so well with time, but the rough idea was that there has to be a tight connection between the mechanisms by which we talk about consciousness and the basis of consciousness itself. I elaborated this into an argument that beings that are functionally and behaviorally like us but that lack consciousness are impossible -- or at least that if they're possible, the mind-body problem would be unsolvable (roughly because there would be unresolvable arguments between those beings and us). This all connected to my old ideas about consciousness as an abstraction, now in a new guise of consciousness as the information carried by a pattern.
I was very excited about all this and tried to convey my amazing insight to various others. I thought I should talk to a philosopher, so I walked into the Subfaculty of Philosophy on Merton Street and encountered Dan Isaacson, the philosopher of mathematics who was one of the few philosophers with offices there. I talked a bit with Dan, and he said I should talk with the philosophers of mind interested in the mind-body problem, mentioning Colin McGinn and Kathy Wilkes. So I went and knocked on Colin's door in the psychology building, and he let me in and we had an hour-long argument about my ideas. He wasn't very impressed by them and I left feeling a bit depressed and squelched, but in retrospect I give him credit for at least listening and taking a stranger seriously. By now I've certainly got to know the phenomenon of the arrogant mathematician or scientist who thinks they can solve all the problems of philosophy! Colin did say that if I wanted to develop the ideas seriously, I should really get some training in philosophy, which I started to think about. I also visited Kathy Wilkes with whom I had a very pleasant discussion over sherry, and she reinforced the idea that I should think about getting some training. Kathy gave a talk on thought experiments around that time, put on by the undergraduate philosophy club, that may have been the first philosophy talk I ever went to, and which I think was partly responsible for some of my later interest in thought-experiments and modality.
I had still hardly read any analytic philosophy. I had come across a few things in Hofstadter and Dennett's collection The Mind's I -- notably Dennett's "Where am I?", which I loved, Searle's "Minds, Brains, and Programs,” which was interesting and infuriating, and Nagel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” which I found difficult to read but which must have had some influence. Later on that year I encountered Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons, which I loved and gave me a sense of how powerful analytic philosophy can be when done clearly and accessibly. I also read Pat Churchland's Neurophilosophy, which gave a nice overview of contemporary philosophy of mind as well as neuroscience, and provided a lot to disagree with.
Around this point I thought that I needed a proper education in philosophy, and I started thinking seriously about switching programs. Most of my friends and family thought I was crazy, as I had a good track record in math and no track record in philosophy. I had to acknowledge that objectively I had little evidence that I had much capacity for the subject, but I still felt compelled to try. It was liberating in a way, as if I was truly exercising free will for the first time. It felt as if my whole life I had been on a train track toward a career in mathematics, and now I was careening off-track and who knew where it would lead?
I was lucky enough that my scholarship wasn't tied to any particular program. So I met with the warden of Rhodes House, Robin Fletcher, and told him about my situation and that I was thinking of switching to an undergraduate program in philosophy, probably PPE (philosophical politics economics), in order to get a proper training. I was amazed when he suggested that I should look at going straight into a graduate program (the BPhil program) instead. That would be simply impossible in mathematics and it made me think that perhaps philosophy was a subject without serious standards. But I went to see Michael Dummett, who was director of graduate studies at Oxford at that time. It was the only time I ever met him, and I had no idea who he was philosophically, but I was struck by his gravitas, his kindness, and his aura of white stained with cigarette yellow -- the hair, the teeth, the wallpaper in his office. He was very encouraging. In retrospect of course it's not surprising that he liked the idea of mathematicians going into philosophy. He told me that I should apply to the BPhil program and that I'd need to write up two papers as writing samples.
I spent my Christmas break writing up a paper on "Intelligent Behavior and Consciousness" and one on "Mind, Pattern, and Information" and submitted them. Those papers have any number of flaws but I still like them. The first is in effect an argument for the impossibility of zombies -- though I think at the time I still wasn't entirely clear on the distinctions between different sorts of possibility. They're still on my website somewhere.
I was accepted by the B.Phil program, but at the same time I had doubts that Oxford was the right place for me. Oxford philosophy seemed mainly to be a priori, and I very much wanted to make connections with science. The philosophy graduate students in my college (Lincoln) seemed mostly to be Wittgensteinians. When I said that I was interested in consciousness, one of them said I should study how the word 'conscious' is used in our language games. That set the tone for the place for me, perhaps wrongly. In retrospect there was one philosopher in my college, Barry Dainton, whose interests were very close to mine, but we didn't really connect at the time. Another complicating factor was that my advisor, Michael Atiyah, had returned to Oxford after being away for my first term, and made the case that I shouldn't give up mathematics so quickly. He was an inspiring and extremely enthusiastic figure. I remember him charging around his office imitating a magnetic monopole, after I had asked him if he could make a certain mathematical idea more intuitive. I often had renewed enthusiasm after my meetings with him, but it only lasted half an hour or so. It still seemed to me that the mind posed the most exciting unsolved problems in the intellectual world, and that was where I wanted to focus. But it wasn't yet clear what was the best path to doing that.
How did you end up at Indiana?
Around this time I sent a letter to Doug Hofstadter along with the two papers I had written. I had read and loved all of his books. Gödel, Escher, Bach, which I read around age 13, remains to this day the book that's had by far the most influence on me. Reading The Mind's I around age 15 was my first exposure to the philosophy of mind and consciousness. He liked what I sent him and we started a correspondence. He told me that he'd seen many promising minds go "down the drain" into philosophy and he hoped that I wouldn't be one of them (I'm sure that I'm now one of them!) -- though it was also Doug who recommended to me that I read Reasons and Persons.
At one point he suggested that I move to Indiana and join the new research group he was setting up as part of the new cognitive science program there. He was moving back to Indiana himself after a few years at Michigan. I had no idea where Indiana was. My American friends at Oxford told me that I'd be in the middle of cornfields and in the conservative heartland. But I ended up visiting and hit it off with Doug and his group, who were full of ideas about every intellectual topic under the sun. I also discovered that Bloomington is surprisingly beautiful and something of an intellectual oasis in the midwest. I liked the idea of being in a broad and open-minded interdisciplinary environment and able to follow paths into AI, cognitive science, or philosophy, depending on how things worked out. It seemed an ideal situation to me, so with some regrets I picked up sticks at Oxford and moved to Indiana.
Did you apply to other grad programs?
Just Oxford and Indiana. Other graduate programs weren't even on my radar screen. It's an interesting question whether it would have made a difference if the web and something like the Gourmet Report were around then. No doubt I'd have come across it and at least thought about other places. But at the same time I had strong resistance to the idea of going to a conventional program where I'd have to conform to a standard philosophical training. Indiana worked out pretty well for me. I have no idea whether things would have worked out so well somewhere else.
Given the fact that you didn't major in philosophy, did you feel prepared?
I was actually enrolled in computer science for my first year or so at Indiana. It was an exciting time in AI, with a huge amount of excitement about neural networks and other new bottom-up architectures such as genetic algorithms and Doug’s own Copycat architecture.
I spent a fair amount of time working on those issues, and went to conferences and published papers on those topics. Consciousness remained my first love, though, and it became pretty clear that the only way I could work on it the way I wanted to was through philosophy. So I switched to the philosophy program. I wasn't at all well-prepared for it and I remember at first feeling intimidated by the real philosophy graduate students in philosophy classes. I didn't feel that I could "walk the walk" and "talk the talk" the way that other philosophers could. But the subject resonated with me all the same, and before long I came to feel that philosophy was a natural home for me.
My graduate school training was patchy. I did a lot of cognitive science and a somewhat random assortment of courses in philosophy. Some of my favorite classes were in the history of philosophy – I remember especially medieval logic with Paul Spade and German social and political philosophy with Fred Beiser. The medieval logic course was responsible for my one publication in the history of philosophy to date, on Ockham's mental language. I still have huge holes in my philosophical education. I've never taken a course on ancient philosophy, early modern philosophy, or non-Western philosophy. I've also never taken a course in the philosophy of mind (apart from a component in the intro class at Adelaide) or the philosophy of language. I mostly picked up those areas along the way by reading.
In the philosophy of mind, I decided that I would just read everything that was out there, in order to be able to pass myself off as a specialist in the subject. So I started reading paper after paper, spending any number of hours in the library going through books and back issues of journals. I also made up a systematic bibliography of the field, mostly to teach myself what was going on. After a while it got big enough that I shared it with some friends, and eventually put it online, where years later it evolved into the online service MindPapers and then PhilPapers. I still have a geeky passion for taxonomy and I think that taxonomy of the philosophy of mind genuinely helped me to understand it.
What was the atmosphere like? Friendly? Competitive? Still friends with anyone from back then?
I spent most of my time in Doug's research group, which was in a wonderful big house off campus. Most of the graduate students there spent all day and much of the night there (some were even known to sleep overnight). I was the only philosopher in the group, along with mainly computer scientists working on AI and the odd psychologist. It was a great atmosphere where we'd talk about everything under the sun. Doug wasn't around quite so much, but we'd have weekly lab meetings and also regular workshops on topics from humour to sexism to creativity. I got my training in AI, cognitive science, and a lot more very much from that group. I remember especially Bob French, Liane Gabora, Jim Marshall, Gary McGraw, and Melanie Mitchell. They've all gone on to successful careers in computer science and psychology, and I've seen them all on and off over the years.
I didn't really hang out with philosophy graduate students much until the second half of my time there, when I got to know a bunch of people much better. There was a terrific group, including quite a few who have had impact on the field. I was closest to Güven Güzeldere, who later transferred to Stanford and edited a major collection on consciousness, and Gregg Rosenberg, who arrived toward the end of my time at Indiana. Gregg and I had endless conversations about consciousness where he nudged me toward panpsychism. His book A Place for Consciousness has since become something of a cult classic in the literature on those topics. Others in the philosophy of mind included Tony Chemero (who has done well-known work in embodied cognitive science), Craig DeLancey (who has an excellent book on the emotions), and Allen Houng (who did important work on levels and has since trained many Taiwanese students who have gone on to successful careers). There were also a bunch of people in and around logic and the philosophy of science. The atmosphere was good although perhaps there wasn't the degree of cohesion and intellectual excitement that there was on the cognitive science side of things.
How did you figure out what you were going to write the dissertation on?
I always wanted to write about consciousness and never really wavered. I enjoyed working on AI topics as well, though, and a number of people advised me to specialize in that area, in part because that was a hot topic. Consciousness was perceived as the opposite. When I started graduate school, it was seen as basically dead outside philosophy and at best a backburned issue within the philosophy of mind, where all the focus was on intentionality and computation. But that made the topic feel wide open and exciting, which it ultimately proved to be. It also helped that during my time in graduate school, people like Dan Dennett (in philosophy), Francis Crick and Christof Koch (in neuroscience), and Roger Penrose (in physics) wrote well-publicized works on consciousness, gradually drawing people back to the area.
I wanted to write a big-picture treatment of consciousness in philosophy and science and at the same time put forward a positive theory of consciousness. In my first couple of years at Indiana I wrote two long articles (still unpublished except on the web) pursuing the connection between consciousness and the way we talk about consciousness, but I also gradually got drawn into issues about materialism and dualism. I had come to graduate school thinking of myself as a materialist (albeit one who was very impressed by the problem of consciousness), but I gradually realized that commitments I already had meant that materialism couldn't work, and I should be some sort of dualist or perhaps panpsychist. I started thinking a lot about zombies, supervenience, and two-dimensional semantics. Somehow I had the idea that all that would just make up the first ground-clearing chapter of my dissertation before I got on to the positive ideas, but of course it ended up taking on a life of its own. At the same time a positive theory of consciousness was what I was most interested, and I tried to at least take a stab at that in the dissertation too. I called the thing Toward a Theory of Consciousness.
Who did you work with?
Doug Hofstadter was my main advisor. We co-authored a paper on AI issues, but we didn't work closely on the dissertation. I showed it to him and got some useful comments, but he found it a bit foreign. I think it was partly the philosophical jargon, and partly the nonreductionist views that I advocated. He says as much as in his 2007 book I am a Strange Loop, which is about consciousness and the self and has chapters addressing the knowledge argument and zombies. Doug had (and has) an adjunct appointment in philosophy, but I needed a philosopher as co-advisor, and Mike Dunn took on that role. He's a logician but has a side interest in the philosophy of mind and gave me some useful feedback. My other committee members were Tim van Gelder (who had been doing a lot of work on the philosophy of connectionism and dynamic systems) and Rob Goldstone (who had recently joined the psychology department working on concepts and perception). I think the committee was a bit bemused by the dissertation, but they took it seriously and gave me a hard time at my dissertation defense.
Was writing the dissertation difficult?
Yes. It was especially difficult to get started. By my fourth year at Indiana I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to write, but I spent almost a year staring at a blank screen and not actually writing anything. Instead I'd procrastinate by reading another book, another paper, or messing around online. I’m a long-time Internet addict -- in those pre-web days, I'd occupy myself by posting to Usenet newsgroups such as comp.ai.philosophy. That proved philosophically useful in its own right, and I ended up getting an article or two out of those discussions, but it wasn't what I was supposed to be working on. Finally one October evening the floodgates came down, the writing came rushing through, and I had an extended outline of the whole dissertation by morning. I spent the next six months working away at it nonstop and finished the thing by the following April.
People usually laugh when I tell them that I suffer from writers' block. I've managed to be productive over the years by getting a lot done in periods of flow like that period in 1992-93. I had another in the early 2000s at Arizona and a very good period in my last few years at ANU. But in between, writing for me is like pulling teeth. In my three-and-a-half years at Santa Cruz in the late 1990s, all I wrote was two reply pieces. I had two long articles written just before moving there with encouraging R&R's at Mind and Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and I couldn't bring myself to revise them, so I never resubmitted. I've also given any number of talks (many of which can be found on my website) that I regret never writing up as full papers.
While this is small potatoes as mental pathologies go, it's still a reasonably serious disease of the will that has all sorts of follow-on effects on the way I live my life. I've seen therapists and read books about this over the years and have found a few things that help. One thing that helped a lot in Canberra was separate offices for writing and internet. Another thing that helped (I'm a little ashamed to say) was trying less hard to write well. I think the style of my writing was much better early in my career, but my current boring style is clear and serviceable enough to get the main points across, and that way the articles actually get written. It can still be a struggle, though. I've just written my first article after moving full-time to New York two years ago. For some reason other sorts of writing, like doing interviews for philosophy blogs, is much easier. Maybe I should do more of my writing this way!
What did you do to unwind?
I went to many movies (something of an addiction during my writers' block period), played ultimate frisbee, and hung out with friends. I also loved the countryside around Bloomington and spent countless afternoons riding my bike or driving my car on the back roads there. I especially remember the lazy Indiana summer evenings when everyone would sit out on their porches and watch the fireflies.
In grad school, how did you evolve philosophically?
First of all, I learned some academic philosophy, when I didn't really know anything much at the start. Second, I gained an interest in areas of philosophy far beyond the philosophy of mind. It turned out that to help myself get clear on issues arising in the mind-body problem, I had to think about metaphysics, the philosophy of language, epistemology, the philosophy of science, meta-ethics, and more. Those issues ended up really coming alive for me. Third, I gained an appreciation for the fine-grained tools of analytic philosophy, e.g. those involving modality, supervenience, and philosophical semantics. The jargon is initially alienating for many interested people outside philosophy, and it’s great when one can do without it -- but I came to see that technical tools are essential in almost any field, and philosophy isn't an exception. Fourth, I gained an appreciation for a priori philosophy. I’ve always seen philosophy as continuous with science, but after a while it becomes clear the impact of science on many of the really big questions in philosophy is more limited than one might have hoped. Even when people bring in the science, it's often a background non-empirical philosophical premise that's doing the work. So the ex-mathematician in me came to the view that one shouldn't be afraid to cut to the underlying issues using non-empirical reasoning. In the end, a lot of my dissertation had that character, though I also spent a lot of time before and after engaging with the empirical science of consciousness.
What was the job market like when you finished?
I had mixed success my first time on the job market. I had quite a few publications, but most of them at that point were in AI and cognitive science, and to many departments I didn't look much like a philosopher. The job market was pretty bad in those days, and job candidates didn't get much help from the department at Indiana. A lot of my friends ended up without jobs at least for a while, and some (like Gregg Rosenberg) left philosophy for other careers. I did OK -- I had three interviews at the APA (I remember walking round and round in circles around the edges of the smoker) and a flyout to the University of Chicago, which I botched by giving my writing sample as a job talk when they were looking for something different. Fortunately, Andy Clark was moving to Washington University in St. Louis to set up a new Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology program, and he offered me a two-year postdoc, mainly because of the work I'd done on connectionism. That job turned out to be perfect for me.
You wrote The Conscious Mind when you were living in St. Louis, right?
Actually, The Conscious Mind is just a lightly revised and expanded version of my Ph.D. dissertation. I added three new chapters to the end (which had been outlined in an appendix to the dissertation), and changed and polished a few things along the way while keeping the same structure. I think the biggest change was changing "prior" and "posterior" intensions (for two-dimensional semantic values) to "primary" and "secondary" intensions. I taught a graduate seminar using the dissertation in my first year at St. Louis, with the terrific graduate students giving me some useful feedback, and then I revised it for publication in the second year. Of course there are any number of things I'd change about the book now, given that it was mostly written after only four years or so of doing philosophy. The press did make me change the title. They said "Toward a Theory of Consciousness" was too boring -- though I kept a slightly jazzed-up echo of the old title in the subtitle, "In Search of a Fundamental Theory". I have a long list of alternative titles somewhere. I think my favorite was "Songs of Supervenience and Experience".
haha…I imagine you had no idea it was going to be such a big deal when you were writing it. When did you realize you had a hit on your hands?
A lot of it was lucky circumstances. The science of consciousness was undergoing a resurgence in the 1990s and many people didn't know quite what to make of it. In St. Louis I saw an advertisement for an interdisciplinary conference on"Toward a Scientific Basis of Consciousness", to be held in Tucson in April 1994. I submitted an abstract with my take on the issues, expecting it would probably be a poster presentation or something like that, but the organizer, Stuart Hameroff, liked it enough that he put me in the opening session on philosophy following Owen Flanagan and Alvin Goldman. In the first few minutes I talked about the "hard problem" and "easy problems" of consciousness and followed it with a sketch of my nonreductionist approach. The material on the hard problem resonated with the audience far more than I could have expected it to (since I was saying something both well-known and obvious) and later speakers kept referring back to the idea. Partly as a result I ended up having productive exchanges with a number of terrific people such as Christof Koch, Ben Libet, and Roger Penrose. After the conference I went on a trip to the Grand Canyon with Stuart, Roger, and a bunch of others. I remember spending my 28th birthday walking down to the inner rim of the canyon, arguing about Godel's theorem with Penrose, and then having him beat me back up (at age 60) by two hours or so.
There was a fair amount of media coverage of the conference. In particular John Horgan from “Scientific American” was a ubiquitous presence and wrote an article about the conference in which I played a large role. I didn't much like what he said (he said that I said science can't solve the hard problem but philosophy can – something I'd never say), and he said I should write my own article for the magazine. That article ended up coming out in December 1995 and was probably read by more people than anything else I've written. A somewhat more academic version of the article came out in the Journal of Consciousness Studies and there was a series of responses. So by the time The Conscious Mind came out in April 1996 the pump had been primed. Another helpful coincidence was that the chess match between Kasparov and Deep Blue happened right around the time the book was released, and Robert Wright wrote a cover story for Time magazine on issues about machine consciousness in which my book played a central role -- mainly I think to serve as a sort of vehicle for Wright's own views. So I had an enormous amount of good fortune in having awareness of the book raised both inside and outside the academic community.
Of course I wasn't only lucky but privileged. It's not a coincidence that I'm a white Anglophone man from an upper middle-class academic family. It's easy to be blind to those benefits initially, but after a while you can get a sense of them operating. I’ve always been reasonably confident that things would work out for me, and most of the time, the people around me have had confidence in me too. Both of those things are much more common for people with a background like mine. Those things eased the way to get me to the point where a big dollop of luck could do its thing. Counterfactually, if I'd lacked one or another dimension of privilege, who knows if I would even have gotten to the point where lightning struck, and if I had, who knows whether the lightning would have struck in the same way.
Good to hear you say that last part, I think it is really easy to take for granted that stuff. Were there any negative unintended consequences of the success?
It would be ridiculous to complain. The overall consequences for me were hugely positive. Of course not everything was a bed of roses. At least initially, there were plenty of raised eyebrows about this unknown guy who was attracting a lot of attention for saying the obvious (that consciousness is a hard problem). That was fair enough, and I was glad to have the book following up with a lot more
substance in it. I had the sense that some of the early reviewers of the book were responding to the media coverage rather than to the book per se, but that's also to be expected. After a while that sort of thing settled down and the book seemed to be taken by philosophers as a serious academic work. When there was criticism early on, I tried not to hold grudges. I knew that resentment would just make me miserable, so even out of self-interest it made sense just to move on. As a result some early skeptics have ended up as friends. At the same time a lot of people outside academia read the book. I still get emails today from people who have read it, and 20 years on that still makes me happy.
I count myself as lucky in all sorts of ways here. Aside from the obvious professional benefits of success, there are some less obvious personal benefits. I think it made me a somewhat more tolerable person. As a graduate student I often felt the need to prove myself, with sometimes obnoxious results. I don't feel that so much anymore. I'd say that's a sort of moral luck, and I'm grateful for it.
Did you get the gig at Santa Cruz before the book was published?
I went on the job market for the second time in December 1994, when the book was under contract but not yet published. After a couple of years as a postdoc, I was less naive about professional philosophy, and this time I had letters from well-known philosophers such as David Lewis, who had read my dissertation and liked it. I think it's fair to say that I encountered some skepticism, perhaps partly due to my lack of real philosophical training, but I had plenty of APA interviews and campus visits. There were a lot of great people on the market, and many of them ended up becoming firm friends. I remember that for a job at Cornell, for example, the six finalists were Tamar Gendler, Alva Noë, Jenny Saul, Jason Stanley, Zoltan Szabo, and me. In retrospect that was good company to be in! I ended up deciding between job offers from Johns Hopkins, Rice, and UC Santa Cruz. The first two had better-known departments with graduate programs, but I fell in love with Santa Cruz, and after seven years in the midwest I wanted to be near the ocean.
Did you enjoy Santa Cruz?
The town of Santa Cruz is a magical place. I lived in a tiny wooden cottage in someone's backyard, just a block from the ocean. The campus was beautiful, with redwood trees everywhere, and the philosophy building had a wonderful view over Monterey Bay. I had great colleagues. Alva Noë was hired at the same time as me, and we had a terrific little group of people working in the philosophy of
mind and cognitive science (also including Jerry Neu, Barbara Scholz, and eventually John Doris). I also talked a lot with the superb linguists who were just next door, including Geoff Pullum and Bill Ladusaw. The university was full of all sorts of characters. I'd chat with Tom Lehrer about math puzzles in the mail room, and I'd see Judith Butler and Angela Davis wandering around. My partner at the time lived in Berkeley and then in an artists' colony in the Santa Cruz mountains, so I'd drive up and down route 1 along the ocean all the time in my little convertible. I'd also frequently drive over the hill to Stanford, where there was a weekly seminar on consciousness that Güven Güzeldere organized at CSLI.
There was no graduate program in philosophy, but I threw myself into undergraduate teaching. It was the first undergraduate teaching I'd done, and I enjoyed it a great deal. There were no grades at UC Santa Cruz then and the students were idealistic and enthusiastic. We had a lot of freedom about what to teach. In addition to philosophy of mind staples, I recall teaching classes on the meaning of life (using the Tao Te Ching and Carse's book, among other readings), the philosophy of the universe, and paradoxes and dilemmas, as well as courses based on Hofstadter's and Parfit's books.
I suppose that I was still finding my way as a professional philosopher at this time. Despite the ridiculous success I still had some phenomenology of being an outsider to the profession, and I didn't get a lot of writing done. But at the same time Santa Cruz was just a wonderful part of the world to be in. A few years after I left I co-organized a six-week NEH Summer Institute at UCSC with David Hoy
(who had been my chair there), and it was great to be back.
How did Arizona lure you away?
I loved Santa Cruz, but I felt the absence of a graduate program. That contributed to the faint sense of unreality and epiphenomenality that I got from being there. It felt a little like living in an alternate dimension. The Arizona desert is also a really beautiful place, especially in the hills outside Tucson where I ended up living, and there were more opportunities to make a difference by being there. I'd already had a lot of involvement with Arizona through the consciousness conferences, which I'd helped to organize starting with the second one in 1996. I'd also helped the people there get funding for a new Center for Consciousness Studies, which had just started up and which I ended up directing. I think that was the first center of its kind (there are now quite a few) and the chance to help grow the field was a major attraction. The initiative for the offer actually came from the philosophers, who of course were a superb group with a strong PhD program and also a strong cognitive science program to match. In the end I was more professionally engaged at Arizona than in Santa Cruz, and in retrospect my five or six years there were more fulfilling.
How did you like it there?
I liked the department at Arizona a great deal. There were (and are) so many wonderful people here. I'd mention a few names but the moment I do that, it's pretty much the whole department. The chair, Chris Maloney, saw it as his mission to believe in everyone in the department and make sure that everyone was as happy and fulfilled as possible. That created a really congenial atmosphere. It was also nice to suddenly be a senior member of the department with real responsibilities.
I think what made the biggest difference for me was the graduate program. There was a great group of students then, and I got a huge amount from working with them. This was partly through teaching seminars and supervising dissertations, partly through philosophical conversation and partly due to just being in touch with students as director of graduate studies, which I did for three years. For me that responsibility helped me move from an essentially self-involved way of inhabiting the profession (reflected in the narrative above!) to a more other-involved way. Of course undergraduate teaching does that to some extent, but at least for me that commitment is more limited and separable. Graduate students are more like family and what happens in graduate school will shape their whole career. So working with them is a special privilege that for me adds some weight to the sometimes weightless life of a philosopher.
You moved to Australia in 2004. Why did you return? Sounds like you had a good thing going in Arizona. Was the move to ANU because of family?
ANU was a moment when all the stars aligned. I loved Arizona but I was ready for a new challenge. I'd always hoped to return to Australia at some point. My family is there and I strongly identify as Australian, even if my accent is by now an unholy mongrel. The Australian government introduced some attractive fellowships to lure successful Australians back from overseas, including major research support that I could use to set up a Center for Consciousness. And of course ANU is an amazing place for philosophy. I'd visited a few times and had a terrific time when I visited for two months in summer 2003. It feels like the whole philosophical world passes through there. I've always had a lot of sympathy with the so-called "Canberra Plan" associated with ANU philosophers such as Frank Jackson, Philip Pettit, Michael Smith, and Daniel Stoljar. So when ANU asked me about applying for one of those fellowships, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.
It worked out even better than I expected. The highly informal but intense philosophical atmosphere at ANU was perfect for me. The daily afternoon teas are famous for relaxed philosophical discussion, and the multiple talks each week are a model of productive philosophical interaction. I learned all sorts of things from my colleagues. We organized one conference after another on central topics in philosophy. The Center for Consciousness brought in a series of superb postdocs and visitors. Something in the water at ANU means that almost everyone there thrives, especially graduate students. I ended up directing Ph.D. dissertations in a wide range of areas (philosophy of language, metaphysics, philosophy of physics, formal epistemology, and decision theory, as well as philosophy of mind) and everyone ended up doing great. I got more writing done there than anywhere else I've been. I even grew fond of Canberra, which Australians love to denigrate. It's not much of a city but the natural bush environment is gorgeous. It was also great to have my family just up the road in Sydney. On the side, my student David Bourget and I set up PhilPapers, which turned into a huge thing.
Yeah, you mentioned PhilPapers earlier. How did MindPapers evolve into PhilPapers?
In late 2004 I got an email out of the blue from David Bourget, a French-Canadian graduate student in Toronto. He had written some cool software that added a number of features to my philosophy of mind bibliography. It turned out that he was both a superb software engineer and a terrific philosopher of mind working on consciousness. We corresponded and before long he moved to ANU to work on his Ph.D. with me. In his spare time he developed the bibliography software further and around 2007 we released it as MindPapers. Somewhere around this point we realized that it wouldn't be too hard to extend the MindPapers software to all of philosophy, so David worked on that and at the start of 2009 we released it as PhilPapers. We originally conceived it as mainly a database of online work in philosophy, but of course it rapidly became the case that almost everything in philosophy was available online, so with a bit more work the thing ended up turning into a giant index of everything.
We had a lot of little adventures along the way. For example, we made the mistake of launching PhilPapers on the same day I was going to a Leonard Cohen concert outdoors in Bowral, halfway between Canberra and Sydney. The concert had just started when I got an urgent message from David saying that an online publisher had emailed a dean at ANU saying that we were stealing their material, and the dean had taken the site offline to be safe. We responded by pointing out that we were only linking to the publisher's website and everything was sorted out within a few hours. I ended up spending most of the concert messaging on my iPhone, though, which pretty much ruined the experience for me! Later the same publisher became a big supporter of PhilPapers, once they realized that we were actually driving traffic their way.
For a few years the future of PhilPapers was quite uncertain, but now it's suddenly in good shape. David got a tenure-track position at Western Ontario that supports both his philosophy work and his PhilPapers work. He's busy enough that there's now a small army of programmers doing the work he used to do. That costs money, but we have financial support from libraries around the world who see PhilPapers as a valuable service. It took us a while to twig to this model, but it's been a resounding success with a large majority of major university libraries subscribing. So we now have the resources to keep PhilPapers going and also introduce new services from time to time. PhilJobs and PhilEvents seem to have been pretty successful. Our next service will be PhilPeople, a database of philosophers which will allow searches on multiple dimensions and will have all sorts of cool features. That should be released in beta form before long.
Of course David is the genius behind all this and has done the work that really matters, but I'm proud to have been involved. I still spend a fair amount of time on PhilPapers, both on high-level decisions and on maintaining and expanding the category system and interacting with our 600+ volunteer editors. It's been very interesting to correspond with editors about the best way to build a taxonomy of philosophy in areas from Chinese philosophy to business ethics to feminist philosophy. If anyone out there has suggestions about how to refine the taxonomy further in any area, feel free to drop me an email!
Huge Leonard Cohen fan. Also, PhilJobs is amazingly useful. How did you end up at NYU?
When my five-year fellowship at ANU was running out, a few American places approached me. NYU was especially appealing, partly because of the great philosophers there and partly because of the draw of New York City. I didn't want to leave ANU, but I arranged to spend one semester per year visiting NYU, starting in fall 2009. That ended up being a pretty good arrangement. The excitement of New York was a blast after the quiet life of Canberra, but after a semester there I also enjoyed getting back to the peace and quiet. That arrangement couldn't be sustained indefinitely, though. Canberra was very comfortable for me both philosophically and personally, but after ten years or so, it felt almost too comfortable, while New York felt like more of a challenge. So I accepted a permanent position at NYU in 2012, and after five years of back-and-forth I moved to New York full time in 2014, keeping a fractional position at ANU for the northern summers.
What is it like working at the place that is considered, by many, the best place to study philosophy on the planet?
NYU is a great place to do philosophy. The best things about it are the superb colleagues and graduate students and all the activities involving them. People are busier than at ANU, but there's still plenty of interaction. There's a lot of joint teaching: I've co-taught graduate seminars with Ted Sider (on the grounds of intentionality), Michael Strevens (on philosophical analysis), Ned Block (on the philosophy of mind), and this fall I'm co-teaching with Matthew Liao (on the philosophy of technology). In the philosophy of mind, it has been great to have Ned Block and Tom Nagel as colleagues. We have strongly overlapping interests in consciousness, with Ned leaning toward cognitive science, Tom toward traditional philosophy, and me somewhere in the middle. Ned and I have set up a Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness that runs debates, conferences, and other activities that bring together many interested philosophers and cognitive scientists from the New York City area.
Life in the city is full of unpredictability. I meet all sorts of interesting people in New York that I'd never meet in Canberra, and I get asked to do all sorts of surprising things. In the last year I've been a judge for an art exhibit and a film festival, for example, and I’ve been in any number of interesting panel discussions. All the activity in the city can be draining of both time and energy -- there's always something else to do. As a result I don't think I've ever got any serious writing done in the city. I knew that was coming and bought a house in the woods in the Hudson Valley about an hour north of the city, in addition to renting an NYU apartment in the city. My partner and I love to escape to the woods whenever we can. We work away amidst the beautiful surroundings and just revel in the peace and quiet. Right now I'm looking out my window at a little pond with frogs croaking away after the rain. Admittedly the only writing I'm doing is for a blog, but it's a start.
I'm from the Catskills! What's the strangest thing you've ever seen in NYC?
It would have to be Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. The blackout made the whole place feel post-apocalyptic. I remember trekking uptown for meals and downtown to the two NYU buildings with power for charging. I had no power at home but unlike many people I had running water, so friends would stop by to use the bathroom. In the middle of it I had an impromptu Halloween party. I sent an email out that afternoon, and despite the blackout fifty people or so showed up with candles, costumes, and musical instruments. The whole thing was a bonding experience that made me feel like a little more of a New Yorker.
For grad students, what's the atmosphere like at NYU?
The atmosphere is pretty good. In the last few years we've spent a lot of time reflecting on the climate in the department, and especially on how to make it as good a place as possible for all graduate students. A few years ago we had a rough patch with some unhappy students and some dropouts from the program, including a disproportionate number of women. Around that time we set up a committee for climate, diversity, and inclusiveness with both faculty and graduate students involved (I've co-chaired it at different times with Béatrice Longuenesse, Michael Strevens, and Jessica Moss). We took a detailed climate survey of the students and got all sorts of useful information from that about what was working and what wasn't. We convened a series of meetings involving faculty and graduate students to discuss these issues in an open way, and then we set up a number of task forces to address them.
All that led to a swathe of recommendations that the department passed and implemented. For example, we introduced guidelines for respectful discussion, we appointed a faculty point person for interpersonal issues, and we instituted an annual lecture on diversity issues. We did various things to enhance community, such as introducing weekly lunchtime talks where department faculty and students present their work to each other. You can find some of the details on the department's climate and diversity page. Since that time, the climate in the department seems to have improved a lot. A more recent climate survey showed big improvements on almost all measures. Informally the students who have arrived in recent years seem to be happy and thriving. Of course there are still issues to deal with, as in any department, and we need to keep trying to improve.
One thing I've learned from this is that the very fact of attending to these issues makes a big difference. For example, I don't know whether the specific guidelines for respectful discussion have made a difference, but the fact that everyone knows the department cares about mutual respect definitely has. Students have said it's heartening just to see the department collectively reflecting on these issues. People have also said that just talking about and acknowledging the pressures and insecurities of graduate school can help a little with dealing with them. Of course nothing here is a magic wand that makes all the problems go away, but it can’t hurt to treat each other like human beings.
Another thing I've learned is that reasonable people can disagree about these things. In the department we've had many conversations about just what steps are appropriate, and while most people have favored significant changes, some have had reservations (e.g. holding that guidelines for respectful discussion can compromise the quality of philosophical discussion). The issues are substantive and the concerns were reasonable. In the end the department moved ahead with changes, but it did what it could to accommodate the concerns. Occasionally the tenor of discussion online can give the impression that anyone who has reservations about climate and diversity projects is a sexist or a racist or at least a cretin. I think that's a mistake, and it can result in an unhealthy situation in which people are unwilling to openly express contrary views. I think we do well to acknowledge the possibility of reasonable disagreement in these metaphilosophical projects as well as in first-order philosophy.
You mentioned a significant other?
My partner Claudia Passos is a Brazilian clinical psychologist turned philosopher. We met five years ago at a conference in St. Andrews, when she was a post-doc in philosophy in Rio de Janeiro following her first Ph.D. in a psychoanalysis research group. She's now finishing a second Ph.D. in philosophy at Rio (visiting at Columbia), focusing on the development of consciousness, self-consciousness, and moral agency in infants. As well as living in New York we also spend a lot of time in Brazil and Australia, so I guess we're tricontinental.
Do you think it's harder for academics, specifically philosophers, to maintain romantic relationships?
I don't know that it's harder for philosophers than for other academics. Of course there are challenges for academics in general. As well as two-body issues, there's the long hours and the sense that one's work comes first. I'm probably difficult to be in a relationship with because I'm a workaholic and I feel like I'm constantly behind. I've been getting better about that in recent years, though, or at least getting better at mixing work and pleasure. In that respect it helps to be in a relationship with another academic! Incidentally I'm proud to have been indirectly responsible for at least two marriages between philosophers who came to ANU to work with me: Brendan and Magdalena Balcerak Jackson (who now have jobs together at Miami), and Angela Mendelovici and David Bourget (who now have jobs together at Western Ontario). We've all been sensitized in recent years to ways in which the romantic domain can be abused within academia, so it's good to see that there are still many healthy relationships and happy endings.
Over the years, how have your interests changed?
My interests have gotten broader and broader to the point where I'm now interested in almost every area of philosophy. That doesn't mean I do research on them -- I don't think I have the expertise to do really good work in the history of philosophy, in political philosophy, or in aesthetics, for example. But I go along every year to the modern philosophy conference at NYU (it's always excellent), I go every now and then to the regular colloquium in legal, political, and social philosophy, and I take part in a regular discussion group in the philosophy of music. PhilPapers keeps me in touch with a lot of areas of philosophy, too.
My research interests are a little bit more constrained. Early on I was driven by the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, bringing in other areas such as metaphysics and the philosophy of language when they were of instrumental value. Over time those other areas came to seem intrinsically interesting, as in turn did questions in epistemology, the philosophy of science, and metaphilosophy. I spent a lot of the 2000's trying to work out a coherent picture tying together these areas. That culminated in my 2012 book Constructing the World, which is so long that I think almost no one has read it from cover to cover, but which I assure you contains the secrets of the universe within it if you look hard enough.
I'm now getting especially interested in the philosophy of technology. Over the years I've done plenty of work in this area, e.g. on artificial intelligence, the nature of computation, the extended mind, simulated worlds, and virtual reality. But I'd like to work on these issues more systematically. One project is to write a book that introduces and addresses many of the great problems of philosophy through the lens of information technology. My hope is that done properly, the book could simultaneously serve as an introduction to philosophy for a wide audience while also being a substantial work of philosophy in its own right. We'll see how well that works out, though.
Earlier, you mentioned feeling like an outsider. That might be surprising for many people to hear, given your success. You don’t still feel like an outsider, do you?
I can't honestly claim to be an outsider any more. I’ve been well and truly co-opted by the system! There was a very funny blog post a while back that had three versions of me as three-fifths of a cabal that was running philosophy (very much for the worse, and somehow with a tie-in to the movie Anchorman). But one thing you learn over time is that there's not much of a unified "inside", and there's definitely no cabal that runs philosophy. Maybe in the old days, leading departments like Harvard, Oxford, and Princeton played a big part of that role, but these days their power is more local (the biggest "power" you get from being at NYU is the ability to affect things at NYU) and the general role is more fragmented. To a considerable extent the major units of influence are aligned with subfields rather than departments, and all sorts of other things play a role (even blogs!). I guess I've gotten to play bits and pieces of the insider role in different ways along different pathways, and I’ve grown comfortable enough in those roles. At the same time, I still identify as an outsider at least in the weaker sense of someone who came into philosophy from the outside. Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me if most philosophers (even most successful philosophers) identify as outsiders for some way of drawing the distinction. Philosophy may not be the most diverse field in the world, but paradigmatic insiders are thinner on the ground than you’d think.
How do you think philosophy ended up with a deeper diversity problem than many other academic fields?
It's a good question. Of course there are many dimensions of diversity but philosophy seems to do badly on a lot of them. In the case of gender diversity, some common hypotheses such as implicit bias, sexual harassment, and a male canon seem to require either that these problems are much worse in philosophy than in other fields or that they have worse effects, and it's not really clear why that would be. My intuition says that discussion style plays at least some role, but I don't know that intuition counts for much here. Really this is a topic for empirical research. It shouldn't be too hard to do the research: the primary subjects are our students, after all. We know that the biggest dropoff in women's representation happens just after the introductory level in undergraduate programs and we ought to be able to figure out why it happens. The recent papers by Sarah-Jane Leslie and colleagues and by research groups out of Georgia State, Minnesota, and Sydney (I'm sure there are others) have been a great start on the empirical project, although my sense is that so far the different studies are pointing in a few different directions. I hope there's a lot more soon. Once we have a better grip on the source of the problem we'll be much better positioned to address it.
People have also been talking a lot lately about topical diversity. When I got into philosophy I was surprised to find that academic philosophy departments typically feel no need to have non-Western traditions represented at all. It's a little bizarre that Kant alone gets far more attention in Anglophone departments than the entire Chinese and Indian traditions, for example. Of course we've inherited a certain canon, but we have to recognize that this canon is extremely contingent and extremely changeable. I've gotten a lot from a few workshops I've been to in which analytic and Buddhist philosophers of mind have interacted, and it's not so hard to imagine that some Buddhist ideas could become part of a broader canon in the field. Philosophy has always done best at points where it isn't fossilized. So I hope we can keep regenerating and not turning into fossils.
You helped draft the letter asking Brian Leiter to step down from the Philosophical Gourmet Report after the September Statement. How did you, or why did you feel the need to, get involved with that?
I've been on the advisory board of the Gourmet Report since the beginning. The statement had led to a boycott that was damaging the reputation and credibility of the report as well as dividing the profession. Board members started emailing about it and we obviously had to find a way forward. Brian himself had been making noises about stepping down, and this seemed the obvious solution. The board didn't take any stand on the merits of the boycott. Stepping back, I'd say that over the years the report had gradually moved from being Brian's hobby to being an institution in the profession, and it's not too surprising that eventually there was a perceived tension between Brian's institutional role (leading the arbitration of quality in the profession) and his non-institutional role (as an opinionated blogger carrying on many battles within the profession).
I know there are all sorts of opinions about the report and about rankings more generally. There are certainly downsides of rankings: not least that philosophical quality is multidimensional and not unidimensional, so that (even assuming realism about philosophical quality) any regimentation into a linear ordering inevitably privileges certain dimensions. A linear ranking can then take on a social reality that outstrips what is warranted by its grounds. Still, it's hard to deny that the report has been useful in numerous ways -- not just to students, but also to philosophy departments in helping them to make a concrete case about how appointing more philosophers might help them. I suspect that there are more jobs for philosophers as a result of the report, though it's hard to know for sure.
Do you find any trends in philosophy disconcerting?
I see we've now well and truly gotten to the point in the interview where I pontificate about the field! I'm well on my way from being a young turk to being an old fart, so all my opinions should be taken with a grain of salt.
I don't think I find any trends disconcerting, but philosophical topics have a tendency to go stale after a while. From the 1950s to the 1970s there was a real flowering in many areas of philosophy, and the paradigms set up then are still dominant in many areas, but those paradigms aren't as fresh as they once were. Every now and then something new and refreshing comes along. For example, the explosions in experimental philosophy and in formal epistemology around 15 years ago led to a lot of interesting activity, but even those areas have settled a little since then. My sense is that in many areas of philosophy, especially the traditional "core" areas, people are ready for something new.
One trend with both upsides and downsides is the trend toward increasing specialization and professionalization. On the upside, this has greatly raised the sophistication of work within many areas of philosophy. On the downside, it's had a tendency to reduce the connectivity between areas of philosophy, making many areas "retreat" from other areas and sometimes from big general issues to focus on specialized internal issues. The upshot is that philosophy can seem more sophisticated but also less unified and less ambitious than in the past.
A related change in recent decades is that philosophy has moved from being an individual-dominated endeavour to more of a collective endeavour. No philosopher in my generation has the influence or stature that Kripke, Lewis, Quine, or Rawls had at a similar age. People sometimes bemoan this -- the age of the greats has passed. But a more positive spin is that the sort of work that used to be done individually is now being done collectively. For example, the philosophy of perception has made enormous progress in the last two decades through a collective endeavor, progress far greater than might have been achieved by one or two individuals.
Again there are upsides and downsides here, but overall I think this is probably a healthy trend. Still, in an era of increasing specialization and "small ball" philosophy, I think individuals should be encouraged to swing for the fences every now and then. Maybe they'll individually fall on their face in doing so, but the field as a whole will be richer for it.
I'd say the two most exciting trends for me right now are the (somewhat linked but distinguishable) trends toward socially relevant philosophy and toward publicly accessible philosophy.
There's been a remarkable flowering of socially relevant and socially driven philosophy in recent years. The ferment in the philosophy of gender, race, and sexuality has been particularly striking. There are so many rich and difficult philosophical issues there that are tied closely to what's happening in the broader world while also being tied to central issues in philosophy. At a general level, the analyses of social identity by Anthony Appiah and many others have enriched our philosophical understanding of personal identity (in the broad sense) and at the same time have helped come to grips with urgent societal issues involving race, gender, and other social identities. It's been fascinating to see the groundbreaking treatments of gender by people like Judith Butler and Sally Haslanger shedding light on the metaphysics and social roles of gender but also facing serious objections in light of transgender experiences. Miranda Fricker's ideas about epistemic injustice have drawn deep connections between ethics and epistemology and have also had remarkable uptake among many marginalized communities. I suggested at an NYU faculty meeting a while ago that these areas are like metaphysics and the philosophy of language were in the 1970s -- if one doesn't have people doing them, one is missing much of the real action. This was met with some skepticism, but I think we're reaching the point where any good department has to have people specializing in these areas.
I'm especially interested in the trend toward applying insights from "core" areas of analytic philosophy to social domains: applying philosophy of language to social and political speech acts, applying the philosophy of perception to gender and race-based biases in perception and cognition, applying epistemology to internet-based knowledge, applying analytic metaphysics to social structures, applying decision theory to major life decisions, applying ethical theory to effective altruism, and so on. If the ideas from a century of analytic philosophy are as universal and powerful as we like to think they are, then they ought to have a central role to play in helping us to understand these many domains and ultimately in helping us to improve people's lives. It's good to see them being put to the test. Of course the influence typically runs both ways: to deal with these domains, we need to sharpen our old analytic tools and develop new tools. That's good for philosophy, and we can hope that at least occasionally it might be good for society too.
The other trend is toward doing philosophy in public. I had the sense for a number of years that academic philosophers look down on public philosophy, but that seems to be changing. So many good philosophers are doing philosophy in public, whether through old-media venues such as the New York Times or new-media venues such as Aeon or YouTube. And there have been a slew of philosophical books that try to make an original contribution to philosophy while still being accessible to a wide audience. I think that's the key: we shouldn't see popular philosophy just as a way of talking down or of spreading the word, but as a mode of doing original and substantive philosophy. Of course people like Dan Dennett, Martha Nussbaum, and Peter Singer have been doing this for years, but I think we'll be seeing a lot more of it in the years to come.
Of course specialized socially irrelevant philosophy is important too. In any given traditional area of philosophy, there are exciting hotspots. To focus on my own dearest specialization, the mind-body problem, there are a couple of (diametrically opposed) trends I'm excited by. The first is the ferment of activity on panpsychism, where terrific young philosophers keep coming up with one interesting new idea after another. (Related you-heard-it-first-here prediction: a renewed interest in idealism!) The second is a recently-growing bubble of activity on the idea that consciousness is an illusion. Of course I don't accept that view but I think it deserves a lot more attention than it has gotten in recent years. It brings things back to the questions that helped kickstart my work on consciousness years ago: how can we explain the things we say about consciousness, and what follows for a theory of consciousness itself?
So, do your philosophical views have an effect on your personal life and vice versa? Does it change the way you live?
Not much, alas!
It would be nice to say there’s a strong connection, but it’s not really true. Of course I reflect on my life philosophically from time to time, but for the most part those personal issues are distinct from the issues I think about professionally. Perhaps if I worked more in value theory there would be more of a connection. As things stand, I can’t say that dualism has led me to treat people with more reverence or that two-dimensional semantics has led me to change the way I communicate. I’ve said in the past that panpsychism tends to undercut one motivation for vegetarianism (don’t eat anything conscious!), but I wasn’t vegetarian anyway. Perhaps the extended mind thesis and my views about virtual reality provide some justification for my technology addiction, but I suspect that that was overdetermined. My interest in consciousness leads in principle to an interest in meditation and in drugs, but I don’t have the patience to meditate and I’m too much of a control freak to get too deeply into drugs. Maybe at some point in the future when I’m faced with a decision about whether to upload my brain into a computer, my views of artificial intelligence and personal identity will become highly relevant. But for the most part, life goes on as life goes on.
Will there be fully conscious machines in our lifetime?
Probably not in my lifetime, if I live a normal lifetime. Artificial intelligence moves surprisingly slowly. There's been some excitement lately with the advent of deep learning, but this isn't really a fundamental advance on the sort of neural network work that was happening when I was a graduate student. It's roughly the same sort of technology operating with more power, bigger networks, and more data. Those things have allowed us to cross a threshold to widespread usefulness (hence the excitement), but I think we're probably at least two or three fundamental advances away from human-level AI. Though who knows -- just one fundamental advance could do the trick if it's the right one. Of course, once we have human-level AI, everything changes. There's a lot for philosophers to contribute in this area, with weighty practical decisions that may turn on answering substantive philosophical questions. Nick Bostrom’s work has been ahead of its time here, and it’s been great to see it recently getting a lot of attention outside philosophy. The ethical issues alone are a huge can of worms. This October at NYU we're holding a big conference on the ethics of AI, with philosophers and AI researchers getting together to discuss ethical issues both in the short term and the long term.
Is philosophy something that comes to an end one day, or does it go on forever and ever?
I can't picture there ever being intelligent life without philosophy. The practice of philosophy will presumably come to an end around the time that intelligent life comes to an end, perhaps sometime toward the heat death of the universe. Practice aside, I suspect that the abstract structure of philosophy is inexhaustible in roughly the way that we know mathematics to be inexhaustible -- no matter how much philosophy is settled, there will always be more that's unsettled. And for any given question, whether settled or unsettled, there will always be new arguments on either side.
What philosopher were you most excited to meet in person?
I got a thrill from meeting Quine. I first met him at an NEH summer institute at Rutgers in the summer of 1993. At that stage he came across as a sweet and slightly gruff gentleman from another era. Everyone felt protective of him. Ernie Lepore dragged Quine, Davidson, and a bunch of us to Yankee Stadium to see the Yankees play the Blue Jays. This was my first ever pro baseball game, and it was a kick to have those two along. I think Quine said it was his first baseball game in 70 years or so. Someone gave him a scoresheet and pencil to score the runs and outs with, and he scored away happily. Davidson was grumpier.
I met him again the following year when I interviewed for the Harvard Society of Fellows. My interview had been a disaster. Quine wasn't involved with that but he came along to the dinner afterwards. Bob Nozick seemed to be my only supporter on the committee and did his best to give me one last chance by gathering Quine, a few committee members, and me around a dinner table for a discussion of consciousness. It didn't go much better, but Quine was lively and opinionated. At one point the discussion turned to zombies and supervenience, and Quine said "I've always had doubts about possible worlds". The physicist Howard Georgi followed up by saying that "consciousness" couldn't be operationally defined and so was meaningless. I pretty much knew by this point that I wasn't getting the fellowship, so I tried to just enjoy the moment.
Man, is there any record of these experiences? Picture or it didn’t happen!
I only started taking photos of philosophers in 2001, when I got my first digital camera, so sadly I don’t have any photos of Quine, Davidson, Nozick, Lewis, or many others I met only before then. I’ve been making up for lost time since then, though, taking photos at most of the conferences and events that I go to. I have no real photographic talent but I’m shameless about taking many photos, and a few of them work out OK. My unachievable goal is to get photos of all the philosophers in the world (or at least all the analytic philosophers in the English-speaking world, or something) on my website. The site has fallen way behind in recent years -- in 1994 the design was cutting-edge! -- and I haven’t posted any new photos since 2010, in part because I’ve posted them to Facebook instead. But I’m pleased to say that I’ll soon be launching a brand new website including an updated photo gallery containing photos from the last six years. So for anyone who has escaped the photo gallery so far, you’re still not safe. Cliff Sosis, I’m coming for you!
haha…if you were an article of clothing what would it be don't answer that it's a leather jacket.
Um, a T-shirt?
Fair enough! But seriously, you seem to own an impressive collection of leather jackets.
I probably have six or seven leather jackets, but I tend to wear one at a time for at least a couple of years. I don't like to have to make too many decisions when I get up in the morning. Lately Claudia has managed to get me to expand the rotation to two.
haha…favorite book (fiction)?
Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.
Antony and the Johnson's I am a Bird Now? David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust? Leonard Cohen's New Skin for the Old Ceremony? Bob Dylan's Street-Legal? Paul Kelly's Post? Cat Power's The Greatest? Redgum's Frontline? The Roches’ first album? Til Tuesday's Everything's Different Now?
Contenders include Brazil, Groundhog Day, Lantana, Local Hero, Mulholland Drive, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Thelma and Louise. I'm a sucker for a sense of place.
Who doesn’t love Groundhog Day? If you were king of the world, what would be your first move?
Abolish the monarchy!
An omelette with mushrooms. I cook those every morning and they never get old.