SJP Special Issue: The Lives of Human Animals

The Southern Journal of Philosophy has just published an annual Spindel Supplement on animalism and a new theory of personal identity. The problem of personal identity is one of the most bewitching puzzles in all of philosophy. Consider how much each of us changes during our lifetimes. In so many ways—biologically, psychologically, socially, physically—you are today very different from the person you were last year or twenty years ago or on the day of your birth. And yet just one person has persisted through these changes. The first facet of the problem of personal identity focuses our attention on this question: what exactly are the conditions under which beings like you and me persist through time and change?

Until quite recently, most philosophers subscribed to the answers to these questions advocated by the seventeenth-century British philosopher, John Locke. Locke held that our fundamental nature is given by our status as self-conscious, rational agents (“persons”) and that the conditions under which we persist through time and change are thus to be accounted for in terms of psychological continuity. Central to this view is a sharp distinction between the person and her animal body.

But today’s Lockeans face a powerful new challenge to the distinction underlying their core commitments. According to the view known as animalism, there is no distinction to be drawn between human persons and their animal bodies. You do not “have” a body in the sense that you are one thing and the animal located where you are is something else. Rather, on this view, human persons just are their animal bodies: the primate located where you are is you.

Though Aristotelian in spirit, animalism is a relative latecomer to the debate over personal identity, having been articulated and defended only within the past twenty-five years or so. During these first two and a half decades of work, advocates of the view sought mainly to specify and defend its central claims and to understand its relation to the Lockean opposition. While highly important work along these lines continues to be done, a second, overlapping wave of work on animalism seems now to be emerging. This new wave is beginning to broaden animalism’s import beyond metaphysics and philosophy of mind into a diverse array of fields and topics, including ethics, philosophy of language, conjoined twinning, epistemology, evolutionary theory, philosophy of religion, death, and so on.

The guiding aim of the thirty-second annual Spindel Conference on “The Lives of Human Animals” (University of Memphis, September 26–28, 2013) was to spotlight and facilitate this second wave of work by providing a forum in which metaphysicians and philosophers of mind working on animalism were brought together with philosophers who are presently engaged in pertinent debates in other areas of philosophy. The Spendel conference and supplementary issue were organized by Stephen Blatti, former SJP editor and associate professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis.

Read the full issue here!


Emotion Key to Remarkable Ragtime Memory

 The Radiolab Blog has a fascinating podcast about American Bob Milne.  Bob is predominantly known for his piano concerts of Ragtime and Bogie-Woogie music – and was given the moniker of ‘National Treasure’ by the United States Library of Congress.  It was at one of these concerts that drew the attention of Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Bettermann. At his concerts, Bob often carries on conversations, telling stories and jokes, while simultaneously modulating key signatures over the polyrhythmic Ragtime music.  In their broadcast, Radiolab discusses with Dr. Bettermann why this is so surprising.


Language use and musical competency often use the same neural resources: the prototypical language areas in the left hemisphere of the brain, and the working memory circuit that keeps information available and rapidly accessible for a short-period of time.  Our ability to use language and engage with music should, on most models of the brain, be competing for these neural resources and interfere with one another.  Not so with Bob – he appears to be able to tackle both tasks with ease.  Further, while most people can approach this kind of competency in multi-tasking, it usually involves many learning trials, a process of sedimenting the learning into what psychologists call procedural memory, which may have its roots in a different brain region, the cerebellum.  But Bob can hear a tune just once, and play it back with commentary.


But that’s not all Bob can do.

Continue reading “Emotion Key to Remarkable Ragtime Memory”

Could iPhones be part of our minds?

ElephantHow do our engagements with the everyday world contribute to the way we both go about it and think about it?  Could such contributions feed back upon and bootstrap our own capabilities, and in part form new and different ways of interacting with the world?  The situation of one Patrick Jones asks just these questions, and further seems to be an interesting case study in the on-going debate around the Hypothesis of the Extended Mind (or HEM, for short).

Patrick Jones suffers from the effects of Traumatic Brain Injury, of which there are many causes and effects.  In Patrick’s case, he suffers from extreme short-term memory loss.  But what is interesting about Patrick is the way in which he has employed Evernote; software that allows users to upload notes, pictures, and documents to a cloud server, which can then be accessed anywhere and at anytime by palm-pilots, computers and iPhones.  When Patrick runs into everyday problems, like dealing with email exchanges or attempting to remember what to buy at the grocery, he consults Evernote installed on his iPhone or Mac computer, and searches for relevant keywords and tags to help him connect the dots and form a reliable understanding of the situation he finds himself in.  In more philosophical vernacular, without a reliable biological short-term memory system, Patrick relies on a hybrid of internal/external and biological/technological resources instead.

Continue reading “Could iPhones be part of our minds?”

Philosophy and LOST

Now that LOST has officially ended after six seasons, the question being asked is “was this a ‘long con?'”  Those of us who have been there since the beginning and stayed until the end are likely to have mixed feelings following this week’s finale, though the fact that there remain unanswered questions cannot be too much of a surprise.  Lost is well known for its elaborate and suggestive use of Eastern and Western mythologies, and for characters named after philosophers from the obvious (Bentham, Hume Locke, Rousseau) to the cleverly concealed (Bakunin, Burke, Godwin, C. S. Lewis) and the downright obscure (De Groot, Baba Ram Dass).  In addition, many scientific theories – including quantum mechanics, time travel, atomic energy and electromagnetism – all play an central part in the plot of the show alongside more fundamental philosophical questions about truth, identity, memory and morality.

Given the range and complexity of the ideas that make an appearance, and compounded by the temporal dislocation which serves as the show’s leitmotif, it’s no wonder that casual viewers started to feel increasingly ‘lost’ with a show  which finally ran to more than 90 hours. But it is undoubtedly the complexity and openness to interpretation which is woven into the narrative structure of the show that makes it such a flexible forum for exploring philosophical themes in a pop culture context. Continue reading “Philosophy and LOST”

“‘Spooky’ Action-at-a-Distance” in the Brain Explains Memory… or Does It?


Metaphysicians of causation have been known to ponder the possibility of causal action-at-a-distance: that  is, whether or not it is possible for one event to causally influence another over a spatio-temporal gap. It was common among Early Modern philosophers to insist that causation requires a ‘nexus’ – roughly, a point of contact between cause and effect. (This thought under-wrote many of the objections of principle contemporary critics to Cartesian Interactionism.) Such a  view, indeed, is not unreasonable: the idea of causal influence crossing a spatio-temporal gap ‘unmediated’ by some force or other is, to put it bluntly, spooky. On the other hand, however, potential cases of action-at-a-distance have been postulated in certain Quantum Mechanical experiments, most notably the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen/Bohm experiment. Naturally, the interpretation of the observations in such experiments are debated, but nevertheless a prima facie case for spooky action-at-a-distance exists.

Now, however, a recent article in New Scientist suggests that the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, much like that which seems to occur in the EPR/B experiment, has been observed to occur between groups of neurons in the brain. Furthermore, it is suggested that this may explain the combining of information from different sensory modalities into a single memory. Continue reading ““‘Spooky’ Action-at-a-Distance” in the Brain Explains Memory… or Does It?”

Words, words, words . . .

A recent study by the University of California, San Diego, estimates that the total amount of words “consumed” in the United States – where this consumption is from televisions, computers and other media and does not include people simply talking to one another – has more than doubled from 4,500 trillion in 1980 to 10,845 trillion in 2008. If images are added to the approximately 100,500 words per day we are exposed to, then it is estimated that we are bombarded with the equivalent of 34 gigabytes of information each day. You can read more about the study here.

Some academics are worrying about the possible adverse effects of this deluge of information. The psychiatrist and author Edward Hallowell, an expert on attention-deficit disorder, has suggested that people who spend too much time on their laptops and Blackberrys “are so busy processing information from all directions they are losing the tendency to think and to feel… People are sacrificing depth and feeling and becoming cut off and disconnected from other people.” Other researchers, however, dismiss such concerns. According to Amanda Ellison, of Durham University’s neuroscience research unit: “it is quite difficult to actually overload the brain because it can contain a lot more information than was previously thought.” She also points out that: “There is no one memory centre. Visual information is stored in one part of the brain and audio information is stored in another.”
Continue reading “Words, words, words . . .”

Intensive interrogation doesn’t lead to information

390px-Theresiana-LeiterThe use of harsh interrogative techniques by the U.S. government has been a hotly debated topic in the global media in recent months. The debate is especially intense with respect to the moral significance of such techniques. As significant is the controversy about the veracity of the information acquired through the application of these techniques.

These two issues are often considered to be related. The weight of our moral considerations is likely to be inversely related to the utility of the practice (though followers of Kant would reject this claim). In other words, if we find that reliable and crucial information can only be obtained by inflicting significant harm to a single purportedly depraved individual, our moral responsibility towards that individual seems diminished. If, on the other hand, milder techniques are just as effective, our reasons for employing harsh interrogation seem morally suspect.

New research reported on the BBC website indicates that the harsh interrogative techniques in question are not only ineffective at eliciting reliable and crucial information, but also that they have a negative long-term effect on the possibility of obtaining that information. The research shows that, under conditions of extremely high stress, detainees Continue reading “Intensive interrogation doesn’t lead to information”