Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Student Spotlight: Miguel Sebastián

Welcome to our third Student Spotlight interview. This one features philosopher of mind Miguel Sebastián and will be the final interview in our opening volley of Student Spotlights conducted by the ASSC Director of Communications Lynn Chien-Hui Chiu.

Lynn Chien-Hui Chiu: Hello Miguel! It's a pleasure to have you as our third Student Spotlight interviewee! I heard you've recently graduated and a post-doc in Mexico. Could you give us a quick introduction about yourself?

Miguel Sebastián: The pleasure is all mine Lynn. My name is Miguel Sebastian and I am engineer retrained as a philosopher of mind. I started studying the role of consciousness in artificial intelligence and ended up amazed by the wonderful mess of the study of consciousness. I graduated last year at the University of Barcelona and now I am researching and teaching at the UNAM in Mexico.
website: http://mindingthebrain.wordpress.com

Chiu: You've been around the world, Miguel! You completed your PhD with the LOGOS group at University of Barcelona, visited University of Warwick, NYU, and National Yang-Ming University. . . and now you're a post-doc at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México! Can you quickly introduce us to the research groups you've worked with and tell us why you choose them?

Sebastián: Logos is one of the best research groups in Analytic Philosophy in Europe and the number of activities there has incredibly increased since I started my studies --- more and more seminars, workshops, research projects, etc are taking place. I am very glad to have had the opportunity to do my PhD within this group. The strongest areas in Logos are Metaphysics and Philosophy of Language and my advisor, David Pineda, recommended me to visit the University of Warwick under the supervision of Naomi Eillan where I met a brilliant group of professors and students working on perception and language. Right afterwards I had the opportunity to visit Taiwan, where Allen Y. Houng is leading a great group of students and professors at National Yang-Ming University focusing on the study of the Philosophy of Mind and Consciousness. In my opinion, if you are working on consciousness New York probably is the best place to be and I was given the opportunity to visit NYU and work under the supervision of Ned Block. The research atmosphere in NY is overwhelming and it was an amazing opportunity to discuss my work and theirs with students and professors (not only from NYU, but also from CUNY, Columbia and visiting colleagues). The experience was so fulfilling that I decided to go back to NYU as a visiting scholar right after graduating.

Chiu: Tell us more about the people at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and your current work.

Sebastián: I started working at the UNAM in August. UNAM has one of the biggest graduate programs in the world and it has an impressive research institute in Analytic Philosophy (Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas) with more than 40 researchers and several post-docs; undoubtedly a great place to work in Philosophy. Here I teach a course for graduates on Philosophical Theories of Consciousness and related issues in Cognitive Science. With regard to my current research, I am concentrating on two lines: the first one is focused on the relation between cognitive access and phenomenology and the contribution that the neuroscientific study of dreams can make to this debate. The second one explores the relation between the subjective character of experience and de se attitudes. The aim is to provide a naturalistic understanding of subjectivity in representational terms by unpacking the idea of representation as a subject --- which in turn, I think, would require clarifying in naturalistic compatible terms what it takes to self-ascribe a property (to represent a set of centered worlds) --- and to secure the project of grounding a naturalistic theory of, at least, de se content on our own experiences.

Chiu: What interesting books or papers you've been reading these weeks? Why did you like them?

Sebastián: I found Ned Block's "Perceptual consciousness overflows cognitive access", Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12 (2011), pp. 567-575 and posterior the discussion in TiCS (volume 16, issue 3, 2012) very interesting. In this paper, Block presents more recent evidence in favor of the thesis that consciousness does not depend on cognitive access. As I said before, my interest lies in the debate and different interpretations and replies to partial report experiments narrow down the kind of replies available for other interesting cases relevant to the discussion.

“Consciousness and the Self: New Essays” Ed. J. Liu and J. Perry (Editor). Cambridge University Press (2011) presents a very interesting collection of articles on the role that the self and self-awareness might, or might not, play in consciousness, a topic I find particularly interesting. In this line of research, I just received “Immunity to Error through Misidentification: New Essays.” Ed. S. Prosser and F. Recanati. Cambridge University Press (2012) and it looks promising (contrary to what it might look like, CUP is not sponsoring this reply).

I am also currently reading “The Walking Dead: book three”. Although the arguments are not very compelling (often hard to find) the comic is really good and I have the feeling that philosophers interested in consciousness have some kind of morbid fascination for, all kinds of, zombies.

Chiu: You've presented at almost all the consciousness-related conferences out there, Toward a Science of Consciousness, the Online Consciousness Conference, and of course, the ASSC. What's do you like about these conferences?

Sebastián: The ASSC focuses on the scientific study of consciousness and it provides an ideal framework for a productive interaction between psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers who, like me, consider that a multidisciplinary approach to consciousness is the best way to progress in our understanding of the topic.

Toward a Science of Consciousness is broader in scope combining different perspectives and traditions from Analytic Philosophy to Asian Philosophy, from Quantum theories to Neuroscience, and it has a very long tradition. It definitely provides a really inspiring atmosphere, which attracts leading experts in the field.

Finally, in the Online Conference Richard Brown has created an impressive virtual platform, and convinced many brilliant experts to take part in it. This democratizes possibilities of researching, because (nearly) everyone, from every corner of the world can follow and join the discussions taking place there. Although it is tough to discuss for two weeks, it is also incredibly rewarding. The great disadvantage of this type of conference is it doesn’t give you the opportunity to have a beer with your colleagues after the discussion, but all the rest is awesome --- and the call for papers is open now!

Chiu: If you were stranded on an island and there was only one book with you, what would that book be?

Sebastián: As you mentioned I have spent the last years moving from one place to another. Taking books with me is not an option anymore and I no longer carry paper books with me. If I were stranded on an island, most probably I would have my e-reader with me and plenty of books (philosophical and not so) in it. I can only hope that the island you mentioned has electricity so I can plug in my charger…

Miguel Sebastián is a post-doc at the Universidad Autónoma Nacional de México (UNAM). His website is at http://mindingthebrain.wordpress.com

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