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Philosopher Ned Block receives Muh Award

Awardee will speak on consciousness in the brain March 2
Ned Block
Ned Block

The Robert A. Muh Alumni Award honoring an MIT graduate for noteworthy achievements in the humanities, arts, and social sciences will be presented to Ned Block, professor of philosophy and psychology at New York University.

Block received the S.B. degree in physics and humanities in 1964 and taught philosophy at MIT for 25 years, serving for 6 years as chair of the philosophy section in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Block, who said he "loved MIT, especially the fantastic students," will return to campus to deliver a talk, "What Is Consciousness in the Brain?" on Wednesday, March 2 at 5 p.m. in Bartos Theater.

Block's expertise is in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of cognitive science. His work has led to "important contributions to our understanding of mental imagery, the computer model of the mind and the causal power of mental states. Most recently, he has published papers on whether consciousness has a scientific nature and on the neural basis of consciousness," said Alex Byrne, associate professor of philosophy and friend and former colleague of Block.

Block's courses, recalled Byrne, were "always lively affairs, with lots of discussion and many PowerPoint slides. His material is engagingly written and contains lots of examples from science fiction. Since Ned has written at length on the relation between the mind and the brain and whether computers can think, MIT students find his work particularly thought-provoking," Byrne said.

According to Block, one example from science fiction that raises issues relevant to his own work is Commander Data, a robot in human form in the television series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

"There is a philosophical issue about whether it is possible for a creature who is completely different from us physically (as is Commander Data) to be conscious. How would we know and what would it tell us about our concept of consciousness if we accepted Commander Data as one of us?" Block asked.

The main idea of his Muh Award talk on March 2 is that there are "actually two things in the brain that correspond to the intuitive notion of consciousness, one that is a matter of pure experience, the other which involves access to that experience. The most exciting upshot is that if the pure experience component can be present without the access component, there may be much of our experiential mental life that we don't know about," Block said.

Block received the Ph.D. degree in philosophy from Harvard University in 1971. He came to MIT as an assistant professor of philosophy (1971-1977), worked as associate professor of philosophy (1977-1983), professor of philosophy (1983-1996) and served as chair of the philosophy section (1989-1995). He has been a professor in the departments of philosophy and psychology and at the Center for Neural Science at New York University since 1996.

"Ned Block is a natural for the Muh Alumni Award. He did his MIT undergraduate degree in the humanities and went on to become one of the leading analytic philosophers of his generation. And, during his many years as a faculty member in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, he helped to build our doctoral program in philosophy into a national leader," said Philip S. Khoury, Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and a professor of history.

The Robert A. Muh Alumni Award was first announced in October 2000 at the 50th anniversary celebration of the School of Humanities, Arts , and Social Sciences (SHASS).

Muh (S.B. 1959), a life member of the MIT Corporation and longtime chair of the Humanities Visiting Committee, endowed the award to honor an MIT alumnus or alumna who has made significant contributions to education, scholarship or performance, academic administration or arts management in the humanities, arts or social sciences. The award will rotate among the three major areas in SHASS.

Muh and his wife, Berit, have two daughters, Alison and Carrie. Carrie received the S.B. in biology from MIT in 1996 and the S.B. and S.M. in political science in 1997.

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