Comments on “A philosophical zombie”


Very entertaining, and

Josh's picture

Very entertaining, and refreshingly honest to read that you can't untangle the problem but can't ignore it either!


Sergio DuBois's picture

The mind-body problem as you state is one option short of a madyamika quadrilemma, it's just missing one more reasonable thing to conclude, "Nondualism" that mental and physical things cannot be distinguished, that both Physicalism and Idealism are true. With all four available to sometimes seem true, the madyamika suggests is the middle way which inherently does create much more than a category error, it creates a paradox. What is that 5th option (when logic can at most allow 4 combinations of truth values). Well it's that fifth option, it's "the middle way" or the way that avoids the extremes of each view. I think the joke is on the researchers, because if they keep running into paradoxes, they are mistaking those for errors in argument rather than as the mere indicative evidence that they are staring at a nonduality, at something that denies all of the philosophical extremes, and for that matter denies logic, which is not an appetizing rest state for philosophers.

Generally, I think pretty

Jim's picture

Generally, I think pretty clearly, and am pretty smart. So I figure anyone who thinks they aren’t confused about this, is probably so confused they don’t realize they are confused.

Very funny - and a conclusion very close to the one I came to while reading all this stuff in grad school!

It is conceivable that anatman points toward a way out of the mind-body problem. Some discussions of anatman seem to grope toward an approach that is not dualist, physicalist, or Idealist.
Buddhist meditation can produce an experience of non-self. There is awareness, but no one who is being aware. There are thoughts, but no thinker. There is experience without an experiencer. All mental events appear to be impersonal. They may seem delocalized—not attached to a body.

Yeah, but aren't we talking about two different things here?

  1. Whether there's subjective experience. The thought experiment that seems to get at this is Frank Jackson's knowledge argument. (I'm convinced by Jackson's reasoning.)
  2. Whether there's a self in consciousness, or whether different conscious experiences all have in common a self. This seems to be what the Buddhists are on about.

It seems like you could affirm that there's something that it is to be like... without concluding that there's an "I". This seems to be the idea behind "in the seeing, only the seen..." It also seems to be what Sartre is arguing.

Also, there's one set of solutions to the mind-body problem you forgot: neutral monism. I think Bertrand Russell floated this idea? Both mind and matter are expressions of a third thing we don't know about, maybe something like Spinoza's substance. It explains absolutely nothing, but if you're going to be inclusive, you could throw that in, too.

Zombie species and neutral monism

Thanks for the comment!

aren't we talking about two different things here?

Yes; probably at least two! Sorting out the cast of characters in this drama is part of the difficulty.

The distinction you suggest seems to be the same as the one I made between Western and Buddhist philosophical zombies? Persons without experience, and experience without persons.

Possibly it would be useful to import Buddhist zombies into Western philosophy of mind, as a way of dealing with the homunculus (a/k/a Cartesian Theater) problem.

I was including neutral monism under the category of "uncommon answers" to the mind-body problem. It sounds like we agree about it: it is attractive only for its vagueness. It evades criticism by being completely underspecified.

My 17-year-old self objected

Josh's picture

My 17-year-old self objected to idealism and materialism on the grounds that if you're going to claim there's only one fundamental kind of stuff, then how can it be put in any categories, including mind or matter? I never got much further than that, to be honest.

Neutral monism

Josh — Yes, actually, that is the great virtue of neutral monism: it doesn't try to reduce either to the other. If two things are the same thing, then insisting that one is "really" the other seems to make no sense!

Sergio — I'm not sure, but you might find neutral monism to your liking also. It's a both/and neither/nor sort of position. "None of the above."

The Wiki article isn't terrible; the SEP article is really good, but probably longer than any sane person would want to read.

Oh, hurrah-- prezzies!

Kate Gowen's picture

It is always such a delight to read what people who are engaged in the messy enterprise of metaphysics come up with-- whether it is centuries ago (although 'there be [translation] dragons') or right now, in more-or-less my own language.

That Zen formulation about 'turning the light around' is the Swiss Army knife of such inquiries, I find: what aspect of the way we think, and speak, leads us to expect that 'difference' is absolute, so that the choices are so limited?

In general, these conceptual conundrums seem to result from taking ourselves, and our conceptual entertainments, Far Too Seriously. We seem, in the main, to have lost our way between creating zombies and believing in them. Just one batty old lady's take, of course.

The Living Dead

The concept of “philosophical zombies” has always disturbed me, because I can’t see how anyone can take it seriously. Even if you are some kind of dualist, the zombie example seems to have the further requirement that there can be bodies that can act on their own in exactly the same way that they acted when they were coupled with a mind. That is beyond my imagination, but apparently not beyond the imagination of many other people.

The fact that some intelligent people do in fact take the idea seriously means that they are in some deep way different from me. They seem, if not quite zombies, then disturbingly alien, in a way that seems to make communication impossible. IOW, not only can’t I imagine philosophical zombies, I can’t really imagine people who can imagine philosophical zombies.

If there are enough people who do take it seriously (I’d like to see numbers), then I guess I am the one who is weird.

Varying intuitions

Yes, perhaps the most striking thing is how different people have enormously strong, but quite different, intuitions about this. Maybe the question of "where do these intuitions come from" is more interesting than the mind-body problem itself!

I have another post about that, coming up, when/if I get time to finish it. In short, I suggest that maybe some people actually are zombies and some aren't. Or, anyway, that their experience of experience is quite different.

Happy holidays, everyone!

I may have been a zombie once

OK, that essay is now up.

In it, I describe my own possible non-experience of zombiness. Once while teaching 6.001, I apparently spent a couple of minutes as an awareness-free but competently-acting body. This makes the possibility of zombies seem plausible to me.

Mike, I'd be interested to hear whether that story, and the rest of the essay, particularly regarding degrees of zombitude, make p-zombies seem any less unimaginable.

Must... - Eat... - Homunculus...

Very interesting ...

BTW, I don’t object so much to the idea of zombiehood as to the idea that you could be a zombie with no behavioral consequences. p-zombies are assuming (somewhat under the table) a homuncular theory of mind, that there is a little man inside the brain receiving and processing all the input. That is common enough, but the p-zombificators make the further assumption that you can remove the little man and still have the same external behaviors. I guess this is what bothers me about the theory; why have a little man if he doesn’t have anything essential to do? That just doesn’t smell right and raises my suspicion that I am getting set up for a mark in a con game.

My preferred picture of the mind is more Minskyish (or maybe Buddhist-ish). There is no homunculus and no centralized self. Instead there are a bunch of semi-independent processes that take care of the mind’s business. One of the things they do is cobble together a narrative of a central self, an ongoing fiction about a coherent single agent. The cobbling-together can take quite a few different forms and variations (your examples of synesthesia and psychopathy are good examples).

Your zombie experience seems to me somewhat like what happens in dreams -- you have experiences which seem real at the time but are not strongly attached to the central narrative of self, so they usually slip away into forgetfulness. I’ve taught 6.001 myself, and as I remember it involves quite a bit of rote going over the operation of a Scheme interpreter, over and over and over...I can pretty easily imagine doing that so often, and it becoming so mechanical, that my self-narrative part wouldn’t bother to remember it a few minutes later.

So that is my interpretation of your zombie experience (or lack of experience) -- it was a hiccup in experiential memory. There was nothing special going on while you were going about your teaching (which is why you appeared completely normal to the class), just in how you remembered it afterwards.

If that seems kind of boring compared to zombies, well, sorry.

Nom nom homunculi

Thanks for the feedback!

I'm not sure I follow how zombie theory implies a homunculus. It seems that logically you could have qualia without a homunculus, or a homunculus without qualia?

I agree, of course, that a Minsky-ish / Buddhist-ish no-homunculus model seems right. So let's stipulate that we have none. And let's suppose that neither of us is a p-zombie, so we do have qualia. If I don't have a homunculus and my qualia go away—then what?

I guess my intuition would also be that it would affect my visible behavior, but I can't see any good reason for that intuition.

One basis for it might be the sense that qualia are closely connected with free will, which determines behavior—but it's not clear why that would be, and free will is highly problematic, especially once you've sautéed the homunculus with onions in butter.

As I mentioned, I'm more interested in where these intuitions come from than I am in the metaphysics itself. In the Meaningness book, I'm going to suggest that strong but ungrounded metaphysical intuitions are the cause of numerous serious problems.

I met a man who wasn't there

I'm not sure I follow how zombie theory implies a homunculus. It seems that logically you could have qualia without a homunculus, or a homunculus without qualia?

Hm...maybe it doesn’t follow. I think both theories are wrong, and they seem to be wrong in the roughly similar ways, but I guess they don’t logically imply one another. I can’t quite reconstitute my earlier train of thought now.

And let's suppose that neither of us is a p-zombie, so we do have qualia. If I don't have a homunculus and my qualia go away—then what? I guess my intuition would also be that it would affect my visible behavior, but I can't see any good reason for that intuition.

How about parsimony? If the mind does contain things called “qualia”, then presumably they are there for a reason (evolutionary or otherwise). Qualia that you can simply remove without changing anything functional just doesn’t make any sense to me. I can understand saying they aren’t real, or that they are real and important, but I just can’t grasp the position that qualia are real but doing absolutely nothing. (I guess I am just restating my intution more loudly rather than making an argument)

As I mentioned, I'm more interested in where these intuitions come from than I am in the metaphysics itself.

That sounds wise to me.

Beating a dead zombie

Hmm... Well, at risk of arguing the mind-body problem itself (which seems fruitless) rather than discussing the meta issue of why people have opinions about it...

Epiphenomenalists hold that zombies are possible and indistinguishable from non-zombies, because awareness has no function. But, one does not have to be an epiphenomenalist to think that zombies are possible. Awareness might have a function, but not such an important one. For instance, you might be able to do a reasonably competent job of teaching 6.001 without it, but you'd suck at jazz improv (for instance). Teaching 6.001 doesn't seem like qualia would be relevant, whereas probably they would be in artistic improvisation.

When my non-experience occurred, I found it startling that I could have taught competently without awareness, so apparently my intuition agreed with you at that point!

We may be beating a dead zombie here, without any real disagreement.

First Person Plural

Yes I am guessing we are in basic agreement but may have slightly differing bindings for some words or ideas. Trying to discuss this sort of thing has the quality of trying to drive a nail through mercury.

I think I detect signs that your implicit theory of awareness is somewhat unitary and and hence somewhat homuncular. That is, there is some part of you in charge of “awareness”, which can be on or off. But your 6.001 experience is much easier to understand if you think of yourself as distributed, and usually (but occasionally not) integrated on the fly (see my earlier comment). I don’t think you could teach without awareness in some sense (that is, your mind is sensorily couple to the world) but I can imagine that the quality of the awareness would be minimal and instantly forgotten.

Forgive me for trying to tell you about the real nature of your own experience...I haven’t spaced out while teaching, but I’ve had similar experience doing other repetitive tasks (washing the dishes, driving). It is disturbing to suddenly unspace and realize I was operating a vehicle on the highway without apparently being there. But, I don’t think I was a zombie, and I don’t think I was unaware of what was going on -- I just didn’t integrate it into my ongoing self-narrative.