Philosophical zombies and 1984

(from today’s “Zombie Zymposium”)

zombieZymposium jpegI’d like to discuss two things. First, I’ll discuss the quasi-technical use of “zombies” in recent discussions of the philosophy of consciousness. I’ll call these entities “philosophical zombies” since, as we’ll see, they are not much like the zombies more commonly featured in movies and TV shows. Secondly, I’d like to speculate about the cultural significance of philosophical zombies – specifically, what discussions of them reveal about our culture.

A philosophical zombie is an allegedly conceivable entity that is meant to show that physicalism is false. Physicalism is the view that human consciousness can be explained through neuroscience, or through the study of the physical properties and events of the brain. If physicalism is true, then physical accounts of the brain/body should be able to explain why we have particular sensations and experiences; brain science should tell us exactly why the brain undergoing some particular event will result in us tasting pineapple or smelling rotten eggs. If it is a real explanation, then we should be able to see why anyone with a brain in that particular state would have that particular experience.

Enter the philosophical zombie. Such a zombie is defined as a creature that is just like us in terms of physical properties. It also is just like us in terms of behavior, including speech behavior. But they are different from us in the fact that they have no conscious experience. The lights are on, but nobody is home. It is not like anything to be them. They are like incredibly complex robots, or wind-up toys, with no first-person perspective or feelings or thoughts whatsoever.

So: is it possible to conceive such a being? Note that I am not asking if there are any zombies, or if we can make one. I’m only asking if we can conceive of such a being without encountering any contradiction. We can’t conceive a four-sided triangle, or a married bachelor, or a nephew whose parents have no siblings. We can conceive a mile-high unicycle, or a bear with six legs, or a snowball not melting on a very hot day in July. So is a philosophical zombie like a four-sided triangle or a six-legged bear? Is it something we can conceive?

If we can, the argument goes, then physicalism is false. For then we can conceive a brain doing all the stuff brains typically do without there being any conscious experience. And if we can conceive that, then an account of what the brain is doing when we have a particular conscious episode does not explain why we should be having that particular episode rather than another, or rather than none at all. The zombie is a conceivable case in which the brain is doing its thing, but no conscious event is happening. If that’s conceivable, then physicalism hasn’t provided a real explanation. At most, it’s pointed out a mysterious correlation between conceptually distinct events.

But what then is true, if physicalism isn’t? Here philosophers have resisted the temptation to believe in souls, or immaterial things that have experiences. They have instead suggested that conscious experience is a hidden dimension of the physical, or that nature includes both physical and nonphysical properties, or that some physical events can somehow give rise to conscious states. In short, they have tended to reach for pixie dust.

Now the most promising response on the part of the physicalist is to insist that no, zombies are not conceivable. It seems like they are, but they’re not. Daniel Dennett makes this case by ramping up our concept of a zombie into a zimbo: a zimbo is a zombie that can adjust its behavior on the basis of monitoring its own behavioral states. It’s still not conscious, mind you. But it can see what it is doing, hear what it is saying, gain feedback from the environment, positive or negative, and adjust its behavior accordingly. If you are having trouble imagining such a being without attributing consciousness to it, then Dennett says you are discovering that philosophical zombies are in fact inconceivable. Indeed, he writes, there is a sense in which we are all zombies – namely, in the sense that there is nothing to us over and above our brain behavior and bodily behavior that gives us the experience we have. Physicalism is the view that we are zombies.

Now why on earth are philosophers devoting so much attention to zombies? To a large extent, surely, it is to determine whether physicalism is true. It’s philosophical curiosity. But there’s always more than that going on.

Philosophical zombies started to receive lots of attention in the mid 1990s. At this point in time, computers were becoming more widespread, more powerful, and more interesting; the discussions about artificial intelligence were becoming less science-fictiony and more science-facty. So there was a general awareness that a physicalistic account of consciousness might be genuinely possible. Then again, that had been true since at least the 1950s, and maybe since the 1650s.

But I think other factors were responsible for the sudden emergence (or re-emergence) of philosophical zombies. The mid-1990s marked the end of the cold war and a kind of triumph of the Reagan/Thatcher/Bush-the-elder political regimes. In the eyes of liberal college professors (at least), these regimes promoted and rewarded a kind of opportunism and corporate greed that had been largely suppressed or regulated over the previous eight decades. The “Yuppie” (Young Urban Professional) became for many a genuine societal ideal, though this ideal was met by liberals with large measures of scorn, disdain, and satire. In this vein, one of the most powerful TV commercials ever produced accused corporate-driven consumerist society of being the totalitarian state envisioned by George Orwell in 1984.



Now the irony should be lost on no one that this commercial was for Apple, which was itself a totalitarian regime, and it was taking aim at another totalitarian regime, IBM, which at that time served as the whipping boy for MBA-style lack of creativity. (Then Microsoft stepped into that particular role.) But the commercial cleverly played upon a general yearning among liberal consumers to see themselves as more than faceless cogs in dreadful machines: to see themselves, that is, as something other than mere robotic servants, or zombies.

I believe that the “philosophical zombie phenomenon” in the 1990s and 2000s gained its momentum from a liberal yearning among philosophers to see themselves as creative agents (led by David Chalmers, at that time a young, long-haired, brilliant upstart from Down Under), and a yearning to see human consciousness generally as itself special and irreducible to material forces. It was a kind of rebellion against a staid philosophical tradition, but also against a broader society that was celebrating conformity and materialistic consumerism. The confidence that zombies are metaphysically possible was fueled by the recognition that corporate zombies were actually all over the place, and by the fear of becoming one.

Seen in this light, the reactionary response from physicalists – that “We are all zombies!” – can be heard as the voice of the disillusioned, the Microsoft confidence that Excel spreadsheets are, in the end, more bankable than iPaint. Nothing human offers lasting resistance to the scientistic effort to reductively explain. The pixie dust, we are brutally informed, is just dust.

In all this, I’m half-joking, but only half. It’s certainly not true that nonphysicalists in philosophy of mind are all political liberals, and physicalists are political conservatives. But in all of us there are propensities to think magically alongside enlightened demands that we not dream, and that we face facts as they are. These inner drives fuel debates about human consciousness just as they fuel political disputes.

A thought experiment is never just a thought experiment.


Posted in Historical episodes, Metaphysical musings | 3 Comments

Defining the divine

144Here is a big question:

Is anything divine?

It’s easiest simply to assume (for now) that there is a natural world, and that this world is pretty much what it appears to be (with corrections supplied through scientific inquiry, of course). The question then is whether that assumption will be sufficient for our knowledge and experience, or whether there is anything in our lives urging us to think of something in the world, or out of it, or maybe the world itself, as divine.

What is divinity? I would like to explore this definition: divinity is the quality of intrinsic meaningfulness. A divine thing is not meaningful because of our own ends and expectations. It is not meaningful in virtue of any other thing. It is meaningful only in virtue of itself. When we encounter it, there can be no denying its significance. That’s what divinity would be, anyway.

Obviously, this is not the common way of understanding the term “divinity” – but I think it is a useful way, since it immediately cuts away many things we may be taught to think of as divine that are in fact not so special. Take God, for example. If God is supposed to be some powerful being, with vast plans and occasional responses to prayer, and the ability to dispense the biggest rewards and punishments, then God is no more than an extraordinary mundane being, like a cosmic tyrant or king. God in this case is no more divine than a Nero of time and space. No being is divine just by having extraordinary mundane powers.

But suppose there is a mystic who recognizes a certain experience – perhaps “the experience of God’s love” – as divine. When having that experience, the mystic cannot deny its significance. The experience electrifies his whole being. Obviously, the meaningfulness of the experience has nothing to do with what it will yield for the mystic, nor does it advance the mystic’s own aims and ambitions. The experience itself is pure meaningfulness, and the mystic rightly identifies the experience as divine – according to the above definition, at any rate.

Those of us who are not the mystic are not compelled to see the experience as divine. We might see the mystic’s happy face or other physical symptoms, but none of these are especially meaningful to us. We might skeptically regard the mystic’s experience as only apparently meaningful to the mystic. And if we regard it so, and carry through our thought with consistency, then when we are offered the chance to be the mystic ourselves, and enjoy the experience of God’s love for ourselves, then we ought to similarly conclude that the experience is only apparently meaningful to us.

No one can deny the existence of apparently meaningful things. The question we are asking, though, is whether anything really is genuinely meaningful, and intrinsically meaningful at that.

To remain within the secure confines of skepticism, admitting only the existence of apparently divine things, is to be a secularist. A secularist sees only relational meaningfulness. A thing or event is meaningful to a person, or within a context. Nothing is point-blank meaningful. And this means that nothing is divine (according to the proposed definition), and nothing is sacred. It must be noted, though, that this does not mean that a secularist values nothing. A secularist values many things. But the secularist values things because of those things’ relations to people or projects. It is true that for the secularist there is no final, fixed source of value or meaningfulness. But this does not make everything value-less. It only makes all valuable things of relative value.

Continue reading

Posted in Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff | 14 Comments

Haig Khatchadourian (1925-2016)

I learned yesterday through Facebook that one of my teachers, Haig Khatchadourian, has passed away. He was a warm and generous man, and a philosopher with such broad knowledge and penetrating intellect as to both intimidate and inspire those of us lucky enough to be in his classroom. I remember the blue exam books he would hand back, completely filled and smudged with his red ink, taking any weak point we managed to make and building it into an interesting insight. He made us feel like we were part of an extremely important and demanding project: that of making critical, well-informed sense of the world. All my friends strove eagerly to win his praise, because we felt getting it really meant something.

I remember asking him once about his core philosophical interests, and he explained to me that, early on, he had planned his life as a series of decades: ten years to work on epistemology, ten years on metaphysics, ten years on politics, etc. My impression is that he threw himself completely into each decade, getting to the heart of the matter and planning his courses so that students could be carried along with him.

IMAG0617As a senior, I was allowed to take a graduate seminar he led on Kant’s Critique. I worked harder in that class than in any other. There were four of us, and to this day I have a photograph he took when we met under a tree one day. (I post it below my copies of the CPR.) The fact that he wanted to take a photo, and that he gave us all copies to remember the experience, meant a lot to me, and still does. He really cared about the human side of his students, in addition to his efforts to sharpen our meager intellectual capacities.

There are few who have lived with his focus and dedication. I’m very, very grateful for having been his student.


Posted in Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff, This & that in the life of CH | 6 Comments

Idealism and contingency

(Reading Terry Pinkard’s marvelous German Philosophy 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism)

It may be that the tenability of idealism comes down to the question of history. A resolute idealist discovers that the most fundamental framework of existence is expressed as dynamic relations among concepts: the I, the not-I, the striving of the I to take in the not-I as an object of thought, and the thorough ordering of the not-I – “Nature” – in further concepts, eventually expressed in the terms of the most conceptual branch of physical science. The idealists promise that, in the final analysis, our science of nature will merge meaningfully into this fundamental metaphysics. We will somehow get from I/not-I to the general theory of relativity.

But this still leaves the problem of history, for Nature is not merely a set of relations among concepts. Nature has been, is, and will be a most particular sequence of events. Another way to put this point is that there are many, many possible worlds which differ radically from one another but which all obey the same laws of nature. One of these is ours; how can this be explained? Why have things been one way rather than another? In short: why this history?

There are some basic replies one might try. You might try, in Zeno-like fashion, to simply deny the reality of our particular history, and call it some kind of illusion. Or you might partition off some deeper recess of the I which, in its hidden structure, explains why we should have this particular history. Or you might mythologize history, and turn its seemingly inexplicable particularity into something uniquely meaningful: our history is getting something done, and this something can get done in just one way, which is the way of our history. Moreover, this something that needs to get done may be linked up with the I/not-I dynamic, so that in the end the I wills the world. None of these ploys are especially interesting.

There may be a more subtle way of responding to the problem, which Pinkard sketches in his account of Schelling’s idealism:

Surely the past, as Shelling himself notes, has a reality that is independent of our representation of it. This objection to idealism, however, like generalized skepticism, assumes the “reflective” stance that puts subjects on one side of a divide and objects on the other [“the mind-as-the-mirror-of-nature” view]. Once one has shifted one’s picture and come to “see” or “intuit” the matter differently, those worries cannot arise. In understanding our experience as of a world, we experience it as more than what is manifest in that experience; or, as Schelling puts it, for us to be “intelligences,” we must perform a “synthesis” (a drawing of normative lines), which requires us to take up our experience both as being of an objective “universe at large” and as the way we “view the universe precisely from this determinate point.” We understand ourselves, that is, as particular points of view on an objective world that can be only partially manifested to us in our experience of it. Seen in that way, idealism is, as he puts it, only a “higher” realism. (p. 186; my bolds)

I understand this as follows. The very question – “Why is history this way rather than another?” – presupposes that we are divided from it. On one side is us, armed with our philosophical understanding; and on the other is the totally other “it,” with its own stubborn character. But Schelling asks us to shift out of this paradigm: take away the dividing line. The particular world we confront in experience is not distinct from us, but is a resulting mash-up of our own intelligence with an entity we ourselves posit – an object of our experience. The “stubborn character” which we thought was outside us is in fact inside us, in the sense that we have projected it into our own experience.

Now I would like to continue to press the objection: but why then have we projected one sort of seemingly objective world rather than another? (Or, in other words, just whose show is this, anyway?) I suppose that the Pinkard/Schelling reply would be something like, “There you go again, trying to divide yourself from the objects of your experience. Stop it!” But I can’t decide whether this is really a reply or just an attempt to get me to stop raising a question they can’t answer. Does the brute contingency of history evaporate as soon as I accept responsibility for it? Doesn’t that just bring the contingency into myself?

Posted in Books, Kant and/or Hume, Metaphysical musings | 1 Comment

John Dee’s books, magic, and ruling the world

There’s a great little essay here by Brooke Palmieri on the JHI blog, which I’m reposting here mainly so that I don’t forget to go back and study in more detail. Excerpt:

No wonder Dee could argue so forcefully in General and rare memorials pertayning to the perfect arte of navigation (1577), and his other works, for a British Empire: there are books in his library to engineer such a feat. Alchemical works in theory provided instructions to make the gold to fund voyages to foreign lands. Books on astronomy, astrology, mathematics, cartography, and navigation make it possible for those ships to efficiently plan and complete the journey. Histories provide tough lessons and useful strategies about subjugating the locals: predominantly works about the Roman Empire, but also the Ottoman Empire (Francesco Sansovino’s Gl’annali turcheschi), and more recently works on trade with the East (João de Barros’s L’Asia) and the conquest of the New World (André Thevet’s La cosmographie universelle and Cosmographie de Levant). Cross-reference these with Matthew Paris’s Flores historiarum on King Arthur’s mythical dominion, and the justification for a particularly British Empire is given “historical” precedent. Finally, use magic to contact the angels and support human agency with divine right….

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Natural and agreeable fools

Methinks I am like a man, who having struck on many shoals, and having narrowly escaped shipwreck in passing a small frith, has yet the temerity to put out to sea in the same leaky weather-beaten vessel, and even carries his ambition so far as to think of compassing the globe under these disadvantageous circumstances. My memory of past errors and perplexities, makes me diffident for the future. The wretched condition, weakness, and disorder of the faculties, I must employ in my enquiries, encrease my apprehensions. And the impossibility of amending or correcting these faculties, reduces me almost to despair, and makes me resolve to perish on the barren rock, on which I am at present, rather than venture myself upon that boundless ocean, which runs out into immensity. This sudden view of my danger strikes me with melancholy; and as it is usual for that passion, above all others, to indulge itself; I cannot forbear feeding my despair, with all those desponding reflections, which the present subject furnishes me with in such abundance….

I call upon others to join me, in order to make a company apart; but no one will hearken to me. Every one keeps at a distance, and dreads that storm, which beats upon me from every side. I have exposed myself to the enmity of all metaphysicians, logicians, mathematicians, and even theologians; and can I wonder at the insults I must suffer? I have declared my disapprobation of their systems; and can I be surprized, if they should express a hatred of mine and of my person? When I look abroad, I foresee on every side, dispute, contradiction, anger, calumny and detraction. When I turn my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and ignorance. All the world conspires to oppose and contradict me; though such is my weakness, that I feel all my opinions loosen and fall of themselves, when unsupported by the approbation of others. Every step I take is with hesitation, and every new reflection makes me dread an error and absurdity in my reasoning….

For my part, …. I can only observe what is commonly done; which is, that this difficulty is seldom or never thought of; and even where it has once been present to the mind, is quickly forgot, and leaves but a small impression behind it. Very refined reflections have little or no influence upon us; and yet we do not, and cannot establish it for a rule, that they ought not to have any influence; which implies a manifest contradiction.

But what have I here said, that reflections very refined and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Here then I find myself absolutely and necessarily determined to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life. But notwithstanding that my natural propensity, and the course of my animal spirits and passions reduce me to this indolent belief in the general maxims of the world, I still feel such remains of my former disposition, that I am ready to throw all my books and papers into the fire, and resolve never more to renounce the pleasures of life for the sake of reasoning and philosophy. For those are my sentiments in that splenetic humour, which governs me at present. I may, nay I must yield to the current of nature, in submitting to my senses and understanding; and in this blind submission I shew most perfectly my sceptical disposition and principles. But does it follow, that I must strive against the current of nature, which leads me to indolence and pleasure; that I must seclude myself, in some measure, from the commerce and society of men, which is so agreeable; and that I must torture my brains with subtilities and sophistries, at the very time that I cannot satisfy myself concerning the reasonableness of so painful an application, nor have any tolerable prospect of arriving by its means at truth and certainty. Under what obligation do I lie of making such an abuse of time? And to what end can it serve either for the service of mankind, or for my own private interest? No: If I must be a fool, as all those who reason or believe any thing certainly are, my follies shall at least be natural and agreeable. Where I strive against my inclination, I shall have a good reason for my resistance; and will no more be led a wandering into such dreary solitudes, and rough passages, as I have hitherto met with.

These passages, from the conclusion of the first book of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, arrest me like no other. If he had written nothing else but these words on a scrap of paper, he would still rank as one of the world’s most acute philosophers. They dramatically portray the emotional life of the intellectual mind, as replete in self-awareness as they are ruthless in accuracy.

Anyone who feels compelled to meditate on the questions he asks – “Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return?” – and does not rest content with self-serving fantasies will land on Humean shoals. Two conclusions are irresistible: first: no, we do not have any answers; and second: the tools we have to work with – “the wretched condition, weakness, and disorder of the faculties” – should make us despair of ever getting any. In the acidic observation of Portal 2’s GLaDOS, “You’re not just a regular moron; you were designed to be a moron.”

This unfortunate fact matters, does it not? And yet, “very refined reflections have little or no influence upon us.” They should, of course. This discovery, if genuine, should leave us utterly paralysed, and we can find no reason why it shouldn’t leave us utterly paralysed. But, luckily (???), nature comes along and rescues us. “I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.” The mood of philosophical angst will pass – just give it an hour or so. You’ll get over it, and find something distractingly fun.

Our knowledge is not such a great thing; and our worry over its mediocrity is not such a great thing either. The lesson to be learned from the Humean diagnosis of the human condition is this: it’s no big deal. If we must be fools, let us be at least natural and agreeable fools.

In the end, Hume goes on to find some good in these “strained and ridiculous” speculations. At least they ward off superstition and delusions of philosophical or religious insight. His weather-beaten vessel shores up at the port of Socratic modesty, taking his own wisdom to be the insight that he really has no wisdom. We’re left with living contentedly among appearances, tempering our actions and opinions with the knowledge that we are fools. But let us be agreeable fools nonetheless.


Posted in Kant and/or Hume, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff | 6 Comments

The 3QD experience

I’ve contributed essays to the aggregator site for two years, and have just decided to bring that relationship to a close. Nothing went wrong – no falling out, no throwing of lamps, no screaming fits of “I just don’t love you anymore!” I just decided that I’d had my run, and it was time to free up the spot for somebody else.

It has been a true learning experience. I wanted to get better at writing for a broader, nonspecialized audience, and I think there’s been some success on that front. The easiest mistake for a stuffy prof like me to make, when he tries to write in a popular vein, is to take whatever arcane thing interests him and dumb it down, stick in silly examples, and earnestly believe others will then find it interesting. That doesn’t work, I tell you. Nonspecialized audiences are not dumb; they are just nonspecialized. If you want to reach them, you have to tap into the things any thinking human is likely to be interested in. It could be a good story, a central concern of contemporary life, or an age-old existential threat. Then try to engage that topic with equal doses of insight and humor, keeping the banter both light and significant. Easier said than done, of course, but if you whack away at it for a time you’ll get a little better. I’m thankful to 3QD for giving me some batting practice.

It’s also been interesting to try to situate writing for 3QD with my academic job. I heard long ago that the average scholarly article is read by 2.1 people – including the author. Averages mislead, but I’d say that most articles are read by one or two handfuls of people, at the most. But publishing such things is the “gold standard” of the academic business, since each piece is vetted by a couple of experts and selected for publication over dozens or scores of others. It’s like winning an intensely competitive contest where only your mom and dad show up for the awards ceremony. Of course, each scholarly article advances the frontiers of knowledge, etc., etc., but – amazingly – each article does so even as it is swallowed up by a deep well of obscurity after being read by maybe five people. And this very silly business is what gets you tenured and promoted.

My 3QD bits are read by – well, it’s hard to say, but loads more people than read my scholarly bits. Hundreds, thousands? (The 3QD editor said my essays are seen by 15k-20k people, but I can’t say whether those are actual readers or just sentient organisms on whose eyeballs there has been a momentary flash of something I’ve done.)  The essays are not peer-reviewed, and not competitively selected (though I was competitively selected for the slot in the first place.) So, overall, it doesn’t really count, academic-wise. I’ve just been publishing stuff for readers, not slugging it out with experts.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say again that it seems to me there’s a better way to run this shop. There is certainly a place for experts writing for one another on matters as arcane as they please – that is vitally important for scholarship, I believe. But isn’t there also a place – particularly in the humanities, social sciences, and liberal arts – for engaging with the concerns of non-experts? Well, yes, of course there is. Not everyone should do it, and no one should do only it. But there needs to be more space for it in the graduate curriculum and in the academy, so that more of us more of the time engage the broader culture whose interests we serve.

So I’m very happy with the relation I’ve had with 3QD. I don’t know what happens next. I’ll keep writing stuff for this blog, and for other random venues as they come along. And I’ll keep checking out 3QD – there’s some very enlightening material there, for all of us.

Posted in 3QD essays, Items of the academy / learning, This & that in the life of CH | 3 Comments