In any online conversation about consciousness, sooner or later someone is going to bring up philosophical zombies as an argument for consciousness being non-physical, or at least some portion of it. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy introduces the p-zombie concept as follows:
Zombies in philosophy are imaginary creatures designed to illuminate problems about consciousness and its relation to the physical world. Unlike those in films or witchcraft, they are exactly like us in all physical respects but without conscious experiences: by definition there is ‘nothing it is like’ to be a zombie. Yet zombies behave just like us, and some even spend a lot of time discussing consciousness.
Few people, if any, think zombies actually exist. But many hold they are at least conceivable, and some that they are possible. It seems that if zombies really are possible, then physicalism is false and some kind of dualism is true. For many philosophers that is the chief importance of the zombie idea.
This is the classic version, one that is identical, atom for atom, to a conscious being, but has no conscious experience.
The biggest problem with p-zombies is that the premises of the idea presupposes its purported conclusion, the conclusion that some aspect of the mind is non-physical. If you remove the assumption of some form of substance dualism, the concept collapses. It becomes incoherent, a proposition similar to asserting that we can sum 2+2 and not get 4.
So, right off the bat, this classic version of the thought experiment seems like a failure, a circular argument, and for a long time that’s pretty much all the thought I gave to it. But I recently realized that classic p-zombies have a deeper problem. Even if you fully accept the dualism premise, it has another assumption, one that does more damage and ultimately makes the concept incoherent.
For the p-zombie concept to work, conscious experience must be an epiphenomenon, something that exists completely separate and apart from the causal framework that produces behavior. If consciousness is not an epiphenomenon, then its absence would make a difference in the p-zombie’s behavior, which is exactly what is not supposed to happen with a p-zombie.
Here’s the problem. We know epiphenomenalism is false. How? Well, if it’s true, then how can we discuss conscious experience? Somehow, the language centers of our brains send signals to the motor cortex that drive our speech muscles to make sounds relevant to it. Somehow signals are sent to my fingers so I can type this blog post, or similar signals are sent to your fingers if you decide to comment on it.
Whatever else it might be, conscious experience must be part of the causal framework that eventually leads to behavior. It has causal influence on the language centers of the brain if nowhere else, but that’s enough to have causal effects in the world. Epiphenomenalism cannot be true.
Without epiphenomenalism, it seems like the classic premise of the p-zombie collapses, even for dualists.
Now, maybe we can rescue the zombie concept somewhat if we retreat a bit from the classic conception and instead think about behavioral zombies. Unlike the classic version, b-zombies are allowed to be physically different from a conscious version of the being. It’s only in behavior that this kind of zombie is indistinguishable.
A computerized b-zombie seems trivial to do if we only need to momentarily fool an observer. However, the inability of any automated chat-bot systems to legitimately pass the most common (and weak) form of the Turing test demonstrates that the difficulty quickly escalates. (In the most commonly pursued version of the test, success is fooling only 30% of human subjects after five minutes of conversation.) Reliably fooling reasonably sophisticated observers for days, weeks, or months is not possible with any kind of current technology.
The difficulty here is that the longer the b-zombie can keep up the charade, the higher the probability that it isn’t actually a charade, that it is in fact implementing some alternate architecture for consciousness. Of course, to a substance dualist, physically implemented consciousness isn’t real consciousness. It’s a facade that mimics the results (including the ability to discuss conscious experience) but doesn’t include the actual qualia associated with it, no matter how much the zombie might insist that it does.
So unlike classic p-zombies, b-zombies are more logically coherent. They avoid the problem with epiphenomenalism since they can replace the putative non-physical aspect of consciousness with a physical implementation. But the conceptual existence of a b-zombie doesn’t have the same implications against physicalism, since even if consciousness is fully physical, it’s possible an alternate architecture to produce conscious seeming behavior might do it without conscious experience.
However, as with any conscious system, external observers could never actually access the putative b-zombies’s internal subjective experience, assuming it had one, no matter how much they knew about its internals. Which means that there would be no objective criteria that could be used to ever know whether a successful b-zombie was actually a zombie or a conscious being. (This was largely Alan Turing’s point when he first proposed the Turing test.)
This last point tends to make me view the idea of zombies overall as fairly pointless. It’s the classic problem of other minds. We can never know for sure that anyone other than ourselves are conscious. It seems reasonable to conclude that other mentally complete humans are, but everything else is up for debate. We’re forced to rely on our intuitions for babies, animals, or any other system that might act conscious-like.
Of course, caution is called for. Historically, those intuitions have often led us astray. Humans once saw consciousness in all kinds of things: rivers, volcanoes, storms, and many other phenomena that, because their effects often seemed arbitrary and capricious, led us to conclude that there was some god or spirit behind it. We have to take care that our intuitions are well informed.
But consciousness, once we do establish that it can’t be an epiphenomenon, that it is definitely part of the framework that produces behavior, must have evolved because it had some adaptive value. That implies that our use of behavior to assess its presence or absence is a sound one, as long as that assessment is rigorous.
Unless of course I’m missing something?
95 thoughts on “The problems with philosophical zombies”
I think the zombies in philosophy ought to be reserved for the philosophical ideas that never die, no matter how absurd. They can even appear to die and yet live again. The concept of a soul. The idea of the supernatural. The idea of spirituality. These undead ideas aren’t dead but deserve to be.
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As concepts, you could say they’re all…zombies
A very large majority of “philosophy” is people saying things that don’t need to be said, using hundreds of thousands of times the amount of words that need to be used – and inventing words that didn’t need inventing. Granted, allot of classical philosophy was written during the ages when religion could execute anyone they felt like – and thus basic reasoning, which quickly refutes religions, had to be buried under mountains of nonsense. And of course, allot of philosophy was written by mathematicians, whom should be legally denied access to language.
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Everyone seems to agree that only a small portion of philosophy is useful. The problem is that there is widespread disagreement on exactly which portion that is.
Good job steel-manning the argument.
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Thanks! You made me look up “steel-manning”, which is apparently the opposite of straw-manning. One of the nice things about the blogging format is that you know there might be people pointing out flaws in your arguments, which encourage you to try and anticipate them in the post.
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This post helped clear some things up for me. Until now I hadn’t heard the “b-zombie” term, and for some reason thought that this is what people meant with “p-zombie.” So yes, from my own monist, physicalist, naturalist position, the p-zombie situation is far worse! (From an earlier post I like your own “evidentualist” classification, since I’d also ditch my physicalism and such with enough credible evidence against causality.)
Since we seem agreed that these sorts of thought experiments aren’t really helpful, one associated question should be, why does the topic of consciousness harbor so many suspect notions? While this may technically be a question, I do see an obvious solution. Surely such baggage exists today, given the extent to which consciousness vexes humanity — why else would such notions be developed? As we’ve recently discussed at Plato’s Footnotes, apparently a modern surge in panpsychism is occurring, for example. But perhaps consciousness is no different from other mysterious dynamics — which is to say that they remain “mysterious” only until effective ways of thinking about them emerge.
For example, back before Sir Isaac Newton, I’m sure that there were various similarly strange notions regarding “force.” Newton then came along to demonstrate that force is extremely useful to define as a product of mass and acceleration. I’m quite sure that something similar will happen for consciousness, thus ridding us of various ridiculous modern notions.
In my final comment last time, I openly worried that I may be coming on too strongly here. While you graciously assured me that I wasn’t, care does still need to be taken. I seek a community which doesn’t consider itself in competition with me, but rather attempts to understand how my ideas function, for the purpose of determining associated faults and merits. So far things seem just fine here, but wouldn’t be if I were perceived as arrogant or disrespectful. So let me now say something “precarious” here, in the spirit that I seek to join this community rather than the converse:
I believe that I can straighten out consciousness for humanity, essentially as Newton straightened out force.
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Thanks Alex. I have to admit that I have no idea if the term “b-zombie” exists in the literature. I used it because I didn’t feel like typing “behavioral” repeatedly, and the term “behavioral zombie” is used by the Wikipedia article on zombies.
I think consciousness attracts many of these notions because we’re talking about the most primal aspect of our existence, and we’ve been discussing it for a long time, long before modern science. Apparently zombies go back to Descartes, most of whose ideas on consciousness haven’t fared well with scientific investigation.
In many ways, our pre-scientific ideas of consciousness were almost more what we aspired for it to be, which I think it why many people dislike the scientific findings about it. The longer the mystery can be preserved, the longer the chance of at least some of our aspirations might still turn out to be true.
It’s interesting that there was initial resistance to Newton’s understanding of gravitation from many of his contemporaries. Over the previous century and a half, the idea of action at a distance had slowly been discredited (such as the sun or planets affecting how our day is going to go). But Newton’s understanding of gravity seemed to bring it back. Of course, Einstein discovered that gravitation is the warping of space, which eliminated the action at a distance aspect, but for two centuries we had a mostly predictive mathematical model of gravitation with no understanding of what was being modeled.
On straightening out consciousness, I hope you’re right, although I’m increasingly starting to think there isn’t that much to straighten out, just a lot of meticulous scientific investigation that will increasingly sharpen the picture. But if you do straighten it out, I hope you realize that the hard part may be convincing everyone that you’ve actually done so. Even with the mountains of evidence he and later others presented, people still resist the notion that Darwin solved the question of where species came from.
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Newton’s gravity is a great example to bring up here. If you try to put yourself in the position of those who were hearing about it for the first time, it would seem fairly strange to say the least.
On Descartes, I can see why people might attribute zombies to him, but I think we should be careful in this. He thought we ourselves were mostly automata—i.e., mechanistic—with the exception of our capacity to reason. Animals, for him, are automata, utterly unconscious. (Geordie Bear is utterly offended, he assures me in his British accent.) We are automata in the sense that we possess “animal spirits”—reflexes, for instance—that we don’t consciously control. Then there’s the curious matter of the pineal gland, the seat of the soul in the brain. It’s absurd, sure, but if we can step back in time, we see this signifies a step toward the reduction of consciousness (what Descartes calls the soul) to the brain. Actually just one funny portion of the brain. So now imagine if you took Descartes’ argument and stripped it of its God stuff, changed the word ‘soul’ to ‘consciousness’ or ‘psyche’…perhaps we shouldn’t. I get that point. But when I read him, I sense his motivations and interests coming together more concretely when I ignore the circular argument and rehashed rhetoric, and focus on the novel ideas. He was definitely ahead of his time, but it’s so easy (and fun) to make fun of him.
I don’t know why I’m defending him. I don’t even like him and I blasted him in my undergrad thesis. Maybe it’s just a reflex. 😉
Well, more on your post in a separate comment…
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I didn’t mean to disparage Descartes, although rereading my comment above, I can see where it came across that way. I think for his time, he reasoned much further than anyone else could. He didn’t know about electricity, cells, or computational systems, so for him, plausible physical processes for the mind were nonexistent.
Given that landscape, who can knock him for concluding that there had to be something to the mind beyond physics? He actually had a good reason for supposing that the pineal gland was the soul antenna. It appeared to be the only thing in the brain that there wasn’t duplicated in both the left and right brain hemispheres. (In reality it also has two hemispheres, but it reportedly takes a microscope to know that.)
I also don’t think he set out to find an aspirational conception of consciousness. (Quite the opposite from what I understand.) But he had a dearth of information to work with, and when humans are in that position, it’s extremely difficult to avoid falling into the trap of reasoning into your cultural indoctrinations. I’m sure a historian 500 years from now looking at our reasoning will be amused by how much we ourselves do it without even realizing it.
So no worries on defending Descartes. I understand completely.
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Regarding Descartes, I’m certainly a supporter, but am I crediting him with an idea that’s fully his? When he said, “I think, therefore I am,” didn’t he mean that the only thing that he could possibly know to be true, was that his thought itself existed? I consider this apparent truth to have tremendous epistemological implications that often seems overlooked today. I take this to mean that we shouldn’t use terms such as “truth” and “knowledge” in absolute ways (unless referencing “I think,” or perhaps things which are true by definition), since it should be more accurate to talk about what we “believe.” It shouldn’t be so difficult for us to accurately say “I believe X,” rather than inaccurately say “X is true.”
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Thanks for the encouragement Mike. And yes, the difficult end of straightening out consciousness might be less about developing useful ideas (which should nevertheless be crucial), and more about being able to demonstrate the value of those ideas to a community which might rather remain as it is. If we add up psychology, psychiatry, sociology, cognitive science, philosophy, and so on, they should have a great deal of natural momentum which isn’t easily altered.
I’m sure that most such professionals believe that “meticulous scientific investigation… will increasingly sharpen the picture [of consciousness].” But how could things be healthy in these fields today, for example, given that things like p-zombies and panpsychism are given so much attention? Observe that reading through the Wiki consciousness page provides a virtual treasure trove of “We don’t know, we don’t know…” statements. Instead of demanding yet more of our “meticulous science,” I suspect that consciousness will finally need some practical models and useful associated definitions — or exactly what Newton provided physics.
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Your question about the health of these fields reminds me how many fields have dichotomies between the scientific part and the speculative factions. We see that in economics, where most of what the public hears about is ideological posturing instead of the actual science, or archaeology where a lot of people with fringe agendas hijack the discussions.
My point about scientific investigation, is that there is a lot of good scientific work going on discovering how brains process information and produce behavior. But a lot of what gets into the pubic sphere comes from a separate faction that wants to talk about the things you noted. I’d like to say scientific results should eventually shrink the space for that speculation, but based on the current disconnect between them, I’m not sure I can.
Sorry Eric. Not sure why I called you “Alex” in the previous reply. Might have had something to do with just having read an email from someone named Alex.
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Mike I smiled at your little name mix up with me. While you shouldn’t yet know very much about me, your site may have already given me a pretty good sense of who you happen to be. Hopefully you’ll get to know me soon enough as well, since friendships generally need to be two way streets. (Furthermore there is also this “consciousness” stuff that you’ve said you hope I straighten out for humanity, as well as mentioned that even good ideas can be hard to sell. Thus I’d love to some day teach you how my ideas work, not only to get your input, but potentially your support!)
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Not conceivable. Next.
Actually, I think the zombie argument is very instructive.
At the heart of epiphenomenalism is the notion that it is possible to tease apart the quality of an experience from its distinctiveness.
As you have pointed out, that turns out to be incredibly difficult.
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I think that’s why I found studying animal consciousness to be instructive. We’re too close to our own experience. We have trouble separating ourselves from it, and have this feeling that there must be something more to it than just the information processing. But Descartes reportedly didn’t have that issue with animals. He was perfectly happy to imagine them as automatons. But the idea that he himself was a more sophisticated automaton was inconceivable.
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Now on zombies. Thanks for clarifying the whole zombie thing! I get turned off by what looks like algebra and nonsense combined in one crazy thought experiment. Now I think I have a handle on things.
I don’t think you’re missing anything, from what you’ve explained here. In fact, I’d say you’ve added something to the discussion in taking an epistemological turn. Why do we keep positing these ridiculous conscious objects without considering how we come to know consciousness? Without saying what consciousness is? And there’s another problem. It’s hard to define consciousness in some sort of neutral way, without presupposing the conclusion.
Zombies don’t make the old arguments more exciting for me, but maybe they do for others. I have no idea. I find it muddies things up.
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Thanks Tina. This post was inspired by a conversation I had on another blog with someone who insisted that it was a meaningful concept, although it was far from the first such conversation I’ve had on the topic.
Like many philosophical thought experiments on consciousness, it seems to be something of a Rorschach test, confirming some people’s intuitions and being irrelevant to others, not really changing anyone’s mind. To be fair, these thought experiments can be clarifying when considering why they don’t work. (So maybe I was a little harsh with labeling the concept “pointless”.)
I’m reminded of things like the Chinese Room or Mary’s Room. Both are convincing for anyone who already agrees with their author, but not for anyone who doesn’t, and exploring why each group concludes what they do can be instructive.
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These types of thought experiments—I’m not sure what to call them, popular thought experiments?—are also good at bringing interest to topics that might otherwise be seen as too technical or boring. They give you the concept in a clever nugget, and it’s more fun to talk about a zombie than a generic ‘automaton.’ But yeah, once the metaphor has been stretched, once you have to have various letters before your zombie, it’s time to let it go.
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I agree with you to a point but I don’t think you’re being fair to the p-zombie argument.
Like you, I think the p-zombie argument fails because it is circular. The conclusion is baked into the premises. If, for instance, functionalism is true, then a p-zombie is incoherent, so the p-zombie argument cannot be used to argue that functionalism is false.
However it is a powerful way of articulating an anti-functionalist point of view, so it has value in that sense.
You’re also right that the p-zombie argument depends on epiphenomenalism (or rather that the p-zombie thought experiment is a way of articulating an epiphenomenalist view). Where I think you go wrong is where you say that we know epiphenomenalism is false. We don’t.
Our talking about consciousness and typing about consciousness and so on can be explained without recourse to actual consciousness. It arises because of the firing of neurons. Just as with an unconscious AI which can pass the Turing Test, there is no reason that these behaviours could not be caused by unconscious processes, especially if functionalism is in question. Chalmers’ view as expressed in the p-zombie argument is that we can explain all our talk of consciousness and so on by solving the “easy problems of consciousness”, i.e. those problems amenable to functionalist accounts. The problem that remains is how to show that we are not just behaving as if but that we are actually conscious, and if there is a Hard Problem as Chalmers thinks, then epiphenomenalism must be true.
I agree with you that epiphenomenalism is false, by the way, but it remains a tenable position in philosophy of mind.
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I may be too embedded in my functionalism to see how the p-zombie concept argues against it. Can you recommend any resources that present that argument?
I guess I’m having trouble seeing the conceptual space where we can discuss our conscious experience and still have that experience be an epiphenomenon. The only way I can see it is if conscious experience is wholly separate and apart from the causal framework that leads to behavior, but that its states just happen to correspond, to correlate with the states described by the non-conscious activity of us discussing it, without any interaction between the two.
While conceivable, it seems to put us well into deism type territory, in the sense of allowing us to retain a concept at the cost of it being forever untestable. Or is there another way to conceive this that I’m missing?
As an aside, I think my biggest issue with Chalmers’s argument is that he seems unwilling to unpack words like “experience”. I fully understand that experience is subjectively irreducible, but assuming that makes it also objectively irreducible strikes me as a category error. It seems to me that, as soon as we make an effort to do that unpacking, the hard problem breaks down into plausibly manageable chunks. But the subjectively irreducible aspect of it means that many will always insist we haven’t really solved anything.
I see it more as an evocative illustration of that kind of thinking than an argument against functionalism. It’s an effective intuition pump (as Dennett would say), but pumps in the wrong direction in my view.
Chalmers, I’d say.
I haven’t fully read this stuff myself but I see where he is coming from.
There’s this paper which argues that we can say something about what is possible from what is conceivable, and outlines the zombie argument in an appendix.
Basically, the best version of the argument goes: if we can find no logical contradiction in the idea of a p-zombie (and we can’t, I would say), and if there is in fact no such logical contradiction, then it is logically possible for p-zombies to exist. If it is logically possible for p-zombies to exist, then consciousness cannot be entailed by our physical bodies and must require something else to be realised.
Epiphemomenalism does not hold that there is no interaction, but that the interaction is one-way. Consciousness is like a shadow of someone walking. The walker causes the shadow but the shadow (usually) has no effect on the walker. So the correlation isn’t that much of a problem. It’s not coincidental. The idea is consciousness is a byproduct of the operation of the brain but has no causal role. I’m semi-on-board with that.
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Thanks for the concise description of Chalmers’ p-zombie thought experiment above — I think I understand. You said:
Yes that does make sense to me. Nevertheless from my own “naturalism” belief, I’d say that I am able to find a logical contradiction to the idea of p-zombies. If reality functions by means of a purely “causal” process, then logic suggests that a p-zombie cannot function exactly as I do without being exactly like me. Exchanging one different molecule (or location, or time) would cause something to be different from me in such ways. A being which actually lacks consciousness however, should logically be quite different from me, given the premise of naturalism. Otherwise I agree.
Furthermore I also enjoyed your “shadow” analogy for epiphenomenalism. Once again my belief in perfect causality prevents me from going that way. Actually I suspect that consciousness evolved essentially as a punishment/reward engineering dynamic that remains utterly crucial to my own function. Given that modern science has no effective model of “mind,” “non-conscious mind,” and “conscious mind” however, thought experiments such as these do seem perfectly appropriate today.
Right. So you can take the p-zombie argument to be an argument against naturalism, or at least naturalism as you conceive of it. That doesn’t mean that you have found a logical contradiction in the concept of a p-zombie, unless you can show that naturalism as you conceive of it has to be true.
We seem to be on the same page, but using different conceptions for “logical contradiction.” While you seem to be using it as a way to prove an aspect of reality, I was using it as a way to infer various things given specific beliefs. As I mentioned above in a homage to René Descartes, there seems to be only one thing about reality that I can ever know for certain about reality, and “that naturalism is true” ain’t it! Of course I can know things like 2+2=4, but I consider them to be properties of human language rather than reality itself. As I was using “logical contradiction,” this will be the case for a naturalist who also believes that p-zombies are possible — one belief doesn’t seem consistent with the other.
Strict internal logical consistency of the p-zombie concept is the kind that is relevant, not whether they are consistent with other concepts such as naturalism.
If p-zombies really are logically consistent, then naturalism must be false.
It’s more or less impossible to show that p-zombies are logically inconsistent, though, until you know what consciousness is. We only have different hypotheses. If functionalism is true, for instance, then consciousness is a set of functional abilities. This would mean that p-zombies are logically inconsistent, because p-zombies are supposed to have all the functional abilities that comprise consciousness without having consciousness.
But you need to be able to demonstrate that internal logical inconsistency, because if they are not logically inconsistent then either we must be p-zombies ourselves or naturalism has to be false.
I don’t want to “strawman you,” regarding your assertion that “Strict internal logical consistency of the p-zombie concept is the kind that is relevant, not whether they are consistent with other concepts such as naturalism.” I suspect that I disagree, but might not sufficiently understand what you mean. Therefore I’ve decided to provide what I call my two principles of epistemology (which I believe would clean up many academic pursuits if formally adopted), and then you can decide if these principles happen to be reasonable.
The first is that there are no “true” definitions, but only those which are more and less “useful” regarding a given author’s argument. Thus I believe we that we should stop trying to determine what “is” time, space, life, consciousness, and so on. Even the number “two,” as I see it, doesn’t have a true definition, but rather just a very useful and unique one. I suspect that my own definition of the conscious mind happens to be extremely useful, for example, though don’t consider any to be “true.”
Then my second principle of epistemology is that there is only one process by which anything conscious, consciously figures anything out: It takes what it thinks it knows (evidence), and then uses this to assess what it’s not so sure about (theory). The more that evidence continues to remain consistent with a theory, the more that it tends to become believed. (I’ve been told that there are plenty of other ways to consciously figure things out, though no one has yet offered an example.)
It is by these two principles that my long earned belief in naturalism, suggests that p-zombies cannot exist.
Just jumping in to this interesting discussion to note that your first principle sounds very similar to instrumentalism. Instrumentalism holds that scientific theories are only pragmatic frameworks for making predictions but do not necessarily reflect reality. That’s as opposed to realism, the view that scientific theories reflect reality to at least some level of approximation.
Most scientists are realists, I think because they’re primarily motivated in their endeavors to understand reality rather than to build pragmatic predictive frameworks. I have sympathy with the realist view, but I think it’s important to be able to shift mental gears from time to time and put on the instrumentalist hat when evaluating theories or potential theories.
From what I’ve read, an instrumentalist outlook was crucial to the early development of quantum physics theory. (Of course, it left us with an array of interpretations on whats “really” going on.)
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Mike it’s no surprise that our beliefs correspond regarding your interpretation of instrumentalism and realism. Yes in our quests to understand reality, we can only develop pragmatic frameworks rather than “truth.” (I have no problem calling experimentally successful theory “potential approximations of reality” however, if that’s how “realism” is considered.) My first principle of epistemology is a practical rule which lies within the process of developing pragmatic frameworks. It seems to me that people commonly fail to communicate with each other, largely given their use of separate definitions for various associated terms. This simply doesn’t work. Instead I believe that we must take someone’s definitions as “true by definition,” and from that point try to understand his/her ideas.
Given how clear it is that there are no reality based “true” definitions (as opposed to language based), once I ended my academic hermitude I figured that at least this principle wasn’t going to be a difficult sell. In fact I presumed that there must already be a prominent person who claims it, even if widely ignored in practice. Since I’ve not yet found an original “owner” of the idea, however, then why not advertise this principle (a first of two) as my own?
I suspect that even modern physicists are in need of it, that is if they’re still looking for “true” definitions of time, space, and so on. I’d have them take the separate path of directly defining such critical terms however they see fit, and then checking to see if what they’ve developed seems useful. Do such models jibe with evidence? My position, for example, is that we must try not to ask “What is force?” but rather “What’s a useful definition for this humanly fabricated notion?” Newton defined it as a product of mass and acceleration, but only “usefully” so, I think, not “truly.” Thus if need be, for our own models we should feel free to define “force” in separate ways.
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Eric, I totally agree that definitions are inherently relativist. (Don’t know if you made it all the way back to my post on this.) Too many philosophical or scientific debates amount to people arguing past each other with differing definitions for the common terms they’re using. The typical example is the debate between free will compatibilists and incompatibilists. Most of the participants understand it’s a definitional issue, yet the debate continues.
Not sure on the issue with physicists, although I do know that there is an ongoing debate in some circles about whether or not time is emergent. I do know if you talk with a typical physicist about words like “force”, they’ll give a generic definition about pulls and pushes to incorporate all the things called forces, such as gravitation, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force. The real difficult one seems to be “energy”, which is often described as the ability to do work, although that can get into questions of, available for who, or what?
Myself, I have issues with the most common definitions of “entropy”, because they seem to imply value judgements about what is “ordered” or “disordered”. In my own mind, I tend to define entropy as how close things are to the end state that the laws of physics want them to eventually be in, but I realize that definition has problems too.
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It’s good to see that the nature of definition is also important to you. No I hadn’t previously made it back to that post, but good job! Given that there are no true definitions, I’d have us all stop trying to figure out what consciousness “is,” but rather define it however one likes, and know that the definition cannot possibly be false. Instead it must be judged by its “usefulness.”
Secondly, I’m as hard a determinist as they come, essentially as Einstein was. (Though I have no problem with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal itself, “God playing dice” would be unnatural.) But to the extent that my perspective happens to be limited, I’m also effectively “free.” It’s strange to me that this is controversial.
Time emergent? Well yes it should be from a non perfect perspective. But naturalism suggests that all things reduce in the end, not that we idiot humans can reduce them.
Regarding those four different kinds of “inherent forces” that you’ve mentioned, I presume that they all function as if there’s a mass which accelerates, even when it has no change in velocity. While lying in bed I should still be “effectively accelerating” into the Earth, for example.
I believe they define “work” as the product of force and distance, so this shouldn’t be subjective. As for the “non useful work” associate with entropy — I just don’t see how that idea could be objective. Useful to what? Like you I also don’t know what they mean by “order.”
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On hard determinism, just out of curiosity, do you favor any one interpretation of quantum mechanics?
Any time I use the word “emergent”, unless I stipulate otherwise, you can assume I mean weak emergence, the epistemological or pragmatic version. It hasn’t been empirically verified that everything reduces to elementary particles and fundamental interactions, but I don’t see how it ever could be, and I’d have to call the theory that it does a strong one.
On force always being mass and acceleration, good point. It had never occurred to me that was the case. Thanks for pointing it out to me.
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I only have a very basic understanding of QM, but it runs through my head at least like this:
Matter seems best to consider as neither particle nor wave, but rather both. We measure particles and waves in separate ways, and when we do so, the more determined things become in one regard, the more speculative they become in the other. So it would seem that we cannot, even theoretically, measure anything perfectly.
And now the controversial part:
From this most physicists today seem to decide, “Ah… the uncertainty observed here must then reflect a fundamental randomness to nature.” I consider this quite an arrogant bit of metaphysical speculation — as if we idiots with our pathetic tools, can determine that nature has a fundamental element of randomness to it. Of course they might be right about that, but I hope they also realize that what they’re theorizing, can quite usefully be considered a void in causality, or “magic.” Einstein was not as arrogant as this.
Thanks for your clarification on emergence. I happen to be a very literal person, so I do need qualifiers such as that from time to time.
Then as far as “force” goes, thanks! Here I’ll once again mention that Newton only gave us a “useful” definition of force rather than a “true” one. We can and do define it usefully in other ways as well.
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Actually, I’m not sure that I agree that epiphenomalism is false. It kind of depends on what we mean.
On the one hand, I seem to disagree with epiphenomenalism because I don’t think something could process information in the way we do without being conscious (because I think to be conscious is just to process information something like a human processes information).
But on the other hand I seem to agree with epiphenomenalism because I don’t think that the fact that we are conscious is needed to explain anything we do — an explanation in terms of neurons firing and so on is sufficient, so consciousness has no explicit causal role. It’s just a label we give to an aggregation of lower level physical (or logical) causes.
This either agrees with or disagrees with epiphenomenalism, depending on how you look at it. I guess it unasks the question.
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I think there are two questions here, and we should probably be careful not to conflate them.
One is whether consciousness controls actions. This gets into exactly what we mean by “consciousness”. If we see it as the totality of information processing the human brain does, then certainly it controls our actions.
But if we narrow it to awareness, then saying that awareness doesn’t control our actions seems like a very coherent statement. I do think it has causal influence, but the executive centers of the brain seem capable of including or not including awareness depending on the circumstances.
My own feeling on this, which I’ve only recently started to develop, is that we become explicitly aware of something when we have conflicting mental reflexes about how to respond and have to make trade off decisions between them. When the response can be a simple mental reflex (or must be due to time constraints), what we think of as awareness seems to have less of a role, at least before the action.
But all of that seems distinct from conscious experience having no causal role whatsoever. I can’t see how that is true. What exactly would be going on when someone talks about the redness of red or the painfulness of pain? It seems like epiphenomenalism argues that the actual redness of red or painfulness of pain doesn’t cause us to say the things we say about them. But then what is causing us to say those things? Neural processes? But if those neural processes don’t include the actual experiences, why would it cause us to say those things? Why would we say anything about them at all?
I think it’s only the latter question we are really talking about. What function does phenomenal awareness serve? Couldn’t we get by without phenomenal awareness, but just the kind of functional awareness computers have?
My explanation might not agree with what Chalmers would say, because basically I agree with you and not with him, but something like this:
The system has functional access to the fact that something appears red and that it is in the visual field. The system is under an “illusion” (if we can say that an unconscious system can be under an illusion) caused by the architecture of its visual and other subsystems that this awareness lets it perceive something beyond these bare facts. In other words, it has a false belief (or a false internal representation, if you don’t think that unconscious systems can have beliefs) that it perceives an ineffable quale called redness, so it reports this. The system does not understand how a functional account can be responsible for what it thinks it perceives.
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Thanks DM. I fully understand you’re clarifying an outlook that isn’t yours, so I appreciate it. I’ll admit that we can’t eliminate the possibility of that arrangement, nor the one I sketched above. But I think if we have to resort to bolting such strange conceptions onto the original notion, it only shows how strained that notion is becoming.
On getting by without phenomenal awareness, my current feeling is that we can’t, and for computers to be able to have the same behavioral repertoire, they will need to have some form of it. The important question is what that experience actually is. My previous series of posts, particularly the last one, explored this question, but the TL;DR is that I think phenomenal experience is the process of building models of the environment, of ourselves, of the relationship between the two, and of our reflexive reactions to the current content of those models.
We do know that epiphenomenalism is false, precisely because it implies that the actual redness of red doesn’t cause us to say things about it. This claim, however, would imply that what we are talking about when we talk about the redness of red, is not some ghostly non-natural quale. What we are talking about is the normal cause of our consciousness-speech: some physical or functional property. Semantics follows the causality. I am not arguing that there are no epiphenomenal properties: only that, if there are, they are not what we’re talking about.
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I agree. For epiphenomenalism to be true, any talk of conscious experience must be an illusion and the consciousness that is being spoken of must be an illusion, even if it somehow happens to correspond to the epiphenomenal version. All said, Occam’s razor seems to favor that consciousness has causal effects.
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Paul and Mike, you guys are reminding me to the line at the top of the “Conscious Entities” site of Peter Hankins:
“If consciousness is an illusion, then who is it that’s being fooled?”
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Thanks Mike! I’ll probably be back in another year or so after digesting (hopefully successfully) all of the sources you listed. haha
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“But if those neural processes don’t include the actual experiences, why would it cause us to say those things? Why would we say anything about them at all?”
Couldn’t we claim that the only purpose that talking serves is to vibrate material (air for example) with energy such that the energy propagates through the material to another organism that can sense those vibrations. I can imagine an automaton with sensors on its surface that detect, say temperature. And if the temperature exceeds a certain limit, the automaton can communicate to other possible nearby automatons by vibrating air in a certain way. Those other automatons can detect those sound vibrations and depending on the frequancy, pitch, etc. those other automatons can be programmed to behave in a way that may assist the automaton producing the sound.
“is that I think phenomenal experience is the process of building models of the environment, of ourselves, of the relationship between the two, and of our reflexive reactions to the current content of those models.”
Not sure if you still adhere to this, but if so, why can’t building a model of the environment be done in the same way that a Roomba builds a model of the floor layout in order to more efficiently vacuum the floor? (I guess I am assuming that a Roomba doesn’t experience perceptions, haha).
It always comes down to which definition of consciousness we’re talking about, but I still think that activity satisfies most people’s intuitions of a fellow conscious entity.
Overall, if the idea of consciousness as an epiphenomenon (in the absolute philosophical sense) seems plausible to you, I’m not sure what I could say to convince you it isn’t. All I can do is ask you to consider all aspects of phenomenality and whether anything is really left out by the necessary functionality. But it goes both ways, because I also can’t imagine what you could say to me to convince me that it is the case. It becomes an extra metaphysical glaze we can either consider to be there or not.
“It always comes down to which definition of consciousness we’re talking about, but I still think that activity satisfies most people’s intuitions of a fellow conscious entity.”
I’m still learning what might be the definition of consciousness (and that there isn’t one), but for me I’m mostly concerned with what I have heard to be called perceptions, or feelings, or qualia, or affects, i.e. the image I see when I look at my computer screen, the pain I feel when I am burned, the smell of food being cooked, the sound of one’s voice, etc.
I’m open to a Roomba being a fellow conscious entity, but I would want to be able to empirically show that it has perceptions, or qualia, etc.
I don’t want the aspect of consciousness that I am concerned with (i.e. perceptions, qualia, etc.) to be an epiphenomenon. I just want to understand their function and to be able to read about the empirical data that justifies the theories about their function. I haven’t stumbled on either of these anywhere that has satisfied me yet. Have you discussed them in detail anywhere that you could point me towards?
Something to think about, what would happen if you woke up one day and could no longer perceive colors? What capabilities would you lose? Or suppose you no longer felt fear? As it turns out, there are brain injury cases where exactly these things have happened. In the latter category, the person’s life expectancy tends to go down dramatically. (Studying brain injury cases is actually a pretty good way to see how changes to the brain affect the mind.)
Along those lines, consider if instead of trying to find an explanation of consciousness, you focused on finding an explanation of what makes us talk about consciousness? Or exhibit behavior we interpret as conscious? Of course, this move assumes zombies aren’t a thing.
Also consider that we have extensive evidence from psychology that introspection is unreliable, at least for understanding the mind. And how else do we know (or think we know) about our own consciousness, except through introspection?
In terms of details, I think the best one for what you’re trying to get at was the one I pointed you toward. Others worth checking out are this series on The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul by Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka.
You might also peruse my Mind and AI category, particularly the hierarchy posts.
Finally, you might check out the posts on Michael Graziano’s attention schema theory. Not because I think he’s right (although I think he fills an important niche), but because of his approach.
If you really want to get hardcore, pick up a book on neuroscience.
In the end, understanding this requires making some mental shifts. Think about some of the shifts you had to go through when learning physics. Similar steps are needed here. Many intelligent people never make them.
“Something to think about, what would happen if you woke up one day and could no longer perceive colors? What capabilities would you lose?”
This is exactly what I am struggling with. I can’t think of anything. haha! I keep thinking of a computer with a camera and a bit of software code that tells the computer what to do when it detects light of certain wavelengths. What capabilities does this computer not have that we do (assuming that this computer can’t perceive colors from the light its camera is detecting). I can’t think of any. But maybe this goes back to the zombie way of thinking and maybe even a computer with a camera and software isn’t a zombie and it has some sort of perception as well??? But if qualia is something fundamental, like gravity (as is being discussed in your most recent post), then I can see how zombie thinking is flawed as per my hydroelectric dam realization.
“Along those lines, consider if instead of trying to find an explanation of consciousness, you focused on finding an explanation of what makes us talk about consciousness? ”
Can you give me a brief description of the relationship you see between qualia and consciousness? I’m not really sure anymore what the word consciousness means. Qualia seems more tangible a word for me at this point. But to answer this question, I think that we talk about anything (consciousness, gravity, etc.) in order to strengthen the models we have formed about how the universe works, which allows us to behave within the universe in ways that increase our survivability. Is that along the lines of what you were asking?
But yeah, thank you for listing all those resources. I’ll definitely check them out. I know exactly what you are talking about with the mental shifts, but I also am having a hard time clearly seeing what shifts need to be made. Like anything, more exposure to any topic inevitable clears that up. 🙂
Qualia are normally thought of as individual instances of subjective experience. They’re the individual properties, the qualities of that experience: the redness of red, the painfulness of pain, etc.
The key to ask, I think, is what these properties are. I say they’re categorizing conclusions. In the case of a visual field, they’re a vast pattern of such conclusions. We don’t perceive them as conclusions because they’re what perceptions are composed of. If you want to understand where that comes from, you might want to read Richard Masland’s book on the visual system, particularly his discussion about the analyzers in the retina.
Another book worth considering is Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. It’s a bit dated at this point, but he tackles qualia directly, I think a bit too dismissively, but in a manner designed to aid in that mental shift.
Thanks Mike! I’ll probably be back in another year or so after digesting (hopefully successfully) all of the sources you listed. haha — sorry, I commented in the wrong place the first time
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Many thanks for yet another clear and concise perspective, Mike. I wonder if I might get a reaction from you on something that seems to nag me, or persist at the back of my head as a kind of unresolved – or perhaps unresolvable – question. That question is whether we’re not barking up the wrong tree in attempts to arrive at some explanation of consciousness as being material or immaterial in nature, or that such an explanation may require and constitute both as their own categories – your cited Substance Dualism.
I’m in no position to suggest any other tree to go barking up, only perhaps that illumined consciousness is no more or other than as it presents in and as awareness – is that too naïve, not any kind of explanation? If not, why isn’t it? In other words, must we completely abstract any explanation from what is any case self-evident – i.e. it is what it is! What presents seems something other than material or immaterial, it doesn’t occupy space and yet it isn’t nothing. Of course, things in space (brain functions, the senses) play a role, yet when we direct awareness at itself we apprehend more than functions being performed in space. It intuitively seems non-local, not something, but not nothing. Is this purely a problem of the unreliable witness? Is it right to reject in our analyses the very thing we’re trying to explain as itself being an answer? It’s not an answer we can document in words, but why isn’t it an answer?
What I detect as I wander around reading various analyses on consciousness is a trend of many to want the subject to be purely a Physics (notwithstanding a far lesser trend towards Panpsychism), which of course imparts a sense of objectivity and reasoned rigour (good things in themselves, fair enough), and there’s the implication that in sticking to a Physics, then it also is adhering to some verifiable truth or actuality; what’s more, that this will be respected, not subject to the sneering and condescending accusations of being ‘mysterious’, or quasi-religious, or anti-scientific. So my question next is whether you think we must define illumined consciousness within this pre-existent explanatory dichotomy of material/immaterial, or could this be a failure of being able to conceptualise the problem differently? Indeed, is there a problem, or does consciousness explain itself by its very presence, much as we find that unsatisfactory?
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Thanks Hariod. Let me restate what I perceive to be your questions, so if I’m answering the wrong things, you’ll be able to set me straight.
I think your first question is why we don’t take awareness in and of itself as its own explanation. In other words, why do we feel the need to attempt to reduce it? This is an excellent question, because I think it is a mirror of the question I usually ask when people talk about the hard problem: why do we just take experience as something that must be explained in whole instead of attempting to break it down into more manageable parts?
My response to the why-reduce question would be to wonder how we might make any progress on consciousness if we’re not willing to do that. I know many people want consciousness, awareness, experience, to be something fundamental. But we only reached the conclusion about other things we regard as fundamental (electromagnetism, gravitation, etc) as being fundamental once every attempt to find any constituent elements has proven fruitless.
But here we come to a dilemma. Conscious experience appears to be subjectively irreducible. So the question is, how do we respond to that state of affairs? Do we note its subjective irreducibility and stop there? Or do we explore whether it might be objectively irreducible. The problem of course, is that we’ll never be able to verify any theory of its objective reduction from our first person subjective perspective. Our minds evolved to perceive, not to be the perceived, which gives us serious blind spots for introspection.
This, it seems to me, is the heart of the hard problem of consciousness. I doubt we’ll ever be able to close the subjective / objective gap. We’re stuck with it. I fear all we can do is clarify its existence. But unless we’re prepared to just give up, it seems like we have to explore where we can, and that means in the objective space. Many will always reject this approach, but other than the mystical stuff you alluded to, I’m not sure what alternatives they can present.
And that leads to what I perceive to be your second question. Does this investigation have to be physical? I’d say not necessarily, but I do think it needs to be evidence based, and the physical seems to be where evidence is obtainable. As I noted a few posts back, if someone can find evidence for a non-physical aspect of the mind, then we absolutely should incorporate that into our theories. I’m just not aware of any scientifically verifiable instances of that kind of evidence.
All of which is to say, if we want to understand consciousness, awareness, experience, etc, I think we have to be willing to pierce the veil, to dissect it, and to make progress in any direction that we can get traction. Some of those directions may eventually turn out to be dead-ends, but I’m not sure what the alternative would be if we want to be scientific about it.
Wow, this turned into an epic comment. Hope it addressed your actual questions, but let me know if it didn’t.
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Mike, this is fabulous, thankyou very much indeed. I’ve copied it to a separate file (okay?) to mull over further off your blog, and if I may, will respond should my contrarian side feel it must express its pesky self! In the meantime, I’m very grateful for the time and effort you’ve put into this, and I apologise for the rather rambling nature of my own musings above, which you did well to reduce. 🙂
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Thanks Hariod! No worries on the copying; I’m honored. I’m also interested in any further thoughts you might have on this.
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The chatbots that you mentioned might soon make you revise your view about zombies. Sure, they can’t fool anyone right now, but they are improving. Sooner or later they might get really really convincing, especially as we start to record our behavior in more and more details with social networks and personal digital assistants and who knows what future all-seeing technologies and thus give them more data to model us. Have you watched that one episode of Black Mirror yet, or the entire “Real Humans” series?
If we ever get to that point, we will no doubt have to ask ourselves if such “fake minds” are actually conscious, self-aware, intelligent. Or are they just zombies? Especially considering they were specifically designed “top-down”, starting from desired behavior and having the specific goal of finding a pattern in it and “faking” it, instead of the “bottom up” approach to producing an AI starting from studying and replicating the inner workings and fine details of a brain and then teaching it behavior, logic and intelligence not as a fundamental quality but as a sort-of by-product, much like humans are taught through communication while growing up.
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Oh I posted those two TV references, but I totally forgot the first place I saw this idea very nicely exposed – Tom Scott’s dConstruct talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kBlH-DQsEg
Yes, it’s somewhat off-topic and yes, it’s probably not the first example of that idea in history of mankind :p But I wanted to post it too anyway.
Oops… even more to the point is this talk instead: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zf6C-pZ3heY
Sorry, been a while since I watched them, getting confused.
Thanks for the video links. I’ll check them out when I’m somewhere where I might be able to watch them.
On the chat-bot, if it could fool you successfully during days and weeks of discussion, consider what it would have to be able to do. It would have to emulate a human mind, along with that human’s theory of mind, thoroughly enough that you couldn’t tell the difference. We might, for instance, be able to imagine a brute-force lookup table large enough to accomplish that, but could we ever eliminate the possibility that the sum total of that table’s entries coupled with the lookup process isn’t effectively an algorithm that implements consciousness?
The question, or course, is how long do we give it to convince us that it’s really conscious? It’s not hard for me to imagine a chat-bot that fools 30% of humans in a 5 minute test is still a zombie, but the longer that test goes on, the more difficult it becomes. A chat-bot that someone has a successful one month relationship with, including all the types of discussions you and I might have in a month, would be difficult to consign to zombie status.
“A chat-bot that someone has a successful one month relationship with, including all the types of discussions you and I might have in a month, would be difficult to consign to zombie status.”
Even if it’s based on years of data on previous such conversations between you and the person it is trying to fake?
And just to tell my own opinion on the matter, I would instantly acknowledge consciousness in any system that we built “bottom up”, but I still hesitate somewhat for “top down” systems that start with focus on behavior. It’s probably a bit hypocritical, considering I will personally never actually understand the basis for that “bottom up” design, the small scale inner workings of either a real brain or our replication of it, let alone how it all combines to give raise to intelligence as a whole. But it’s somewhat more convincing to know that when you get down to the details it works like the real thing.
For the “top down” approach, I see your point and I mostly agree – ignoring the internal details and looking at it as a black box, if its behavior is sufficiently close to the original that I can not tell the difference, I should probably treat it the same as the original. But this notion that it’s whole design was always centered around faking the behavior rather than understanding what makes it tick does not let me concede completely.
I’m very curious to see which approach will yield results sooner…
My intuition is that the design process shouldn’t change our conclusion. Consider that human and animal consciousness evolved with no explicit design process, just random mutation and natural selection across thousands of generations. If we managed to build a system that could reproduce all the functionality of consciousness, short of invoking substance dualism, I can’t see how we could have any certitude that it wasn’t really conscious.
Not sure on which approach will work sooner. I suspect it will be some hybrid approach involving a system that may have aspects of primal consciousness coupled with functionality designed to fake, say, human level social intelligence.
I just discovered your blog (and added it to my feedly reading list) while researching my own post on the problem of philosophical zombies. I like your observation that the zombie arguments are circular, but I had a slightly different take about whether or not we can ever prove epiphenomenalism is definitively false. I believe that such certainty on these things is inherently unknowable in a universe where we can’t see the future. But that just means zombies are like every other imaginable but unseen thing (e.g. gods, Russell’s teapot, flying spaghetti monsters, etc., etc.) — they don’t prove a thing about the actual universe since they are observations with an n of zero.
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Thanks Ed! Appreciate the quote and link.
Given that we can discuss our experiences, what about epiphenomenalism do you think keeps it a feasible proposition?
I like the sound of evolutionary philosophy. Too much philosophical discussion takes place without reference to evolution. Asking why we’re conscious without looking at the evolutionary reasons for brains strikes me as removing a large piece of the puzzle and then wondering why we can’t solve it. Subscribed!
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Ah, really great to have you aboard. As I’ve gone through the history of philosophers and thought experiments I have also found that an evolutionary perspective was all too often sorely lacking. (Fair play to the thinkers, most of the history of the subject took place before Darwin. But after Origin in 1859, there’s not much excuse other than inertia and scholarly walls of separation.)
As for epiphenomenalism, I should make it clear that I really don’t expect it will be proven correct; I fully place my bets on physicalism and monism. However, I’m not quite sure I follow why you think “discussing our experiences” proves epiphenomenalism is false. Something like the Libet experiment can be interpreted as showing the mental thoughts come after the physical upwellings.
(By the way, I think that interpretation of that particular argument is crap: http://www.evphil.com/blog/libet-and-another-free-will-thought-experiment)
What I’m really saying is that while any form of dualism or epiphenomenalism hasn’t been shown yet, we can never know what future discoveries await us. We have to acknowledge the radical skepticism that is created by something like Descartes’ evil demon because we just cannot know the future. What if we are in a computer simulation or an evil demon is deluding all our senses? I think it’s silly to live our lives as if such things were occurring, but we have to give up on philosophical certainty because of them. And that’s what keeps epiphenomenalism alive….if very, very remote.
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On why I think discussing our experiences disproves epiphenomenalism, consider what has to happen for us to discuss an experience. We have to have the experience. Information about the experience then has to reach the language centers of the brain, which formulates words to describe that experience. Signals from this region then need to go on to the motor control regions, which drive our vocal cords (if we’re talking about it) or our fingers (if we’re writing about it).
Epiphenomenalism is the idea that our subjective experience is a side effect, that it has no causal influence on behavior. But our ability to discuss it seems to show that it is part of the causal framework.
Of course, as I think someone earlier in this thread pointed out, the mechanisms that drive our discussion could correlate but not be caused by subjective experience. That would mean that it isn’t the real redness of red or the painfulness of pain that causes us to talk about redness or painfulness, but some kind of stand in process. But it seems to me that this is an unparsimonious move that can be used to question any apparent causal relationship.
I do totally agree that we always have to be prepared that a future observation may overturn any conclusion, no matter how solid it seems. For me, that’s an asterisk that always exist for anything we currently think we know.
Looking forward to reading your posts!
Okay thanks, I think I understand your point about discussing experience now. I wonder, however, if a staunch epiphenomenalist would say that a zombie, a Chinese room, or an AI computer could also talk about information its sensory apparatus had detected and recorded, without actually having that “feeling of what it’s like” to have felt that experience. So since they could “discuss experience” and we could too, but epiphenomenalists think there’s a difference in the consciousness between humans and zombies/rooms/computers, then discussing experience alone wouldn’t disprove their point. At least I think that’s what they might say. I’m not usually in a position of standing up for their point of view. It’s a slippery idea, which I think we can’t fully interrogate because physicalism precludes us from ever knowing “what it’s like” to be any other mind.
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“Of course, as I think someone earlier in this thread pointed out, the mechanisms that drive our discussion could correlate but not be caused by subjective experience. That would mean that it isn’t the real redness of red or the painfulness of pain that causes us to talk about redness or painfulness, but some kind of stand in process. ”
I may be the “someone earlier”, but if so you have forgotten the point of my argument. We can suppose toward a reductio ad absurdum that the mechanisms that drive our discussion are not subjective experience – but then, by the causal nature of semantic relationships, those “other” mechanisms would be the actual referent of the phrase “subjective experience.” A word refers to the thing which is the normal cause of its use: thus, for examples, “gold” refers to the element with atomic number 79 and “water” refers to H2O, whether the speaker knows it or not. So the epiphenomenalist idea is quickly caught in a contradiction. If it were true, it would be false.
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Paul, I actually wasn’t thinking about your comment when I made that statement, but the discussion above it. I generally agreed with your comment, then and now. But thanks for clarifying!
I’m quite happy to meet you as well. We seem to be on similar missions, and begin them from the physicalist premise. It also interests me that you consider philosophy’s troubles with epistemology to be so problematic, since I’ve recently decided to reformulate my own writings to an epistemology focus. I’m a bit concerned that my dodgy WordPress account won’t be recognized by Weebly, but in the end I may just grab a Weebly site anyway.
In the mean time if you’re curious you can reach me at: email@example.com. We seem to take different approaches, yours apparently from a normative “ought,” and mine from a descriptive “is”. There is a clashing here, since I consider “is” to be all there is. Regardless a discussion should test each of our abilities to consider the issues in objective ways.
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Wow, thanks Eric. I don’t know how much of my website you read, but that’s an incredibly insightful takeaway about my approach. I live in England and am about to shut down before bed, but I will take a look at your website tomorrow. In the meantime, I thought I should share with you the link to a philosophy paper I managed to get published in a peer reviewed journal even though I have no formal degrees in the subject. It’s actually a paper that claims to provide a bridge between is and ought using a method based on Hume’s own insight that reason is the slave of the passions. It’s really the most important thing for the rest of my evolutionary philosophy project, which is why I went to the trouble of getting it published. You can find links to it here:
I also consider the following blog post to be my most important one about epistemology. For millennia, we’ve relied on Plato’s definition of knowledge as: 1) justified, 2) true, 3) belief. But that was built on an ancient’s view of the universe as an unchanging and eternal thing. Once we discovered evolution in 1859 and the Big Bang was confirmed by background radiation in the 1960’s, our cosmological revolutions should have led to epistemological revolutions as well, but so far they have not. Gettier challenged Plato’s JTB theory of knowledge, but was unable to replace it. I say that in this changing universe, however, there is no such thing that is eternally TRUE. Therefore, knowledge can only ever be: 1) justified, 2) beliefs, that 3) are surviving. See more here:
I look forward to lots of discussion on these points and on anything particular of yours that you’d like to point me toward as well. Cheers!
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The p-zombie argument wouldn’t be taken as seriously as it is if it was so obviously circular. As Chalmers points out, the argument is epistemic in nature. We start with the observation that we are conscious. So the existence of consciousness is a given fact. From there we conceive a zombie world that is identical to ours, but without the consciousness we observe. Building this zombie world form the ‘ground up,’ particle-by-particle, would be nothing more than an arduous application of science as we currently know it; which predicts a world of automata without assuming anything about consciousness. If at some point in the future someone proves a physical explanation for the consciousness in our world, then the corresponding zombie world would be inconceivable – not circular. Indeed this is the very challenge that the p-zombie presents to the materialist: prove a physical explanation of consciousness without somehow denying the phenomena of consciousness.
If someone alternatively conceived the zombie world from the ‘top-down,’ by imagining a world without all subjective facts that are non-causally concurrent with physical mechanisms (as is subjective pain to c-fibre firings), then and only then is one implying epiphenomenalism. However, this is not how most adherents of dualism frame the p-zombie.
“From there we conceive a zombie world that is identical to ours, but without the consciousness we observe.”
But how is this not simply assuming that such a world can be identical to ours without consciousness, an assumption that the absence of consciousness wouldn’t leave some behaviors impossible?
And if we make that assumption, how is it not merely presupposing the conclusion about a non-physical aspect of the mind?
And finally, if the absence of consciousness has no causal effects in this other world, doesn’t that make it, by definition, an epiphenomenon?
Thanks for the reply!
The conclusion for any argument depends on its premises, but that fact doesn’t make all arguments circular. Arguments for physicalism contain premises that are necessary for physicalist conclusions. Likewise, anti-physical arguments contain premises that are necessary for their anti-physicalist conclusions. To be circular the conclusion has to be presupposed by a premise and I don’t see that to be the case here.
As a premise in a conceivability argument, I’m free to conceive what I wish, so long as the conception is coherent. My conceptions are about other worlds and as stated, I haven’t presupposed how those conceived worlds have anything to say about the real world. Now, you can’t just conceive anything. I can’t conceive of a square circle (try it) because that is a contradiction. It turns out that I can’t conceive most things. However, as Chalmers claims, you can imagine a zombie world without any apparent contradiction. He doesn’t imply anything – he is just imagining. The fact that such a world is even conceivable is a powerful idea….but it is still just a conception about another world. The argument then proceeds to claim that such a world is possible (a higher bar). It is the modal logic in the final step that results in a conclusion about the actual world (namely that physicalism is false in our world). This conclusion is not implied or presupposed in the conception of another world, even if that other world was explicitly designed to lack consciousness. I think Philosophers widely agree that the argument is logically valid (there isn’t circularity) but many disagree with the premises.
If I can say so, I think what you mean to say is that you don’t believe p-zombie’s are conceivable (that such conceptions are somehow incoherent) or that they are not logically possible. If you prove that the concept of a zombie is incoherent, then the zombie argument never gets off the ground. On the other hand, If the zombie world is coherent, but you prove it is not possible, then the zombie world is a nice dream with nothing to say about the actual world.
I call it circular because the premise requires the conclusion. The premise of an another world that functions identical to ours without consciousness only works under some variant of substance dualism (and epiphenomenalism). Until that premise is changed, the circularity looks brazen to me.
On conceivability, I’ve always found it odd that people argue that the ability to imagine something is somehow evidence for its existence. What’s the difference between imagining p-zombies and imagining, say, Superman? Can the fact that we can imagine Superman in any way be used as an argument for his actual existence?
I do think p-zombies are coherent, under substance dualism. But I don’t see any evidence that dualism is true. As I cover in the post, b-zombies are more plausible, although as a functionalist, the longer the b-zombie can act conscious, the more likely they are conscious, accidentally if not by design.
Don’t think the premise requires the conclusion: Just because you can coherently imagine that something is true in another world does not make it true in our world.
You may disagree with conceivability arguments in general, of which the zombie argument is only one.
I think the purpose of the conception step within these arguments is to imagine a world where some presumed identity (e.g. physical states=consciousness) does not hold (physical states without consciousness). That is, you coherently imagine what you seek to prove. The challenge is to then argue that this conception holds for all possible worlds, including our real one.
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On your superman example: I think that you can conceive many worlds with superman, but it probably has to be a world with different physics. Therefore you have trouble mapping any superman-like features of that world to our real world. You can coherently conceive a world where pigs fly but you can’t say that flying pigs are possible in all worlds. Therefore, conceptions of flying pigs aren’t useful, other than being fun to think about.
I like concievability arguements, modal logic and ‘many worlds’ formulations. As analytic tools they added a lot of firepower to philosophy. Like math and theoretical physics, to me analytic philosophy can do lots of real work in addition to and complimentary to empirical science. But the tools have to be used right. They work best when proving/disproving well-posed identities.
As someone who’s lurked on your blog multiple times in the past and happens to be interested in the Philosophy of Mind, I don’t see this as a valid rebuttal to the concept of P-Zombies. I’ll try and address this piece by piece to explain what exactly it is I think you got wrong and other explanations for questions or concerns you seem to have.
_The biggest problem with p-zombies is that the premises of the idea presupposes its purported conclusion, the conclusion that some aspect of the mind is non-physical. If you remove the assumption of some form of substance dualism, the concept collapses. It becomes incoherent, a proposition similar to asserting that we can sum 2+2 and not get 4._
P-Zombies in no way, shape or form presuppose their purported conclusion. The thought experiment’s main point is to ask the question if P-Zombies are at all hypothetically conceivable, only if they are can we come to the conclusion that Qualia is non-physical. The key point being we only make this assumption if the P-Zombie is shown to be conceivable, by definition it’s not a circular argument since the simple question of if they exist or not assumes nothing.
The argument that they do exist however could be a circular argument depending on the reasons given, but nonetheless P-Zombies do shine light on just how mysterious Qualia is. That fact that we could hypothetically conceive of a person with no internal world yet who still blends in seamlessly with those that do in every observable way does plant justifiable seeds of doubt that Qualitative Experience is clearly a reductive physical phenomenon created exclusively by the brain. If that was obviously the case P-Zombies would never even be conceivable… yet here we are.
_We know epiphenomenalism is false. How? Well, if it’s true, then how can we discuss conscious experience? Somehow, the language centers of our brains send signals to the motor cortex that drive our speech muscles to make sounds relevant to it. Somehow signals are sent to my fingers so I can type this blog post, or similar signals are sent to your fingers if you decide to comment on it._
_Whatever else it might be, conscious experience must be part of the causal framework that eventually leads to behavior. It has causal influence on the language centers of the brain if nowhere else, but that’s enough to have causal effects in the world. Epiphenomenalism cannot be true._
The problem here is that your argument essentially boils down to consciousness is a physical phenomenon which is why Epiphenomenalism is false, and Epiphenomenalism is false which is why consciousness is nothing but a physical phenomenon. You’re trying to debunk an allegedly circular argument by using a circular argument yourself. The P-Zombie thought experiment is meant to show that Qualia might not be the result of solely physical processes, and you dismiss it because… consciousness is a physical process therefore P-Zombies are inconceivable and P-Zombies are inconceivable because consciousness is a physical process. By your own admission this argument is a failure.
_The difficulty here is that the longer the b-zombie can keep up the charade, the higher the probability that it isn’t actually a charade, that it is in fact implementing some alternate architecture for consciousness. Of course, to a substance dualist, physically implemented consciousness isn’t real consciousness. It’s a facade that mimics the results (including the ability to discuss conscious experience) but doesn’t include the actual qualia associated with it, no matter how much the zombie might insist that it does._
And that right there is exactly why P-Zombies are valid. Who’s to say who is right in that situation? The Dualists who claim it’s merely mimicking consciousness without actually exhibiting it, or the Monists who insist it’s actually formed its own variation of consciousness? That’s exactly the core issue of the Hard Problem Chalmers has talked about. Except that it doesn’t just stop with artificial intelligence, it goes all the way up to humans, as illustrated by the P-Zombie thought experiment.
_This last point tends to make me view the idea of zombies overall as fairly pointless. It’s the classic problem of other minds. We can never know for sure that anyone other than ourselves are conscious. It seems reasonable to conclude that other mentally complete humans are, but everything else is up for debate. We’re forced to rely on our intuitions for babies, animals, or any other system that might act conscious-like._
There’s a difference between The Problem of Other Minds and Zombies. The Problem of Other Minds exclusively deals with the inability to prove that others are conscious. Philosophical Zombies do that too, but they’re done under the assumption that nobody actually is a P-Zombie. Forcing you to ask the question why aren’t we? Why don’t we just have our physical instincts and awareness without any sensations at all? That’s a question that’s difficult to answer and P-Zombies have done a good job at explaining this question in a way that’s easily digestible.
_But consciousness, once we do establish that it can’t be an epiphenomenon, that it is definitely part of the framework that produces behavior, must have evolved because it had some adaptive value. That implies that our use of behavior to assess its presence or absence is a sound one, as long as that assessment is rigorous._
Your confidence here is misplaced, the conceivability of P-Zombies ironically are the reason for that. Let me give you an example, how do we know that Qualia is “definitely” part of the framework that produces behavior or evolved because it had some adaptive benefit? Awareness probably did, but Qualia? How do we know they’re interchangeable? By all the available evidence we could’ve evolved to just be P-Zombies and this article, unfortunately, doesn’t present anything that seriously challenges that notion. Ergo, the mystery continues
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Thanks for your comment! Hope to see you in more discussions.
“The thought experiment’s main point is to ask the question if P-Zombies are at all hypothetically conceivable,”
My point in the post is that they’re only hypothetically conceivable (at least in any coherent manner) under some kind of dualism. If dualism is false, then I can’t see how they’re coherently conceivable.
“The problem here is that your argument essentially boils down to consciousness is a physical phenomenon”
Actually, my only argument here is that our ability to discuss it demonstrates it isn’t epiphenomenal (in the philosophical sense). That’s true whether it’s physical or not. The only out, pointed out somewhere in this thread, is psychophysic parallelism, that our experience is not what causes us to discuss that experience, but something that happens in parallel with no causal interaction, that just happens to stay in sync.
“Why don’t we just have our physical instincts and awareness without any sensations at all? That’s a question that’s difficult to answer”
I think it’s only difficult to answer if we wall off possible answers. (Unfortunately, a common tactic in the philosophy of mind.) As soon as we admit that sensations have their own downstream causal effects, they become a trait that can be naturally selected, and fall within the evolutionary framework. Take away the pain of touching a hot stove, for instance, and we may not remember to avoid touching it in the future.
“Awareness probably did, but Qualia? How do we know they’re interchangeable?”
We have no evidence that qualia is anything separate from sensory and affective or emotional processing. Of course, it’s always possible to posit anything we want beyond the evidence, but that’s where parsimony comes in, because each thing we posit beyond the evidence has a chance of being wrong, and if we layer to many of them, the probability of us being wrong skyrockets, so all things being equal, the more parsimonious explanation has a much higher chance of being right.
“Ergo, the mystery continues”
One of the reasons I feature science so much on this blog, is it represents the ability to resolve the mysteries. But we have to be willing to accept the answers.
“Thanks for your comment! Hope to see you in more discussions.”
Thank you! I’ll try to post more of my thoughts when I have the time.
“My point in the post is that they’re only hypothetically conceivable (at least in any coherent manner) under some kind of dualism. If dualism is false, then I can’t see how they’re coherently conceivable.”
That doesn’t make the thought experiment circular though, that’s just you disagreeing with the premise and arguing they don’t exist. The question of P-Zombies existing or not is just that, a question, which doesn’t assume anything anymore than the question of what does 1+1 equal. If you argued P-Zombies are conceivable because Dualism is true, and that Dualism is true because P-Zombies are conceivable that would certainly be circular. But that line of reasoning would only come about by taking the initiative of saying P-Zombies exist, which would come as a result of logic independent of the question.
“Actually, my only argument here is that our ability to discuss it demonstrates it isn’t epiphenomenal (in the philosophical sense). That’s true whether it’s physical or not. The only out, pointed out somewhere in this thread, is psychophysic parallelism, that our experience is not what causes us to discuss that experience, but something that happens in parallel with no causal interaction, that just happens to stay in sync.”
Epiphenomenalism as a Philosophy covers a lot of different ideas, ranging from a form of Dualism to the idea that free will itself is an illusion. I assumed from context you were discussing the former in which a non-physical “mind” substance/property interacts parallel to our physical brains. My point being if P-Zombies were somehow proven to be real this type of Epiphenomenalism would gain quite a bit more evidence in its favor, and for that reason you were dismissing P-Zombies because this type of Epiphenomenalism was impossible, and that was it was impossible because P-Zombies don’t exist, etc.
Maybe I’m just misunderstanding the variation of Epiphenomenalism you were discussing. In which case, my apologies.
“I think it’s only difficult to answer if we wall off possible answers. (Unfortunately, a common tactic in the philosophy of mind.) As soon as we admit that sensations have their own downstream causal effects, they become a trait that can be naturally selected, and fall within the evolutionary framework. Take away the pain of touching a hot stove, for instance, and we may not remember to avoid touching it in the future.”
Well, I don’t think any intellectually honest Philosophers would deliberately ignore valid answers to their questions. We’re all here trying to get to the truth after all. 😛 The issue is that your answer still doesn’t cogently crack down on what exactly Qualia is or what its purpose would be. Sure, there needs to be some type of negative reaction to touching a hot stove. Touching things that will burn you without any sort of consequence is bad for reproduction, makes sense. But why is there a sensation associated with it and not just a purely physical reaction? The human being would gain the same effect by having its nervous system send out a signal that it detects as harmful and still causes a negative reaction without ever having the actual sensation.
Unless we can somehow prove Qualia is an essential part of this process there’s an explanatory gap of why we have it.
“We have no evidence that qualia is anything separate from sensory and affective or emotional processing. Of course, it’s always possible to posit anything we want beyond the evidence, but that’s where parsimony comes in, because each thing we posit beyond the evidence has a chance of being wrong, and if we layer to many of them, the probability of us being wrong skyrockets, so all things being equal, the more parsimonious explanation has a much higher chance of being right.”
Occam’s Razor is certainly an interesting way to go about this, and I can definitely see the merits for it since as you said, assuming the most simple explanation is often times the most likely. But despite all of that one thing we have to remember is that it’s certainly not the most robust evidence for Qualia being an emergent property of emotional processing. Occam’s Razor is essentially an admission that we have no way of reasonably testing or falsifying any other answers and therefore we assume what’s the most in line with our current, more well proven, theories and laws. Like I said, it’s not a bad way to go about this, but it does still acknowledge that the origin of Qualia is indeed mysterious.
“One of the reasons I feature science so much on this blog, is it represents the ability to resolve the mysteries. But we have to be willing to accept the answers.”
Indeed, science has done an excellent job explaining the universe, and you’ve done great too featuring a lot of those amazing discoveries on this blog. Maybe one day science will be able to figure out the answer to Qualia, and hopefully if it does myself and other Philosophers will be able to accept it. Cheers!
“Maybe I’m just misunderstanding the variation of Epiphenomenalism you were discussing. In which case, my apologies.”
No worries. I meant it in the philosophical sense of a phenomenon having no causal effects whatsoever. It’s an absolutist version that many philosophers hold that is often conflated with a different version held by most scientist, of a phenomenon with no functional causal effects, but that may have other causal effects. We see examples of the latter all over the place in nature, but the former is undetectable and untestable, by definition. Personally, I have trouble seeing that version as a productive concept.
“But why is there a sensation associated with it and not just a purely physical reaction?”
Actually, in the case of a hand being burnt, there is typically both. The nociception from the tissue damage results in a reflexive withdrawal. Early in evolution, that’s probably all there was. So the painful sensation isn’t about the withdrawal action. It’s about learning not to put our hand there when the stove is hot, which factors into future action planning.
I think Occam’s razor is unavoidable. There are always alternate explanations for any observations. Settling on the ones with less assumptions is really the only way we have to break the ties. And we have plenty historical evidence that speculation too far beyond the evidence is rarely right.
“Indeed, science has done an excellent job explaining the universe, and you’ve done great too featuring a lot of those amazing discoveries on this blog.”
I’m grateful for your kind words. As it turns out, I just did a new post about qualia that you might want to check out.
Here’s how I see it (because I know you’re dying to know) …
Either qualia is physically explainable, or it isn’t. When we conceive of p-zombies, we are conceiving of qualia which is not physically explainable, so np-qualia.
But that leaves us with a p-zombie for which everything *is* physically explainable. That p-zombie will say he has a feeling of red, and that this feeling of red has an ineffable quality which it calls qualia. We can refer to this as z-qualia. This z-qualia will be entirely physically explainable, presumably based on what the neurons in the brain are doing.
The thing is, whatever is physically going on in the zombie is also physically going on in the non-zombie. So all of us have z-qualia, regardless of whether we have np-qualia. Whether we have np-qualia or not will have zero impact on our lives. We will never know if we have np-qualia or not. Similarly, we will never know if artificial intelligence has np-qualia or not, just like we will never know if electrons have np-qualia or not. The question of whether something has np-qualia becomes our generation’s “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”.
Z-qualia, on the other hand, I care about. I’m pretty sure rocks will not have z-qualia, but I’m not so sure about artificial intelligence.
That’s a brilliant observation, James. P-Zombies at least according to David Chalmers would indeed have “Z-Qualia” since he makes it a point that they’d still be able to actually have debates about the Mind-Body Problem. Chalmers’ P-Zombie doppelganger in the universe next door would be debating consciousness just as he’s doing right now, even though that version of him would objectively be wrong about his consciousness being genuine, Z-Qualia is a really good way to explain why that would be.
Chalmers though despite admitting this still does believe we can know that we have np-Qualia. When we look at something we can be “sure” that we see redness in it, or when we touch boiling water we can be “sure” it feels hot. Even a P-Zombie with Z-Qualia wouldn’t have those experiences, it would just be reporting on them and “believing” it has them due to evolutionary programming. Of course this opens the question of if our np-Qualia might be part of that delusion/programming, which of course can’t be entirely disproven and I’m sure is the theory Mike most closely subscribes to xD
Thanks for the input, always nice to get a second opinion. 😀
I see that you’ve provided some robust assessments of Mike’s post. Certain areas of this make me wonder if you’d be interested is some of my own ideas?
Though Mike may not have “cogently crack[ed] down on what exactly Qualia is or what its purpose would be”, I do have such a proposal. It seems to me that in a world without Qualia (and I mean this term in a general “punishment/ reward” way) nothing would be “bad” or “good” for anything that existed. Things would happen, but no event would have any personal relevance to anything. Note that computational brains might evolve, though they’d always need to be “programmed” to deal with a given situation.
I propose that when life in our realm ventured into more “open” environments (or unlike the game of Chess), a limit to programming effectiveness was reached and so organisms couldn’t be instructed all that effectively here. But when Qualia evolved I believe that a teleological form of computation emerged — here “purpose” would be to feel as good as possible. Thus evolution wouldn’t need to specifically program for unlimited contingencies, but rather could use various parameters from which to punish and reward the conscious entity and so force the recipient to try to figure out what to do — autonomy. Just as electricity fuels the computers that we build, I consider qualia to exist as the fuel which drives the conscious form of function.
Then there’s your assessment of Mike resorting to parsimony to justify qualia existing as information processing alone. I suspect that you’re familiar with John Searle’s Chinese room thought experiment? Well I think that I’ve taken its theme in an interesting direction. Instead of written Chinese symbols which are interpreted with a vast lookup table to produce appropriate Chinese responses, consider this:
When my thumb gets whacked, information should go to my brain for processing, and one result of this should be the thumb pain that I experience. So imagine if whacked thumb information were symbolically printed on paper, and correctly processed by means of a vast lookup table. Would this processing produce something that feels what I do when my thumb gets whacked? Surely not! Thus processing alone must not be sufficient. Instead the brain must have mechanisms which processed information animates to produce Qualia, just as the processed information of your computer will animate the screen that you’re now reading. Though my perception is that the vast majority of related scientists believe that Qualia exist as nothing more than processed information, this is clearly not a natural idea. All output of the brain, such as Qualia, should not simply depend upon brain processing, but processing that animates associated mechanisms.
And what might those mechanisms be? It could be that Qualia, which I consider effective to define directly as consciousness, exist by means of the electromagnetic radiation produced by certain types of neural firing. If it’s not magic then there must be some such explanation.
I’d love to hear from you some time Zoom, but for me there’s no hurry.
Thanks for the reply, Eric. I saw this comment late last night and spent a lot of time thinking about it this morning trying to formulate how exactly to respond, and I think I’ve got it.
“I propose that when life in our realm ventured into more “open” environments (or unlike the game of Chess), a limit to programming effectiveness was reached and so organisms couldn’t be instructed all that effectively here. But when Qualia evolved I believe that a teleological form of computation emerged — here “purpose” would be to feel as good as possible. Thus evolution wouldn’t need to specifically program for unlimited contingencies, but rather could use various parameters from which to punish and reward the conscious entity and so force the recipient to try to figure out what to do — autonomy. Just as electricity fuels the computers that we build, I consider qualia to exist as the fuel which drives the conscious form of function.”
What you’re saying makes a lot of sense and I’m fairly certain that it is true, but the question that Chalmers would inevitably ask is why couldn’t we do all of it in the dark? Feeling good is a strong motivator and our bodies certainly do a lot to make us feel euphoric in the right situations, but where does the actual sensation of “pleasure” come into that? JamesOfSeattle gave a good example of this phenomenon when he mentioned Z-Qualia (the physical behaviors and inputs associated with Qualitative experiences) and np-Qualia (the actual experience of Qualia). The former fits very well into your hypothesis but the latter still struggles to justify itself or why it would need to exist when only Z-Qualia seems to yield any of the direct benefits. Unless of course you were always referring to Z-Qualia in which case, I completely agree with everything stated here.
“Then there’s your assessment of Mike resorting to parsimony to justify qualia existing as information processing alone. I suspect that you’re familiar with John Searle’s Chinese room thought experiment? Well I think that I’ve taken its theme in an interesting direction. Instead of written Chinese symbols which are interpreted with a vast lookup table to produce appropriate Chinese responses, consider this: When my thumb gets whacked, information should go to my brain for processing, and one result of this should be the thumb pain that I experience. So imagine if whacked thumb information were symbolically printed on paper, and correctly processed by means of a vast lookup table. Would this processing produce something that feels what I do when my thumb gets whacked? Surely not! Thus processing alone must not be sufficient. Instead the brain must have mechanisms which processed information animates to produce Qualia, just as the processed information of your computer will animate the screen that you’re now reading. Though my perception is that the vast majority of related scientists believe that Qualia exist as nothing more than processed information, this is clearly not a natural idea. All output of the brain, such as Qualia, should not simply depend upon brain processing, but processing that animates associated mechanisms.”
I am familiar with the Chinese Room thought experiment, and it fits very well in this context as an argument for how Qualia simply being information processing might not be enough to fully explain it. A lot of Philosophers subscribe to the notion that there definitely needs to be something, physical or otherwise, that’s causing consciousness to go from here to there, to turn what should just be a bunch of electrical signals into this Qualitative experience of reality.
“And what might those mechanisms be? It could be that Qualia, which I consider effective to define directly as consciousness, exist by means of the electromagnetic radiation produced by certain types of neural firing. If it’s not magic then there must be some such explanation.”
Is your theory based on any pre-existing schools of thought or is it something you’ve personally thought up? It’s extremely creative and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before (and I mean that in a good way xD) but I am a little confused about how this would answer the Hard Problem of Consciousness. How would this electromagnetic radiation lead to the brain gaining qualitative experiences? The aforementioned explanatory still stubbornly remains in spite of it, and the only possible reconciliation I’ve heard of to problems like this is Panpsychism, but I’m not sure if that’s where you’re intending to go with this. In which case that obviously won’t work as a solution.
Your theories are fascinating, Eric, and I’m glad that you decided to share them with me. I hope to be able to hear more from you soon, but just as you said to me, feel free to take your time, there’s no hurry.
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Well done Zoom. Perhaps going back just a bit would be productive.
Over my youth and adulthood I developed various psychological based accounts of our nature. They essentially stem from the notion that while the vast majority of reality should not be sentient, for anything that is, feeling good constitutes the value of existing as that entity. So theoretically regardless of whether it’s me for the week, or the people of China over the next year, and so on, the value of any defined sentient subject will be represented by how good it feels minus how bad it feels over a given duration. It’s essentially an amoral version of utilitarianism. I suspect that the social tool of morality has prevented this idea from founding our still quite soft mental and behavioral sciences. (Well, except for the “side science” of economics, which is so founded.)
Anyway from my mid thirties I spent a decade trying to nail this stuff down more formally, and from there have spent six years blogging heavily so far. I’m 51. Blogging has refined my project in various ways, as well as taught me about what I consider structural problems in academia. (As I see it the most severe is that we’ll need a community of respected professionals with generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology to better found the institution of science. I propose four, and use them in my arguments often enough.)
I’ve been hanging out around here for about three years, and it’s been great! But it’s also been difficult to help others gain a working level grasp of my ideas. One issue is that there’s resistance to my proposal that the brain itself cannot be conscious (or the standard “single computer” model). Instead I consider the brain to function as a non-conscious computer that produces a second variety, or one that’s conscious. I’m asked “Where is this second computer?” I’ve only been able to say that I know it exists just as well as I know that I think, though without actually locating it. “Is it a virtual computer?” For a while I went along with this, but no, I consider it to be a fundamentally different variety of machine. The brain functions on the basis of neural dynamics, while this functions on the basis of sentience.
I consider the brain to produce the conscious entity in order to monitor its desires in ways that can reprogram it more effectively. I was trying to convey this last time. Non-conscious computers (genetic material, brains, and the ones that we build) function by means of logic based algorithms. Only conscious computers (or sentience based function), are able to go beyond programming and into purpose based function. This seems required for dealing with more “open” environments, or beyond situations such as playing the game of Chess. And it’s expensive. Whatever number of calculations that my brain does, I consider the consciousness that it facilitates to do less than 1000th of 1% as many. I haven’t really gotten into the architecture of consciousness yet, but I’m trying to effectively set this stuff up.
About a year ago I began to really appreciate “the Chinese room” over at Wyrd Smyth’s blog. You’ll find him here often enough. That helped arm me against the standard single computer model. Then in only December it was the blog of James Cross that put me on to the potential that consciousness exists by means of electromagnetic radiation. https://broadspeculations.com/2019/12/01/em-fields-and-consciousness/ You’ll find him around here as well. I’d already been saying that the brain can potentially produce consciousness somewhat like a lightbulb can potentially produce light, but I didn’t realize how close this might be! A professor in England by the name of Johnjoe McFadden seems to be the main proponent, though for the most part the idea is laughed at as just one more of the many silly proposals in the field.
The argument of JamesofSeattle might have been too fancy for me to grasp. When I conceive of the p-zombie it’s of something that has no qualia whatsoever, not “not physically explainable” qualia.
Anyway on the hard problem of consciousness, I can’t make it make sense that it’s produced in nature to Chalmers, or even to myself! I consider this the most amazing stuff in nature. But then physicists can’t make it make sense that gravity exists either. At some point we just have to accept that some things exist. It’s merely my own metaphysics of naturalism which gives me the perception that it’s “of this world”.
This one may have been a bit hasty and given you more questions about my positions than answers. But for now let’s call it an introduction. In the end I consider my perspective simple and common sense, but perceive that a tremendous web of crap needs to get sorted out. For now I’ve got to get to my job!
I would say the p zombie thought experiment only presupposes that both Type-A materialism and Type-B materialism are false. A Type-C materialist would say that p zombies are both logically and metaphysically possible.
And I think that the p zombie thought experiment is just meant to demonstrate the intuition that consciousness does not logically supervene on the physical. If one maintains that consciousness logically supervenes on the physical after hearing it, then the thought experiment has failed.
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I hadn’t heard of Type-C materialism before. Interesting. Thanks! Although I agree with Chalmers that it seems, at best, an intermediate step on your way to one of the others.
I do agree that the p-zombie thought experiment’s chief value is demonstrating many people’s intuitions. My issue with it (and with most philosophical thought experiments), is it isn’t the kind of exercise that leads anyone to new intuitions, even though some take it to be. If you already have those intuitions, it dramatizes them. But as you note, if you don’t already have them, it doesn’t force you to have them. (Compare to Einstein’s thought experiments, which actually lead you to a new way of thinking.)
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I’m coming back to the party…I must’ve left something behind… my mind, perhaps. 😉
I came across this paper by Chalmers just now, and from skimming it, it appears to be readable, even somewhat enjoyable, so I thought I’d leave it here for you in case you’re still interested in this topic:
Click to access facing.pdf
So far I actually think I agree with Chalmers, if I’m understanding him.
Anyway, he doesn’t appear to be saying there’s no causal link between experience and brain processes, but he does seem to be saying that reductive methods can’t fully account for experience—the hard problem. (You might want to skip ahead to page 9 where you’ll see in italics “deny the phenomenon”) .
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Good hearing from you. I actually did a later post specifically on Chalmers’ Facing paper, along with some thoughts on his response to commentators, which you might find interesting.
Generally I’m in the type-A materialist camp Chalmers sees as denying the problem. (Although from my perspective it’s simply seeing the problem as based on questionable assumptions.)
But as I note in that later post, I’m struck by the fact that instrumentally, in terms of what systems we might expect to be conscious, I agree with Chalmers. It’s just that he sees an extra metaphysical add-on that I find redundant. But the fact that he sees that add-on possibly happening with AI systems means we agree on a lot more than I would have expected prior to reading his papers.
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Oh, fantastic. I’ll check it out!
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