Monday, December 11, 2006

Penny Press! Zombies!

A curious item in last week's TLS - Philip Goff's review of Robert Kirk's "Zombies and Consciousness."

It's odd, the antics philosophers get up to, when they're unsupervised. Here's how Goff sets up his piece - see if you follow it any better than I do:

"A philosophical zombie, as opposed to its undead namesake, is an atom-for-atom physical duplicate of a human being, or an animal, which lacks any kind of conscious experience. Your zombie twin is physically indiscernible from you. If you put a knife in it, it will scream and try to escape. If you give it a cup of tea, it will thank you politely and sip with with a smile. It can do your job and chat away with your colleagues as cleverly or as ineptly as you yourself can. And yet there is nothing that it is like to be your zombie twin ("consciousness", as it is defined in these debates, is simply the property things have when there is something that it is like to be them). Its screams are not accompanied by the feeling of pain. Its tea drinking is not accompanied by the taste of tea, or the feeling of warmth or pleasure. It does not have any sensory experience of the three-dimensional world with which it interacts so well. The lights are on but nobody is home.
"Nobody thinks zombies are real, but some philosophers - a sizeable minority - think that zombies are possible. And the question of whether zombies are possible is very important. If your zombie twin is possible, even in the bare sense that God could create such a thing, then it follows that your conscious experience is not physical. For if your conscious experience were a physical property, then your zombie twin would share it, given that it is the same as you in all physical respects. Given that your zombie twin does not share your consciousness, it follows that consciousness, it follows that consciousness is not a physical property. If zombies are possible, then, physicalism - the view that reality is wholly physical - is false."

Zombies, physicalism, and that staggeringly impenetrable parenthetical ... one is left reeling around, disoriented, for a moment being led into thinking ANY of this crapola might be valid.

Our learned friend Jeff E (or 'Jeffy,' to use Kevin's damnably memorable term) is steeped in the philosophical disciplines, so perhaps he can shed some light on all this nonsense. Perhaps, in fact, he can show how it isn't nonsense at all.

In the meantime (Jeff isn't always as chatty as we'd like him to be in our world-famous comments field ... although his 'I won't be (sea) cowed' has earned him an ample amount of slack), this sure as Hell looks like nonsense.

All of the 'ifs' in those quoted paragraphs collapse if they're so much as touched. The sheer number of religious presuppositions in this preposterous idea's premise defy quick calculation.

If the zombie has no 'sensory experience' of the three-dimensional world around it, why would it cry out in pain if knifed? Why would it appear to savor tea? How could it possibly handle the give and take of interpersonal chitchat?

The sense I get here is that the 'sizeable minority' of philosophers involved is constructing a hypothetical that's a whole lot more about zombies - the science fiction movie zombies - than it is about something bearing the hilariously tautological name 'physicalism.'

Of COURSE reality is wholly physical. Even if you're devoutly religious, you believe that. Your belief in whatever god you venerate doesn't preclude - in fact, it's entirely predicated upon - the INTERACTION between a wholly physical reality and something more or outside of it. That's what religion IS, for cripes sake.

You don't cry out or seek to escape when knifed because you lack sensory experience of the three-dimensional world. You wouldn't dream of murmuring over a cuppa if you didn't actually experience the enjoyment of it - why would you? The only possible motive you'd have would be to carry an impression with some unnamed third party.

Here at Stevereads we have a lowly, unpaid intern whose skin doesn't work right - hasn't since a series of fevers damaged it (and, presumably, the parts of his brain beholden to it) when he was a small child. He can't feel pain or even pressure on his skin ... slam a stapler down on his hand, and he won't even know you did it unless he's watching while it happens. Tap his shoulder to get him out of your way and you'll tap the live-long day if you do nothing more.

Is he a zombie, according to this sizeable minority? The fact that he is and he isn't is entirely due to the gigantic sloppiness of the premising question. A person with no sensory experience of the three dimensional world wouldn't even flinch if you cut them with knife, much less scream and try to escape.

So what is this allegedly sizeable minority talking about, since they're obviously NOT talking about the kind of zombies they claim they ARE talking about?

Well, of course they're talking about the SOUL. The soul is the conception that can supersede physical reality. It's only the IDEA of the soul - only the subscribing to such an idea a priori - that can justify even talking about what it would be like not to have one (or more specifically, what it would be like if God hadn't given you one).

Speaking for all of us here at Stevereads (and always holding out hope that a patient Jeffy can somehow show us the error of our ways), we venture to say we liked it better when philosophers were the ENEMIES of religion. Sigh.


Kevin Caron said...

Great post - I don't know which leaves me scratching my head more - The quote you supply here, or the idea of someone writing a 'screed against children's literature' (Kolbert, from 3 posts ago).

I especially enjoyed your bit about the collapsable 'ifs'.

JC said...

Yeah, seems pretty taunt to me: if a being with physicality and not consciousness were possible, than consciousness and physicality would be separable. Right-o. And if a codeine buzz were separate from my codeine, than I wouldn't pop none. "Taunt,' above, is short for something.

Beepy said...

I couldn't get past the point of zombies drinking tea. Clearly, Starbucks coffee is the zombie drink of choice.

Jeff E. said...

Zombies, witches, unicorns, homunculi, and evil neurosurgeons are some of the more colorful denizens of contemporary philosophy. I suppose Willard Quine would count as a colorless one.

The vocal minority of philosophers who go in for this kind of argument are generally afraid of materialism running wild and, as Steve said, destroying whatever it is they thought made us human (i.e., souls). They think that a mature neuroscience will have us all saying things like this:

"So tell me how you felt when your father's cerebral cortex stopped showing signs of electrical activity for the last time?" - - - "Well, Dr., I felt a very strong surge of hypothalamic CRH release, and I guess I have to admit a little amagdyla ACTH release as well. He was my father after all."

First, let's deal with that stubborn parenthetical. "What it is like to be a . . . " is a retarded term-of-art that just trying to say 'consciousness as we generally know it' in a philosophically acceptable way. If I asked you what is it like to be a rock? or, what is it like to be a dead body? or, what is it like to be Sebastian when he's passed out drunk? we'd get pretty much the same answer in each case, which is no answer at all: it's not like anything to be like one of those things. In the zombie case they're trying to suppose a creature that acts conscious, but for which it is not like anything to be like it. Note the retardedness.

Many, many philosophers see this whole enterprise the way Steve does, so I won't repeat his arguments which are good. Some philosophers, like John Searle, would like to see consciousness saved from the eliminative materialist's chopping block by emphasizing its first-person nature. For Searle, fancy neuro-monitors might be able to say that he is currently seeing something red right now, but they'll never (in principle) be able to say what it's like FOR HIM to see red.

I think that this vocal minority of philosophers is a dwindling population. What we're seeing with the zombie arguments and Searle's privileged access arguments is the whiny, desperate death knell of philosophical support for theological tenets. Arguments in support of souls and other non-physical properties will be with us for a long, long time yet, but I think people like Searle will soon find that if they want to promulgate them, they'll have to do so from the appropriate academic department.

Kevin Caron said...

Nice post, Jeff!
Maybe it's time for the Stevereads spinoff blogs to begin? A Jeff-penned philosophy blog? "JeffThinks(there4JeffIs)"? I supposed I could be coaxed to supply one on all things comics-snobbery. Could "SebastianDrinks" be far behind?

steve said...

Thanks very much, Jeff! I knew you'd come through and edumicate us all!

And although the idea was proposed in jest, let me be the first to say I'd LOVE the idea of a big interconnected WEB of blogs!

Granted, the rest of you couldn't match my verbiage, or my brilliance, or my molten sexiness ... but still! You could contribute SOMETHING!

Kevin Caron said...

Just think - you could mock us on your blog and our blogs!

steve said...

shaddup, ya mewling tool!