Once More, With Feeling

Sean Carroll’s new best-selling book The Big Picture runs the risk of preaching to the choir. To my mind, it gives a clear and effective explanation of the usual top physicists’ world view. On religion, mysticism, free will, consciousness, meaning, morality, etc. (The usual view, but an unusually readable, articulate, and careful explanation.) I don’t disagree, but then I’m very centered in this physicist view.

I read through dozens of reviews, and none of them even tried to argue against his core views! Yet I have many economist colleagues who often give me grief for presuming this usual view. And I’m pretty sure the publication of this book (or of previous similar books) won’t change their minds. Which is a sad commentary on our intellectual conversation; we mostly see different points of view marketed separately, with little conversation between proponents.

Carroll inspires me to try to make one point I think worth making, even if it is also ignored. My target is people who think philosophical zombies make sense. Zombies are supposedly just like real people in having the same physical brains, which arose the through the same causal history. The only difference is that while real people really “feel”, zombies do not. But since this state of “feeling” is presumed to have zero causal influence on behavior, zombies act exactly like real people, including being passionate and articulate about claiming they are not zombies. People who think they can conceive of such zombies see a “hard question” regarding which physical systems that claim to feel and otherwise act as if they feel actually do feel. (And which other systems feel as well.)

The one point I want to make is: if zombies are conceivable, then none of us will ever have any more relevant info than we do now about which systems actually feel. Which is pretty much zero info! You will never have any info about whether you ever really felt in the past, or will ever feel in the future. No one part of your brain ever gets any info from any other part of your brain about whether it really feels.

These claims all follow from our very standard and well-established info theory. We get info about things by interacting with them, so that our states become correlated with the states of those things. But by assumption this hypothesized extra “feeling” state never interacts with anything. The actual reason why you feel compelled to assert very confidently that you really do feel has no causal connection with whether you actually do really feel. You would have been just as likely to say it if it were not true. What could possibly be the point of hypothesizing and forming beliefs about states about which one can never get any info?

If you have learned anything about overcoming bias, you should be very suspicious of such beliefs, and eager for points of view where you don’t have to rely on possibly-false and info-free beliefs. Carroll presents such a point of view:

There’s nothing more disheartening than someone telling you that the problem you think is most important and central isn’t really a problem at all. As poetic naturalists, that’s basically what we’ll be doing. .. Philosophical zombies are simply inconceivable, because “consciousness” is a particular way of talking about the behavior of certain physical systems. The phrase “experiencing the redness of red” is part of a higher-level vocabulary we use to talk about the emergent behavior of the underlying physical system, not something separate from the physical system.

There’s not much to it, but that’s as it should be. I agree with Carroll; there literally isn’t anything to talk about here.

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  • Lord

    Conceivable as a postulated construct or as possibly existing? I can think about them existing but with no ability to determine if they can exist, I must reject them as an empty concept. This is true even though what we call feelings have no definitive definition, are only experienced internally, and are only expressible through communication that is not themselves. I feel I have feelings and this is just the simplest way of expressing my internal state. One can speak of them usefully from an evolutionary standpoint, and from a communicative standpoint, even if we don’t know how they are produced and processed.

    • Conceivable as in “logically coherent, and consistent with all the known facts”.

      • Lord

        You can conceive that something does exist, that it can exist, that it could exist, or that it exists only in words and imagination. God is conceivable. Does that mean God exists? The conception of God may be useful for some purposes and less useful for others. As an idea, God certainly exists and has told us much and motivated much action, but as an argument or explanation, it is lacking as it tells us nothing but what we tell ourselves.

        What we have are not zombies, but people claiming they or others are or could be, but also claiming it is unprovable. Unprovable claims may be true but aren’t relevant or useful arguments.

  • Philippe Belanger

    Treating consciousness as a mere matter of vocabulary leads to strange ethical conclusions. Whether you are a utilitarian trying to maximize people’s pleasurable feelings or a deontologist who thinks an individual’s sentience endows him or her with dignity and rights, what is and isn’t conscious will play a central role in your ethics. But if what is conscious simply depends on vocabulary, does that mean I can free myself of any moral responsibility towards my fellow as soon as I have the capacity to describe him in the non-intentional language of neurons and synapses? Conversely, must I treat my self-driving car as conscious when I think of it as “seeing” its environment?

    • 塩辛い

      The strong implication of your comment is that you derive moral responsibility out of a negation of the sentence “I have the capacity to describe consciousness in the non-intentional language of neurons and synapses”.
      How does one derive morality out of a sentence of the form “I don’t have the capacity to describe consciousness in the non-intentional language of neurons and synapses”?

    • Peter David Jones

      It leads to strange ontological conclusions, too. If you are alone on a desert island with no one to describe you as conscious, are you still conscious?

    • Strange ethical conclusions are a dime a dozen. Ethics derives from evolution and environment, not from logic.

      • Philippe Belanger

        That is fine, but you still have to recognize that consciousness “deniers” are merely trading one paradox for another. It’s hard to see what intellectual progress is being achieved.

      • Matthew Light

        The idea is not to achieve anything, it is apologetics for a belief system, no different from what theologians engage in.

      • The irritation you arouse isn’t due to your offending an ideology. Rather, it’s your militant stupidity – your belief that scorn is an argument.

      • Do you think blind sight is paradoxical?

      • Non sequitur — that as nothing to do with ethical conclusions. And I do not “recognize” any such thing, since it is false. And I for one have no trouble seeing what intellectual progress has been achieved by people like Dan Dennett, Aaron Sloman, Thomas Metzinger, and numerous other careful thinkers.

  • Robert Koslover

    Re “there literally isn’t anything to talk about here.” Ok, so… you’ve just de-authorized that topic, right? I actually mostly agree, but it’s still seems a bit soon after http://www.overcomingbias.com/2016/06/unauthorized-topics.html .

    • But I’m talking about it.

      • Robert Koslover

        Yes. And you’re also dismissing it. At least, I think you are. I’ve dismissed it since I was a kid (my friends and used to discuss the “everyone else is actually just a robot” idea.) I/we dismissed that because it is intensely ego-centric and violates Occam’s razor. And I really like Occam’s razor… partly, but not exclusively, because it guides my thoughts about quite a few of the topics I see discussed at Overcoming Bias.

      • Marc Geddes

        Who is doing the talking? I thought the notion of ‘I’ was just an illusion? 😉

        You should seriously look at panpsychism, the idea that there’s a little bit of consciousness in everything. In my view, not enough serious consideration has been given to the possibility that consciousness is a *fundamental* property of reality that is everywhere present already.

        Some interesting discussions about panpsychism by David Chalmers on YouTube. Here’s a good one:

        Chalmers at Panpsychism Workship – July ’14

      • prie

        Looks like an interesting talk! Could you say something , to me who aren’t well read on these topics, about the difference between Chalmers position on panpsychism and the view of Galen Strawson? http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/05/16/opinion/consciousness-isnt-a-mystery-its-matter.html

      • Marc Geddes

        I’m not sure that Chalmers has a definite position on these matters – he seems to like considering a wide range of possibilities without actually committing himself to any one particular view.

  • Paul Hess

    I would readily reject the physical zombies concept if my life weren’t so innundated with them!

  • Marc Geddes

    In his book, ‘The Big Picture’, Carroll made a great attempt at an integrated picture of reality, but the view he presents is flat-out wrong.

    Carroll wants us to believe that there is only 1 objectively existing property in reality: ‘physical’ (fields or mass-energy).

    But in my view (that Carrol calls ‘augmented naturalism’ and rejects), there are 3 objectively real properties:

    Physical – Fields

    Mathematical – Information

    Mental – Consciousness

    In my alternative view , all 3 properties are present almost everywhere, and you simply can’t pick 1 of the 3 and try to ‘reduce’ everything to that.

    I just want to repost a few critical points I have made elsewhere here:

    “The zombie argument isn’t one of Chalmers better arguments, but even if this particular thought experiment fails, that still doesn’t establish that materialism is true. In fact, I don’t think it is, but not because of this particular thought experiment.”

    “The main arguments against materialism are that: (a) any theory of reality that postulates a single property (such as ‘physical’) simply can never explain the ultimate origin of that property – there will always be ‘dangling’ (unexplained) elements in such a theory, (b) if consciousness isn’t real, then nothing is – if we ‘reduce’ consciousness to brain signals, then there is no reason to stop the process of reduction there.. i.e. we can ‘reduce’ brain signals to neurons and chemistry, ‘reduce’ these to molecules, ‘reduce’ these to atoms etc etc. until nothing remains (reductio ad absurdum), (c) consciousness self-evidently has a radically different character to the physical mode of explanation , (d) postulating mental properties is very useful for understanding the world and we can’t easily strip out these concepts from our talk – there appears to be an unbridgeable gap in vocab/concepts used – matter/forces/fields (physical) versus agents/decisions/plans (mental), (e) consciousness is the very means through which we apprehend reality in the first place, meaning that any explanation of reality implicitly assumes the lens of consciousness – so attempts to remove consciousness as a fundamental concept are self-contradictory”

    As regards the relationship between my 3 proposed properties (fields, information and consciousness):

    “The mistake I think everyone has been making is to try to pick only *one* of the three modes of explanation and attempt to ‘reduce’ everything to just that. But rather just pick one as ‘fundamental’, I’m suggesting a hugely radical viewpoint – I’m suggesting that all three modes are on an *equal* footing!”

    “I think the three modes of explanation complement and support each other…each alone collapses into incoherence, but *together* they explain reality- each can compensate for the weaknesses in the others.”

    “Here’s an analogy: imagine having three different carpets for a room. Each carpet alone doesn’t cover the whole floor…almost, but not quite. No matter how hard you try, you find you just can’t quite cover the whole floor with each individual carpet. But what happens if each carpet can cover for the gaps in the others? Then all three carpets *together* will cover that floor!”

    “Suppose then that physics (fields), mathematics (information) and panpsychism (consciousness) are each *almost* coherent, but not quite – each individually breaks down somewhere. But that all three working together *can* fully explain reality (i.e., all three *together* can ‘cover the floor’ of reality coherently).”

    • Robert Koslover

      The universe consists of:
      1) Matter/energy
      2) Space/time.
      It seems to me that that’s all of it. “Information,” “consciousness,” etc. are either composed of and/or expressed in terms of, or by, beings built entirely from those two numbered items above. If you think otherwise, why not include many, many other intangible “things” too? E.g., “passion,” “soul” or “popularity,” etc. “Earth, air, fire, and water,” were not that far from the truth, if you really think about it. We’ve just learned much more about the details since then!

      • Marc Geddes

        Wrong! Information and consciousness are also present everywhere. I’m not suggesting that they are separate from matter. They are not – they are simply different ‘modes’ of explanation that are just as valid as the physical mode. You could just as easily say that the universe consists of ‘information’ or ‘consciousness’ as you could say that it consists of ‘matter-energy-space-time’. The 3 modes of explanation are completely symmetrical.

      • Robert Koslover

        Hmm. Well, I’m pretty sure we are not going to agree on this. I simply find nothing at all persuasive (to me) in your arguments, despite your earnestness, your sincerity, or your intellect. I remain comfortable with my own perspective. I have no objection to you being just as comfortable with yours. Regards,

      • Marc Geddes

        Here’s an argument:

        Take the famous thought experiment of ‘Mary’s room’ from philosophy. The idea is that Mary has been locked in a dark room all her life and has never before seen the colour ‘red’, but knows all the physical facts about seeing red ( learning all the facts of neuroscience from study etc.). So the question is; when she actually *sees* red for the first time, does she learn something new?

        My answer is yes, because new information has been revealed – the new ‘info’ that gets revealed is the rule connecting the two different levels of abstraction (the difference between the physical facts about seeing red, and actually seeing it – which is the difference between viewing information at two different levels of abstraction).

        My above answer to ‘Mary’s room’ is sufficient to prove that consciousness experience really is a fundamental mode of explanation in itself and can’t just be reduced to physics. Again, this doesn’t mean that consciousness involves any violation of ordinary laws of physics. It (probably) doesn’t.

      • Peter David Jones

        The algorithm is that if you can reduce something you don’t include it in your list of irreducibles. Can you reduce consciousness? We don’t know because you didn’t show any workings. As ever, everything hinges on the difference between “I believe X is Y” and “I can show how X is Y’.

    • Peter David Jones

      Carroll isn’t wrong just because he disagrees with your favourite theory.

  • “The actual reason why you feel compelled to assert very confidently that you really do feel has no causal connection with whether you actually do really feel.”

    Nonsense. If you “feel” compelled to do anything, that can only happen if you actually feel.

    • Matthew Light

      If you “feel” compelled to do anything, that can only happen if you actually feel.

      This is of course the crux of the matter right here.

      • It’s a defect in Robin’s wording, nothing more. He should have said, “The actual reason why you assert very confidently that you really do feel has no causal connection with whether you actually do really feel.”

        Beliefs are real; experience isn’t. This may be the key point.

      • It is not a problem of wording, it is a problem with his thesis. The problem with that is that a belief is a feeling; if a computer formulates these words using a random number generator, then that would not express a belief except according to the interpretation of others. As it is, the words express beliefs because of how I really do feel; they would not express any belief without me feeling.

      • You’ve created a false dichotomy: beliefs are either feelings or strings of words. Beliefs are behaviorial dispositions. You have many beliefs you don’t even know about. Actually, most of your beliefs are like this.

        The best paradigm for belief without feeling may be blind sight. People acquire beliefs through vision without knowing they have them.

      • You are the one creating a false dichotomy. I agree that beliefs include behavioral dispositions. But they also include a disposition to feel a certain way: if you disposed to say, “2 and 2 make 4,” but you are also disposed to feel that it is absolutely false, then you do not believe it. In order to believe it, you have to have some feeling-dispositions as well as behavioral dispositions.

        So a robot that produced certain words and acted “as though those things were true,” but had no feelings, would have some elements of a belief, but not all. So it would not believe anything.

      • if you disposed to say, “2 and 2 make 4,” but you are also disposed to feel that it is absolutely false, then you do not believe it.

        What raw feel does “feeling” something is false correspond to? Let’s say we really experienced raw feelings and some raw feeling were associated with belief. Then how would you know which contentless apperception has the significance of conferring belief?

        A belief is something more than dispositional in a purely statistical sense. But raw feels provide not an iota of help in defining belief.

      • Talking about “raw feelings” is confusing the issue. How do you know what you believe when you think about it? For one thing, you know that you would be prepared to assert one thing and not another if people were to ask you about it. But since people haven’t asked you yet, how do you what you would be prepared to assert? The same way you know about other things that you would or wouldn’t do; by knowing your desires. How do you know your desires? They are feelings. But not “raw” feelings. There is nothing about hunger as a “raw feeling” which would tell you that a hungry person would eat; it is a fact of experience that you tend to eat when you feel hungry. So if you feel hungry, you know you want to eat, and that you are disposed to actions like eating. But you know that from the feeling, not from the physical disposition, whatever that might be; it is unknown to you.

        And note that you rightly recognized that belief is not a raw disposition like the disposition to raise your hand at 2 PM would be — it implies a highly complex set of behaviors. In the same way, it implies a highly complex set of feelings.

      • Talking about “raw feelings” is confusing the issue

        Raw feeling (qualia) is the issue regarding zombies. It is an analytic abstraction and can’t be replaced by “feelings” simpliciter, which is too vague to do this work. (Which is why Robin’s formulation was confusing but not wrong.) Everyone agrees anger, for example, is a feeling. Whether it involves any raw feelings is another question and, I think, a purely conceptal one.

        But since people haven’t asked you yet, how do you what you would be
        prepared to assert? The same way you know about other things that you would or wouldn’t do; by knowing your desires.

        Desires aren’t raw feelings – although raw feelings may be part of your philosophical theory of desire. As I see it, we infer (rather than directly introspect) our desires – like our beliefs – from numerous perceptions, some internal, some external, some behavioral. Our inferences are often wrong.

      • I agree that we infer our desires; that in fact was implied by what I said, which is that we notice that certain feelings, and yes certain raw feelings, happen to occur at the same time that we tend to do certain things like eating or whatever. There is nothing in those feelings themselves that would make us think of eating; we infer the connection in the same way that we make other inductive inferences.

        In any case, your position seems to be something like, “there are things made of atoms, but no actual atoms,” because you seem to be saying that we infer things from our experiences, but at a fundamental level experiences do not exist, so nothing can be inferred from them.

      • What inferences could we possibly draw from raw feelings? The point is that they would be “entirely useless.” 😉

      • The inferences are inductive, not deductive, as I said. We see 100 cases in which we feel a raw feeling, which we end up calling “hunger” or part of it; and in those 100 instances very soon afterwards we go and eat something. So in the future, when we have the feeling, we infer that we have the desire to eat, and expect that we will eat something soon. That is just as useful as inferring that the sun will rise tomorrow.

      • Inference, generally and not just deduction, requires categorization, which ineffable raw feels by definition defy. What do two raw hunger pangs have in common phenomenally? If you identify two feels as being essentially the same, you had to group them by concept beforehand.

      • I agree that it requires categorization. We categorize things based on similarity, and even raw feelings have similarities and dissimilarities, just as green and blue look more alike than blue and red do, and all of those seem more alike than red and soft do.

        (And if you say that “blue” or “red” is not a raw experience, then it is your concept of raw experience that is useless, not my account.)

      • A “zombie” (preferably defined a bit differently, as a human without the illusion of qualitative awareness) would be able to perceive green and blue and recognize their similarity. Distinguishing color is a matter of detecting certain wavelengths as well as their closeness to each other structurally. Patients exhibiting blindsight (color zombies, with qualifications) can distinguish colors.

        The reason for making the abstraction of raw feels as ineffable, hence unclassifiable – as carrying no information in themselves – is that people have the intuition that there is something involved in experience besides information.

        I think this – articulating the qualia intuition – is probably the main sticking point. I’ve elsewhere suggested this articulation:the illusion of qualitative awareness is the belief that when we perceive or imagine objects we have experiences that are independently real yet characterizable only by the terms used to describe the external referent. (“The supposedly hard problem of consciousness and the nonexistence of sense data: Is your dog a conscious being?” – http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2012/08/160-supposedly-hard-problem-of.html )

      • The problem with your account about green and blue is that we can distinguish those without even knowing that wavelengths exist. So we are not distinguishing wavelengths.

        At the same time, however, qualia have nothing to do with being something that you can say nothing about; there is nothing that you can say nothing about, and that is perhaps the source of your error, that you believe that nothing can be said about qualia. Green and blue are examples of qualia; they have no intrinsic reference to wavelength, but we learn the connection with wavelength in the same way we learn the connection of hunger with the desire for food, except that in the latter case we do it informally, and the former case we do it in a formal scientific way. But in neither case are we talking about something we can say nothing about. We can say some things about color that both have nothing do with wavelength, and still say something.

      • The problem with your account about green and blue is that we can distinguish those without even knowing that wavelengths exist.

        You can detect something without knowing its essence.

      • Exactly.

      • Thus we can detect wavelengths without knowing what they are. I was replying to your argument; I never made the analogous argument to qualia.

      • I understand that this is what you were saying. I was simply implying that you are creating another false dichotomy, between “detecting objective features” and having subjective experiences. Having subjective experiences is how we detect objective features. Without the subjective experiences, we would be causally affected by objective features, but obviously we would not detect anything, just as a stone does not detect any objective features when it is stepped on.

      • “Without the subjective experiences, we would be causally affected by
        objective features, but obviously we would not detect anything, just as a
        stone does not detect any objective features when it is stepped on.”

        It’s just like an entirely useless idiot to talk about stones rather than thermometers or litmus strips or bacteria or anything else that might pose a problem for his claim.

      • In the way we were talking about it, those things either have subjective experience (as bacteria might), or do not detect anything. Obviously a thermometer does not detect the temperature, any more than water detects cold when it freezes. They are just affected by it.

      • Exactly what evidence tempts you to attribute consciousness to a bacterium?

      • The same kind of evidence that tempts me to attribute consciousness to other human beings, namely similarity of body and behavior with me. Obviously other human beings have a much greater similarity, and consequently the temptation is much greater in that case than in the case of a bacterium. That is why I said “might” in this case.

      • Obviously they do detect those things and yours is a circular argument, moron.

      • There is nothing circular about it. Every argument implies its conclusion, but that does not mean it is circular.

      • Without the subjective experiences, we would be causally affected by objective features, but obviously we would not detect anything, just as a stone does not detect any objective features when it is stepped on.

        So, a blindsighted person doesn’t detect anything?

      • A blindsighted person, when he is doing the blindsighting, is affected by things but does not detect them. As I said to Jim Balter, that is just like a thermometer, which is affected by the cold but does not detect it any more than water detects cold when it freezes.

        Of course, you could use “detect” in an extended way both for the thermometer and for the blind sighted person, but that is basically metaphorical. It is not detecting as we normally detect things, which is a conscious act.

        However, even in the normal way, the blindsighted person detects himself saying “it was blue” or whatever, and since he can use that to consciously realize that it was blue, he can detect the blue indirectly, from his own behavior.

      • Peter David Jones

        There are a lot of things you can’t do with blindsight.

      • Also, your argument from “we can be wrong about our experiences” to “actually, our experiences don’t even exist,” seems pretty weak. You might as well say, “we can be wrong about things,” and therefore, “actually, nothing exists.”

        That is in fact the reasonable conclusion from your arguments, since everything we know, we know from experience; if experience isn’t real, there is no reason to believe that anything is real.

      • Here is a longer explanation of what is actually happening when people learn:

        1. We have experiences, including things like seeing color, hearing sound, feeling pain and hunger, and so on.

        2. Some of those experiences seem similar to others. This does not imply pre-existing concepts. We find the similarity in a way which is approximately like the way that a machine learner creates factors. The machine learner ends up with categories that did not pre-exist, and which are only created based on the similarities that were already there.

        3. Once we have grouped various experiences together in the above way, we now have concepts like “green.” Your issue is that this doesn’t seem to have any particular meaning. But it does: experiences enough like these examples, e.g. what I visually experience when I look at flourishing grass, that I group it together with that experience for future reference.

        Again, your objection is that I should be able to say what those examples have in common. But notice that a machine learner creates a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd factor does not know what makes things fall into those categories. So there is no reason for us to know either. Nonetheless, that does not mean that we cannot talk about it. Thus e.g. I can say that blue and green are cool colors, while orange and red are warm. So I just named some of the differences and similarities between colors.

        Additionally, every name and every concept simply refers to such groupings. So if you expect to be able to talk about something, that will always imply that you already have such a grouping. If you ask, “What exactly is the experience of green,” anything you say about it implies that you have already sorted experiences into various groupings, and will say that the experience is falling into some such groupings and not others. In other words, given the way words work, the groupings will always be fundamentally prior to your explanations of the groupings, because your explanations use words, which were learned by doing such grouping.

        4. After having grouped experience in various ways, we (either ourselves as infants, or our brains before we think about it) form the scientific hypothesis that there is an external world which is the cause of our experiences. This explains various patterns of experience such as, “If I have recently seen a plate, then look away and look back, I still see the plate.”

      • Some of those experiences seem similar to others.

        We learn descriptive terms like color by detecting objective similarities. A pigeon can learn to peck blue objects. More demonstratively, something you haven’t responded to, some humans can recognize colors (sometimes) without conscious awareness. Perception is the detection of objective features, not the elaboration of purely subjective experience.

      • The hypothesis that our subjective experiences are caused by an objective external world is an extremely reasonable and well supported hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, it is to be expected that our experiences of color will be similar when there are objective similarities in the external world. This easily explains the case of the pigeon — and in any case I think that pigeons have subjective experiences as well.

        I did not address your argument from blindsight because it is completely disproportionate to the conclusion you are attempting to draw from it. Let’s suppose someone has no conscious awareness of color, and you ask, “What color is this?” They say, “Blue.” They have no conscious awareness of seeing blue, but they do have conscious awareness of having just said the word blue. If you ask why they said, either they will make something up, or they will say, “I don’t know why I said it.” This fits extremely well with the hypothesis that there is an external world which is the cause of our experiences. The person with blindsight is affected by the world in many of the same ways we are, but not in the relevant way to have the subjective experience.

        In any case, you are attempting something ridiculous here. According to you, our subjective experiences are not real. In that case, blindsight is not a particular example, but the only kind of sight there is. So you are the one that hasn’t explained real sight; and saying, “but we can be wrong about our experiences,” is irrelevant, since our experiences must exist in order for us to be wrong about them.

      • According to you, our subjective experiences are not real. In that case, blindsight is not a particular example, but the only kind of sight there is.

        Blindsight is sight without the illusion (or intuition, to be fair) of conscious experience. Ordinary sight is blindsight with said illusion/intuition.

        There are other empirical differences between blindsight and ordinary sight. Obviously, there will be a scientific explanation for why one and not the other. The question is whether the argument that you make for qualia – that they are required to explain color perception – survive the discovery of blindsight.

      • Peter David Jones

        Given the existence of consciousness decision making, conscious presentations of brain states are necessary. You need to argue against conscious volition as well.

      • You need to argue against conscious volition as well.

        Yes. (“The what, how, and why of “free will”: A metaphysical digression—Part 1. What is “free will”? – http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2010/12/what-how-and-why-of-free-will.html )

        [See also the conclusion to “Dogma,” where I agree volition involves the same issues. Or are you saying the issues are different?]

      • Peter David Jones

        Conscious volition us not the same as free will.

      • Since the context of my claim is necessary to understanding this discussion, I answer at https://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2010/12/what-how-and-why-of-free-will.html (Comments.) [Peter has another comment there.]

      • That is not my “argument” for qualia, which is just the ways things are experienced. The reason I think there are qualia, is that I experience things in various ways, and thus the ways I experience them exist. Qualia are an “explanation” of perception only in the sense that they are part of the meaning of perception, namely the particular ways that it happens. There is basically no evidence that could lend support to the thesis that experience does not exist, since all evidence comes to me through experience. That is true of blind sight as well; it is only from experience, at least from the experience of people discussing it, that I know it exists.

        In that sense, your argument against experience is like arguing that you are a Boltzmann brain — regardless of the strength of your argument, it would completely undercut itself. If you are actually a Boltzmann brain, then there really is no reason to believe whatever physical theory led you to that conclusion. And if you have no experiences, then there really is no reason to believe any of the reasons that led you to that conclusion.

      • Also, it occurs to me that your argument that “we can be wrong about our experiences” directly proves the existence of subjective experience. If it is possible to detect objective distinctions (which I agree it is) but there is no possibility to perceive something subjectively, then it is not possible to be wrong, because objective facts cannot be wrong, and according to you nothing exists except objective facts. We can be wrong precisely because things can subjectively seem to us in a way which is different from the objective facts.

      • Peter David Jones

        Most humans detect most colours most of the time with conscious experience.

      • Peter David Jones

        Ineffability means that experiences can’t be communicated, not that they contain no information for the person having them , and therefore not that they contain no information in themselves.

      • (Also: it is not true that you had to group them by concept beforehand. They get grouped when one case reminds you of the other case — that is not a conceptual experience, it is just immediate association.)

      • Peter David Jones

        Ineffable means inexpressible, not contentless.

      • I see contentlessness as an explanation for ineffability, not a definition of it. The leading alternative explanation is the private language argument, but that argument proves too much, as it logically could be applied to societies as much as to individuals, making all language impossible. I’m not aware of any other explanations.

      • Peter David Jones

        Heres an alternative: ineffability is the expected default, because the international richness if of a brain state overwhelms the few bits per second at which speech is able to convey information.

      • the informational richness of of a brain state overwhelms the few bits per second at which speech is able to convey information.

        What’s the use of “information” if you can’t detect it? What you’re saying amounts to, I think, that qualia are the conscious expression of features that are detected unconsciously. But if the information can be handled unconsciously, what’s the point of the experience of a conscious muddle?

      • Peter David Jones

        You still haven’t demonstrated that qualia are contentless. You need to argue toward that point, not just from it. If qualia are the conscious representation of a brain state, then they have the same informativeness as a brain state, then they are contentfull. Humans can make choices consciously, so humans need conscious representations of their mental contents.

        You could argue that some kind of zombies is possible, that makes all its decisions unconsciously, only sees by blindsight, and so, and you could argue on that basis that qualia are not logically necessary…but so what? Qualia can exist as a matter of fact without being logically necessary.

      • “What’s the point of the experience”, as Peter Jones says, is an argument for nothing. We experience our experiences, whether or not they have any point.

        In any case, the rest of your claim, about “uninformative” and all that, is simply wrong, for reasons I’ve already given.

      • I already explained why you think that qualia are contentless. All of our words are like machine learning factors, which we find by associating experiences together by their similarities. So you cannot explain our experiences by anything except more words which are discovered in the same way, by associating similar experiences.

        That does not mean that we cannot talk about our experiences (and qualia, which are how we experience things), nor does it mean that qualia are contentless. But it does mean that you cannot explain them in terms of anything except generalizations from experience, because all language consists in generalizations from experience.

      • Peter David Jones

        What’s the problem with drawing inferences from feelings? If you know objectively that someone is in one brain state rather than another, you can draw inferences from that. And a subjective feeling is just how you know what brain state you are in, so likewise.

      • a subjective feeling is just how you know what brain state you are in…

        Perception of the external world doesn’t require qualia. Why should the perception of the internal world? Just as we detect features of the external world, so we might detect those in the internal.

      • Peter David Jones

        But we don’t invariably detect features of the external world with blindsght….the whole point of blindsight is that it is an unusual modality that contrasts with the usual with-qualia perception. The qualiaphile does not have to argue that perception involves qualia as a matter of logical necessity, but only as a matte of fact…and the fact is supported by both science and personal experience.

      • Also, I do not think this discussion is about whether zombies are conceivable. All of us know what it would mean to be a zombie, so in that sense we all admit they are conceivable. The difference is that you are saying that they are actual: that we are actually zombies.

        What you are saying is inconceivable is that a zombie could exist and be different from us, since according to you we are already zombies. And I agree that zombies could not exist, but I conclude from that that we are not zombies, since we do exist.

      • Also, I do not think this discussion is about whether zombies are conceivable.

        On that we agree.

  • Curt Adams

    To complicate the whole zombie thought experiment, “feelings” do correlate pretty well with certain brain states, and people who lack them have difficulty making decisions. You can pull back to “qualia”, at least for the present, but I suspect we’ll see the same thing happen with that. I’d sure say qualia can influence behavior – I can appreciate a strongly color work or art or room partly on the feel of seeing the color. So it’s not clear to me what experiences “real” people are supposed to have to zombies wouldn’t without having behavioral changes.

  • J Storrs Hall

    Dennett pretty much demolished zombies a couple of decades ago. Anyone still arguing for them basically just hasn’t been listening.


    • Marc Geddes

      Dennett is simply a bad philosopher who hasn’t ‘explained’ anything. His position (‘eliminativism’) is an extreme view that even Carroll disagrees with.

      Quote from my post below…

      “(b) if consciousness isn’t real, then nothing is – if we ‘reduce’ consciousness to brain signals, then there is no reason to stop the process of reduction there.. i.e. we can ‘reduce’ brain signals to neurons and chemistry, ‘reduce’ these to molecules, ‘reduce’ these to atoms etc etc. until nothing remains (reductio ad absurdum)”

      The question is not why Dennett is wrong, the real question is how anybody could ever have come to believe such nonsense in the first place.

      • But you have Dennett wrong! He doesn’t “reduce consciousness to brain signals,” but rather denies its existence (where “consciousness is defined in the technical sense of qualitative experience).

        What Dennett does a poor job of is explaining away the ultra-powerful intuition of conscious experience. He seems to treat it as a philosophical error rather than an aspect of our psychology. (Unless I missed it.)

        The anti-Cartesian insight that’s required is that we can have false beliefs about our experience. (See “The raw-experience dogma: Dissolving the ‘qualia’ problem” – http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2012/09/161-raw-experience-dogma-dissolving.html )

        [Were I to update this, I would say that qualitative experience, like free will, is an illusion of near-mode thought.]

      • Matthew Light

        Perhaps Chalmers is right about the existence of P-zombies! One of them is posting to this blog! 😉

      • That “joke” has become a bit stale.

      • The joke is on the fools who employ it, because by definition p-zombies are behaviorally indistinguishable from their conscious counterparts. The joke actually underlines the absurdity of the p-zombie conception.

      • Matthew Light

        The joke underlies the absolute absurdity of believing that you don’t have experiences.

      • No one claims that people don’t have experiences. You are clueless and your https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_ridicule is inane and inept.

      • Matthew Light

        No one claims that people don’t have experiences.

        Yes, that is in fact what Dennett argues in Consciousness Explained and in Quining Qualia — that brain processes are simply creating a delusion of conscious experiences which are not actually subjective. He simply handwaves experience away, even encouraging a neo-behaviorist style tabooing of vocabulary describing consciousness.

        You are clueless and your https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… is inane and inept.

        I make it a rule to leave a conversation when the other party engages in vituperation and personal attack. Feel free to have the last word.

      • No, that’s not what Dennett argues. Dennett lays out quite carefully in Quining Qualia that we all have these experiences but that they lack the ineffable attributes that qualiaphiles assign to them. You are stupid, ignorant, and intellectually dishonest and I’m happy to have the last word.

      • You are the clueless one here; Stephen Diamond has openly claimed on this very thread that people don’t have experiences. It is in one of ancestors to this comment; go back and read it.

      • One can’t even begin to make progress on this subject without recognizing that “experience” or “feelings” are ambiguous terms as commonly employed.

        Does a blindsighted person who visually encounters blue have an experience of blue? You can’t answer this question without refining the concept of “experience.”

      • Peter David Jones

        They don’t have a quale of blue. “Qualia” ,is a refinement of “experience,”.

      • No, he has no experience of blue in that case. He has the experience of “saying blue” or whatever else he does in response; and perhaps has the experience of feeling inclined to do that. But he has no experience of the color blue.

      • “entirelyuseless” is an appropriate moniker. Stephen didn’t say what this moron claims he says, which is why he doesn’t quote Stephen, instead offering a vague reference to “one of” the ancestor’s comments. Imbeciles like this can’t distinguish between their idiotic misinterpretations of what people say and what people actually say.

      • Perhaps I wasn’t clear, but my intent is generally to expound my own view rather than expound Dennett. I think I’m close to Dennett but I really don’t know if we agree. My impression is that we do, but Dennett adopts a vocabulary that is less intuitively perspicuous, at least to me. The need to draw a distinction between eliminativism and a corresponding non-existence claim seems at least an expositional minus. (If that’s Dennett’s approach, which is slightly distinguishable from that of the author you link to.)

        With the caveat that no one should rely on me for what Dennett thinks, let me conjecture that Dennett cannot explain the problem with qualia as clearly as I because he is not only an eliminativist with respect to qualia but a semi-eliminativist with respect to belief. (“The Intentional Stance.”) A robust realism about belief allows a clear statement about how we can seem to have qualia without there being qualitative seemings: we have an intractable belief that (in effect) the inverted spectrum problem has a solution.

      • “Dennett cannot explain the problem with qualia as clearly as can”
        BWAHAHAH! You are a hoeplessly confused muddy thinker. There is very little that you can explain clearly.

        “a semi-eliminativist with respect to belief”

        See http://cogprints.org/247/1/twoblack.htm … particularly the “pedantic postscript”.

        “It does seem to me that his comments about “conscious experience” introduce an unnecessary confusion.”

        You have provided no reason to think so, and your examples of possible meanings of the words are irrelevant. Rocks experience erosion and children experience schooling and punishment, but obviously people mean something beyond that with “conscious experience”, and Dennett is clearly making reference to that use of the term. And “Science expands human consciousness of the world” is a nonsense phrase. Science broadens the knowledge — confirmed claims — available to humans, and that would remain true even if every human fell into a temporary coma; there is no sense of “consciousness” that has anything to do with it.

        “What’s your account of what Dennett intends by “experience” and “conscious experience”?”

        Dennett simply says that he doesn’t deny that it exists … that leaves a lot of room for accounts of what it is, and Dennett is wise not to prematurely commit to one. One could model it heterophenomenologically, purely in terms of reports (so zimboes have conscious experience). The general outlines are given in the quote from QQ:

        “each person’s states of consciousness have properties in virtue of
        which those states have the experiential content that they do. That is
        to say, whenever someone experiences something as being one way rather than another, this is true in virtue of some property of something happening in them at the time”

      • obviously people mean something beyond that with “conscious experience”, and Dennett is clearly making reference to that use of the term.

        But you can’t tell us what! Exactly the situation Dennett points to regarding the infirmity of “qualia.” It isn’t plausible that Dennett, whose work I respect, would banish qualia only to reintroduce a concept of experience that is equally undefined, one that is based on “you know it when you have it.” Again, this is the very problem raised by qualia and is central to Dennett’s dismissal of qualia.

        I think Dennett just means by “experience” the interaction with the outside world resulting in learning. This is an entirely common use of “experience.” It has the merit of not rendering Dennett’s demolition of qualia trivial.

        [Are these “conscious experiences” you think Dennett affirms are private?

        [Have you read my “Dogma” piece? From your questions on how I use the inverted spectrum, it doesn’t seem you have. Your choice, but your invective is rather strong for being about something you haven’t read.]

      • “But you can’t tell us what!”

        As I already noted, that isn’t necessary.

        “Exactly the epistemic situation Dennett points to ensuring the infirmity of “qualia.””

        No, it isn’t. Again, the issue with the term “qualia” is that the common treatment within the philosophy of mind is to ascribe to them an ineffability that that does not comport with the facts. That is what Dennett attacks in QQ.

        “It isn’t very plausible that Dennett, whose work I respect, would banish
        qualia only to reintroduce a concept of experience that is still more

        He didn’t “reintroduce” anything, he simply did not deny the existence of what others are nebulously referring to. I’m sorry that you’re too dense to get this.

        “Have you read my “Dogma” piece?”

        Of course not. You aren’t an important, deep, or knowledgeable thinker and I’ve already wasted more of my time on your confused droppings than is warranted. Ta ta.

      • As Stephen just said in reply to you, when he mentioned Dennett, it was in agreement, not in disagreement. So whether or not Dennett denies the existence of conscious experience (which I think he does, even if he misrepresents his own opinion), Stephen certainly does deny it, and effectively did so in that comment.

      • You continue to be a useless idiot. The fact remains that Stephen never said in any ancestor comment that experience does not exist. Nor did he say that Dennett claims that experience does not exist. Now he says that “perhaps” it wasn’t clear that, when he spoke of Dennett’s beliefs, he was speaking of his own. Aside from that idiocy, he says correctly that “experience” is an ambiguous term … and he says “Obviously, there’s a sense in which we have experience” … so if he does want to assert that experience does not exist, there is no sense to be made of the words.

      • This is from Stephen Diamond:

        “But you have Dennett wrong! He doesn’t “reduce consciousness to brain signals,” but rather denies its existence (where “consciousness” is defined in the technical sense of qualitative experience).”

        He is saying that Dennett denies the existence of consciousness, which is defined as “qualitative experience.” So he is saying that Dennett denies the existence of qualitative experience, and he himself agrees with this denial.

        He then says,

        “What Dennett does a poor job of is explaining away the ultra-powerful intuition of conscious experience. He seems to treat it as a philosophical error rather than an aspect of our psychology.”

        That is, the intuition that we have “conscious experience” is wrong, according to Stephen Diamond. So according to him, we do not have conscious experience. If he agrees that in a sense we have experience, it is unconscious experience, which is not what normal people mean by experience.

      • “This is from Stephen Diamond”

        I already read it, and commented on it, cretin.

      • I know, but you ignored the fact that it was Stephen’s own position, and that it denied the existence of conscious experience.

      • He does not think that normal sight involves conscious experience; he thinks it involves the illusion of conscious experience. But in no case does he think there is real conscious experience.

        None of the positions here are “impenetrable” to me, by the way.

      • “Unless I missed it.”

        You did. Google “zombic hunch”. Dennett has written and spoken at length about this intuition and its power — even on himself. He has done what he can to deconstruct it, but he is well aware of the difficulty of his task.

    • Peter David Jones

      Dinner thinks we are all zombies.

      • Matthew Light


        He can speak for himself.

  • Matthew Light

    The physicalist view is “not even wrong”. I’d argue against it, but there simply is nothing there to argue against. Consciousness is a particular pattern of matter moving around? How about “freedom is slavery” and “war is peace” instead.

    The universe is a radical subjectivity, within which exist certain patterns that we call objective. To no longer see this obvious truth requires a lifetime of indoctrination into a particular set of mental concepts best labelled as “scientism”. That is why young children are so much more alive than most adults – the conceptual straightjacket hasn’t been tightened to the point of choking off much of the blood supply and inducing paresthesia of the mind.

    Just look at belief systems. At the end of the day that’s all they are – belief systems. Fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist physicalism – both are just models and filters of reality. One is more useful at getting grant proposals funded, one is more useful at incenting reproduction.

    I would recommend that anyone whose mind is spun up in the trap of an overly reified conceptual framework to turn off their laptops and iPhones and go watch a sunrise atop an Appalachian bald, or stand next to Havasu falls, or wade barefoot in the ocean on a mild autumn morning.

    A very dear friend of mine would always tell me in my youth: “what gets your attention, gets you.” This certainly applies to conceptual models. The more slavishly you adhere to them, the more you will see everything in terms of your model and the less you will see anything else.

    • Peter David Jones

      So to summarise….everything is mere theory and up for grabs, except your own pet theory, the obvious truth that is fundamentalist subjectivism.

      • Matthew Light

        That we experience things is not a “theory”. It is prior to all theories. All beliefs arise and and seen within our own experience, there is no where else for them to be seen.

        That we experience things is literally the only thing we know for certainty. It is certainly ontologically prior to any beliefs we develop.

        “Cogito ergo sum” is a formulation of this truth, but not quite precise enough.

      • Peter David Jones

        What you are saying now is that we experience things. What you were saying before was “the universe is a radical subjectivity”.

      • Matthew Light

        Objectivity is a model, a concept. It may be a very useful one, but it is still an idea. Same thing for all other beliefs.

        All concepts and ideas are perceived – that is subjectivity.

        Subjectivity is prior to all our ideas and concepts. Without a subjective perception / “looking at” our concepts, they are like words written on a book that has never been opened.

        Hence, when I say that the universe is radical subjectivity, I am in fact describing the only universe we actually **know**. Most followers of scientism quickly forget the foundation of our epistemology.

      • Peter David Jones

        Subjectivity is prior to everything epistemically, objectivity us prior to everything ontologically.

      • Matthew Light

        “Subjectivity is prior to everything epistemically,”


        “objectivity is prior to everything ontologically.”

        That’s a very prestigious belief system / conceptual model in academia and among urban elites. This model has some pretty intractable flaws, one of them being manufacturing an imaginary problem called “the hard problem of consciousness”. And there are yet others.

      • Peter David Jones

        Getting the appearance of insensate matter out of pure consciousness isn’t a trivial problem.

      • Marc Geddes

        You can get the physical world out if you add an additional element (‘information’) and then combine that with consciousness, using quantum mechanics (QM). Here’s now:

        To understand QM, you must accept that ‘information’ is something that’s ‘real’ (it actually exists ‘out there’ in reality, not just in your head).

        So the ‘wave-function’ in QM is ‘pure information’ – it’s not physical at all! But how do we go from this to the physical world then? The answer is we need additional rules that explain how to compute the probabilities of various concrete outcomes as perceived by actual conscious observers. In other words, we need to supplement the information about the wave functions with a theory of perception!

        In QM, the ‘Born rule’ serves as part of this theory of perception – it tells physicists how to compute the probabilities of concrete observables. Observing concrete outcomes is known as ‘the collapse of the wave function’. But this isn’t actually a physical process either…it only happens in the minds of observers!

        So let’s put it all together:

        The physical reality we see actually comes from the *combination* of the 2 non-physical elements in QM (information +consciousness) that generates the ‘universes’ that we interpret as concrete observables (the physical element)!

        Let me explain how this works with two analogies: (1) watching a movie, (2) playing a video game. In both cases the ‘physical reality’ you see is a construction of your own mind based on the information being presented to you – in (1) flickering lights on the screen from the movie projector, in (2) pixels on the computer screen from the software.

        QM is exactly like the above examples – the alternative ‘universes’ that we call ‘the physical world’ are not objectively defined, but are generated by an interaction between consciousness (mind) and the information in the wave functions.

        To summarize:

        Wave-functions = Information
        Probability rules = Consciousness

        Info+Consciousness=Physical World

      • Matthew Light

        If one is interested in conceptual models that shed light on how this could work, Ulrich Mohrhoff has done some excellent work in this area:


  • Zhang Tingyu

    The question that must be asked is: what’s the point of this? You can make up any word you want; that’s the funny thing about language. But words that stick do so because they are useful; if only for empty signaling.

    What purpose is fulfilled by positing a layer of “mental stuff”? Historically speaking the purpose was a religious one: to posit a way how God or the Dao or whatever transmits his will to individual humans.

    The problem is when an obviously artificial construct is mistaken as a physical reality and you have people wasting millions on trying to find consciousness in an MRI image.

    • Matthew Light

      If someone says that there is no such thing as “mental stuff” or “experiences” that makes me think that perhaps there really *are* p-zombies out there!

      • p-zombies are, by definition, behaviorally identical to their conscious counterparts, so … total logical failure. But it’s a logical failure that all p-zombie proponents are prone to, even David Chalmers, who pointed his “zombie detector” (a hair dryer) at Dan Dennett at the 2006 Towards a Science of Consciousness conference. Of course it was a joke, but the joke is on Chalmers — per his view, p-zombies are just as likely to have conferences on consciousness, write papers about the hard problem of consciousness, and so on.

      • Matthew Light

        It’s a reductio ad absurdum of the absurd position that human beings do not have experiences.

      • More failure. You haven’t a clue as to what is being discussed.

  • I responded to Carroll here -http://www.philosophyetc.net/2016/06/carroll-on-zombies.html
    – flagging that he (and now you) don’t actually seem to be talking about consciousness at all.

    • Glad to hear of some actual interaction between folks who disagree on this!

  • free_agent

    As a general pattern, one cares about the feelings of a certain number of humans, including one’s self, and proceeding out a certain distance, possibly including close relatives, family, clan, ethnicity, nation, … . Beyond that are humans whose feelings one does *not* care about. To deal with the latter type of humans, one must still model their mental and emotional states, and assume that those states influence their behavior. But one certainly does not want to attach to their feelings the sort of significance that one attaches to the feelings of humans one cares about.

    • free_agent

      As Old Lodge Skins says in Little Big Man, “There is an endless supply of white men. There has always been a limited number of human beings.”

  • Couple of philosophical criticisms:

    (1) ‘People who think they can conceive of such zombies see a “hard question” regarding which physical systems that claim to feel and otherwise act as if they feel actually do feel.’ – If this is meant to be a reference to what some, following Chalmers, call ‘the hard problem of consciousness’, then it’s a mischaracterization. The hard problem is meant to be about explanation – about explaining how a physical system could give rise to consciousness, or something like that – and not about the epistemic problem of sorting the conscious from the non-conscious.

    (2) It seems like you’re presupposing an overly tight conceptual connection between the conceivability of zombies and the causal inertness of phenomenal states. I’m not saying that this ruins your argument, but that there may be a gap here which should be filled if the argument is to be maximally persuasive. It seems to me you could believe that zombies are conceivable, but still believe that in actual fact the behaviour of physical systems *is* causally influenced by phenomenal states; when you’re conceiving of a counterfactual scenario in which such a system is a zombie system, you could be allowing that some behaviours of the system *actually* are caused by phenomenal states, but then imagining them still being there in the counterfactual scenario, only not caused by phenomenal states.

  • It’s disingenuous to claim that the mental states of philosophical zombies have no physical effect.

    Rather, it’s simply that the laws of physics are over-determined in a perfectly ordinary way so that knowing the prior physical state is enough to predict the future physical state but equally well knowing some information about the prior physical state plus the mental state suffices to determine the next physical state.

    Indeed, there is nothing special about this kind of over-determination. We see it in the perfectly ordinary fact that knowing either an object’s mass (resistance to acceleration) or it’s gravitational pull (gravitational mass) suffice to determine both the object’s behavior with respect to acceleration and gravity.

    And your claim about not having any more information is true only in a very odd sense. I mean assuming logical omniscience it is true in the same way I can never gain more information about what’s the most likely physical law that explains all known QM and GR experiments. Yet, in both cases I think we fully expect that being presented with certain possible laws we’ve yet to consider would be highly persuasive.

    In short if someone presented a simple unified law integrating known physical results and attributing mental states in the places I would expect them to occur (for people but not for chairs etc..) that would affect my beliefs about when and what mental states are realized greatly.

  • Marc Geddes

    Refuting one particular thought experiment doesn’t clinch the case for physicalism. Even if physical and mental properties can’t be completely distinct in the way Chalmers thinks, this doesn’t mean that one can be reduced to the other.

    Personally, I do think that qualia have to play a causal role, but again, this doesn’t have to imply that they’re pushing particles around. It simply means that they are doing something rather more subtle.

    Here’s an example: I postulate that what qualia are doing is generating knowledge (or information). This doesn’t involve any violations of laws of physics, but it isn’t necessarily reducible to physics either.

    Since I just gave you a simple example of how qualia can play a causal role without violating any laws of physics, this establishes that the case for physicalism is based on weak foundations, and the arguments against qualia attack straw-men.

    So Bryan Caplan and others are entirely justified in questioning the philosophical competence of some computer scientists.

  • Peter David Jones

    Your attack on Zombies is actually an attack on epiphenomenal dualism, one of the alternatives to physicalism as an explanation of consciousness.

  • Marc Geddes

    If you want a simple, 3-word summary of what I think consciousness is, here’s my answer:


    Consciousness is an intrinsic property of reality and exists at (almost) all levels of organization- it is the arrow of time itself!

    At the most basic level you have a little bit of consciousness in almost everything (panpsychism), which occurs where-ever there is a ‘causal relation’ (cause-and-effect). This is analogous to a sort of ‘cosmic microwave background radiation’ of conscious experience.

    Then at higher levels of organization, ever more complex forms of consciousness emerge, defining ‘higher-order’ causalities.

    Human consciousness is a fairly high-level manifestation of ‘the arrow of time’. It is a planning system that integrates multiple values into a coherent narrative that sets a ‘direction’ for agents to move forward in time.


    The hard problem is about the explanation of how consciousness works, not the existence of consciousness itself. It’s a bit like the difference between explaining how the universe came to be and why there is something rather than nothing. Current physics can’t explain why there is “something”, but there definitely is something, it’s the same thing with consciousness really (according to people like myself who believe p-zombies are conceivable). And yes, consciousness is not measurable because we can’t figure out the difference between a creature that is conscious and a creature that is a p-zombie, there is no relevant info to be gained from these states, it’s all philosophizing that will probably never have a practical application, but who ever claimed otherwise in the first place?

  • Marc Geddes

    Picture if you will, a steaming hot cup of coffee. As time advances, the overwhelming probability is that the coffee is going to cool down, until eventually, the heat from the coffee dissipates into the surrounding air.

    But is there actually anything in the laws of physics that
    explains the one-way nature of the above process? In fact, there isn’t. The laws of physics are time-reversible. It would be perfectly consistent with the laws of physics for the cup of coffee to get hotter and hotter with time, rather than cooler.

    So the one-way nature of the cooling coffee can only be
    explained by postulating an ‘extra’ degree of freedom in the state of the coffee. Yes, the ‘laws of thermodynamics’
    can explain it, but these simply disguise the extra degree of freedom of the coffee by redefining it as an ‘extra’ physics assumption: namely that the entropy of the universe was extremely low in the distant past. Without this ‘extra’ bit, thermodynamics couldn’t explain why the coffee would cool down.

    Now, consciousness, it seems to me, is just a generalization
    of the above. The fact of the matter is that agents are statistically far more likely to act in some particular ways than in others. Why? The laws of physics would be perfectly consistent with a huge range of possible actions, but agents aren’t acting
    Just like the example of the cup of coffee cooling, they have ‘propensities’ to act in certain ways that define a ‘direction’ in time. And these ‘propensities’ aren’t explained by laws of physics, but constitute an extra ‘degree of freedom’ that is at least partially independent of the physics state.

    Now information theory can explain what’s happening in the
    two cases above in the most general sense. Information theory can define these processes as the generation and
    erasure of *information* (cup of coffee), and *knowledge* (conscious agents). So the extra degrees of freedom mentioned
    above, can be defined as playing a *causal* role, namely the generation and erasure of information and knowledge.

    Let’s put it all together:

    I’ve just pointed out that there are ‘extra’ degrees of freedom,
    partially independent of the physics state, needed to explain what we actually see as regards the following fact: things (both inanimate and animate) have statistical tendencies that make them more likely to act in certain ways than in others, and this defines an ‘arrow of time’.

    Furthermore, using information theory, these statistical
    tendencies can be defined as playing a *causal* role, in terms of the generation and erasure of information (for inanimate objects) and knowledge (animate objects).

    The final step is to put consciousness (qualia) and the arrow of time as defined above into a one-to-one match and voila! I’ve just proven that qualia can exist and can play a causal role; there can be an ‘extra’ degree of freedom (the arrow of time) that is partially independent of the physics state but still entirely consistent with the laws of physics.

  • Marc Geddes

    Robin, you wouldn’t make the following statement would you?

    ‘Mass is just a way of talking about energy’

    I think you would agree that that is not an accurate account of the relationship between mass and energy. But now consider the following revised statement:

    ‘Mass is *equivalent* to energy’

    I think you would agree with me that this second statement is the correct one.

    I’m saying the situation with regards with consciousness and material processes is the same.

    Carroll’s statement:

    ‘Consciousness is just a way of talking about material processes’

    makes exactly the same mistake as the first example. It’s a subtle but critical blunder. Look at the revised statement:

    ‘Consciousness is *equivalent* to material processes’

    This second statement is the one I think is correct, and the theoretical implications are very different from the first statement.

    This second statement actually implies panpsychism, the idea that there are mental properties in all physical things. Because if there really was an equivalence in the same sense as the mass-energy equivalence of physics, it would mean that I could take the description of any physical thing and translate it into a description of a mental thing (and vice versa).

    So Robin, can you see that the panpsychism suggested by myself and Chalmers is actually *less* dualist than the ordinary physics position?

    Look again at the original flawed statement:

    ‘consciousness is just a way of talking about material processes’

    There’s a subtle dualism still in there: who is *talking*? The statement still *presupposes* a split between an observer who is ‘talking’ , and material processes. Furthermore, there’s an asymmetry in that it implies that you could translate mental descriptions into physical descriptions but not necessarily vice versa.

    It is only panpsychism that truly removes the last vestige of dualism and fully unifies mind and matter, by restoring full symmetry between the mental and physical descriptions.

  • Robert Kirk, who first used the word “zombie” (1974) to refer to what are now known as philosophical zombies, has apologized for promoting the concept and wrote the book “Zombies and Consciousness” (2005) as penance.

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