Posted by: wolf | June 19, 2008

Why should there not be phenomenal experiences?

Instead of just making bad jokes about zombie arguments, I have now begun reading David Chalmer’s book “the conscious mind“, and will probably be posting about consciousness and such (Chalmers says there is no really good definition, and that seems to be too true). One thing that nags me about the zombie argument becomes already apparent in the introduction to the book: Chalmers states that it is intuitive that there is no need for phenomenal experience; that means he says even if we “feel” something when e.g. we sit at our computers and write blog posts it wouldn’t be necessary that we feel something. He seems to claim (I am still in the first chapter) that all we can do as human beings (thinking, acting) could also be done without experiencing anything. That is the first premise of the zombie argument: That there could be beings just like humans in all respects with the exception that these beings, the zombies, don’t feel anything.

I do not see how this idea should be intuitive. Actually, I think it is really quite contrived. Maybe, if one really tries hard, one might think of a robot that can react to its environment and maybe even initiate actions itself without meaningful experiences. But as human beings, we act and react in most instances particularly because we have inner experiences; that is, I go to a concert because I want to feel good at that concert.

Chalmers (I adress this to Chalmers, but there are other zombists) would answer that there would still be no need for subjective experience. Feeling good might be just some kind of biological¹ reward function: i.e. he might state thateven if something is in some way “good”, say biologically or physically, so that some biological function might have been gotten installed during evolution, it would not be necessary that this function is connected with the subjective experience of feeling good.

I don’t find this very compelling, even if I don’t have a strong argument against it yet. Why should something that is good not feel good? Why should phenomenal experience not be produced by or even identical to the mechanisms for the reward function? I do not find it intuitive to dissociate subjective experience from biological function. Why should it not be that subjective experience itself is a biological function? After all, some kind of conscious experience seems necessary at least for some things we humans are able to do. When you try to remember something, say your grandmother, most people would say they are able to produce an inner image of how their grandmother looks like, that is, they will say that they can somehow see their grandmother even if she is not physically around; of course such an imagination will not be the same as the real seeing of the grandmother. And even more to the point, the whole act of imagining a zombie’s characteristics needs some mental operations. How could it be that these mental operations should not be there in some way? How could it be that a human being should not be aware of her or his mental operations? Chalmers seems to postulate that there is something in addition going on to the mental operations. That is in no way intuitive.

Why am I going on so much about intuitiveness? Chalmers puts a lot of emphasis on the point that zombies, physically¹ like us in every respect, are intuitively conceivable. As yet it seems to me that conceivability is just a way of saying something is not strongly counterintuitive, and the zombie argument rests on the assumption of conceivability. There is nothing of empirical evidence in the zombie discussion. The whole argument is, to say it derisively, out of the armchair. I am however not against armchair argumentation. But the argument better be not only intuitive, but also comprehensible. I don’t really buy an argument when somebody can not even explain the premises. To repeat: I have only just started reading Chalmers works, maybe I am not getting things right. So I am very curious about the next chapters.

¹ Daniel Dennett has noted that it is especially the zombists and other dualists, i.e. people that think consciousness can not be explained in terms of the body and brain, who talk about physical laws instead of taking into account that biology, neuroanatomy and -physiology have something to add beyond “pure” physics.

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