Dissolving the zombie argument

post by Chris_Leong · 2019-06-10T04:54:54.716Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW · 14 comments

Update: Upon reflection, I'm not entirely satisfied with this post. I think I definitely managed to identify some of the confusion around these kinds of discussion, but a smaller proportion than I would have liked.

The Zombie argument (David Chalmer's website, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) is one of the most famous arguments against materialism, so I'll assume that you can find an explanation yourself if you aren't already familiar with it.

I always find it fascinating when you have two sides that can't seem to communicate with or understand one another. I think the root of the problem is that both sides have a different notion of what counts as a zombie. The Dualist Conception of consciousness involves qualia, so their conception of a philosophical zombie is an entity that lacks qualia. This is a notoriously hard term to define - some would say because it is meaningless - but all that matters here is that they have a stricter conception of consciousness that the Materialist. The Materialist Conception of consciousness involves certain processes taking place, so a Materialist Conception of a zombie would involve certain processes taking place, but also not taking place, which would be a contradiction.

Here's the confusion. If a someone were to claim that humans don't fit the Dualist Conception of a zombie and that Materialism is true, they'd be contradicting themselves, because Dualists have a wide conception of what counts as a zombie that all entities in a Materialist world would fit this definition. On the other hand, if someone were to claim that that Materialist Conception of a zombie were logically possible, which is merely to claim that they can posit this without contradiction, they would be mistaken since Materialist's have such a narrow conception of what would count as a zombie that this class is an empty set.

Once the definition of what counts as a zombie has been fixed, so too has the outcome of the argument. And this is really contingent on what counts as consciousness, so the Zombie argument isn't actually where the fundamental difference lies. This isn't a mere linguistic difference, it's a question of what natural structures exist [LW · GW] that cry out to be given a label. Or as Richard Kennaway [LW · GW] might frame it, an attempt to understand the nature of a phenomenon which we already have some experience with, without foreclosing the possibility that we might end up tossing away the concept if we find it confused.

One last clarification: many people find this argument persuasive. In so far as this is the case, it's usually because they had an inconsistency in their thoughts. For example, perhaps they identified as materialists, without thinking through exactly what a materialist view of consciousness would entail, and when they realised this, they discovered it was something that they didn't endorse.

14 comments

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comment by avturchin · 2019-06-10T11:33:05.128Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Dissolving the "dissolving". The idea of p-zombies, as well as many other philosophical ideas (like consciousness), is based on a combination of many similar but eventually different ideas. "Dissolving" here is in fact creating a list of all subtypes. Another type of "dissolving" would be complete elimination of the idea, but in this case we just lose a descriptive instrument and get a feeling of an absent tooth on its place, which will be eventually replaced with some ad hoc constructions, like: "yes, we dissolved the idea of X, but as we still need to speak about something like X, we will continue to say "X", but must remember that X is actually dissolved."

I tried also to dissolve p-zombies by creating a classification of many possible (imaginable) types of p-zombies here [LW · GW].


comment by Chris_Leong · 2019-06-10T14:41:32.923Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Good work with the chart. That would have taken a lot of effort!

comment by TAG · 2019-06-12T08:00:21.429Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Dissolving" here is in fact creating a list of all subtypes.

I don't think that is a sufficient criterion for dissolution. The subtypes of a problem can still be problems. If there are N subtypes, there could be N problems.

comment by Dagon · 2019-06-10T18:32:46.454Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Much like "newcomb's paradox", p-zombies get brought up as an "argument", and then somehow nobody notices that the actual argument is "what is the universe like", not "what would happen in this hypothetical undefined-maybe-possible situation". It's fundamentally an empirical question, and trying to answer it with thought experiments and logic is kind of pointless.



comment by Chris_Leong · 2019-06-11T00:09:22.550Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

On the contrary, it is reasonable for people to update in response to this argument, such as if they realise they hold views that are inconsistent. For example, if they identify as a materialist, but haven't actually thought through what a the materialist view of consciousness would entail, they might discover that this is not something they actually endorse.

comment by Dagon · 2019-06-11T03:12:06.584Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

you're right - in the case where it points out a logical contradiction, it can be cause for update. It doesn't necessarily help in what direction to update (away from materialism or away from p-zombies being possible).

comment by TAG · 2019-06-11T10:29:49.168Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There is not only an issue of what the universe is like, but of how well we have explained it. Thought experiments can weigh against claims that something has been adequately explained.

comment by Chris_Leong · 2019-06-11T12:16:49.334Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How does this apply here?

comment by Signer · 2019-06-10T18:59:40.448Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The Materialist Conception of consciousness involves certain processes taking place

The point of the Zombie argument is that this statement is not (seems to be) provable from materialism alone - you can equally well interpret equations as describing the world with actual materialist p-zombies - the one, where process corresponding to what we call consciousness is missing.

comment by Chris_Leong · 2019-06-11T01:19:36.882Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is your point that we have no reason to label such processes as consciousness? If so, I'd agree with you, and I actually intent to write a post on this soon.

comment by TAG · 2019-06-11T10:36:00.389Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

. I think the root of the problem is that both sides have a different notion of what counts as a zombie.

The Materialist Conception of consciousness involves certain processes taking place, so a Materialist Conception of a zombie would involve certain processes taking place, but also not taking place, which would be a contradiction.

It's quite possible for a materialist to agree with a dualist that p zombies definitionally lack qualia, and to conclude that, since qualia don't exist, in their view, then all humans are zombies. Dennett says that explicitly. I don't know of any examples of materialists who have the views you are attributing to them.

I also don't see any dissolution going on here.

comment by Chris_Leong · 2019-06-11T14:50:48.719Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I've had at least one or two conversations with materialists who claim that the concept of a philosophical zombie is incoherent, although I couldn't promise you that is a majority of them.

Anyway, if both parties agree on the definition of p-zombies, then they won't fall into the issue that this post is trying to help people avoid, of using the same word "zombie" in different ways and mistaking a linguistic dispute for something more substantial. Indeed, when trying to determine whether we are all zombies or none of us are zombies, we end up trying to determine whether consciousness is substantial or reductive - this moves the question away from zombies to consciousness itself.

comment by TAG · 2019-06-12T08:33:03.341Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Anyway, if both parties agree on the definition of p-zombies, then they won’t fall into the issue that this post is trying to help people avoid, of using the same word “zombie” in different ways and mistaking a linguistic dispute for something more substantial

Noting that there is a certain level of verbal confusion does not imply that there is nothing going on except verbal confusion.

this moves the question away from zombies to consciousness itself

As far as Chalmers is concerned, the point was always to argue about consciousness.

comment by Chris_Leong · 2019-06-12T10:24:28.666Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"Noting that there is a certain level of verbal confusion does not imply that there is nothing going on except verbal confusion" - I'm not claiming that verbal confusion is all that is going on, but I will admit that I could have been clearer about what I meant. You are correct that Chalmer's aim was to highlight something about consciousness and for many people discussion of zombies can be a useful way of illustrating how reductive the materialist theory of consciousness is. But from a logical standpoint, it's not really any different from the argument you'd make if you were discussing consciousness directly. So if the zombie argument is easier to grasp for you, great; otherwise you can ignore it and focus on direct discussion of consciousness instead.