Refuting the Zombie Argument, part I

Recently while I was reading Philosophy, etc., I noticed that one of his featured posts was on “Understanding (zombie) conceivability arguments,” and so I took a look at his summation & two-part defense of (zombie) conceivability arguments. He argues that dismissive reactions to the zombie argument are generally due to misunderstanding it, and that if you accurately understand the zombie argument you will realize that it forces materialists to, at the very least, make serious concessions or commit themselves to ad hoc arguments. Now, I’d always been extremely dismissive of the zombie argument, and so I was curious to hear why I shouldn’t be; but after reading his pieces, I remain as dismissive as ever.

He never addressed the central problem of the zombie argument, which is what makes the zombie argument representative of one of the most embarassing tendencies in philosophy:  it uses the assumption that intuitive attractiveness indicates truth (or “probability” or “plausibility,” which are just weaker forms of the same error). Here that assumption comes into play as the basic argument for accepting the premise that zombies are conceivable; it roughly goes, “it intuitively seems like zombies are conceivable, and you can’t prove that they aren’t conceivable, therefore they are conceivable.”

Unfortunately, before I can explain why this assumption that intuitive attractiveness always indicates truth is so wrong there are some preliminary matters to settle; so this first post will preempt a few possible objections and clear up a few possible misconceptions.

First, when I say “conceivable” I mean it in the sense that Richard Chapell describes in his summary – that by saying something is conceivable I do not just mean something we can imagine or something that might be possible “for all we know” (as we can conceive, in either of these senses, of countless things that are in fact logically impossible – so saying zombies are conceivable in either of these senses is irrelevant), but instead, something that is conceivable is a coherent, logically possible concept.

A quick note on the intuitive attractiveness of zombies – personally I don’t find the conceivability of zombies intuitively obvious at all; in fact it seems very counterintuitive to me. But I don’t need to press that point, and so for the purposes of these posts I will assume that zombies intuitively seem like a plausible idea.

A possible objection I wish to preempt is that even if intuition is somewhat unreliable, it is sometimes “all we’ve got” – that it’s needed to determine what are good premises for arguments and whatnot. The idea is that foundationalism – the attempt to use only self-evident or similarly obvious and easily agreed upon premises – has failed to produce any useful or interesting results, and because of this failure philosophers need to use more controversial premises, based more on intuitive plausibility (“zombies seem conceivable”) rather than extreme obviousness (“if x = y and y = z then x = z,” or, “the sun will rise tomorrow morning”). Now, I agree that there’s a balance to strike – if you only accept the most obvious, uncontroversial premises imaginable, you’re not going to get very far. But philosophy seems to have gone very far towards the other end of the spectrum, to the point where the results may be interesting (although often they aren’t), but they are also completely wrong. What’s more, I think that much more can be done with extremely obvious premises and sound reasoning than philosophers seem to think; but that’s a matter for another post.

The second possible objection is that no good justification needs to be given for the zombie premise because, as David Chalmers says, “in general, a certain burden of proof lies on those who claim that a given description is logically impossible.” (Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: in search of a fundamental theory, page 96) In other words, Chalmers thinks that because he is arguing simply that zombies are “logically possible” or “ideally conceivable” the burden of proof is no longer on him; that the physicalists have to disprove or cast doubt on the idea of zombies or else physicalism is somehow refuted by default. This is not the case. The fact that there is a proposition (“zombies are conceivable”) which, if true, would render dualism true, is no more evidence for dualism than the fact that there is another proposition (“zombies are inconceivable”) which, if true, would render dualism false, is evidence against dualism. The only way either proposition can be used as evidence is if a convincing argument can be made for accepting it.

Chalmers seems to mistakenly think that conceivability is somehow “more likely” than inconceivability, as he thinks that the burden of proof is on the one arguing for inconceivability. This is obviously not the case; the negative (here, inconceivability) always outnumbers the positive (here, conceivability). Inconceivable ideas are by definition less restricted than conceivable ones; conceivable ideas have to conform to the rules of logic while inconceivable ones do not. There are more irrational numbers than rational, more possibilities than actualities, and there are more inconceivable ideas than conceivable ones.

Since it is easier for a proposition to be inconceivable than conceivable, if we are to accept that a given proposition is conceivable then we need a reason for doing so. The burden of proof is on the proponents of the zombie argument, not on the materialists. Of course, Chalmers (and other zombie proponents) do offer a justification: an intuitive one. I will explain why this justification is a bad one in part 2.

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