Refuting the Zombie Argument, part II

So, we’ve established in part 1 that, among other things, the zombie argument can only have any weight if the conceivability of zombies can be justified. Of course, there is a justification offered. The argument goes roughly like so:

1.      You cannot refute the proposition that zombies are conceivable

2.      Zombies intuitively seem to be conceivable

3.      Therefore, zombies are conceivable

The reason this argument is considered a semi-valid one is that most philosophers accept that if a proposition “intuitively seems” to be true, and it has not been disproven by reason or evidence, this means that that proposition is true or at least probable.

Philosophers’ willingness to go from “we intuitively feel X to be true” to “X is true” or “X is probably true,” even on matters as complicated, misunderstood, and bizarre as philosophical zombies, is a completely unjustified arrogance. One thing you have probably already noticed if you’ve read my other pieces is that I am very arrogant, at least philosophically speaking – and yet I still would never even DREAM of proposing that my intuition is some magical window into the way things really are; that it can determine deep metaphysical truths on matters which (like zombies) my conscious, reasoning mind cannot even begin to understand. Yet in philosophy this “magic window into fairlyland” model of intuition (that is the accepted nomenclature) seems to be accepted by basically the entire discipline – if a philosopher can find any way at all of making an idea “intuitively plausible,” then the argument is considered compelling, no matter how tortuous or absurd the method of achieving intuitive plausibility is. And if a philosopher can find some way of making an idea “counterintuitive” then this is considered a compelling objection. This blind faith in our own intuition is both arrogant and completely unjustified.

The first reason this faith in our intuition is unjustified is that our intuition cannot somehow generate information that we do not already have. It follows that if our intuition does not have the right information to work with then any conclusion it gives will necessarily be based on bad information (what else would it be based on?) and therefore be unreliable. There is still very little understanding of the brain and how it produces (or does not produce) consciousness – and yet the zombie argument asks you to picture a working brain and decide whether it is sufficient to produce consciousness, and philosophers happily close their eyes and say “yes, I am picturing a working brain right now,” when in fact what they are picturing more likely resembles an opaque, grey, and squishy box, rather than an actual working brain.

Put another way: if you can accurately picture a zombie, complete with a working brain with all the massively complicated processes and subprocesses that the brain consists of, then you and your miracle of an intuition have surpassed all of humanity’s work on trying to understand the brain. On the other hand, if your picture of a working brain is massively incomplete, inconsistent, and on many counts just plain wrong – as it inevitably will be, due to humanity’s extremely limited understanding of the brain – then why would you expect your intuitive conclusions from such a picture to mean anything? How can your intuition give a good conclusion when it is working off of incompete, inconsistent, and inaccurate information? The only way you could believe that your intuition can give a reliable answer in a situation where reason and evidence have no claim is if you believe that intuition has supernatural properties.

Perhaps you will object to my assertion that there isn’t enough information about the brain to come to a conclusion regarding the zombie example. You may say that you don’t need a completely precise picture to draw conclusions – you don’t need to conceive a universe in order to conceive of baking an applie pie, in fact, you don’t even have to know how an oven works beyond the fact that it’s that hot thing the pie goes in. So why should you need to have a precise understanding of the brain to decide whether or not it is sufficient for consciousness? Isn’t just our everyday commonsense regarding the brain enough?

The problem with this is that I’m not asking you to invent a universe, or even know how an oven works. I’m just asking you to have some vague idea what the hell you are talking about before you start talking – and if this is impossible then DON’T TALK. If we had a broad, schematic understanding of what the brain does then we would be in good shape to talk about whether it is sufficient for consciousness, even if we didn’t know the physical details; but we don’t, and so we can’t. To return to the pie example, if someone really had no clue how to bake a pie beyond “well you mix some stuff together then put it in a hot thing,” would you really trust that person’s “intuitive feelings” regarding whether a specific ingredient is included? Of course not. Similarly, why would you trust your “intuitive feelings” about whether the brain is sufficient for consciousness when you don’t know what the brain does?

Anyway, relying on our intuition isn’t just bad because we don’t properly understand the situation. Even setting aside the fact that humans don’t understand the brain well enough to draw conclusions about it, philosophers are still wrong in assuming that their intuitive feeling is indicative of truth – if we had a good understanding of the brain it would be lazy and unreliable to say “well intuitively I think this is sufficient for consciousness” or “intuitively it seems like this isn’t sufficient for consciousness” – we could use that understanding, in combination with a thing called “reason,” to actually determine reliably whether or not the brain was sufficient for consciousness.

This intuition, that we are expecting to determine whether the human brain is sufficient for consciousness, is the same intuition that can’t figure out the Monty Hall problem: everyone who encounters the Monty Hall problem will find it intuitively obvious that the odds are the same whether you switch or not, whereas reason and evidence both inarguably show that it is best to switch. I’m curious; why haven’t philosophers used this counterintuitive finding to refute mathematics yet? “You mathematicians’ ‘axioms’ lead to a counterintuitive result; if your axioms are true then it is best to switch in the Monty Hall problem, but it is intuitively obvious that it doesn’t matter whether or not you switch.” Of course, the reason no philosopher has done this is because they know that here their intuition is in the wrong; philosophers easily recognize that their intuition is wrong when it can be demonstrated so, but they seem to think that if they can just find an area where you can’t prove their intuition wrong beyond all possible doubt, their intuition shifts from being a quick, useful, bundle of heuristics into being some sort of magical revealer of truth.

This intuition that philosophers seem to think allows them to know the truth on matters as bizarre, alien, and massively complex as the situations given in thought experiments is the same intuition that proves itself to be extremely unreliable whenever it can be put to the test. Even in everyday use it is suspect to confirmation bias, it commits the gambler’s fallacy, and any number of other errors: there is nothing magic about intuition that gives it power where evidence and reason are not present. If we can’t figure something out through reason and evidence then we can’t figure it out with intuition either. Any argument that relies on “intuitive plausibility” relies on something that is fundamentally unreliable, and thus is a fatally flawed argument.

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16 Responses to Refuting the Zombie Argument, part II

  1. Yes, intuitions are fallible. But if you’re faced with a choice between a claim that seems true, and another that seems false, then (all else equal) isn’t the former the better bet?

    It’s also worth noting that the zombie intuition isn’t really a “brute” intuition. We can further spell it out (as I think Chalmers does in various places) in terms of how physics relates third-personal facts about structure and function, whereas first-personal consciousness is something different in kind, such that it’s a kind of category mistake to think that the latter could possibly be reducible to the former. It’d be like claiming that the number seven is a medieval king. You don’t have to know very much about the number seven (or about medieval kings) in order to (“intuitively”) recognize that that couldn’t possibly be true.

    • screwplato says:

      Thanks for the response!

      But if you’re faced with a choice between a claim that seems true, and another that seems false, then (all else equal) isn’t the former the better bet?

      Perhaps, but when the claim is as alien, complicated, and misunderstood as zombies (and their brains) the former is not the better bet by very much at all – and I argue, not better by enough to constitute a valid argument. Especially not when the claim is a positive one, since as I argued in part I positive claims are inherently less likely than negative ones.

      And, of course, all else is not equal – maybe if this was all we had to go on, materialists would have to concede to a 52% chance of dualism being right, but all the evidence humanity has uncovered so far has been consistent with materialism, and none of it has supported dualism. So even if I concede that the zombie argument lends very fallible, limited support to dualism, that isn’t enough to sway the argument very far.

      For the zombie argument to have force, intuition needs to be reliable enough to offer us more than a slightly better bet – but given the well-documented tendency for intuition to screw up consistently, and given our poor understanding of the brain, intuition can’t offer that.

  2. all the evidence humanity has uncovered so far has been consistent with materialism, and none of it has supported dualism

    What do you have in mind here? The rival metaphysical theses of physicalism and epiphenomenalist property dualism are empirically indistinguishable. So wouldn’t it be just as true to say that all the evidence is consistent with epiphenomenalism, and none of it supports materialism (over the alternative)? This debate is one that must be settled on other grounds.

    • screwplato says:

      I’m an undergrad, so I’m not too familiar with the current philosophical scene – are physicalism and “epiphenomenalist property dualism” the two main camps? I was, I admit, assuming a variant of dualism that at least had the potential to make empirical claims.

      I don’t know enough about epiphenomenalism to argue with certainty here, but my first impression is confusion – does it really argue that the world is entirely material, except for consciousness, which is
      a)supernatural
      b)without cause
      and yet c)the epiphenomenalist can know that both a) and b) are true?

      And even if you can resolve that contradiction (which I’m sure you can, although I might disagree with the means) it seems that by definition epiphenomenalism has no implications – not even moral ones, since you presumably acknowledge that all humans have this supernatural consciousness attached. If there are no pragmatic implications then to me it is really no different from materialism/physicalism.

      So I guess my two questions are 1) how can an epiphenomenalist claim that there is something that by definition there is no evidence for? and 2) does epiphenomenalism actually differ from materialism in any pragmatic ways?

  3. Dual says:

    a) not clear what you would mean by “super-natural” except in as far as you mean not materialist.
    b) epiphenominal qualia are hardly without cause. If red is infront of you, and you see it, you experience red.

    1) your effect/evidence is that it is possible to experience being you, the one thing you really know.
    (If you accept that this would be different from being you in a completely physical world.)
    2) This is always a hard sort of question to answer – but if one had a theory about the bridging laws it might matter in the sense you mean.

  4. screwplato says:

    Thanks for the clarifications. I might do a separate post on epiphenomenalism later – in any case, to sum up my position on the zombie argument, regardless of the other arguments for and against epiphenomenalism, the intuitive leap the zombie argument relies on is unreliable enough that the zombie argument can’t sway the materialism-epiphenomenalism debate very much one way or the other.

  5. hf says:

    What do y’all think of the argument by Nigel Thomas laying out what looks like a logical self-contradiction in the zombie argument? (Scroll down for link to the complete online version.)

    Chalmers would disagree with the lemma that we can’t regard the Zombie Chalmers’ belief in its own qualia as false (not without calling his equivalent belief into question). But if we go back to intuition for a second, the famous Gettier problems show “justified” true beliefs arising for causal reasons that, with slight changes, could lead to false conclusions in a similar world. And I thought most philosophers agree that we shouldn’t call those beliefs knowledge. So how can we say Chalmers has knowledge of his own qualia in the face of Z-Chalmers, who arrives at a false belief (in this leg of the Thomas trilemma) for exactly the same causal reasons?

    Option 3, ‘Meaningless’, seems to have the most appeal out of the other two choices for zombiphiles. But zombie statements about consciousness clearly have properties for us that behave like truth values. I don’t know if this next part matters, but my own zombie twin must logically say the following (since I endorse it as formally true when I say it as well): “If I am a zombie, then there exists a Universe in which at least one person who reads or hears this experiences qualia.” You can check the truth of Zombie-hf’s statement by introspection. We can also check statements by our zombie twins about their own qualia, comparing them to our assumptions (if we assume the Zombie World exists). And I don’t think the Thomas arguments from ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ change even if we flat-out define those terms, in this context, to mean the sort of truth values these statements demonstrably possess within the argument.

    Merry Solstice, everyone!

  6. Kirbycairo says:

    Frankly it just doesn’t seem to me that you have made a coherent argument. The idea that “X is conceivable” is not necessarily related to “I feel X to be intuitively true.” Many, if not most things, that are “conceivable” do not fit the bill of something that “I feel to be intuitively true.” Surely the category of “conceivable” is remarkably wide and just speaks to things that one can postulate as, arguably, “reasonably possible.” On the other hand, things that (and I rearrange your words for the sake of more proper grammar here) “I intuitively feel to be true,” is a much smaller and more complete set. There are, I believe, no particular reasonable demands per se on this set of things. I may feel intuitively that many things are true but a priori these things don’t have to be subjected to rigorous demands of reason. On the other hand they are not things which I can objectively establish as proscriptive in a social or normative sense except in cases where there is general agreement. For example, I intuitively feel that murder is ethically wrong is, pragmatically, proscriptive because there is general agreement.

    It seems to me that you have made a widely unreasonable claim that “philosophers” as a group have in any way gone from intuitive beliefs of truth to claims of factual truth. Again I return to Habermas’ formula of different kinds of truth claims – claims of fact, normative claims, and dramaturgical claims. Normative claims will always, to some degree or another involve claims based on some form of intuitive knowledge but that is perfectly reasonable in the general, and inter-subjective, sense.

    • screwplato says:

      I realize this is a very late reply, but I missed your comment originally and just wanted to make a quick rebuttal.

      “Frankly it just doesn’t seem to me that you have made a coherent argument. The idea that “X is conceivable” is not necessarily related to “I feel X to be intuitively true.” Many, if not most things, that are “conceivable” do not fit the bill of something that “I feel to be intuitively true.” ”

      For me to be making the mistake you think I am making, I would have to be claiming that zombie proponents argue that zombies are conceivable because it intuitively seems true that there are real zombies in the actual world.

      (The above sentence is terribly constructed but I have no idea how to fix it.)

      However, zombie proponents are in fact claiming that zombies are conceivable because it intuitively seems true that zombies are conceivable. So it is not, “X is conceivable because I intuitively feel X to be true” but rather, “X is conceivable because I intuitively feel X to be conceivable.”

      So the reliability of intuition is very relevant here, because it’s being used as evidence.

      Also, people seem to think that propositions are conceivable by default – I’m confused by this. If the sum total of our brain processes (and other bodily functions) are sufficient for consciousness, then zombies are inconceivable. We have considerable evidence linking various brain processes to various aspects of consciousness, and no evidence linking anything else to consciousness. That is plenty of reason to place the burden of proof on zombie proponents.

      Also, about your last paragraph, whether or not zombies are conceivable is a matter of fact. So when philosophers say that zombies are conceivable because they intuitively feel that zombies are conceivable, I don’t see how it’s unreasonable to point out that they are going from intuitive beliefs of truth to claims of factual truth.

  7. GNZ says:

    try introspecting and see if you get this effect –

    Construct a logical argument about qualia (such as deciding that it exists), now ask yourself – are you, at that instant and in that thought, refererence the memory of having a qualia (short term memory) or are you actually trigger the qualia itself. I suggest that while those two things can occur at very similar times and be hard to distinguish, they can be distinguished.

    This is also is as one would expect from understanding of the human brain which does higher order processing in one part and decoding of visual information in another.

    if that is the case then it is not possible for you to introspect to get the justified belief that chalmers thinks you can because you always refer to a brain state (namely ‘I recently felt a qualia’) passed from another part of your brain to short term memory that is not caused by the qualia (because qualia are epiphenominal).

  8. Pingback: Intuition Pandering vs Actual Moral Philosophy | Plato is Terrible

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