There’s a weird dispute in the philosophy of mind about zombies — you can read a bit about it in this month’s New Yorker profile of Daniel Dennett. The dispute takes the form of one side believing there is such a thing as phenomenal consciousness, as distinct from information processing while the other side believes there is something there in consciousness — qualia — a “what it’s like to be that” dimension — which can’t be captured by objective, outside “third personal distinctions”. This dispute sometimes gets expressed in the form of an extreme thought experiment. Could there be a human being who runs around, gives lectures, kisses people, plays Lotto but is entirely lacking in consciousness. Could there be a “zombie”? Those who think that phenomenology is just data — who are in some sense heirs of behaviorism, like Daniel Dennett say “no”. It’s a crazy philosophical mistake to imagine zombies. Those who i some sense are heirs of Descartes, like Chalmers, say “sure”. There could be, at least in theory, a being who although he looks like a human from the outside lacks consciousness. The existence of zombies is a fall out of there theory that there is “something” there that scientific description misses. Since there is something there, it follows that there could, conceivably, be nothing there.
It’s a slippery dispute. If this were an academic article I would express myself circumspectly, but since this is a blog post that only a couple of dozen people will ever read, I’ll be more blunt. Both sides are saying something pretty crazy, right? The idea that what it is to be a human being could be captured by outside observers is crazy. But the idea that there could be somebody who was a human being to us but lacked a mysterious something is crazy too.
Part of the issue is that the presence or absence of an unobservable “something” is not going to do the sort of work we would like it to. Denying that that something exists and asserting that that something exists, both miss the point. It’s a little slippery to say just why or how, but here is a start.
Just as there are dueling phliosophers who argue about whether or not phenomenal consciousness exists, there are dueling philosophers who argue about whether or not it matters to kill cows to eat them. Some of them think that killing a cow to eat her is wrong, others that it is okay. To contrast this, if you put five rocks in a pile, nobody thinks that knocking the pile over matters. There are no “preserve five rock pile” advocates and “who cares about knocking over rock pile” advocates. But there are when it comes to the life of a cow. Some think ending the cow’s life is morally permissible. Others think ending the cow’s life matters. Maybe you can do it but it’s not something you should take lightly.
Now what would happen if we construed this debate as the presence or absence of the quality of moral mattering within a cow?
Supposing we agreed that killing a cow matters in a way that knocking over a pile of five rocks does not matter?
Would it make sense to say there is a quality of “moral mattering” within the cow?
Would it make sense to ask the question “could there be a cow that was molecule by molecule a replica of a morally-mattering cow, one that to outside observers was indistinguishable from a cow, but which didn’t matter?” In other words, a significance-zombie?
In some sense I find hard to say very clearly the dispute between the zombie-advocates and the zombie-deniers is as mixed-up as this dispute over the permissible killability of a cow.