Phenomenal Consciousness, Permissible Killability

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 so such 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.



25 thoughts on “Phenomenal Consciousness, Permissible Killability

  1. Bob says:

    The zombie idea is pretty crazy, as you say, but doesn’t Chalmers also think that it’s not a physical possibility (in our world) but only a logical possibility? That is, the “something” isn’t something that gets “added” – that’s where he talks about supervenience.

      • To say there may be additional supervening facts is to say something that sounds quite plausible, after all there have been supervening facts before, but to argue for the impossibility or absence of unknown supervening facts seems unreasonably bold.

      • Bob says:

        I don’t think Chalmers is saying that the “extra facts” explain anything. He is saying that the extra facts *are what needs to be explained*, and that functionalism can only claim to be an adequate explanatory framework by pretending that those extra facts don’t exist.

      • Is he saying that there could be a guy running around writing blog posts, playing with my dog, just like me but he has no consciousness? And the extra fact that needs to be explained is that I run around and play with my dog and write blog posts and I do have consciousness? It strikes me as an odd “fact” about me, since nobody can ever observe it and it has by definition no effect on anything. I guess you can call it a fact, but it’s so weird I think admitting it exists and denying it exists amount to the same thing. Who cares if you pretend it doesn’t exist? Why would it matter? What’s to be gained by saying “it exists!”? For all I know the people who say “It exists!” actually mean “It doesn’t exist!” and vice versa. Whole dispute seems weird.

      • strange idea that there could be somebody out there just like me but for whom nothing ever happens and for whom nothing matters. it’s hard to see exactly what it is to imagine such a being. seems confused.

      • Why? I mean, parse it in terms of darwinism. This somebody goes through the steps that will keep him fed and warm, then see him have children and see them fed and warm. This somebodies genes get passed on and it works for generations like this (barring where individually they fail Darwinistic trials)

        It works for hundreds of thousands of years.

        Why is something that can work for hundreds of thousands of years somehow confusing?

        I mean, I’m taking it you’re treating it that a positive charge on synaptic wires doesn’t count as something mattering for the somebody.

      • I don’t think Darwin has much to say on these issues. From a Darwinian perspective bacteria are the most successful organisms. But I would not want to be a bacterium — sounds really boring. Same for a proton. There are more protons than anything else — they stick around for practically forever. But I’d rather be me than a proton.

      • Unless Darwin thought brains developed by some other process other than Darwinism (source?), I think Darwin had everything to say on these issues.

      • There are a lot of ways that brains, or anything else develop. Darwin just explains one dimension of it. For example, one thing human beings can do with our brains is answer the question “what is one plus one” with the answer “two”. Part of the reason why we are able to do that is because, as Darwin points out, we have developed through a process of natural selection. Another part of the reason is that 1+1=2. Darwin doesn’t have much to say about the true, the beautiful, or the good, although he has a lot to say about biological systems can develop given random mutation and selection. Some people say “okay but that’s just because what’s true, beautiful, or good is subjective — we just make it up.” This is just a dodge though.

      • I dunno about 2

        What if 2 was something that just came up in terms of mutation – a particular response, like liking sugar is a particular response. And 2 just made for more survivals? I mean, you take it as some kind of ontological reality, but what if it’s just a kind of reflex?

        I’ll lay my cards on the table – I don’t raise the idea because I think it’s great to think, it’s mostly to raise the idea because various corporations are chugging towards exploiting ontological certainties in the many for the benefit of a scant few people.

        Darwin doesn’t have much to say about the true, the beautiful, or the good

        Well, Madame Curie didn’t have much to say about nukes, but really she began opening the door for them.

        Some people say “okay but that’s just because what’s true, beautiful, or good is subjective — we just make it up.” This is just a dodge though.

        I appreciate being anticipated! Though it’s not spot on – I’d say WE are made up, then what derives from that, derives from that. We don’t make meaning. In fact I’m probably just as skeptical of the ‘man the meaning maker’ claims some folk make as you are. That probably still registers as a dodge for you, but I’m just clarifying.

        So, if ‘we are made up’ is still a dodge, why is that a dodge?

  2. The idea that what it is to be a human being could be captured by outside observers is crazy.

    Those outside observers are human as well – do they capture what it is to be the humans they are at the same time?

    What’s crazy is going from someone one human captured/known, but other humans who…still don’t know/capture themselves. It’s a recursion issue – and one that is probably the cause of qualia and suchlike. Because a single brain is in the same position as those observer humans as they capture another human, it can only know part of itself, and then there’s this part that is off the radar because that part is the one that is monitoring the other part.

    The thing is as humans we are used to dealing with things, not virtual objects. So yeah, it makes it seem there is some actual ‘moral mattering’ in the cow, like someone took a bucket of moral mattering and painted the cow with it. The attribution of ‘mattering’ can’t fully be tracked by the brain that is generating the virtual attribute, so it seems a physical thing.

    but since this is a blog post that only a couple of dozen people will ever read

    Doesn’t stop Scott Bakker!

    • it’s funny I am worried about the same thing but I feel like the idea that life is just about sex and survival is used to oppress people these days. I suppose any idea can be used to oppress people if you are motivated and unscrupulous enough.

      • Where?! When my bank yet again offers me a credit card so I can get in debt with them, they don’t say ‘You are about just sex and death!”. When advertising attempts to belittle me so I shame buy, it doesn’t say ‘You are but sex and death!”, they show off all the things ‘normal’ people have, all the color and movement that I don’t have.

        I’ve seen it nowhere – I’m genuinely excited to see an example!? And if it’s a fact, how on earth can you oppress with a fact, anyway? The oppressor isn’t in charge of a fact, the fact is. How is the oppressor an oppressor when he’s not in charge?

        Corporations use the very opposite of ‘you are but a beast of sex and death’ to harvest the fields of people. Flattery seems the means of oppression – one that actually works!

        Where are some examples of ‘you’re just about sex and death’ being used to oppress? Hell, even dictatorships don’t do that!

        It’s no fun to think about, but cognitive science implimented by corporations is going down the path of making even less fun situations to think of. They can do it because no one wants to think about it – straight under the radar.

    • Corps spend a lot of money on ads to make people think the products will make them sexier. Then for older people they spend a lot of money for ads to make people think they will live longer. And there’s a lot of corporate manipulation devoted to making money based on instilling the belief that people can create more chances for their children — toys, education etc.

      • I don’t understand – are you saying people have some notion they are (atleast to a fair extent) extensions of evolved behaviors in regards to sex and death, but then they buy these products anyway, for some reason?

        I’d agree that’s exactly what the corps are targeting. But it doesn’t come with an education campaign – much like cigarettes didn’t come with an education campaign about cancer, at least initially.

        Do people really know the instinctual, cave man thinking that’s being targeted for triggering in them like a scientist targets behaviors in a lab rat for triggering? Or do they think themselves kind of loftier than that, more than that – especially as every product they buy has advertising telling them they are more and should believe in themselves?

        Again, I agree the corps are targeting exactly what you’re saying. I just don’t get your point in saying it? Are you saying everyone’s very educated on this matter already?

  3. Very interesting! I like the “five rock pile” vs cow thought. But how about comparing a pile of five rocks to a cluster of five cells? And comparing a cow to a cluster of a trillion rocks that interact in such a way as to be conscious? The correspondence isn’t living tissue vs non-living tissue, but complexity vs lack of complexity. After all, you can making a Turing machine out of hydraulics, marbles, anything at all. Electricity is better because it’s faster, but that’s a parochial consideration. You could say that, just as there is no such thing as “living” matter, there is no such thing as “unliving” matter. Livingness is a characteristic of complex structures, which can be made of anything.

    • I can take three people and build some kind of complicated mechanism out of them, one that is more complicated than any of them is individually. Nevertheless breaking this mechanism apart doesn’t matter. but if I take one person and cut off his head it matters a bunch! So I don’t think complexity is where it’s at.

      • Hmmm. Interesting. With ants or eusocial creatures (naked mole rats are my favorite), you need some kind of critical mass of them to make a colony, which is its own kind of creature. And if the group of three humans is a team or family, it might matter very much. But, yes, you’ve confused me. I guess that’s why I’m not a philosopher…

      • Could you do that with famous art – take three and combine them together? Or would that matter a whole bunch?

        Strange in comparison if combining three people somehow comes off as not mattering?

  4. I could create a piece of art that works like this. You press a button and a random number generator causes it to either 1plays Beethoven’s ninth symphony
    2)Play Handel’s Messiah or
    3)Print out a marble copy of Michelangelo’s David.

    I call this piece of art “Kaplan’s Oratorio”.

    I think this piece of art is
    a)more complicated than any of the pieces of art that make it up and
    b)less valuable than them.

    So I conclude that greater complexity does not entail greater value.

    • I think the word “value” is a red herring here, and confusing. Value in the art world has absolutely nothing to do with complexity – see minimalism, for instance, or diamonds. I think the question is about consciousness and complexity. We value consciousness (particularly our own!) and (I think it likely) consciousness is an emanation of computational complexity (probably dependent on some additional characteristics… iterative functions, blah blah blah, Gödel, and many other things I don’t understand but read about in a magazine once). So we indirectly value the complexity of our built-in computers.

  5. I spend a great deal of time dealing with the ethics of killing. Let’s give a very abstract hypothetical scenario, You are a fighter pilot in the air on patrol, and there is a pilot who has had a terrible heart attack and now he is almost completely incapacitated. His auto pilot is currently sending the plane into a certain path into a crowded school full of children that cannot be evacuated in time. Let us say there is a sensor in all planes in this scenario, so that we can tell that the pilot is not dead, but simply incapacitated, by his vitals. So, as the man capable of blowing up the plane safely before it hits the ground, what is the ethical and moral complications, and final decision? By blowing up the plane, you will certainly kill a man, over actions that are no longer under his control, to certainly save lives on the ground.

    There could be much hand wringing and dilemma for many. Thou shalt not kill. The life of the pilot is still precious. He is not dead yet, and if something could be done the life of the pilot could theoretically be saved, if we could divert the plane, somehow land it, nearly impossible perhaps, but maybe!? There is doubt in some people’s minds about the ethical choice, even when fairly clear.

    Let’s now assume we have a pilot who has died from his heart attack, then after death, slumped forward in his seat onto the controls, which then aimed the airplane at the school. Is this a zombie? Dead man at the controls, was his action of falling forward and directing the plane the act of a zombie? Is this a zombie aircraft with a zombie pilot? In the very least, we won’t find anyone fighting about blowing up the plane as the fighter pilot, any different the then pile of rocks. Suddenly our ethical plight is no more, and our choice is simple, dead simple. We aren’t killing anyone, just destroying a plane and the corpse of a former person.

    We can go a million ways in every direction with this one. Schrodinger’s cat of no sensor or contact from the plane, and we, at different times from the last contact from the pilot, can assume nothing, perhaps he had a heart attack or stroke, perhaps he had a psychotic break, perhaps he had a heart attack and is not dead, perhaps the pilot is dead, perhaps this is an intentional attack? A close to zombie psychopath, all the way to a dead body that moved on its own, and everything else in between. There are cases in which we can’t know what the pilot is or is doing. This brings us to the main point in the ethics of all of this.

    Are we killing the pilot because he is already dead, dying, beyond saving, deranged, or are we simply killing to save lives? We don’t justify the killing so much because the pilot is dead or dying, but rather because we need to save more lives on the ground. We are doing it for the children’s sake, so our choice will be the same regardless. We will blow that plane to bits, wither the pilot is alive and well and aiming on purpose, incapacitated, or controlled by a dead man.

    If we look at the over used, beat to death genre of zombie plague end of the world stories, comics, movies, shows, games, ect., we see a chance to look at this in an ethical perspective very well. Are the zombies living dead, in which case they are just walking corpses like our dead plane pilot? Are they infected and sick people who have lost their minds to such an extent that they are not longer truly consious in the human sense? Have they lost so much of their functioning mind they are no longer truly human? Or, do we say that if the disease is incurable, these people are lost, or if the disease is terminal and incurable like rabies, that we are just speeding up to the forgone conclusion?

    The ethics of this situation and the discussion of the zombie eventually comes back down to innocent life as well. If a person is being attacked by these infected hordes, is he putting zombies out of their misery, or simply protecting innocent life? He will say that he has not time to consider it, and even if he did the conclusion is all the same, whatever the zombie is, its killing is ethical, because the killing is to save innocent life, and that’s the final deciding factor. Wither or not he can be restored to normalcy and health, the zombie can be justifiably be killed if the zombie is trying to maul another person to death, in that moment, until the threat has ceased.

    If I saw an innocent person being attacked with a knife or a gun, I would not hesitate to pull my 357 Magnum and put a bullet clean through the attacker’s heart. In that moment, we are trying to save innocent life, and we will prevent the loss of that life. In that moment, the attacker has made the choice to compromise innocent life and blood, and we will choose the life of the innocent over the life of the aggressor, especially in that moment of attack. If he stops, we don’t shoot him, and handle the attacker from there. The prime value is life, and we preserve it, and will kill for it, if it seems ironic. We are not concerned so much with the zombification of the attacker so much as his aggression and attack and threat to real life.

    But, i digress, back to the subject of the zombie itself.

    Is the person defined by his vitals, his consciousness, or his soul granted by God? If so, what is the zombie, truly? Is the zombie the living dead that walk, a corpse that happens to act, or a corpse directed and programmed? Is it a man who has dropped to a level of consciousness that is considered below what truly defines humanity and human consciousness? Is it a corpse or thing that walks without a soul?

    Is the man on bath salts, out of his mind, blacked out in a trance, acting insanely a temporary zombie? The sleep walker? The mans sick out of his mind, until he dies or heals back to consciousness? What about the man in a Jacksonian epilepsy during an episode? To act, to do things, to walk and talk, during a period of relative incapacity? Does the zombie have to be a being of complete incapacity of thought and self will, of true consciousness or high consciousness? Can a man be in a zombie like state temporarily? is zombie a state of absence of certain things that describe the man, or is it a thing?

    I agree with the notion that the zombie is almost impossible, even in any theory related to reality Machines won’t do anything, even with so called AI, which is just mechanical. Without feelings and drives, one would simply do nothing. Why walk the dog? Why smell the flowers? Why would machines want to take over anything, why would zombies? If they feel nothing, and care for nothing, there is no motive to do anything, so they would do nothing. A true zombie would sit and breathe until it died. Ask a machine why it would enslave humanity, and it would say “Why should I?” Without any feeling whatsoever, without desire, without input sense, there will be no impetus, there will be no action. The pure zombie would be nothing more than an organic rock that sits on the ground. Sure, things it in would physically move, but so do other things, like water falls, water freezing and melting, earth drying up, ect.

    Is the programmed animal with no will or consciousness of its own really a sentient being? If we hook up electricity to a corpse and made it walk the dog and smell the flowers, perhaps we have a lifeless, consciousless zombie. Is he really walking the dog? Is it a he anymore? He is programmed, timed and articulate, but so is a 350 small block Chevy. Does a machine become a zombie because it has parts that were once, or are, alive?

    In any case, good post as always.

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