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 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.



Books and Gods, Gourds and Trees

The sages tell of three scholars or Qazis studying at a madrassah called “The Merciful” in Xinjian China named Li, He, and Shih.  Said Li: I am sure there is a book that answers the riddles of my life — who is Li?  What is Li for?  but I fear this book will be written after I die, and I will live my life in darkness.  Said He: Don’t worry because Heaven Your Father would not allow you to die before reading such a book.  Said Shih: Live your life in peace for there is not and never will be such a book.

When the fort of Xinjian fell before the Turks the three acquired a spaceship that was able to travel to the moon of Saturn Enceladus.  There they experienced wonders too many to relate even if the seas were ink and the fish were pens, but chief among these wonders were the Enceladans a people who were completely vegetable although they could walk and talk and converse as beings endowed with reason do, as you and I.

The Enceladans did not learn from reading but absorbed the fruit of certain trees or Gourds that when they consumed them merged with their mental apparatus and caused them to understand things which previously were dark to them.  The three scholars met three vegetable scholars named Aleph, Beta, and Tau.

Said Aleph: I am sure there is a gourd which when I consume it will answer my questions –who is Aleph and what is he for?  But this gourd will not flower until after I wilt, and I will grow and wilt in darkness.

Said Beta: Put your mind at rest.  You, and I and the stars and the moon and great Saturn itself are fruit of the All Tree, which is merciful, and this tree would not allow you to flourish and wilt before consuming the gourd which contains the answer to your riddle.

Said Tau: There is no gourd, there is no tree.


Hildegard of Bingen Says Evil Began When Satan on His Plunge from Heaven Through Empty Space Tried to Reach Out His Hand and Grasp the Emptiness

I think this is an excellent point.  Take the evil of bragging, a mild version of the evil of lying.  The braggart is overstating what is good about himself in order to trick us into esteeming him.  He is trying to  steal love and respect by fraud, albeit a mild fraud .

In Hildegard’s image, heaven is a state of mutual acknowledgment.  In heaven I flourish and you acknowledge my flourishing, and you flourish and I acknowledge and love your flourishing.   Satan is that aspect of humanity which finds itself lost or thrown out of this  world of mutual acknowledgment.  The Satanic soul feeling somehow cut off from this world of mutual love and acknowledgment tries to force it from others or trick them out of it.

When Satanic we are reaching out for acknowledgment but we are reaching out towards a state of disconnection and emptiness.    We are trying to comfort ourselves with a hug, but since we are lying, or overstating what we wish to acknowledge, no real hug comes back.  We are trying to force free acknowledgment.  The evil action comes apart into two things — an actual desire for acknowledgment and the perverse attempt to get that acknowledgment through trickery, which makes it misfire.

We are so to speak, hugging nothingness.

At least he reached out to try to grab something!  If Satan on the way down to Hell had given up on even trying to reach out and grab something, he would be really lost.  Although to be honest even saying to yourself “I’m not going to reach out and grab anything” is an attempt to reach out and grab something in thought, a sort of hugging of yourself.  Your self in its emptiest aspect.


To Care or Not To Care?

The ancient philosophers suggested the best goal of human life was a state of ataraxia, or not caring.  It may have been a trick to get beyond the fear of death — if you don’t care about anything you have no reason to be afraid of death.  To which the response — if you don’t care about death then kill yourself and you’ll get what you want — a state where you don’t care — soon enough, is not unfair.  If the pain is fear of death and the medicine is ataraxia and ataraxia is to be as unfeeling and uncaring as a corpse, the cure is not just no better than the disease, it is just is the disease.

Another worry is that ataraxia is a philosophy for slaves, viz. those who can’t adjust their fate and therefore had better adjust themselves to accepting it.  One of the philosophers who embraced it was a literal slave — Epictetus.  His student, Marcus Aurelius, was politically an emperor, but probably saw himself as a slave to circumstance.  Ataraxia on this view is lemonade from political lemons, which is not so bad, unless you think it is also a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Decide not to care about making your life better and be sure that you will not make it better.  A classical critic of the Epicureans said they were eunuchs, and asked what can you do with such people?  Once you’ve decided nothing matters, you certainly will never be convinced otherwise, because to be convinced requires that something matter to you.  A master who wants no trouble would be wise to teach his slaves to be philosophers.

A proverb says whoever wins in the fight is the one who cares less.  Not entirely true — the person who cares the least doesn’t actually participate in the fight, but lets the other person take whatever he wants without contesting it.  The other proverb is that whoever wins in the fight is the one who cares more.  Not entirely true — if you care too much the other person has no incentive to compromise.  He can use your care against you.  On the internet the troll excites his caring peers with outrageous statements and then withdraws to enjoy the damage and eat another hot-pocket.  It may be that these questions are only discussed by those who care about them, as those who don’t wouldn’t bother to discuss them.

One excellent point of the ancient philosophers is that we should not care about stupid things, or allow the psychologically damaged parts of ourselves to concoct fantasies that mislead us.  Faced with histrionic, attention-grabbing evil it is a wise counsel to find it not so interesting.  The evil narcissist feeds off our interest after all and becomes strong when we care to take his issues as our own.  Better to view the narcissist as a part of nature, like a thunderstorm or a colony of ants, and not to let him trick us into caring.   “He’s on t.v. all the time!” we complain, but who says we need to watch t.v.?

“What kind of life is worth living?” and “Who or what is worth loving?” are questions worthy of a free man or woman’s passionate engagement.  In contrast the personality of particular villains who force themselves onto our news feeds is not worthy of deep inquiry. What gives with this particular selfish villain? is not a question beneath contempt exactly, but it corresponds in the house to the bathroom — an out-of-the-way space for the elimination of harmful waste — and not to the more noble living quarters, bedroom, library, and study.

Ataraxia is not a good goal, but it is a great tool. The notion that nothing is worth caring about shines a bright light on the important question — what is worth caring about?  That’s important and the advice of the ancients helps us see that. The sooner we detach the important questions from the unimportant questions, the quicker we learn to care about what’s important.  It lets us flush the villains in the detached businesslike uncaring fashion that they deserve, and get on with focussing on what’s worth it.


News from Queen Anne’s Island: Who is a Racist? Who is a Cannibal?

Queen Anne’s Island was settled by an offshoot of the Australasian expansion in the first milennium B.C.E.  A small party of European convicts landed in the early nineteenth century and subsisted by cannibalism of the native population.  The descendants of the convicts continued to practice cannibalism of the natives until in World War II the island became a refueling station for the US Navy and after the war a British colonial officer (Sir Jeffry Pauly, a distant cousin of the physicist) established a parliamentary government.

Before departing Sir Pauly instituted the following rules to foster the growth of democracy and the mutual respect and civility which undergird that noble form of self-rule


It is forbidden to say that anybody on the island deserves to be food for anybody else or is fated by God or genetics to be a meal


It is forbidden to accuse anybody of being genetically predisposed to cannibalism.

The prominent convict-descended ideologue and politician “ROUGH WILLY” has never said anything remotely racist or cannibalistic.  Some natives suspect him — maybe most — because he owns a collection of human cook books.   However Rough Willy’s supporters accuse the natives of violating the rule of civil society which states you cannot accuse your fellow citizens of racism and cannibalism.

I myself find cannibalism morally repugnant.  I follow the golden rule in its epistemic variety “That which I would not want others to think of me, do not think of them.”  So I hesitate to call Rough Willy and his rough supporters crypto-cannibals.  After all, if I am quick to call others cannibals, doesn’t that suggest in my own mind the cannibal lurks uncomfortably close to the surface?

My girlfriend Dawn says quite the opposite.  She is a vegan, but she says if she were a cannibal she would be smart enough to lie about it to get the good government jobs.  She views the smallest infraction on the part of Willy and his crew — e.g. the recent “Ape Feast” where they dressed great apes in human clothes, then slaughtered them and feasted on their flesh in a giant party/BBQ — as a sign we are dealing with unreconstructed anthropophagi.

I deny this. If we call each other cannibals what hope is there for democracy and the rule of law on Saint Anne’s?  My neighbor Joshua supports Willy and seems perfectly happy living on beef, lamb, turkey and chicken.  Some day I mean to ask him what he means when he says he misses “the good old days.”


“My Dog is Sweet” vs. “Sugar is Sweet”

Sir Edward Wallace, Duke of Cornwall

My dog is sweet.

Lady Carmen Dalrymple-Montagu

Not literally.  Literally only sugar is sweet.

Sir Edward Wallace, Duke of Cornwall

Not so fast, Lady CDM.   My dog makes me feel happy.  Sugar makes me feel happy.

Lady Carmen Dalrymple-Montagu

Oh but you evolved to seek calories and those feelings of happiness mean “here is sugar.”

Sir Edward Wallace, Duke of Cornwall

Oh but I was evolved to seek love, and those feelings of happiness mean “here is my sweet puppy.”



Everything is Possible

Roy Sorensen argues in his Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities that we know “everything is possible” cannot be true.  Because if it were true, then one of the things that was possible would be to make some thing impossible, and somebody would have done that, and therefore it would on longer be true that everything is possible.  Or maybe it’s not possible to make something impossible.  In that case something is impossible, namely to make something impossible.

And yet it is clearly a good pragmatic maxim to believe that something is possible, because to believe that it impossible will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Our own incapacity should not limn our vision of what is possible.

“Everything is possible” is one of those sentences which is difficult to evaluate in a special way.  The way that “everything is possible” is hard to evaluate  elucidates the kind of thing we are.   It shows a certain limitation to our self-understanding.  What is possible and what is necessary are conflicting pulls on the sort of thing that we are and as we become aware of the two different pulls on interpreting it — “Everything is possible” is true and “Everything is possible” is false — we realize there are two pulls on us, on the kind of thing we are, and on the kind of thing we become.

Depending upon who we are certain things are possible and certain things are impossible.  But could we become something different for which more things are possible that seems to us now as we are to be impossible.  Absolutely.  And yet if there were nothing that were necessary for us, there would be nothing that made us, us.  If I could just as easily become someone who loves everything I hate and hate everything I love, then what am I at that point?  Nothing specific, which means nothing at all.

It’s hard to use these words.  When we reflect upon them we reflect upon the limits of our own capacity to reflect.  In that sense our use of these words — “possible” and “impossible” and “necessary” — are a bit like searchlights,  searchlights that simultaneously go out into the world and into ourselves.  Like lights they illuminate the direction in which we can change, and shade off into a penumbra of that which is barely us, but could be.  Interesting slippery words — possible, necessary, self, good, I, us.  They seem to all affect each other and all to be pulled in different directions.  It’s hard to keep one’s head when dealing with them.  Hard, but possibly not impossible!