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April 20, 2008


Eliezer, are you by any chance a fan of the Silent Hill videogame franchise? Those zombie nurses strongly remind me of those games.

This needs to be turned into a short film. Now!

Eliezer, could you please define epiphenomenal?

Eliezer, is this enlightenment or foil-seeking? You don't seem to be addressing the strongest discussions of uncertainty regarding the subjective conscious experience, which is where the action should be in a blog community this relatively ingtelligent. It seems to me you're looking for easy foils to slay, sort of like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Randi (and before them, Gould). I think that's sucking up discussion oxygen here, and'll end up driving away the more intelligent posters to other online venues. Worst case scenario, it'll help dampen interesting discussion by smart people, like was done for years regarding the distribution and heritability of intelligence (in this case regarding the subjective conscious experience and discernment technology).

I think Dennett would be flattered!

Hopefully Anonymous, if you think a point should be addressed, make that point.

I say Eliezer has finally dealt with the zombie issue as it deserves.

It's a silly idea that invites convoluted discussion, which makes it look sophisticated and hard to refute.

You don't seem to be addressing the strongest discussions of uncertainty regarding the subjective conscious experience,

Oh? And what are those, exactly? Be specific.

Our universe does not contain 'subjective' things, at least in the formal sense of the word. It contains only objective things, some of which are more or less accessible to limited human perception / technological detection.

The zombie idea isn't only wrong. It's also stupid. If you can't inhibit your innate sense that "minds are magic" long enough to recognize that your intuition is baseless and rather silly, you have utterly failed as an intellectual being.

Oh, and before I forget: the definition of epiphenomenalism

Please note that by this definition, declaring an epiphenomenon to be real has absolutely no implications for 'material reality' that declaring it to be unreal doesn't also have, and vice versa. In other words, it doesn't exist relative to material reality at all.

Trying to use it to explain the properties of material reality is therefore pointless.

"There exist sophisticated arguments for philosophical zombies, but I won't tell you them!"

However, I also agree that enough attention has been paid to zombies, except for me it's on the basis that they're badly-founded from the start. However, a movie about an epiphenomenal virus is, in fact, far too funny not to enjoy. My only complaint is that the philosophers use real words, when we all know that real philosophers speak badly-mangled Latin mixed with made-up words.

This was very funny...

On more serious not, there is nothing wrong with zombie argument.
It just says that physicalism claims that you can a priori deduce the facts about conscious experience (e.g. if there is conscious experience/exactly what kind of conscious experience there is) from the physical facts about the system. Notice that 'a priori'. So, it is not just that we can come to know which physical facts are correlated with what facts about consciousness, or which physical phenomenon gives rise to consciousness, but that we can deduce like we deduce mathematical truths.

So, zombie argument just says, that given what our idea of physical system consist of now - i.e. the patterns of behavior of complex structures of elementary physical particles, governed by physical laws which take form of mathematical equations... you can't deduce anything like facts about conscious experience. So, it says, there is no way, without the knowledge based on the science which would relate this behavior to our conscious experience, that one could go from the description expressed in mathematical equations which relate different measurables of the systems, like position, energy, momentum, etc..., and A PRIORI deduce facts, like if there is conscious experience, or the facts about what kind of conscious experience one has.

"But 'physical' is not just what we know about the world now, it means everything that will be approachable by physical science in future also!"

Well, that's OK, but if those equations are still nothing but mathematical equations which show how different measurables relate, there is no way to start from THAT, and a priori deduce facts as e.g. there being conscious experience, or the facts about it. Again, it is not if we can scientifically know based on the physical facts if there is, or not conscious experience, and know again based on scientific research what kind of conscious experience there is.

It is about impossibility to deduce a priori this conscious experience, from descriptions which are in terms of concepts which are incommensurable with conscious experience. We might as well, try to deduce the mass of Earth solely from the Pythagorean Theorem.

"But... epiphenomenalism, the view that consciousness is epiphenomenon is silly"

Yes, it is. But that the zombie argument starts from some position taking some assumptions of physicalism and refusing others, and as a result has epiphenomenalism as conclusion, is nothing but reductio ad absurdum of those other assumptions which epiphenomenalism shares with physicalism.

Anyway... hope I don't spoil everyone's joy with the post, as it was pure comedy gold!

Best exchange:

GENERAL FRED: Are you sure?

SCIENTIST: As sure as we can be in the total absence of evidence.


Tanasije Gjorgoski, I don't quite understand the argument. Science doesn't "a priori deduce facts." It generates and tests explanatory structures that purport to account for observed regularities. Physicalism (ontological naturalism) isn't an a priori theory of scientific methodology; it's an induction from the success of the scientific project. (Science generally proceeds within a physicalist framework because physicalism has worked well, whereas its competitors haven't. Operationally, this means that when scientists grapple with the phenomenon, the presumption is that whatever scientific explanation there is to be had resides within the physicalist framework.) The zombie argument, then, is an a priori argument that seeks to defeat this induction over the phenomenon of consciousness.

Caledonian: "___ isn't only wrong. It's also stupid."

"If you can't _____, you have utterly failed as an intellectual being."

Brian Jaress: "I say Eliezer has finally dealt with the ___ issue as it deserves. It's a silly idea that invites convoluted discussion"

Dan: "However, I also agree that enough attention has been paid to _____, except for me it's on the basis that they're badly-founded from the start."

These type posts are part of why I suspect this whole string of posts has its root in foil-seeking, more than enlightenment. More of a search for a soft target that can still put up a bit of dialectical frisson, perhaps for some utility in-group building and hierarchical construction.

But it seems to me to be a less interesting use of this site than other posts and series of posts, including from Eliezer.

As for what I think are "the strongest discussions of uncertainty regarding the subjective conscious experience", please see my blog, as they feature heavily in recent posts there, and I've already discussed them more than once here on OB.

Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing if humanity was overcome by the zombie virus. I mean look at those skirts, they are very short, very!

Hi Q,

Science doesn't, and naturalism doesn't (commit to the claim that one can a priori get from physical facts to the facts about consciousness). But that is THE commitment of physicalism. Physicalism is not equal to science. It is just yet another metaphysical position. Physicalist's position is usually defined that *metaphysically there is no difference without metaphysical difference*. And the metaphysical necessity is a priori necessity. (Some try to say that physicalism doesn't need to claim a priori necessity, but only Kripkean a posteriori necessity, but that is , seems to me, really just hiding the commitment of a priori deduction. I could say more on this, if needed).

So, when person presents zombie argument, he doesn't give argument against science, nor physics, but against this metaphysical commitment of physicalism (defined as "no difference without physical difference). I wonder if lot of negative reactions to the zombie argument in this series of post is mixing up the naturalistic/scientific view on the world with the claims of physicalism. (Of course there is also the silly consequences of the epiphenomenalism, but as I said, we can take that as a reductio.)

Oops, that should be "metaphysically, there is no difference without physical difference". Sorry about that.

Laughed VERY loud here. And the zombie nurses picture was priceless. Big fan of Silent Hill here, as my nickname can attest...

HA: I think there's sort of a boundary between what you mean and what people are reading from your comments. Specifically, I don't know that you and the people you're arguing with mean the same things when you say "zombie", which kind of messes things up. Your definition of zombie appears to be nonstandard, and also really vague as expressed. I think the biggest problem, though, is that other people assume you mean one thing (basically the Chalmers version of "zombie") when I don't think that's precisely what you mean. If I've got your position at all right, it roughly boils down to the fact that "something funky seems to be going on in our heads that we don't really understand, and which a Turing test couldn't necessarily measure" - which I'd actually agree with, although I still find Chalmers' zombies to be dumb, illogical, question-begging, etc. Before getting into the finer points, it usually helps if everyone means the same thing by a given word, or at least knows who means what by it. Honestly, I'd suggest dumping the term "zombie" in favor of something else if you don't mean Chalmers' version because otherwise it will lead to misunderstandings.

Tanasije: It would be a lot easier to agree or disagree with you if I didn't have to decipher what precisely you mean by "metaphysical", "a priori", and so on. See, these words don't come loaded with hard-and-fast universal meanings, so when you use them you should probably define them or many responses are going to (continue to) come in the form of confusion.

Sorry Dan,

Let me try to explain those words, as they are very important for the zombie-argument to makes sense.

"Metaphysical" when talking about "metaphysical necessity" (or possibility), means that some claim is true, not because it happens to be a fact in this world, but that it is contradictory for it to be otherwise. An example would be e.g. that it is metaphysically necessary that if you have one and one more apple, you have two apples. So, when we talk about this kind of metaphysical necessities, we can have as examples truths from logic, mathematics, conceptual necessities (e.g. if we *define* bachelor as an unmarried male, it would be contradictory to claim that some bachelor is not male), etc... Because metaphysical truths are supposed to be true independent of the how the world happens to be, you don't need to know any particular fact from the everyday experience in order to know them, so their knowledge is independent from knowledge gained from particular experience, and that is what that other term - A PRIORI means.

The physicalist claim is now, that the facts about there being consciousness and exactly what consciousness it is, are metaphysically necessary given the physical facts about the same system. So, basically one claims that facts about consciousness follow (as in logic/math etc..) from physical facts (a priori). So, for physicalism the truth about consciousness *relation* to physical IS of the same nature as the nature of math truths, i.e. independent of the way the world happens to be.

Hope this helps.

"[Physicalism] is just yet another metaphysical position."

I don't think that's correct. Scientists presuppose naturalism when they study a phenomenon. For historical reasons, a special word has been coined for the standard presupposition when it is applied in the context of consciousness. That word is 'physicalism.' In this sense, physicalism is merely a sound methodological induction (as is the subsidiary induction that methodological naturalism tells us something about the likely ontological constitution of the world).

Alternatively, 'physicalism' is also the name for a philosophical project that aims to give a formal account of, or justification for, this presupposition (both in its methodological and ontological guises). There are some who insist that this philosophical physicalism somehow must amount to an a priori thesis, but by my lights there isn't any good reason to do so.


In most places I've seen where the physicalism was attacked or defended, it was in the terms of the supervenience (i.e. that metaphysically there is no difference without physical difference). Be it when physicalism is being attacked, or really defended by the physicalists. E.g. in relation to the zombie argument, or to the Jackson's knowledge argument.

But if you want to use "physicalism" synonymous with "naturalism", I can't really stop you. I guess we should then distinguish the discussions about "physicalism" in one sense, and "physicalism" in another sense. :) But anyway, zombie argument is not supposed to be against what you describe as "physicalism", so to argue that zombie argument fails to give arguments against it, is to miss its point.

Anyway, it seems to me that what you are describing is empiricism of Quinean type, and not physicalism.

I don't think that's correct. Scientists presuppose naturalism when they study a phenomenon.
No. When scientists find a phenomenon that doesn't fit into the current understanding of what the natural world can do, they change their understanding and expand the list of natural things.

What scientists DO presume is that the world can in some measure be described and understood.

Tanasije: That works, yes. Thanks for the clarification.

I call BS. I've been to open-source conferences, and I've never seen attractive women at them, zombie nurses or otherwise!

Good story, though.

Grant: I call BS. I've been to open-source conferences, and I've never seen attractive women at them, zombie nurses or otherwise!

maybe Eliezer has acquired groupies?

If you reread my recent posts, I think you'll find I've already stopped using "zombie" to describe what I'm talking about. Although I suspect many of the posters here have latched onto Chalmer's definition of zombie, not because it makes the most sense or is the most practical definition of the term, but because it makes it an easy foil, for reasons I've described above.

Or maybe it's because that is what the word 'zombie' is used to refer to in philosophy, and trying to redefine the term arbitrarily is pointless.

If you have a different concept you'd like to discuss, use a different term - or provide some good reasons for why you must adopt an already-existing term with an already-existing accepted meaning.

Tanasije, I'd say "Quinean empiricism" plus scientific realism (if I may sum those two) gives you physicalism, or something near enough. In any case, what is "supervenience" if not an account of what metaphysical naturalism is, on the one hand, or an explanation for the success of methodological naturalism, on the other?

(Yes, some scientists are in a sense metaphysically pluralist, since they grant or pressuppose the nonmateriality of abstract objects like mathematical entities or theories [profigately, in my view]. The point here, though, is that with respect to the phenomena they study as scientists, they presuppose physicalism.)

Chalmers gets the attention because his type of argument is both popular with philosophers and full of implied dualism (boo! hissss! dualism!). It's not so much foil-seeking as chasing the red cape, in my opinion. I would choose a nicer metaphor, but I seriously doubt any philosophers involved would change their opinion on the matter for any reason that's anything short of earth-shaking. For instance, if Chalmers caught an epiphenomenal virus ... but, yes, you get the idea.


I'm not sure you insist of calling this combination "physicalism", contra all those discussions of physicalism in philosophy. First, one can be empiricist and scientific realist, and not be physicalist. For example there is nothing contradictory in thinking that the all the beliefs are revisable in the light of new empirical data, and also believe that sciences give us explanation of the real world, and still not believe that that the mental phenomena can be deduced from the physical facts. Of course you may be a physicalist, who also is scientific realist and Quinean empiricist, but it is good to keep on mind that those are not equal.

You point to the status of disciplines like math and logic, but it is not just that. Biologists and cognitive psychologists are scientists no? But they don't have to have any particular belief of how the phenomena they research are related to the level of e.g. elementary particles.

I would point to what Caledonian said...
"What scientists DO presume is that the world can in some measure be described and understood."

I think that nicely captures the science in general as not committed to a certain metaphysical view.

I'll discuss this further on my blog, including addressing all of Caledonian's concerns in his latest post in this thread (actually, I think I've already done that on my blog), so as not to hijack/flood this thread with further posts.

Make this a South Park episode.

Is there a genre of Daniel Dennett fan fiction yet, or is it still in its infancy?

the story continued...

The XXII World Congress of Philosophy 2008 inaugurated emergency gathering to solve this philosophical zombie problem.

Chalmers: We must find the neural correlates of consciousness.

Searle: No, lock them up in the Chinese room and see if they "understand" Chinese.

Kim: No, we must find the condition for these zombies to supervene consciousness again.

Putnam & Fodor: No, we should make consciousness to be not reducible to physics. Let's make these philosophical zombies multiply realizable!

Paul & Patricia Churchland: It's all over, everyone. Folk psychology is completely lost in them. They are all goners...

Turing: First thing is first. Make them write a Turing test and let's see if they are zombies or not.

McGinn: Fuck it. Chalmers is right. We cannot solve the Hard Problem of consciousness.

Tanasije, you said "Quinean empiricism," not empiricism simpliciter. Quine was at least epistemologically physicalist (to whatever degree physicalism can be so restricted), so I thought adding realism made the point cleanly enough.

Anyway, I'm arguing that the reason successful, productive scientists presume "the world can in some measure be described and understood" is that they presuppose a rough-and-ready physicalism with regard to the phenomenon they study. (As I see it, the lack of any scientifically productive appeal to "intrinsic properties" or the like as an explanans is suggestive enough.) The claim, then, that there's no logical contradiction in doing otherwise is beside the point I was making.

I'll otherwise submit. Last word's yours if you want it.

I think you need to explain what you mean by "physical" facts.

What are some examples of things that you consider physical, and what examples are not? What defines that category and contrasts it with things not within it?

Foil-seeking/attacking soft targets can be useful for clearly demonstrating a point (Follow The Improbability, here).

I still can't stop laughing at "BRIDGING LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCY".

The current plotline of Battlestar Galactica is not entirely unlike this movie. Which is one reason I find this allegedly superior show rather unsatisfying.

Haha, this was great. I think you pulled the punch on one of your jokes, though. You should have added, "...at the middle of humanity as we know it."

You mean to tell me that I spent my entire weekend at PenguiCon with... Zombies?! Perhaps it's best that no one else knew, otherwise one particularly trigger-happy member of the panel on "Surviving a Zombie Apocalypse" probably would have shot all attendees in the head at least once, just to be safe.


Perhaps the most embarrassing part about all of this--and there is much embarrassing in silly insults aimed at one's opposition being thrown around at a blog named "Overcoming Bias"--is that epiphenomenalists know the arguments, know quite well the apparent absurdity of the position, and have responses, and none of these seem to show up in all this discussion. For example, here. Alas, rather what we have here seems to be a gleeful variant of Ludditism: "Look at those fancy philosophers with their logic and their rationality and their big words! What a bunch of assholes!" Presuming one's opposition is stupid does not strike me as a reliable or respectable means of converging on the truth.

One gets the feeling that Overcoming Bias is to bias as O'Reilly's No Spin Zone is to spin.

Seeing something substantial addressed, as opposed to a secondhand reading, would be useful in that it would 1. move the discussion forward, and 2. show some evidence that the poster has actually taken the time to read the opposition and consider its best arguments.

It doesn't just appear to be nonsense. It actually is nonsense.

And that is the crux of the problem right there. The intellectual standards of academic philosophy are incredibly low, and as usual the Law of the Minimum applies. It takes real effort to exceed Sturgeon's Law, but the field of philosophy has managed to do so.

Actual philosophical thought, as opposed to mere sophistry with a new hat, comes from people working in disciplines that have high standards for consistency, coherence, and permittable evidence. Their professional work has illuminated questions that 'philosophy' left in darkness for a thousand years - and because they possess skill at thinking, and have developed that skill through meeting those standards, their amateur philosophy is still infinitely better than the 'professionals'.

In this manner, philosophers have demonstrated the dangers of being self-righteous, of setting for yourself the standards that you strive to meet. They have done this by becoming an object lesson.

"In this manner, philosophers have demonstrated the dangers of being self-righteous[...]"

Cal, you're really not helping our cause here.

What? They're absurd! Why should we not point, and laugh, at their folly?

For the record, I am no kind of righteous, self- or otherwise.

@ mtraven; can you expand an the similarities between this blog post and BSG? That would be very interesting.

It's possible that you're right, but the evidence increasingly seems to be that you're pretending to knowledge and certainty about both academic philosophy and the physical sciences that's unjustified based on your level of competency or literacy in either field. In that sense, your skepticism about the level of useful contributions to enlightenment by recent academic philosophy could, by your own standards, be reasonably turned towards your skepticism about those claimed contributions.

As for me, I'm woefully illiterate about the recent work of academic philosphy and (compared to the best contributors in the OB community) about the recent work of physical scientists. Also, my skill levels are such that I lack the core competencies to understand the recent work of physical scientists (which I suspect is math skills at the level of someone with a masters in applied math). That may apply to the recent work of academic philosophers too (not sure what those core competencies would be, separate from literacy of recent work done in that field). I hope to rectify this, particularly my current level of competency in applied math, but that's where I stand at the present time.

It might help our assessments of your posts, Caledonian, if you also share your level of competencies and literacy in these fields, transparently, with your fellow community members.

It's possible that you're right, but the evidence increasingly seems to be that you're pretending to knowledge and certainty about both academic philosophy and the physical sciences that's unjustified based on your level of competency or literacy in either field.

Ah, I see where you've become confused. What you're asking for is credentials, not competency. Richard has credentials. I have competency.

The question them becomes: how can one demonstrate competence in the absence of credentials, when your audience doesn't have the level of competence to which you're laying claim? It's easy when the argument whether, say, heavier-than-air flight is possible - you simply build the flying machine, and convincing the opposition of the wrongness of their argument is accomplished, even if they can't comprehend the flaw in their position. When you're dealing with highly abstract verbal arguments, though, the inability of the opposition to perceive the wrongness with their arguments is generally insurmountable. If they could perceive the problem, the conflict itself wouldn't be taking place.

What has academic philosophy accomplished, HA? I can answer that question for physics, mathematics, neurology, chemistry, psychology, engineering - for practically any established field you can name - without needing more than a few moments to think of examples. What can you offer for academic philosophy?

Take all the time you need.

"Richard has credentials. I have competency."

Funny. Again, just out of curiosity, what is your basis for thinking yourself philosophically competent? A self-gratifying intuition, perhaps? (Credentialing by acknowledged experts, though an imperfect guide, is at least some protection against quackery.) I haven't even seen you make an argument, let alone a good one; all you do is make unsupported assertions and attempt to ridicule people who know more than you do. You appear to suffer delusions about your own abilities and the extent of your understanding. (As you say, "the inability... to perceive the wrongness with their arguments is generally insurmountable" -- what puzzles me is why this doesn't make you more humble about your own intuited greatness, given that nobody else is nearly so impressed.)

Now, you change the subject by shifting the burden to others, asking them to list the accomplishments of academic philosophy. (It's beyond dispute that our understanding of thousands of philosophical problems has advanced significantly in the past century -- just browse through any entry of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or my own dozen favourite 'Examples of Solved Philosophy' -- though of course philosophical progress does not readily translate into technological progress the way that progress in other disciplines can.)

The question HA is raising (and that I can readily confirm) is that you do not seem to know what you are talking about. From what I can tell, you are completely ignorant of the field of philosophy and the work that goes on in it; so there is no reason for anyone to take seriously the unargued denunciations you offer from on high. You don't even know what it is that you're denouncing. You are to philosophy what young earth creationists are to biology.

Of course, if you offer a reasoned argument then others may consider it on its merits. (Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and all that.) But you lack the authority to make mere assertions and expect anyone to take your ignorant pontificating seriously. That's all.

From what I can tell, you are completely ignorant of the field of philosophy and the work that goes on in it;
Because there is no work that goes on in it!
But you lack the authority to make mere assertions
There is no amount of authority that justifies mere assertions. It wouldn't matter if I descended directly from Heaven on a sunbeam, carrying a potted burning bush and the Reader's Digest Condensed Edition of the Ten Commandments on pocket-sized tablets. Authority is not a concept that determines the validity of arguments.

Caledonian, perhaps if you had taken even a high school philosophy course, you would have learned that to dismiss the worth of philosophy is to engage in philosophy. I'm not sure whether your comments deserve to be ignored or mocked. They're that ridiculous.

OK Caledonian,
I think it would help to make explicit your position (others too but first yours) tell me how much I have right....

1) you think that there can be philosophical progress (i.e. not the strong position being argued against above)

2) you think that progress tends not to happen in the field of philosophy (I presume because of how philosophy forms free floating ideas rather than ones 'grounded' by their attachment to empirical evidence)
- the practical implication being that philosophy should no expect answers to some questions before groundwork is done in other areas.

3) you evaluate 'progress' and 'useful' in a different way to Richard and HA, Richard would find a interesting logical debate 'useful' you would ask if the logic can be used to make a car or feed the hungry or whatever. to get slightly more philosophical - maybe it is 'empirically verifiable truth'?

4) To try to use data created by a feild you dont trust to create good data to prove that the feild doesn't create good data seems unlikely to be unproductive (shutting the door to the 'why don't you argue from the literature').

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