A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

The Aliens and The Zombies

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on April 1, 2008

Update: Added words ‘given epiphenomenal metaphysics’ after ‘there is no plausible physical story of why would such thing happen’. That is obviously what I meant, but forgot to write, and it sounds very bad without it, especially given that I do claim that physicalists can give physical story in the next paragraphs. Of course that is, they can give physical story, given the physicalist metaphysics.

OK, after exchanging several comments on Richard Chappell’s blog, and apparently pissing him off (sorry Richard, didn’t intend to!), I’m pretty sure that I’m not explaining the whole issue right. As it seems the answer I get is – the zombie-people behave like normal people, because they were posited to behave same as normal people (given that both our and zombies behavior is fully determined by physical laws). And that answer doesn’t address the issue at all…

So, let me try to explain what I was requesting on few examples…

Say, we become aware of the raising and falling of the ocean’s surface – the tide. Now, when we ask for the causal explanation of this behavior, it is not enough to say – it behaves in such way because of the physical laws. That is not an explanation really. We will have our explanation only when/if somebody tells us about how the gravitational forces of the Sun and the Moon affect this waters, and so on…

Or, we become aware of some biological phenomenon, like animals having blood. When we ask for explanation of why animals have blood, it is not enough to say – because animals function according to the physical laws. Instead we would be more satisfied with a teleological explanation of how the blood carries “good things” to the cells, and takes “bad things” out of them.

Now, imagine aliens visit a zombie-Earth (in this world, not other world), where people behave exactly the same as on Earth, just that there is some difference in their bodies. It doesn’t affect the behavior, but because of this difference, psychophysical laws don’t “produce” conscious experience in those zombie-Earthlings. Now, aliens can explain most of the behavior of those zombie-earthlings, like communicating in general, executing tasks, going to work in order to get payed, and then buy food with the money, and so on…

But there is a puzzling phenomenon… Part of those zombie-Earthlings show peculiar behavior… They behave as if writing a books about consciousness (for lots and lots of years), and they behave as if teaching about those things that they are writing about. All those other zombie-Earthlings visit their lectures, buy their book, and act as if they are reading the books. Also, they act as if they are discussing those books about consciousness, and so on…

So, aliens ask themselves why do those zombie-people behave so? And, of course, answering – because of the physical laws isn’t really an explanation of this phenomenon.

But why do epiphenomenalists need to explain this? The answer is, because on the face of it, there is no plausible physical story of why would such thing happen given epiphenomenalist metaphysics.

Let’s say what we would say about normal humans. We would say that epiphenomenalists write those books, because they are aware that they are conscious (or think that they are conscious). So, we are supposing that this knowing to be conscious is part of the causal explanation of their writing books about consciousness.

Physicalists can now say, their awareness to be conscious, is in fact ‘translatable’ into physical events, so, what we see on the physical level, are events that correspond with that awareness to be conscious. So, it is not problem for the physicalist to accept that epiphenomenalists write books because they are aware that they are conscious, as that for them IS eventually physical event.

Interactionists (dualists that think that consciusness affect physical), can also say that epiphenomenalists write their books because they are aware that they are conscious, though in this case, different from the physicalists they will say the mind affects the physical behavior.

But, neither of those two possible explanations is accessible to the epiphenomenalists. They need to explain the behavior of the zombies in some other way. Zombies don’t write about consciousness and qualia (or behave as writing about consciousness and qualia) because they are aware of it.

So, why is this a problem for epiphenomenalism? Because on the face of it, when you remove the possibility – “epiphenomenalists(zombie ones) write (or behave as if writing) books because they are aware of their being conscious”, it is hard to see any alternative explanation… Of course, I’m open to be convinced otherwise, so if anyone has any idea, or outline of an idea, please leave a comment.

Anyway, I wonder if with this additional explanation the problem for the epiphenomenalism is clear. I may try to think of some good analogy for the next post.


5 Responses to “The Aliens and The Zombies”

  1. Enigman said

    I think that was very clear, and thought the same when reading about zombies; but then I thought that the possibility of zombies was just conceptual – like, we can imagine a red ball as a physical object, removing the redness and having just the chemicals and such. I’m sure that it’s actually impossible to have such a ball (if the same chemically, it would be what we call “red,” since redness supervenes on chemistry) but it seems to be conceptually possible. Presumably any account of such zombie behaviour would be the same as a physicalistic account of that actual human behaviour.

  2. Thanks for the further comment Enigman,

    That is what I think Richard is also thinking – As far the causal explanation goes, it can’t be worse for the epiphenomenalist than for physicalist. After all, epiphenomenalists have the same things by which we can explain the behavior as physicalists do.

    However, what I think is the problem in this, is that physicalist can in fact explain the behavior by saying “people write books on consciousness, because they are aware they are conscious”, and this kind of logic is simply unavailable to the epiphenomenalist.

    Again, that they might agree with the physicalists that everything is a result of the fundamental physical laws, isn’t important, because just mentioning what individual molecules do, can’t count as much of an explanation, if we are to explain macro-phenomena.

    So, whatever “being aware of consciousness” is, in the physicalist account it is already there, and physicalist can give a plausible explanation of why people write books about consciousness. Given that epiphenomenalists remove this possibility (and also interactionists possibility), they don’t have explanation. Or said differently – people writing books on consciousness is a phenomenon that epiphenomenalism can’t explain.

    Just pointing that it is because of the fundamental laws of physics isn’t explanation.

  3. The epiphenominalist thinks that the realm of consciousness is sealed off from the physical in one direction (that is, physical events cause mental ones, but mental ones do not cause physical ones). So if the zombies are studying consciousness it is because their behavor is determined by the physical events and some of the physical events are mental states about consciousness. I may think about unicorns, and wonder what they would be like and so on, without every comming into contact with them. The epizombies are in the same boat.

  4. Hi Richard,

    Yes, but the trouble for epiphenomenalist is to give the explanation of that behavior. I’m saying that what can be explained without problems in the metaphysical account of physicalists, by simply saying “philosophers write their books on consciousness, because they are aware that they are conscious”, can’t be explained in such way by epiphenomenalists, EVEN given that they will agree with physicalists on everything that happened on the atomic level.

    The trouble for epiphenomenalists, I would claim, is that causal explanations are not supposed to be limited just to the precise state of the universe on atomic level. If one doesn’t have better causal explanation of the pattern of behavior on higher level (or so to say, more or less independent on the precise state of the universe on atomic level at earlier time), but has to go all the way down to the description of the movement of each and every atom; that person has to admit that the pattern is result of nothing but a chance.

  5. Oops, I guess I missed your point, sorry. The problem of the epiphenomenalist is then to give plausible story of why this patterns of “mental states about consciousness” across lot of people appeared.

    UPDATE: But thanks, as really this is the kind of story I’m asking for. The trouble I see with the analogy is this, while the talking-about-unicorn behavior, is social phenomenon, which can be related to e.g. imagination of certain people, and so one can explain the pattern by eventually pointing to the mental states of some people related to imagination, we won’t find that our talk about consciousness is connected to the capacity for imagination (at least I would hope so :) ). So, if the story about consciousness is supposed to be analogical to the story about zombies, we would be able to eventually point to a pattern shared by the talk about zombies and talk about consciousness (and not e.g. about real things).

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