Zombies Obsessed with Using The Word ‘Consciousness’

OK, here is the third attempt to more clearly present the problem of epiphenomenalism that I tried to point to in past two posts. BTW, I do think that lot of people are intuitively aware of this problem, but this is an attempt to make it more explicit…

So, there is a phenomenon in this world where philosophers write books about consciousness, give lectures about consciousness, then there are people who buy those books, read those books, discuss those topics, and so on. It is identifiable third-person phenomenon, or we have a pattern of behavior on social level. Whenever we have this kind of identifiable pattern, we may ask for a causal explanation – how come this kind of pattern appeared?

And that is where I claim that epiphenomenalism gets into problem: Physicalists and interactionists can give the following simple causal explanation of this behavior (of course both will add details if needed) – Those people talk about consciousness because they are aware they are conscious. But epipepiphenomenalists can’t do that, because whatever is causal explanation of their behavior in the actual world, would also be causal explanation of their behavior in the zombie-world. And in zombie-world those people aren’t aware they are conscious. So, my claim is that they need to give alternative explanation of appearance of this pattern of behavior, but that they don’t have any plausible explanation.

On that epiphenomenalist answers that it is not true that physicalism can give some causal explanation that they can’t. It can’t be that they are in worse situation than physicalism, as in explaining things they can refer to all the cogs and bolts that physicalism can, and then some more.

And really, given the same world to analyze, epiphenomenalists and physicalists will agree on what is happening on the atomic level. So, epiphenomenalists can give the same causal explanation of the things in the world as physicalists, if for giving a causal explanation what was needed was just stating the state of the universe at certain previous time, and stating the basic physical laws. But certainly when we are asking for an explanation of some phenomenon that appears on social, psychological or biological level we are not asking for THAT.

For the explanation to make sense, we need to identify a reason why this pattern of behavior formed, not given the precise state of the universe on atomic level, but on a more abstract level, which would ignore to certain amount the specifics of the situation. We do that for example when we explain phenomena by using the laws of thermodynamics (and not by pointing of the movement to every molecule). Or explaining the traits of species using evolutionary pressure, and so on…

So, while epiphenomenalism and physicalism agree about the world on the level of atoms, physicalists HAVE on this abstract level something in this world which consist of atoms and molecules, which epiphenomanlists don’t – the possibility people to be aware that they are conscious. So they can provide explanation of this pattern, which is inaccessible to epiphenomenalists.

So, what can epiphenomenalists do here? In my view, there are two options:

1.Without proposing any new abstract level, say that explanation needs to be searched for on lower level, by pointing to the behavior of the individual neurons, atoms or whatever. But this would be admitting practically that this complex behavior pattern is result of a chance, because what explains it is only the state of the world at some earlier time t.


2.Propose some new abstract level explanation. Probably arguing that there will be some brain states which will appear in people who behave as if thinking, writing and talking about consciousness. Richard Brown noticed in the comments of the last post, that those brain states could be related to the ones we have when we discuss fictional entities like unicorns (though of course, unicorns don’t produce such obsessive behavior like behaving as writing and speaking for days).

So, I think the main point for the epiphenomenalism is this. Just because it can refer to same basic nuts and bolts as a physicalist, it doesn’t have same explanatory power for the physical realm. It doesn’t have it because in its metaphysics, it pushed part of the mental phenomena – more specifically ‘awareness of being consciousness’ outside of the physical world. So, epiphenomenalism needs to provide new explanation. It needs to forget physicalism, and its explanation. Just imagine zombie-world in which zombies have this obsession with the word “Consciousness”, and behave as if writing and talking about consciousness, and give *any plausible explanation* of appearance of such zombies. (Again, tracking the movement of molecules doesn’t count, the explanation needs to make sense.)

To me, the idea that zombies would develop such obsessed behavior, is at least counter intuitive, as the claim that the zombie world is impossible.

UPDATE:Just wanted to add this note, because in few answers to those posts, and the discussion at Philosophy, Et Cetera, people seem to be defending the metaphysical or logical possibility of what I attack. So, to be clear, I’m not attacking metaphysical or logical possibility of epiphenomenalist proposal.
Instead I’m attacking the plausibility of it, or attacking the sensibility of their proposal. Let me try analogy… Let’s say that we find a group of monkeys in the nature to which whenever you give a typewriter, they end up writing complete works of William Shakesepare. So, we have three groups, two of
which explain the behavior using some cause C which totally makes sense (in our case it is “awareness that we are conscious”), and third group(in our example those would be epiphenomenalists) that say that C is not part of the physical world, and hence can’t be cause of what we are seeing, but fails to provide any alternative explanation (on abstract level, and not on general, it is because of the physical laws, or it is because of the brains level).

9 thoughts on “Zombies Obsessed with Using The Word ‘Consciousness’

  1. Epiphenomenalists are certainly aware that they are conscious. They believe though that every conscious experience has a neural correlate (NC)which is what actually causes their next brain state together with its accompanying conscious experience. You admit that humans can talk about unicorns (and an unlimited number of ficticious and abstract entities), none of which can possibly be the physical “cause” of the thoughts about them. So when zombie brains refer to ‘consciousness’, it is to its NC. No problem.

  2. Hey Norman,

    Certainly epiphenomenalists are aware that they are conscious. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. The issue is that they can’t use “awareness of being conscious” in the explanation of why philosophers’ write, talk and discuss consciousness.

    And no, just pointing that philosophers do that because they have brains, and that there is neural correlates, or brain states which correspond to this behavior also won’t do.

    Let’s forget for a moment our own society in which we do talk about philosophy, and forget physically identical zombies. Just imagine another paralel evolution, which ended with aliens which happen not to be conscious, and yet they act as if talking, writing and discussing consciousness. So, we, who visit these people, are now to explain this social phenomenon.

    Again, just pointing that they have brains won’t do it, if I point to a specific social phenomenon like wars, one doesn’t explain it by saying “it is easy to explain it. We do it because we have brains”, or “it is easy to explain it, it is because of the fundamental laws of the universe”.

    What we have here, in that alien race, is an apparently *very weird behavior*. Or is it just me that consider spending a great part of ones life behaving as if writing, discussing and talking about consciousness? Just think of it, sitting on the computer, typing which results which page after page of e.g. a priori attack on physicalism, intuitions about possibility of zombie worlds, etc… (Again, it is weird behavior, because we have removed “they do it because they are aware that they are conscious” as a possible explanation)

    As for comparing it to our discussion of unicorns, one can give a good explanation of our behavior related to discussion of unicorns. Let me try. People imagine fictional stories. As part of those stories they imagine fictional entities and kinds. Fictional stories and entities capture people’s imagination and interest in some way. One can go further into psychological reasons of why do people make up stories, e.g. people being thrilled to hear of events that happened, etc…

    But, why this social behavior in case of (“as if”) talking and writing about consciousness? Any plausible story?

  3. Maybe the epiphenomenalist can just bite the bullet of implausibility of origin, on the grounds that they are essentially fans of the physicalistic approach but feel that they cannot deny that consciousness exists. So, it just so happens that zombies don’t have a referent and epiphenomenalists do – that’s just a brute fact, one forced upon epiphenomenalists by infallible experience. My saying such things and feeling that I said them because I know about that referent is no worse, for an epiphenomenalist (I’m guessing), than my deterministically choosing a flavour of ice cream whilst feeling that that was a free choice of mine between phenomenal flavours.

  4. Hi Enigman,

    Yeah, I guess that is another thing about epiphenomenalism – that their behavior when they defend epiphenomenalism is based on something else other than their awareness of their being conscious. But, I guess I’m ignoring that issue here, because their being aware that they are conscious, will relate to neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) which is on other hand related to that behavior, so one can kind of imagine how that could work. (If we didn’t have that NCC we wouldn’t behave like that, but we also wouldn’t be aware that we are conscious)

    But, I just don’t have a clue how they will explain the appearance of those NCCs that produce the mentioned behavior (people sitting on their computer writing page after page of a priori arguments against physicalism, I mean just imagine how weird behavior is that given we remove the “they are aware they are conscious” explanation. Epiphenomenalists need to provide other explanation I feel). So this is *just* about giving explanation of the behavior itself.

  5. By “explain the appearance of those NCCs” do you mean, like, explain how they arose in our brains? Why not like any others, e.g. those that give me (on such Naturalistic accounts) the belief that I have the desire to have a belief that people believe nice things about me (which is a relatively basic belief really)? Maybe the NCCs for our concept of consciousness (and for our use of such words) would just integrate with the rest of the brain to produce such behaviour as all that writing (maybe such mechanisms were likely to arise naturally as we evolved because we evolved as social animals, having to model each other’s motives and such?)?

  6. E.g., I look at a yellow book and think about the colour, about how bright yellow seems (which corresponds to how it is perceived physically, e.g. yellow is at the centre of the visible spectrum), and so I wrote about that (which is just like describing anything in words, and there is an obvious physical correlate, to that sensation, in the brain’s functioning, which gave rise to the sensation and that can connect to the writing modules or whatever in the brain), and now I write that I only wrote that because of my subjective awareness of yellow (which is sort of true, since without that there would have been no physical correlate), and so on (and that we would write lots on this topic is not that weird, given that we are philosophers), maybe?

  7. I’m guessing that physicalists would explain consciousness arising in the brains of animals in terms of its evolutionary advantages, e.g. it unifies our information processing (useful because each of us is a biological unit). Any such a function would have a plausible NCC associated with it (e.g. some central module or some dominant network or whatever), although I doubt that we will find such a thing (the very idea reminds me of the Cartesian pineal gland). But it seems reasonable that it could be that NCC (if it existed) that was doing all the causal work. Epiphenomenalists might then add in the brute fact that such structures are (from the inside looking out) conscious of the subjective correlates of the inputs and outputs of that NCC. Zombies would then be a relatively tidy sort of creature; but why not such a brute extra for us, Epiphenomenalists might ask. (I’ve no idea if they would though.)

  8. Thanks Enigman, that is very helpful,

    I wonder if you are saying could be put in this way… There IS some physical phenomenon which corresponds with our being conscious, and zombies’ brain in its power to discriminate between different phenomena (which is of course evolutionary trait) can discriminate that physical phenomenon from others. The phenomenon in question, might be e.g. certain kind of behavior or disposition; or it might be e.g. some ability. Let’s call this phenomenon zombie-consciousness.

    So, the usage of the word ‘consciousness’ in the zombie society will be then not related to something which doesn’t exist, but to a zombie-consciousness which in the actual world is a correlate of the consciousness (be zombie-consciousness – behavior, disposition, abilities, NCCs or something else).

    So, there is no issue here, because it is comprehensible how language can appear in zombies, and how they can use it to inform other zombies about other things. So, zombies start to (“as if”) think, discuss and wonder about such phenomena as zombie-consciousness. This is part of the general zombie-wondering about the phenomena in their world. It is an evolutionary trait. We can also say that zombies can also distinguish what is possible from impossible, one can also see how such trait can be helpful.

    But, didn’t we come to very weird situation now…
    We agree that zombie-consciousness is wholly physical phenomenon. And that zombie-epiphenomenalists have ability on base on which they can figure out if two phenomena are compatible or not. But, when to the zombie-epiphenomenalist it “seems” that those aren’t compatible, and starts to “argue” against this, we know that there is somewhere an error in the application of his ability. Because zombie-consciousness IS compatible with the more basic physical phenomena.
    But, zombie-consciousness is what correlates with our consciousness, so would this mean that epiphenomenalist are right by the coincidence that: A)there is an error in zombie-epiphenomanlist applying some ability to a certain problem + B)there are bridging laws which create consciousness related to the zombie-consciousness phenomenon. (So it is somewhat like being right for wrong reasons)

    So, when epiphenomenalist argues for example that there are bridging-laws, it is all a product of wrong functioning of one of his reducible-to-physical abilities. The result is that, given that somehow this ability of epiphenomenalist starts functioning as it should, he will get to be physicalist!

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