Guess What Other View Besides Epiphenomenalism Is Weird?

Yeah, you are right. It is Physicalism.

We can take (a variant of) the zombie argument to check the weirdness of physicalism. Zombie argument is a very good argument. It requires two assumptions:

1.That what happens in human bodies is fully reducible to physical – It is just physical stuff behaving according to the physical laws.


2.That you allow that there is no metaphysical necessity that ‘given such and such configuration/dynamics of the physical stuff as it is in bodies of conscious people, consciousness will appear’. Or, alternatively that there is no metaphysical necessity that ‘given such and such configuration/dynamics of the physical stuff as it is in bodies of conscious people, there will be conscious experience such as it is in those people, and not different’.

The zombie argument then simply states that given we accept that there is no metaphysical necessity, it follows that it is a further fact about the world that with those configurations/dynamics there is related conscious experience (and exactly that conscious experience, and not some other). So, physicalism (the view that all facts are physical facts, or reducible to physical facts) is wrong.

So, let’s return to the premises of the argument…

Think about the term ‘no metaphysical necessity’. If I’m arguing that it is metaphysically possible that p, and you argue against me, you are arguing that it is metaphysically necessary that not p. So, for you not to accept the premise 2 of the zombie argument, is to say that it is metaphysically necessary that given such and such configuration/dynamics of the physical stuff as the one in the bodies of the conscious people, conscious experience will appear, and at that it is metaphysically necessary that this experience is as it is.

What this ‘metaphysically necessary’ means is that the alternative is contradiction. So, not just that the alternative is not possible in this world given the physical laws, but that it is straightforward contradiction. Like contradictions that we get in logic or math.

Now when we say “physical stuff” we mean something by it. It might not be very clear and distinct idea, but we have some kind of idea there that includes some things and doesn’t include others. For example it includes atoms, and doesn’t include soul.

Take for example the common idea of this “physical stuff”, which I take it to be this – there are elementary particles in the world, whose behavior is governed by physical laws (or one law). Because of those laws, particles form different configurations in which different dynamic patterns emerge on macro-level.

So, when a physicalist is opposing premise 2 of the zombie argument, he is arguing that given certain configuration/dynamics it follows (logically, mathematically, conceptually or in general metaphysically) that there will be conscious experience. So, not just that it so happens in this world that it must be so, like so it happens that the moon must obey the law of gravity, or that so it happens that two electrons must repel each other. But that it follows. Like in mathematical theorems. Like… we don’t need psychology, or first person reports – given sufficient knowledge and intelligence we can deduce what people experience. DEDUCE, like in A PRIORI (those words make most physicalists shudder, and yet there they are committed to possibility of deducing those weird things).

So, not sure if you are seeing the weirdness of this idea – to deduce the redness of the rose from the configuration/dynamics of the elementary particles in the world. Imagine how you approach math problems, and how some truths follow from another truths. Now imagine, how you start from certain configuration/dynamics of elementary particles, and deduce the redness of the rose. Like… you’ve been blind all your life, but they tell you everything about elementary particles, and the dynamic patterns in the brain of some person that is watching a rose, and you go to wherever you go to prove things, and after few days deduce the experience of redness of the rose. See, the problem? If you are to deduce something from X… say some Y, the notion Y has to be at least somewhat compatible with the notion X. New notions won’t magically appear in the proof. Physicalists are in that similar to (I guess caricature of) Pythagoreans which thought that they can deduce the world from numbers.

So, what can physicalist do about it? Maybe we were wrong to identify the idea of “physical stuff” with elementary particles governed by physical laws? Or maybe physicalists can claim a posteriori necessity? And if I think that zombie argument is good, and I also think that its conclusion (epiphenomenalism) is bad… what gives? Stay tuned!

7 thoughts on “Guess What Other View Besides Epiphenomenalism Is Weird?

  1. To me it seems logical that the universe IS a mathematical equation. Look at how things behave in quantum mechanics – they behave like bits of maths rather than like particles or anything else for that matter, although at a high level looking at them as objects is useful. If mathematics is the most basic truth then the universe surely is made of that. that doesn’t mean I’m taking a position on exactly what that maths says -just that I can imagine it saying things like “only actual things are possible things” or something that similarly ties up the debate. Of course I can also accept that it might say “there are huge classes of information you cant deduce from maths” as a conclusion straight from the maths itself or even ‘there is a soul, effectively’.

    I also don’t find experience all that complex. We have an absolutely huge number of particles with a huge number of possible interactions – amounting to an immense computer but most of us can only follow one track of thought at a time and process coherent ideas barely faster than we can talk. And qualia seem to work rather like what I would expect from a bit of knowledge of how the brain works.

    I’m hoping to live until we can enrich this experience a lot more with technology.

  2. Hi GNZ,

    Really, what Wigner called unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in natural sciences seems as one of the most interesting questions about the world. But I don’t think we can thus say that the world is made from numbers. I’m not sure even what would it mean for the world to be made from numbers, as numbers are abstract things – that is, there is just one 1, just one 2, just one 3 etc… It seems more normal to say about the phenomena in the world, that different measurables fall into some necessary relations (the question stays open – Are those relations are metaphysically necessary or just so it happens that in this world they are necessary?).

    I don’t think that the problem is the complexity in the case of compatibility of the idea of “physical stuff” with the idea of “experience”, as much the issue that those two ideas have very little in common. Now, maybe somebody thinks of something else when they say “physical stuff” – that they have some other idea, so that the thought of deduction of experience from it doesn’t seem so weird to them. If so, I’m open to hear a new idea of what this “physical stuff” would be. But, as I said, I think mostly people think of the physical stuff as about fundamental particles (falling into a handful of types) governed by physical laws. And patterns of behavior of those particles are just that – patterns of behavior. Consciousness is not however (if we are not going behaviorist way) pattern of behavior. So, the possibility of DEDUCING conscious experience from pattern of behavior strikes me as very weird. As mathematicians say, the two notions are incommensurable.

    As for enriching the experience, I agree that there seem to be very interesting things in future. I’m interested what it will bring too! :)

  3. Hi Tanasije. Just one comment which I hope you don’t mind. This is not a variant of the zombie argument – it is (a restating of) the original zombie argument. The zombie argument (conceivability argument) is an argument whose conclusion is that physicalism is false– it was not a positive argument for epiphenomenalism. – Steve

  4. Hey Steve, I don’t mind it at all!

    That “variant” wasn’t supposed to say that I’m arguing anything new. I wrote that just because I jumped over the whole conceivability entails possibility issue, and went directly onto the discussion of metaphysical necessity. I guess somewhat in trying to be more clear, I’m ending up adding notes which might be more confusing than clarifying :)

    Somewhat changed the text now, hoping that it doesn’t look as I’m presenting something of my own. I guess I should also add who made the argument first. Was it Chalmers in The Conscious Mind?

  5. Hi. I don’t recall all the history right now. It is safe to say Chalmers made this famous in the 1990’s, but there were prior versions of related arguments in the 70’s and 80’s, although I don’t have the references at hand. Cheers, – Steve

  6. Sentience and Behaviour, Robert Kirk, Mind (new series) 83, #329, January 1974 pp. 43–60
    I presume thats the first usage in the modern chain, although nothing is new under the sun as they say.

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