David Chalmers, Iain McGilchrist, and the Zombies Among Us
Dave Chalmers is a joy to read.
OK, perhaps not always, and not for everyone, I suppose. It is analytic philosophy, after all.
What makes reading him a joy though is that he is incredibly smart, thorough, careful in his thought, and has an excellent grasp of the canon of analytic philosophy.
What makes him stand out even more is that whether you agree with him or not, you can tell he is driven by the search for truth: there is fire. He is not like some of those philosophers who simply have an axe to grind, enjoy hyper-abstract thought, or are out to draw attention by shocking people with “all your intuitions are wrong”-type arguments.
If we strip Chalmers’ work of his engagement with the canon of analytic philosophy, perhaps we can outline his main argument as follows:
Let’s assume that the materialists are correct in all of their basic tenets, such as:
At the end of the day, everything comes down to dead matter (and perhaps “dead” laws/patterns)
It is conceivable that the first biological systems came to be by pure chance
Neo-Darwinism can fully explain the emergence of all life forms
Our brains are biological supercomputers that can be analyzed purely functionally, and this complex functionality is explainable in Darwinian terms
From a third-person perspective, life and hyper-complex machines look exactly the same, and therefore there is no fundamental difference between them
Now, says Chalmers, if we grant all that, maybe we can solve what he calls the “soft problem of consciousness”: the functional aspects of life. For example, we could—in principle—explain all of our complex psychological states, what we say and why we say it, even our thoughts and reasoning, our actions, etc., in purely materialist terms.
That is to say, the “soft problem” of consciousness is to explain consciousness understood as thought, feelings, bodily sensations and so on that serve various functions, just like computer programs, sensors etc. serve various functions.
But according to Chalmers, even if we could explain consciousness from that perspective, there would still be something left to explain: namely our experience of it all. There is a difference between explaining “seeing a red object” from a functional, computational perspective, and explaining what it’s like to see a red object.
We experience an extremely rich “inner film,” and the question is: why?
After all, says Chalmers, we could imagine a world where human beings do not experience this inner film.
They would look and talk and write and behave exactly the same as us, but lack our inner experience.
They are just automatons. Zombies.
If such a zombie world is conceivable, then this shows that the materialist explanation is missing something crucial, even if we grant the materialists all the usual points.
That’s what he calls the “hard problem of consciousness.”
Are There Zombies Among Us?
Now, here’s the thing.
David Chalmers has been engaged in dialogue with the materialist camp for a very long time. And even though his main point is simple enough, and, I think, intuitively understandable and convincing, the die-hard materialists just don’t budge.
They don’t seem to get it.
I mean, it’s one thing to believe in materialism because it has been the default assumption in science for so long. I have believed it for a long time, too. But it’s quite another thing to be confronted with a convincing argument against it, and one that requires you to give up only a very small part of your position, and still stay in denial!
I think most of us, when we first read good arguments against materialism, will probably say something like “yeah right, this makes sense, now I understand why part of me always felt a bit uneasy with the materialist position, but I just didn’t know that it doesn’t withstand scrutiny, and that there are rational alternatives. Let’s find out what’s going on here.”
But not so the die-hard materialists.
And this brings us to David Chalmers’ most fascinating statement. It reads:
For myself, reductive functionalism and eliminativism seem so clearly false that I find it hard to fathom how anyone could accept a type-A view. To me, it seems that one could only accept such a view if one believed that there was no significant problem about consciousness in the first place. Nevertheless, experience indicates that almost one-third of the population are willing to accept [a die-hard materialist] position and do not budge. This indicates the Great Divide mentioned in the preface: the divide between views that take consciousness seriously and those that do not. […]
Ultimately, argument can take us only so far in settling this issue. If someone insists […] that Mary discovers nothing about the world when she first has a red experience […], then I can only conclude that when it comes to experience we are on different planes. Perhaps our inner lives differ dramatically. Perhaps one of us is "cognitively closed" to the insights of the other. More likely, one of us is confused or is in the grip of a dogma. In any case, once the dialectic reaches this point, it is a bridge that argument cannot cross. Rather, we have reached a brute clash of intuitions [...]1
Rational argument can’t bridge this gap of intuitions: some people simply live on different planes. Wow.
Perhaps they lack the deep experience many of us take for granted: the experience of a stunningly nuanced, rich world. The experience of life as a sort of gift full of mystery and possibility that we don’t yet grasp, but that propels us forward. The experience of all that as deeply meaningful, tragic, uplifting, heartbreaking, and at least in some minimal sense transcendent.
The experience of life as something multidimensional that cannot be grasped by narrowly focussing on a single mode, aspect, pet theory, or framework. Where even something as banal as discovering a new color is experienced as so rich that it defies understanding from a materialist-Darwinian mode of thought.
Do some people simply lack this experience? Despite looking and talking and behaving just like us?
Is that the reason for this “clash of intuitions”?
Are there zombies living among us??
Well, perhaps there are no complete zombies. But there could very well be people who experience the world very differently.
Before we’ll get back to the zombie issue, let’s have a look at what all of that says about the state of philosophy.
What This Means For Philosophy
If we are dealing with a “brute clash of intuitions” here, this has some implications for the philosophical method.
The analytic tradition tends to treat philosophical texts like an idealized scientific project: you start with a premise, have an open mind about it, and then use logic and (sometimes) empirical observations to see whether the premise holds true or not, or whether there is a flaw in the logic leading from the premise to the conclusion.
However, if your starting point is an intuition—such as that your inner life is so rich that it cannot be squared with a purely functionalist view of biology—, but someone else’s starting point is an entirely different intuition—his inner life can be easily squared with a functionalist view—, then you will automatically come to very different ideas.
The explanandum, that which needs to be explained, is very different in both cases. This means that no amount of sound logic or even empirical evidence can solve the problem: the two philosophers will simply talk past each other.
There is an alternative to the analytic method, described by R. G. Collingwood.
In his Essay On Philosophical Method, he argued that in philosophy, unlike in empirical science, we actually start with the conclusion. Rather than using arguments to decide the truth of a proposition, we already know what we want to show to be true. The process of formulating the argument, then, serves the purpose of clarifying one’s thought, working out the details, and discover new aspects of the problem and gain new, more profound, insights.
This seems to me to be a more honest approach, and therefore more fruitful. It also leads to better prose (Collingwood himself was a superb writer), because we no longer need to pretend we’re doing something like empirical science when we’re doing philosophy.
It also brings into focus what really matters: the premise, whether it be openly stated or hidden. In this case, the premise would be that “my intuition tells me loud and clear that my inner experience defies materialist-functionalist explanations.” When someone else has a different intuition, instead of battling it out via ever-more complex and fine-grained logical arguments while still getting nowhere, we can then ask the real question: why is it that people have such different intuitions?
Iain McGilchrist’s Solution to the Zombie Problem
Perhaps Iain McGilchrist’s hemisphere hypothesis can help explain some of what is going on here. Based on his neurological research, he says that the left and right brain hemispheres produce very different “takes” on reality. To simplify greatly:
The right hemisphere tends to perceive the world as a whole, as “round”, as nuanced, and each situation as unique.
The left hemisphere tends to perceive the world in abstract terms, chops it up into parts and categorizes them, and relies on hyperfocused logical thought aimed at manipulation/usefulness.
We can see how the left hemisphere would be much more prone to seeing the world in purely functional terms. Someone who relies primarily on it should give priority to logical thought and abstraction over a view of the cosmos as a whole that we actively relate to via intuition.
To illustrate how this works, consider this experiment that McGilchrist brings up in his book, The Matter With Things:2
Candidates were asked to look at the following syllogisms (logical arguments) and decide whether they are sound or not:
All monkeys climb trees; [OK]
The porcupine is a monkey; [obviously wrong]
The porcupine climbs trees. [obvious nonsense]
Winter is cold in tropical countries; [obviously wrong]
Ecuador is a tropical country; [OK]
Question: Is it cold in winter in Ecuador, or not?
Now, in the experiment, the right or left hemisphere had been artificially inhibited.
Result: those with predominantly right-hemisphere thinking tended to see through the nonsense at once; those who thought with their left hemisphere tended to accept the conclusion because the logic is formally correct, even though it clearly was nonsense.
One respondent who accepted the nonsense answer, when asked why she thought so, answered that “it said so on the card!”
This shows how left-hemisphere thinking takes place in a void, unhinged from reality, and relies on logic-chopping to come to conclusions, no matter how absurd they clearly are once you take a step back.
Could this explain why some people seem to seriously accept the view that phenomenal consciousness does not exist? Or at least that it isn’t a problem at all for the “man is just a machine” model?
Perhaps their thought process goes something like this:
All that exists is dead matter.
Man is nothing but a machine shaped by evolution.
Machines have no consciousness.
Ergo: Humans have no consciousness.
Left-hemisphere thought tends to accept the view, no matter how absurd, because it seems logically sound.
Right-hemisphere thought tends to immediately see that something must be wrong here, and will conclude that either premise 1, or premise 2, or both must be false.
So—are the “zombies” among us just those who are dominated by the left-hemisphere? Possibly.
But I suspect there is more to the story than that. Remember that Chalmers talked about a “brute clash of intuitions"—it seems that it’s not just that the “zombies” come to wrong conclusions based on a narrow mindset that exclusively relies on logic and isolates itself from the bigger picture.
In addition, they still must somehow intuit that human phenomenological consciousness is not a problem for the materialist view; that it is conceivable that there’s no difference in principle between us and computers.
For them, “what it’s like to experience the world” is not an issue for their theory, because perhaps their experience of the world is shallow, “flat,” and more machine-like? Is that, too, an artifact of an over-reliance on the left hemisphere? Or is there something else going on? Perhaps there is more variation among human beings than we think, and over-reliance on the left hemisphere is merely one expression of such differences? Perhaps even their right-brain intuition works differently?
I don’t know. But one thing is clear: just like the zombies in the movies can turn normal people into their kind by biting them, the philosophical zombies can infect us as well, especially if we tend towards left-hemisphere thinking ourselves. I speak from personal experience here.
What we must do, then, is take a step back and bring our intuition, our common sense, back into the picture.
Then the spell is lifted and we immediately recognize that percupines don’t climb trees, and that winter is hot in Ecuador.
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David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 167
Iain McGilchrist, The Matter With Things, Perspectiva Press, 2021, p. 399-400