I Guess That’s Why They Call Them Zombies

by Asher Kay

In the New York Times’ “The Stone” blog, Gary Gutting reviews the old Monochromatic Mary and Philosophical Zombie thought experiments for the general public. I’m not going to hash through those, but I think one of Gutting’s statements is worth looking at because of how clearly it reveals a problem with the way philosophers think about physicalism and the mind:

When I feel intense pain, scientists may be able to observe brain-events that cause my pain, but they cannot observe the very pain that I feel.

So here’s a thought experiment. Imagine we are sitting in some bleachers and below us is a field of grass, marked off with white lines, a dirt pathway, and some square-shaped canvas markers. Upon this field, people move about, sometimes throwing and catching a spherical object, sometimes striking it with a wooden club, but mostly just standing around.

Is it reasonable to say that you are observing some “field-events that cause a game”, but that you cannot observe “the very game that is being played”?

32 Comments to “I Guess That’s Why They Call Them Zombies”

  1. Possibly. If you recognise that the players are just horsing around before the start of the game.

  2. Of course, if you have never heard of cricket, you may remain confused for days.

  3. “how clearly it reveals a problem with the way philosophers think about physicalism and the mind”

    Your suggesting that the problem is intrinsic not to subjectivity but to philosophical thought. I’d be curious about how you would characterize the problem, Asher. It would seem essential to any life form that it be able to experience the environment in ways that enhance its likelihood of survival. Even a bacterium responds selectively to the presence of food: that’s a kind of subjective experiencing of the environment, isn’t it? The natural selection of adaptive organism-centered differential responses to environmental situations and stimuli is foundational to a physical explanation of evolution. But surely the bacterium doesn’t have any sort of self-reflexive ability: it has subjective experience without ever concerning itself with what that experience is like, whether its own response to food is the same as other bacteria, etc. Only the distinctively human self-distancing of reflexivity, the ability to look at one’s subjectivity objectively, allows humans to realize that their subjective experiences aren’t an objective view of the environment. It took a lot of cultural advancement before people realized that things that look green aren’t intrinsically green. Reflexivity is what makes subjectivity seem so uncanny, or so it seems to me.

    As for observing the game, I don’t get what you mean by “field-events that cause a game.” As I watched Michigan State lose frustratingly to Ohio State in basketball today, I’d say that I was watching the game itself, that the events on the court were inseparable from the game, and that the game was the framing context in which the players initiated and responded to events with intentionality that was at times conscious, at times unconscious. I agree with John M that knowing the game is what enables the observer to make sense of the events, but by watching long enough the observer could eventually infer the basic structure and rules of the game from the events and their consequences.

  4. I took Asher to be addressing the (Platonic) idea that ‘pain’ must be an entity separate from the brain events that make ‘it’ up from time to time, just as ‘the game’ must be an entity separate from the rules, equipment, players, and plays that make ‘it’ up from time to time. So it’s a point about a way of thinking that rules out physical emergence from the start, and gets you Cartesian conundra like bodies and minds that act together somehow without there being any possible causal link between them.

  5. First of all, I should have said “philosophers sometimes” or “some philosophers”.

    Ktismatics – Carl pretty much summed up what I’m trying to get across. If there’s nothing more going on than the physical process, then if we’re observing the process, we’re observing the thing itself. So I’d agree that you were watching “the game itself”, and I’d say that your statement about inferring the structure of the game is analagous to what scientists are attempting to do with the brain.

    It’s interesting to me that we don’t assume that being able to watch a game implies that we can experience the game as it is experienced by players. Now if the *stadium* could be said to be experiencing the game, we’d all of the sudden have weird philosophical problems with it (see Room, Chinese).

  6. When I taught “The Making and Meaning of Advertising,” one interesting exercise was to divide the class into small groups. We watched a TV commercial. Then, one group described the commercial from a commonsense, consumer audience perspective. Another described the commercial from a business perspective, filling in the blanks in a creative brief (target, objective, proposition, rationale, support, imperatives). A third described the commercial from an aesthetic, art or film director’s perspective (visual images, structure, casting, color, tempo, script, music, etc.). The group that had the hardest assignment was the one asked to describe exactly what they saw, without attributing meaning to it, from a purely behavioristic perspective.

  7. John – that’s very interesting. I’d guess it’s because meaning-making is largely unconscious.

  8. Indeed. Also the difference between unreflective, commonsense meaning-making, much of which is unconscious, and the reflective and (at least in some cases) highly conscious meaning-attachment of business strategists and consciously creative folk.

  9. What is really hard is trying to be conscious of detail without attaching meaning to it.

  10. Yes, hard, but what is impossible, possibly, is describing it without being meaningful.

  11. I’m reminded of Alain Robbe-Grillet, his narrators describing in obsessive, nearly sadistic detail objects and scenes that are either devoid of meaning or that, in the opacity of their surfaces, resist the penetration of the observer’s gaze.

  12. Thanks, I knew that there was a French novelist I was trying to remember.

  13. Levi just put up a post about Monochromatic Mary at Larval Subjects. I’m making the same comment both here and there:

    In a human’s phenomenal experience of color, the perceptual apparatus of the organism and the optical array of the environment are perfectly confounded. Some intellectual effort must be exerted, and some artificiality introduced, in order to split them apart — rods and cones on one side of the divide, electromagnetic wavelengths on the other. A similar effort of artificial splitting has to be enacted in order to distinguish between the structural and elemental properties of compounds like salt (NaCl) and water (H2O). John Dalton, one of the founders of what would become modern atomic theory, also happened to be color blind. His first scientific paper included the first systematic description of color blindness, which soon came to be known as Daltonism. I don’t know his intellectual history, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Dalton’s own visual limitations, his subjective awareness of the split between perception and optics, became an important influence on his later work in atomic theory.

  14. I left a comment too. It almost seems like he’s trying to refute reductionism rather than materialism. But the kind of reductionism he’s talking about is an extreme form that I don’t think anyone really supports.

  15. Okay. It appears he was talking about the materialism of Badiou and Meillassoux, which appears to be a flavor of idealism.

  16. Noir Realism, the first commenter on that LS thread, is one of the blogs on which I’ve commented recently. He’s a systems engineer who also writes fiction — sound familiar? He’s well read and thoroughly immersed in continental philosophy; his comment seems to reflect a widespread view in the humanities that scientists are tools of hegemonic imperialistic capitalism. It should be acknowledged that Leni Riefenstahl was a humanities type, as are most of propaganda apparatchiks of all the military-industrial complexes.

  17. “He’s a systems engineer who also writes fiction — sound familiar?”

    It kind of sounds like me.

  18. Well-educated Nazis have been on my mind lately, as they always are when people start going on about how this or that class is essential to educated personhood. I am also currently attuned to the difficulties inherent in attempting to explain color to people who think in black and white. Ah well, carry on.

  19. “Well-educated Nazis.” Reading that phrase, I recall Richard Rorty’s remark that while John Dewey and Martin Heidegger’s political attitudes were radically different, their philosophies of language were remarkably similar. The remark was intended to lend support to the now somewhat old-fashioned idea that philosophy and politics are not as tightly linked as many now believe these days.

  20. “the now somewhat old-fashioned idea that philosophy and politics are not as tightly linked as many now believe these days”

    What exactly is up with that? I see a lot of stuff where metaphysics is casually linked to the political, and I’m all like, Whuuuut?

  21. 1. The personal is political
    2. Philosophers use the phrase “my ontology”
    3. Any questions?

  22. “I see a lot of stuff where metaphysics is casually linked to the political, and I’m all like, Whuuuut?”

    Oh, yes, indeed. It has become a standard trope in moralizing critique. The notion that bad people may still have good ideas (or vice versa) doesn’t fit very well with the position that thought is ipso facto ideology justifying some form of power differential/social inequality.

  23. Maybe science is deemed intrinsically violent and sadistic and oppressive because it insists on breaking wholes down into pieces? With just a little twist that tendency could be reframed as revolutionary. Can you use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house?

  24. “Can you use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house?”

    Departing from both the spirit and the sense in which you deployed this pseudo-critical cliche’, can I just rant tangentially for a moment here that if you want to dismantle the master’s house, only the master’s tools will do? Which Hegel and Marx both understood. If you want to demolish the master’s house, go ahead with the bulldozer or the dynamite or the death ray or whatever.

  25. I feel like if we were at a bar having this conversation, we’d all be hammered.

  26. Haha I saw that! Screw him.

  27. Hammers and screws: you guys are real tools.

  28. Tools of the master, though. Nothing could be… planer.

  29. Sure, but you’ve got to have the right angle. You know the drill.

  30. Pour me another screwdriver. No, make that a depth charge.

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