Dissolving the zombie argument

Up­date: Upon re­flec­tion, I’m not en­tirely satis­fied with this post. I think I definitely man­aged to iden­tify some of the con­fu­sion around these kinds of dis­cus­sion, but a smaller pro­por­tion than I would have liked.

The Zom­bie ar­gu­ment (David Chalmer’s web­site, Stan­ford En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Philos­o­phy) is one of the most fa­mous ar­gu­ments against ma­te­ri­al­ism, so I’ll as­sume that you can find an ex­pla­na­tion your­self if you aren’t already fa­mil­iar with it.

I always find it fas­ci­nat­ing when you have two sides that can’t seem to com­mu­ni­cate with or un­der­stand one an­other. I think the root of the prob­lem is that both sides have a differ­ent no­tion of what counts as a zom­bie. The Dual­ist Con­cep­tion of con­scious­ness in­volves qualia, so their con­cep­tion of a philo­soph­i­cal zom­bie is an en­tity that lacks qualia. This is a no­to­ri­ously hard term to define—some would say be­cause it is mean­ingless—but all that mat­ters here is that they have a stric­ter con­cep­tion of con­scious­ness that the Ma­te­ri­al­ist. The Ma­te­ri­al­ist Con­cep­tion of con­scious­ness in­volves cer­tain pro­cesses tak­ing place, so a Ma­te­ri­al­ist Con­cep­tion of a zom­bie would in­volve cer­tain pro­cesses tak­ing place, but also not tak­ing place, which would be a con­tra­dic­tion.

Here’s the con­fu­sion. If a some­one were to claim that hu­mans don’t fit the Dual­ist Con­cep­tion of a zom­bie and that Ma­te­ri­al­ism is true, they’d be con­tra­dict­ing them­selves, be­cause Dual­ists have a wide con­cep­tion of what counts as a zom­bie that all en­tities in a Ma­te­ri­al­ist world would fit this defi­ni­tion. On the other hand, if some­one were to claim that that Ma­te­ri­al­ist Con­cep­tion of a zom­bie were log­i­cally pos­si­ble, which is merely to claim that they can posit this with­out con­tra­dic­tion, they would be mis­taken since Ma­te­ri­al­ist’s have such a nar­row con­cep­tion of what would count as a zom­bie that this class is an empty set.

Once the defi­ni­tion of what counts as a zom­bie has been fixed, so too has the out­come of the ar­gu­ment. And this is re­ally con­tin­gent on what counts as con­scious­ness, so the Zom­bie ar­gu­ment isn’t ac­tu­ally where the fun­da­men­tal differ­ence lies. This isn’t a mere lin­guis­tic differ­ence, it’s a ques­tion of what nat­u­ral struc­tures ex­ist that cry out to be given a la­bel. Or as Richard Ken­n­away might frame it, an at­tempt to un­der­stand the na­ture of a phe­nomenon which we already have some ex­pe­rience with, with­out fore­clos­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that we might end up toss­ing away the con­cept if we find it con­fused.

One last clar­ifi­ca­tion: many peo­ple find this ar­gu­ment per­sua­sive. In so far as this is the case, it’s usu­ally be­cause they had an in­con­sis­tency in their thoughts. For ex­am­ple, per­haps they iden­ti­fied as ma­te­ri­al­ists, with­out think­ing through ex­actly what a ma­te­ri­al­ist view of con­scious­ness would en­tail, and when they re­al­ised this, they dis­cov­ered it was some­thing that they didn’t en­dorse.