Zombies Are Impossible

Nonphilosophical Zombies

No, not those zombies! They aren’t merely possible, they are actual, as you can see.

Rather, our topic today is philosophical zombies, beings that are physically identical to us but without conscious experience. Thus, a zombie version of yourself, for instance, would be atom-for-atom identical to you. It would share all of your behavioral dispositions: it would walk like you, talk like you, have the same tendencies to be angry, happy, or sad as you, report any information that you are able to report, and perform any tasks that you are able to perform. It would also remember everything that you can remember, know everything that you know, and it would have all the same politics and cultural attitudes and biases as you. At least, it would do all these things as near as we could tell. It would be behaviorally and neurophysiologically identical to you. There would be no way for another person to tell that your zombie twin was not you merely by comparing you with it, no matter what tests he might arrange. Nevertheless, your zombie twin would not be the same as you, because it would not have consciousness. That is, it would not have subjective experience. In the phrase widely adopted from Thomas Nagel’s well-known essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, there would be nothing it is like to be your zombie twin.

Philosophical zombies are a way to make vivid an old philosophical argument, going back at least to Descartes, known as the Conceivability Argument. In the present version, the idea is that it is conceivable that the world could be just as it is physically down to the last elementary particle, but without conscious experience. That is, we could have had the Big Bang and the evolution of the universe just as it is, including the evolution of life on earth and the human species, and physically everything would be just as it is today, including all of us having discussions just like this one, although none of us nor any other beings have conscious experience. By conceivable, I mean there is no contradiction in this scenario and no reason that science can discover, whether physical, psychological, or otherwise, why it could not have happened. If this scenario is conceivable, then it seems we must conclude that consciousness is epiphenomenal: it is nonphysical, it cannot be explained by the physical, and its presence or absence makes no difference to the causal, functional, or physical order of nature.

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Virtual Molinari Society Panel on Rights: The Reboot


This coming Monday, April 5th, the Molinari Society will be holding its mostly-annual Pacific Symposium in conjunction with the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association via Zoom (5-10 April).

This panel has some overlap, both in personnel and in content, with the one we did in January for the Eastern APA, but it’s not identical.

Only those who cough up the hefty registration fee will be able to access the session, so no chance of free-riding this time around (the APA’s decision, definitely not ours; the APA is both pragmatically and morally confused about the costs and benefits of allowing free-riding at its conferences, but that’s another story). But there’s a substantial student discount, verb. sap. Anyway, here’s the schedule info:

Molinari Society symposium:
Radical Rights Theory

G2A. Monday, 5 April 2021, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Pacific time

chair:
Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)

presenters:
Jesse Spafford (The Graduate Center, CUNY), “You Own Yourself and Nothing Else: A Radical Left-Libertarian Solution to the Self-Ownership Thesis’ Pollution Problem
Jason Lee Byas (University of Michigan), “Stolen Bikes & Broken Bones: Restitution as Defense
Zachary Woodman (Western Michigan University), “Extended Cognition as Property Acquisition
Gary Chartier (La Sierra University), “Natural Law and Socioeconomic Rights
Cory Massimino (Center for a Stateless Society), “Two Cheers for Rothbardianism
Roderick T. Long (Auburn University), “How to Have Your No-Proviso Lockeanism and Eat It Too

See the full schedule here.

I’ll be chairing the panel from the road, so let’s hope my motel’s wifi is up to the challenge. Still, can’t be worse than the Eastern session, when my power actually went out in the middle of it.

Thomas Reid and the Theory of Ideas

Thomas Reid photo
(c) Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

All of Thomas Reid’s thought seems to grow out of his resistance to the skeptical conclusions of Berkeley and Hume. On the one hand, Reid is an effective critic, because he understands their arguments so well. By his own account, he started out as a convinced Berkeleyite and lost his enthusiasm only when he saw the skeptical scorched earth left by Hume. Instead of Berkeley’s real (albeit nonmaterial) and known world, with Hume there is not only no external world, there are no minds, no necessary relations of cause and effect, no rational inductive inferences, etc. Reid decided there must be something wrong, and identifies the problem as the theory of ideas (or “system of ideas” or “ideal system”), which he attributes to Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke (10; information on page references is given at the conclusion of this essay). He argues that Berkeley’s and Hume’s reasoning is mostly correct, derived by pursuing the theory of ideas more consistently than Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke had done. Thus, the extreme conclusions of Berkeley and Hume were due not to errors of reasoning but to errors of their starting points.

On the other hand, Reid’s effectiveness is undercut, in my view, by his failure to supply a convincing alternative to the theory of ideas. He should not be blamed for this. After all, it took philosophy more than 200 years after Reid to resolve the errors of the theory of ideas and put the philosophy of perception on a new footing. In my view, this has now been done with Intentionalism, and we shall see that Reid made promising steps in this direction. But he doesn’t go far enough, and as a result, he does not produce a fully convincing account of perception. He also fails to produce a plausible account of the contribution of the senses to conceptual thought, as the theory of ideas claims to do. Finally, I think Reid’s appeal to “common sense” is another reason he failed to convince. The notion of the authority of common sense—as a set of supposedly unchallengeable, quasi-axiomatic tenets, such as that there is an external world that we know by sense-perception—is fundamentally dogmatic and anti-intellectual, and it’s no surprise that philosophers generally denigrate it.

Thus, although Reid produced trenchant criticisms of the theory of ideas, these did not get the attention they should have. Every theory has problems and inadequacies. Accordingly, thinkers do not abandon a theory merely because it is in difficulties and arguably falsified or refuted. Rather, people abandon a theory when they have a better theory. Now that this is in our grasp, Reid suddenly looks a lot smarter than he used to.

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Revisiting Hursthouse on the Repentant Racist (2 of 2)

In my last (recent) post on this topic, I argued that it seems absurd to blame people, or pass moral judgments of any kind on them, for what they experience in dreams. It follows that it’s absurd to blame, judge, or morally assess someone for having racist dreams, or generally, vicious dreams. But, I suggested, certain sorts of passing, stream-of-consciousness thoughts seem to bear a closer similarity to dream states than they do to conscious convictions. If so, thoughts of this variety are not a proper subject of moral assessment either, or at least less so, in proportion to their similarity to the relevant features of dreams.

One implication of this claim is that a person who encounters a lot of racist noise in his head, even racist noise voiced in the first person, is not necessarily a racist himself, and not to be judged a racist simply on that evidence–a claim that contradicts not just Hursthouse’s view, but one held by other moral philosophers. A second implication is that insofar as implicit bias/association tests function to detect a propensity to give voice to involuntary, osmotic mental noise, we have (yet another) plausible  explanation for their invalidity and unreliability, and should consider dramatically ratcheting back the use we make of them. Continue reading

Ecce Cuomo

It may seem strange to have so political a reaction to the death of a spouse, but I find myself, in the wake of my wife Alison Bowles’s recent untimely death, seeing the world through her eyes. And she was, if anything, a politically opinionated person whose perspective on the world permanently changed the way I look at it. I’ve certainly done my share of entirely private grieving for her (and have a long way to go), but I can’t help feeling an imperative to preserve what I regard as her distinctive outlook on the world beyond our marriage.

This story in The New York Times about Andrew Cuomo strikes a particular chord.

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“If You Can Make It Here…” Thoughts on Life in “The City”

I saw the Op-Ed below in The New York Times the other day, arguing that those who “deserted” New York City during the pandemic, and now wish to return, ought to be “punished” by having to pay a resettlement tax. The author writes as though he suffered some great, distinctive hardship, and/or enacted some great act of social justice or virtue by staying in New York when others left.

I’m not really sure what he’s talking about, or what he thinks he’s talking about. Judging from what he writes, he did nothing of significance but stay in Brooklyn, suffering nothing more significant than what most New Yorkers suffer for living where they do. How it is that departure from such a place should mark one out for punishment is nowhere explained in the article–mostly, I suspect, because there is no explanation to be given. If people followed the author’s “advice,” immigration from the developing world would end tomorrow. We would all stay in the shitholes in which we found ourselves. That the author is content to do so is his problem, no one else’s. Someone ought to tell him.

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Alison Bowles (1963-2021), RIP

I’ve revised the biographical blurb for Alison Bowles at PoT’s “About the Blog and Bloggers” page. I apologize to anyone learning belatedly of her tragic death in this fashion. I myself learned of her passing on the morning of March 10, but believe it took place a few days earlier. [I’ve since learned that it likely took place between March 2 and March 4.]

Alison, in Alexandria, Virginia, February 2017

Alison Bowles (“ridiculous2017”) was, until her untimely death in March 2021, a licensed mental health counselor in private practice, with offices in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, and New York City. On moving to Toronto in the summer of 2020, she became a frequent guest on Business Talk Radio, discussing various issues in the theory and practice of mental health counseling. Her first broadcast was on July 6, 2020 and her last was (I believe) on February 19, 2021. She maintained a personal blog housing some of her writing, and in her last days had created a Facebook page where her very last public thoughts may be found. Here’s an interview she did in 2019 on telemental health, and here is a brief biographical statement. (–IK, March 12, 2021).

In the Teeth of Tragedy

Having recently experienced a terrible tragedy–the untimely death of my estranged wife by suicide–I can’t suppress a passing literary thought: Is there any major work of tragic literature,  broadly conceived, that is more preposterous, more wildly inapposite to the subject matter, than the Book of Job?

The Book of Job is one of the literary masterpieces of all time, and provides a profound discussion on the suffering of a just man.

No, it fucking isn’t–and no it fucking doesn’t. Continue reading

Racist Dreams: Revisiting Hursthouse on the Repentant Racist (1 of 2)

In a post I wrote here back in 2016, I sketched an idea for a paper (as yet un-written) challenging Rosalind Hursthouse’s views on virtue, moral luck, and racism as expressed in chapter 5 of her book, On Virtue Ethics (2001). Hursthouse’s overall view is that ascriptions of virtue and vice are sensitive to moral luck. In other words, ascriptions to S of virtue or vice–claims of the form “S is virtuous or vicious”–can depend in part on circumstances beyond S’s control. This is as true of ascriptions of racism as of other ascriptions of vice. The implication is that S can truth-aptly be described as a racist even for behavior or traits whose existence is beyond S‘s control.

Consider what Hursthouse calls “the repentant racist,” someone brought up as a racist, and who (for a time) internalizes that racism, but who (over time) comes to see the error of his upbringing, rejects racism, and does his best to rid himself of it. Such a person might, despite his best efforts, continue to have racist thoughts and feelings after regarding himself (and in some sense being) fully repentant or fully reformed. Suppose (ex hypothesi) that his having such thoughts and feelings is entirely out of his control–a deterministic outcome of his upbringing, caused by psychological facts out of his control. Continue reading

Thoughts on a Traffic Stop (3): Do’s and Don’ts

Here’s the third part of my series, “Thoughts on a Traffic Stop.” Here’s Part 1, which is the backstory to the stop. Here’s Part 2, on fighting bureaucracy.

Lesson 2: Drivers should rehearse in advance how they’ll handle a stop.

Cops stop people every day. The average driver never stops anyone, and is not stopped all that often. It takes practice to do a good job at stopping someone or being stopped.  Since cops have the opportunity to practice everyday, they tend on average to be pretty good at conducting traffic stops (relative to their aims in conducting one). By contrast, the average person tends to be flustered even by the most mundane stop. Since stops are an inherently adversarial event, one imposed involuntarily on you, you should want to prevail against your adversary. You can’t prevail without practicing the strategy and tactics you intend to use against that adversary (or worse, without having either strategy or tactics). So you ought to practice. Rehearsing for traffic stops may seem paranoid or weird, but it’s not. If stops are predictable, consequential, and adversarial, there’s no excuse for no practicing how you’d handle one (or a series of different ones). In my view, no one should drive without know exactly how they’d handle a stop within the next five minutes. Continue reading