The Zombie Defense

Absent-Minded Science, Part II

Here’s a head-scratcher for you: Can zombies argue that they don’t exist?

The philosophy of mind is a thriving field in recent decades, with new books and articles appearing with increasing frequency. This article is the second in an occasional series on the role of mind in the universe and, thus, in science.

Strangely, modern science is dominated by the idea that to be scientific means to remove consciousness from our explanations, in order to be “objective.” This was, of course, the rationale behind behaviorism, a now-dead theory of psychology that took this trend to a perverse extreme. Behaviorists like John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner scrupulously avoided any discussion of what their subjects thought, intended, or wanted and focused, instead, entirely on behavior. They thought that because thoughts in other peoples’ heads, or in animals’, are impossible to know with certainty, we should simply ignore them in our theories. We can only be truly scientific, they asserted, if we focus solely on what can be directly observed and measured: behavior.

This point of view is known most generally as “positivism,” which asserts that only those things we can measure directly should be part of our theories in science. Positivism has held sway in various branches of science to varying degrees over the last couple of centuries. Einstein was in his early career strongly inspired by Ernst Mach’s version of positivism, creating his special theory of relativity in 1905 partly as a response to this philosophy (and thus expelling the luminiferous ether from physics as “superfluous”). But Einstein learned better, rejecting positivism by the middle of his career as inadequate. A great passage from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein is very telling:

“We cannot observe electron orbits inside the atom,” Heisenberg said [to Einstein]. “A good theory must be based on directly observable magnitudes.”

“But you don’t seriously believe,” Einstein protested, “that none but observable magnitudes must go into a physical theory?”

“Isn’t that precisely what you have done with relativity?” Heisenberg asked with some surprise.

“Possibly I did use this kind of reasoning,” Einstein admitted, “but it is nonsense all the same.”

In other words, Einstein’s approach had evolved.

Einstein had a similar conversation with his friend in Prague, Philipp Frank. “A new fashion has arisen in physics,” Einstein complained, which declares that certain things cannot be observed and therefore should not be ascribed reality.

“But the fashion you speak of,” Frank protested, “was invented by you in 1905!”

Replied Einstein: “A good joke should not be repeated too often.”

21st Century scientists and philosophers are steadily beginning to come around to Einstein’s view and most physicists have generally abandoned a strong positivist stance. But modern science still suffers in many ways from its own version of cognitive dissonance by maintaining what is essentially a behaviorist/positivist stance in, of all places, the philosophy of mind (and in biology, the focus of my next installment in this series).

Erwin Schrödinger, one of the key architects of quantum mechanics in the early part of the 20th Century, labeled this approach in 1954 the “principle of objectivation” and expressed it clearly:

“By [the principle of objectivation] I mean … a certain simplification which we adopt in order to master the infinitely intricate problem of nature. Without being aware of it and without being rigorously systematic about it, we exclude the Subject of Cognizance from the domain of nature that we endeavor to understand. We step with our own person back into the part of an onlooker who does not belong to the world, which by this very procedure becomes an objective world.”

Schrödinger did, however, identify both the problem and the solution. He recognized that “objectivation” is just a simplification that is a temporary step in the progress of science in understanding the natural world. We are now at the point where we must abandon, where appropriate, the principle of objectivation – and so gain a more complete understanding of reality, and thus ourselves.

Now back to the zombies: In defending positivism and a radical materialist view of consciousness, some writers have argued that consciousness is an illusion, a view described as “eliminativism” because it attempts to resolve the problem of explaining consciousness by arguing that it doesn’t really exist. Once we have explained what brains do, under this view, we have said all there is to say about consciousness. So “mind” and subjectivity reduces to what the brain does, which is just matter and energy in motion. Daniel Dennett, W.V.O. Quine, Douglas Hofstadter, and Susan Blackmore all arguably fall into this camp. These writers argue, accordingly, that they themselves, as subjective beings, don’t exist. Let us call this the “zombie defense.”

A zombie, in the philosophy of mind, is a person who looks and acts exactly the same as a real person. But the zombie lacks any inner life, any consciousness. Eliminativists, who argue that mind can be explained entirely as electrochemical signals in the brain, are arguing, effectively, that they are themselves zombies, and so is everyone else. Now, my description here isn’t entirely fair, because no philosopher has, to my knowledge, argued literally that she is a zombie. But arguing that consciousness itself is an illusion amounts to the same thing. This strange state of affairs should prompt us to re-examine our terminology – and more closely examine the writings of the eliminativists.

Dennett is the most well-known of these philosophers. But he has also stated, in a key 1988 article, “I don’t deny the reality of conscious experience.” So Dennett’s position is arguably contradictory. The better interpretation is, however, that Dennett’s key argument is primarily directed against any type of Cartesian dualism, under which there is a special substance that we can call mind, spirit, or soul that is distinct from matter.

The tension in Dennett’s position is that by acknowledging (necessarily, it would seem) the reality of conscious experience, Dennett can’t also argue that purely externalist objective explanations of consciousness say all that can be said about conscious experience. Rather, if conscious experience is real, it is surely different than simply describing – in as much detail as one likes – the electrochemical processes of a human brain. No matter how much detail we provide about electrochemical processes, such descriptions will never say anything at all about the quality of the subjective experience. This is the whole point of accepting an epistemological dualism between the “inside” and “outside” of things.

Materialism, under this line of reasoning, reduces to what I label “crypto-panpsychism.” This is the case because if we accept that subjectivity is the most real thing we know, and that it springs from matter, then we can come to the view that all matter has some degree of mind or subjectivity – panpsychism under a different name. To be even more geeky, we can give this position a more complete label of “panpsychist materialism,” and this is what philosopher David Ray Griffin has done in his book Unsnarling the World-Knot (though he uses the similar phrase “panexperiential physicalism”).

To sum up, by ignoring mind in nature we ignore the only way we know the world – because the “world” is, for each of us, wholly a creation of our own mind, based on the imperfect sense data we receive from the objective world – but we also ignore the more complete science made possible by accepting mind as present in all of nature. Human minds are, then, a natural product of the evolution of mind and matter, which are just two aspects of the same thing. Human minds represent the most complex form of mind in this corner of our universe. We are special in the complexity of our minds, but we are not distinct in a qualitative sense from the rest of nature.

In the last analysis, Teilhard de Chardin, another panpsychist, had it right and, as always, expressed the thought beautifully in his 1959 book, The Phenomenon of Man: “To decipher man is essentially to try to find out how the world was made and how it ought to go on making itself.”

Tam Hunt is a philosopher, lawyer and biologist. He lives in Santa Barbara and keeps a blog, Thought, Spirit, Politik at


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