In his latest ‘The Stone’ column at NYTimes.com, Mary and the Zombies: Can Science Explain Consciousness?, Gary Gutting admits that non-Philosophers might conceivably have something useful to say (even though he has to add the usual BS “Of course, professional philosophers have technical resources that non-philosophers lack“).
Frankly I doubt that anything useful will be said though, because I suspect that no-one has anything useful (and new) to say on this particularly ill-posed question.
But since I am a no-one, I’ll have a go anyhow.
I “liked” the comment by ‘Jason’ who said
The other comments (thank goodness!) have already outlined all the reasons that these thought experiments don’t hold any argumentative force. I once spent two weeks reading into this literature convinced I had missed something critical about zombies and Mary and Chinese rooms and bats. How else could all these people take seriously such manifestly flimsy arguments? It turns out there is nothing more here than some philosophers incorrectly assuming that their intuitions mean something interesting. Let’s stop talking about bad question-begging thought experiments.
But despite my frustration with the presumptions of (many) professional Philosophers, I do feel that this is a bit too harsh. If the focus was not on “explaining consciousness” but rather on exploring what we mean when we talk about it, then Philosophers, while not uniquely qualified, might have a useful job to do by way of helping to clarify when people are talking at cross-purposes and perhaps seeming to disagree when they really do not. (At least they should be good at it since I see almost the entire history of philosophical argument as being exactly of that nature.)
Commenter ‘Paul M’ says
Both thought experiments assume their conclusions in their premises.
In Experiment One, what is the “fact” that Mary learns when she sees red? If the answer is that the “fact” is her subjective experience of the color red, then all this thought experiment has done is define subjective experience as a “fact.” It hasn’t demonstrated that it is, and it certainly does not demonstrate that this “fact” is not physical. By saying, in the premises, that Mary knows all physical facts about red, but has not experienced seeing red, an implicit assumption is made that experiencing red is not a physical phenomena. But that is what the experiment is supposed to demonstrate. So the conclusion is assumed in the premises, and the experiment doesn’t demonstrate anything.
Experiment Two has the same problem. By postulating a physically identical zombie without any of the same subjective experiences, a separation between physical and subjective is simply assumed. If you don’t’ believe that such a zombie is possible, then this experiment does nothing to establish that there is a separation between subjective experience and the physical world. Again, by assuming the possibility of such a zombie, the conclusion is simply assumed in the premises.
Most importantly, what is “physical”? As Chomsky points out in his talk “The Machine, the Ghost, and the Limits of Understanding,” we presently have no coherent answer. So the physical/subjective dichotomy is incoherent.
Here I almost decided not to quote the last paragraph because I don’t actually think the dichotomy is “incoherent” although perhaps most expressions of it have been.
The essence of the issue of “qualia” and the experience (as opposed to the phenomenon) of consciousness is that the experience is entirely and essentially subjective. It cannot be communicated by description or even by direct neuronal stimulation since even if I create in zombie you the exact same pattern of neuronal stimulation and hormonal responses that occur in person me there is no way for me to tell whether the resulting experience in you is the same as in me. We can agree on what red “looks like” because we will agree on what things look red, and we can understand what it “feels like” on the basis of emotional connections we make with the fact of seeing red (on the basis of either experience or instinct). But we seem unable to imagine that there is not some aspect of the redness we experience which is more than the sum of its associations. The pattern of uncomfortable confusion we feel when we try to imagine a different version of “redness” can probably be dismissed as identifiable with some kind of biochemical response to the “churning” of our neuronic computational circuits, and in that sense “our” private version of “redness” may even be explainable, but to explain something is not necessarily to explain it away and even when “explained” that sense may be hard (or even impossible) to eliminate.
Commenter ‘Graham Anderson’ says
When Mary awakens from her operation and sees the red roses, she has then become a red-seeing mind. Previously, she understood everything there is to know about red-seeing minds, but was not one herself. When the phenomenon that Mary *is* changes, it does not give her a new fact. She simply has new experiences, the products of the change in state of her mind.
. . .
I believe we are talking about two distinct concepts: knowing about something, and being that thing. The two concepts are easily confused when we’re talking about a human mind, for which knowing and being are eerily similar.
Similarly, even if consciousness is explained as the process of laying down recoverable memories this does not undo my feeling of consciousness – or even prove that that feeling is not actually unique to me alone.
Ultimately, the “resolution” to this issue may have to be that there is no way I can ever tell whether or not the rest of you are zombies, but the prospect that you are entails such a terrifying sense of godlike loneliness that I have no choice but to credit you with the same consciousness as I feel myself. (And then it’s a normative question – why should I not also credit zombie Mary with consciousness as well? and to a lesser extent my cat? or even this computer?)