Some thoughts on Weisberg's new paper "The Zombie's Cogito: Meditations on Type-Q Materialism"

“One line of defense for the materialist pursuing a reductive explanation of consciousness is to claim that, despite appearances, qualia can be functionally characterized. The antimaterialist rejection of a functional characterization is based on introspection and reflection on the results of introspection. We access qualia introspectively and then reflect on their functionality, concluding that qualia and function can come apart at least in principle. But must we accept all that introspective reflection has to say about this matter? Perhaps introspection fails to reveal the underlying functional nature of qualia and thus misleads us when we reason about function and conscious feel. So long as the materialist can produce a plausible functional account of the mechanisms of first-person access leading us astray, there is no need to accept an irreducibly nonfunctional element in conscious experience. A reductive explanation of consciousness, one that effectively “locates” consciousness in a physical world, can then proceed.” ~ Josh Weisberg, “The Zombie’s Cogito: Meditations on Type-Q Materialism

I like this quote from Weisberg. He seems to be “Jaynesing” qualia in the way I have previously outlined on my blog. Crucially, Weisberg recognizes that introspection about qualia can mislead us about the actual nature of qualia in virtue of being theory-laden. If we introspect on qualia with the background theory that qualia are nonfunctional, then we will not surprisingly discover in our introspection that qualia are nonfunctional. However, if we had a functional characterization of qualia from the get go, then perhaps an introspection on qualia could report that, in fact, qualia do have functional properties. As Weisberg says, “The materialist is claiming, on this line of argument, that qualia are functional even though they do not seem functional…Qualia, like other aspects of the mind, may not be as they appear.”

I really like this approach to the zombie argument. It basically tries to argue that armchair introspection is not a reliable guide to discovering the essence of qualia. Just because when we reflect on qualia, it seems that qualia are nonfunctional, that doesn’t mean that qualia actually are nonfunctional. Although I would probably nuance this a little in terms of specifying how biological functions generate experiential (qualia) properties differently from how a toaster generates experiential properties (if at all). Although both the organism and the toaster have functional properties, it seems like the organism would have a totally different type of qualia in virtue of its homeostatic and self-regulating nature. It seems then that biological autonomy is a great source of experiential distinction between ourselves and inanimate objects, so much so that it becomes questionable whether it is appropriate to even say that inanimate objects have any experience at all. I concede that it might be appropriate, but that the gulf of the distinction is so great as to almost be conceptually unbridgeable. We simply cannot imagine what it is like to be a toaster, since we have no experience of being so…stone-like.

In responding to the zombie argument, it is important to note that Weisberg does not deny that zombies are conceivable. Instead, he claims that they are conceiving of a world where a theory is false (the theory being that qualia are nonfunctional). But Weisberg claims that it is an empirical matter whether these conceived zombies are metaphysically possible. Weisberg, on solid ground, then claims that according to our best empirical science, zombies are not possible since it is based on a false theory or belief (namely, that qualia are nonfunctional, which science rejects). Since empirical mind science tells us that qualia are functional, then we can claim that zombies are conceivable, but not metaphysically possible. It only seems like zombies are possible if, prior to introspecting on qualia, you believe that qualia are nonfunctional. Or, you could introspect on qualia and then come to believe that qualia are nonfunctional, and then conclude zombies are possible. But since we have no reason to believe that introspection is the most reliable way of determining the essence of qualia, it is possible and highly likely that such introspection is giving rise to a delusion or false belief.

Weisberg is thus committed to there being an appearance/reality distinction at the level of consciousness itself. In other words, instead of saying that it is impossible to be deluded about your own consciousness (since on this view consciousness just is whatever it appears to be), Weisberg wants to claim that qualia can appear to us to be one way, and in fact, be another way. That is, we can be deluded about our own consciousness. As Weisberg says,

“There seem to be coherent cases of both unconscious pains (pains lacking the appearance of pain) and “false positives” of pain (states appearing to be pain, but are not). We might have a headache all day that we fail to notice at times while we’re engrossed in work. Or we might suffer an injury in a dangerous, stressful situation, and only notice that we’ve been in pain at a later, calmer moment. And we might mistake another feeling for pain.”

Weisberg then conducts a thought experiment to prove his point. Imagine Rene Descartes’s zombie twin, RZ. Since zombies have all the same beliefs as their counterparts, we can suppose that RZ would be able to conduct the same process of methodological skepticism as the real Descartes. Remember, it is defined that zombies have no seemings. But the real Descartes line of reasoning ends up concluding that although it seems like he is perceiving, he might not be (he could be deluded by a demon). But the important part is that he believes that it seems like he is perceiving. Accordingly, RZ would reach the same conclusion, namely, that something seems one way to him. But now we have the strange result that zombies have seemings as well, despite zombies being defined as having no seemings. This leads us to the conclusion that we might be zombies just like RZ, since we certainly have seemings as well. As Weisberg says, “We might have full empirical and rational confidence that we are not zombies, despite the fact that “all is dark inside” and we are not in fact phenomenally conscious!” Accordingly, “The “zombie’s cogito” shows us that we can conceive of beings that seem to be in pain but are not.”

There is more to Weisberg’s argument than I feel like writing about, but I think I have captured the gist. To me, the most important upshot of his paper is the defense of an appearance/reality distinction for our inner world of consciousness. He argues convincingly that we can have false beliefs about how things seem to us. It might seem that qualia are nonfunctional when we introspect, but we are quite wrong about this according to our best theoretical frameworks in the mind sciences.

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