David Chalmers is a famous philosopher of mind. His fame rests in great part on his 1996 book, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. It’s too bad that the crucial idea behind the book, dualism, is hopelessly flawed, and — more surprising yet — that Chalmers got away with one of the most idiotic thought experiments ever, which a lot of people inexplicably seem to think is oh so very clever. This all came back to (my) mind because of a recent article in Philosophy Now by Rebecca Hanrahan (an assistant professor of philosophy at Whitman College in Washington state), who’s finally got the chutzpah to point out the obvious, telling it like it is about Chalmers’ famous “zombie argument.”
Let us start by recalling what dualism is: in philosophy the idea traces back at least to Descartes (though some would consider Plato a dualist), and his contention that while everything else in humans and animals is “mechanical” (i.e., made of matter), the mind is an exception, since it’s made of some kind of distinct mind stuff (he was pretty vague about exactly what this mind stuff might be, and so is Chalmers, incidentally). Descartes immediately got into trouble because he couldn’t provide an account of how is it that the non-material mind seems to interact so well with the physical world and have tangible effects (that’s what happens every time, say, you make up your “mind” of wanting a martini, and your body responds by walking you to the bar and starting the shaking of spirits and the piling of olives).
Descartes then famously dug himself even deeper into an intellectual quagmire when he proposed that the place where (somehow) mind stuff and body stuff “meet” is the pineal gland, at the center of the brain. Turns out that we now know that the pineal gland is actually involved in the production of melatonin which, while important in keeping the day/night cycle straight (it helps with jet lag), and likely relevant to normal sexuality (the gland is larger in children, where it inhibits sexual development) is far from the seat of the soul. If it were, most of us would be in trouble because in many adults the gland calcifies, becoming essentially non functional.
Back to Chalmers. He claimed to have revived dualism — despite the generally bad reputation the word has even among philosophers — and developed the following argument in support of his startling conclusion (this is Hanrahan’s, I think fair, formalization of if):
premise 1: We can conceive of a world populated by some zombie twins, who act exactly as we do, have our same physiology and internal structure, our brain and our psychology. But they do not have any conscious experience whatsoever.
premise 3: It is possible that there is a world populated by our zombie twins.
conclusion 1: If this is possible, then materialism [the idea that everything is made of matter/energy] is false.
conclusion 2: If materialism is false, then dualism is true.
QED (Quod Erat Demonstrandum, as we wished to demonstrate)
I refer you to Hanrahan’s short and eminently digestible article for the details, but you can easily see that even if one of the stated premises is not true, then none of the conclusions will follow. Now, let’s take a look at the three premises, beginning with the last one, p3.
I suppose that it is possible that there may be living beings that are made like us but do not have conscious experiences, although they would be really strange beings. I find that possibility to be extremely unlikely, but I don’t see that it contradicts any known physical or logical law. p1 is also true: we can indeed conceive of the kind of zombies that Chalmers imagines, though it must be noted that these are not the lively flesh-eating chaps we see in the movies.
The real problem, of course, is with p2: conceivability is not a reliable guide to possibility. I can conceive of impossible things, such as the idea of squaring the circle, or of a god that is omnipotent and yet can make a mountain so big that she couldn’t move it, and so on. Chalmers comes up with an (admittedly ingenious) little story, and we are supposed to deduce from it the momentous conclusion that there is more than matter/energy to the universe? When things appear to be too good to be true there is often good reason to think that they in fact are too good to be true.
Moreover, although this is an unstated implication of the above deduction, possibility in turn is not a particularly good guide to reality. There are plenty of things that are possible but that are not in fact realized in the actual world. Remember that the question that Chalmers wishes to answer is whether human mental experience is compatible with materialism, as is strongly suggested by the fact that nobody has ever seen a mental state occur independently of the presence of a physical brain (what some philosophers call the “no ectoplasm clause”). While I think it is very reasonable to assume that anything that is real must also be possible (either that or our logic is seriously faulty), it is just bizarre to suggest that one can go from possibility to claims about reality, the way Chalmers does. Has he not learned anything from the failure of the rationalist program in philosophy?
Incidentally, I would note that mine (or Hanrahan’s, from what I can tell) is not an argument against thought experiments in general. They can be useful to evaluate our intuitions, and — contrary to popular belief — they are not just something that “armchair philosophers” (a redundant phrase if there ever was one) engage in. Scientists from Galileo to Einstein have used thought experiments to sharpen their thinking about the world. But just like any tool, it needs to be used according to reasonable instructions and to solve the appropriate problems, just because all you’ve got is a hammer that doesn’t turn everything into a nail.
As readers of this blog know, I am a scientist with a background in philosophy, and am very sympathetic to the whole philosophical approach to things. But just in the same way I think a lot of scientists do a disservice to themselves and to the public by not taking philosophy seriously, I am also convinced that people like Chalmers don’t help philosophy even a bit, either among scientists or the public. Let’s relegate zombies to B-movies and try to be a little more serious about our philosophy, shall we?
(Leaving aside the grammar, don’t PETA kooks use spell-check?)
PETA kook:….most animal testing is done on primiates, yet the same evil scientists claim that primiates are our cousins, why such doouble standards, only seen in vivisectors!!!
I see no reason to take a you seriously when the first ‘argument’ for your side is a lie based on poo pulled out of your PETA-loving ass. Less than 1 in 600 research animals are primates, you despicable liar. You are probably good friends with a load of lying ‘cdesign proponentsists‘, aren’t you?
Those vivisectors laugh and clap while primiates scream in pain!!!!
Any evidence for this, you moronic, lying, hypocritical, fraudulent piece of dung? You will only be taken seriously when you start discussing this issue in a rational manner. Till then, I will continue to make fun of your sorry little ass.
It will be better to test medicine on humans instead of on animals that’s what PETA is saying…
If all you PETA freaks offer yourselves as substitutes for research animals, I don’t see why not. I’m sure all of you would make wonderful lab rats humans, and I’m looking forward to hearing about your brave volunteerism soon. Come on now, practice what you preach!
Experiments conducted on PETA extremists instead of on animals – now, that’s something to seriously consider.
He goes on to rant about pigs:
Pigs have been used in evil experiments but there is nothing in common with humans!!!! NONE AT ALL!!!! Name me ONE SAME THING!!! CAN’T RIGHT????? OF COURSE NOTHING LESS THAT I EXPECT FROM YOU EVIL SKANK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You always talk about using us as lab rats BUT IF YOU CAN TELL ME ONE THING OF PIG THAT IS THE SAME AS HUMANS DISCOVERED IN RESEARCH I WILL BE A LAB RAT HAHA YOU CANNOT RIGHT????
Sigh. They all resort to caps and exclamation marks in the end.
The kook claimed that I can’t answer his brilliant[sic] question, so here goes. Two hormones (oxytocin and vasopressin) found in pig posterior pituitary glands have been used successfully in human patients. Insulin from pig pancreas has been used in humans…..wait, didn’t he claim that I would be unable to come up with even one example? My bad.
Oh, oh! He now has to volunteer to be a lab rat or something. (Well, he said it. What an inflatable gasbag of lies he is!)
Nope, nothing here to convince me that anti animal testing goons should be taken seriously. The best use they have for society would be if they truly believe what they preach and volunteer as substitutes for research animals.
Mengele, come back to us! We need you to deal with freaks like the above kook!
On a side note, animals are tasty.
- 64 year old Sauidy man to wait 5 years before he rapes little girl – According to local newspapers yesterday, the man — who has already paid a SR100,000 dowry to the father of the girl and signed the marriage contract — now says he would wait until the girl is 15 to complete the marriage. Explaining the circumstances that led to the marriage, the man’s son said his father never had a second wife. He said the girl’s father taunted his father saying he was willing to marry his daughter to him if he paid SR100,000 in dowry. “My father accepted the challenge, paid the money and became the husband of the young woman,” the son was quoted as saying. - Oh, well he was dared! What did you expect him to do ignore it? I also think that the local police should wait 4 years 364 days before they throw his ass in jail for the rest of his miserable life!
- More Saudi nonsense women not allowed to drive -A young Saudi girl drove her brother’s car and was caught in the act. Notice, I have not made any reference to a “crime.” Necessary action was taken against her. What was the necessary action in this case? This involved interrogating the “wrongdoer.” Notice again I have not made any reference to a “criminal.” Her guardian was summoned and was made to pledge that she would not repeat this “act.” She was set free and went home. – You may think that the article’s writer may be calling for such stupidity to be abolished right away. Not a chance in muslim hell! He want’s the police to do this: “It would be appreciated if a traffic police spokesman would take the initiative to clarify such incidents instead of leaving it to newspapers to publish them with all the journalistic sensationalism and suspense. It would also be appreciated if the traffic police would follow the steps of the Interior Ministry, which issues press statements through its official spokesman on all cases and issues.” Yeah, tell him exactly how he’s supposed to discriminate women. You’re confusing the poor man!
- Virgin Mary down the drain - A plumber working on restaurant renovations in Salinas said he found the image of the Virgin Mary in a floor drain Wednesday. The building has seen several ventures come and go in the past six years since Spados closed down, and the new owner said he sees the sign
as a blessing of hope for the new restaurant. - Why does this lady choose such weird places to appear, beats me? Grilled cheese? Watered wall? Drain? What’s next, a piece of poo? I think we should have a contest and have people send in pictures of poo that looks like some religious icon. All submittions can be sent to email@example.com
- Jesus Sucks Airplane banner – No comment needed
I know some of my readers don’t think much of the New York Times (yes, PP, I’m talking to you), but despite some of my reservations, it’s still the Paper of Record. That’s why I was, er, um, was nauseated was flabbergasted threw up in my mouth was surprised when I saw a piece on the OpEd page today calling for better investigation of UFOs.
If you just did a spit take on your LCD, please wipe it off now.
OK, done? Good.
I did not make this up. Really. I’m not going to go through all the arguments regarding the utter improbability of alien visitors, or a conspiracy to cover up alien visits. It’s been done, and done, and done.
There are a few points about this particular piece worth pointing out. First,
It’s the New York Freakin’ Times!
Second, the main argument here is that the US reportedly stopped investigating UFOs in 1968, and in these days of hightened terrorist threats (what color are we now, RED!!111!!?) we should not be ignoring potential threats, especially threats that might be invisible to radar.
To parse it out, the author is essentially defining UFO’s as FO’s that are visible to credulous individuals, but not to radar. He points out that the US has stealth aircraft, so Bad Guys might have radar-evading craft as well.
OK, first, al-Queda can’t afford a stealth bomber, ‘k?
Second, does this guy think the US military is completely daft? Yes they have their problems, but the military is also staffed by some seriously smart professionals. D’ya think they are ignoring airborne threats to national security?
This whole piece is ridiculous. The only reason it isn’t fit for the National Enquirer is that it uses too many words. Why it’s in the Times is beyond me.
No, it’s not a region in France. Provenance is a thing’s origin or source, and the history of its subsequent owners. It’s important when, for example, selling works of fine art. If you find a long lost Picasso in your granny’s attic you might have trouble convincing the experts it’s real, even if it looks real. If it’s very good, you might be able to sell it for a decent amount of cash, but doubt about its origin will mean you only get a fraction of what a verified Picasso would fetch. But if your granny could prove she worked as, say, Picasso’s housekeeper during the period he produced that type of work, you might get a lot more. The quality of its provenance would make it more likely the work was genuine. Provenance is a necessary factor in the valuation of art – to determine that it is (a) genuine and (b) legally owned.
Provenance is also useful in determining the validity of scientific claims. If the claim is based on earlier sound science – backed by quality evidence – it is more likely to be true. Not certain to be true, of course. But it will at least have scientific plausibility. But if the claim is based on something that was just made up, then it seems much less likely it would be true.
Well, it’s a start!
It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. No, not the States bunky, Canada! (OK, the States too!)
However, things are not so peachy keen in all parts of the world as this report from the Amsterdam bureau of the Religious News Blog suggests!
Killing in the name of Islam is acceptable…. that’s the view of one third of British Muslim students!
I kid you not!
What makes it even more hilarious, (if you can call it that) was that just the other day Britain was told “by a United Nations committee” (and reported first here on Perspective) to take firm action to combat ‘negative public attitudes’ towards Muslims.
(Gee, why are there “negative public attitudes” towards Muslims?)
The nine-member human rights committee also criticised some of the UK’s anti terror measures.”
But while it is a worthwhile to combat discrimination of any kind, one also has to be realistic. In this case that means recognizing and actively combating the very real threat formed by radical Muslims bent on spreading their hateful, violent version of Islam among those who want no part of it.
News from around the around the world shows that the so-called ‘purest’ forms of Islam — various extremist groups do not quite agree on which form that is — is incompatible with democracy, human rights — and indeed, modern life.
When angry Muslims engage in hateful and often violent protests throughout the world against cartoons, teddy bears, and whatever else they feel is an insult to Islam, no one — no person, no committee, and no government — will be able to change ‘negative public attitudes’ toward Muslims. -Ed.
The following news article illustrates the very real dangers the Western world faces from the rise in Islamic fundamentalism:
Almost one third of British Muslim students think it is acceptable to kill in the name of Islam, results of a poll show.
The findings shed light on the extent of campus radicalism and will raise concerns about extremism across British Universities.
The YouGov poll for the Centre for Social Cohesion also found that two in five Muslims at university support the idea of Islamic sharia codes being enshrined in British law, the Sunday Times has reported.
One of the report authors Hannah Stuart said the study’s findings came as an embarrassing blow to those who play down the threat of extremism within Britain’s campuses.
She said: ‘Significant numbers appear to hold beliefs which contravene democratic values.
‘These results are deeply embarrassing for those who have said there is no extremism in British universities.’
Fosis, the country’s largest Muslim student body criticised the report.
But Anthony Glees, professor of security and intelligence studies at Buckingham University, said: ‘The finding that a large number of students think it is okay to kill in the name of religion is alarming.
‘There is a wide cultural divide between Muslim and non-Muslim students.’
‘The solution is to stop talking about celebrating diversity and focus on integration and assimilation.’
The research saw 1,400 Muslim and non-Muslim students questioned and more than 20 universities were visited. It was discovered that extremist preachers regularly gave speeches that were inflammatory, homophobic or bordering on antisemitic.
The research found that 55 per cent of Muslim students thought Islam was incompatible with democracy!
The report also found that 40 per cent of recipients said it was unacceptable for Muslim men and women to associate freely; 25 per cent said they had little or no respect for gays.This figure was higher (32%) for male Muslim students.
Among non Muslims, the figure was only 4%.
A third of Muslim students interviewed supported the creation of a world-wide caliphate or Islamic state.
On top of this, a number of terrorists have been radicalised at British universities. Kafeel Ahmed, who drove a flaming jeep into a building at Glasgow airport last year and died of his burns, is believed to have been radicalised while studying at Anglia Ruskin university, Cambridge.
If Britain is an indicator of what we will eventually have in store for us here in North America then things are not looking good! Almost a quarter of British Muslims say the London bombing attacks can be justified because of the Government’s support for the ‘war on terror’.
The shocking 23 per cent figure is the equivalent of 370,000 of the 1.6m Muslims living in the UK.
And it is almost double previous opinion polls suggesting 13 per cent believe the atrocity, which claimed 52 innocent lives, could be justified.
It will re-ignite the debate over whether the Government and Muslim leaders are doing enough to tackle extremism.
Visit the blog “Perspective” at
I have heard this question countless times, usually from theists and creationists. I don’t deny that the distortion of science by the so-called ‘scientific creationists’ and IDiots makes me so angry that sometimes I feel like yelling and tearing my hair out. I won’t put on a big emotionless facade just for the sake of looking more ‘level-headed’ for the sake of other people. If speaking the truth and defending reason is considered arrogance in today’s increasingly credulous world, so be it. I will not cater to or respect stupidity and superstition. My defense of science and reason is unapologetic, and if there is anyone here who has a problem with that, my advice would be to fuck off. Death threats and stalkers don’t work around here.
Religion is superstition. God is a myth. Heaven and hell are silly delusions. What the world needs is a good strong dose of reality, not more ‘comforting’ lies.
An incident that happened recently reminded me yet again of what makes me so angry at anti-science lunatics. I was talking to a Christian and the topic inevitably turned to creation and evolution. The first thing the creationist said about the matter was “Have you visited the drdino.com website?”
I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing, but the creationist seemed oblivious and continued “How about Answers in Genesis?”
At that point, I was actually more amused and frustrated than actually angry, but what really did it was when the creationist said “Are you aware that recent scientific discoveries all point to Christianity and creation?” I could feel my blood boiling and my temper suddenly rising. I do not appreciate being treated like an ignoramus who has to be supposedly ‘enlightened’ that ‘science’ points to creationism. Most Christians don’t understand that atheists have looked at religion and creationism and rejected it due to lack of evidence. Christians still think that we don’t know nuts about creationism, and that we would be saved if we only visit drdino.com or AiG.
So, why am I so angry?
When I look around and see the beauty of the natural world, I think about how humans, with minds endowed by years of evolution and natural selection have finally come to understand the mechanism that has shaped us and carried us to the heights that we as the human race have achieved now. I think about human destiny and how, and if, we are able to carry ourselves into the far future.
Thinking about human destiny often makes me sad. I think about people, in the name of an imaginary god and for the sake of ignorant delusions, try to put a stop to progress and drag the human race back into the darkness of superstition. I think about the dawn of science and how far we have come since the first humans walked the face of the earth, and yet, at that very moment, my thoughts would be always interrupted by the reality of today’s world. A world where ignorance, fear, prejudice and anti-science bias are on the rise. A world where people kill themselves and others for a place in a fictional paradise. A world where opposition to reason leads parents to deny medical treatment to children for conditions that science has conquered decades ago. A world where stem-cell research, with its’ potential to save millions of lives, is opposed for the sake of religious myths.
Realization often dawns on me, with tears streaming down my face, that all this is merely the tip of the anti-reason iceberg. I know for certain that this is not the world I want my future children to live in.
Yes, this makes me so angry
“Lord, protect my family and me,” Obama wrote. “Forgive me my sins and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.”
Barack Obama’s leaked Jerusalem prayer. **SIGH**